I’ve got a super-sized stack of new books and ARCs for today, because apparently March is like that. There’s some fabulous stuff in here — what grabs you? Tell us in the comments!
I’ve got a super-sized stack of new books and ARCs for today, because apparently March is like that. There’s some fabulous stuff in here — what grabs you? Tell us in the comments!
You’ll recall that last week I got a new laptop, the Asus c302ca, a 2-in-1 Chromebook; some of you wanted an update from me to let you know whether I thought it was a good investment.
My answer: Yes, I think so. With the caveat that it’s a $500 Chromebook and not $1000+ Windows or Mac rig, and thus one’s expectations should be set accordingly, I’ve been very happy with it. I’ve used it primarily for browsing and writing and within the scope of those two activities it’s done everything I’ve asked it to do without complaint; its processor (an Intel m3) would be pokey on a more intensive rig but zooms along here. The touchscreen is sharp and pretty and perfectly responsive in tablet mode, and the keyboard is, to me, very nice, with the layout the right size and the keys with just about the right amount of travel. This is a very comfortable machine for me.
I’ll note there are things I haven’t tried to do with this machine, in particular photoediting, which is a thing I do on my desktop. I’ll also note that I didn’t get this laptop for photoediting, and if I had I would have been silly. Again: Chromebook, and be aware of the limitations there. But within those limitations, it’s pretty great. I have no hesitation taking this along when I travel, which is a good thing as I have a pretty serious book tour coming up in a couple of weeks.
So, yes, if you’re in the market for a light-to-medium duty laptop for not a whole lot of money, then this is a pretty sharp choice, and I can recommend it.
March Big Idea slots have been filled. If you asked for a March Big Idea slot and have not heard from me, sorry, full up.
April Big Idea slots will be filled probably in the week of March 12. If you’re waiting on a response for an April Big Idea slot, don’t panic! Wait a couple of weeks. Thanks.
When Chuck Wendig is not drinking Febreeze smoothies or arguing with people about their burrito choices, he writes books! For example: Thunderbird, the newest entry in his Miriam Black series. In today’s Big Idea, Chuck talks about what it took to extend the series into new territory… and how the real world might have caught up with it along the way.
I’ll preface this by saying: I had no idea what was coming.
Two years ago, I wrote the fourth book in my Miriam Black series: Thunderbird. In it, Miriam seeks to end the curse that causes her see how people are going to die, but that path cuts straight through a right-wing militia nesting in Arizona.
It’s a militia, but it’s also a cult of personality, run in part by a charismatic man and his psychic wife. They have visions of an America in ruins, left so in part by those “others” who come across the border or from overseas. They also distrust their own government—these people are paranoid, driven by visions of a new world order or state-sponsored super-flu or other forms of impossible control. They want to break it all down. Blow it all up. They want to heal the divide by eradicating the other side in a civil war that proves their version of justice. They have weapons. They have bombs. They’re going to kill people to—in their minds—save people. And then they have visions of taking over the government that they destroy.
The book comes out this week, and suddenly it seems hopelessly naive. It now seems like a thing less out of fiction – or, at least, less a thing at the fringes and the margins – and is now a very real infection slithering right to the heart of American life and discourse. It’s gone off the pages. It’s gone off the rails. Here we are, in thrall to a cult of personality who sees enemies everywhere, who imagines threats that aren’t real, who seems to distrust the government even as it takes it over. It’s a group that claims that it wants to heal the divide, but its mechanism to do so again seems to be to create unity by destroying those would disagree.
At the time, I thought, I’m going to talk about this thing, this sickness forming in the roots of the tree, and I was stupid enough to think that’s where it would stay. Trapped in those pages like a prisoner behind paper walls. But here we are. The big idea, the bad idea, has taken over. It’s escaped the prison. It’s gone beyond just the roots—it’s in the trunk of the tree and in the soil around us. I didn’t think the ideas I put forth in the book would become mainstream, in a way. I didn’t know we would climb so high only to fall back so far, so fast, to a broken world.
The Miriam books have always posited a broken world, of course. The characters contained within – save maybe one or two – are never really good people, they’re all just varying shades of bad. Some are bad because they are made that way, some are bad because it serves them. Some are bad because they’re as broken as the world around them, some are bad because they want to break the world further. There’s bad, then there’s real bad, and sometimes, there’s downright motherfucking evil.
I try to look at the book now, long after I wrote it, as it’s coming out onto bookshelves in a world whose own special horrors have exceeded the story’s own in many ways, and now I’m forced to find a different big idea contained within, one that maybe seeks to find hope in the hellmouth. And I’m forced to look at Miriam herself, because though she’s by no means a good person, she still tries to be better. Her capacity to do the right thing when surrounded by wrong is something noble. Her drive to be better even when she knows she’s easily one of the worst people in the room gives me a weird kind of hope. And the fact that even in all the darkness, the book still lets in rays of light—grimy light, light that flickers, but still light that clarifies and chases away shadows—well, I find that hopeful, too.
And sure, it’s just a book. It’s just a story. But like I said, sometimes the things inside books find a way outside the books. Sometimes they were never really the realm of fiction. Sometimes stories know things and tell us things even before we’re really aware of them. So that’s what I’m hoping is happening here. Maybe Thunderbird is showing us not only the reality of the darkness, but also that there’s a way through, too, toward the light. Maybe the big idea is that no matter how bad it gets, we can always make it better.
Ghosts! How do they play a role in the genesis of Erika Lewis‘ new novel, Game of Shadows? Lewis is about to tell you. You’ll just have to imagine her telling you, in the dark, with a flashlight illuminating her face from under her chin…
It all started when I was seven. I remember how cold the graveyard felt in the middle of that hot and sticky summer day. Not the entire yard, mind you, but one particular spot. The marker said his name, which I can’t remember, and his age, which I can’t forget. He was seven when he died. Seven. And he died fighting in the Civil War. That’s when it happened. The gentle wave of a little hand that wasn’t really there. Or was it? I ran that day. Scared of what I saw. But that moment was enough to keep me curious for the rest of my life. Did the boy have something he wanted to say? Was that why he was still in that graveyard so long after he’d died? Obviously, I believe in ghosts. Could that incident have been a figment of my imagination? Maybe…
I lost my stepfather when I was seventeen. We were close but I hardly saw him the year he died. So much time spent in and out of hospitals. We never got to say too much, and there were things left unsaid after he was gone. And I wondered if he, like the little boy in the graveyard, would ever wave at me. Or whisper in my ear, letting me know that he was still around, hearing me tell him the things I never got to say, like thank you for being there when others weren’t. But he didn’t. And at seventeen, I stopped believing…for a little while.
Larger than life, my grandmother was my hero. She made life look easy, even when it wasn’t. She never minded a midnight call during my turbulent college years when I needed to bend her ear. She was always there. Always up! The woman never slept until after 3 a.m. After I moved to California, and she became ill, I knew she didn’t have long. I had visited, but she was so sick, it was hard for her to talk. Then one morning, a few months later, before dawn, I knew her soul was moving on. How did I know? Because she told me. Do you know that feeling between sleep and awake, when you don’t know if you’re dreaming or hearing voices? Maybe that’s just me. I doubt it though. That was the last time I saw her, well, heard her. She said, “Lovey,” that’s what she called me, “I have to go now. I want you to know I love you and am so proud of you.” Me, being me, asked, “Is Grandpa here?” Grandma giggled. She did this from time to time, not often, but every once in a while, particularly when she talked about my grandfather who had died when I was eight. So she giggled and said, “oh yes, he’s over there. See? The one with the sexy legs.” Seriously. Sexy legs. God, I loved her.
As you can see The Big Idea behind Game of Shadows was something percolating for a long time. An emotional journey that felt like it needed to start from where we all did, in our youth. Right in the middle of those golden years when you feel invincible. Unbreakable. A time in your life when you never think that anything bad could happen—especially to you. After all, when you’re young, it could never be you who had something left to say, and now can’t, right?
Ethan Makkai is a freshman at Venice High School. He’s in that sweet spot, feeling immortal, but he has something that grounds him. Ethan can see ghosts. He knows life goes on in some form or fashion. Life and death is the ultimate great divide, but is it when you can still talk to those you’ve lost? Can still feel their presence blanketing you, giving you warmth and comfort when you need it them most? Ethan Makkai’s life is touched by death all the time. But it isn’t until he’s dying that he realizes what death would mean, that there would be things left unsaid—by him.
In bringing Game of Shadows to life, I wanted to combine Ethan’s personal story with something else that I found incredibly interesting: Irish Celtic mythology. During the first cycle of Ireland’s history, the Mythological Cycle, bards passed on legends of tragic heroes and great loves. A time when the Tuatha De Danann, the gods and goddesses, walked the Emerald Isle, and their seat of power was at the Hill of Tara, not far from Dublin. It’s still there. You can wander through it if you like. I don’t recommend getting too close to the hawthorn trees through, not without a fairy offering! Anyway, in the legends, when the Tuatha De Danann lost the war with the Milesians, the humans, they departed through the mounds to the Otherworld. But I always wondered: what ever happened to the mythical races and magical Druids that lived in Ireland with them? Well, that’s when I got to thinking. Maybe they’re still here…
Welcome to Tara, a hidden continent where, post losing the war, the Irish god of the sea sailed their kind, and magically hid the lands so humankind could never, ever find them…
I spent a few years writing, and researching, then writing some more, and then researching some more. I wanted the lands to feel unique, but also connected to what I love so much about the Irish myths, and about Ireland itself. In building out the realms, the landscape, the inhabitants, and magical rules in this new Tara, it all had to be tied to their ancient past, and yet different, brought into present day.
After making the biggest mistake of his life that allows his mother to be kidnapped, Ethan Makkai leaves Los Angeles, the only home he’s ever known, on mission to get her back or die trying. In an epic journey through unfamiliar lands Ethan must rescue his mother before a murdering sorcerer can kill her. He is the quintessential reluctant hero. Not that he’s unwilling to do whatever it takes to save Caitríona Makkai from her terrible fate, but rather unwilling to take on his new destiny, a destiny shaped by the fact that he can see ghosts…
It’s rather amusing in a chilling kind of way that The Big Idea for this story all started with the simple wave of a ghost-boy’s hand that may, or may not have been in that graveyard at all… but it did!
It’s animated! I know you like animated stuff.
Today I decided I was going to make an actual effort to get some mileage out of the prime lens (50mm 1.8f) I got with my dSLR. So I did a little portraiture. Here are the results.
Already the last weekend of February — yikes! Fortunately here is a fine stack of new books and ARCs to help ease us into March. What here would you want to read next? Tell us in the comments!
Stone Cold Bastards.
I have no idea the exact date or what influence triggered the name to pop into my head, but I do know I was in bed, it was late, and I had just turned out the light.
Stone Cold Bastards.
I switched the light back on and grabbed my phone to jot it down before I forgot it. My wife didn’t even ask why the light was back on; she was used to me taking random notes at random times on my phone. It’s part of being a writer’s spouse, just like me running last minute, random errands for her is part of being a public school teacher’s spouse. These things happen.
No clue what the novel was going to be about or even if it would become a novel. I have about 200+ titles/ideas/notes on my iPhone that I doubt I’ll ever get to in my lifetime, so there was a distinct possibility that SCB would amount to nothing.
Except that’s not what happened.
On March 16th, 2013 I jotted down a quick description “Like The Dirty Dozen meets Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles meets The Omen”.
Damn. That’s one serious mashup right there.
A day later I wrote “Old school, crack military team of gargoyles holds a Sanctuary against a Demon Siege”.
What the hell is an “old school, crack military team of gargoyles”? Were gargoyles in the military? And what’s up with capitalizing “Demon Siege”? My brain is weird.
I eventually fleshed it out some more and added the idea to my pitch sheet. Pitch sheet? Yep. Like I said above, over 200+ notes on my iPhone. I take the ones that refuse to let go of my mind and I add them to a pitch sheet. This is something I can email to publishers if I ever get asked “So, what ideas do you have?” Best to be prepared when opportunity knocks and all that jazz.
I was pretty stoked about this idea and constantly pitched it to publishers. It was gonna be a throwback to the old military movies of the late sixties and early seventies. You know, the ones with the misfit band of soldiers that have to come together and save the day while also sacrificing themselves because, hey, misfits die, it’s what they do.
Except I write genre fiction, so I switched out the human soldiers for gargoyles come to life when the End of Days shows up. I also switched out Nazis for demons. Well, humans possessed by demons. I wanted flesh and blood. I wanted a body count. I needed human bodies that could get hacked and slashed and shot and clubbed and crushed and just completely obliterated by some seriously badass stone fists.
I was in love with the entire idea.
I pitched it to five or six different publishers and they all passed.
Until I found Bell Bridge Books. They got my pitch sheet and to my complete surprise, Stone Cold Bastards was at the top of the list of what they would like me to write. Holy snack crackers! The Bastards’ time had finally come! Three years after I had originally come up with the idea.
Man, I was ready to get to the writing. Three years of those Bastards in my head meant I knew exactly what I wanted to write. And when I sat down to write the novel, it flowed so easily.
The gargoyles came to life when the Gates of Hell opened. There was a Sanctuary where the last humans left on Earth were being protected. Lots of action, violence, intrigue, snark, and blood. It was perfect.
Except it wasn’t. There is a reason editors exist. A big reason.
You see, I had been so focused on the gargoyles, and creating these badasses made of stone that would fit the title, that I forgot about why they were there in the first place: to protect the last humans. And, man, my human characters? They sucked.
Generic, cardboard cutouts. Unlikable. Boring. I gave the reader zero reason to care at all whether they lived or died. It didn’t matter how much ass the gargoyles kicked if the reason for kicking ass was to save a bunch of losers. The demons had more humanity than the actual humans.
Time to fix that!
I fleshed out the humans, I gave them souls, I gave them lives that readers cared about. I wove relationships and friendships into the story. I brought the gargoyles and the humans closer together. Stone hearts warmed as flesh hearts began to beat like they should have from the beginning. I not only gave the gargoyles a reason to care, but I gave the readers a reason to care.
Which is my job. I should have seen that from the start, but it’s hard when you have a burning idea and that idea eclipses everything else. A killer title. Gargoyles come to life. Demons to kill. End of Days. Except none of it worked without humanity at the core.
A couple more passes and the novel was done. And it was so much more than what I had hoped.
I had set out to write a novel steeped in pulp fiction with a seventies grindhouse ethos, but in the end I had a contemporary fantasy that not only had all of those elements, it had depth and heart and soul. I’ll admit that I grew a little teary when I re-read the ending.
Now it’s out in the wild. The Bastards have been set free.
In a way, so have I.
All because of a title.
All because of Stone Cold Bastards.
A couple of months ago I realized I was going to need a new laptop; the Dell XPS 12 I have, while still working perfectly well while plugged in, will only last for a couple of hours on battery — this is what happens to old laptops. I have a Chromebook Flip, which I actually really like, but it’s tiny (a 10-inch screen and a smaller-than-usual keyboard), and while it’s fine for short trips where I don’t have to do much writing, if I do have to write anything longer than an email or a short blog post, my hands get cramped quickly. What I really wanted was a another Chromebook Flip, just slightly larger.
Well, and that’s exactly what I ended up getting. The new laptop is the Asus Chromebook Flip c302, which has a 12.5 inch 1080p screen, a full-sized, backlit keyboard (which is actually hugely important to me), a relatively hefty processor for a Chromebook, good battery life and the ability to fold back into tablet format, all for $500. Like all Chromebooks, it’s largely dependent on one having a full-time connection to the Internet, but the one thing I really always need — a word processing program, here represented by Google Docs — is available offline too, so that’s fine. Also it like its smaller predecessor has the ability to run Android apps, many of which can also be used offline at this point. In short, it’s going to be able to do what I need it to do, nearly all of the time.
I did for a fair amount of time agonize between getting this or the new Dell XPS 13 2-in-1, which is roughly the same size as this and also has a tablet mode, but also has a more substantial processor and of course the ability to run Windows programs, including Word and Photoshop, both of which I use quite a lot. The deciding factors for me were twofold: One, the way I use my laptops typically doesn’t run toward using heavy-duty programs anyway (if I’m not using Photoshop, for example, I’m editing my photos on my phone, not my laptop), and two, this is two to three times cheaper, depending on which XPS configuration I got. I like that, not only because I’m cheap but because, having once had lost a fairly expensive laptop at the airport, and then (once I recovered it) having it stolen from me at another airport, I’m more comfortable traveling with a computer that I can afford to lose, or accidentally drop, or have eaten by bears, or whatever.
The Chromebook’s general need to be always connected was a drawback five years ago but honestly isn’t much of an issue now. My phone has a mobile hotspot so as long as I’m in the US it’s not like I ever don’t have a connection, and wifi is ubiquitous enough that you really have to go out of your way not to have it (and anyway, as noted above, the one thing I always need has an offline mode). In short, this is a computer that makes sense for how I work today.
Having now had it for a few hours, my general impression of it is pretty positive: The screen is pretty and bright (and 1080p is honestly perfectly acceptable in a screen this size), the keyboard is sufficiently large and easy to type on, and I’ve written pay copy on it, so it’s literally already paid for itself. If you’re a Chromebook fan, I can definitely recommend it (I’ll note I was considering between the c302 and the new Samsung Chromebook Plus, which spec-wise is very close to this computer, at around the same price. But the Samsung apparently doesn’t have a backlit keyboard, and that was the dealbreaker for me).
So, look! My new computer. If you see me on tour next month, you’ll see it too. Be sure to say hello to it.
My tour for The Collapsing Empire is already pretty long, taking place as it does over five weeks — and now it’s about to get longer! Because I’m showing up at two new places:
Monday, April 17
Jean Cocteau Cinema
Santa Fe, NM
Friday, April 28-Sunday, April 30
The Santa Fe stop is very definitely a formal stop for the tour and will include me having a chat with George RR Martin, of whom you may have heard. The Southfield stop at this point is far less formal; depending on whether there is space for me on programming, it may just end up being me hanging out in the lobby bar and signing books for people who wander by. Nevertheless, I will be there (and happy to sign books). So if you were planning to attend Penguicon already: Hey, bonus! If you weren’t already planning to attend Penguicon, well, maybe you should (P.S.: Cory Doctorow, with whom I will have shared the last few dates of my tour, is a Penguicon Guest of Honor this year, so there’s that too).
Beyond that, we’re in the process firming up additional dates via other conventions, book fairs and book festivals. I’ll let you know when those dates are confirmed and public knowledge.
Here’s the official tour page with all the current dates. Hope to see you out there!
Over at Inverse, writer Ryan Britt is annoyed that two of his favorite science fiction books of the year, Death’s End by Cixin Liu, and Babylon’s Ashes by James S.A. Corey, are not on the Nebula list of nominees for Best Novel. His argument for both basically boils down to they’re both amazing so they should be obvious nominees, obviously, which to be fair is the same general argument anyone makes when they complain about something they love getting what they perceive to be a snub for whatever award they think the thing the love should be up for.
Not to single Britt out — his is merely the complaint about this I’ve seen today, not the sole complaint out there — but to serve as a reminder, as we head fully into science fiction awards season: There’s no such thing as an automatic award nomination for anything, no matter how good you think that thing is. If you think there is, you’ll be finding yourself frequently outraged for no particularly good or useful reason.
Likewise, a thing you love not being on an award ballot doesn’t mean it was “snubbed”. “Snubbing” here basically means someone (or in this case more than one someone) actively going out of their way to keep a thing off the ballot, i.e., something along the lines of “I hate this novel and/or author so much I will instead recommend a different and possibly inferior book and encourage all my friends to do so as well.” It’s pretty much 100% certain this didn’t happen here; instead, people just voted for the novels they preferred, and preferred other books.
But Death’s End and Babylon’s Ashes were good books! Indeed they were. But there were five Best Novel slots available on this year’s Nebula ballot and dozens of SF/F novels (at least!) of sufficient quality to make the ballot. The two novels that Britt points out are only a couple of the novels that could have been on the ballot, from the perspective of quality, but aren’t. There are — thankfully — always more good SF/F novels in a year than may fit on a Nebula ballot.
And not just novels but novellas, novelettes, short stories, YA novels and screenplays, those being categories that SFWA awards annually. I mean, let me use me as an example: My novella The Dispatcher was eligible for the Novella category this year. It was very well reviewed, had a huge audience, and is already up for other awards. I’m a well-known and (mostly) liked science fiction writer, and former president of SFWA, so I’m also familiar to the folks who nominate for the Nebula. The Dispatcher should be a shoo-in for a nomination, yes? Yes! I say yes! A thousand times!
But — surprise! — it’s nowhere on the Nebula novella ballot. Is this a snub? I mean, maybe — perhaps malign forces at SFWA aligned against me simply because of who I am — but the far more reasonable and likely correct answer is: The people who nominated for the Nebula awards this year simply decided on other novellas instead. There were many fine novellas this year, and the Nebula ballot reflects this, as all the novellas on it are eminently worth award consideration. I don’t consider The Dispatcher not being on the Nebula ballot a snub. It consider it a sign that it’s a really competitive year, with many excellent things to read. As a reader of the genre, and as a professional who wants the field to thrive, I really can’t complain.
I think it’s perfectly fine to champion books and stories and to be disappointed when people nominating for awards don’t have the same enthusiasm for them, in aggregate, as you do. But remember when that happens, it’s almost always not a “snub” of the thing you love, but rather an affirmation of the things the other person loves, and probably without reference to the thing you are championing. It’s a good perspective to have, in my opinion.
Yesterday I was having a conversation with a friend regarding the implosion of Milo Yiannopoulos, the remarkable two-day period in which the public bigot and Breitbart editor lost a high-profile speaking engagement, a lucrative book contract, and a job, because one of his positions (regarding sexual contact between adults and young teens) finally crossed a line for the horrible clutch of bigots who were keeping him around as their One Gay Friend. The implosion was inevitable — the horrible bigots never really liked him, they just found him useful, and suddenly he wasn’t useful anymore — and moreover the implosion was karmically appropriate, because Yiannopoulos is a terrible person who became famous for being terrible to others. The dude earned it, and in a very real way it’s delightful to see the comeuppance.
While my friend agreed with me that the comeuppance was indeed delicious, he also asked me, essentially: But do you feel even in the tiniest bit sorry for Yiannopoulos? Do you have empathy for him?
And the answer is: Well, sure. In my opinion Yiannopoulos is clearly emotionally damaged in all sorts of ways and for all sorts of reasons, and it’s exhibited itself in a particularly itchy combination of personal self-loathing and a desperate need to feel special, and to have attention. He discovered that playing to a crowd of horrible bigots gave him attention, made him feel special and made him either hate himself less, or at least allowed him to ignore how much he hated himself, so he went with that as long as he could.
And things appeared to be going his way! Trump won, which gave him a more legitimate platform because the horrible bigots he played to were elevated and wanted him to speak at their gathering; he nabbed himself a pretty good book deal with a major publisher; and he got to go on national TV and had hit it off well with the host, even if the other guests told him to go fuck off, which of course played to his strengths as a media personality. It was all coming together!
Then, in roughly 36 hours, all of it was taken away. Not to mention his reputation and standing among much of the crowd that had previously stood behind him. And to top it all off, he lost his professional income. It was all in public, and it happened quick, and in humiliating fashion.
So here’s the thing: A damaged soul who thought he had found acceptance, reaching for the goals that he probably thought would finally satisfy him, only to have them (from his point of view) cruelly taken away, all at once, in public?
Again: Sure. I have some empathy there. That all sucks.
(And you knew there was a “but” coming)
Yiannopoulos’ damage explains but does not excuse his actions. Lots of people are damaged by life, one way or another. Lots of people crave acceptance and desire fame. Lots of people try to heal themselves through the attention of others. But Yiannopoulos decided to deal with all of that by spouting racist and sexist and transphobic hatred, by lying about his targets and by pointing his passel of online, bigoted followers at people in order to harass and threaten them, and then by laughing at and dismissing as unimportant other people’s pain and fear, pain and fear that he caused. It’s what he became famous for. It was all a lark to him, or so he’d have you believe. Saying so gave him attention and admiration, and if that attention and admiration was from hateful bigots, eh, that’d work for him. Until it didn’t.
I can feel empathy for a damaged human being, and understand why he does what he does. I get Yiannopoulos. He’s not exactly a puzzle. But my (or anyone’s) empathy and understanding for him has to be weighed against the damage he’s done to others and his reasons for doing so. And the fact is, the damage he’s caused others is immense, and the reasons he’s done so are self-serving, vain and ultimately wholly insufficient to excuse or mitigate his actions. Empathy and understanding are important, indeed I think critical, when considering the people who have chosen to oppose you. It reminds you they are merely human, and not actually monsters. But they are part, not the whole, of one’s consideration of such people; nor does empathy automatically convert to sympathy. Personally, considered as a whole and including his actions, I don’t judge Yiannopoulos deserving of much sympathy. He’s earned this moment of his, and in point of fact, he’s earned much worse than this. But this will do for a start.
And here’s another fact, which is that Yiannopoulos isn’t special. There are a lot of damaged people out there on the racist, sexist, bigoted side of things, who have been fucked up by the world in one way or another and who have decided the best way to dig themselves out of that hole is to try to take it out on other people. These are the very people fringe radical and reactionary organizations and would-be leaders seek out; they’re susceptible because they’re damaged and crave acceptance and attention. To get personal here, I look at the bigots who have decided to make me their special enemy and it’s not hard to understand why they do what they do, nor to feel empathy for what they have to be going through in their brain. But again, that’s weighed against the damage they do to others and try to do to me, and I proceed accordingly.
(Also, a supplementary thought I have, which is that that Yiannopoulos is well into his 30s. He’s not a child or a young man of whom it could be said that he did not know better. Yiannopoulos may be damaged in various ways, but it doesn’t appear that he is not in control of his actions, or doesn’t have enough presence of mind to understand right or wrong, even if he apparently doesn’t care about such things. Yiannopoulos understands what he’s doing and why. He owns his choices and actions, and he owns the results of those choices and actions, even when they result, as they did this week, in his downfall.)
So: Empathy and understanding for Yiannopoulos? Sure. Maybe even the smallest soupçon of pity. I think the ability to feel these things for him allows me to say, in full consideration, that he deserves his fall this week from the grace of the horrible and bigoted. And to continue in that vein, I wish for him the empathy and understanding to realize just how well he’s earned this moment, and to realize how much work he’ll have to undertake to atone for the damage he’s done to others. I don’t expect he’ll actually arrive at that empathy and understanding, mind you. I don’t think he wants that. I wish it for him nonetheless.
Ideals are a great thing, if you can afford them. In The Book of Etta, award-winning writer Meg Elison takes a look at ideals and what they cost, and who can afford to have them in a world where ideals are very dear indeed.
There comes a time in the life of every idealist when they must come to terms with real life. Many of us find ourselves in this terrifying era with unpleasant tasks ahead: conversations with racist family members on Facebook are just the beginning. Over and over we have to confront the reality that we are not on a non-stop flight, headed inevitably toward progress. A more apt metaphor would be that we are rowing arduously upstream toward progress, and many of our fellow rowers are openly wearing MAGA hats and rowing backward, or else nurturing secret misinformation and grievances and choosing not to row at all.
The Book of Etta is about an idealist. It’s about a fighter, a queer survivor who wants to kill fascists, free slaves, and give no quarter. However, Etta learns to row for progress alongside people who see progress differently, and are willing to obtain it by any means necessary.
That essential conflict is the Big Idea in The Book of Etta that I’d like to share, because it’s one that plagued me while I was writing it and plagues me still.
If you can free a slave by buying them, have you done enough good to negate your own support of the slave trade? If the women in your village are safe and cared for, but not allowed to leave or speak in your presence, are they free? If they’re better off than most, is that enough? If you venerate motherhood and treat all mothers with respect, isn’t that enough to make sure that all women choose that path? If humanity is in danger of extinction, isn’t it only fair to suppress same-sex love?
Etta’s answers to all of the above are no, no, and no. She inhabits a world of absolutes and cannot reconcile herself to compromises or to accepting what is good enough or safe enough or too important to question.
Etta meets Flora, who inhabits a world with no absolutes where each of these questions must be weighed against survival. An apprentice to a slaver herself, Flora understands the trade. A subject to fascist regimes, she makes allowances and avoids conflict as a way to keep out of trouble. Flora would rather live than insist on her principles, while Etta is ready to die on every hill she climbs.
I began as a writer, as a woman, as a person in that idealistic mode. I wanted to be the guy who stood in front of a tank in Tiananmen Square and said no, things must not go on this way. What my public school education did not show me was the aftermath of that moment: Tank Man was dragged into the crowd by friends who knew it was better to live and fight another day than be flattened into another martyr, another statement, another idealist lost.
I had to face the idea that we need each other, that we are better off rowing together, even arrhythmically and begrudgingly, than we are on our own. We are capable of more if our friends keep us from becoming street pizza beneath fascist tanks.
Etta has to learn that, too, but for her the stakes are higher. Etta is born into a world created out of my terror and dread; a world where the tanks just keep rolling and most people row backwards and we all stop fighting the current.
But Etta’s fight never ends, and her book is just beginning.
My spam filter seems to be unusually aggressive recently and more legit comments are finding their way there; I just released a bunch. So if for some reason you’ve been trying to comment and your comment doesn’t appear, don’t panic, I’m (probably) not intentionally moderating you, it’s just a hyperactive spam filter. It’s not personal, in other words.
CONTENT WARNING: Features liverwurst, and the end times.
On Saturday night Krissy and I went and saw Hamilton in New York. This was a moment greatly anticipated by a large number of my friends who had seen the show (or at least listened to the soundtrack) had fallen head over heels in love with it, and who wanted to induct me into their Hamiltonian cult. I had previously refused to listen to the cast album of the show, choosing to go into it fresh (although only to a point — I obviously knew who Alexander Hamilton was, and I had read the Ron Chernow book that Lin-Manuel Miranda used as a basis for his play), so Saturday was my entrance into the congregation. Having been thus baptized, I would now be available for Hamilton sing-alongs and arguments as to which Schuyler sister was the best and so on.
Having now seen Hamilton, here’s what I have to say about it:
One, it is in fact really good. I see why all my friends went nuts for it, and also why it won all the awards it did and propelled Lin-Manuel Miranda into the stratosphere of celebrity. It’s all entirely deserved. I suppose I could quibble here and there if I was feeling contrary — the play is notably episodic, particularly in the second act, and some characters and plot points are jammed in and then dropped out, which suggests the play could have been more tightly edited — but one can always quibble on details and miss out on the overall effect of a work, which in this case is significant. I hugely enjoyed myself, and was thrilled in particular with the second half of the first act. I’d see it again, surely.
Two, I don’t love Hamilton like my friends love Hamilton. This is not the fault of the play, nor a matter of me being contrarian to be contrary, and choosing not to love that which my friends love, simply because it’s already gotten all their love. It’s because of something that I already knew about myself, which is that generally speaking I have a level of emotional remove from a lot of live action musicals, both in theater and in film. I can like them and enjoy them, and certainly admire the craft and skill that goes into making them, but I don’t always engage with them emotionally. A really good live action musical can easily capture my brain, but in my experience they rarely capture my heart.
Why? The short answer is a lot of live action musicals exist in the emotional equivalent of the Uncanny Valley for me — an unsweet spot where the particular artifices of musicals make me aware of their artificiality. The longer answer is I’m perfectly willing to engage in live musicals intellectually — and why wouldn’t I, says the writer of science fiction, a genre with its own slate of artifices — but seem to have trouble with them emotionally. Live humans stepping outside of their lived experience to burst into a song directed to an audience pretty much always makes my suspension of disbelief go “bwuh?”, and then I’m not lost in the story, I’m aware I’m a member of an audience. That sets me at a remove.
Which is, to be clear, entirely on me. This is my quirk, and not an indictment of live action musicals. They clearly work perfectly well for large numbers of people, who do not suffer from my own issues regarding emotional engagement with the form. Nor does it mean I don’t enjoy musicals in general. I do. Not being at 100% with musicals doesn’t mean that the experience is like ashes in my mouth. Getting 90% of the effect of a musical can still be pretty great, and was, in the case of Hamilton. It does mean, however, that the fervor so many of my friends feel about a really great musical is usually not something I feel.
Interestingly, in my experience the way for me to engage emotionally in a musical is to add more artifice to it. For example, I’m a sucker for animated musicals — I think Beauty and the Beast is one of the best musical films of all time, The Nightmare Before Christmas is a brilliant operetta, and Moana, whose songs were written or co-written by Miranda, made me cry where Hamilton didn’t — precisely because the animated format adds another layer of willing suspension of disbelief. I mean, if you’re willing to accept talking candelabras, or skeleton kings or the ocean as a comic foil, it’s not that hard to accept characters breaking out into song, either.
Likewise, I have an easier time with funny musicals — or more accurately, musicals intended to be comedies as well (Hamilton has several funny moments, including the bits with King George, but is not meant to be a comedy). I enjoyed the hell out of The Producers and The Book of Mormon and Spamalot because they were fundamentally ridiculous anyway, so the breaking out into song doesn’t pull me out the way it does with more serious musical work.
Going the other direction — movies with songs in them which yet are not musicals — also works for me too. Strictly Ballroom (the film) feels like a musical and yet isn’t, and I love it insensibly. The concert film Stop Making Sense is a perfect film, from my point of view; watching it is like going to church. And I’m looking forward to Sing Street because everything about it suggests I’ll get the thrill watching it like I got watching The Commitments back in the 90s.
Again, this is about my quirks, not an argument that, say, Hamilton would have been better as Hamilton!, a funny farce where a zany founding father gets into all sorts of hilarious hijinx with his best ol’ frenemy Aaron Burr. It wouldn’t have (although I have no doubt now that someone will try it). It’s merely to the point that for whatever reason, a lot of live action musicals exist in a place I can’t get fully emotionally engaged with it. I find that interesting, and wonder if I’m alone in this.
The real irony? Not only did I perform in musical theater as a kid (and enjoyed it! And would do it again!) I’d kind of like to write a musical one day. Not to say “you people have been doing musicals all wrong, this is how you do it” because, yeah, no, I’m not that asshole. But because I think Redshirts in particular would make a damn fine musical, of the funny sort, and because I know I appreciate and engage with science fiction better, having written science fiction, so who knows? Maybe that trick will work again in another genre and medium. Or (actually “and”), maybe I should just go and see more musicals. That would probably help too.
In the meantime: Hamilton is excellent, as advertised. Go see it when you can. I’m not likely to join the HamilCult, but that shouldn’t dissuade you, should you be of a mind to.
(Also: Angelica Schuyler was the best Schuyler sister. I mean, come on.)
Dear New York: You gave us a delightful weekend, and we loved visiting you, but now I’m afraid we must depart and return to our Ohio environs. Thank you for having us. We’ll be back again, you can be sure.
(Also, for all of you who want a Hamilton review from me, I’ll be posting one probably tomorrow or Tuesday. Tune in then!)