The Temp Toilet

It's our new, inexpensive toilet!

Earlier in the year, the toilet in our en suite bathroom stopped working as it should and we decided it was time to replace it. Also, and coincidentally, we decided that 2021 was the year we were going to do a complete overhaul of the bathroom, which included but was not limited to the toilet. We had contractors out to spec out the new bathroom, and I chose a really nifty “smart toilet” which was space age and had all the bells and whistles except for bluetooth speakers, which, no joke, you can get, but which I thought were, just barely, overkill. Since we were going to remodel the whole bathroom anyway, we simply shut off the balky unworking toilet until it could be replaced in the remodel.

Fast forward several months, and the bathroom remodel is on hold, continually pushed back because apparently 2021 is just about the (sorry) crappiest year to try to do a remodel. All the contractors are scrambling because of material shortages and the knock-on effects to their existing jobs and so on. At this point, it seems likely that a remodel is going to get shunted to 2022. Which is fine — except for the toilet, the bathroom is perfectly functional and there’s no real rush. But we were getting tired of not having the full functionality of the bathroom. We have a couple of other bathrooms, but honestly.

So: Meet the new toilet, which is a basic, inexpensive model designed to do one thing and one thing only — well two things, I guess, depending on why you’re using it. It’s temporary, in the sense that when we do the remodel, it won’t be staying; it’ll be replaced by that “smart toilet” we already have priced into the remodel. Be that as it may, I’m happy to have it for however long we do. It’s nice to have a totally functional en suite bathroom again.

Welcome, toilet. I apologize for what comes next for you.

— JS

The Big Idea: Brad Parks

Sometimes the Big Idea of one’s book is… well. Not something that you would contemplate in real life, but might make an intriguing premise for one’s novel. Brad Parks knows a little bit about this, as it relates to his newest work, aptly entitled Unthinkable.

BRAD PARKS:

I love my wife very much.

So, naturally, I’ve been thinking about killing her.

That’s the Big Idea behind Unthinkable, my latest novel. And before I get myself indicted—for the record, Your Honor: she’s still very much alive and unharmed—I should probably explain.

As I began brainstorming the manuscript that eventually became Unthinkable, I found myself focusing on stakes.

What would the protagonist gain if he succeeded? More importantly, what would he lose if he failed?

Stakes are what make a novel go. They’re what make readers furiously turn pages. And depending on the genre, they can look very different.

In romance, it’s going to be the unconsummated love between two characters who can’t . . . ever . . . quite . . . get together. In science fiction, it might be the survival of the entire race of Gebulons on Beta-Hydra-9. In fantasy, it’s the fate of the wizarding world.

Whatever the details, it has to be something that feels like it matters. That, to me, is often a failing in certain, ahem, literary novels. When it becomes apparent to me what’s going to be at stake for four hundred pages is the professor’s wranglings with Proust—and a side plot about whether they sleep with their grad student—I get the urge to binge-watch shark videos on YouTube.

Since stakes are so important, I figured that’s where I’d start with Unthinkable.

And because I love my wife so much—really! I do!—the first thought I had was: Wouldn’t it be gripping if the thing at stake was the protagonist being told he needs to kill his wife? Especially if I put something really compelling on the other side of the equation.

Like, he has to kill his wife or a billion people will die.

That became the elevator pitch for Unthinkable. Basically, it’s the classic trolley problem from Philosophy 101—would you pull a lever to divert a trolley that would kill five people if it made you responsible for the death of one person?—but on steroids.

I made the protagonist an ordinary guy like me: Nate Lovejoy, a stay-at-home dad to two rambunctious toddlers. (I did time as a SAHD myself and have the scars to prove it.) Despite the trials of childrearing, he and his wife, Jenny Welker, remain deeply devoted to each other.

After all, that further increases the stakes. If the marriage was on the rocks, Nate’s choice might be easier.

I then had to make the whole proposition plausible within the framework of the novel, so I introduced a character with limited skills of precognition, the ability to see the future.

This is a little out there, of course. So in my world-building, I grounded it in the real-life principle that physicists have long understood: the fact that we perceive time as moving in only one direction is truly an accident of our senses. The laws of physics work perfectly fine either way.

Furthermore, it has been theorized—though neither proven nor disproven—that a positron may actually be an electron moving backwards in time. If that’s true, we’re literally being bombarded by matter from the future all the time.

The final step, then, is to have a human being who has evolved the ability to sense that matter; in the same way that about a half a billion years ago, during the Cambrian period, organisms first evolved the ability to detect light.

Still with me? Right, so there’s this guy who can see the future. And he has foreseen that Jenny, a lawyer, will win a massive, Erin Brockovich-style lawsuit against a power company who has been sickening people with a coal-fired power plant.

This, however, will have a wildly unintended consequence. It will cause power companies to install smokestack scrubbers that use sodium hexafluoride, a greenhouse gas that is twenty-four-thousand-times more powerful than carbon dioxide. This, in turn will trigger a global warming catastrophe.

Causing the death of a billion people.

And the only way to stop the lawsuit is for Nate to kill Jenny.

Will he do it? Can he do it? That’s the Big Idea that moves Unthinkable forward.

It’s just not something I’ve ever given serious thought to myself.

I swear, Your Honor.

So you can, y’know, dismiss the charges now.


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

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

A Twitter Thread on Shopping Agreements

John Scalzi

Archived here for posterity.

1. Team Scalzi was approached today with a query about a “shopping agreement” for one of my properties. A “shopping agreement” is basically where a film/TV producer asks permission to pitch a work in a room without having paid an option up front…

2. … with the idea being that if they get a studio/streamer/network/etc excited about it, they can quickly put together a package and then an option would follow after. And if not, well, then… not.

So, I'm not a fan of shopping agreements, and let me tell you why.

3. (Disclaimer: What follows is a disquisition about a first world problem told from the perspective of someone with a non-trivial amount of privilege, etc BUT which I still think will be useful to other writers and such. Mileage may vary, and all that. We good? Okay then.)

4. The first reason I’m not a fan of shopping agreements is — no surprise — there is no money! Someone is asking for all the benefit of a film/TV option without paying for it, basically by promising they can get the work a hearing in a room. Well, that’s what an option is FOR.

5. Now, not every producer is rolling around in cash; the mechanics of entertainment production often make the ambitious illiquid. Which I understand and can sympathize with, but regardless, options are table stakes for this game. Writers need to eat, too. And pay bills, etc.

6. There’s a downward pressure on what writers are being offered for options ANYWAY; it does none of us any good to let the bar get down to zero. And also, a producer with an option has skin in the game. They’re incentivized to get a return on the investment. That’s important.

7. Another reason I’m not a fan, related to the first, is that it sets a bad example, and people like me accepting a shopping agreement can be used as a tool against other writers who need money more than we do. If producers say “well, bestsellers give us shopping agreements…”

8. …then we make it harder for other authors who aren’t necessarily bestsellers, and who have bills to pay and mouths to feed. The authors who aren’t financially vulnerable should set a standard for those who might be vulnerable. That means payment for options as a baseline.

9. (“But what about Stephen King and his $1 options?” Those are for film students, for one, but more generally, you’ll find exceptions made for altruism/friendship/quirks. I’m talking about a general business practice. Generally: Encourage writers being paid.)

10. Here’s another reason, as it relates to me: Me offering a shopping agreement isn’t fair to the producers, etc who have paid me options for my work. *They* jumped through the financial hoop and made a financial commitment to me and my work. It would be kind of a dick move…

11. … to turn around and offer someone else for free the thing they paid cash money for. It’s not nice to burn your business partners like that, especially if you want to do equitable business with them in the future, and encourage them to do likewise with others.

12. A final reason for me personally (or the final one I’ll relate here): I don’t need a middleman. If I want a title of mine shopped around LA without being paid for it, I can just have my manager set up meetings. I’ve sold options in the room before. I know how to do it!

13. Will a producer with a more extensive track record than me have a better chance of doing that? Possibly! But honestly, if something’s pitched somewhere and the answer is “no,” that’s it for a while on that. If anyone’s gonna burn a property of mine for free, it’s gonna be me.

14. At the end of the day a shopping agreement is very-low-to-no risk for the would-be producer, and somewhat high risk for the property originator, with no immediate (and probably no later) financial benefit. You’re being offered sizzle but you probably won’t taste the steak.

15. Again, I have a privileged position, so you have to think on the cost and benefit to yourself (and, maybe, to others) when someone comes along offering a shopping agreement. I do think, however, that if an idea is good enough to be pitched, it’s good enough to be optioned.

16. That’s it; that’s the thread. As always with one of these threads, here is a picture of a cat to send you off. Smudge definitely wants me to get paid, because my shopping agreement with him includes tuna.

/end

"Hey, you got any of that canned fish? I love that stuff."

Originally tweeted by John Scalzi (@scalzi) on July 27, 2021.

The Big Idea: Greg Van Eekhout

There’s a special time in everybody’s life, and by “special” we mean “really confusing and also seriously what the heck is going on?” It’s that special time that Greg Van Eekhout covers in his novel Weird Kid, and along the way he gets into why being a weird kid is, kinda, sometimes, awesome.

GREG VAN EEKHOUT:

I was visiting an elementary school and after my author talk a kid came up to my signing table and I said hello and he said, “What is the best pencil sharpness?” You get asked a lot of interesting questions at visits, like “How much money do you make?” and “Are you a Christian?” and “Why do we have to be here?” so I was happy to get lobbed such a softball. “Sharp,” I answered, “because line precision.” But I got it wrong, because sharp leads are prone to breakage, yet dull pencils produce muddy lines, so the correct answer was medium, obviously.  We happily chatted about pencils for a while until I told him about a shop in New York City that sells pencils and only pencils and then he went a little pale and floated off in a state of wonder.

I was so delighted to meet this fine young person with their joyous obsession, and I hoped all their weird interests would be respected and nurtured and celebrated. But I also worried. Because he was only a few short years away from middle school.

In his Life in Hell comic, Matt Groening identifies middle school as the deepest circle of Hell, and he’s not wrong. I still remember my first day of middle school (I’m old, so back then it was junior high). There was a whole new vocabulary and new set of behaviors and ways of being a person that nobody had bothered to tell me about. Even the teachers were weird. They acted like they hadn’t known me for six years (possibly because they hadn’t known me for six years). They acted like they weren’t already aware I was an awesome kid. Nobody wanted to talk about pencils. I was weird in a world where it was no longer okay to be weird.

We meet Jake Wind, the protagonist of Weird Kid, on his first day of middle school, and he faces all the weirdnesses of middle school that I did, only with some additional challenges, because he’s a shape-changing ball of goo from another planet who’s just barely managing to maintain human form.  The metaphor is pretty obvious, I know.

As you might deduce from the description of Jake’s plight, this is a deeply personal, cathartic story to me. I wrote it for the pencil enthusiasts and alien goo kids and everyone who’s beautifully, spectacularly, gloriously a little or a lot weird.  I wrote it for the kids who haven’t yet found a home in a community of likewise weird people. And I wrote it for the kids who haven’t yet learned that the things that make them weird are the very same things that make them interesting, and fun, and invaluable.

Also, Jake’s dad is a proctologist, so there are a lot of butt jokes. The butt jokes earned praise in a starred Publishers Weekly review. I’m pretty proud of that. 


Weird Kid: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Mysterious Galaxy

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

The Problem With Pingbacks

John Scalzi

Small housekeeping note: In the last couple of days it’s become clear that “pingbacks” — notifications from other sites that they are linking to posts here — are being used for spam purposes, so I have disabled the ability for pingbacks to be displayed. What does this mean for you, the faithful reader of the site? Almost nothing, as legit pingbacks were very rare in any event. But for those of you who noticed the spammy pingbacks, this is me letting you know they’ve been dealt with.

— JS

“I Ate a Bug and It Was Delicious”

Sugar, a connoisseur of small arthropods. She knows what she likes.

In other news, Athena is on vacation this week, and I am finally at a point where I am likely to finish this novella I’ve been dragging out, and also we have guests coming, soooo things may be slow here until the end of July. That’s a week, you can deal. And look, I gave you a cat picture.

— JS

Stuck Out At Sea

Athena ScalziDoldrums

/ˈdōldrəmz,ˈdäldrəmz/

noun

a state or period of inactivity, stagnation, or depression.

Like a ship in the Intertropical Convergence Zone, I am going through a doldrum. July has been my least productive month on the blog in the past year, and I’m not very happy about that. I’m not really sure why I’ve been more inactive than usual. Even though I can write about anything and everything, I can’t seem to think of anything to write about. And even if I do think of something, I don’t feel like actually writing it.

Sometimes, I’ll think of a good topic, and then when I think about how much effort goes in to that topic, I decide not to write about it after all. It’s like, I can only bring myself to write the things that don’t take much effort, and even then I would just rather not. Even doing something as simple as the Big Idea takes me hours of telling myself I should do it, even though it only takes me around ten or fifteen minutes.

I keep trying to brainstorm things to write posts about. Lord knows there’s no shortage of current events and political things to be talked about, or movies and shows to review. But that sounds like a lot of effort. And effort is not something I feel like putting in right now.

Not just for the blog, but for life stuff, too. I’ve been sleeping later in the day, moving less (a lot less, even), going outside less, you get the idea. I wish I could blame something like seasonal depression but it’s literally the opposite season of when seasonal depression happens.

I can’t even bring myself to bake anything for the blog, or take some photos to post, or muster up a Charlie post. I just don’t feel like I have it in me right now.

And I feel bad about it. I feel guilty for not providing you all with content as regularly. I feel guilty for not doing the posts I told my dad I’d do. I feel like I’m skimping out on posts, blowing them off left and right. Basically, everyday I think, “yeah, I could do a post today” followed by “…or I could not.” And that always seems to win.

Anyways, I just wanted to be open about what I’m going through right now, and offer some insight as to why I’m not really posting much. I hope you have been enjoying the stuff I have managed to post this month, and I am hopeful there will be more to come next month. Have a great day.

-AMS

The Big Idea: Nicholas Bowling

Open your chakras and come along in author Nicholas Bowling’s Big Idea, as he tells you of his journey for happiness. Or at least, his journey to writing his new novel, The Follower.

NICHOLAS BOWLING:

The Big Idea for The Follower started out as (and perhaps still is) a pretty stupid joke.

There was a point in my mid- to late twenties when my whole generation seemed to look around at our adult lives, collectively shrug and say: What, is this it? We’d either set ourselves goals that we were nowhere close to achieving, or else we had achieved them and found, predictably, that they had not delivered the satisfaction they’d promised, or in fact weren’t the goals we should have set ourselves at all, and that there were other goals, better goals, goals goals goals! but much further down the road, or on a different road altogether. 

Quite a lot of my friends began to invest in self-help books and courses. At the time I rolled my eyes because I was young and cynical and not very compassionate (and, of course, completely lost myself – at least these people were doing something about it). 

The stupid joke was this: imagine if, somewhere in the saturated market for books on manifesting and reframing and self-love, there was one that offered the actual, genuine, honest-to-God secret to happiness. Perhaps a self-published e-book, languishing on page two of the Amazon search results, trying to make itself heard among all the other books clamouring for attention: “No, honestly, I really can make you happy!” The thought became more elaborate, and sillier. Maybe the secret was something quite simple. Maybe it was an equation. Maybe it was linked to how many push-ups you could do, or how many glasses of water you drank. Maybe it was just a really, really nice picture of a horse.

The joke had a bitter aftertaste, though, because it seemed there was something insidious about the whole thing. I felt particularly justified in my eye-rolling when I looked into some of these courses and saw the price you had to pay to “unlock your full potential”; when my friend who had already completed one course was then hounded over the phone about signing up for a second; when the author of a book on self-esteem and fulfilled living went on to write another literally entitled: “You Are A Badass At Making Money”. The genius – and the horror – of capitalism is that it offers itself as a cure for its own malaise.

The idea rattled around for a bit. I fiddled. I came up with a dozen titles and as many opening chapters. I aborted. I clearly needed more help unlocking my full potential.

Meanwhile I noticed everyone’s search for answers had started to take on a more spiritual bent. People who had been content with a fortnightly hot yoga class were now submitting themselves to week-long silent meditation retreats, or a flying to Brazil to lick poisonous toads and talk with the spirits of the forest. It became far more acceptable, and far less embarrassing, even for a buttoned-up Brit, to admit to a spiritual aspect to our lives. But still, you had to pay for it.

This was when The Follower started in earnest. I started thinking about the collision between this new spirituality and good old capitalism. It seemed strange that the two of them should have met at all, since the resurgence of one was surely an adverse reaction to the other. You’d think they would exist in mutually exclusive universes: spiritual vs material, fulfilment vs wanting, stillness vs motion (forwards), the infinite vs the disposable, the natural vs the urban. And yet, the self-help business model is easily transferrable: spirituality and capitalism (or at least commercialism) have not only met, but climbed into bed, put on a CD of some panpipes and started massaging each other with essential oils.

These days it feels like “spirituality” is a vast and complicated continuum. At one end there are those who perhaps take a passing interest in meditation or yoga, and at the other are people who think they can talk to dolphins. (I’m on there somewhere. I practise mindfulness about once every five years and I’ve read the Wikipedia page on panpsychism.) It intersects with various groups and ideologies, from vegans to anti-vaxxers, all of them linked by a greater or lesser commitment to destroying or escaping or at least offering a brief respite from the machinery of the world as it is. This makes it a broad church. It also makes it a broad marketplace. As ever, capitalism is both the poison and the antidote: if you buy enough incense/crystals/dream catchers/organic juices/ecstatic dance courses, you’ll never be miserable again.

The Follower was originally set in London, but something about that setting didn’t feel right. In 2019, I took a trip to a town in Northern California to work on a completely different book. The town was situated at the foot of a mountain that, I quickly found out, was a kind of spiritual Mecca. 

I had been off the bus for all of half an hour before a man had complimented me on the colour of my aura. That felt pretty nice. I thanked him. We kept talking. He explained that I was God, and, before I could get too cocky, that he was God too. Things took a sadder turn when he told me that he’d lost his job because he kept having seizures. He’d get better, though, as long as he kept taking his medicine. His medicine, it transpired, was plain old LSD, and was almost certainly responsible for the seizures in the first place. 

After talking for an hour I went to find my accommodation. I started writing the first chapter of The Follower – the one that’s still there – before I’d unpacked my bag.

Interactions like this happened several times a day for the month that I stayed there. It was genuinely difficult to find someone who didn’t speak in these cosmic, spiritual terms. I became great friends with some of them. Believe me when I say that The Follower isn’t meant to disparage spirituality. I really am interested in panpsychism. And, as it says somewhere in the book, quantum field theory seems to be arriving at much the same conclusions as that man on LSD, though from a different direction. I also became aware of just how seductive that worldview it is – not just the idea of connecting with a cosmic spirit, but even the wilder stuff about aliens and crystal cities and Indigo Children. It’s easy to believe it when there’s no one to tell you any different. It’s fun, too.

The town I was staying in didn’t reek of money or commercial interests. It felt weirdly utopian, in some ways. But then, I thought, what if a commercial enterprise did find a foothold there? What if it became subject to the same spiritual transactions that were taking place in the city I’d left? And then, what if someone really did find a cosmic energy source somewhere on the mountain? The secret to happiness!

And I was back to my stupid joke again.


The Follower: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

Darke County and COVID Contradictions

A map of Ohio with each county colored by incidence of community transmission
John Scalzi

Cases of COVID are on the upswing again, in Ohio as well as nationwide, so I thought I would check in with the CDC and see how my county is doing. Darke County, Ohio is not particularly well vaccinated — we have something like a 31% vaccination rate (I and my family are of course vaccinated) — so I was curious to see if we’d had a notable uptick in COVID cases recently.

The answer: Not really! Or at the very least, not yet. Darke County is one of the few Ohio counties at the moment with a low incidence of community transmission, with two reported new cases of the virus in the last week. There was one COVID-related death reported yesterday; prior to that the last recorded COVID-related death was six weeks ago. The virus is still in Darke County, but it’s small hotspots at the moment, not a forest fire.

This is good news in that most of the people who live near me appear to be at a reasonably low risk for COVID, despite their current unvaccinated status. It’s less good in that, in a county that already suffers from vaccine hesitancy, it doesn’t seem likely to me that anything is going to move the needle (so to speak) to convince folks around here to get a shot. Yes, it’s nice that the GOP and FOX News have begun, incredibly begrudgingly, to tell people to get a shot, but it may be too little, too late for that, for Darke Country and other rural, conservative counties in the US.

I am vaccinated, along with my family; I’m not too worried about having a breakthrough infection thanks to the Delta variant, and if I am infected, I’m not too worried about getting very sick from it (for values of “very sick” that mean “hospitalized and possibly intubated”). I do worry for my neighbors who haven’t, by choice, been vaccinated, not only because they can get sick but because they can more easily transmit to others, some of whom can’t get vaccinated, even if they want to.

Likewise, I worry that the longer people avoid getting vaccinated, the more variants will pop up. Delta is already more transmissible than earlier versions of the virus; it’s entirely possible we’ll eventually hit on one that the vaccines won’t be effective against. I like my house; I’d still like to leave it occasionally.

Basically, Darke County is currently lucky, with regard to COVID. I sincerely hope it remains so. I would also like to suggest to my fellow Darke Countians that luck favors the prepared, and in this case, “prepared” means “vaccinated.” It’s just a thought.

— JS

The Big Idea: Catherynne M. Valente

Humans are garbage. Or perhaps, as author Catherynne M. Valente has it, it’s more accurate to say that the world that people live in is actual garbage. Come along in her Big Idea as she tells you all about Garbagetown, the not-so-trashy setting for her newest novel, The Past Is Red.

CATHERYNNE M. VALENTE:

Wonderful Trash: Tetley Abednego and The Past Is Red

The sea levels have risen. There is nothing left. A hot, blue, ruined world. A girl named Tetley grows up on the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, picking through the literal wreckage of our culture as the trash heap drifts across the planet, grown as vast and peopled as a continent. She is an exile, a romantic, a scavenger—and a criminal, abused by her fellow survivors at will in payment for a terrible, unfixable crime. 

And Tetley loves her life. Adores it. Desperately, joyfully, with a powerful determination to protect it from itself.

The Past Is Red is the most cheerful nightmarish climate change dystopia you’re likely to find on the shelves. 

Not because humanity bands together to find some magical way to restore what our selfishness and short-sighted stubbornness destroyed—because, let’s be honest, the last year has shown us in living color how truly fantastical that idea always was. 

Not because we deserve a cozy It Gets Better fable of the endurance of the human spirit because we definitely don’t.

Because humans can love anything, even the end of us.

No, the good humor and cheer of The Past Is Red comes not from plucky, down-on-its-luck humanity as a whole, but from Tetley Abednego herself, the most hated, and beloved, girl in Garbagetown. A girl who sees her ruined universe through the eyes of a normal, everyday child born into it, who has known nothing else, and so finds beauty wherever she looks.

Tetley began in the 2016 anthology Drowned Worlds, as the voice of a novelette called The Future Is Blue (don’t worry, it’s included in the book) about a delightful, happy girl on the Garbage Patch who did something so terrible that she can never be forgiven, and her punishment can never end. That novelette went on to garner a small but fervent fanbase, and won the Sturgeon Award. Part of me always knew I wasn’t quite done with Tetley or Garbagetown just because I had covered the traditional bildungsroman territory, so I was delighted when the wonderful editor who got the tale out of me, Jonathan Strahan, asked me to expand and continue her story, and The Past Is Red came to be. Tetley has grown up, and so has Garbagetown, with a new despot setting up his empire of pleasure and pain, and a mysterious object unearthed from the rubbish that connects our heroine to the past and the future in ways she can barely comprehend.

Red is much bigger and deeper and gnarlier than Blue. It has some big new things to say about memory and truth, perception and authority, love and grief and intelligence. It takes several sharp left turns and goes places you could never predict from the short story. It is a massive expansion of the Garbagetown universe, both where it’s going and how we got there. And, given that I wrote it at the tail end of 2019, it has some eerily prescient twists of plot that I will not spoil for you, as The Past Is Red has some of the twistiest twists I’ve ever twisted, but I’ll just say they resonate pretty damn furiously with current events. 

You’ve come a long way, baby.

We all have, from 2016 through til now.

Drowned Worlds was an anthology of stories of the sea levels rising, of climate change, of the worlds we might inhabit when it has all gone definitively to hell in a plastic water bottle. At the time, I was deep in a middle grade fantasy novel. I’d never written explicit climate change or environmental fiction or even post-apocalyptica before—but my favorite thing to write has always been the thing I’ve never done before and no one expects me to try. 

I was intrigued by a line in the anthology pitch: what kinds of stories will we tell when the worst has come to pass?

My knee-jerk, immediate mental response was: absolutely the same kinds of stories we tell now, because humanity never, ever changes, and we’ve been telling the same stories since before we knew copper + tin = Bronze Age Fun Times. We are and always have been such wonderful trash.

Which seems like a lazy, snarky answer, but the more I thought about it, the more it felt like there was something more profound, and more comforting, hiding in there, and in those last two words: wonderful trash.

But all of that was just the intellectual scaffolding of the story, of Garbagetown, of the persistence of power and privilege, of stupidity and bravery  and love and regret and the unchanging ways in which humans try and try and try again to get what they desire.

It was Tetley that made it a story.

I remember Peter Beagle coming to my creative writing class when I was a sophomore in high school. It made an impression on me something akin to the impression a meteor makes when it hits the Earth. But I couldn’t get my head around one of his stories about The Last Unicorn. He said that he had no business knowing Molly Grue. That she was too good for him. She’d come from somewhere else, somewhere outside him, and he considered himself lucky to have gotten to know her, but she was so different and alive and pure he knew he had nothing to do with her. She was her own, not his.

At the time I thought: what is this guy talking about? He invented her, he wrote her every thought and line of dialogue. There’s no such thing as a character too good for the author who created them. Whatever. Is this what writers are like? I hope it’s pizza for lunch today.

Well. Allow me to delicately lift a morsel of crow onto my fork.

I had no business knowing Tetley Abednego. She’s too good for me. So different and alive and pure I know I had nothing to do with her. She came from somewhere else, somewhere outside me, and I consider myself lucky to have gotten to know her. She is, and will always be, her own, not mine.

Tetley is nothing like me. She’s not really like any character I’ve ever written before. She lives an objectively terrible life, a life I definitely did create and invent and then pitched her in head-first with no protection. She lives a life deliberately designed to skewer the kindlier notions of what an apocalypse is actually like to live through. I fucked it up for her real good. On purpose, and with malice aforethought.

But this girl who arrived in my head wearing her Oscar the Grouch backpack and a smile just refused to see it that way. No matter what I threw at her. For her, the end of the world is simply home. It is beautiful, and magical, filled with adventure and possibility. If she ever found one of those awful home decor signs that say Live Laugh Love or Bless This Mess in the mountains of rubbish that make up her reality, this girl wouldn’t hesitate to hang it on her bombed-out wall, and she’d mean it more fiercely than most of us mean anything. But she’s not stupid or naive or delusional. She just can’t help seeing the way the flames of hell sparkle. 

She is a precious cinnamon roll, consistently squashed into a fine paste by humanity’s inability to come together unless it’s to hurt someone. She’s her surname, the Biblical man who walked in the furnace and did not burn.

She’s wonderful trash.

And that juxtaposition of Tetley’s optimistic voice with the hopelessness of this stranded species remnant living their worst landfill life has always been the core of the Garbagetown Saga. She isn’t possessed by the idea of somehow finding a place where the old world lives on. She doesn’t respect the civilization of the past that did this to its own future—we’re known as the Fuckwits to every soul on the Garbage Patch. She doesn’t respect much of anything but the connections she forms with other human beings. And Oscar the Grouch, the great true god of the Old World, to whom Tetley prays every night. 

And she’s telling the stories we’ve always told, because we’re people and we can help it. About the things we lose because we can’t evolve fast enough, the family we make out of the scraps at hand, lovers meeting and parting, coming of age and growing old, strangers coming to town, treasures found and stolen, betrayal and secrets and violence done to innocents, and the greater picture we can never fully see, and the impossible choice this single shunned exile will be forced to make for the good, or ill, of all.

The stories we are always going to tell about ourselves, to ourselves, until the sun expands in a fireball to take all its beautiful babies back again.

We are in the past of Tetley’s world now, and we are deep in the red. We are the Fuckwits, and we don’t really deserve respect. We build the present our descendants will call home every day, minute by minute, kindness by kindness, horror by horror, one piece of sopping, wasteful, gorgeous trash at a time. It’s pretty hard to see the beauty in the ruin. But it’s there. It’s just covered in garbage and old choices we can’t unmake. And more garbage still. Those tales we tell over and over are all that are likely to survive the catastrophe ahead intact. There is no temperature at which our stories burn, so long as anybody at all remains to give them voice.

This is a book about one of the people left to lend her voice to her species. A girl full of regret and hope and joy and truly bad decisions, just like her planet. 

Wonderful trash.

Just like us.

Welcome to Garbagetown. It sucks here. It’s amazing here.

Bless this mess.


The Past Is Red: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s 

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

Seeing Things In A New Way

A few months ago, I started noticing that things I looked at every day that were not previously blurry had become blurry. The clock on the stove from the couch, the subtitles on a video game from the chair, things I never had an issue seeing before. It was worrisome. Did I really need glasses after a whole life of having perfect vision?

I was always the kid that tried on friends’ glasses and said “wow, you really are blind!” (not very nice, I recognize now). Well, the bill has finally come due, because now I have my own glasses for perfect-sighted friends to try on!

That’s right, I had an eye test today and they told me I’m neither near-sighted nor far-sighted, but that I have astigmatism. So I got a pretty mild prescription, and badda bing badda boom, I now wear glasses! Of course, I won’t be wearing all the time since the only thing I have trouble seeing is tiny, far away words. I’ll really only need them when I drive (for street signage), play video games, or watch a movie with subtitles.

So far, it’s been weird getting used to them. I’ve only had them for a couple hours, but I have so many questions like: why is the ground so much closer to me now? Why does everything look compressed? Why do my hands look so weird? And how do I already have smudges on the lenses?!

Anyways, I guess I knew this would happen sooner or later, but I was really hoping to make it to forty without needing glasses (not that I like super need them or anything). But maybe forty was a bit ambitious.

I also had a really great time picking out frames! One of the staff members helped me out a bit. I told her I wanted thick frames, plastic, a little bit of cat eye, and black. She picked a couple pairs out for me, and I ended up with these Kate Spade frames, which I actually really like.

Do you wear glasses? Maybe contacts? Or even Lasik? Let me know in the comments, and have a great day!

-AMS

The Big Idea: Dan Rice

In author Dan Rice’s Big Idea, he shows us a world beyond our own, alongside a world that happens to be our own. How is this possible? Follow along as he tells us a bit about his inspiration for his debut novel, Dragons Walk Among Us.

DAN RICE:

Is there a world before our eyes that most people overlook? What are the ramifications for someone who can see the unseeable? This is the big idea behind my debut novel Dragons Walk Among Us.

I first became interested in the world that most people overlook through photography. For example, star trails illuminate landscapes that most people never experience except through photographs taken by others. What really started to fascinate me years ago are water droplets––on blades of grass, flower petals, leaves, windows, etc. Individual little worlds are scattered across the dewy grass, and most people never take the time to appreciate them. Sometimes I imagine each dewdrop is a microcosmos populated by strange creatures. I suppose on the infinitesimal scale of microbes, this is true.

I love photographing water droplets with my macro lens. Getting as close as possible, sometimes even using an extension tube so that the lens is practically touching the water (it will if you’re not careful!). This exploration of liquid splendor made me wonder what else is out there right before our eyes that we overlook. Over time and a few false starts, this question became a germ for a story that grew into Dragons Walk Among Us.

In my novel, Allison Lee, the protagonist, is blinded after an unprovoked assault. Frightened that her dream of becoming a photojournalist has just been flushed down the toilet, she agrees to undergo a radical experimental procedure to restore her vision. The surgery is a success. Thanks to her prosthetic eyes, her visual perception is better than ever before. In fact, she can now see things that no one else can. She can see the invisible world that is right in front of our noses.

Allison is thrust into a situation where she is literally unable to believe her eyes. Why can’t anyone else see what she does? Allison doesn’t trust her sight, so why should her friends? Allison eventually tells her friends, her squad as she refers to them, what she has seen. Their reaction is what she expected, incredulity. They give voice to her doubts. Her visions are a byproduct of the assault or a side effect of the prosthetics. She should really get her prosthetic eyes checked.

Despite their reservations, Allison’s squad helps her discover that the invisible world that only she can see is very real indeed. Disturbing the denizens of the realm between worlds has far-reaching consequences for Allison, her squad, and the world.

Ultimately, the lesson I’ve drawn from pondering the consequences of discerning the unseen is that there’s a great benefit to slowing down, lifting your head up, and taking the time to observe your surroundings. You might be surprised by what you see and what inspires you. I know this always proves true for me.


Dragons Walk Among Us: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound | iBooks

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

A Comment On Anxiety

Athena ScalziBack in the summer 2018, I wrote for the blog like I do now. For my last post of the summer, I mentioned that I felt bad I never responded to anyone’s comments the entire time. I proceeded to say that if I could do it over, I would’ve responded more. Yet, it’s been almost a year now since I started writing on here again, and I have yet to respond to anyone’s comments.

I constantly wonder why that is. I read all of them, and I get asked stuff pretty often! One would think I’d respond at least once in a while, right? As logical as that sounds, and as easy as I’m sure it would be, for some reason I can never bring myself to respond, even if I do want to answer someone’s question.

I’ve finally deduced that I have a bit of anxiety when it comes to dealing with comments. On one hand, I love them! I love that you fine readers interact with the post and like the post enough to comment on it or ask something interesting! The more comments on a post, the better in my mind. On the other hand, if I respond to one person and not someone else, will the person I didn’t respond to get upset over it? Or what if I respond and they don’t see it, and think that I ignored them?

I guess technically I could reply to everyone’s comments so I don’t feel bad about being selective or seeming like I’m picking favorites or something. But I’m not sure if it’s entirely realistic to reply to every single person all the time. But then how do I choose who I do end up replying to?

I’ve never quite understood how comments on WordPress work, anyway, so I’ve always avoided them because I think they’re weird, functionality-wise. Unlike Twitter, you can’t like, directly reply to someone, so if you want to say something back you just have to put their name in the comment that you’re posting and hope they see it? I don’t know, seems kind of like an odd way to do comments. So I’ve just never bothered to try.

But that’s really a small piece of the pie in comparison to seeming like I’m picking favorites or ignoring people. I guess in my mind it’s just better to ignore everyone and never reply, rather than reply sometimes or only to some of the people that comment. Does that make sense? Of course not! But I don’t know how to stop my brain from thinking this way.

And now that I’ve been doing it this way for so long, I feel like I can’t stop. Like I can’t just start replying to comments now out of the blue! It’s already been a year, won’t it look odd if I just start doing it? Like, “oh, why did she decide to start replying now? Couldn’t she have been doing that the past year?” Yes! I could have! Probably.

Honestly, I just feel guilty. And this is over comments of all things! Am I being a drama queen? Maybe, but how do I tell my brain to quit being difficult? I care about y’all, and I want to start replying to you, even though I haven’t before. Better late than never, right?

So, I’m making this post to hold myself accountable. If I tell you all that I’m going to do it, that’ll make me actually do it! No backing out, anxiety be damned.

I can’t promise to reply to all of you. And with my replies to comments comes my mighty mallet power. So, beware! And have a great day!

-AMS

More Thoughts On Loki: Episodes 4-6

Athena ScalziI didn’t think that this post would be the last of its kind, as I expected there to be episodes 7-9, like with WandaVision, but alas, season one of Loki ends with just six episodes. I’m going to assume that season two will also have six episodes, but I guess we’ll see when it gets here.

Anyways, I’m obligated to offer you an OFFICIAL SPOILER WARNING, so here it is! Let’s get into it.

(Also: A link to the write-up for the first three episodes, in case you missed it.)

I just want to start off by saying that I know an enemies-to-lovers trope when I see when one, and BOY FUCKING HOWDY did I see one in episodes three and four. And I thought I had to be wrong. There was no way that they would actually make Loki and Sylvie have feelings for each other, right? And yet I couldn’t stop analyzing every moment they had together that just seemed so typical enemies-to-lover. I convinced myself I was overthinking it, and that I was reading the signs wrong, BUT I WASN’T.

All that banter? All that fighting? All that opening up to each other? Working together? It was so obvious all along and I felt like I was the only one that could see it. But I never in a million years expected the writers to actually like, make it happen.

Is there a lot, and I mean a lot, of discourse surrounding this decision? Yes, absolutely. But no matter how you feel about it, you can’t deny that Loki liking Loki is completely in character. It’s so on brand for him to like someone who is essentially him, right? Even Mobius said that his “demented crush” on her makes sense because he’s a huge narcissist who thinks he’s the greatest thing ever, so how could he not fall for someone who is just like him, and is in fact basically him!

It’s also not even close to the weirdest thing Loki has done if you read any mythology. Now that’s some fucked up shit. So maybe Loki liking Loki isn’t like, the biggest deal ever. Feel about it how you will, but I’m just glad that Loki finally felt love for someone, even if it is a bit odd.

Of course, this only made Sylvie’s betrayal all the more painful in episode six, when she kissed him, not out of love or passion, but to distract him so she could access the TemPad and yeet him into another reality.

But, that’s enough of the romance talk for now (though I could honestly talk about it for a lot longer). Let’s talk about the actual plot and story.

As I have mentioned before, time travel and multiverses are so totally not my cup of tea. All this “void at the end of time” and “multiverse war” stuff is honestly beyond me. I don’t understand it, can’t conceptualize it, and therefore don’t really like it.

Generally I try not to fault whatever movie or show I’m watching that uses time travel or multiverses because I assume that it’s not the movie that’s stupid, it’s me. Maybe Loki makes perfect sense with all its time branching and a monster that eats time and space, it just doesn’t make sense to me specifically. I’m the one who doesn’t get it, so I can’t fault it for being a bad show, right?

But honestly, the whole idea of some dude from the 31st century somehow weaponizing Alioth (which was very unclear on the how) and becoming the grandmaster of all time and space is in fact kind of… stupid. I think the “villain reveal” was underwhelming, and that He Who Remains was largely uninteresting. Miss Minutes is a much scarier antagonist than He Who Remains.

Personally, I’m more interested in Loki for pretty much everything other than the plot. The story is by far the least interesting thing about the show. The characters and their interactions with each other are more entertaining and enjoyable to watch than anything that has to do with the story. Plus, the visuals, use of color, and cinematography overall are incredible. So there’s a lot more to Loki than this whole TVA thing, which is good for me considering I’m not a fan of the concept.

There’s obviously a lot more that I could talk about, like all the Loki variants at the end of time, Hunter B-15, Renslayer, the Time Keepers being androids, but honestly none of it sticks me as much as Loki and Sylvie. Of course, they’re the main characters, so that makes sense, but for me it goes beyond them just because the main focus of the show.

I’ve always been overly invested in Loki in particular, invested in his relationship with his brother and father, invested in his schemes and plots, invested in his MULTIPLE DEATHS (goddammit Marvel). But now I get to be invested in a part of him that has never been seen before: his romantic life. We get to see him go through feelings and emotions that have never been shown to us before, and get to see a side of him that’s different from the conniving trickster we’ve known for the past decade. And it’s wonderful.

Loki has given us so much in so few episodes, and I can’t wait for season two.

What did you think of the finale? How do you feel about Loki and Sylvie? Do you think Renslayer is a bad person? Let me know in the comments, and have a great day!

-AMS

The Big Idea: Nicole Kornher-Stace

They say you should always know your audience, but in author Nicole Kornher-Stace’s case, she took this saying literally. Follow along in her Big Idea as she tells you about who she wrote Jillian VS Parasite Planet for, and why.

NICOLE KORNHER-STACE:

Since approximately five minutes after I started publishing, my mom has been telling me I should write a kids’ book. For a while I was…skeptical. Many of the kind things people have said about my work involve it being dark but ultimately hopeful but before that just. so dark. And many of my rejections have been for being “too dark.” None of which really felt super compatible with, y’know, a children’s book.

It’s not that I thought it was a bad idea, it just felt like an idea that was beyond my skillset or ability to even really conceptualize. So on the back burner it sat for a long time, along with a whole bunch of other stuff I’d talked myself out of writing for various reasons. (Thanks, impostor syndrome. You’re the best.)

And then I had a baby. And then my baby grew up into a kid. And just like that I had an audience to write a kids’ book for. And everything kind of came together from there.

Up until recently my kid was always a reluctant reader—which, as a person who’d spent her childhood holed up in her room with her nose in a book unless compelled to be otherwise, was honestly a really jarring thing to adapt to. He loved books and being read to, but reading was always a chore for him. So I took this as a challenge. I wanted to write a book that might appeal to reluctant-reader kids like mine—but to my kid above all.

My son’s favorite book at the time was Hatchet by Gary Paulsen, which thrilled me because as a kid I was all over the survival story books and spent an inordinate amount of time thinking how I’d prepare for my own Survival Adventure. I used to sit for hours and go through outdoor adventure catalogs that randomly appeared in our mail and pick one item per page that I would be “allowed” to have with me when my plane crashed or my ship ran aground or I got irreparably lost in the woods and had to live off the land. Hours. 

(I was a weird kid. Surprise.)

He was also at the time going through a phase I remember fondly from when I was around that age. Namely, deliberately and meticulously scaring the living crap out of himself. I’d already bought him the Scary Stories to Tell In the Dark treasury when he was still practically in the womb, and it sat on a high shelf for about ten years before he was ready for it. But when he was ready he was ready.

So my kids’ book had to be a survival story, and also be a little creepy. Already at the top of my mental stuff I want to write about someday list were: portal-based space travel, mind-control parasites, and a character who’s an intelligent shapeshifting nanobot cloud.

I had a ton of fun doing a research deep dive into real-world parasites and how they manipulate their hosts into doing their bidding. (If this topic interests you even a little, do yourself the absolute favor of getting your hands on a copy of Plight of the Living Dead by Matt Simon. Please.) And a ton of fun coming up with the name for my AI character, the Semi-Autonomous Bio-Reconnoitering Intelligent Nanobot Array (SABRINA).

Suddenly it was starting to look an awful lot like a story.

But first I needed a protagonist.

I was writing the book for my son, but at the same time I knew that if I was going to write a science-heavy hard(ish) SF adventure book for kids, I wanted the protagonist to be…not a boy. We’ve already got a ton of those. So I asked my son how he felt about the main character of his book—who he knew was based on him—to be a girl.

And he was like sure, why would I have a problem with that? Not to brag, but he’s basically the best.

He’s also a kid with a generalized anxiety disorder that took ages to diagnose because his teachers kept telling me things like nooo, can’t be anxiety, he’s so extroverted and outgoing! But then I took him in to see a developmental pediatrician who spent an hour with him and said, basically, yeah no this kid has an anxiety disorder.

Which got me thinking about how anxiety gets depicted in fiction, and how the often-inaccurate shorthand of “anxiety=shyness” that we’ve all internalized might get in the way of other kids’ actual real-life diagnoses. Because my kid? Is not shy. He’s the biggest people person in my household. But he’s also got a brain that is waaaay too good at playing the what-if worst-case-scenario game. A brain that wants to know exactly where things are going before they get there. And which will ask the same questions over and over and over and over again. Not because he wasn’t paying attention when you answered the first time. Because he’s checking in. To see if anything has changed since last time he asked.

And from there I started pondering how that what-if way of thinking and that tendency toward careful planning might actually benefit a person in a survival situation. And how I’d never seen anxiety represented in fiction in a way that was accurate to my experience, or my kid’s. And that I suddenly really wanted for that to be a thing that exists, not just for my kid but for other kids like him.

So my reaction was what it always is when I want to read a thing and can’t find it. I went ahead and wrote it myself.

I guess in the end the Big Idea behind this one was: pinpointing your ideal audience, and then writing them the very best book you can. Even if it catapults you—much like the protagonist, surviving by her wits on a hostile planet—straight out of your comfort zone.


Jillian VS Parasite Planet: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Visit the author’s website. Follow her on Twitter.

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