All posts by John Scalzi

About John Scalzi

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The Big Idea: Carrie Patel

When you build on secrets you never know what you’ll find. Just ask Carrie Patel, whose novel, The Buried Life, includes secrets literally built upon. What’s going on there?


The Buried Life is about lost history, a forgotten catastrophe, and the city that springs up in its wake.

It started with the city: an underground metropolis where squalid, smoke-choked burrows nestle next to magnificent caverns framed with fire and stained glass. It was a place of glamor and grime.

I suspect that lots of speculative fiction begins with a setting. You take a mental snapshot of a new world that captures the atmosphere and the highlights. It’s a start, but it’s not enough. You need something you can walk around in.

So, you sketch the landmarks that exist just outside the frame—historical context and regional conditions. Things that anchor your new city and prevent it from drifting off into the stratosphere. Next, you sharpen the image to bring out the colors and details so that your snapshot will look just as bright and vivid to everyone else when you finally share it.

That leaves you with a fabulous backdrop, which isn’t the same thing as a story.

However, it’s the process of building the city up and out that can turn a Nifty Idea into a Big Idea. The Big Idea is what gives logic and context to the details that make up a vibrant, unique world. At some point, when you’re rooting around in the bones of your city, stringing all those tendons together and trying to get the blood flowing from one end to the other, you stumble upon its DNA.

Suddenly, you know what it’s really made of and where it’s really going.

That’s when you find your story.

For me, the “aha!” moment came when I saw Recoletta, my new city, for what it was: one civilization built in the hollowed-out corpse of another.

At that point, all of the cool flourishes and atmospheric touches were tied together by the inextricable bonds of context. Recoletta was built underground because it had started out as a city-sized bunker in more desperate times. A strict social hierarchy developed because, in the early days, people handed the reins over to individuals with practical skills—engineers, doctors, miners, and so on—and left the grunt work to the lawyers and politicians.

By the time events in The Buried Life roll around, people have stuck to their underground homes because old habits die hard. And the “whitenails,” the people with enough clout to keep their hands clean, are still at the top of the food chain. It’s the post-post-apocalypse.

But the most interesting detail for me was how these fictional citizens related to their troubled history. In the world of The Buried Life, they don’t reconstruct it. They hide it.

The widespread fear of history becomes a superstition. Ideas of the past are seen as dangerous and virulent—after all, didn’t they drive humanity to mass destruction centuries before?

And that’s where the story came from—the tension between a history that almost no one wants to face and the intrepid few who are trying to uncover it. The Big Idea is about constructing a city built on secrets and leading the heroes to its heart.


The Buried Life: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: Kirby Crow

Life doesn’t always give us a happy ending. Should fiction? Kirby Crow ponders this question in relation to her new collection of stories, Hammer and Bone. Let’s see what she has to say on the matter.


I think of stories like wagons or carts, one of those cute, rustic ones you see being pulled by a shaggy pony in Lord of the Rings. I load the cart up with things that appeal to me or that I need, beautiful things and grotesque, things I want to say or things that just need saying, and then I choose a street to wheel it down. Anything at all can be inside the cart, but the street is crucial.

Okay, it’s weird. Bear with me… The street is everything, because it doesn’t just represent the genre; it’s the unity that binds the story together, the reason for its existence, why I’m telling the story, how I’m telling it.

Hammer and Bone has a long history, and the original idea was to bring together a collection of diverse tales featuring non-white heroes. I knew that was going to be a hard sell to a publisher, but I got lucky and found a great one. Despite the triple-threat gamble of being a collection rather than a single story (difficult to market in any genre), non-white characters inhabiting most of the pages (ditto), and overall a wicked and occasionally disturbing read, Riptide believed in Hammer and Bone, and here we are.

I didn’t set out to write such a sinister book, but occasionally stories have a will of their own and depart on journeys you never considered, or expected to have to write your way out of. At one point, the process stalled completely. I was stuck and growing very frustrated with the path one of my characters was taking to resolve his troubles in the Southern gothic story, Sundog. Where some people might burn bridges, Michel would walk into the fire. It was the same with Bellew in the speculative world of Crank, who was inclined to hack through the middle of an obstacle, and Angelo in Hangfire, who took a road that only the most wronged would even consider.

My heroes were strolling willingly down the most painful streets, when taking a detour or even walking away would have been so much easier. I wondered what kind of courage that was, if there was a name for the kind of bravery that smiles at the devil just until his back is turned.

I began complaining to my husband about them. I drank too much coffee and slept poorly and I wondered loudly and dramatically if I should rewrite their existence. Life had given them options that were too narrow. Their worlds were too frightening. Things probably weren’t going to turn out well for them.

He shrugged. “It sounds like life to me.”

There is that, yeah. Every life is backbreaking in its own way, even fictional ones. The main quality I’d struggled to reflect in the stories was honesty, and although steering your readers to a fair sunset is usually the point of storytelling, it isn’t always what happens in real life.

Sometimes it’s not what should happen, either. Not every character deserves a pretty sunset.

That was when I stopped trying to push it all down the road to Happily Ever After, or any destination that didn’t feel true. I wanted readers to turn the page thinking Yes. That’s exactly how that would have gone down.

Don’t worry, it’s not all constant anguish and despair. Sometimes there’s a happy ending and sometimes not, but the somber, seductive travelers of Hammer and Bone hereby promise to charm and entertain you in their own grim ways, as they invite you to question what perilous roads you might choose if you were snared into their worlds.


Hammer and Bone: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

Hey, I’ll Be at the Pickerington, OH Public Library Two Weeks From Today

John Scalzi Slideshow Image

And what will I be doing there? Oh, you know. Talking and signing books and answering questions and maybe reading something from the upcoming book that no one will have ever heard before. Maybe. We’ll see.

Anyway, if you happen to be anywhere near Pickerington, OH on the 18th of March, why don’t you come on down. This is, at the moment, my only scheduled appearance in mid-Ohio for 2015, so if you’d like to see me, you know where I’ll be.

Things I Promised People I Would Tell You About, Not That I Didn’t Want to Tell You About Them Anyway, Because They’re Cool

They are:

1. If you’re a science fiction writer and you would like maybe to get a little better grounding in some of the “science” portion of that genre, then this is going to be for you: The Schrödinger Sessions: Science for Science Fiction workshop, this summer from July 30 through August 1st.

What will the workshop cover?

The Schrödinger Sessions is a three-day workshop for science fiction writers offering a “crash course” in modern physics, to be held at the Joint Quantum Institute (JQI), one of the world’s leading research centers for the study of quantum mechanics.  We will introduce participants to phenomena like superposition, entanglement, and quantum information through a series of lectures by JQI scientists and tours of JQI laboratories.  We hope this will inform and inspire new stories in print, on screen, and in electronic media, that will in turn inspire a broad audience to learn more about the weird and fascinating science of quantum physics and the transformative technologies it enables.

Go to the link to find out more. The application form is not up yet but will be, as I understand, in a couple of days. Also, I’ve been asked to note to writers that it’s not just science fiction prose writers who are eligible to attend: Screenwriter and video game writers can also get in on this action. So check it out.

2. If you like Star Trek and/or Doctor Who — which given the demographics of the readership of this site seems like a pretty good chance — you may be interested in this: A Doctor for the Enterprise, a crossover comic book written by 2015 Worldcon Guest of Honor David Gerrold (who is enshrined in Star Trek lore for writing “The Trouble With Tribbles” and other things).

Note that this release is a limited edition, so if you want one, you should probably click that link above and get on it right away. I would not want for you to live your life in regret.

(Also, if you’re the sort who likes behind the scenes articles, here’s one on the making of the comic book. Enjoy.)

The Big Idea: Bruce Schneier

What’s your electronic data worth to you? What is it worth to others? And what’s the dividing line between your privacy and your convenience? These are questions Bruce Schneier thinks a lot about, and as he shows in Data and Goliath, they are questions which have an impact on where society and technology are going next.


Data and Goliath is a book about surveillance, both government and corporate. It’s an exploration in three parts: what’s happening, why it matters, and what to do about it. This is a big and important issue, and one that I’ve been working on for decades now. We’ve been on a headlong path of more and more surveillance, fueled by fear – or terrorism mostly – on the government side, and convenience on the corporate side. My goal was to step back and say “wait a minute; does any of this make sense?” I’m proud of the book, and hope it will contribute to the debate.

But there’s a big idea here too, and that’s the balance between group interest and self-interest. Data about us is individually private, and at the same time valuable to all us collectively. How do we decide between the two? If President Obama tells us that we have to sacrifice the privacy of our data to keep our society safe from terrorism, how do we decide if that’s a good trade-off? If Google and Facebook offer us free services in exchange for allowing them to build intimate dossiers on us, how do know whether to take the deal?

There are a lot of these sorts of deals on offer. Waze gives us real-time traffic information, but does it by collecting the location data of everyone using the service. The medical community wants our detailed health data to perform all sorts of health studies and to get early warning of pandemics. The government wants to know all about you to better deliver social services. Google wants to know everything about you for marketing purposes, but will “pay” you with free search, free e-mail, and the like.

Here’s another one I describe in the book: “Social media researcher Reynol Junco analyzes the study habits of his students. Many textbooks are online, and the textbook websites collect an enormous amount of data about how — and how often — students interact with the course material. Junco augments that information with surveillance of his students’ other computer activities. This is incredibly invasive research, but its duration is limited and he is gaining new understanding about how both good and bad students study — and has developed interventions aimed at improving how students learn. Did the group benefit of this study outweigh the individual privacy interest of the subjects who took part in it?”

Again and again, it’s the same trade-off: individual value versus group value.

I believe this is the fundamental issue of the information age, and solving it means careful thinking about the specific issues and a moral analysis of how they affect our core values.

You can see that in some of the debate today. I know hardened privacy advocates who think it should be a crime for people to withhold their medical data from the pool of information. I know people who are fine with pretty much any corporate surveillance but want to prohibit all government surveillance, and others who advocate the exact opposite.

When possible, we need to figure out how to get the best of both: how to design systems that make use of our data collectively to benefit society as a whole, while at the same time protecting people individually.

The world isn’t waiting; decisions about surveillance are being made for us – often in secret. If we don’t figure this out for ourselves, others will decide what they want to do with us and our data. And we don’t want that. I say: “We don’t want the FBI and NSA to secretly decide what levels of government surveillance are the default on our cell phones; we want Congress to decide matters like these in an open and public debate. We don’t want the governments of China and Russia to decide what censorship capabilities are built into the Internet; we want an international standards body to make those decisions. We don’t want Facebook to decide the extent of privacy we enjoy amongst our friends; we want to decide for ourselves.”

In my last chapter, I write: “Data is the pollution problem of the information age, and protecting privacy is the environmental challenge. Almost all computers produce personal information. It stays around, festering. How we deal with it — how we contain it and how we dispose of it — is central to the health of our information economy. Just as we look back today at the early decades of the industrial age and wonder how our ancestors could have ignored pollution in their rush to build an industrial world, our grandchildren will look back at us during these early decades of the information age and judge us on how we addressed the challenge of data collection and misuse.”

That’s it; that’s our big challenge. Some of our data is best shared with others. Some it can be “processed” – anonymized, maybe – before reuse. Some of it needs to be disposed of properly, either immediately or after a time. And some of it should be saved forever. Knowing what data goes where is a balancing act between group and self-interest, a trade-off that will continually change as technology changes, and one that we will be debating for decades to come.


Data and Goliath: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

Today’s Reading is From the Book of Redshirts

This is cool: Redshirts being used as part of a church sermon (specifically at St. Dunstan’s Episcopal Church in Madison, Wisconsin). It is, logically enough, being used a bit like a parable (or at least a framing device) to help discuss a larger and more complicated theological idea. I like it when my work finds use in interesting ways like this. The sermon’s pretty good, too.

(Thanks to Pamela Grenfell Smith for bringing it to my attention.)

The Big Idea: Ferrett Steinmetz


In his novel Flex, author Ferrett Steinmetz comes up with a rather ingeniuous way of controlling the ultimate cosmic power that magic-wielders could have against the rest of the world — and suggests why maybe magic isn’t always what’s it’s cracked up to be.


We all have obsessions. I have a friend who’s played through Dragon Age eighteen times so she can hear every one of the 80,000 potential lines of dialogue. I have a friend who scrutinizes the Internet code that determines where text is placed in your browser, in the hopes of discovering that the webkit-transform property actually rotates an image 7.3 degrees, not 7.0 as promised.

What if those obsessions started to wear holes in the universe?

What if, merely by pouring so much attention into some random hobby, the laws of physics would soften to fit your outlook on life?

And what if the universe hated you for bending its rules?

Personally, I’ve always hated those stories where magicians a) had no limitations on their power, and b) weren’t ruling the world. If magic came with zero drawbacks, then wizards would clobber the paranormally-illiterate with magic missiles in less time than it takes to say Neanderthals went extinct.

So when I wrote Flex, I wanted a really good reason why magicians hadn’t kicked Obama off the White House and installed themselves as the Eternal Emperor-Kings of Washington.

The key was obsession. I liked the idea that every ‘mancer would have their own set of powers keyed to whatever snared their attention – illustromancers, videogamemancers, origamimancers, deathmetalmancers – but that tight focus would be as much a hindrance as a help. By the time that Crazy Cat Lady has crossed the event horizon to become a felimancer, her priorities had warped. Does a crazy cat lady want to rule the land with an iron fist? No! She wants a house with infinite corridors so her kitties can roam safely under her benevolent cat-centered pocket empire.

Yet when my sister-in-law almost died, what I needed was a bureaucromancer.

See, I fantasized about having a magical power over paperwork when I was fighting the insurance companies to get life-saving surgery for my sister-in-law. She had a rare disease (at the time, her malady didn’t even have a Wikipedia entry). The insurance company kept returning our paperwork because we filled out the wrong form, even though that was the form they’d sent us. They claimed her treatment was experimental (and hence uncovered), when in fact so few cases of this disease had surfaced that every treatment counted as experimental. They refused claims for ridiculously trivial reasons, hoping my sister-in-law would quietly kick the bucket before they’d have to shell out $200,000 for her kidney surgery.

You can get wrapped around the axle, seeing that kind of injustice. My sister-in-law’s okay now… but even the slightest discussion of medical paperwork can send me into a frothing tirade.

So when I envisioned a magic system based on obsession, the first thing that came to mind was the living hell of a compassionate man working at a cut-rate insurance company like the kind that almost killed my sister-in-law.

That man would hate his employer. Except instead of quitting, and letting the insurance company win, a truly compulsive man would sabotage the system from within. He’d spend years mastering the insurance company’s paperwork, staying at the office after dark, filling out the right forms for customers so the insurance company would have to pay for their surgeries.

And so I created Paul Tsabo, employed him at crappy ol’ Samaritan Mutual, and drove him magically insane.

To Paul, paperwork is power. Fill out the right requests for information, and governments will fall. Now Paul can send SWAT teams crashing through your door by magically dropping warrants onto the right people’s desks.

He is righteous. He is pure.

He is hopelessly, hopelessly naïve.

Now, I don’t plot my books extensively; I just find a person I like well enough that I’d be willing to follow them through four hundred pages’ worth of book. Paul was the kind of stand-up dude I personally would root for.

But sadly, the grand tradition of fiction is this: choose your hero. Yank him out of his comfort zone, plop him into a new battleground where all of his strengths no longer matter, where in fact all those grand ideals may be liabilities. Make sure he’s going to have to either grow new talents to survive, or die horribly as he clings to the wreckage.

I needed to make Paul’s life a nightmare. And having watched my sister-in-law’s health dwindle, I can tell you that there’s no greater hell than watching someone you love hurt and being unable to help.

So when Paul’s daughter gets burned in a terrorist incident, he doesn’t have the skills to magically summon up the money he needs to get her the reconstructive surgery. Because, he’s new to this whole “bureaucromancy” schtick, a complete novice at his powers – and as mentioned, the universe hates ‘mancy. Do enough magic, and the universe rains horrific coincidences down upon your head, sabotaging you with bad luck until the scales are balanced out.

(We’re not even going to talk about the Bad Thing Paul accidentally did to his kid the first time he tried to save her.)

He’d do anything to save his kid, of course. So what profession, I asked, was a paperwork-loving, government-adoring bureaucromancer least suited for?

Brewing magical drugs, of course.

And who’s the only person who can help him to master his magical backlash so he can get his daughter the treatment she needs?

That’s right; the videogame-playing, magical terrorist who burned his daughter. Who happens to need some help brewing magical drugs.

Ladies and gentlemen, explosions are about to begin. Big magical battles. The quiet implosion of ideals meeting a raw and ruined reality on the ground. Obsessions compromised.

Let’s hope the kid doesn’t get hurt.


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

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

Standard Responses to Online Stupidity

Dear Citizens of the Internet: 

From time to time, in your ordinary exercise of the delights of the online world, you may find yourself accosted by clods. These oafish louts crave your time and attention, but in point of fact, life is short and you have better things to do.

For you, I have created this helpful numbered list of standard responses to online stupidity. When accosted, send the twit here to read the specific numbered response(s) relevant to them. Saves you time; alerts them they’re a jerk, and this is all the response they rate.

Use and enjoy.

  1. I don’t care what you think.
  2. I didn’t ask you.
  3. No doubt you thought that was terribly clever.
  4. You’ve attempted logic. Not all attempts succeed.
  5. One should not have that many errors in that few characters.
  6. Either your educators have failed you, or you have failed them.
  7. I see you’ve invited me to an argument. I decline.
  8. It appears an asshole has hacked your account and is posting in your name.
  9. Funny, most people go out of their way not to be a public bigot.
  10. Cosplaying as a tantrum-throwing child is no way to go through life.
  11. I’m sorry that you are so obviously scared of the world.
  12. My attention is a privilege, not a right. This is all you get.

The Big Idea: Justine Larbalestier

People aren’t the only characters in books. Sometimes the most important characters can be places, and certain times. This is relevant to Justine Larbelestier, who found an important character in her novel Razorhurst just by looking around in the place where she lived.


Before Razorhurst all my novels began with the voice of the main character. Often that’s all I knew: how the main character talked. It would take awhile—sometimes most of the first draft—to figure out where they were and what their story was. For Razorhurst the big idea was starting with a place, not a person.

Razorhurst grew out of my inner-city Sydney neighbourhood of Surry Hills. One day I noticed a sign at a local park called Frog Hollow, explaining where the name came from, and illustrated with photos of how the pretty little park used to look. It had not been a pretty little park; it had been a dark, dank slum and, according to the sign, home to the notoriously violent Riley Street Gang.

I live around around the corner from Riley Street. It once had a cut-throat razor wielding gang? I had to know more.

I’ve always been a history nut but I’d never been interested in Sydney or Australia’s history. The way it was taught in high school was dire. Yet it turned out the history of Surry Hills in the 1920s and 1930s, back when Frog Hollow was a slum, was in no way tedious. This now hyper-gentrified Sydney neighbourhood had been full of sly grog shops, opium dens, brothels (there are still brothels but they’re legal now) and every business had to pay protection money to the local crime lords.

Or, rather, crime ladies. Surry Hills back then was under the control of Kate Leigh. Nearby Darlinghurst was controlled by her crime boss rival Tilly Divine.

Oh my God! Two of the toughest crime bosses back then were women!

They’d risen to power because of a law that said men could not make their living from immoral earnings. Men, not women. Women could be madames, which Kate and Tilly were. They parlayed that into selling illicit after-hours alcohol, as well as all-the-time-illicit drugs—mostly cocaine and opium. At the height of their power they were making annual turnovers of millions in today’s dollars.

Under their—and the other crime bosses’—reign the streets of Surry Hills, Darlinghurst, and other inner-city neighbourhoods ran with blood. So much so that one of the tabloids of the day dubbed them collectively “Razorhurst.”

Razor, because that was the weapon of choice on account of handguns were banned. If you were busted by the coppers with a handgun you were sent straight to gaol, but if you were caught with a cut-throat razor? Well, officer, I was just about to shave, wasn’t I?

While researching I discovered this extraordinary collection of police photos from the period. Now I could see what Razorhust looked like back then—her people, her streets and the insides of her homes.

I started to write characters based on those photos—crime bosses, coppers, and standover men with cold, dead eyes and razor-etched scars—something else I’ve never done before. It turned out I was writing a novel about a street urchin named Kelpie and gangster’s moll, Dymphna Campbell, surviving on those bloody streets while being pursued by rival crime bosses and dealing with (un)helpful ghosts.


Those mug shots and crime scene photos began to haunt me. It’s an odd feeling looking at decades-old photos of a place I know well and recognising buildings, streets, signs, even some of the trees. If I squinted I could almost see the people in those photos walking these streets now. (Though what they’d make of all the fancy hairdressers, gelato and yakitori bars crowding them today. I can’t say.) Surry Hills and Darlinghurst are full of ghost buildings. Why not ghost people?

If you want to know more about the real ghosts of Razorhurt, take a look at the Justice and Police Museum. My fictional ghosts arrive in North American bookshops on Tuesday, 3 March.

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

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

RIP, Leonard Nimoy

He passed away today at 83. Here’s the New York Times obituary. Doubt there are many people in the world who were so plainly and simply admired as he was, and is.

And rather than to be entirely sad about the end of a life lived well and prosperously, here’s a couple of music videos for you.

Rest in peace, Leonard Nimoy. We are, will always be, your friends.

We’re Gonna Need a Bigger Boat

Sam Sykes wrote on Twitter:

And Lartist (aka Lar deSouza, cartoonist of Least I Could Do), responded:

If for some reason you can’t see the tweet, here’s a link to the art.

For those of you who don’t know the players, that’s Chuck Wendig as Brody, me as Quint, Scott Lynch as Hooper, and Sam Sykes as Bruce the Shark.

And it’s just about perfect.

Why Yes, I Still Have a Landline

Photo by MoShotz, used under Creative Commons license.


Gizmodo is curious to know who still has a landline and why. Well, I do, and here’s why:

1. The landline comes bundled with my DSL line and it’s not really any cheaper to have just the DSL service and not the landline, plus my provider whines petulantly if you ask for just the raw DSL line, so the hell with it, I’ll keep the landline.

2. Continuity. It’s useful to have had the same phone number for the last 14 years.

3. When the power goes out the phone lines still work. Likewise when the cell phones occasionally and inexplicably bork for whatever period of time it is until they unbork themselves again.

4. It’s the phone number that’s generally available, saving my cell phone number for people I know personally.

5. Voice reception is much better, so when I actually want to talk to people, rather than text them, it’s the phone I use.

6. If I want my wife to join in on a phone call for some reason (or she me), I don’t have to do some sort of complicated routing thing involving Skype/Google Hangouts/Conference calling, I just say “pick up the other receiver” and she does.

7. It’s actually useful to have a phone that serves the house generally, and not a specific member of it; for example, business that needs to be done in/around the house itself.

8. Inertia. There are ways to get around all the stuff mentioned above but it requires time/effort/interest on my part, or I could just keep the damn landline and have to do nothing. So.

9. Immunity to social judgment about keeping a landline. No, I don’t care if you think it’s odd/weird/quaint/adorable I still have one. It’s useful to me and I’m not going to give it up just because most people have ditched theirs at this point. You’re not the boss of me, jerks!

10. Nostalgia for dialing “1” before the area code (this last one is a lie, but I had to get to 10 reasons for completist purposes).

Mind you, I don’t judge (or, really, care) if you do or do not have a landline yourself. It’s not something I think is actually that important. But they are in point of fact getting rarer and rarer. Someone somewhere will have the very last landline one day. I wonder if it will be me.

Reading Authors Not Like Me

I’ve been getting emails from folks asking me what I thought about and/or to comment on this article from K.T Bradford*, the headline of which is “I Challenge You to Stop Reading White, Straight, Cis Male Authors for One Year.” As with many headlines, it’s an unnuanced take of what the article actually is about, which is, as I saw it, to have readers challenge themselves by mindfully reading within a group of authors they may not been reading much of before, to experience different writing and to gain perspective on defaults in the publishing world. That said, part of doing that is moving away from a default set of authors, i.e., straight white male authors (Tempest also includes “cis,” in that formulation, meaning in this case males whose gender identity conforms to general social expectations of maleness).

As I am generally accepted to be straight and white and male and cis, I think people are interested in whether I see this as a broadside against my identity and livelihood as a writer, and whether I myself would cut out straight white cis male writers from my reading diet for a year.

Let me answer the second part first: No, I won’t be cutting straight white cis males out of my reading, for two reasons:

1. As a straight white cis male professional writer, it’s literally impossible for me not to read in that category, unless I decide not to write for a year, which I won’t be doing, because I need to eat. Note that this is a highly specific reason for not participating that applies only to a very specific subset, of which I am a member.

2. I grok that the article is not aimed at me, who already and mindfully reads a widely varied diet of authors as a matter of course. I flatter myself (erroneously or otherwise) to think I’ve always done this, primarily because as a reader I think it’s interesting to get inside of the head of someone who is not like you; also I’ll admit when I was (much) younger I would walk around ostentatiously with books by unexpected authors because I wanted credit for being that kind of reader. I got over that part of it by my late 20s, mostly, even as I kept reading the books themselves.

It also helped that when I entered into the SF/F community I fell in with a pretty diverse crowd of writers and fans, which a) meant that when I was reading my friends I was reading all sorts, b) when they raved about the writers they loved, they tended to be a diverse group as well. Having diverse, literate peers is a pretty good shortcut to diverse reading.

And yes, I am also mindful if I’m reading too much of the same old, same old, because like anyone I can lapse into it if I’m not careful. When I’m aware of doing that, I mix it up (mind you, this awareness is key, too, and needs to be cultivated). Doing so doesn’t require that much effort, and I find that it doesn’t limit the amount of interesting reading I can find out there, because why would it.

(Note well that in my particular case I get sent literally dozens of books on a weekly basis, from publishers and authors, so I don’t find it difficult to find books by diverse authors I might be interested in — they come to my door unbidden. I recognize that this is also an advantage I have others don’t. I am in many ways a not especially useful case for Tempest’s point.)

So that’s why I won’t be cutting straight white cis male authors from my reading diet – or, more accurately, reading only from a specific group of authors, the demographics of which by practical necessity would exclude straight white cis male authors.

But if someone else does, for a year? Well, you know. I generally support reading more and different authors. If digging down specifically into a group of authors you’ve previously neglected or who were swamped out by other authors means you leave other writing aside for a while, I think that’s fine. Readers don’t owe any particular author a sale or even a read; they also don’t owe that author a sale or a read at a particular time.

Also, some things to be made clear:

1. Tempest here isn’t saying never read another book by a straight white cis male ever again in this life or any other, which is a thing that seems to be strangely overlooked, with regard to this suggestion of hers.

2. She’s also not saying The Official Year of Not Reading Straight White Cis Male Authors begins March 1 at which point no one will read anything by these dudes. She’s suggesting a general idea which may be done — or not! — at the individual reader’s convenience. Even if a large number of people endeavor to read diversely, it will be on their own schedule.

3. Are any of us under the illusion that Tempest’s suggestion will galvanize the entire reading population of the world?

So simply as a practical matter, if the article convinces some people to read outside their usual habits for a year, then what that means is that someone like me won’t make a sale from that one person for a particular timeframe, but might possibly at some other point. Meanwhile, other people will still be available for potential sales.

Which already happens. I’m very sad to say that not everyone in the world buys the hardcover edition of my books when they come out. Some people don’t know I and/or my book exist; some people do know but don’t like me/my writing; some people like me/my writing but can’t afford the book in hardcover; some people can afford it in hardcover but choose to spend their money on something else; and so on.

Over time, some of those people who don’t buy my book when it comes out might buy it later. Which, again, already happens. It’s why I have a backlist. I like backlist sales. So does my publisher; they don’t have to spend a lot of time or money promoting my backlist, so the profit margins are nice. Honestly, spend money on me now, spend money on me later: It’s all good from my point of view. I’ll have use for that money whenever it gets to me, I assure you.

But — cutting out straight white male authors for a year is bigotry! Eh. Again, speaking as the proverbial straight white cis male author, I’m not feeling it, for the reasons noted above. Or at the very least I see no reason to feel threatened; maybe it’s because I believe that even if the advantage of a reader’s implicit default to authors like me is challenged or taken away, what I write will still be able to compete in both the stream of commerce and the marketplace of ideas. I don’t fear competition, and philosophically speaking, I would rather have readers who range far and wide and still choose my work, then ones who pick my work because they just don’t know any better. I’m not afraid to be set aside for a bit, while a reader explores works by other authors, and by other authors who are not like me. I figure they’ll be back, in which case our author-reader bond is even tighter. Hooray! If they don’t come back, it’s probably for a good reason. In which case: Too bad for me, but there are lots of other potential readers about there.

What if someone only or primarily reads from [Insert whatever combination of not white and/or straight and/or male and/or cis] authors? Would you have them set those authors aside to read only white straight cis male authors for a year? If that’s what they wanted to try, sure. Get out of whatever reading rut you’re in, I say! But note that (at least as I see it), Tempest’s formulation of reading is highly intersectional; someone who only reading [whatever combination of not white and/or straight and/or male and/or cis] doesn’t have to go all the way to “white straight cis male” to shake up their reading lists. And also, and again as a practical matter, the number of people only or primarily reading [whatever combination of not white and/or straight and/or male and/or cis] is likely relatively small compared to those reading only/primarily straight white cis males, which is to the point about bias in the system, and is worth thinking about, rather than sort of eliding in a rush to get to another point entirely.

Speaking personally, I think one can build more diversity into one’s reading without entirely dropping straight white cis males from one’s reading diet for a year, if that strikes one as simply too harsh to folks like me; make a “buddy system,” for example, in which every book you read by a straight white cis male is followed up by one written by someone who is not. Being mindful of your reading biases, and the practice of reading widely, are things that are beneficial however you do it.

But however you do it, at the end of the day, if you find more writers who speak to you, move you and make you think more widely, your life is going to be better. Find a way to bring in a wider set of authors to your reading diet, in a way that works for you. If it means taking a year off from me and writers like me, then good luck, have fun and remember we’ll be here when you get back. We’ll have stories to tell you when you do.

*Disclosure: I know K.T. Bradford (“Tempest”) and have for years, and consider her a friend. Note she calls me out from time to time, and we occasionally disagree on things, sometimes very widely. You can do that with your friends.

The Big Idea: Matt Richtel

In his guise as a reporter for the New York Times, Matt Richtel won a Pultizer Prize writing on the intersection of technology and the fallible humans who use it. In fiction, and in his new novel The Doomsday Equation, Richtel does the same… but this time the results may be apocalyptic.


Thank you for clicking on this. In doing so, you’ve done your little part to help predict the next world war.

Yes, you (I do mean you, clacking away on the keyboard) are part of a remarkable development, one that is not nearly so farfetched as it may sound. It’s the newfound capacity of computers to help predict – and shape – human events. Including war.

The premise stands at the heart of The Doomsday Equation, near-term science fiction that lives just on the other side of real, and borrows from the exploits of a real person. His name is Sean Gourley. A Silicon Valley darling, fairly called a wunderkind, he created an algorithm to help predict the outbreak of armed conflict and project its length. When will war come and how long will it last?

Do you doubt the concept? As it is, computers use Big Data to make all kinds of predictions, involving weather, stock markets, retail supply and demand. The more information you put into a computer, the more scenarios it can measure, the more it can do what the human brain cannot: see patterns that are the precursors to events. Sean figured out the kinds of patterns that precede a war, “the mathematics of war” he called it in an article in the esteemed journal “Nature.”

The paper proposed an algorithm that its authors called “The Power Law.”

I call it: The Doomsday Equation. In the book, hundreds of inputs – from weather patterns to stock market indices to shifting demographics to our daily surfing Internet patterns – contribute to predicting the stability of the world. Or, rather, impending instability – Armageddon. The implications become staggering (I hope) and, in the end, the world’s fate left in the hands of a protagonist who shares all of Sean’s intellect but none of his grace. The made-up man at the center of The Doomsday Equation is named Jeremy Stillwater. He’s a wonder with computers but he’s terrible with people.

He’s self-righteous, maddeningly so, aggressive and impetuous, driven by conflict himself and, as a result, he’s the last person in the world who should be in a position to prophesize and prevent doom. Over the years, he’s infuriated and alienated all those who had invested and believed in him: his girlfriend, not least, but also the well-heeled investors, academics and even military liaisons who had hoped to use Jeremy’s digital oracle to predict the next terrorist attack.

And so, having isolated himself from the world, there is nowhere for Jeremy to turns when his computer gives him ominous news: global nuclear war, three days and counting.

Is it a joke? A bug? Someone out to settle a score with Jeremy? Or the most important computer message anyone has ever received?

Frantic, skeptical, Jeremy begins a lonely hunt to figure out if his computer is telling him the truth. That’s half the equation, and it is borrowed from real life.

So is the other half of the equation, namely, the conspiracy that has put the world in such a precarious position. I don’t want to give too much away, but what Jeremy discovers is an ancient plot, a network as old as parchment and the Biblical Scrolls, devoted in its own way to keeping the world pure of modernity.

Put another way: the tools that Jeremy must use to save the world are the most modern. But the foe he faces is as ancient and inborn as human nature itself. And their clash gets at the heart of questions we have begun to face: what price modernity? Where it heals does it also betray? Is it salvation or damnation?

With each page of Doomsday Equation, the clock clicks down, heading inexorably to zero, as Jeremy can only save the world by coming face-to-face with the fact that his own craving for interpersonal conflict – his default embrace of self-righteousness – may well be a big part of the reason the world stands on the brink of war. Can computers tell us that war is coming? Can they save us from ourselves? Or will they, by extending the darkest parts of us, merely hasten our demise?

The Doomsday Equation.

The Doomsday Equation: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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