Some Reasons 2016 Didn’t Entirely Suck, at Least for Me

2016 was, globally speaking, and to put it mildly, not the best of years. I will not be sad to see it go. But it’s worth it to remember that no year is entirely irredeemable. People have been passing around this list of 99 reasons 2016 was a good year, and I think that it’s a useful reminder to people who are feeling beat down by the last 360-some-odd days.

I think it’s also useful to remember in a year like this that there were good things in one’s personal life too, when they were there, and are in danger of being overshadowed by the overall tenor of a year. So, with that in mind, here are some reasons 2016 didn’t entirely suck, at least for me. Again, this is in no particular order, and not a complete list, merely a representative sample.

1. I wrote a novel I really like (that would be The Collapsing Empire) that I can’t wait for people to see.

2. I released my first short story collection ever (Miniatures! Which officially comes out tomorrow! Wheeee!).

3. Redshirts won an award in Israel, so that’s pretty cool.

4. The Dispatcher was the #1 audiobook on Audible for two weeks (two? Maybe three?) and in the top ten for two or three more, and while I’m not supposed to say specifically how many copies were downloaded, I am allowed to say “six figures” is accurate. Plus, it was read by Zachary Quinto, and how awesome is that. And people seemed to like it, which is also a thing that does not suck.

5. Short stories I wrote or co-wrote (“Muse of Fire” and “On the Wall”) appeared in two anthologies, published on the same day (Black Tide Rising and Mash Up), and I was featured in a third book (The Books That Changed My Life). For someone who doesn’t really appear in anthologies, this was kind of a banner year for ’em.

6. Became a Critic at Large for the Los Angeles Times, my hometown newspaper growing up, and in whose pages it was always a dream for me to be featured in.

7. My kid got through high school. Early! And she became an adult, which means Krissy and I got her through childhood all in one piece.

8. Finally went to Hawaii, which a) lived up to the hype, b) helped me get through a substantial portion of my novel writing by being six hours removed from the mainland, c) meant I got to hang out with a bunch of cool folks. A++++, would visit again.

9. Was awarded the 2016 Governor’s Award for Arts in Ohio, which is a pretty big deal here in the state, and was the first science fiction author ever to get that particular award, which makes me feel shiny.

10. I got to watch a whole lot of my friends have amazing years creatively, the highlights of which included NK Jemisin getting a hugely-deserved Hugo award, others land NYT bestsellers, seeing friends’ TV shows succeed, and watching friends’ movies gross more than a billion dollars worldwide to date.

Plus, I remained married to this fabulous person.

So, for all of that, thanks, 2016. You weren’t all bad.

If you’d like to post some good things that happened to/for you in 2016 in the comment thread, I would be happy to see them, and so, I suspect, would others.

Some Things I Plan to Do in 2017, Not Work Related

Do I have personal goals for 2017? I do! Here are a few of them, in no particular order.

1. Get more organized. I’m actually good at getting organized; I’m shit at staying organized. Welcome to my life for the past 47 years. For 2017, however, I have three books due and a lot of other things I want to do, so if I don’t get better at the organizing thing, I’m going to be unhappy. I’m pretty sure I’d rather be organized than unhappy. I mean, if those are the choices available to me, and for 2017 it kind of looks like they are.

2. Better manage my online life. This is a subset of number one, but inasmuch as I can lose hours just crawling Twitter, a fairly important one. I already keep off online media while I write books until I meet a daily quota, which is super-helpful for concentration. This next year will be about finding a better balance of enjoying social media — which I love, especially Twitter, which is where I hang out with friends — and enjoying everything else, since I have a pronounced tendency to fall down the Twitter hole for hours at a time in lieu of other entertainments. Which brings me to the next point:

3. Read more books. 2016 was a year I noticed I read notably fewer books than in other years. I had reasons for this, relating to work and other factors, but regardless of that it’s not something I want to get in the habit of. So I plan to take at least some of the time I’ve been frittering away on social media and turn it back into reading books for enjoyment. And maybe also other forms of entertainment! Rumor is there’s some good TV out there.

4. Family time! I get a lot of this anyway, I should note. But Athena will be going off to college in the second half of the year, and that’s a hell of a thing, isn’t it. So I think it’s fine to make sure I enjoy the time we have left with the family in its current “all under one roof” configuration.

5. By the same token, more face time with friends. This is slightly more of a challenge, in that most of my friends don’t live in my area. But you know what? I want to see them anyway and spend time with them. The good news (for me) is that many of my friends are writers/creative folks/geeks who go to conventions/book fairs/geek-themed cruises which I will also be at, so that helps. And there’s also the book tour, which in many ways is not ideal for quality time (since I have to be a performing monkey most of the time) but which does get me all around the country. Also, I can actually go places without a work element involved to see people too! (You laugh, but I actually do forget this sometimes.) So, yes, this is what I want to do more of.

6. Try to exercise more. Stupid middle age, man.

If there’s an overarching theme to this list of plans, and there is, then it’s this: Balance. I’m not good at it; I want to get better at it, because the alternative is to feel stressed and annoyed. I have a very strong suspicion the rest of the world will give me enough stress and annoyance in 2017; I don’t need to generate more on my own. So these are the goals. Let’s see if I make progress toward them in the next year.

Work Life 2017

Independent of anything else that might go on in the world in 2017, which is likely to be considerable, mind you, I myself will be having rather a busy year. Why? Well, to begin, here are the thing I am writing/have written that will come out in 2017:

1.  The Collapsing Empire, March 21

2. The Dispatcher (print/eBook version), late May

3. Currently untitled non-fiction book, fourth quarter

4. Exiles of Embermark, a video game I’m part of the brain trust for, tentatively scheduled for 2017.

The first two of these are already done and scheduled; the other two are contingent on a number of factors. Be that as it may, right now, they’re all on the schedule for 2017.

Now, here are the things I have to write in 2017:

1. Head On, the sequel to Lock In, scheduled for publication in 2018;

2. The sequel to The Collapsing Empire, with the working (but to be clear very tentative) title The Last Emperox, scheduled for 2019;

3. That currently untitled non-fiction book, for fourth quarter 2017.

4. Additional work on Exiles of Embermark.

In addition to these, I’ll also be writing occasional pieces for the Los Angeles Times as one of its Critics-at-Large, and of course writing here on Whatever as well, although it should always be understood that as a matter of practicality, pay copy comes first.

I’ll also have some appearances! Which include:

1. A substantial book tour, tentatively starting on March 21 (the publication date of The Collapsing Empire) and running through the month of April (with, to be clear, a couple of breaks to see family and pets). More details on places/dates soon;

2. The JoCo Cruise the first week of March;

3. The Los Angeles Times Festival of Books;

4. The Antioch Writer’s Workshop (at which I will be giving the keynote address);

5. BEA/Bookcon.

Note that these are the things currently scheduled; I’ll likely have more things added in during the year and I’ll let people know about them as they pop up (which is to say, as the fabulous PR people at Tor add them in).

I will be attending a few science fiction conventions this year, including, probably, Worldcon 75, but I should note that outside of readings/signings I’ll be mostly be attending as a fan, i.e., hanging out to visit with friends. I have no guest of honor convention gigs this year, in part because I knew I’d have a monster book tour and would otherwise be booked by my PR folks for events, and somewhere in all of this I have to actually write books (and see family, friends and pets, and sleep). I’ll be more engaged in the convention circuit in 2018 and 2019, I suspect.

And on top of everything above, I have a couple of currently secret and/or unannounced projects about which I can’t say anything yet but if they come to fruition should be pretty cool. I’ll let you know about those when I can.

So, yeah, my 2017 will be busy. Which is good! The alternative in my line of work is pretty grim. I am, as they say, blessed with work.

2016 Top Ten Whatever Posts + Social Media Stats

Time for my annual nerdery about the most visited posts here, and the state of my social media presence. Ready? Sure you are, that’s why you’re here! This and cat pictures.

First, here are the top ten posts on Whatever f0r 2016, ranked by visits. Posts with asterisks were originally posted in years other than 2016.

1. The Cinemax Theory of Racism
2. Trump, the GOP, and the Fall
3. Straight White Male: The Lowest Difficulty Setting There Is*
4. Thoughts and Prayers
5. You Never Know Just How You Look Through Other People’s Eyes*
6. Apologies: What, When and How*
7. Clinton and Sanders and the End of the Road
8. My Endorsement for President, 2016: Hillary Clinton
9. Being Poor*
10. 10 Things Teenage Writers Should Know About Writing*

This year’s top posts are half current and half from the archives, which is actually about normal around here — as I’ve noted before, Whatever is fairly unusual in terms of blogs in how many “evergreen” posts the site has. Given previous trends in this area, I wouldn’t be surprised if “The Cinemax Theory of Racism” becomes a similar evergreen; it’s the most visited post on the site since “Straight White Male,” and barring some event, Trump will be president for four years.

If you remove archived posts from the top ten, here are the five other pieces from 2016 that would have made the cut:

It’s fair to say that the top posts of 2016, written in 2016, were about politics and guns. It was that kind of year, alas.

In terms of daily visits to the site proper, Whatever saw a bit of a drop this year, which doesn’t surprise me: I spent several months in a “semi-hiatus,” in which I was posting fewer daily posts than I have in previous years. So as of today, there were 5,164,500 visits to the site for 2016, down from 5.8 million last year. This averages about to about 14,266 visits a day. Nothing to complain about! But still down.

Interestingly, however, the number of unique visitors is up — the highest it’s been since 2013 — and the visits to individual posts are pretty much where they were over the last few years. This suggests to me three things. One, that “event” posts like “The Cinemax Theory of Racism” brought new readers to the site as they linked in from other places (a similar thing happened in 2012 with “Straight White Male”); Two, that post-for-post, visitorship to Whatever has been pretty stable for a while now; Three, if I want to get visit numbers up next year, I should, you know, post more entries on a daily basis.

(Will I? Maybe, maybe not. As it happens I have three books due next year (a topic for a separate post) and will be doing a lot of travel. I’d like to post more; I think in 2017 I’m likely to have plenty to say. But then there my actual paid writing schedule to consider. So: We’ll see.)

As with last year, most people coming to the site came here by three ways: Google, Facebook and Twitter, those three arranged in descending order of importance. This is the Internet as it exists now, folks. The one individually-owned site that sent the most people here (Daring Fireball) sent maybe 1.5% of the traffic Facebook did over the year. Which, actually, is pretty impressive if you think about relative sizes.

Aside from people physically visiting Whatever, people read the site by “following” on WordPress, which serves a copy of entries to a reading queue (basically like an RSS feed). Those aren’t counted as part of the site’s recorded daily visits. As of this second, Whatever has 26,567 followers, up almost 5,000 from last year. So that’s nice. Hello, WordPress followers! Thanks for reading. Added to that, the non-Wordpress areas of Scalzi.com (which include previous non-Wordpress versions of Whatever) racked up 1.16 million visits, a testament to old, old links on the Internet (which is why in point of fact I keep up those previous versions of the site). Update: In the comments, NeilN notes that Feedly also logs 12,000 people following Whatever through that RSS service.

So: In sum, Whatever seems to be doing just fine, and maybe I should post more entries in 2017.

Leaving Whatever, my largest presence online, as it has been for the last couple of years, is on Twitter. As of right this second I have 111,329 followers, up 17.8K from this day last year, and tweeted a frankly ridiculous 19,712 times as of right now (which is still off last year’s pace — man, what was I doing with my life last year?). Those tweets garnered 177.54 million impressions, up substantially from last year, with the following being my most popular tweet of 2016 in terms of impressions, with more than 780,000:

(Pro tip: If you want a tweet to be seen by a lot of people, get retweeted by JK Rowling.)

My public Facebook page is up for the year as well, from 14k likes to 18k, while both Google Plus and Ello have remained basically perfectly still in terms of number of followers, which given their basically dormant state at this point, is entirely not surprising.

So, in sum: Whatever down in visits but up in visitors and followers; Twitter up in followers and individual tweets got more impressions on average; Facebook followers up; everything else, meh.

On to 2017.

RIP Carrie Fisher

People reports she died this morning.

Obviously she will be remembered for Star Wars — she played one of its most iconic characters, who was a general, a senator and a princess. But as much as I liked her in that role, she came most alive for me when I learned that she was a writer, and a good one, and not only a good one, but an extraordinarily witty one, one who was called in to save movie scripts and who could write novels and memoirs with characters and turns of phrase that inspired me at least to want to be that witty too.

Beyond that I admired her openness talking about her struggles with addiction and mental illness. I think she did good work in helping people who shared her struggles in their own life know that they didn’t have to stop you, you just had to know they were part of the landscape. I think she saved lives being open about her own.

So she not only played a role model but was one in her own life, for all sorts of people, including me. I’m glad she was here with us. I’m sad she is gone now. I just know she would have a great parting shot about it.

Update: I wrote a longer piece on Carrie Fisher as a writer, for the Los Angeles Times. Here it is.

Update, 12/28/16: Debbie Reynolds, Carrie Fisher’s mother, has died, one day after her daughter.

Read an Excerpt From The Collapsing Empire

Tor.com has got up the prologue The Collapsing Empire, my upcoming novel. It works as a complete short story in itself. Here is the link to read it. Happy Boxing Day!

P.S.: If you like it and want to pre-order it, Subterranean Press can get you a signed, inscribed copy (signed and inscribed by me, to be clear). Here’s the pre-order link for that.

George Michael + A Trump Christmas Carol

George Michael was dead; to begin. And that’s a very sad thing for those of us of an 80s vintage. 2016 has been an especially bad year for musician deaths, and this removal of George Michael on Christmas Day just seems like insult to injury. I was a fan both of his bubble-gum pop Wham! material and of his somewhat more thoughtful (usually) solo work. I’ll miss him.

Also, last week, as a result of a Twitter conversation that included Laurie Penny, Anne Theriault and me among others, I helped write a Dickens pastiche called “A Trump Christmas Carol” with Penny, Jo Walton and Roz Kaveney. I suspect you can tell by the title who is the subject and which Dickens tale we’re pastiching. Uncanny Magazine was kind enough to publish it, which marks my first appearance in the magazine. It was fun to write, and maybe a little cathartic.

Hope your Christmas was lovely, if you indeed celebrate Christmas. Mine was mostly about eating cookies and watching movies. A fine way to spend the day.

A Seasonal Greeting From Daisy

Daisy ecumenically wishes you a Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, brilliant solstice, joyous Kwanzaa and all the best for the coming year. And so do I!

Whatever Best of 2016

It is a truth universally acknowledged that 2016 was a monumental shit-show of a year, not only for itself — which would be enough! — but also because it’s now clear that it’s merely the beginning of a shit-show epoch, the depths of which have yet to be plumbed, and the best of which one can say is that hopefully incompetence will save us from true horror. But hey! At least I got some good Whatever entries out of it, right? So, uh, yeah, that’s something. Below you’ll find the 20 pieces that I think best represent the year here at Whatever, presented in alphabetical rather than chronological order.

It’s a politics-heavy wrap-up, which is not surprising in an election year, and in this election year in particular; it could have been even more election-heavy but I didn’t want to depress everyone more than they already are. There are other things thrown in there as well for balance, including some happy stuff (really!). No matter how you slice it, however, 2016 was a dark mess, and many of the best Whatever entries this year reflect that.

Despite the overall downer nature of this list, remember there are and continue to be good things in the world, and that you may still find them, and find them in yourself. I hope you have a wonderful Christmas Eve or first night of Hanukkah, or just plain Saturday, whichever the case may be.

New Books and ARCs, 12/23/16

In just before Christmas and the start of Hanukkah, this set of books and ARCs that have come to the Scalzi Compound. Anything you’d like to see under the tree or aside the menorah? Tell me in the comments!

18

Here is a true thing: In the grand scheme of things, I’ve only had three things I wanted to do with my life. The first was to be a writer. The second was to be a good husband. The third was to make sure that any kid I had made it through their childhood without want or fear, and knowing that they were loved. When I was younger, I figured if I could manage those three things, then at the end of my days I could leave this planet with a content heart.

The first of these you know about, presumably, and in general I think I nailed that one. The second of these is a work in progress, but, twenty-one and a half years in, I seem to be doing all right (I just checked with Krissy on this one. She said yes, and was patiently bemused that I asked).

The third thing happened today. Athena is eighteen years old. Legally an adult! And while that number is arbitrary and arguable, as every human is different — there are people I know who I would have considered fully capable adults at fifteen, and people who at fifty I think are not actually grown up — nevertheless it’s a significant milestone. My kid is an adult now. I am literally not the boss of her anymore. And I and Krissy have gotten her there, without want or fear, and with her knowing, with certainty, that she was and is loved.

In one sense it’s obvious why this is important to me. What parent does not want these things for their child? These things are also, to be blunt, not particularly laudable; if you have the means and circumstances (I’ll get back to this in just a bit), you should be doing these things as a matter of course, and even in difficult circumstances you should be striving for them. There are no medals for being a decent parent. It’s a baseline.

But the thing is, I didn’t have a childhood free of want or fear, and while I never doubted I was loved, at certain times and in certain circumstances, everything else was up in the air. Here at the age of 47, I don’t feel the need to put my own parents up against a wall and read them a litany of their failures raising a child, in part because I know more about their lives than I did when I was younger, and in part because after a certain point I think you just have to let it go and realize that somewhere along the way who you are becomes your own responsibility (and fault), not your parents’. Parents are human, they are who they are, and you, in whatever fashion works for you, celebrate, accept, forgive or try to understand them. Or you don’t. It’s up to you.

So my childhood was not always an easy one, and also to the point, my parental role models were uncertain at best. What sort of parent would I be? What would I be able to do for my child? Who would I be to and for my child? How would I parent along with my wife? I’m not going to lie, and again, I’ll be blunt: I was terrified I would just plain fuck it up, in all sorts of ways.

But here we are, on Athena’s eighteenth birthday. She’s a terrific person, and one of my favorite people, not just because she’s my kid, but because of who she is, and who she’s always been. All her life, there are very few people I have wanted to hang around with more, to spend time with, to have conversations with, both inane and sublime. She’s not perfect, which is fine because I’m not perfect and neither are you, but as I have said so many times and am saying again now, there’s no doubt she’s perfect for me. She is, simply, the child I always dreamed I would have, of whom I live in wonder of her existence, amazed that Krissy and I made such a person, helped her grow and placed her on the path she’s making for herself. I love her with such an immensity that I — whose job is to put things into words — stand mute before it. Try as I may, I can’t make you feel all the love and pride and honor I have just to know her, to be part of her life, and to see her be who she is, and become who she will be.

I think you probably get it anyway.

We are fortunate, and Athena is fortunate. She always had two parents, and the same two parents, parents who both worked hard and got lucky in many ways, who during the course of her childhood always managed an upward trajectory, and who were always in love with each other and unafraid to show it to each other, and to her. Not every kid gets all of those things. It’s not to suggest parents are inherently to blame if they don’t. Sometimes not only do divorces happen, but they’re necessary. Sometimes a parent can work hard their whole life and never catch a break. Sometimes a bus goes up on a curb, or cancer happens, or a job goes away forever, or there’s a war, or any one of a million things that makes it hard for parents to give their kids the childhood they wanted to give, and that every child should have. I know it, better than most.

I look back on the last eighteen years and am thankful that during them — during the part of my life where a small growing person was reliant on me and my wife — all the breaks went our way. And while I’m aware that my hard work and the hard work of my wife matters for this, and that luck truly does favor the prepared and those willing to make an effort, I’m also well aware of how much was out of our hands as well. Thank you, universe.

I’m also immensely thankful for Krissy, every step of the way through Athena’s childhood. Krissy and I made a good parenting team because we make a good team, period: We have complementary skill sets and parenting styles, and a willingness to work together. This was something we talked about even before Athena was born — everything from what we’d do when Athena, as all children innocently do, tried to set us against each other to get what she wanted, to what we’d do when she and I fundamentally disagreed on something as parents (the answer, in case you’re curious: I ceded final decision authority to Krissy, on the grounds that she is both the more sensible and cautious of the two of us. Nothing ever got to that point, as it happens; turns out we agree on most things, and the things we don’t have been relatively trivial. Still, good to have a plan).

But more than that, the fact is my wife is just an amazing mother and human. From the earliest days I saw how she was as a parent, and I was inspired to keep pace, for her and for Athena. Did I manage it? Not always, because I’m me, and between the ideal version of John Scalzi, Parent and the actual parent who is John Scalzi, there is a gap. I screwed up, did stupid things and occasionally threw up my hands and retreated into my office to play video games. But with Krissy, and because of Krissy, I kept at it.

Ultimately, neither I or Krissy will be the best arbiter of how we were as parents. Athena is and will be. But I can say that I look at my daughter and I think: We did it. We got this human through childhood and to the door of her adult life, whole and healthy and filled with the possibilities that the world can have for her.

Athena will never not be my daughter. She will never not be my child. I and Krissy will be here for her and with her, for as long as we can and for as far as the world will allow. That’s never in doubt. But here on her eighteenth birthday, it’s her life now. And one part of my life — one of the best parts — is over. The part where I got to have her as my little girl.

It was a gift, and a privilege, and I wouldn’t have missed it for anything in this world. It was a thing I wanted to do with my life. It has made me complete.

Happy birthday, Athena. I love you.

My Writing Brain is Still Apparently Telling Me to Screw Off, So Here’s a Picture of a Cat Looking Heroically Into the Distance Instead

Which I expect will be fine for most of you. Enjoy the rest of your Thursday!

My Problem Right Now

Me: I want to write a long piece on politics today!

Brain: Sorry, man. Not up for it. Too much thinking involved.

Me: But I have important things to say!

Brain: You should have thought about it before you decided to fuel me exclusively on Christmas cookies for three days straight.

Me: What’s wrong with that?

Brain: Dude, carbs and sugar? Exclusively? It’s a miracle I have the attention span to let you put together a sentence, much less paragraphs and think pieces.

Me: What a crock. The cookies have butter. That’s a fat.

Brain: Think about what you’re saying here.

Me: But the world needs me to opine!

Brain: Fine. Six tweets.

Me: What?

Brain: I’ll give you six political tweets today. That’s all I got.

Me: But I’ve already done two political tweets today! Arguably three!

Brain: Better make the next 420 characters count, then.

Me: You’re awful.

Brain: Have another cookie. You’ll feel better.

Me: Mmmmm… Christmas cookies.

Brain: Yeah, that’s what I thought.

New Books and ARCs, 12/20/16

The books keep coming! Here are the latest new books and ARCs to arrive at the Scalzi Compound. Anything jump out at you? Tell me about it in the comments!

 

The Big Idea: Alan Baxter

In today’s installment of “write what you know — and then make something up,” author Alan Baxter describes how two of his loves — fiction and martial arts — combine together in Bound, the first of his Alex Caine series of books.

ALAN BAXTER:

The Big Idea behind Bound is a collision of two big ideas. In previous work, I’d often been commended for writing great fight scenes. This isn’t too much of a surprise given that I’m not only a writer, but also a career martial artist. I’ve been training and teaching for more than 30 years, and competed a lot in my youth. I won a British National Championship title in 1996. But while many of my characters could fight and my books often had combat scenes, I’d never written a protagonist who was first and foremost a martial artist. Not simply a fighter, but someone who embodied the full ideals of wu de, or martial virtue. After all, every long-term martial artist will tell you that combat is the least of our training. Discipline and self-expression, determination and personal development, inner peace and outer calm, these things are greater. So Alex Caine, top-of-his-game MMA contender, was born. He eschews the bright lights and complications of big events like the UFC and has made his name in underground contests around the world, especially in Sydney, Australia, where the story starts. That was the first big idea.

But of course, it’s not enough to have a good character without a story, and that’s where the other big idea, the main one really, came in. I’ve long wanted to write a book that’s essentially a reworking of the big fat fantasy quest, but set in our world in the modern day and paced like a thriller. Alex Caine was the ideal person to use for this story, and Bound started to take shape. That’s where some challenges emerged.

The big fat fantasy quest relies on building a world that the author can shape to fit the ideas they want to use. They create a magic system, societies, the “thing” the hero is chasing or saving, the type of bad guys the hero has to fight or avoid, and so on. The way I wanted to do it, using a modern contemporary setting, meant I had to have to all that, but I also had the constraints of structuring my mythology to fit the existing world. Obviously, I’m not the first to have done this – it’s not even the first book of my own where I’ve done it – but the pace and ideas I wanted to use this time meant I needed to make a lot of disparate stuff fit together. That’s also the beauty of fiction. That creation is what drives me. I’m a shameless genre-masher too – I like to have elements of crime, mystery, noir, horror and other stuff wrapped up in my supernatural urban fantasy, and I wanted it to have thriller pacing. That page-turning quality is something I love to read, so it’s also how I like to write.

All those things seemed contradictory at first, but on starting the book, having to build a mythical world within our known world, actually helped to guide the process and shape the story. (I realized there was a lot more to the history I was building than I could tell in one book, which is why the Alex Caine Series is a trilogy, though each book is a standalone thriller.) I let our world guide me. Researching places to set the story helped me to create it. Taking the characters to remote islands off Canada to battle creatures corrupted by bad magic, or to the underworld of Rome to fight shapeshifting monsters, gave me unique perspectives to set my mythology against, and new secondary characters took shape as much from our world in which they exist as they did from the other world I constructed for them. In hindsight, that’s obviously no surprise, but it was a fascinating process in the writing.

This naturally coupled with the way the main character’s training transferred to this secondary world. Alex Caine is a skilled fighter but has no idea there’s latent magical energy in him, until someone points it out at the start of Bound. Alex wants nothing to do with this weird world underlying everything he knows, but the more he tries to escape it, the deeper he’s drawn in. So he falls back on his training and his martial philosophy. Through the book, Alex uses the physical, mental, and philosophical skills of his martial life against ever more dangerous and mystical beasts and situations. The voice of his teacher echoes in his mind, guiding him along. So I got to write a book that explores what it is to be a modern martial artist, against a backdrop of monsters, magic, and mayhem, all in a big fat fantasy quest contained in a 350-page modern thriller.

I love this job.

—-

Bound: Amazon|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt (pdf link). Visit the author’s blog. Follow him on Twitter.

Golden Hour, 12/19/16

That’s ice on the lawn and trees, sparkling in the sun. Cold. But pretty.

(The larger version is even prettier.)

Rogue One, or, the Disneyfication of Star Wars is Complete (and This is a Good Thing)

(NOTE: This review of Rogue One is spoiler-free but I will be allowing the conversation in the comment thread to contain spoilers, so if you haven’t seen the film yet, you might want to skip the comments for now.)

As I walked out of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story last night, the male half of a couple behind me turned to his partner and said “Disney, not fucking it up again.”

This tells you a few things:

One, that even in the wilds of Piqua, Ohio, people are aware that Star Wars is a Disney property now. Perhaps this is not as inside pool as it might have been, given how much and how enthusiastically Disney has been plastering Star Wars all over its branding and theme parks, but it’s still notable that it was basically the first thing to come out of the mouth of some midwestern dude and not, say, a wannabe screenwriter in Burbank;

Two, that there is an awareness that at least on the movie front, the Star Wars brand was in deep trouble after the prequel trilogy and needed substantial revitalization;

Three, there’s an awareness that Disney did in fact manage that revitalization, not just once, but twice now — and thus “Disney, not fucking it up again” (emphasis mine).

And this random dude in Piqua, Ohio was absolutely correct: Disney yet again did not fuck up Star Wars. In fact, for two films running the folks at Disney have produced two really top-notch Star Wars films, a feat that has not been managed in thirty-five years — or possibly ever, depending on whether you believe the original Star Wars, as epochal as it undeniably was, is actually good, which given its pastiche-heavy, merely-serviceable plot and script, and leaden acting and direction, is debatable. The Disneyfication of the Star Wars universe is now complete, and this is a good thing. As I’ve noted before, Disney, for all its sins, consistently drives to entertain, and drives to entertain intelligently, meaning that it doesn’t see its audience as a mark but as a partner. Disney gives us thrills and fun, and we give them money, and wait for the cycle to repeat, as it does, consistently.

Yes, fine, Scalzi, but how is the film itself? Well, Rogue One is different from the other Star Wars films, consistently darker and more adult than any since Empire and really the first where I, at least, didn’t feel like the potential additions to the merchandising lines were a key driver of story (hello, BB-8, adorable as you are). This might seem ironic, given that this is Disney, and that Disney is unashamed of maximizing ancillary profit centers. But two things here. One, it’s not like there aren’t tons of toys coming out of this anyway (the film’s time setting also allows a canny refreshing of lots of old school Star Wars merchandise, including everything Darth Vader and Death Star), and two, Disney’s playing a longer game here. This is the first Star Wars film off the main “Skywalker” thread, and Disney wants to establish a slightly different tone and feel. After 40 years of Star Wars, it’s okay to recognize that grown-ups are part of the Star Wars audience and they might want to have a film catering to them first, or at least nodding in their direction.

As it happens, the way I would explain Rogue One is to compare it to another series of Disney films, from another franchise engine that the corporation absorbed: Rogue One feels a bit like a Captain America movie. The Captain America films (specifically the last two, The Winter Soldier and Civil War) are part of the Marvel universe, which is bright and shiny and quippy and has people in ridiculous costumes doing fundamentally goofy things with superpowers, and within that setting the Captain America films also manage to address actual, relevant issues like whether or not there should be limits to power, and whether countries are owed allegiance if they abandon their principles. And (thanks in large part to the Russo brothers) they’re paced like superior political thrillers. Now, we can talk about what it means that here in the second decade of the 21st century that in order to get a successful political thriller in the film format we have to stuff it into a story about supermen in spandex, but let’s do that later. For now, my point is: Within the pretty, colorful and essentially adolescent universe of Marvel, here’s a branch playing a little more grown up.

Likewise, Rogue One. It’s not about young people growing up, like essentially all the Skywalker films are, with Luke and Anakin and Padme and Rey and Finn all either coming into their own power or falling out of it. All the primary characters in Rogue One are all already grown up and morally compromised in one way or another. The rebellion is not the simple and clean moral engine for good it was portrayed as before; there’s lots of gray around its edges and in its practices, and its sole moral advantage is that the Empire truly is just plain fascistic evil.

Also, interestingly and I think importantly, this is the first Star Wars film where the Force does not play a key role in the action — until Vader shows up and starts Force-choking people because he’s an asshole, it’s mostly there as historical background; when people say “May the Force be with you” here, 95% of the time it’s like saying “good luck” (There are two other characters with some history of the Force, and one of them at least may benefit from it directly — or he may just have really excellent senses other than sight. It’s ambiguous). It’s the first Star Wars film, basically, that really is more science fiction than space fantasy, and that’s interesting in of itself.

Rather than the characters growing up, these characters are more engaged in questions of redemption — that is to say, whether the choices that they’ve made in the service to the rebellion (or the choices they made to avoid it) mean something or can be made to mean something. There would be spoilers to answer those questions here so I won’t, but I can say that another reason Rogue One works is that by and large it follows those questions to their logical ends, not the ones that might make the characters (or us) happiest.

It’s still a Star Wars film, mind you (which is not a bad thing): There are lots of aliens and lasers and explosions and X-Wings and droids and silly bits of pseudo-science that it’s best not to think about too long. There’s also a great deal of fan service, from blue milk to cameos by characters who in the Star Wars universe are long gone, and in at least a couple of cases, from actors long dead (the latter of these, actually, represents my only real technical criticism of the film — the film CGIs up a character from the original film which falls dead square into the shadows of the uncanny valley. Sorry, ILM, you still haven’t nailed skin lighting and textures perfectly). It also — finally and logically, but again don’t look too closely — addresses a womp rat-sized plot hole in the Star Wars universe I was glad to have dealt with. I don’t think this is the best film to introduce a kid to Star Wars with — the PG-13 rating is well advised — but you’ll get your Star Wars out of this Star Wars film, with all the many positive and few negatives that come with that territory.

The script (Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy from a story by John Knoll and my Twitter pal Gary Whitta) is good and mostly efficient; it’s not funny and light in the way the script in The Force Awakens was (most of the funny lines go to the droid K-2SO, performed by Alan Tudyk, who plays him as a spiritual cousin to Marvin the Robot), but then this is not a light and funny story, so that’s fine. The actors are excellent playing compromised people in an imperfect galaxy, and Gareth Edwards’ direction — largely dispassionate and at a bit of a remove — works generally very well (although not perfectly in some emotionally intimate moments). I had recently assumed that once John Williams was done scoring Star Wars films that Michael Giacchino would take his place, so him doing the music here is not a surprise and is largely credible, if not hugely memorable (I would emphasize yet here; to be fair he’s stepping into huge musical shoes here (and thankfully Williams is not yet done with the scoring of the mainline films)). With the exception of that one CGI blip noted above, everything visually looks fantastic and lived in: This is a galaxy that is not neat and clean and utopically shiny.

Rogue One is the smartest Star Wars film, I would say — not only in itself, but in how it functions within the Star Wars universe, and (to come back around to the top paragraphs) in how Disney is administering the Star Wars universe for its fans. After The Force Awakens, it was still possible to say that film, machine-tooled as it was to hit the Star Wars geeks soft spots, might have been a fluke, a one-off bright spot with everything firing on all cylinders because everyone wanted it to work. Rogue One, different in tone and execution but still undeniably a Star Wars film, shows it’s not a fluke. Disney is on its game when it comes to Star Wars. They didn’t fuck it up, twice in a row now. It’s reasonable at this point to work on the theory they’ll continue to not fuck it up. Rogue One earns them that credit, and trust.

New Books and ARCs, 12/16/16

An economy-sized collection of new books and ARCs for your delight this Friday, with many fine authors and books. What calls to you here? Tell us in the comments!

The Big Idea: Monica Valentinelli

When Monica Valentinelli become annoyed with cliches in science fiction and fantasy, she didn’t get mad — she got creative. She’s here to explain how that lead to Upside Down: Inverted Tropes in Storytelling, the new anthology she’s co-edited.

MONICA VALENTINELLI:

I wish I could claim that I was brilliant enough to concoct the idea for Upside Down: Inverted Tropes in Storytelling with no inspiration or prompting whatsoever, but sadly that was not the case. In fact, the idea didn’t originate from my head at all, but my heart. After reading a flame war about how sloppy tropes and damaging clichés didn’t need to be changed, that Chainmaille Bikinis were just fine the way they were and it didn’t matter if the Black Man Died First, I became increasingly frustrated. Wait a minute, I told myself after a heavy sigh. Surely, these readers wanted stories that were achingly honest and reflective of the people and our world around us? Surely, they didn’t want to read yet another plot detailing how Scientists Cause the Apocalypse or the magic of Talking Animals? Or the Catholic Exorcism? Or the Villain Had a Crappy Childhood?

Surely? Maybe? Hopefully?

My frustration quickly devolved into angst in mere minutes the more I read, because I believe that tackling tropes in the context of a story is neither unusual nor politically-motivated. Many, many authors have utilized tropes in their stories either on a conscious or unconscious level to varying degrees in order to comment on them and manage audience expectations. Thankfully, as soon as I turned off Twitter my angst was quickly replaced with inspiration. It wasn’t enough for me to roll my eyes, I wanted to zero in on tropes in my own work in order to satisfy my creative itch. Initially, I had planned to write a collection specifically geared toward flipping tropes and clichés omnipresent in science fiction, fantasy, and horror. Not five minutes later, however, I realized how incomplete and misguided my efforts would be.

To do a proper job for the reader, I thought to myself, this wasn’t the sort of project that I alone should write. I recognized that if I were to approach the subject of tropes and clichés, I couldn’t ignore omnipresent and oft-repeated stereotypes about race, gender, sexual identity, etc. in addition to long-standing genre tropes. Excluding those tropes wasn’t an option for me. What’s more, I felt that my perspective would be so one-sided, the reader’s satisfaction would suffer as a result of my paltry attempt to satisfy my own ego. My big idea was bigger than me, and to pull it off I needed help.

After I came to this realization, I decided that my original idea would be best explored in an anthology filled with multiple authors. So, I asked Jaym Gates, who had worked with Jason Sizemore from Apex Publishing in the past, to be my co-editor. We pitched the collection to Jason, and it was approved contigent upon a successful Kickstarter. Then, we invited a core group of authors and asked them to write a story that flipped a trope they felt strongly about. Following an open call for submissions, we launched a Kickstarter in February 2016 and were able to buy more stories, bump the author’s rate per word, and incorporate more essays. As a result, we’ve produced a 400+ page, co-edited anthology filled with trope-smashing stories and essays penned by over two dozen writers.

Now that you’ve read how I got the idea for Upside Down: Inverted Tropes in Storytelling, you might be wondering if I feel I made the right choice. Was I correct in involving other authors? Or, should I have stuck to my original plan? Hands down, I absolutely feel I made the right decision. As a writer myself, I recognize that not all ideas I concoct are good or even great ones. Sometimes, though, good ideas evolve into something better when they involve multiple authors. Not only was this true for Upside Down, I am a different, kinder person after editing this project. I am very grateful I had the chance to work with such talented writers as Kat Richardson, Nisi Shawl, Maurice Broaddus, Anton Strout, Alyssa Wong, John Hornor Jacobs, A.C. Wise, Keffy Kehrli, and many others, because I learned so much. Together, our authors deftly accomplished a stellar commentary on tropes that, arguably, no one writer could do on their own. For, not only did every author choose a different trope, they tackled and subverted them in unique ways, too, through their art of storytelling and examination.

So there you have it. What started out as a feeling of angst, turned into a two-year successful project involving a few dozen people. The end result is a trope-smashing collection that — if we did our job right — will not only be satisfying for you to read, but thought-provoking as well.

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Upside Down: Inverted Tropes in Storytelling: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read “Super Duper Fly” from the anthology, by Maurice Broaddus. Visit the co-editor’s site. Follow her on Twitter.

Athena, on the Occasion of (Probably) Her Last Day as a High School Student

Why is this girl smiling? Because today is probably Athena’s last day as a high school student. As you may remember, this year Athena has been attending the local community college rather than the local school, because Athena basically had only one more class she needed to complete her high school requirements, and it was easier to schedule it at the college than at the school. Today is the last day of the semester at the college, and with it, the completion of her high school requirements. Athena’s petitioned to be allowed to graduate early, and historically such petitions have been granted (we’ll know for certain next week). If it is, well, then, this is it. The end of Athena’s high school days. You can see she’s pretty pleased by this turn of events.

This also completes, I suspect, my annual tradition of “last day of school” pictures for Athena; after this she’ll be off at college, and I won’t be around for her final day at the end of each year. This is where one can get maudlin and start singing “Sunrise, Sunset” or something along that line, but I’ll go ahead and postpone that for now. We have other big commemorations coming up soon, and I want to save my thoughts until then.

Nevertheless, a big day, and I’m proud of my daughter. But then, there’s not a day that I’m not.