New Music: “Magnetic Fields Around an Ultra-Luminous X-Ray Source”

So named for the illustration I borrowed from NASA/JPL-Caltech for the cover (you can do that, it’s public domain, if you’re a US citizen, your taxes paid for it), and also because the piece is kind of space-y and loopy, in a relentlessly thumpy electronic sort of way. It’s built around a series of musical loops I programmed, played (mostly) in a round. I like it. Hope you like it too.

— JS

The Big Idea: Isabella Maldonado

In her Big Idea for her new novel A Killer’s Game, author Isabella Maldonado touches on popular party events, adrenaline, and your long-lost ancestor, Grog. How do they all fit together? Like a puzzle.


The big idea behind A Killer’s Game was the explosion in popularity of escape rooms, which provide the dopamine hit of a puzzle combined with the adrenaline rush of a ticking clock. All over the world, people are lining up to put their wits to the test. Do they have what it takes to crack codes and solve puzzles under the threat of imminent doom—or at least, the imminent detonation of a paint bomb?

So, what’s the appeal? In researching the answer, I discovered that it comes down to neuroscience. Human beings are hard wired to seek solutions to problems, and our brains reward us when we succeed. Throughout our evolution, an unforgiving environment weeded out those who lacked curiosity or could not think creatively under pressure.

Take Grog, our prehistoric ancestor, always on the hunt for sustenance. If Grog saw a line of tracks with three splayed impressions in front and one behind, he might recall that birds made those kinds of marks in the ground. Following the trail might score him a nutritious and tasty egg. Grog, however, would be wise to note the massive pawprints also leading in the direction of the coveted egg. Grog had to use experience, but also extrapolation, and a form of deductive reasoning we would refer to today as pattern recognition and predictive analysis.

Today, most of our decisions don’t have life-or-death consequences, but some do. As a rookie police officer, I was trained to understand that my frontal cortex (aka: executive function) could be short-circuited during a crisis. One of the instructors at the academy said, “Imagine me asking you to solve a long division problem.” He paused a beat, then added, “now imagine that I’m firing a gun at you while you’re working through that equation.” We all got the message. Mathematics would take a backseat while we scrambled to get our asses out of the kill zone.

Remembering this lesson created an entirely new challenge when I started to plot the story. As a law enforcement professional who wore a gun and badge for over two decades, I write strong female protagonists. But what kind of character could believably handle an escape room where the riddles and traps were deadly, and her competitors were all trained killers? Who would be capable of solving complex problems under fire?

A US Army Ranger.

More research revealed that the 75th Ranger Regiment out of Ft. Benning, Georgia is home to some of the most elite, highly trained combat personnel in the world. To become a Ranger, candidates must complete Basic Combat Training (BCT) and Advanced Individual Training (AIT) before being screened for the Ranger Assessment and Selection Process (RASP). Those who are selected to serve in the 75th Ranger Regiment earn the distinction of “scrolled” Rangers. The first female scrolled Ranger joined the Regiment in 2017, and women have left their mark since then, including in combat tours beginning in 2019.

After reading about these very special women, I knew one of their number had to be represented in my escape room story. After all, why should Jack Reacher, Jason Bourne, and Rambo get all the action? But, whether male or female, I thought it was high time to combine a classic action hero with an escape room thriller.

This is how FBI Special Agent Daniela “Dani” Vega was born. I gave her a background as a former military codebreaker who followed her father’s footsteps to earn a position in the Ranger Regiment. That way, she could credibly solve puzzles and crack codes while under extreme pressure.

I’ve never written anything like A Killer’s Game, which some have described as Squid Games meets Criminal Minds, and I didn’t realize how daunting it would be. Part of the challenge was coming up with a credible way for a federal agent to go missing while on an undercover operation. Another part was devising the riddles, codes, clues, and traps she and her fellow captives had to deal with. Lastly, creating a motive for the person behind such a fiendish plot kept me up at night. The book involved a tremendous amount of research and effort but was also a lot of fun. I can only hope readers get that dopamine-adrenaline combo hit from trying to solve puzzles on the edge of their seats.

A Killer’s Game: Amazon|Chapters Indigo|Barnes & Noble|Bookshop|Powell’s

Author’s Socials: Website|Twitter|Instagram

Starter Villain Review at Publishers Weekly

John Scalzi

And it’s a pretty damn good one, too. An excerpt:

“In this clever, fast-paced thriller, Hugo Award winner Scalzi (The Kaiju Preservation Society) subverts classic supervillain tropes with equal measures of tongue-in-cheek humor and common sense. Scalzi balances all the double-crosses and assassination attempts with ethical quandaries, explorations of economic inequality, and humor… The result is a breezy and highly entertaining genre send-up.”

The review is up at the PW site, but be warned that it has mild spoilers for the book content.

I know of another trade review that will be up soon, and I’ll post about that when I can. In the meantime, a nice way to start the official review season for the book!

— JS

A Window to the World

John Scalzi

June 1st is Replace All the Windows Day, in which all our creaky and balky nearly 30-year-old windows are being pulled out and new, much more insulating, efficient and quiet windows are being put in. Here you can see that Charlie is deeply curious as to why there’s a hole in the wall where a window used to be. Don’t get used to it, Charlie.

In fact, as of me typing this up, that new window is already in place; the fellow installing the windows is pretty speedy. It’s like he’s done this before, a lot. With luck they will all be installed today, but we have tomorrow budgeted for any stragglers. After which (knock lightly on glass) we won’t have to think about windows again for several decades. Which is good, because I don’t know if you know, but new windows aren’t exactly cheap. I’ll be happy not to think about that again, I can tell you.

Anyway! Welcome to June, friends.

The Big Idea: Beth Cato

Be warned: In A Thousand Recipes for Revenge, author Beth Cato can get… well, a little cheesy. But, perhaps, not exactly in the way you might expect.


I suppose other people might start work on a novel set in a musketeer-era fantasy world because they want the opportunity to write swashbuckling adventures, rapier duels, dramatic horse rides, and political intrigue. All of those things are awesome and get page space in my book, too, but in my case, A Thousand Recipes for Revenge emerged from a desire to write about magical cheese.

That’s right, magical cheese. If you know me at all, you know this is on-brand for me. If you’re coming across me for the first time: Hi, I’m Beth Cato, and I love cheese. This has been a lifelong thing for me, but in June 2015 I decided to go full special-interest mode. I started a document appropriately called the Cheese Log, wherein I record any and all new cheeses I try. Wherever I travel, I’m all about seeking out new, local cheeses and imports I can’t find in the wastelands of Arizona. My trip to the United Kingdom in 2019 was planned around a day trip into the Yorkshire Dales to visit the Wensleydale Creamery. I’ve had airport screeners pull aside my bag because the contents (i.e. aged hard cheeses good for travel without a need for refrigeration) seem “suspicious.”

I’ve worked cheese into my writing before. My Clockwork Dagger novels featured cheese-loving gremlins. Magazines have published my short stories such as “How to Creatively Host Cheese Parties During and After the Apocalypse” and “Prognostiqueso” (find those in Hexagon Magazine and Daily Science Fiction, respectively). Building a book from the concept of magical cheese, however, meant doing deep world-building. That’s my kind of thing. I love delving through stacks of research books and gleaning details as I create intricate settings. For me, going all-in on cheese and other good food meant I could only turn to one place on Earth for inspiration: France.

There’s an oft-quoted line from Charles de Gaulle that reads, “How can you govern a country which has 246 varieties of cheese?” (His number was actually way off–according to DK’s book French Cheeses, there are more like 500 today. Pre-industrialization, there were far more varieties to be found there and elsewhere.) My dilemma was, how can I build an original magical system from the likes of Brie and Langres? First of all, I decided to create a secondary world that roughly correlates to France in terms of places, seasons, and resources, but has its own unique history. The latter is also what drew me to the 1600s and 1700s–there was so much to use for inspiration, from court intrigues to musketeers to food science! I also realized the book couldn’t just be about cheese. There was such a wealth of provisions (some of it questionable by modern tastes) to explore.  

Which took me to the next vital question: why would cheese, and other foods, be magical?

Because the Gods said so, of course. I created five food-based Gods to oversee my world. Hester, God of Fire. Selland, God of Salt. Lait, God of Milk and New Growth. Melissa, God of Honey and All Things Sweet. Gyst, the God of Unknowns such as mold, bacteria, and fermentation. Because of the Gods, magic exists through particular foods that then bestow powers upon people.

As I already find cheese to be pretty magical, it only feels right for it to empower people. It also makes sense that Gods would be directly involved with blessing people through enchanted foodstuffs… though the meddling of deities could also be a very bad thing, as my characters soon realize. And as I also sometimes realize when I find that Gyst has perhaps been a touch aggressive in his visits to my own cheese drawer.

A Thousand Recipes for Revenge is out now from 47North. Be warned — this book might cause you to crave cheese and other delicious things!

A Thousand Recipes for Revenge: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Bookshop|Audible

Author socials: Personal site|Instagram|Twitter

Universal Yums: May 2023 Review

It is the final day of May, which means I’m posting this May review on time! Woohoo! Anyways, this month’s Universal Yums country was Taiwan, and it was a very colorful spread:

Ten different snacks laid out on the table. Some of them are in chip bag type packages, some are in cardboard type packages. There's a lot of pink and yellow in the packaging.

I loved these packages’ designs. The cute little cow, the pretty pinks, and the funky little jelly shots that were super squishy. So fun!

My tasting assistant picked the first snack we tried, which was these Kimchi Soy Crackers:

A small red package of wheat crackers.

A pile of the wheat crackers, colored slightly orange from the kimchi flavoring.

Athena ScalziThe texture of these was exactly like Wheat-Thins, which makes sense because they’re wheat crackers. I used to not like the texture of these types of crackers, but over the years I’ve grown to enjoy it. As for the flavor, they were sort of soy saucy tasting, with a very subtle heat behind them. They were really good, and we ate the whole bag. My snack expert assistant gave them a 10/10, and I gave them an 8/10.

I picked this snack next because the packaging is purple! These are called Cheesy Potato Fries:

A small purple package with an image of French fries on the front.

A snack that looks like French fries but is definitely not like French fries.

Upon first appearance, these literally look stale French fries you find in your kid’s car seat. I had no idea what to expect, but they ended up having the texture of slightly crunchier Cheetos. They were supposed to be cheese flavored but they didn’t taste very much like any type of cheese, they sort of just tasted like garlic and onion powder, more so just a savory flavor than a cheese flavor. It was super small package so we ate all of these easily. These were a 9/10 from both of us!

At this point, we decided to eat all the savory snacks first, and then move onto all the sweet ones, so up next is these White Pepper Crackers:

A small red snack package that reads

The light brown crackers spilling out of the bag onto the table.

These tasted like literally nothing at first, then had some very subtle flavor towards the end. It was strangely plain, but had a pleasant texture. They were just a totally standard cracker, with a slight hint of seasoning, and were pretty forgettable but not unenjoyable, earning them a 7/10 from both of us.

I was actually afraid to try this next snack, because it has spicy in the title. This is the Spicy Beef Noodle Popcorn:

A orange and yellow popcorn package with a cute cartoon cow on it.

The popcorn spilling out of the bag onto the table. It's brownish in color from the spices.

I have so much to say about this popcorn. One, it’s kettle corn texture, which is the superior texture for popcorn. Two, this is probably the first spicy thing I’ve ever enjoyed. And three, these are absolutely banger. This popcorn was so savory and flavorful and complex. It was spicy, but it was like a pleasant warm heat that built upon itself. This is the first time I have ever thought that something being spicy was a pro and not a con. And there was so much in the bag, it was a really sizeable portion! We ate it all, and gave it a 10/10.

The final savory snack was these Salty Lemon Pea Crackers:

A bright pink bag with yellow lettering. It also shows the snack inside alongside a cut open lemon.

The crackers, which are shaped like curly twists, spilling out of the pink bag onto the table.

I can honestly say I don’t think I’ve ever had pea crackers before, but these were SO GOOD. They were super duper crunchy and I loved the twisty shape. They were lemony, salty, citrusy, goodness without being overwhelming. They were so addicting, and I wish that I could have these in my house all the time, I would eat them literally every day if I could. They were also my favorite package out of everything. These earned a 10/10 from both of us!

Finally switching over to the sweet snacks, we tried these Yogurt Animal Crackers:

A small white and blue package of animal crackers with a cute little penguin on the front showcasing three of the animal shaped crackers.

The animal crackers, which are all actually distinct, different animals. There's a dog, a lion, a monkey, and a panda.

While we do have animal crackers here in the US, these were quite different from our version. I liked the fun animal shapes, it was cute. They were very interesting taste-wise, with a mild and slightly strange flavor. They had the texture and overall feel of Ritz crackers, and were pretty inoffensive. They weren’t anything to write home about but they were a perfectly serviceable biscuit. My assistant gave them a 7.5/10, and I settled on a solid 7/10.

Okay, I was definitely dubious on this one, but here’s the Peach Jelly Shot:

A super small, pink, squishy package of peach jelly.

The peach jelly being squeezed out of the top of the package.

When I tore off the top of the package, several drops of the juice came spilling out. That, plus the fact that this was so squishy and wet gave me major ick. But, I braved it, and it ended up being pretty good! It was like a firmer Jell-O, and tasted like peach rings. Definitely kind of strange, but good overall. My helper gave it a 9/10, whereas I went for a modest 7.5/10.

For the eighth snack, we have this Pineapple Cake:

A small blue and yellow package with a pineapple displayed on the front alongside the pineapple cake itself.

The small pineapple cake broken in half to reveal the cross section of brown filling in the middle.

I really like pineapple, and I really like cake, so I was sad that this wasn’t very good. It wasn’t horrible or anything, but the pineapple flavor was super artificial and it mostly tasted like a lotion or a candle. The texture was okay, but not anything stellar. This was honestly the first disappointing item in the box, so I can’t be too mad. My helper gave it a middling 5/10, and I went for slightly less than that with a 4.5/10.

At this point we were really full, but we powered on through these Cherry Blossom Wafer Rolls:

A pink rectangular box displaying cherry blossom wafers on the front.

The wafers, lined up into rows inside its white plastic container.

These smelled like Play-Doh, which was not a great first impression. We took one bite, and we did not take any more than that. They tasted weird and unpleasant, and nothing like cherry blossom. My assistant said they tasted like they’d gone off, and I had to agree, they just weren’t right. We had to rate this at a 3/10 and a 2/10. These were the worst item in the box by a landslide.

Finally, we tried these Choco Peanut Mochi:

A black box with gold lettering that reads

The four choco balls in their wrapping.

The choco ball bitten in half and facing the camera to reveal the cross section of the peanut butter filling and mochi interior.

These were chewy like a marshmallow because of the mochi, but they actually weren’t all that sweet. The peanut butter tasted like actual peanut butter and had a creamy consistency, which I feel like is very different from peanut butter filled candies here like Reese’s, where the peanut butter is weirdly crumbly and dry and tastes like preservatives. The chocolate wasn’t super detectable since it’s just a thin covering around all the thick mochi and peanut butter, but honestly these were pretty good. And I liked that they were easily shareable. My helper gave them a 7.5/10, and I gave them a 7/10.

Overall, this box was the best one I’ve ever had from Universal Yums! I absolutely loved Taiwan, especially the lemon crackers and the spicy popcorn. There were so many 10/10s, and we were so full at the end. I actually just paused my subscription for a few months, so I’m really glad the last box I’m getting for a while ended up being so good.

What looked the best to you? Do you like mochi? Have you been to Taiwan? Let me know in the comments, and have a great day!


And Now, The Scalzi Family Foundation Logo

The Scalzi Family Foundation has begun its philanthropical mission (beginning with sponsoring the 2023 Gen Con Writers’ Symposium), and so it behooved us to have an official logo. I commissioned artist Natalie Metzger to create one, and she came up with something I really liked. It’s welcoming, features elements that go well with the people involved (cats, stars, whimsy) and doesn’t take itself too seriously. It’s fun and it’s here to do a little bit of good in the world.

Plus, in addition to the “warm” version above, we have a “cool” version as well, depending on use circumstance, because it’s nice to have options:

And of course a black and white option as well:

This is all good stuff, and I thank Natalie for doing such a fabulous job with it. You’ll see the logo in action soon!

— JS

Mid-Weekend Update, 5/28/23

John Scalzi

Balticon has been absolutely lovely and Krissy and I are having a fabulous time, both at the convention and in Baltimore. This weekend there is also a large Indian festival and a heavy metal festival downtown, so it’s quite the melding of cultures in the streets and also in the elevators of the hotel. Everyone seems to be having a good time no matter what they’re in town for, and that’s terrific.

Shown above is the medallion for the Robert A. Heinlein Award, which I got at the opening ceremonies of the convention. The head of the Heinlein Society joked to me that I would have to wear the medallion around my neck all convention long, and I replied that, oh, in fact, I was going to do just that. And I have, not only because, well, how often are you going to be able to wear a medallion and not have it be entirely out of place, but also because people at the convention are curious about the award, and I want them to be able to see it and interact with it. So yes, a fair number of people fondling my medallion this weekend, in a perfectly appropriate and acceptable way.

The convention runs today and tomorrow, and today I have two panels including Heinlein Award Winner presentation, and then tomorrow I have a reading where I’ll be reading a bit from Starter Villain and something else I have coming up real soon. It’ll be fun. And I hope wherever you are you’re having a fun weekend as well.

— JS

The Big Idea: Yukimi Ogawa

It’s a special talent to write in a language that you’ve learned along the way. In this Big Idea for author Yukimi Ogawa’s new collection of short stories, Like Smoke, Like Light, she explains why this choice was an essential one for her.


Years ago, somewhere on the internet, I saw someone remark that they thought people in Japanese anime were all white, a very weird observation that does not make sense. My first reaction was, “What, do you think we Japanese people see white people as those who have pink hair and purple eyes?”

This was the very first spark of the Colorful Island stories, which constitute almost half of Like Smoke, Like Light, my first collection of short stories. (Most, but not all, of the other half deals with yōkai, beings from my country’s folklore.) On this island that I imagined, you can find all the beautiful colors of jewelry on human skin, and the nation as a whole survives by showing these colorful and patterned people off to the other parts of the world.

After I wrote the first story in this world, “The Colorless Thief,” I realized I wanted to create a place where the rarity of the skin colors and patterns is all that matters—where your gender, age, or the family you were born to won’t do anything for you if you cannot offer what the government wants from you. And if these colors and patterns are so precious, so important, then they must be genuine, I reasoned. Like natural gems versus synthetic ones, you have to be born with the colors or patterns, and artificially adding patterns to your skin or altering your patterns in any way should be very obscene, or even a crime.

In the earlier stories set in this world, “The Colorless Thief,” “Ever Changing, Ever Turning,” and “Blue Gray Blue,” I explored how the colorful and patterned people, who are supposedly the elites of their nation, have to deal with their fear of losing what they have. It was fun and heartbreaking at the same time to write about them—when your colors change, the way the whole society treats you changes, and then your world is not the same anymore. Then later on, the character of Kiriko came along. Kiriko is a completely colorless and patternless person, who has been forced to work in the “backcloth” of the city—an unimportant laborer employed at an atelier that sells patterned goods, like fabrics for furniture including curtains and table cloths.

That is not the only thing the atelier does, though; she and her partner can mitigate physical discomfort like headaches and allergic reactions by drawing patterns on human skin. However, in this island where it’s so important that patterns be “genuine,” she and her partner cannot fully exert their skills, at least not openly.. Despite the challenges, she cannot help but feel grateful that she found this job, doing what she loves every day no matter what others may think of her. 

Through Kiriko’s eyes, I was able to add more texture to the island. Those first three stories were more about losing something you always took for granted, but Kiriko knows what it is like to have nothing in the first place. Conversing with her in my mind, she and I came to agree that there is only so much we can do about the world around us—but in her stories, I let her search for a shape of the world with which she can cope, even if she isn’t entirely comfortable with that shape. 

I think one of the reasons I chose English as my writing language lies near this conversation. English is my second language, as you can probably see when you read this book, and I still fumble for command of it. I cannot speak it most of the time. I’ve been wondering why I do this; I’m a slow writer to start with, and engaging in the second language further slows the process. There are things I cannot express in English. 

But after seeing my stories gathered in one book, the stories that I had to take so much trouble, to go so out of my way, to complete, I think I have a better idea of why. I did not, do not, like many things about myself and my life, and I needed a way to change it, even if in fiction: chiseling it and pruning it, and painting it over and polishing it.

As a writer, I needed a tool that I acquired, instead of something I’ve always had, always taken for granted. I still worry about not being up to the standards of the world, but I’d like to believe that the world shouldn’t have the ability to bend me. That I want to be the one who can choose the shape of the world around me. And the distance from the world that my second language gives me somehow became a sort of shield, when I need to deal with that world’s raw, unwanted shape. 

Like Smoke, Like Light: Amazon|Amazon UK|Amazon CA|Barnes & Noble|Bookshop|Powell’s

Author Socials: Goodreads|Twitter

View From a Hotel Window, 5/26/23: Baltimore

This hotel window shot has it all: A parking lot, yes, but also an impressive building in the federal style, and a pleasant downtown view in general. It’s a lovely day in Baltimore, and the part of the downtown I’m in is nicely walkable. Charm City, indeed!

Balticon starts this evening and I’m here all weekend doing panels and events. If you’re here, I’ll see you, and if you’re not here, a question: How are you planning to spend your Memorial Day weekend?

— JS

The Big Idea: Jean Marie Ward

Sometimes, it takes more than one try to really nail down a story. In author Jean Marie Ward’s case, the third time was the charm, resulting in her new novel, Siren Bridge. Read on to see how each iteration of this story came together to form this final novel.


I stole the first Big Idea for my novella Siren Bridge from my late writing partner, Teri Smith.

Shortly before her death, Teri began a series about a deliciously, cheerfully, unapologetically evil sorceress named Vivienne. Viv’s first adventure, “Dragon Bait”, was published in the 2009 anthology Under the Rose. But Teri left the second barely begun, with Viv’s big personality trapped in the body of a small calico cat.

I wanted to finish that story as a tribute to Teri. On a more selfish level, I wanted to figure out how Viv rescued herself. But hard as I tried, I couldn’t get the story to gel. 

Which brings me to the second Big Idea I stole.

A few years later, an editor invited me to participate in a mermaid-themed anthology. As I sifted through potential story ideas, it occurred to me that, instead of trying to finish Teri’s story, I should write an entirely new Viv adventure—a funny one, of course. Viv was born for comedy. All I needed was a finny foil. How about a siren with the delivery of a Wagnerian soprano? Great! And she’ll sing about…

That’s when my muse went AWOL. I needed a profoundly silly way for my soggy Sieglinda to lure men to their doom, and I had nada. So I decided to consult an expert in the whole guy thing: my husband, “Honey, what’s the most ridiculous thing a siren could sing about would that persuade a guy to offer himself as lunch?”

He blinked at me behind his glasses. “Like what, dessert?” 

“That’s it!” I cried. “Struuuuuudel!”

My husband immediately decamped to the basement. I didn’t see him again for two days. When he finally emerged, he pleaded with me to never ever yodel again.

The anthology got shelved. But flushed with pride at my achievement, I sent it to an editor friend who knew Teri’s work. As gently as possible, he let me know my protagonist. Was. Not. Viv. In D&D terms, my character was chaotic good. There were lines she wouldn’t cross. Viv had no such scruples.

He was right. But I liked the story. It needed a lot of work. Even so, the scene between Not-Viv and her siren nemesis? That was pure gold, worth every rewrite it took to raise the rest of the story to its level.

Which brings me to the novella’s third Big Idea, my Big Idea: What I wanted for my protagonist and her world.

I wanted a woman protagonist who leaned into her nature and fell into the exciting scrapes traditionally reserved for male characters like Han Solo and Robert Downey Jr.’s Sherlock Holmes. I wanted Oleander Jones, the character formerly known as Not-Viv, to live in a world I wouldn’t mind carrying in my head for as long as it took to write her adventures. A Steampunk/weird west world with magic, great clothes, and marvelous contraptions. A world where diversity is celebrated. A world where even the worst curse could hold the key to happiness if you own the courage to grasp it.

I admit it’s a fairy tale. The United States grew to greatness in the American West. But our forebears committed unspeakable acts in the name of that dream, and their legacy is one we have yet to fully confront. But I cling to the hope that Neil Gaiman’s wonderful paraphrase of G.K. Chesterton got it right: “Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.”

Science fiction, fantasy, romance, adventure, mystery—all the genres we call fiction are simply fairy tales grown-ups tell themselves. This is mine:

Oleander Jones knew the rules for successful lady adventurers, and she broke them all. 

Now she’s got a reward on her head bigger than the Logressan national debt. The New Dominion Territorial Militia, the full detecting might of Falchion Apprehension Services, and every no-good one-eyed snake who could read a wanted poster are on her tail. And there’s only one way to get where she needs to go—through the killing ground of the biggest, meanest, man-eating, avian monster Roche County has ever seen. Dead across Siren Bridge.

Strudel, anyone?

Siren Bridge: Amazon   

Author socials: Facebook|Twitter

Balticon Bound

John Scalzi

Away from the computer for most of the day because Krissy and I are headed to Balticon, where, among the many other things I will do, I will be picking up the Robert A. Heinlein Award, which I am pretty jazzed about, I have to say. I’ll also be doing a reading, a signing, and several panels. It’ll be fun! If you’re in or around the Baltimore area this weekend and are looking for something to do, it’s not to late to register at the convention. See you there.

Krissy and I are actually driving to Balticon because once we looked at our flight options out of Dayton, we realized that the amount of time we’d spend traveling by plane (including travel to airports and time between flights) would be nearly exactly the same as driving by car, and this way, at the end of it, we wouldn’t have to pick up a car rental. So that was nice. It does mean we’ll be on the road a while. Good news is, Krissy and I are good at making conversation with each other.

I’ll probably pop in a couple of times over the weekend, but just in case I don’t: Happy Memorial Day Weekend, y’all. Enjoy your long weekend.

— JS

Tina Turner, RIP

Like many a young white teen in the 80s, this is the song that acquainted me with Tina Turner; prior to that I knew she existed, but I couldn’t have told you anything that she had done or why she was important in the realm of popular music. This lack of knowledge, I am happy to say, did not last, and in time I dug into her discography backwards and forwards. It was a rewarding experience.

Nothing I could write here could do justice to her life or her work, so I will simply say that she was, as her own song would say, simply the best. I’m glad I lived in a time with her. I’ll be listening to her for some time to come.

— JS

The Big Idea: William C. Tracy

Don’t judge a book by its cover. Or in this case, don’t judge a monster by its mushrooms. Author William C. Tracy’s Big Idea brings us back into The Biomass Conflux series with his newest novel, To A Fungus Unknown.


Forty years after landing on Lida, the colony still isn’t finished.

Agetha has survived many more battles than she anticipated when she first landed on her new home planet. She’s older and wiser, has gained family and lost loved ones. And yet her reward for four decades of service is to be pushed to the colony’s outer edges with the other aging Generationals.

But that was only the beginning of her adventure.

The biomass has spent years studying the intruders who landed on its surface, carving a new home from its very essence. Never satisfied in its attempt to communicate with this new and invasive species, finally it has found a way to express its intentions. The colonists may never be the same.

Discover the fate of the colony in the second book of The Biomass Conflux trilogy.

Life on a fungus planet, or “Oops, I accidently wrote body horror.”

This is the second book in my eventual trilogy about colonists landing on a planet covered by sentient fungus. Now that I’d gotten all the preliminary introductions and worldbuilding out of the way (which you can read about in my previous Big Idea post here), I was planning to have a lot of fun with this one!

I started writing it, and immediately introduced a new character—one who was already influenced by the sentient biomass. Thinking and writing about a loss of control is one of the scariest things for me, partially because my mother suffered with early-onset Alzheimer’s, and I’m potentially at risk for it as well.

Exploring this loss of control turned out to be cathartic in some sense, as I could write characters who either didn’t remember what they had done or didn’t understand why they were doing what they did, or in the worst case, could see their body doing one thing when they were desperately trying to do another.

To make it better (or perhaps worse?), the biomass doesn’t think like we do. It doesn’t understand human individuality. So, it simply suppresses the parts of the people who are screaming about the loss of control and makes them unconcerned about what’s happening to them. Everyone wins, right? People are mind-controlled, but don’t feel bad about it.

The whole book took on a creepy overtone as I started to flesh out this concept, but this horror aspect gave me a chance to lean into another aspect I like to write about: finding out the monster is not who you think it is. Humans, being human, will strive to their last breath to get out of any sort of confinement, even a mental one.

Once that happens in this story, the human colonists can be in direct contact with an alien being who thinks completely differently than them. I wrote three different avenues of contact at the same time. One unconscious, one very intentional and scientific, and another through rational realization and putting together pieces of a puzzle. Once we understand how to communicate with a monster, then those parts that are horrific start to become more reasonable, or at least understood, if still not desirable.

What does an intelligence that spans a planet think like? Does it have a concept of language or math when a gestalt mind can comprehend everything at once? When it drills down to specifics, is the whole intelligence concentrating on that one thing, or can such an intelligence even lose focus at all?

These questions are not answered yet, but I’m very interested to find out more about them in the third book. However, there’s another side to consider: the humans. There are a bunch of different ways to react to finding out the thing completely surrounding the colony is not only alive, but conscious of what the people are doing there. And that point will lead into the third book of the series, where people choose what side to take, and in return, which side the biomass chooses to take!

For now, I hope you enjoy the first two books of The Biomass Conflux, with the conclusion to come in early 2024. If you haven’t read the first book yet, you can find Of Mycelium and Men here and an intermediate short story, Down Among the Mushrooms, here.

To A Fungus Unknown: Amazon

Author socials: Website|Twitter|Mastodon

The Winner of the Starter Villain ARC Contest

It’s George Berry, who was one of three who correctly guessed the number (“792”), and then was the one chosen by Alexa when I asked her to pick a number between one and three. His ARC will be signed and personalized and sent on its way today. Congrats to him and thank you to everyone who played along!

(And yes, I will remove any errant cat hairs before shipping.)

For everyone else: Remember that you can pre-order signed and personalized hardcover versions of Starter Villain via the fine folks at Subterranean Press; I’m going to be driving up to their warehouse in September to sign the whole bunch. That said, they’re at 70% of their cap already, so if you want to be sure you get one, go ahead and do that pre-order now.

— JS

I’m Giving Away a Starter Villain ARC! You Could Win It! Yes, YOU!!

They just arrived! And this one, modelled here with Spice, is the one I’m giving away!

Here’s all you have to do: I asked Krissy to think of a number between 0 and 1000, and her friend Karen heard the number as she said it. Guess the number in the comment thread here.

That’s it!

And now, rules:

1. Only one guess per person. Additional guesses, whether in the same comment or in subsequent comments, will be disqualified. Also, comments for this thread are only for numerical guesses; every other sort of comment will be removed. Only guesses in the comment thread for this post will be considered.

2. When you leave your comment, put an email in the comment form that I will be able to contact you at (in the part of the form that says “email,” not in the body of the comment itself, unless you want everyone to see your email address). If you don’t leave a viable email, I won’t be able to contact you to get a shipping address.

3. If more than one person correctly guesses the number, I will ask Alexa or Google Assistant to randomly pick a number in the field of how many people correctly guessed, and then go chronologically among the guessers until I hit that number. That person will win the ARC.

4. If no one correctly guesses the number, then I will pick the next closest number up from the correct number as the winner. If there are multiple people who have guessed that number, I’ll proceed per point three above.

5. This is open to anyone worldwide; yes, I’ll pay shipping for whatever country you’re in (note: If you’re in Russia at the moment I can’t guarantee arrival; I’m guessing shipping to there is weird and may not even be possible).

6. If you like I will sign and/or personalize the ARC.

7. Contest is open for the 48 hours after I publish this post, after which time the comment thread will automatically close. If you miss that window, sorry!

8. I’ll announce the winner after I’ve contacted them via email about their shipping address. So, probably early next week.

There you have it, good luck!

— JS

The Big Idea: Scott Fulford

How was the state of your wallet during the prime pandemic years? As Scott Fulford explains in this Big Idea for The Pandemic Paradox, for many Americans it was not nearly as bad as it could have been, and indeed, possibly the opposite.


The novel coronavirus suddenly seemed to be everywhere in March 2020. We didn’t know much yet about how to treat it, how it spread, or how deadly it was. To halt its spread, many businesses shut down, furloughing or sending employees home to figure out how to work remotely. Twenty-two million people were fired over the next month. Others had to keep going to work in person, facing terrifying new risks. As our workplaces, churches, schools, and daycares shut down, we were increasingly isolated, cut off from social connections.

My wife and I spent the pandemic juggling two full-time remote jobs and our two small boys who were four months and four years old at the start of the pandemic. We sewed (bad and uncomfortable) masks out of an old pillow case and baked (delicious) sandwich bread when we couldn’t buy any at the store. We worried about our kids who seemed to be growing up thinking grandma was an interactive video.

But I also worried about the financial misery that millions of families were about to experience. As an economist, I study the financial ups and downs that people face and how they deal with them. A survey I’d conducted the year before the pandemic found that 40 percent of families could cover their expenses for less than a month if they lost their main source of income.

As unemployment reached a level we hadn’t seen since the Great Depression, my research suggested that financial pain was soon to come. And it would spread, as unemployed families reduced their spending, causing more businesses to lay off staff.

But here’s the surprise and the big idea for my book: the financial health of the average U.S. household actually improved from January 2020 to June 2020 by just about any measure. Of course, some households were doing worse financially than before the pandemic and there was a great deal of unfairness—from essential workers who would have been better financially if they had been fired to small business funding that often bypassed Black-owned businesses but helped larger, less affected, white-owned businesses. But on average, most households were doing better financially.

How did this paradox arise? While the full story is more complicated, it largely comes down to two surprises.

The first surprise was the effective policy response. The federal government spent around five times as much in response to the pandemic as it did following the 2008 financial crisis. That money supported the newly unemployed, sent most U.S. residents thousands of dollars whether they were unemployed or not, and gave money to almost all small (and many not so small) businesses.

The second surprise was that many people spent less. They didn’t go on vacations or go out to restaurants or do so many other things that make life fun. Because of the effective policy response, most households’ incomes didn’t go down, so savings built up, helping protect more people from financial shocks. People later spent some of that money buying stuff, causing the epic supply chain snarls and inflation in 2021 and 2022.

My new book, The Pandemic Paradox: How the COVID Crisis Made Americans More Financially Secure, explains this paradox and the many other changes wrought by the pandemic. In the months following March 2020, I conducted more surveys and briefed government officials about what was going on so they could make informed decisions. Everyone was hungry to understand the rapidly changing world. I realized that the work I was doing—explaining what we knew, and often did not know, about the economic and social changes occurring—could help others understand the new world.

Economics has surprising overlaps with speculative fiction. Economics is most often asking the question: “What if?” For example, it’s impossible to ask: “What did the pandemic change?” without implicitly asking: “What if the pandemic didn’t happen?” And good speculative fiction is often built around the same question by imagining a world where different technologies or magics exist and asking: What would be different and how would society work?

Of course, good speculative fiction has to then tell a good story, while good economics does not. In my book, I wanted to bridge this gap by connecting bigger societal changes to individual stories. So I drew on the surveys I conducted to tell some of the individual stories that make up the big story of this crazy time. The story of Sofia (not her real name) whose finances were precarious after she lost her job in March 2020 and missed a mortgage payment but, with the help of expanded unemployment and other relief, was financially better off in June 2020 than before the pandemic. Of Marcus, who also lost his job, but who pandemic aid policies missed and ended up selling his possessions to make ends meet. And of Marvin, who retired early after being fired and was worried his savings wouldn’t last.

After all, the story of the pandemic is millions of individual stories, combining and interacting in surprising ways. Some stories were painful and sad. Other stories were about new freedoms, such as new financial stability, starting a new business, or the flexibility of remote work. We all had our unique pandemic experience and I hope the book helps us understand each other’s experiences, and the pandemic’s larger consequences for our economy and society. 

The views expressed here and in the book are the author’s and not necessarily the views of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau or the United States.

The Pandemic Paradox: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Bookshop | Princeton University Press  

Author socials: Personal site | Twitter

%d bloggers like this: