Reader Request Week 2015: Get Your Requests In!

Next week is just about the only week in the next couple of months where I am not traveling, or on a deadline — so that makes it a perfect time to do my annual Reader Request Week!

And just what is Reader Request Week? Why it is what it says: Once a year, I let you, the readers of Whatever, offer up the topics I will write about for an entire week. Always wanted me to answer a question? Frustrated that I never write about what you want me to write about? Wish I would write more about a specific topic you can never get enough of? Now’s your chance! Submit your request, I’ll go through and select topics, and I will start writing them up, beginning May 11.

And what topics should you request? Anything you want. Politics, sex, religion, cats, entertainment, favorite talcum powders, advice for living, technology — honestly, whatever topic it is, if you wanted my opinion on it, this is where to ask.

With that said, some suggestions:

1. Choose quality, not quantity. Don’t unload a whole bunch topics that are really generic or overbroad, because those won’t interest me and I won’t write about them. One really excellent topic is more likely to catch my eye. As an example, don’t ask me “could you write about cats?” because that’s too general and kind of boring. Asking something like “You have cats — how do their personalities differ and what does that mean for how you relate to them?”, on the other hand, would pique my interest. I think you can see what I’m getting at here.

2. Questions on writing will not be a priority for selection. Because, dudes, I write about writing all the time. I’m not saying you can’t ask questions about writing, or that I won’t answer some, I’m just saying that I’ll be looking for topics that aren’t about writing first, and the ones I do answer (in a nod to point one above) will be stuff that’s specific and interesting. I note this every year, and yet every year about half of the questions are about writing. Be different this year!

3. Don’t request a topic I’ve answered recently. To help you eliminate these topics, you’ll find the last five years of Reader Request Week topics below. If you see your intended topic there, it’s very unlikely I will answer it again this year (and by “very unlikely” I mean “I won’t”).

How do you submit requests? The simplest way to do it (and the way I prefer, incidentally) is to put them in the comment thread attached to this entry. But if you have a reason not to want to have your request out in public, the other option is to send me e-mail (put “Reader Request Week” in the subject head so I don’t have to hunt for it). Please don’t send requests via Twitter/Facebook/Google+, since I don’t always see those. I credit those whose topics I write on, but feel free to use a pseudonym if you’re asking something you’d prefer not to have attached to your real name.

Reader Request Week is one of my favorite weeks of the year, and I’m looking forward to what you want to have me write about this year. Make me dance like a monkey, people! Get your requests in now!

Here are the Reader Request Week topics for the last five years (click through to see the full articles):

From 2010:

Reader Request #1: Christianity and Me
Reader Request #2: Rewriting the Constitution
Reader Request #3: How I Think
Reader Request #4: Quitting Writing
Reader Request #5: Rural Ohio, Revisited
Reader Request #6: Depression
Reader Request #7: Writery Bits
Reader Request #8: Short Bits

From 2011:

Reader Request #1: Children and Faith
Reader Request #2: The End of Whatever

Reader Request #3: Middle Ages Me

Reader Request #4: Old Man’s War and the Best SF/F Novel of the Decade

Reader Request #5: Taking Compliments

Reader Request #6: Sociopathic Corporations

Reader Request #7: Unruly Fans

Reader Request #8: Short Bits ’11

Reader Request #9: Writery Bits ’11

From 2012:

Reader Request Week 2012 #1: Snark and Insult
Reader Request Week 2012 #2: Would I Lie to You?
Reader Request Week 2012 #3: Why I’m Glad I’m Male
Reader Request Week 2012 #4: Future Doorknobs or Lack Thereof
Reader Request Week 2012 #5: Them Crazies What Live in the Woods
Reader Request Week 2012 #6: The Cool Kids Hanging Out
Reader Request Week 2012 #7: My Complete Lack of Shame
Reader Request Week 2012 #8: Short Bits
Reader Request Week 2012 #9: Writery Short Bits

From 2013:

Reader Request Week 2013 #1: Further Thoughts on Fame and Success
Reader Request Week 2013 #2: Regrets
Reader Request Week 2013 #3: Guilty Pleasures
Reader Request Week 2013 #4: College Education (And Costs Therein)
Reader Request Week 2013 #5: How to Be a Good Fan
Reader Request Week 2013 #6: Intuition
Reader Request Week 2013 #7: Books and My Kid
Reader Request Week 2013 #8: Whatever Topics and Comments
Reader Request Week 2013 #9: Women and Geekdom
Reader Request Week 2013 #10: Short Bits

From 2014:

Reader Request Week 2014 #1: Travel and Me
Reader Request Week 2014 #2: Writerly Self-Doubt, Out Loud
Reader Request Week 2014 #3: How I Stay Happy
Reader Request Week 2014 #4: How I See You, Dear Reader
Reader Request Week 2014 #5: Hitting the Lottery
Reader Request Week 2014 #6: Enjoying Problematic Things
Reader Request Week 2014 #7: Editorial Independence
Reader Request Week 2014 #8: What Writing Lurks In the Shadows?
Reader Request Week 2014 #9: Short Writery Bits
Reader Request Week 2014 #10: Short Bits

So: What do you want to know now? 

The Big Idea: Joanne M. Harris

Things change, but people often stay the same. This may or may not be a good thing for the gods who meddle in the affairs of mortals. But, as Joanne M. Harris explains regarding her novel The Gospel of Loki, it can present an opportunity… for a god of, shall we say, flexible morality.

JOANNE M. HARRIS:

Ever since mankind began to look to the heavens and speculate on how and why we came to be, there have been creation myths and stories of an apocalypse. Almost all myths and religions share this vision of an ephemeral world at the mercy of powerful gods wielding the might of the elements, and of a day of judgement, when the gods and their enemies will finally meet in battle.

Of course, a myth is just a religion that has fallen into disrepute. A god who loses his followers can no longer be a god, and his fate is usually to be relegated to the mythology shelves as other beliefs take over. Such has been the fate of the Norse gods, once revered across Northern Europe and Scandinavia. Their influence, however, remains. For centuries, artists, writers and composers from Wagner, Tolkien and Tennyson to Marvel Comics have taken inspiration from these tales of conflict, companionship and adventure.

Why? In terms of content, Norse myth is frustratingly limited. The oral tradition has been lost. What has been saved is fragmentary, filled with inconsistencies. Worse, the Christian scholars to whom we owe their survival have added their own impressions; some scornful, some sympathetic, designed to help interpret something they themselves did not fully understand. Even so, the myths remain unusually fresh and immediate. Perhaps because of the characters; accessible, even today, with all their very human flaws, ambitions, fears and relationships.

There’s Odin, the one-eyed leader; solitary, mysterious, isolated from the rest by virtue of his occult knowledge and the burdens of leadership. There’s his son, Thor; strong, loyal, brave (though maybe not too bright). There’s Bragi, the god of music and song, and his gentle wife, Idun, the healer. There’s Heimdall, the watchman; eagle-eyed, suspicious. There’s Týr, the one-armed god of war, and Frey, god of battle and the harvest, with his sister Freyja, the goddess of desires both sacred and profane. A gallery of gods and goddesses, some better-known than others, but all with their distinct personalities and attributes; their personal feuds; their secrets. All living together in Asgard, the sky citadel, which joins onto the world of Men by a bridge in the form of a rainbow.

This living in such close proximity makes for frequent clashes between the gods. Power-struggles between factions; conflicts between fathers and sons; flaring sexual chemistries. And to cap it all, there’s a traitor on board; Loki, the trickster in the camp, an alien brought into Asgard for mysterious reasons of his own by Odin, who is willing to tolerate his disruptive nature for the sake of his wicked intelligence. The result is pure drama; some comic, some cruel, all wildly entertaining.

It’s a story of tremendous richness, some parts of it recounted in prose, some in verses of bleak and powerful beauty. One of the most famous of these is Völuspá, the Prophecy of the Seeress, which tells the story of the world, from creation onwards, including the rise of the gods of Asgard and predicting their eventual doom – at Ragnarók, the cataclysmic battle in which the gods will face their enemies and lose, and the world will be plunged into darkness and perpetual winter.

And this is where my story begins – after the end of the world. Because although every culture has its own apocalypse myth, the world has always somehow survived, even when the culture has died. As a student of mythology, folklore and religion, I tend to see these stories of creation and apocalypse as part of an expanding tapestry, woven by human beings across the centuries as a means of understanding the universe. Our stories, like our civilizations, come in cycles of expansion and decline, like the seasons of the year, ending in the promise of rebirth and new beginnings. And looking at our history, with its dark ages, its terrible wars, its fallen kings, forgotten gods and ruined empires, it’s easy to see, with hindsight, that what may have once seemed like the end of the world was only the end of another cycle.

This is perhaps the central idea in The Gospel of Loki. Ragnarók has come and gone, if not quite as literally as the Seeress predicted. Odin and his entourage have been deposed in favour of new gods, new religions. And yet human nature has not changed as much. We still have the same fundamental concerns. We look to the skies with anxiety. We’re not afraid of demon wolves swallowing the sun and moon, but we are conscious of pollution, and smog, and of the hole in the ozone layer. The monsters we see destroying the world are not frost-giants, but giant corporations.

And in this changing world, Loki, of all the gods, has adapted to suit the changing times, and survives to tell his own story, in his own words, from the beginning of the Worlds to Ragnarók. That he should have survived his own death is perhaps not so surprising: after all, he is a very modern antihero. His sense of alienation; his revolt against authority; his refusal to conform; his choice of intelligence over brute force; his gender fluidity (he changes sexes several times, and on one occasion, even gives birth); his almost existential sense of humour – all these things make him, if anything, easier to understand for the modern reader than in the twelfth century.

Loki is always asking questions. Who am I? What am I? Why am I here? What happens if I break the rules? Why does it matter, anyway? In a world striving towards order, Loki was chaos incarnate. Now, in a world growing increasingly chaotic, Loki’s influence, too, has grown. He is no longer the voice of the lonely outsider, but the spokesman of the human condition.

That’s why I chose to give him such a modern idiom – not the language of epic poetry, but that of adolescent protest – and this is why his story remains so relevant to our modern world, not because it’s exactly true (Loki is, after all, the Father of Lies), but because the stories we tell say more about us than we know.

—-

The Gospel of Loki: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

What I’m Doing at BEA (and Also, in North Carolina) (And Also, Berkeley!)

I just came back from New York City, which was lovely to visit, and I will be back at the end of the month to do two events at Book Expo America. One of them will be open to the general public; the other will be at BEA proper. The one open to the general public involves current Nebula, Locus and Hugo Award nominee Cixun Liu? Curious? You should be!

Here’s what I’m doing:

Cixin Liu in Conversation with John Scalzi, Wednesday, May 27, 6-8:30 p.m., The China Institute (125 E. 65th St): Reception and book signing to follow. $10 members, $15 non-members, $5 reception only.

Basically, I will be interviewing Liu about science fiction in China, the challenges of writing science fiction in today’s world, and thoughts about science fiction crossing borders and languages. It’ll be a very cool chat, I expect.

Tor Books: The Next Generation, Thursday, May 28 10:45-11:15 a.m., Uptown Stage

Tor Books has published quality science fiction and fantasy for thirty-five years by some of the biggest names in genre today! But the Orson Scott Cards and Brandon Sandersons were once new authors themselves. Meet this year’s crop of debut authors and see what makes them tick in a rousing game of “Would You Rather: The SFF Edition” with host, John Scalzi (The End of All Things) and featuring: Ilana C. Myer (Last Song Before Night), Seth Dickinson (The Traitor Baru Cormorant), Lawrence M. Schoen (Barsk: The Elephant’s Graveyard), and Fran Wilde (Updraft).

Nifty. And right after I’m done with my Thursday panel, I hop onto a plane to Charlotte, North Carolina, where I am Author Guest of Honor for ConCarolinas. Other guests of honor include MST3K’s Joel Hodgson, Nebula Award-winner Catherine Asaro and artists Matt Busch and Lin Zy, plus there will be lots of other awesome guests. If you’re in the vicinity — or even if you’re not — this should be a convention worth attending. Come on down.

Also: New addition to my appearances: I’ll be in Berekely on June 6th for the inaugural Bay Area Book Festival. I’ll be doing a reading/Q&A and a panel on the future and climate change, with Paolo Bacigalupi (The Water Knife), Edan Lepucki (California) and Antti Tuomainen (The Healer). The festival is free, although you may need to RSVP for specific events. Check the site for details.

Also also: We’re in the very beginning stages of scheduling the book tour for End of All Things. More details on that when we figure things out.

And that’s me and my (public) travels for the next month.

The Big Idea: Judith Tarr

The revolution in publishing that’s happened in the last few years has shaken up things, in ways that are sometimes good, and sometimes bad. But as Judith Tarr tells it, in a very significant way the shake allowed her to tell, in Forgotten Suns, a tale she’s always wanted to tell — how she wanted to tell it.

JUDITH TARR:

Some writers start their worldbuilding early. Whatever the inspiration—gaming, fairy tales, Tolkien, favorite authors and worlds, their own imagination—they begin as kids or teens or young adults, and the structures of their personal universe build and build until at some point they burst out in publishable form.

We can go all the way back to the Brontë siblings’ Gondal, and all the way forward to the likes of Joy Chant and Sherwood Smith. Tolkien not only inspired generations of fantasy works and worlds; he created his own over a long lifetime and in obsessive detail.

I first started building a world a year or two before I discovered Tolkien. I’d been reading science fiction for years: all the Golden Agers, James Schmitz, Alan E. Nourse, Asimov-Clarke-Heinlein of course, basically every volume on the science-fiction shelves at my small-town public library (a couple of towns over from Stephen King, who seems to have been doing the same thing). Andre Norton’s Moon of Three Rings enthralled me. Magic and spaceships in the same book, and humans turning into animals and then back again, and alien cultures and alien life forms and that whole sensawunda thing—I couldn’t get enough of it.

So here I was, larval writer, chewing my way through anything and everything that tasted even remotely good, and spinning it out in teeny-tiny handwritten scribbles on purloined notebook paper, narrow rule, two lines per ruled line and four or five at the top (ah, young eyes!). It wasn’t Tolkienian at all; it was Nortonesque and space-opera-esque. It had a starfaring empire and wandering singers and byzantine (for a tweenaged kid) politics and family drama on a grand, indeed operatic scale. There was a whole army of nondead kings; I didn’t know anything about the Chinese terracotta warriors, but if I had, I would have fist-bumped old Qin Shi Huang. He got it right. Except mine were alive (eventually) and had a terrible lot to say.

Then because I could, I genderflipped the protagonist, to see what would happen. This was like 1967; nobody even knew what genderflipping was. I changed all the “he” to “she,” stood back and said, “Whoa.” And it was weird, in the very gendered, very sexist Sixties, but I liked it.

There weren’t any white people, either. One of the characters was an albino (with the vision problems that go with it), but everybody else came in colors, the darker the better. Except one of the main characters had red hair, because Drama. But otherwise he looked, basically, Tibetan.

When I finally decided to come out as a writer, I shopped this thing around. It was epic, some 987 space-and-half typed pages in 10-point Courier, painstakingly transcribed on my high-school-graduation Smith-Corona. Editors passed, of course, but Lester del Rey wrote back, three whole pages, explaining what I’d done right, but also why he wasn’t going to buy it. I’d managed to straddle the line between fantasy and science fiction, and that, he said, wouldn’t fly in the marketplace. Too much fantasy for the science-fiction readers, but too much science fiction to sell as fantasy.

After a round of editorial no-thankses I tried the agent route, and the agent who took me on said much the same—then glommed on to a little thing was I playing with for amusement, about a monk who couldn’t age or die, and King Richard the Lionheart. And that was both fully categorizable and not quite like anything else out there (though R.A. McAvoy was shopping her medieval fantasy at the same time, and Katherine Kurtz had risen to stardom with her Deryni books); so I was encouraged to pursue that, and my “first” novel was historical fantasy instead of unclassifiable space adventure.

But I still loved that world and wanted to keep writing in it. So I thought, hey, there are millennia of history in this universe. Why not go back to the Bronze Age and write the origin story, base it on my favorite ancient epic hero, Alexander the Great (Mary Renault: another of my heart-and-soul authors)—and sell it as epic fantasy. Which I did, and my agent did, and nobody was the wiser.

But I’d always worldbuilt with a science-fictional slant; my “elves” owed far more to the X-Men than to Tolkien. If I was playing with ancient history, I was also, in my head, plotting all the way into space and beyond. The market wouldn’t let me do anything about it, but it was still there.

Then publishing went down with the rest of the economic ship, and I was in steerage, so I sank with it. But ebooks had become a thing, crowdfunding was a thing, and I clawed my way to the air and realized…

I could write anything I damned well wanted.

I could write that space opera. I could set it on that world, in that universe. I could roll all those nondead opinionated kings into one highly opinionated individual, more or less credibly explain the how and why, and meanwhile, science had discovered the multiverse and psi powers were out of vogue but did I care? I could do whatever I wanted. I could even intersect the imaginary world and the more or less real extrapolated Earth of a thousand years or so in the future, with space travel and colonization and what the hell, evil Psycorps (thank you, Babylon-5) and financially strapped archaeologists and my favorite space-opera construct, the space whale or sentient starship (we love you, Moya, and commemorate you). There could even be real opera, and my head was giving me its own sound track for that; some of it made it into the book, and twisted the plot in oh so twisty ways in the process.

The whole point was to go wild in my own personal universe, but make it work as a long-form fiction. To have one whole hell of a lot of fun, in short, and rock that whole straddle-the-genres thing. Stop hiding from it or apologizing for it, and own it. Bloody-handed Bronze Age warlord, evil (and not so evil) psi masters, parallel universes, space whales, stargates (I had them first!), lost-world mysteries, and all.

—-

Forgotten Worlds: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|iBook|Powell’s

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

 

Reminder: I’m in Montclair, NJ Tonight at 7:30

As part of the Montclair Film Festival. What will I be discussing?

Audible Presents
Meant To Be Spoken
Wednesday, May 6th
7:30 PM
The Audible Listening Lounge

As audio continues to come into its own as a challenging and exciting storytelling medium, artists and creators of all stripes are flocking to the form. Audible invites you to an informal chat about this emerging art form with author John Scalzi (Old Man’s War), actress and audio narrator, Barbara Rosenblat (ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK), and Audible producer, Kat Lambrix. They’ll discuss writing works that are meant to be performed, creating character with voice, and other considerations of this innovative storytelling medium.

Yup, that’s what I’ll be up to. If you’re in the area, come by and say hello!

The Big Idea: Ryk E. Spoor

Writers, rejoice! Ryk E. Spoor has solved the Second Novel in a Trilogy problem! What soloution does he apply, and how did he apply it to his novel Phoenix in Shadow? The answers are below.

RYK E SPOOR:

All of my books came with their own unique challenges; Grand Central Arena was supposed to capture the old-era “sensawunda” while somehow staying in the modern sensibility, and then its sequel Spheres of Influence had to live up to its predecessor; the Boundary trilogy had all the restrictions of hard SF to address, plus the not-insignificant challenges of collaboration with a much more experienced author; and of course my self-published Oz-based novel Polychrome had the physical challenges of getting published at all.

But in some ways, Phoenix in Shadow, second in the Balanced Sword trilogy, presented one of the most daunting challenges of all. Like many epic fantasies, the Balanced Sword is really a single long story told in three novels, and anyone who’s read (or watched) any number of trilogies knows that there is a major problem with most second installments: they cannot resolve the major conflict, and in fact are supposed to continue building tension, and creating challenges, for the main characters. They’re not really even expected to have resolutions; more like cliffhangers, really; the middle’s there to bridge the gap between beginning and end. Frodo and Sam are stuck in Cirith Ungol and everything else is sort of hanging fire at the end of The Two Towers; Han Solo’s frozen and kidnapped, Luke’s lost his hand, and the Empire’s pretty much on top in The Empire Strikes Back; and so on.

I personally hate that. I like my heroes to get some kind of victory in every book. Yet I obviously couldn’t have the real plot of the Balanced Sword resolved at this point.

But I did have one saving grace: there was another major character with a separate quest. Tobimar Silverun, searching for his people’s lost homeland. When I originally worked out the plotline for what became the Balanced Sword, I didn’t know who would be with Kyri on her quest; Tobimar was one of several possibilities. Once I decided on him, I realized that the mysterious “Moonshade Hollow” was a perfect candidate for the lost homeland (I’d had a few other possibilities, but once he was linked to Kyri and Evanwyl, this one leapt out at me).

So there was this tantalizing possible way out of the Middle-Trilogy Trap: resolve Tobimar’s plot, in a suitably dramatic way, if I could show how that connected to Kyri’s mission; this would allow a real victory for the heroes, give them progress towards unraveling the main mystery, and still have plenty left for the final volume.

I also decided to completely discard a secondary plot I’d originally planned out – one in which we would follow Kyri’s Aunt Victoria and King Toron as they dealt with the invasion of Zarathan by the King of All Hells. I realized that this side plot split the focus of the novel; while it was very tempting to show some of that war directly to the readers, this would be taking up chapters of the novel with characters we hadn’t really gotten to know fighting battles that wouldn’t have any direct bearing on the main plot. It was a bit painful, but I knew once I thought about it that it was the right decision: I had to focus on Kyri, Tobimar, Poplock, and their personal adversaries, and let the rest of the world take care of itself.

I’d always had a vague idea of what Moonshade Hollow was like – a corrupted wilderness, yes, but there had to be people living there, too. Originally I envisioned a sort of grim fantasyland, something like the faux-Gothic villages of Hammer films or the Ravenloft setting of D&D (not surprisingly, as Kyri herself had originated in a Ravenloft-based campaign run by Jeff Getzin many years ago). I sketched out the interior, started figuring out details.

(SPOILERS coming! If you want to read Phoenix in Shadow without being at all spoiled, you probably don’t want to read farther!)

With Tobimar’s quest present, I immediately knew there had to be a link to his background – the “Seven Stars and Single Sun”, which quickly translated to a total of eight cities. Originally I envisioned a sort of spiral through this dark land, with them getting more and more evidence of some dark force running things, and an eventual confrontation with the demonlord Kalshae, who was trying to make use of the lost artifacts of Terian that were part of Tobimar’s heritage.

But I wasn’t satisfied with this; it was too simple. Kyri’s people knew dark and evil things came out of Rivendream Pass, from Moonshade Hollow, so everyone – readers and characters alike – would expect some monstrous dark realm. Dark and tragic gothic-y realms have been done to death in fiction.

So I thought: What if it wasn’t dark at all?

As soon as I thought that, it was obvious; the eight artifacts of Terian, one of the greatest of the gods of good on Zarathan, would fight any corruption in their area, provide safe havens for the humans left there, allow them to resist being corrupted themselves, and perhaps even allow them to rebuild a civilization. The dark forces that had caused that fall would perhaps try to guide that civilization’s development, but they couldn’t ignore the power of one of the greatest of the gods. The question then became what that civilization, and that place, would really be like.

The answer came from my son Christopher. He had recently become a fan of the Touhou series, mostly through the fan art, and he showed me the fan-produced animations “Memories of Phantasm.” As soon as I saw the images of Gensokyo, a shining land of beauty, and the innocent-looking inhabitants with godlike powers, I knew this was the kind of image I needed. Kaizatenzei, the Unity of Seven Lights, was born.

This would not be just a safe haven within evil; it would be a shining refuge, a perfect paradise, a place that would leave the heroes wondering from whence came the evil outside its walls, and where their true enemies could be, and because I knew how magic works I realized instantly that this would allow those enemies to remain well hidden. In addition, all of that deific power within the Stars and Sun would give them a suitably lofty goal to aspire to: the corruption and theft of the power of Terian itself. The demonlord Emirinovas emerged as a second major player, and I realized that there was a potential for considerable character progression with her present.

I had two last problems: first, where was all the corrupt power that warped the surrounding forest and Rivendream Pass coming from? The demons running the show would be hiding theirs, not releasing it to be wasted on the landscape outside. But what could possibly be powerful enough, huge enough, to corrupt an entire valley –

And I knew the perfect answer. There was the… worm, so to speak, in the apple of the whole valley, and the real final adversary they’d have to face. This also addressed my preference for dramatics; the final conflict of a book needs not just buildup, but sufficient complexity in the dénouement that it lasts a while – in general, several cycles of conflict, reversal, and triumph to give the reader a more satisfying end. Thus at the end of Phoenix Rising the final combat really starts with Kyri’s unexpected capture by Thornfalcon, then goes through cycles of hope and danger with Tobimar’s arrival, near-murder, Kyri’s escape and intervention, Thornfalcon’s death, the unleashing of the horde, the heroes nearly being overwhelmed, Xavier’s nick-of-time arrival, and the final destruction of the gateway of the monsters – and then, after an interlude, the confrontation with the remaining Justiciars at the Temple of Myrionar.

I now had a three-layered set of enemies, all of whom would have to be defeated in turn: the demons who thought they were running the show, the apparent servant of the demons who was actually running the show behind the scenes (and who had been the supplier of Thornfalcon’s monsters), and the source of corruption which had been sealed away by both.

More, as I developed this, I had a new place worth seeing, something that would make the journey to that battle one worth traveling, and new scenes came to life in my head – especially ones highlighting the character that most readers seemed to like best, the little Toad, Poplock Duckweed. Most importantly, I had a suitable climax to the second book… and the true Big Bad of the trilogy still waiting for the final showdown in Phoenix Ascendant.

I think that with all this, I’ve managed to evade the curse of the middle-of-trilogy. I hope readers will agree, because I want them to enjoy the journey as much as the conclusion!

—-

Phoenix in Shadow: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: Ramez Naam

Very quickly, Ramez Naam has become a name to be reckoned with in science fiction, with a series of near-future novels that question reality — or what we use to perceive it, and how that can be manipulated. Apex, the final book in Naam’s Nexus trilogy, is out now, and Naam is here to explain how it interacts with his previous novels — and where it takes us from there.

RAMEZ NAAM:

Global protest goes techno-telepathic. Near-Singularity meets Occupy and the Arab Spring.

Apex is the third and final of my Nexus novels, concluding the trilogy started with Nexus and Crux.

The science at the heart of the books has been consistent. Nexus introduced a technology – packaged as a drug – that could link human brains, with their senses, thoughts, and emotions, across short distances or eventually across the net. That technology brought awesome potential to increase human communication and human innovation – or to be used for mind control, assassination, or political subversion. Swallow a dose and connect, if you dare.

The big idea at the heart of Nexus was a question of freedom and control. Who gets to decided whether you can put such a technology in your brain? Who gets to decide whether scientists can make advances in such technologies? What happens when the War on Drugs and the War on Terror smash into a promising technology that looks like a drug, that’s used as a drug, and that’s similar to other technologies abused by criminals and terrorists? That tension – and the very cool science – drove the book from San Francisco to the back streets of Bangkok; Shanghai and Washington DC to Buddhist monasteries in the mountains of Thailand and more.

Crux personalized that idea to one of consequences and responsibility. When you’ve built something that has a huge positive impact, but you find that it is, in fact, being abused, where does one’s responsibility end? How far would you go to stop the problems? What lines would you cross? Or, how far would you go to use the power that creating such a technology has given you, to make the world a better place, even if that meant crossing far more lines?

Apex is the end. And the big idea is now larger. In a world where people have been lied to by the powers above them, where they’ve had their freedoms curtailed, what happens when a radical new technology is inserted? What happens when all the hopes, and joys, and tools, and rage of humanity can be transmitted from mind to mind, even more intimately than the web allows us to do today?

Reading Nexus and Crux, people have commented to me on the linkage to the NSA spying programs that were revealed by Edward Snowden. I must say, that was accidental. I wrote those books before Edward Snowden ever stepped forward. But the War on Drugs and the War on Terror, and the ratcheting up of both surveillance and restriction in an attempt to protect people – even at the cost of their freedom – was very much on my mind.

In Apex the influences are more direct. From the Arab Spring, to Ukrainian uprisings that brought down a government, to environmental protests in China; from Occupy to Ferguson and now Baltimore; the last few years have been marked with protests – protests that are shareable in real-time with pictures, videos, and tweets that make it almost like being there. The real-time ability to share what we see, hear, and think is amplifying global protest movements. And that’s changing the world.

How much further would that go in a world where nearly-telepathic communication via a technology like Nexus existed? Would that be good? Would that be bad? Would the ability to actually experience someone else’s emotions, their life, and what they’ve been through fan the flames of protests? Could it bring more understanding, instead? Could groups of thousands or hundreds of thousands of neurallylinked protesters stay cohesive? Could they stay peaceful? Would they turn to riots? How would governments react? Can governments even survive such a world?

To ask such a question, I couldn’t restrict it to the United States. A lot of the action in Apex takes place on American soil. But just as much occurs in China, where technology is a double-edged sword when it comes to freedom, and nearly as much in India, the rising superpower we tend to forget. When technology smashes into society, the impact is global. And if protesters around the world are seeing their experiences and emotions go viral, directly from mind to mind, would something like the Arab Spring turn into a much more explosive Global Spring?

Those are some of the questions that fascinated me. The result, I’m told, is the most explosive of the Nexus novels so far. It’s also one that’s also shot through with the other questions the books have wrestled with: What defines the boundaries of human? Should we stop people from pushing farther?

And, looming in the background of all of these books until now: How will humanity react when it eventually comes face-to-face with a new generation, perhaps even a new species, with abilities that radically surpass our own? How should we?

I had a heck of a good time writing these books. I hope you enjoy them.

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

Visit the author’s site. Follow him on Twitter.

Lock In a Finalist for the Locus Award for Best Science Fiction Novel

This makes it a nice Monday, for sure.

Even better, it’s with an amazing peer group of novels and writers. The entire category:

The Peripheral, William Gibson (Putnam; Viking UK)
Ancillary Sword, Ann Leckie (Orbit US; Orbit UK)
The Three-Body Problem, Cixin Liu (Tor)
Lock In, John Scalzi (Tor; Gollancz)
Annihilation/Authority/Acceptance, Jeff VanderMeer (FSG Originals; Fourth Estate; HarperCollins Canada)

Also amazing: The Fantasy category:

The Goblin Emperor, Katherine Addison (Tor)
Steles of the Sky, Elizabeth Bear (Tor)
City of Stairs, Robert Jackson Bennett (Broadway; Jo Fletcher)
The Magician’s Land, Lev Grossman (Viking; Arrow 2015)
The Mirror Empire, Kameron Hurley (Angry Robot US)

The Young Adult and First Novel categories are likewise packed with fantastic writers and work. Indeed, the entire Locus finalist list this year is really high quality. You can find the whole list here.

Congratulations to all the finalists!

My New Film Column Debuts on Sundance.TV! This Week: Star Wars Showdown

Here’s a little something I’ve been keeping a lid on until this very moment: I’m back in the film commentary business. The folks at Sundance asked me to write an occasional column on film (every couple of weeks or so), and I said, “heck, yeah,” because, well. I started writing professionally as a film critic, have published two books on film, and love being able to keep a hand in. So yes — I’m once again officially a film columnist. I’m thrilled and pleased Sundance is giving me the space.

To start off, we’re doing something thing fun with Star Wars. Today is May the 4th, which is an unofficial Star Wars holiday (“May the Fourth be with you”), and in honor of that, we’re asking: In a battle between the dark and light sides, which Star Wars character will stand as champion? To determine this, we’ve created two sets of brackets, one for the light side and one for the dark side. You will decide which characters make it out of brackets for the ultimate showdown between good and evil in the Star Wars universe.

This week we’ll vote them down to the final two. In the next installment in a couple of weeks, we’ll put those two head-to-head for the final confrontation. It’ll be fun. Lightsabers might be involved.

Here’s the link. Do me a favor and follow it, and vote. And then tell your friends about it. I’d love to have a good first week on the job. Thanks!

I’d Rather Like Men Than To Be a Sad Puppy

And to be clear, it wouldn’t be anything close to a difficult choice.

And now to cleanse your eyeballs of rank homophobic stupidity, here are some happy puppies. Enjoy them.

Update: Torgersen attempts an apology; I discuss it in the first comment in the comment thread.

The Legion of Scalzi Smartphones

I upgraded my cell phone yesterday; as with the previous times that I upgraded, the former phone was left in my custody. So here is the entire history of my smartphone usage, going back to the Blackberry Storm, which I acquired in late 2008, followed by the Droid X, the Nexus 4 (which died an early, ignominious death), the Droid MAXX, and now the Droid Turbo. Seven years, five phones. That’s about right.

Clearly I have a thing for the Droid line, and I will tell you why that is: Battery life, as in, the Droids can go an entire day and more without needing to recharge, which is very important to me because I travel as much as I do and occasionally am not in the vicinity of a wall outlet to recharge (I also tend to carry a ridiculously large backup battery with me much of the time, but the point is with the Droid line, that’s a “belts and suspenders” tactic). I also like Motorola’s implementation of the Android OS, which is basically to leave it alone except for a few actually useful apps (Verizon, my carrier, on the other hand, loads the phone down with crap apps, the lone exception being their almost miraculously good messaging app).

The Droid Turbo is basically a nice level up from the Droid MAXX: A screen with four times the resolution (I can’t see the pixels anymore, and neither can any normal human), more RAM and storage, better processor, and better front and back cameras, the latter of which, at least, I’ve already taken some decent pictures with:

I understand the phone also takes 4K video, which seems excessive, but then what seems excessive today is substandard tomorrow, so, okay. In all, it’s a nice upgrade and as far as I can tell after a day of having it, I’ll be pleased to own it for the next year or so until I upgrade again (I’m on Verizon’s EDGE plan, which allows me to do that).

If you’re with Verizon and are looking for an Android phone, I can happily recommend the Droid line. They’re not necessarily the sexiest phones out there at the moment, but a sexy phone with a dead battery isn’t very sexy, in my opinion.

The Myth of SF/F Publishing House Exceptionalism

(This is not specifically Hugo neepery, but it is related, so again, ignore if the subject bores you.)

Recently author John Ringo (in a Facebook post previously available to the public but since made private) asserted that every science fiction house has seen a continuous drop in sales since the 1970s — with the exception of Baen (his publisher), which has only seen an increase across the board. This argument was refuted by author Jason Sanford, who mined through the last couple of years of bestseller lists (Locus lists specifically, which generate data by polling SF/F specialty bookstores) and noted that out of 25 available bestselling slots across several formats in every monthly edition of Locus magazine, Baen captures either one or none of the slots every month — therefore the argument that Baen is at the top of the sales heap is not borne out by the actual, verifiable bestseller data.

(This is all related tangentially to the current Hugo nonsense, as Ringo wanted to make a point about Social Justice Warriors and how they’ve tainted science fiction in general, except for Baen, apparently the lone SJW-free SF/F publisher, whose political/social purity is thus being financially rewarded.)

Sanford is correct in his point that as a matter of books from Baen whose individual sales can compete with the sales of individual books from other science fiction publishers on a month-to-month basis, as charted by the Locus list, Baen’s showing is modest (the May Locus lists, incidentally, show no Baen books, whereas Tor shows up five times, Orbit five times, DAW four times, Del Rey three times, Ace and Harper Voyager once each, and non-genre-specific publishers like Bantam and Morrow taking the rest of the slots).

But does that mean Ringo’s larger assertion (sales of SF/F publishing houses are down since the 70s except for Baen) is false? Not necessarily! Here are some reasons Ringo might still be right:

1. Ringo’s first assertion (SF/F publishing houses sales down since the 70s) is independent of how any individual title by any publishing house stacks up against any other title by any publishing house in the month-to-month or week-to-week horse races known as the best-seller lists. That a book is #1 on the Locus list one month does not mean it sold the same number of books as any previous #1; nor does it speak to the overall sales of any particular publishing house.

2. Bestseller lists don’t (generally) track backlist sales or month-to-month sales of books that don’t hit the lists but nevertheless sell steadily. A book that initially sells modestly but keeps selling regularly can (and sometimes does) eventually sell more than a book that cracks the bestseller lists but then falls off precipitately. If Baen books are good backlist sellers — and better so than other publishers’ books — then Ringo’s assertion could be correct.

3. Publishing houses expand and contract all the time, and some years are better than others. If you’re charting the existence of a publishing house over 40 years — genre or otherwise — then its sales history is going to reflect that. It’s possible Baen’s own history has been one of consistent (although, if so, I would suspect very modest) growth, as it’s stuck to its knitting, specializing largely but not exclusively in specific sub-genres of science fiction and fantasy.

Now, in order for Ringo’s assertion to be proven true, he’d need to provide actual data that show all of these things, otherwise, he’s just asserting. Does he have that data? Well, hold up for a moment, because I have some other things I want to get to first.

Ringo’s assertion could be correct. But here are some various ways that Ringo could be — intentionally or otherwise — putting his thumb on the scale:

1. Baen has only been in business since 1983; comparing its sales history to a house like, say, Ace, which was founded 30 years prior and whose own sales history went through a couple of boom-and-bust cycles (not to mention changes in ownership) before Baen even came into being, not to mention other publishers who participated in the business cycles of the 70s that Baen did not, might be misleading.

2. If Baen’s initial sales were modest, then growth from that modest number would not necessarily be all that impressive; one can grow from modest numbers to only slightly less modest numbers and still see significant growth, percentage wise. Likewise, continued growth can be fractionally modest and still be growth. “Growth” without context is not a useful metric.

3. Additionally, “growth” in itself doesn’t necessarily mean that what Baen publishes does particularly well in sales, either by itself or in competition with other publishers. Scale is important. If Baen sells “X” books one year, and another publisher sells 3X, and then next year Baen sells X+1% while the other publisher sells 3X-1%, then Baen has experienced growth where the other publisher hasn’t — and the other publisher is still selling a healthy multiple of Baen.

4. Likewise, “growth,” while a nice thing, does not necessarily directly equate to success as a publisher. A publisher could shrink the number of titles it sells but end up making more money than it did with a larger list by focusing on core titles, paring off costs associated with selling an extended list (marketing, touring, advances, etc) and negotiating better deals with retailers, etc. Whereas growth, unchecked and unplanned, can lead to ruin; off the top of my head I can think of at least a couple of publishers in the genre who experienced enviable growth and then fell on their ass because their businesses didn’t scale.

5. Ringo’s focus on SF/F publishers elides that other non-SF specific houses have done a very good job selling science fiction and fantasy in recent years. The Martian, arguably the best-selling adult science fiction book of the last year, is published by Broadway. Ernie Cline, whose Ready Player One sells very well, is published by Crown. Neil Gaiman is published by Morrow. George RR Martin is published in paperback by Bantam. Lev Grossman is published by Viking. It also elides the entire YA market, which is a huge market for SF/F, almost all of which is published by YA-specific imprints rather than SF/F-specific imprints. So even if Ringo’s claim were broadly true, with regard to specific SF/F houses, the claim is so narrowly tailored with regard to how SF/F written work sells today — and by whom, and to whom — that it is of dubious utility.

6. Finally, Ringo appears to fall prey to the old “correlation is not causation” thing, in that even if Baen is experiencing growth where other SF/F houses are not, it’s not necessarily the case that it’s because its authors (or stories) are “SJW-free.”

Ringo appears wants to make to two arguments: One, that Baen has experienced consistent, across-the-board growth in its sales where other SF/F publishers have not. Two, that this is due to Baen not publishing authors or tales that are “SJW”-y; only “cracking good tales” allowed, the definition of which apparently preclude any Social Justice Warrior-ness (although apparently may include any number of conservative/reactionary tropes).

The first of these, naturally, would appear to be the easiest to prove or disprove. Here’s what you would need: Baen’s complete sales numbers from 1983 onward, and every other publisher’s sales numbers, since 1970 (or whenever they started business).

You’d need the first to establish that Baen’s sales have indeed always shown an upward trajectory of growth, which is to say 32 years of absolutely unbroken sales increases (and you’d need to make sure that sales were actual sales — i.e., exchange of money as opposed to downloading freely available ebooks, which Baen laudably offered well before anyone else). I’m going to go on record saying that while this is certainly possible, I suspect it’s unlikely; if nothing else there’s likely to have been a divot in 2008/2009, when the world economy crashed and everyone freaked out. But it could be true! And if so, good for them.

Then you’d need the second to establish that every other publisher in the genre has seen continuous decreased sales since the 1970s. This will be more difficult. Some of the most prominent publishers in the genre weren’t around in the 1970s; Tor, the largest US SF/F publisher, as an example, wasn’t founded until 1980. Others have almost certainly seen their sales expand as their reach has expanded; for example Orbit, which was founded in 1974 in the UK but which is now an international house with the distribution might of Hachette behind it. Still others have probably seen their sales grow since their founding simply because they are new houses; Saga Press, Simon and Schuster’s new SF/F imprint, will see infinite percentage sales growth this year because it literally did not exist last year. That alone, I would note, would invalidate Ringo’s assertion.

(And in all cases, again, you would have to show that the drop was continuous — that is, no uptick in sales at any point by any of these publisher in at least 35 years. Which seems, well. Unlikely.)

This is of course where the quibbles and caveats would come, but, you know. Words do mean things. If you’re going to say without qualification that every single SF/F publisher except one has seen continuous sales drops for decades, while that lone exception has seen a continuous increase in the same timeframe, it’d be nice to see the evidence of that assertion. Actual data, please!

Which might be hard to come by, as several SF/F publishers are owned by, or are themselves, privately owned companies. Baen is; so is, if memory serves, Tor Books. They are under no obligation to offer sales data to the public. Also, what sales data is publicly available is often incomplete — Bookscan, the most prominent book sales tracking apparatus in the US, does not track all sales (I’ve noted before that it tracks only a small percentage of my own overall sales). Authors can eventually learn their own total sales, but the key word here is “eventually,” as royalty statements can arrive semi-annually, and record sales with a six month lag. And of course authors themselves have no requirement to accurately report their specific sales to anyone.

All of which is to say that I wish John Ringo joy in actually proving his assertion. It’s rather easier to disprove.

The second part of Ringo’s assertion, the implication that Baen’s continuous sales upswing is due to cracking good SJW-free tales, I’m not going to bother to address seriously, because what a “Social Justice Warrior” is at this point is something of a moving target, the most consistent definition of which appears to be “Anyone left of Ted Cruz who certain politically conservative authors want to whack on in order to make whatever dubious, self-serving, fact-free point they wish to make at the moment.”  I believe George RR Martin has recently been relegated to SJW status for being upset with the action of the Puppy slates and the Hugos; this is a curious maneuver if we’re talking “cracking good tales” and sales numbers as a proxy for… well, whatever they’re meant to be a proxy for.

It’s also bunk because while Baen is being used by Ringo as a synecdoche for a certain subgenres of science fiction (and the non-SJW agendas of the authors who produce it and the readers who read it), I have to wonder whether Baen itself wants that responsibility or affiliation. I mean, as just one example, we’re all aware that Baen published Joanna Russ, yes? More than once? Joanna Russ, part of the “new wave” of science fiction that Ringo identifies as a proto-SJW movement? Joanna Russ, who was the very definition of what is labeled a Social Justice Warrior before any conservative or reactionary person even thought to spit such an epithet from out between their lips? That Joanna Russ? The only way that Joanna Russ does not fully qualify for retroactive SJW status is if the definition of “SJW” actually includes “cannot be published by Baen Books.” And yet, apparently, she could tell a “cracking good tale,” because that’s what Baen publishes. Strange!

You know, here’s a thing. I am published by, and frequently associated with, Tor Books. I have a pretty good idea of how the place works. I do not presume to talk for them, or to suggest how they might proceed with their business, other than in the most general terms of “They’re going to mostly buy and sell science fiction and fantasy.” Why? Because that’s not my gig. I think if I started to tell people what sort of science fiction Tor is only going to sell, or who it will publish and who it will not, it might eventually get back to me that I should maybe not do that. Because who knows how that would play out? What authors who might be a great success at Tor — and for whom Tor could do a great job — would shy away from the house because I flapped my gums in apparent certain knowledge of what my editor and publisher wanted? What damage might I do associating the publishing house with politics and personalities they might wish to stay far away from? How uncomfortable might I make other authors my publisher works with by asserting what will and will not be published there? And how foolish would I look if I asserted something about what the publishing house would never do — and then the publishing house went and did it?

That previous paragraph is not entirely directed at Ringo, incidentally. I’ve seen a number of authors published by Baen asserting what the house would or would not do, with regard to stories and books and authors, and what is and would be published, and what is and would not, and to whom any of the above is sold. I can’t help wonder how many of them will be surprised one day. Baen is a house that publishes some very good science fiction, mostly of a certain type, and, one presumes, largely to a certain audience. But I would submit that the type of science fiction, and the audience for it, is rather more varied than is currently being asserted. I can scan my own shelves and find at a whole lot of Baen, and a whole lot of other publishers. It all goes into the pot for me. I suspect that it might irritate or annoy certain folks (not Ringo, but some others, I feel sure) that I like, read and promote Baen Books, but you know. The hell with that stupidity. Being a “social justice warrior” means I get to read (and incidentally, vote for on award ballots) what I want, rather than waiting to be told by someone else what I should like and what I shouldn’t.

In any event: Let’s put to rest the myth of exceptionalism of Baen Books. It’s like Tor, or Ace, or Orbit or Del Rey or lots of other SF/F houses (and other publishers) you might care to name. It’s in the businesses of selling books. Sometimes it has good years, sometimes it has less good years. Sometimes its authors win awards, sometimes they don’t. At the end of the day, however, it does the same thing as any publisher: It publishes books that it hopes, when you get to the end of them, you say “I’d like to read more like that.” Good for them. Good for any publisher who does that.

The Big Idea: Hermione Eyre

For her novel Viper Wine, author Hermione Eyre decided to get naughty. Not in the way you might think, however — her particular brand of naughtiness involves time slips and the Thin White Duke. Here’s Eyre now to explain herself a little bit more.

HERMIONE EYRE:

I didn’t want to have a Big Idea. I wanted to write a conventional historical novel. Or at least, my conscious mind did. My unconscious had other ideas. I fought it, I really did. But in the end I wrote Viper Wine, a novel set in London in 1632 amongst King Charles I’s courtiers, featuring Neil Armstrong, Naomi Campbell, Java Script Code and David Bowie lyrics. Oh, and super-snails that skid as fast as mercury.

Time, in Viper Wine, is permeable. The intellectual world of the novel is elastic. There is no time-travel per se; only one character, the alchemist, scholar, lover, explorer, pirate and archetypal Renaissance over-achiever, Sir Kenelm Digby, is subject to premonitions of the future, which he barely notices except “in twitches and pratfalls and hypnogogic visions when he was on the edge of sleep”. To me this was an exhilarating Big Idea, allowing a historical novel open and letting in our modern preoccupations and concerns, conjuring both the comic and sublime ways time present is contained in time past.

I’m superficially a law-abiding, might-I-have-the-salt-PLEASE type of person. But when I’m writing I often seem to access another, less pretty part of myself, and I really liked the transgressive shock of introducing these anachronisms into an otherwise well-behaved, well-researched historical novel. And as anyone who paints, or crafts knows, sometimes you can cheat perspective, or intensify colours by jolting the eye, and on the same principle, these outlandish red herrings made the book’s 1630s setting feel more real.

Still, it took me a while to commit to the risk of this approach. For about a year (I was also working full-time as a journalist) I kept two versions of Viper Wine running concurrently on my desktop, one “with special effects”, one without. I was always drawn to the naughty version, had more ideas for it, and felt a buzz when I read it back. I decided to follow my heart and write the whole book that way, but I fully expected publishers further down the line to tell me to cut the Calypso ice cream wrappers (Sir Kenelm finds one on Mount Vesuvius) and produce a saleable, marketable piece of historical fiction.

Except they never did. The first 30,000 words of the novel was sold by my agent Charlie Campbell (then at Ed Victor) to the legendary editor Dan Franklin at Jonathan Cape, who has previously edited Salman Rushdie, Ian McEwan, Martin Amis, Audrey Niffeneger…. It was then bought by the brilliant Zachary Wagman at Hogarth in the USA. So the Big Idea was now legitimate.

Viper Wine is the name of an opium-rich beauty potion that was fashionable with the ladies of Charles I’s court – until May morning 1633 when the famous beauty Venetia, Lady Digby, was discovered lying dead within the blue drapes of her four-poster bed. Her fondness for Viper Wine was popularly believed to have killed her, although suspicion also fell on her poor grieving husband, Sir Kenelm Digby, who was known to have access to many rare poisons in his alchemical laboratory. The Digbys were a golden couple, slightly exotic due to their Catholicism, and frequently painted by their friend the great artist Anthony Van Dyck, who rushed to Venetia’s bedside to paint a deathbed portrait, and then immortalized the grieving Sir Kenelm dressed as a hermit, his eyes red from crying. So far, so true.

Why improve on reality? Except the side of the story I really wanted to tell – Venetia’s – has, like so many women’s perspectives, fallen out of the official records, her letters and writings lost, even the number of children she bore unremembered. We know that she was aristocratic, motherless and scandalous in her youth, going about unchaperoned and nicknamed “bona roba” for her curves. We know that her reputation was growing rackety, with one Lord killed for her in a duel, when marriage to Sir Kenelm redeemed her and she became penitent, publishing pious writings much in the same way a reformed celebrity hellraiser publishes organic cookbooks today. But she was not entirely suited to this new persona, and we know that she gambled, and drank Viper Wine. Anachronistically speaking, she was a total diva, proud and self-hating, magnificent and vulnerable all at once. She was a character I could work with. Time, to her, is mortal, linear, fixed. Her desire not to age brings her to an early death. She comes to no understanding, to no agreement with time.

For Sir Kenelm, on the other hand, time is circular, elastic, eternally recurring. As an alchemist who was once taught transcendental meditation by a Brahmin, he was open to eastern-inspired theories about the circularity of time, represented by the ourobouros eating its own tail. He lived at a time when men (sadly, usually only men) were not restricted to one specialism or expertise, but behaved as if their time were limitless, mastering all the Arts: he had a never-quenched thirst for travel, knowledge, experiment, friendship and fame. Zelig-like, he pops up in the most unexpected places. He visited the hysterical nuns at Loudun (subject of Huxley’s book and Ken Russell’s film starring Oliver Reed and Vanessa Redgrave); he is a cameo in a novel by Umberto Eco; I believe he was also painted by Picasso*.

Thinking Big and exploring the concept of time in the novel meant that I could include those extraordinary serendipities we all experience in life but which rarely fit neatly into received fictional genre norms. For example, I went to visit Gayhurst House in Buckinghamshire, formerly Sir Kenelm’s home, now luxury apartments – and stood where he would have practiced the semi-devotional, occult and repetitive work of alchemy, which he believed would hasten the age of universal peace and plenty. I discovered, with rising goosebumps, that in 1945 Gayhurst was part of Britain’s top secret code-breaking mission run by Alan Turing to decipher Hitler’s orders to his army. On the same spot where Sir Kenelm would have made the white sulphur rise, Turing’s decryption machines whirred and hummed, bringing peace.

When you take a leap and create an alternative universe, it begins to gather its own momentum. “That’s so Viper Wine!” I would think on the subway, looking at a poster of an airbrushed megastar. Or, “I’m having that in the book,” while cutting out an advert for a “must-have” beauty serum. Snake oil in new bottles, indeed. The historical novel is a wonderfully elastic genre and permitted me to graft our age together with the decadent court of Charles I, soon to be engulfed by civil war and regicide.

Sir Kenelm believed that we are all links in the golden chain of knowledge, and Van Dyck painted a famous self-portrait with a golden chain around his neck. Before I committed to my Big Idea, I thought that those chains were just mysterious Renaissance symbols. But as I wrote the novel I wanted to write, rather than the one I might cynically have believed would be popular, I began to see to see that we are connected to the past and future, ourselves links in an ongoing chain. Viper Wine is intended to make us question how future generations will link back to us. It is the same with the process of writing and reading, since one is nothing without the other. So thank you for reading this, and I wish you all the best of your own Big Idea; may it also take you to places you never expected to go.

*actually this is more likely to be Velasquez’s portrait from Picasso’s Las Meninas suite, although it does look uncannily like Sir Kenelm, in costume and appearance.

—-

Viper Wine: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound

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

Redshirts as a Social Justice Cabal Hugo Pick

Posting this Twitter rant here for posterity. This is Hugo neepery, but not of the usual sort I’ve been neeping about recently.

Drinking Poison and Expecting the Other Person to Die

(Warning: Further Hugo neepery. Avoid if you’re bored with it.)

A question in email about a recent post, asking whether when I said, of one of the head Puppies, “So well done him, and I wish him all the best in his career,” if I was saying it with the same tone and meaning that a US Southerner might say “Well, bless his heart,” about someone they dislike, or see doing something irretrievably stupid.

Short answer: No.

Longer answer: No, and why would I? As a practical matter, and as hard as it might be for some to believe, publishing is not a zero-sum game; the success of other authors doesn’t have a direct or material effect on my success, except with regard to the small, indirect benefit that a genre that sells well has more readers overall, and those readers are unlikely to read only one author, and thus might read my stuff, too (if you think there’s no overlap in my readership or the readership of any Puppy author you might care to name, you are, to put it politely, very likely to be wrong). So, again, as a practical matter, wishing any other author a lack of success would have no benefit to me, while wishing them the best of success might accrue some small and indirect benefit. So there’s that.

As a moral and ethical matter, I do take to heart the adage, usually attributed to Buddha, but reasonable no matter who said it first, that hating someone is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die. I don’t hate any of the Puppies; I have cause to personally dislike a couple of them, but even then I try not to get to that point of things, either. I posit that the large majority of them are or at least have the capacity to be, decent humans. I disagree with them on many points, and think their current course of action is stupid, wrong, detrimental and childish; I think many of them have behaved poorly, selfishly and in a way that highlights their own insecurities and personal issues; I think it’s sad they try to project those same insecurities and issues on others and use them to justify their own bad actions.

But that doesn’t rise to the level of hate, or actively wishing misfortune on them. I’m mostly sad for them, and occasionally irritated, the latter of which is my problem. And while I’m fine pointing out their bad actions and snarking on their bad logic, what I genuinely hope for them is that they might find a level of success that makes them happy, without the need to view their success through the prism of how their successes stack up to anyone else’s. This whole Puppy mess is because some of them weren’t happy, and were searching externally for that happiness, either by seeking a validation in outside rewards, or by punishing people they saw (erroneously and/or conspiratorially) blocking the path to that validation. Envy and revenge, basically. They’re drinking poison and hoping others die, or at the very least, suffer. It’s why they called themselves “Sad Puppies” in the first place: it was about what they thought their Hugo nominations would make people they decided they didn’t like feel.

Which is their karma. It doesn’t have to be mine (or yours).

So, no. I wish the Puppies success in their publishing endeavors, and I wish them happiness — genuine happiness, not contingent on comparison to, or the suffering of, others. I also wish for them the capacity to recognize success, and to be happy. It doesn’t seem they’re there yet. I hope they get there, and will cheer them if and when they do.

The Class of ’90 (and of ’06)

The New York Times has a very interesting long-form list on what happened to each of the first round picks of the 1990 NFL draft; unsurprisingly the stories are varied. Some have gone on to success in their post-NFL career; some have not; and some are in jail or have died. A lot of the success of future years is based in what happens in the early years of a career — but it’s also worth noting that so much is also based on things the players themselves couldn’t directly control (injuries, etc).

As I was reading the list I found myself thinking of the 2006 Campbell Award class, which I suspect in many ways is as close to a “first round draft pick” as the science fiction and fantasy genre gets. The class in my year was me, Brandon Sanderson, Sarah Monette, Chris Roberson, KJ Bishop and Steph Swainston.

And as with the 1990 NFL draft picks, where we are now is all over the board. I and Brandon have been fortunate enough to have consistent, continued success in the genre. Sarah had some struggles commercially, but is now riding a wave of success as Katherine Addison with her terrific novel The Goblin Emperor, which was (without a slate) nominated for the Best Novel Hugo. Chris largely left SF/F but has had a very successful career in comics, with one of his co-creations, iZombie, turned into a successful TV series. KJ appears to have stopped publishing books for a while but returned a couple of years ago with a short story collection. Steph abandoned writing as a career to become a teacher, although there are rumors she may still write more in the future. We’ll see.

Which is the thing that is the difference between the NFL class of ’90 and the Campbell class of ’06: The Class of ’90 is done with football, but the class of ’06 isn’t done with writing, nor is likely to be for the rest of our lives. Where we are now isn’t where we will be a decade from now, or a decade after that (or a decade after that!). Provided we stay this side of the grave, there is lots of time for new successes, new failures, new disappointments and new triumphs, and new adventures. Writing careers can be long, and can take place in and around many other aspects of life.

I’m looking forward to seeing where the Campbell ’06 class goes from here, and what we’ll each do next.