16 Years

Sixteen years ago today I set down at my computer and wrote what would be the very first entry in what I was then calling an online column, which I labeled “Whatever”; and look, here I am today, roughly 10,000 or so entries later, doing the same thing. Time passes; people change; children get older. And yet, here I am, at it still.

And the sixteenth anniversary comes at an interesting time, both for the site and for me. I very recently wrote about how my online center of gravity has shifted; Whatever is my home online, but I spend a lot of time out of the home, and particularly on Twitter. This mirrors me in the real world as well: I’m writing this piece from home, but only because I’m on a small break from a monster book tour that started August 26, when Lock In came out, and will continue through September 20, when I take the last plane I have to take to come home (and even this small break isn’t really a break, since I have an event this very afternoon at 2, at my local bookseller, Jay and Mary’s Book Center). Next month, I’m a week away at New York ComicCon and then Books on the Banks in Cincinnati. And there are reasons to believe that next year will see me away from home even more than I am here in 2014.

These are not bad things — I’m out of the house a lot because my writing career is doing very well, and Twitter is a ton of fun, which is why I’m there a lot — but they are things that affect this site. Add to that the general slow migration away from blogs toward other social media, which is occuring in tandem with the Internet generally changing from something you read during a long sit in front of a computer to a thing you glance at from a phone while you’re on your way to (or wasting time during) some other thing, and what it means is that for the first time in a very long time, I wonder how Whatever fits into the world, and fits into my life.

At the moment, I don’t have any answers to any of that, other than: I guess we will find out. I don’t have plans to stop writing Whatever, that is certain — now as much as ever it’s a release valve for me, and a place where I go to air thoughts that I want to express, on whatever topic I’m thinking about today. And it’s still fun for me, and I think interesting for people who stop by, whether they’re longtime readers or people who funnel in because they’re referred by a link from Twitter/Facebook/Google+/Tumblr/etc. So this isn’t me trying to break the news gently that Whatever is going away. It’s not. I suspect it’ll be here for a long time yet (assuming that I, myself, will be here for a long time yet).

It is me recognizing, however, that as in all things, time moves on, and I move along with it. I’m curious to see what that means for Whatever, and how what’s here will reflect the changes in the online world and in my world. It’s an exciting time in my life, for reasons you know already and for some reasons you don’t — all good things, I’m happy to say, for the moment at least, and I hope that this particular moment lasts. I expect at least some of that excitement will be reflected here; that I will, as I always have, share at least a little of my thoughts at these moments in time. Which is, of course, what Whatever has always been.

So, things change and yet in some ways they will also stay the same. Here’s to another year of Whatever, and to all of you who come by to read it. Thank you. Let’s find out what happens next, shall we.

(Comments are open on this entry — because I’m home for two days! Wheeee!)

Two Tales In Translation

First, the Polish version of my short story “The Tale of the Wicked,” in Polish SF/F magazine Nowa Fantastyka. I’m always tickled when short fiction of mine gets translated into other languages.

Second, the cover of Redshirts in its Italian edition:

Kind of funky looking, I have to say, but I like how Peter Lutjen’s symbol for the Universal Union is getting around out there in the world. And of course I like the fact the book is out in Italian, seeing as I am nominally of Italian descent and all. I hope they like it over there.

And Now, For Reasons, A Personal Ranking of All U2 Albums (Plus One EP)

In order of personal preference:

1. Achtung Baby

2. The Joshua Tree

3. The Unforgettable Fire

4. Wide Awake in America (EP)

5. Zooropa

6. War

7. All That You Can’t Leave Behind

8. Pop

9. Boy

10. Rattle and Hum

11. How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb

12. October

13. Songs of Innocence

14. No Line on the Horizon

I should note that a) the difference between positions one and two is so small as to be almost invisible, b) the only album here I think of being genuinely bad is No Line, c) although I fully note that Rattle and Hum (where the “mediocre” level begins on this list) is the album where U2 was the most egregiously full of itself.

Provide your own thoughts and rankings in the comments.

View From a Hotel Window, 9/11/14: Lexington, KY

That’s a world-class parking lot, right there.

Tonight: I’ll be at Joseph-Beth Booksellers here in lovely Lexington (and it is lovely, in truth) at 7pm. Rumor is there might be ukuleles. I can neither confirm nor deny such rumors.

Tomorrow: I have a day off and I am going home. Hooray! However, Saturday, I will be at Jay and Mary’s Book Center in Troy, Ohio at 2pm. This is my hometown bookstore and the first time I’ll be doing an actual event there, so I am excited. If you are in the Dayton area, some see this lovely little bookstore, and me.

The Old Man’s War Series: Now in Box Form

In the hubbub surrounding the release of Lock In, I forgot to mention the other thing of mine that was also released on the 26th of August: The Old Man’s War Box Set, which contains the first three books of that series, all in one convenient package. Perfect for gifts and/or for people who have not yet jumped into the series.

As an author, I’m pretty tickled to finally have a box set. It’s a bit of a career milestone — a nice little acknowledgement in packaging form that what you’re doing is popular enough that it makes sense to bundle your books into box form. One could do worse.

View From the Hotel Window, 9/10/14: Chicago, IL

Well, not Chicago precisely — somewhere near the airport since my event is in a northern suburb and I will need to be back at the airport relatively early to head toward Lexington. So: Airport hotel! Yay!

Tonight: I’ll be at the Warren-Newport Library in lovely Gurnee, IL, at 7pm, for an event sponsored by Lake Forest bookstore. If you’re reading this, don’t wait! Get on the highway now! There’s still time! And remember: Bring every single person that you have ever met. It’ll be a blast.

Tomorrow: I’ll be returning to Lexington, Kentucky, and to Jospeh-Beth Booksellers, for another event, again at 7pm. The Lexington Jo-Beth is one of my favorite places to do an event, so we should have a ton of fun. Please come by!

View From the Hotel Window, 9/9/14: Iowa City

A smidge overcast here in Iowa City, but it’s still a nice day, and Iowa City a lovely town.

Tonight: I am at the estimable Prairie Lights bookstore, at 7pm. Please bring yourself and everyone you know (and if you’re a professor, give the kids extra credit for showing up). My understanding is that tonight’s event will be recorded for radio and aired at some point in the future, but it’s still always better to catch the live show.

Tomorrow: I will be at the Warren-Newport Library in Gurnee, IL, at an event sponsored by the Lake Forest Bookstore. Also 7pm. Do the library a favor and let them know you’re coming, please.

nnn

The Big Idea: Nancy Kress

Hugo and Nebula Award winner Nancy Kress is thinking big about something small: Your genes. In the real world, they connect you, for better or worse, with every other human on the planet. In Kress’ latest, Yesterday’s Kin, they also connect with something else — something surprising.

NANCY KRESS:

Yesterday’s Kin is, at its heart, about mitochondrial DNA–which means that it is, at its heart, about what it means to be human.

Can you define humanity by its genes? Maybe not all of human behavior or growth or soul, but since 1981, you can define humanity’s past that way, in order to decide who is related to whom and how.

Somewhere in Earth’s deep past (very, very deep, possibly 1.5 billion years ago), an ancient bacteria merged with an ancient single-celled organism that already possessed a nucleus. It was a good marriage. The DNA in the bacteria evolved into mitochondria, little powerhouses that help convert oxygen into energy in every cell of your body. The DNA in the single-celled organism went on doing what DNA does: creating proteins and replicating itself. Everybody was happy.

However, mitochondria had a pre-nup that many Hollywood actors would envy. In the case of a cell split, a mitochondrion get to keep all its DNA and pass it on, unchanged, to the egg that will become the next generation. Sperm gets almost no mitochondria, and what little it does have is shed with its tail. Thus, all your mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) came from your mother, who got it from her mother, all the way back to the common matrilineal ancestor, “African Eve,” approximately 6,000 generations ago. Humans can be grouped into “haplogroups,” clusters of people defined by their differences in mtDNA.

When I discovered all this, I was fascinated. Coupled with a higher mutation rate relative to nuclear DNA, the inheritance of unchanged mtDNA makes it possible to trace ancestry of a person, or groups of people, through the restless migrations that characterize our species. All sorts of anomalies abound: Why does the Korean sequence turn up regularly in Norway? How did that family on the Russian steppes acquire the mtDNA signature of a Polynesian? And what does any of this have to do with science fiction?

A concept is not a story. To turn my enchantment with mitochondrial DNA into something with the possibility of enchanting anyone else, I needed characters, plot, conflict, setting. This stalled the entire project for a year, while I pondered. Pondering is what writers do best, since it has the virtue of feeling productive without the pain of actually confronting a keyboard. Eventually, however, pondering must end and writing begin. For SF, aliens are often a good place to start.

In Yesterday’s Kin, aliens arrive on Earth. They willingly subject themselves to being sampled and probed: tissue, blood, organs, DNA. The results are conclusive: These aliens are human. Their particular migration reached farther, and deeper into the past, than any other—but how? When? And why are they returning now? The answers to these questions formed my plot.

My protagonist was created from twin desires. First, I wanted to portray contemporary biological science as it is actually done: with sophisticated equipment, as part of an international conversation, with career-impacting mistakes and triumphant corrections. Too often, the “science” in SF is of the cloning-in-a-basement-by-a-mad-scientist type, or else gibberish hand-waving (“If we hook up the actofrabble cycle to the Hartford drive, we can create galaxy-spanning life insurance!”). I have enormous respect for science and scientists (all right, I’m a science groupie) and I wanted to show biological discoveries being made under pressure, with the inevitable competition as well as the teamwork, as realistically as I could.

Second, I wanted a female scientist who (1) was not young, (2) did not tote a blaster, and (3) had a family. Humanity comes, of necessity, in families, at least in the beginning of lives, but from much science fiction, you’d never know this. Protagonists whiz around interstellar space unencumbered by so much as memories of anybody back home, much less the aching concern that most parents never lose for even their grown children. Dr. Marianne Jenner, evolutionary biologist, has three grown children, all of whom carry around the marks and scars of their upbringing. Just like (I fervently hope) real people.

Yesterday’s Kin was absorbing to write. During my research, which was extensive because I am not a scientist, I discovered enough material for several books in several genres. The United Kingdom, for instance, has recently approved the insertion of mtDNA from a donor egg into an egg whose own mtDNA carries inherited mitochondrial diseases. The donor mtDNA replaces the defective mtDNA. When the egg is fertilized in vitro, the resulting child will actually carry DNA from three different people. Legal thriller, anyone? Family saga? Star-crossed romance?  (“We can’t marry; you’re my one-third sister.”) However, SF is what I write, and with Yesterday’s Kin, Marianne Jenner’s story is not finished.

Nor are the surprises written in human mtDNA.  Your mitochondria supply you with more than physiological energy.  They can reveal our shared past and the connections that, to a large extent, make us who we are.

—-

Yesterday’s Kin: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

How Lock In Is the #1 (and #20, and #107) Book in the US

If you’ve been following me here and on Twitter this week, then you know I’ve been delighted that Lock In has been doing very well in terms of sales: It hit the New York Times Hardcover Fiction best seller list and a few other lists as well. And in doing so, the list shows that the book is seemingly all over the charts.

For example, Bookscan, whose lists note sales at bookstores (well, some bookstores — the ones that report to Bookscan) reports Lock In as the #1 front list science fiction seller last week. The New York Times reports it as the #20 hardcover fiction book. The USA Today bestseller list, which I got sent to me today, ranked the book at #107 — which seems a far cry from #20 or #1. So what’s going on?

The answer is that all these lists report different things. Bookscan, as noted, reports bookstore point of sales, and the list in this case is confined to science fiction books (or even more specifically, books identified as science fiction), and to “front list” — books that are new to the market. Bookscan gets reports from many but not all bookstores, and focuses on print sales. So many sales won’t get reported — sales from some indie stores, sales of electronic books and audiobook sales are not part of these reported numbers. The discrepancy is sometimes significant.

The New York Times, as I understand it, uses a combination of sales, sampling from specific bookstores and a few particular guidelines for each list it generates to create its rankings. So the Hardcover Fiction list focuses (generally) on new releases in (surprise!) hardcover fiction, not considering electronic or audio sales at all (NYT also has electronic only lists, as well as combined print/electronic lists, plus various fiction and non-fiction lists).

The USA Today list doesn’t make any distinction between fiction and non-fiction or between older and newer books, or between print and ebook (although I think audio is still excluded); it simply puts them into one big pile and tells the ranking of everything that is selling that purports to be a book. On the USA Today list, Lock In competes with everything from 50 Shades of Grey to To Kill a Mockingbird to Minecraft strategy guides.

So each of these lists tracks sales, but does it in a different way, using different metrics and lumping books in different piles. As a result, Lock In is legitimately the #1 book, and the #20 book, and the #107 book, in all of the United States. The #1 NYT hardcover fiction book last week, The Long Way Home, is #5 on the USA Today list. The #5 NYT hardcover fiction book (The Broken Eye by Brent Weeks — congratulations Brent!) is #26 on the USA Today list. And so on.

These variances may lead you to ask which is really the most accurate bestseller list, and the answer is: Well, based on what? Bookscan is based on pure sales — but only sales that Bookscan tracks. NYT chops up sales into categories and adds a few twists to the pure sales number, presumably to give a clearer picture of what’s really moving among newer books. USA Today loads all books into the same pile but also does “analysis” based on sales. Again, each of these lists (and any other list you might name) are working off different numbers, and using different ground rules.

At the end of the day, what the best seller lists do is not exact. What they do, both individually and as a gestalt, is give you some idea of which books are the front of sales and front of mind, from week to week. I’m happy to say that what it means for me, no matter how you slice it, is that Lock In did pretty well for itself in its debut week. And that works for me.

View From the Hotel Window, 9/8/14: San Diego

San Diego! One of my favorite cities on the planet. And it’s a gorgeous day here, too. What more could you ask for.

Today, I’ll be at Mysterious Galaxy bookstore at 7pm. It’s one of my favorite bookstores, and Mysterious Galaxy has always been a huge supporter of me and my works, so I’m always happy to come by and spend time with them. You should come by, too, and, of course, being everyone you’ve ever met.

Tomorrow, I’ll be at Prairie Lights in Iowa City, Iowa, also at 7pm. It’s the first time I’ve been to the bookstore since 2007 and my first book tour, so I’m excited to be back again. Come on by!

The End of a Whatever Era

It looks like this blog is no longer the first term that pops up when you enter the word “Whatever” in Google — it’s been supplanted by a YouTube channel of the same name. Thus ends a decades-long domination by Whatever of the word on the world’s pre-eminent search engine. All glory is passing.

How do I feel about this? I am curiously lacking angst about it. One, it’s still the number two entry for the word, i.e., not at all difficult to find, really. Two, YouTube is a Google property, so I would not be surprised if it lends YouTube channels a little extra search engine juice. If so, that’s fine too. Three, well, you know, a decade is a good run for owning a relatively common word in the English language on a search engine.

In any event, I still have the corner locked on “Scalzi” on Google, which is, strangely enough, the word people search on most when they are looking for me. I suspect I will be fine, Google-wise.

I See This View a Lot These Days

The airport. There are individual variations depending on the airport, mind you. But the gist is the same. It’s interesting to think that this particular assemblage of these particular people will never happen again — that the airport is always different. Heraclitus would probably roll his eyes at me for the observation, but that dude’s dead.

Today’s event: Vroman’s, in Pasadena, CA, at 5pm. This event is the midpoint of my tour. After this, there are more tour events behind than ahead. It’ll be nice to be on the backslope. If you’re in the Los Angeles metropolitan area, please swing by and have some fun with us.

Tomorrow: San Diego and a 7pm event at Mysterious Galaxy. I was just there!

What I Did With My Post-Event Time Last Night

There was a hashtag going around last night on Twitter called #ExplainAFilmPlotBadly. And I thought, hey, I can do that.

Because I suspect some of you might want to guess about the films or otherwise comment, the thread is open for a couple of days.

View From the Hotel Window, 9/5/14: SF, Plus Stuff, Plus Open Thread

The view out my hotel window is not hugely inspiring today, unless I want to do a San Francisco version of Rear Window, but on the other hand I get to stay in this hotel room for three whole days. Which is three whole days on not having to wake up early to catch a plane. Which is awesome. I slept ten hours last night. Which is also heaven. San Francisco is heaven, is what I’m saying, even with this window view.

For those wondering why I didn’t post this picture yesterday, it’s because I was so busy I didn’t actually get into my hotel room until 11pm. My check in earlier in the day was literally dropping off my bag and then hopping back into a car two minutes later to get down to Google, where I had an event. Then a few very nice hours hanging out in Mountain View with my friend Diana, and then the event at Books, Inc, which was lovely could be.

Event tonight: Petaluma, at Copperfield’s, at 7pm. It will be a ton of fun, so if you live north of San Francisco, please come, and bring every single human you know. Tomorrow, I will be at Borderlands Books in San Francisco, one of my favorite bookstores on the planet, for an afternoon event: 3pm.

Other Stuff: One, editorial cartoonist Ted Rall, whom I have known for years and consider a friend, gives me a cameo in his cartoon today. And yes, this is why I do carry at least a little cash on me (for what little good it would do me in the scenario Ted posits). And I do like that he drew me with a little more hair.

Two, this little tidbit, which I will use a tweet to convey:

(For those of you wondering about terms here, “front list” means newly released books. Books that have been out for a while are “back list.” So Lock In is the best selling new science fiction book out there this week. Back list best seller is almost certainly Ender’s Game.)

Three: For those wondering, the tour is going fantastically well, although I am slightly discombobulated. I am on tour time, not real time, which means I have frankly no idea what day it is any more, as I am outside the rythym of the days. I had to confirm with my wife this morning that today was actually, in fact, Friday. It’s a pleasant discombobulation, but it’s also a bit weird. I mean, I’m a writer — it doesn’t usually matter to me which day it is anyway. But now it’s even more so.

Finally: I’m opening the comment thread here for a couple of days to let folks talk about whatever they want. Because why not? Chatting amongst ourselves is fun. So: How are you? Are you on tour time too? Tell me. TELL ME.

Publishing: Not a Zero-Sum Game

A Twitter rant I’m storing here for posterity. There’s in the second tweet it should read “sells more than me” and not “sell me than me.” Also, it should be “a profoundly stupid way,” instead of “a profoundly way.” Errors, man.

View From the Hotel Window, 9/2/14: Denver

I’m back on the road, and here’s what the road looks like today. Not too bad. The hotel room I’m in tonight has a jacuzzi. I feel like I should listen to some smooth jazz or something.

In any event: Denver! Come see me tonight! 7pm at the Tattered Cover Bookstore on Colfax. Here are all the details. Come and (you know this part by now) bring everyone you know. The more the merrier.

Tomorrow: Seattle, at University Bookstore, also at 7pm. Also will be a blast.

The Big Idea: Cherie Priest

You’ve heard the nursery rhyme, but do you know the real story behind Lizze Borden? Does anybody? This is the jumping off point for Cherie Priest and her novel Maplecroft, which follows the infamous Borden after the real-life events that made her notorious. Do you dare follow?

CHERIE PRIEST:

Like countless others in the last hundred years, I first heard the name “Lizzie Borden” via the jump-rope rhyme. Everyone knows it: Lizzie Borden took an axe, and gave her father forty whacks… And so forth. Whether or not she ever killed anyone is still up for grabs; she was acquitted of all charges in 1893, but that’s never stopped anyone from speculating about her parents’ murders – and once you’re canonized on the school playground, your legacy is pretty much set.

So what really happened? God only knows. Either she got away with murder, or she was falsely accused and thrown to the bloodthirsty public by an opportunistic media. Like they still say in journalism, “If it bleeds, it leads.”

There was a lot of blood in the Borden house. But that’s not The Big Idea.
The Borden murders were far more interesting, complex, and peculiar than is commonly remembered. Left out of the nursery rhyme are allegations of poisoning, an illegitimate son in search of an inheritance, and a crime scene treated like a theme park before the bodies were even cold.

And more, of course. Much, much more.

After Lizzie’s trial, she and her older sister inherited the family fortune; but rather than leave the state and start fresh someplace else, they bought a big house on the other side of town. Its name was Maplecroft, and there, they quietly lived out their days.

Except that maybe, they didn’t.

A quick google turns up a number of academic texts on the Borden case, as well as a handful of “true crime”-style popular retellings, but my novel Maplecroft isn’t about the murders. It’s about everything that happened afterward. Sort of.

The truth is, Lizzie never spoke to the press – and very little is concretely known about her life, either before or after the events that made her a household name. Oh, but there was plenty of gossip. Why, you should hear about the shenanigans that went down at Maplecroft: witchcraft! wild parties! lesbianism!

To quote the bard, two out of three ain’t bad.

The grand old house definitely saw its share of wild parties, largely at the behest of a young actress named Nance O’Neil. (Her real name was “Gertrude Lamson,” but you can hardly blame her for picking something else.) And there’s a fair measure of circumstantial evidence to suggest that she and Lizzie had a romantic relationship. There’s also plenty to imply that Lizzie’s sister Emma didn’t like it one bit, and they had a big falling out over it…but what can you do?

In short, the more I learned about Lizzie, the more I felt genuinely sorry for her. If she did kill her father and (step)mother, you have to wonder what drove her to it; and if she was innocent, she surely didn’t deserve the ensuing fallout from the media – or from the court of public opinion. So, having become quite comfortable tweaking history for my own nefarious purposes…I thought I’d make her guilty, but give her a damn good motive.

And that was The Big Idea.

I’d been itching to write a gothic horror piece for a while now, and Lizzie Borden collided with that itch, scratched the hell out of it, and gave me a framework for the story I wanted to tell.

Almost every book these days comes with a disclaimer, something like: “This is a work of fiction, and all historical places or people are used fictitiously…” Well, we should probably stick that on the front of this one, rather than inside the cover – because at its core, Maplecroft is about Lizzie Borden fighting Cthulhu with an axe. Or, if you prefer: It’s a 19th century epistolary love letter to Dracula, by way of Lovecraft.

This is the story of the aftermath – the aftermath of Lizzie’s trial, yes; but it’s also about the aftermath of a supernatural tragedy, and a gentle professor’s terrible transformation. This is about what happens when you pray to something terrible, and it hears you. It comes looking for you. And it finds you.

So after a fashion, Maplecroft is both an epilogue and a warning. It’s fiction, and any real persons are used fictitiously, of course.

But there’s truth to be found in the real life strangeness, all the same.

___ _

Maplecroft: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|IndieBound|Powell’s

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