Wrote this up on Twitter just now; archiving here for posterity. Because this is a Twitter thread, please note that the very first graf below is referring to the screen cap of text below it.
So, I do have a take on how this movement functions, strictly as a practical matter, and involving the Hugos and other awards. I will share it with you in further tweets in this thread.
(Quote is from Elizabeth Sandifer and taken from here: https://www.eruditorumpress.com/blog/four-tiny-essays-on-sf-f)
How it works:
1. The modern corps of acquiring editors, in both NY publishing and in short fiction, has SIGNIFICANTLY more women and/or (out) LGBTQ+ folks, and more diversity generally. Stories they buy reflect their interests, and the sales numbers are good, so they keep at it.
2. When the Puppy nonsense happened, people committed to more diverse storytelling either entered or re-entered the Hugo voting pool to counteract the Puppy brigade. When they were routed, Puppies and their sympathizers flounced. Those interested in more diverse stories stayed.
3. Generally speaking, the stories over the last few years written by more diverse storytellers and selected by more diverse editors are *really fucking good*. The table stakes for award consideration are higher these days, and all writers have to step up to this new level…
… white dudes are not excluded from the Hugos or other awards (said the white dude who had a Hugo nod last year), and they win their share. But the operative phrase is "their share." The field is wider now, and better, and the default to them has decreased significantly.
Sandifer is correct that this shift is as significant as any that has come before, and possibly more so, because previous movements were still largely about white dudes. But I would suggest it's not only about the aesthetics of today's SFF; it's also the MECHANICS of the field…
… WHO is acquiring, WHO is voting and WHO is writing — and how it's selling and making a mark in the larger culture. Diversity in each case has broadened the field, in what's bought, what's read and what wins awards. As a field we're better for it. It starts with the editors.
Final note: Because the aspects of this new shift are as much about the state of the industry as they are about the aesthetics, I strongly suspect this is not so much (or merely) a "movement" as simply(!) the new normal in the field and the basis of further growth.
As a postscript, I wrote about some of this before in this essay here, and particularly point 4:
Oh! Shit! Forgot the traditional closing cat picture. Sorry!
I believe I’ve noted before that one of the big problems with being mostly bald is the thinner your hair is, the shorter it needs to be to look reasonably good. I am at point where “reasonably good” will require a clipping with a 5mm setting.
That said, I like this picture a lot. It’s not necessarily flattering, but it has character, and I’m at the stage of life where “character” is usually more interesting than “flattering.” Yes, this is a rationalization. Hush. I still like it.
In life, we make choices, and we have to live with them. But as Gwynne Garfinkle details in this Big Idea for Can’t Find My Way Home, maybe sometimes the choices we make have consequences even beyond that.
My novel Can’t Find My Way Home began as the story of a young actress haunted by her best friend who died protesting the Vietnam War. The haunting is a figurative as well as a literal one. The title of my first draft was Failing, because that was my conception of my protagonist, Joanna Bergman: someone consumed by how she’d failed her friend Cynthia Foster. In 1971 Jo and Cyn planned to firebomb a New York City draft board, but Jo backed out at the last minute. Cyn died in the explosion, and Jo was left guilt-ridden and emotionally isolated. In 1975, just as she’s falling for her married soap-opera costar and attempting to regain a sense of connection, Cyn’s angry ghost appears. The friendship between Jo and Cyn proves even more intense and complicated than it was when Cyn was alive, and Jo must figure out what her dead friend wants from her.
The novel drew on my fascination with certain radical factions that came out of the movement against the Vietnam War, including the Weather Underground and the Symbionese Liberation Army. (When I was nine years old, I’d watched the SLA shootout on live TV with little comprehension of what was happening, though it took place just over twenty miles from my house.) Can’t Find My Way Home is also a love letter to the classic daytime dramas that used to be produced in New York. Two friends of mine who worked on such shows — Lara Parker, one of the stars of Dark Shadows, and Rory Metcalf, who was on the writing staff of Ryan’s Hope — helpfully fielded my questions.
I wrote a quick first draft of the novel and then embarked on a painstaking revision. When I completed the rather grim second draft, I realized the book still needed something, to put it mildly. (For one thing, it needed to be in first person rather than third, which really isn’t something you want to discover after the second draft, or even after the first draft!) Then I got the idea that Cyn’s ghost would force Jo to relive the night of the draft board bombing over and over, making different choices until she figures out how to get things right (if that’s even possible). I knew I had found the key to making this novel work, and I could hardly wait to write all of Jo’s roads-not-traveled.
In retrospect, I don’t think I could have gone straight into writing Jo’s alternate lives without the scaffolding of the second draft. With that framework firmly in place, I could go wild exploring all the personal and political pathways of Jo’s lives. Jo became more multi-dimensional, and the story of Jo and Cyn opened up in ways I couldn’t have imagined when I started writing the novel. It turned out to be one of the best writing experiences of my life. I hope some of that exhilaration comes through in the book.
Those clouds look hardly ominous at all! Actually, what’s really ominous is that they have not budged for hours. They’re just lurking there to the south. We’ll see if they make a move when nightfalls. If you don’t hear from me tomorrow you’ll know why.
From time to time, people who wish to comment on science fiction and fantasy will choose to typify the current state of the genre in a way that suits their rhetorical needs, often creating a new-and-possibly-not-especially-cogent subgenre of it by offering up some noun with the suffixes “-punk” or “-core” attached. On occasion, in course of explaining their new spin on where science fiction is at the moment, I or a specific work of mine will be offered up as an example, or as a cautionary tale, if their diagnosis of the current state of science fiction is particularly dire.
I generally find these post hoc attachments of me or my work to newly-minted punk-or-core movements intriguing. Both because it’s fun to see what things of mine get used as examples, and because it’s nice to be thought notable enough that dropping in one of my works is seen either as bolstering the existence of the thing, or damning the thing as an abomination. Hey, I’m still in the mix, you know? An easy-to-make reference point that most people who follow the field will get without too much Googling. It’s gratifying to be ubiquitous. Good for me.
I also think these attachments are usually incorrect to some degree or another. I think there are some distinct thematic streams in the flow of current science fiction, and some of them might even be rivers, but I’m not sure that I’m sailing along in any of them specifically. It’s not that I’m too special and precious and exist only in my own pond. I think it’s more that the waterway I mostly traffic in is not a stream or a river, but a canal — you know, those artificial waterways people create, usually for commercial purposes. This canal may intersect or run parallel to these other streams or rivers (and here the analogy might break down, honestly I don’t know the hydrological mechanics of canals when they encounter other bodies of water, but just work with me here, okay, thanks), and where this happens, there’s going to be commonality. But after that short confluence, every one goes on their merry way.
My canal, as it turns out, runs across a lot of thematic ground, and does a fair amount of intersecting. Some of that is by design, since I am easily bored, as a human and a writer, and like to splash around in new places. Some of that is just following the lay of the land. At the end of the day, however, it means that depending one’s inclinations and rhetorical needs, and contingent on examples, I can be grouped in with the gun-humping dudes who write military science fiction, or the woke SJW scolds who are currently ruining the Hugos, or pretty much wherever else you need me to go to make your point.
And at least superficially you won’t be wrong. I mean, I did write that story that you’re pointing to, and it does exist in that sphere, and I’m not sorry I wrote that thing, and may write a thing like it again, if I have a mind to. But I suspect on a deeper level — the level that actually makes your point something more than a facile, half-baked thesis to burble out onto a blog post or podcast because content content content — using me as an example is not hugely useful.
In furtherance of my point, it might be useful for me to note the things that I think my fiction writing tends to be, and what it tends not to be. Bear in mind as I note these that I am the author, and my view of my work is filtered through my ego and the limitations of my understanding of my own self. Got it?
Okay, then, here are the things I think my work tends to be:
Commercial. As in, I write my fiction with the intent to sell it, and I pay attention to the market. I famously wrote Old Man’s War because I went into a bookstore to see what was selling in science fiction and said to myself, huh, I see a lot of military science fiction here, maybe I should write that. I don’t do that anymore because I don’t have to, but I am still resolutely and unapologetically writing in the mode of I want to sell a kajillion of this. Overlapping this:
Accessible. And no, “commercial” and “accessible” are not the same thing. If you have a specific audience that’s large enough, you can create work commercial to that audience specifically, and not worry about whether anyone outside that group can latch onto it without doing homework first. I don’t write only for the crowd that’s already there, I write so that people who are curious can get in. Related:
Middlebrow. I play with cool and abstruse concepts but I don’t typically dwell on them in the text beyond what is useful for the telling of the story. This is the reason the one subgenre I am almost never lumped into is “hard science fiction.” I give just enough of a concept that readers feel smart for getting it, and not enough they feel stupid for not getting it.
Nostalgic. Old Man’s War reads (very intentionally) like a Heinlein novel; Redshirts explicitly plays on original series Star Trek tropes. Fuzzy Nation is an actual reboot of an H. Beam Piper novel. Generally speaking my work can easily be placed on a line with already-existing “classic” books within the genre. They also tend to play to existing themes and tropes in science fiction, either to explore them or to invert or subvert them.
Humorous. Humor is story lubricant — it helps get readers comfortable and gets them to move along with the plot. Also humor remains a differentiator for me in the field; it’s surprisingly difficult to do well in a general sense (for any genre, not just SF/F), and science fiction has not generally valued it beyond its most broad applications.
All of the above combine to make my work one overarching thing:
Familiar. Basically, if you’ve read science fiction at any point since roughly 1950 then you can hook into what I’m doing, in terms of style, tropes and themes, whether I am doing space opera, near-future science fiction, or anything else. Now, allow me to suggest I am also doing other things beyond merely and cynically rehashing what’s come before. I flatter myself that I have added to the field and not just restated it. But for better or worse, what I have added largely exists within the boundaries of the current design of the field. That design, for reasons both positive and deeply negative, was almost perfectly constructed for a writer like me to enter into it when I did.
Now, what things is my work not?
Innovative. As noted above, I don’t tend to be a fiction writer to break molds; I tend to be a writer who looks at the mold and figures out how best to use it as it is, or leave it alone if it’s not something I find useful or interesting. That’s fine, but that’s not everyone, and it shouldn’t be. Other writers, for whom the field has not been constructed so congenially, either for their taste or for who they are (or both) are currently taking a sledgehammer to parts of it and/or are building on previously unused land. This is useful and absolutely necessary work, and I applaud it and celebrate it, and work to be part of making room for it within the genre. I also recognize that the nexus of the most significant innovation in the field is happening away from what I am doing.
Didactic. There’s nothing inherently wrong with didactic literature, incidentally. It can be really useful, and obviously science fiction is filled with books, classic or otherwise, written didactically and/or absolutely read didactically by their fans. But I don’t tend to fill my books with explicit exhortations about what is best in life. I mean, I have a blog for that. There is irony here in that many of my detractors will tell you my fiction work is didactic as fuck; I do suggest that they have generally taken their dislike for my personal social/political positions and overlaid those onto my fiction. Which, fine, but I generally disagree, and anyway expression of opinion is not necessarily didactic in itself (on that note, I should say that as my upcoming book The Kaiju Preservation Society takes place in 2020, there is some real-world opinion leakage there, because how could there not be).
Ornate. Either in construction – my plots and stories tend to be straightforward in their composition and linear in their telling – or on the level of language use and sentence construction. Very few people come to my work for the sheer poetry of the text, or for the mirror maze design of the stories.
Exclusive. Some very excellent work has been created with no audience, or a very small audience, intended other than the creator themselves. Other very excellent work was created without a concern for finding an audience for it (even if the audience for it turned out later to be huge). And then there are the people really who do just write for themselves, for pleasure or compulsion or a little of both, and are surprised that anyone else might care. I can respect all of those, but that is so not me. For reasons of ego and income, I have never written fiction without the idea of others reading it. That has implications for both what I write and how.
Influential. This is a tricky one so hear me out: Inasmuch as I write well within the existing lines of the genre and my work generally can be plotted out on a line with other more foundational authors and works, the chance that my writing in itself will be influential for itself is low. It doesn’t mean that PR people don’t use the line “For fans of Scalzi” in the marketing materials, or that people haven’t been inspired by me or my work to write their own stuff. But the mode of my writing is well-established. If you write like me, you write like a lot of people do.
(Having laid these out, let me stress that I think each of these rubrics is value-neutral and that each them can be performed positively or negatively, or indifferently. You can write a stone-cold classic that is essentially familiar; you can be innovative as hell and make a complete textual mess. And vice-versa.)
(And while we’re at it, let me additionally stress that I am not running myself down here. Folks, I’m really fucking good at what I do, and bluntly, right at the moment, I’m not sure anyone else does what I do in the genre better than I do it. I also think what I do is desired, appreciated and useful in the field, both in an artistic and commercial sense. Don’t cry for me. I am fine. But let’s all not pretend about what I am and am not, relating to the current field of science fiction literature.)
Now, what you might notice for all of the above is that none of it is really about theme or subject or (with the exception of the bit about ornamentation) style, which are the things that are at the heart of most punk-or-core formulations, and of subgenres as a whole. Cyberpunk and steampunk, as two well-understood examples, were largely about theme: Technology and how it makes (and remakes) society. Some writers do tend to stick to a particular theme, or at least are known for it due to their most famous works. William Gibson is the father of cyberpunk; China Mieville is forever associated with “New Weird.”
There is nothing wrong with that! Gibson and Mieville are not exactly hurting in terms of notability and influence. But also, it’s not what I do. As noted before, my commercial path intersects a lot of subgenres, and there is no consistency, in terms of sales or critical response, to which subgenre I write in and what gets noticed.
Which I consider a feature, not bug, to my career. I like my commercial/critical reputation not being tied into a single theme/subgenre/series. I would be (mildly) sad if my career were defined as, say, the Old Man’s War series and then just “everything else.” I love the Old Man’s War series! I’m going to write another one in it (eventually)! Also, part of the reason I love that series is that I don’t resent it for being the only thing of mine anyone wants to read (and the OMW series doesn’t confine itself to a single subgenre in any event, so).
For these reasons, I generally find being lumped into a “punk-and-core” formulation with regard to me and my work superficially accurate at best, and inaccurately reductive beyond that – I hop between themes a lot, and my time in any one subgenre tends to be transitory rather than rooted. I mean, don’t let me stop you if you think you can make a reasonable argument otherwise; as I said, my own view of this is rooted in my own ego and self-regard, and I don’t claim to be a perfect arbiter of me.
I will say, however, I am likely to continue to do things as I have done them, because it works for me and I’m having fun doing it this way. This may or may not do damage to your punk-and-core argument somewhere along the line. I’m fine with that. You should be, too.
First off, it doesn’t really feel like a Coen Brothers movie, probably because it isn’t: for the first time Joel Coen has put out a movie without his brother Ethan either in the producer or co-director seat. But I’ve seen people lump this into the “Coen Brothers” rubric, possibly more out of habit than anything else. So: Don’t do that, it’s not that, and you’re doing a disservice to the film, and the Coen Brothers oeuvre, if you do.
Second off, it is kind of a minor accomplishment that it doesn’t feel like a Coen Brothers movie, given that, aside from Joel Coen being one of the actual brothers in question, he brings with him cast and crew from his previous films, including Frances McDormand (also his wife), composer Carter Burwell, cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel, utility infielder Stephen Root among others. It would have been pretty easy for Coen to slide into the deep sardonicism and cosmic absurdity that nearly all his previous collaborations offered, and largely benefited from.
Instead of sardonicism and absurdity we get weirdness. Macbeth is unapologetically weird, and cinematically mannered in a way that I’m not entirely sure any other major director would attempt, or pull off, if attempted (I could see some lesser-known directors trying it, but probably not with this cast and crew, larded as each are with award winners). The things that Coen pulls off here — the black and white photography, the academy aspect, the wholesale pilfering of German Expressionism for the set design — run the risk of being winky, obscure or even twee, or of calling attention to themselves just for themselves, the self-conscious choices of a director who wants to show off. They could be a disaster, basically. But they turn out to just set the mood for and tone of the film. That’s actually impressive.
The story you know, or at least know of: Scottish thane Macbeth, fresh off a victory for and thus favor with the king Duncan, hears a prophecy that suggests he might one day be king. He then gets ambitious in a not very nice way, aided by his wife, who is just as ambitious and possibly more so. As this is a tragedy, things do not go well from there. If one wished to be facetious, one could make the argument that Macbeth (the play) is sort of a proto-crime noir, where overweening ambition gets people in over their head, and it all ends poorly, and often in shadows. And certainly crime noir-like films are Coen’s jam (see: Blood Simple, Fargo, No Country For Old Men, etc), and crime noir as an established cinematic genre owes a great deal to German Expressionism, which Coen heavily draws from here.
For all that I don’t want to attach a “noir” label too tightly. What Coen’s doing with The Tragedy of Macbeth exists in its own little pocket universe; it feels like the world falls away right out of frame, probably because, as the film was shot almost entirely on soundstages, it does. Noir doesn’t quite fit here; or maybe it’s best to say this film is noir’s odd cousin, the one with a lit degree and scenes from Un Chien Andalou running on a GIF loop on their iPhone.
I think this film is very good, but I don’t know if I like it. Denzel Washington, Frances McDormand and the rest of the cast are terrific, and also are all a few degrees off of where their performances might be said to be enjoyable (special nod to Kathryn Hunter as the weird sisters, providing the definitive what the actual fuck performance of 2021). The cinematography is, as already noted, laden with cues from another, grainier era of film, and shot with a digital clarity that is so sharp as to make the film (which is not on film) airless. Nothing is plumb; it’s all unsettled and unsettling.
It’s all effective, and I know I want to see this movie again. I don’t know that I will like it any better the next time I see it. I’m pretty sure that’s what Joel Coen was going for all along.
I’ve been asked a couple of times about how we’re doing and how we at the Scalzi Compound are dealing with the current Omicron wave of COVID infections out in the world. The short version is: We’re fine, and are dealing with it like we dealt with the previous waves. For my part specifically, I’m at home and I don’t go out that much when I’m here anyway, so on a day-to-day basis the number of people I see (and therefore, the number of people who I could infect, or could infect me) is pretty low. We have contractors at the house working on our upstairs bedroom suite bathroom, but aside from letting them into the house to work, I don’t come into close contact with them, in no small part because I’m sequestered away in a kitchen-living room cube that I’ve put baby gates up in so Charlie the dog doesn’t get in their way, which she absolutely would. So the chances of passing anything to them, or vice-versa, is relatively low.
And while I’m neither resigned nor sanguine about catching the Omicron variant of COVID, neither am I hugely fearful of it. I’m triple-vaxxed and aside from my age slightly increasing my risk factors, have no real physical comorbidities to be concerned about. The most likely outcome for me if I catch COVID now is that I’ll lie on the couch for a couple of days, which, honestly, is not all that different than my usual daily routine. The irony about COVID-deniers saying that the infection is “just another flu” is that they’re not wrong — if you’ve been vaxxed and boosted. If you’re not, and most COVID-deniers aren’t, it can still fuck you up pretty badly, even the “mild” Omicron version, as we’re seeing with utterly swamped hospitals. “Mild” or not, Omicron is much more infectious, which packs hospitals just the same.
(And of course, let’s acknowledge that the “just another flu” line was appalling to begin with, since in a normal year, “just another flu” kills tens of thousands of Americans, which is nothing to be dismissive of. This is why in addition to my COVID booster, I also got a flu shot this year.)
I have two general thoughts about the Omicron wave. One is utterly selfish: I hope it’s cresting here in January because I have plans for March, including an actual book tour, and I’m going to be pissed if a massive wave of infection punts it all into virtual territory. I have no problem with virtual events! We have some planned as part of the tour! But I also want to go places and see people, without a COVID miasma hanging over everything. So I’ll be happy if Omicron burns itself out in the next few weeks.
The other thought is that the crisis this wave has precipitated was an almost entirely optional one. This statement takes a moment to explain, so bear with me. I’m not convinced that the Omicron wave itself was optional; we have little control over how variants emerge, or the transmissibility of variants when they emerge, so even if the vast majority of Americans were fully vaxxed and boosted, we still might have had this wave wash over us, with its large number of “breakthrough” infections. Omicron’s gonna Omicron. That’s not up to us.
What was up to us was how many people were vaccinated (not counting the actual and relatively small number who couldn’t, for age or medical reasons), and thus, the character of this wave of infection that’s crashing into us now. Latest reports from New York note that the unvaccinated are being hospitalized at 13 times the rate of the vaccinated. In Ohio (since 1/1/21), you’re sixteen times more likely to be hospitalized from COVID if you’re unvaccinated, and 21 times more likely to die from it.
After all this time, the US is still only 62% fully vaccinated, with only 36% boosted. Omicron may have happened regardless of what we did. But because nearly 40 percent of us still haven’t bothered to get vaccinated at all, our hospitals are slammed, medical workers are at the breaking point, and people who don’t have COVID but suffer other life-threatening medical issues risk lack of treatment or even death because of yet another cresting wave of serious COVID infection hogging resourses and personnel. Seriously, don’t need hospitalization right now for anything if you can avoid it. The problem is, you can’t really avoid either a sudden medical emergency, or a current ongoing medical issue. You can’t ask a stroke or a heart attack to reschedule, and you can’t ask cancer to pretty please stop metastasizing.
I’ve discussed here before my utter disgust at the fact that certain opportunists decided to make vaccination a political issue, and I don’t need to do that again in great detail right now. What I can say definitively is that the willfully unvaccinated made the affirmative choice to make this wave of COVID infection worse for all of us. That’s not an opinion, it’s just math. The number of vaccinated people who need hospitalization is a substantial multiple lower than the unvaccinated. The full crest of the Omicron wave against a highly-vaccinated population would still be bad, but it probably wouldn’t be the crisis it is now, grinding our medical system to a standstill and having other knock-on effects on daily life that will be felt weeks and months onward.
I genuinely don’t understand a human being who affirmatively decides that they both want to unnecessarily expose themselves to a substantial risk of hospitalization and death, and contribute to unnecessarily risking the lives of others who need medical care, and make daily life just that much more annoying, inconvenient and occasionally more dangerous. But I also understand these folks have been lied to, both about the risks of vaccination and of COVID itself, and encouraged not to look at the consequences of their actions aside from a vague handwave about personal freedom, and the grubby promise of sticking it to people they don’t like, or at least told they shouldn’t like. Sometimes it’s not an affirmative decision to hurt one’s self and others, sometimes it’s a passive one, greased along by disinformation and a poisoned discourse.
For all that, I do think there’s a certain point where a pawn should understand they’re a pawn, not a king, or a queen, or even a rook. So, if you’re still a willfully unvaccinated person: You’re a pawn, sorry. You’re definitively making everything worse for everybody, and your personal choices affect the lives of people you don’t even know. Please stop making everything worse. Get vaccinated, or if you won’t, consider staying at home. Stop making everyone else pay for the consequences of your own actions. People might die because of your choices, and one of those people might just end up being you. I don’t think you really want to die, or to contribute to the deaths of others, because of what Tucker Carlson has said and/or some bullshit meme you saw on Facebook. If you do, please spend some time in serious introspection.
I’m fine. My family, all vaxxed and boosted (or scheduled to do so) is fine. We’ve done the things we should do to protect us from this wave of COVID and in doing so, are helping to protect others. Taking a few minutes out of our day to get a shot was literally the least we could do, for ourselves, and everyone else. It was worth it. Would that everyone felt the same way.
Author Ron Walters knows a true thing: that which truly terrifies you can also inspire you, if the stars align correctly. For Deep Dive, they did, and now Walters is here to tell you which fear helped him create his novel.
My daughters terrify me.
Don’t get me wrong, I love them both to death, and would do anything for them, but that’s exactly why they’re so frightening. My greatest fear is that something horrific will happen to one or both of them, some debilitating injury or illness or unpredictable catastrophe, and I’ll be powerless to do anything about it. No doubt that’s a fairly normal worry for a parent, but here’s the thing: I’m not only a parent, I’m also an author. Which means instead of simply gnawing quietly on that worry like a regular stressed out dad, I amplify it a thousand-fold and write a book about it.
As a parent there are few things more distressing to me than thinking my kids are one place only to realize they’re not where they’re supposed to be. A cold, nauseating void opens up inside me, makes my limbs tremble and my stomach cramp and causes the entire world to teeter off balance until I finally lay eyes on them. Except, what if I didn’t? What if my kids just up and vanished? Even worse, what if all the evidence that they’d ever existed was wiped off the face of the earth, and I was the only one who remembered them?
That nightmarish scenario became the big idea behind Deep Dive, my debut sci-fi thriller. The writer’s side of my brain, however, knew it wasn’t quite enough to merit the time I was asking readers to invest in the story. Hooks are great, but readers need to see themselves in the main character, or at least be able to empathize with them on a personal level. In order for that to happen, my main character required some kind of internal conflict, a deep-seated issue that was not only relatable to other people but could also be directly connected to the disappearance of his kids.
As it happened, I was in a bit of a mental hole when I started plotting Deep Dive. Writing is largely a solitary affair, which for the most part is perfectly fine. But I’d been at it for a long time with nothing tangible to show for it—in other words, a book deal—and was beginning to question whether all the effort I’d put into trying to break into publishing was worth the hours and days I’d given up with my family. Truth be told I was close to calling it quits, but I decided to give Deep Dive the same chance I’d given all my other books. So, in true writerly fashion I dumped all my angst into Peter, the main character. I didn’t want to be too autobiographical, though, so instead of an aspiring author I made Peter a struggling video game developer who loves his family but has become so obsessed with professional success that he spends more time working than he does with his wife and daughters.
As soon as I nailed down Peter’s profession, the rest of the story fell into place. After all, what better way is there to make the children of a game dev disappear while simultaneously making him question whether they’d ever existed in the first place than by incorporating virtual reality? That said, I didn’t want the VR element to overshadow Peter’s personal strife. It needed to be integral to the story, but in a way that would serve the intimate character arc I’d planned for him. To that end, the moment he dons the experimental headset that he hopes will save his floundering career, it malfunctions spectacularly and knocks him out. When he regains his senses, he discovers that his life has changed in two significant, disturbing, and all-too-real ways: his daughters are gone, erased from everyone’s minds but his own, and he’s the successful, much-lauded game dev he’s always wanted to be.
Whether Peter decides to accept his success at face value or hold tight to the conviction that his daughters and his experiences as a parent aren’t the byproduct of a work-induced nervous breakdown is up to readers to discover. However, I will say that writing Deep Dive was a hugely cathartic experience for me both as a writer and as a father. I learned a lot about myself, about what I was willing to give up and what I wasn’t willing to concede when it comes to pursuing success. Yes, the book is my worst nightmare brought to fictional life, but it’s also a love letter to my wife and daughters, a story I never could have written if I hadn’t become a parent. Seeing it on my shelf is a constant reminder that success, however I define it and however gratifying it might be, means nothing if I lose sight of the three people in my life who matter more than any book I’ll ever write.
If for some reason you can’t see/read the photo above, this is what it says:
John Scalzi’s THE KAIJU PRESERVATION SOCIETY, where, on a parallel earth, kaiju — the massive Godzilla-esque monsters of Japanese film lore — roam free; after humans discover entry into this universe (via tearing open the space-time continuum with nuclear explosions), scientists work to study and protect the gargantuan beasts… while others look to exploit them, optioned to Fox Entertainment, by Joel Gotler at IPG (world).
So, yeah, that’s pretty nice. It’s lovely to have the book optioned well in advance of its publication; that’s a fabulous vote of confidence.
I should note that at this point the answer to nearly any question you might ask about the TV version of the book is “That’s a great question, I have no idea, I guess we will have to see.” It’s very very very early days for what’s going on with this book and its possible television counterpart (again, the book itself has yet to even hit bookstores). Also remember that “optioned” doesn’t mean “showing on your TV right NOW”; there’s lots of opportunities for the project to fall down. That said, I’ve met the network folks, and they are great. I’m feeling as optimistic as one can be this early stage of things.
More news when it happens. And until then: Hey! My book’s been optioned. I’m happy.
On one hand Charlie knows perfectly well she’s not allowed up on the furniture in my office (or indeed anywhere else in the house). On the other hand, she looks darn cute all curled up like that, and also, every moment she’s sleeping in my office is a moment she’s not bugging me to go outside, or to be fed, or show me a very important disemboweled stuffed animal. So you see my conundrum. In the meantime, a pretty good picture.
Busy day today, including writing a television episode pitch, answering interview questions, planning future projects, walking the dog (twice!), and otherwise acting like a (nearly) responsible adult. Not bad for a Tuesday.
Those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it, but those who do learn from history get to play the changes with it for their own work. Just ask Jacey Bedford, who uses a lesser-known bit of history to inform The Amber Crown.
They say if you’re going to steal, then you should steal from the best. History provides both stories and settings, and though I dick about with both, I draw heavily on the background radiation that history emits into the present.
My Rowankind trilogy (Winterwood, Silverwolf and Rowankind), also published by DAW, is firmly set in a Britain of 1800 with added magic. It contains some real historical characters plaited into the story in supporting roles. The Amber Crown doesn’t sit as closely to Baltic history as Rowankind does to British, but it still carries a distinct flavour.
A few years ago I was sitting at my desk, falling down a google-shaped rabbit hole, hopping from one random factoid to another, when I came across an article on the Livonian Brothers, the Teutonic Knights, and the Northern Crusades, and it set my mind racing. Like most people I always thought of the Crusades as being exclusively Jerusalem-focused and featuring Saladin and Richard the Lionheart in a hot, arid landscape. But the Northern Crusades were the Christian colonisation of the pagan Baltic peoples by Catholic Christian military orders. Separate crusades came in waves from the late 12th century through to the 14th. Until then I’d assumed that Christianity had trickled through to northern Europe at the same time as it spread throughout the British islands. How wrong I was.
Although I considered it, I didn’t actually set my book in that turbulent period, but the one thing that stuck with me was that the Baltic lands were Christianised much later than the British Isles, and that Pagan beliefs (and therefore magic) lasted longer there. That gave me an opening.
I set The Amber Crown in an alternate version of the Baltic lands: Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, and their neighbours Sweden, Belarus, Prussia and Poland. My fictional kingdom of Zavonia is largely set where Latvia and Lithuania are today. At first I was going to call it Livonia, an actual region which has been (depending on the ebb and flow of history) a huge area which covered much of present day Lithuania/Latvia, or a tiny area, barely on the map. After The Livonian War (1558 – 1583) it had shrunk to about half its previous size. It was never a kingdom. It was parcelled off to Sweden after the 1626-1629 Polish-Swedish War. When I renamed the area Zavonia, I resolved the Swedish aggression by having a treaty marriage between the King of Zavonia and the younger sister of the King of Sweden (or Sverija as I called it). Prussia became Posenja, Russia became Ruthenia, Belarus became Bieloria, Finland became Suomija.
History tends not to drop plots and characters fully-formed into my head. It’s more like a gradual accretion of ideas that coalesce, and grow by the gradual accumulation of thought-particles until I have something that almost looks like a plot.
I started out with a single scene. Valdas Zalecki, captain of the king’s High Guard (his personal bodyguard) is taking one night off – one night in many months. He’s in the Low Town with his favourite whore on his knee, getting pleasantly inebriated when from high on the Gura, the Didelis Bell tolls the death knell of a king – the one he’s meant to protect. I didn’t know that much about Valdas as I wrote that scene except he was an honourable man moved to do his duty. He was the sort of strong man you night instinctively trust, but at that point I didn’t know his background.
Then history dropped another little nugget into my lap in the form of the Polish Winged Hussars, and I knew that was where Valdas had come from.
I shamelessly stole the hussars from Polish history, and transplanted them across the border to my Zavonia. If you want to be amazed, look them up. My critique group’s comments on the chapter in which my Winged Hussars appeared thought they were too far-fetched, totally unbelievable. I had to explain that they were real, the pre-eminent cavalry of their day who played a pivotal role in breaking the Siege of Vienna in 1683. The Polish Winged Hussars rode into battle with enormous wings made of eagle feathers on a frame strapped to their backs; the shock troops of their day. Their strategy was to ride slowly, in loose formation, towards the enemy. As they got closer, they closed in until they were riding knee to knee and then they charged, lances forward, the wind singing through their wings. Utterly terrifying.
I dropped Valdas into this historical background as the first of a trio of viewpoint characters, together with Mirza, a Landstrider witch-healer from the Eastern Steppes, and Lind, the clever assassin who killed the king and kicked off the whole story in the first place. (He was fun to write because he has more hangups than a closet full of coats, but that’s a story for another day.)
It’s a diverse set of characters in a high-stakes story of politics, magic, vengeance and redemption. There’s friendship, compassion and <ahem> sex. There is a muted love story in the background, but it’s not, by any stretch, a romance. Do the characters end up getting what they want? Possibly not, but they do get what they need.
I enjoyed writing it, I hope you enjoy reading it.
I Did a Whole Bunch of Non-Online Stuff Today and Forgot to Update, But Look, I Brought You a Sunset
It even has a sun pillar! Which we often get here in winter, with ice crystals in the atmosphere and all. I hope you like it, and that it was a perfectly serviceable Monday.
Also, as it happens, tomorrow is the 14th anniversary of Zeus showing up at our garage door on what was, if memory serves, one of the coldest nights of that winter, and meowing piteously to be let in, which, clearly, he was. I always forget which year it was that Zeus showed up, and thus he is younger in my head than he is in reality. In truth he’s now old and a little cranky, and he’s earned his rank of being the senior Scamperbeast. It’s not just him, though — all my cats I think of being a year or two younger than they are. My memory is doing a lot of condensing, it seems. Or maybe, in each case, it just doesn’t seem that long.
Enjoy your pets while you have them, folks. The time goes by faster than you think.
If there is one thing the United States is fortunate about, one year after Donald Trump supporters, with the then-president’s now-clearly-explicit consent, stormed the US Capitol in an attempt to disrupt the electoral vote count and allow Trump to unconstitutionally remain in power, it is that in this endeavor, as in nearly every other that Trump and his supporters have attempted, they were spectacularly incompetent. Had the attack been one whit less half-assed and shambolic, or had Trump himself and his team had even the slightest bump to their ability for executive function, then things might have been very different. There might be dead Congresspeople, or a hanged Vice-President, and while I do not believe Trump would have managed to remain in power, the process by which he would be required to be removed would have been a great deal more unpleasant. The goal was a coup, not just against the incoming president, but against the Constitution of the United States, and the idea of our nation as a republic. All that stood between that coup and its short-term success was competence. That’s it.
The attack on the Capitol was, and is, unforgivable. Donald Trump, the worst president we’ve ever had — and think of how bad a president you have to be to shoulder aside the likes of Buchanan and Harding — should be openly reviled by his party and his nation. And yet, after perhaps 48 hours of unrehearsed shock, the Republican party rallied around this traitor to the republic and the constitution, and tried to rebrand an actual coup attempt into overexuberant tourism. The large majority of its members acted as if Trump, not Biden or the nation or its laws, had been the one wronged in that attempt. The few Republicans who stood on principle, and allegiance to the United States rather than the party or its petulant leader, are being shown the door as quickly as possible.
And that, too, is unforgivable. The coup attempt and the Republican party response made explicit what anyone who has been watching the party in the last 20 years already knew: The GOP is officially done with the notion of democracy in the United States. Its only interest in it at this point is using its remaining functioning processes to shut it down. The GOP has no platform other than a Christianist White Supremacist Authoritarianism, no goal other than a corrupt oligarchy, and no plan for its supporters other than to keep them hyped up on fear and hatred of anyone who is a convenient target. The Republican party problem with the coup is not that it happened. It’s that it was so poorly planned and executed. Now they’ll have to attempt another one.
Which is coming! The GOP has already made it clear they have no intention of honoring another presidential election that might allow a Democrat into the White House. They are attempting all sorts of strategies to limit the ability of suspected non-Republicans to vote, to discount their vote if they still manage to do it, and to disrupt the certification of the vote if it doesn’t go the way they want it to. A Democrat winning is enough evidence of “voter fraud” for a Republican to attempt to gum up the works for as long as possible, to sow distrust in the system, and to pave the way for GOP Coup II, i.e., “We Didn’t Want To But Look What the Dirty Democrats Made Us Do.” This coup may or may not have an “armed citizen” component to it; as noted the GOP has gotten very good at using the processes of democracy against it. The Republicans would love a coup that they could punt up to a compliant Supreme Court, and that would probably not be a coup with shooting in it. But a coup it would be nevertheless.
The best case scenario of the GOP being unwilling to disown Donald Trump and his coup attempt would be that the vast majority of the Republican House and Senate members are simply moral and political cowards. And they certainly are that. But every other action of the party shows that the cowardice is paired either with moral or political cynicism, or moral and political degeneration. There are unabashed bigots walking the halls of Congress, House members who are disappointed that the coup didn’t take, and senators who have stated that if the GOP takes back the House, it will impeach Joe Biden “whether it’s justified or not.” Cowards, cynics, bigots. And opportunists.
A political party that can’t turn its back on a traitor who endangered even some of its own members should not be trusted. A political party that embraces that same traitor and doubles down on its allegiance to him should be reviled. A political party that has decided to abandon the constitution and the republic should be dismantled. Here in 2022, when the Republican party has clearly and unambiguously done all three, no person with any sense of moral character or loyalty to the republic should vote for the GOP, for any position, at any level, or support it in any way, but especially with money.
This is easy enough for someone who registered as a Democrat, or, like me, someone who does not belong to any particular political party. It’s rather more difficult for someone who has been Republican or Republican-leaning their entire life. And while it’s easy to spot the people who are 100% in for White Christianist Fascism (hint: If you’re still flying a Trump flag in January 2022, you have the words “most likely to be a traitor” blinking like a neon sign over your head), there are millions who are still laboring under the impression that the attempted coup wasn’t as bad as all that, or that the GOP is somehow on a reasonable path.
For those people, here’s a simple test: Substitute the words “Donald Trump” with “Hillary Clinton” and “Trump supporters” with “Clinton supporters” and then run January 6 through your memory banks. You good with a President Hillary Clinton encouraging her supporters to storm the Capitol to stop the certification of, say, President-Elect Donald Trump as the 46th president? Unless you are absolutely 100 percent lying to yourself — and you may be! — your answer here is “Hell, no.” And you would be correct. It’s treason, and any political party giving aid and comfort to such an act is beyond redemption.
One year out from January 6, it’s become clearer than ever that our nation was threatened by a small and unworthy man, supported by a corrupt and cynical political party. The small, unworthy man is gone, for now. The corrupt and cynical party is still there, and it has learned no lesson other than “do it better the next time.” If you care about the United States at all, you will work toward there never being an opportunity for a next time, either for the Republican party or for anyone else who would hold this nation and its best values in such contempt. You’ll keep working at it for as long as you can. Because I promise you they’re not giving up. And they will be more competent at it the next time they try.
Many of you have been asking about how my semester away from the blog went, and today I’m here to finally quell the curiosity!
Right up front I’m just gonna say: I blew it again. Old habits die hard, I guess.
I had signed up for four classes: Intro to Humanities, Intro to Communications, Race and Diversity, and Cell Biology. All were required, and all were 3 credit hours each (except biology which was 4). Cell Biology was on Monday from 9am to 11:15am, and the rest were back to back on Tuesday, starting at 10am and ending at 3pm. So, four classes, two days in person a week, it didn’t sound so hard. Or at least, it didn’t sound completely impossible.
I remember the night before I went to my first day of biology, I was in tears because until then I hadn’t thought to check the syllabus that was posted online, which said I needed to have read all of chapter one before the first day. It turned out I had purchased the wrong access code from the campus bookstore, so I couldn’t access the textbook to read the thirty pages, and it was already eleven at night. So I freaked out.
I didn’t want to go to class unprepared. Thinking of showing up without having read the first chapter gave me anxiety so badly I almost couldn’t bring myself to go to class, because the thought of the facing the professor killed me inside. What if she asked me something about the first chapter?! What if there was a pop quiz?! As most anxiety-inducing things go, it ended up not being even remotely a big deal, because no one had read the chapter and she didn’t really mind, she just said make sure you read it at some point this week.
For the first week, it was easy. Everyone loves syllabus week. That week of introductions and that feeling of getting back into things, color coordinating your folders to your classes (green for science, purple for humanities, obviously). And for a second you feel like you really can do this, and that things will be okay this time.
But then the assignments come. And the second you’re done with one, there’s another. Another paper to write, another virtual lab to do, another quiz to take. Then, when/if you finally get through all of that, there’s studying to be done for weekly tests, midterms, finals, you know how it goes. It’s just nonstop devoting all your time and energy to stuff that you don’t want to be devoting any time and energy to! But, them’s the breaks, right?
Every time I logged onto my laptop to do an assignment, I would pretty much freak out merely reading the instructions for the assignment. I have to read forty pages of a textbook, do 845 fill-in-the-blank vocab words, write a five-page paper on Leonardo Da Vinci’s The Last Supper, cite all my sources in MLA format (8th edition), and take a chapter test? For just one class?! I think I’d rather lie down in front of a train. A moving one.
It all felt like too much, way too much, right from the start. I got the urge to drop something. I needed to do something that would take some of the weight off. So in the second week, I dropped communications. I picked this one because my professor was a fucking racist, sexist, homophobic piece of shite.
Anyways, now I only had three classes to focus on, which again sounded completely manageable. Three is easier than four. I could do this.
And yet somehow I couldn’t! I would spend hours with my laptop open, staring at an assignment, and not doing any of it. Just agonizing over the fact that I had to do it, lamenting that I could be spending this time doing something else, guilting myself for not just shutting the fuck up and doing it.
I’d crack open my textbook and spend what felt like forever reading the same page over and over again because none of it was processing. Something something hydrophilic covalent bond blah blah signal receptors yada yada polarized valence electrons. What the fuck was I reading? The words meant nothing, they were just letters strung together to form something that looked like a sentence, but I’m not convinced they really were.
I kept getting so mad at the fact I didn’t understand the content, and was so convinced I could never possibly understand it, that I would just completely wing the multiple choice assignments. What should’ve taken me three hours took me fifteen minutes because I would just choose one and figure I had a 1/4 chance to get it right. So I kept getting forties and fifties on the assignments, and tests certainly weren’t any better. And so I started failing biology.
And soon enough I started failing the other two. But I have much less of an excuse for those two. It’s not like I didn’t understand it, as opposed to biology, which I genuinely can’t fucking comprehend. The other two were filled with content I cared about. I love sociology! I love art! How could I not do well in something I care so much about?
Truthfully, I don’t know. I can go to class, and I can talk about paintings and flying buttresses, and I loved discussing deindustrialization and the prison industrial complex. I like learning. I just couldn’t do the work.
Homework is truly the bane of my existence. Even when I was a kid in elementary, I had the hardest time doing homework, though I exceled in the classroom setting and was top of the game in standardized testing. Homework has always been my downfall, and college is a million times worse than junior high or high school ever was.
I feel like I’m buried under a crushing pile of assignments. I drown in it. I can’t breathe. It kills me. Slowly. Surely.
And the guilt is the nail in my coffin, built out of paper. Made with the pages of textbooks, the pages of my five-subject notebooks, the pages of the final papers I never wrote.
Every day that I went to class, I would cry the whole drive home. Every time I would try to do an assignment, I would cry. Cry at my inability to do simple things, cry at my hatred for being forced to do something that means nothing to me and brings me no joy, cry at the fact that if I had just gotten this right the first time at Miami I wouldn’t have to be doing it now.
Cry at what a complete failure I am.
Then came the time to tell my parents again that I was failing again. A painful repeat, but I’m nothing if not used to it by now. After all, it is the fifth semester I’ve failed.
The next day, November 1st, was the last day to drop a class, so I walked in and dropped all three. So instead of a bunch of F’s, I just have a bunch of W’s. But we all know what those W’s represent.
Anyways, time to get back in the saddle. I go back to school in two weeks. I signed up for two classes this semester, Intro to Geology and Intro to Anthropology. Both are required, one is 3 credit hours and one is 4 credit hours. Anthropology is all online, and geology is Tuesday and Thursday from noon to two.
Sounds doable, doesn’t it?
I guess we’ll see.
“Automated Customer Service,” from Love Death + Robots, Vol. 2 on Netflix, for which I wrote the script and the underlying short story on which the script is based. The is eligible for Best Dramatic Presentation, Short Form for the Hugos, and the Bradbury Award for the Nebulas. It’s already won an Emmy! So it has that going to for it, which is nice (note: I did not win the Emmy; it was for character design, and won by Laurent Nicolas).
Aaaand… that’s it! I meant to write some short fiction in 2021 for publication in that year, but I didn’t get around to it because I was busy doing other things, up to and including let my brain have some time off because I was coming off a stressful 2020. The good news is that for 2022 I’ll have a novel and a novella and a new episode of Love Death + Robots plus maybe some other things, so you’ll have lots of stuff for awards consideration next year. I’ll remind you then.
In the meantime, however: Hey, “Automated Customer Service” is pretty good! If you have Netflix (and most of you do, I bet), check it out. And if you want to, nominate it! If you don’t, that’s fine too. It’s still pretty good, award nominations or no.
Even though I will not see a penny from it:
More seriously, enjoy and remember to pre-order the book, if you have not yet already. Every preorder equals a tasty snack for the pets! Roughly, I mean, I haven’t done the actual math on this.
Here’s the link to the Tor/Forge Blog piece on the free chapters. It includes links to various ebook stores.
Now that the holidays have been packed away and we are back into the swing of things, I know that some of you have had an interest in how I manage my work days. The answer to this varies, largely depending on whether I’m working on a novel or not. However, as it happens, I am working on a novel again, and also, I’ve decided to put a bit more structure into my day. So in theory, here’s how my work days should go in 2022.
8am – 9am: General crawl out of bed time, and also take care of any emails/other messages that have to be addressed immediately (otherwise they can wait). Check Whatever comments to make sure no one made a fool of themselves overnight. Take the dog out if necessary. When writing, look over the writing from the day before and make adjustments to it. Post any Big Idea pieces. When all that is taken care of, turn on blocking software to clear out social media and news sites.
9am – 12pm: Write new stuff. “Write” in this case means typing actual new words, but can also include research (like today, when most of the day was spent on Google Maps and various realty sites looking at commercial real estate prices). I have a general goal of 2,000 words a day, most written in this time block, but I don’t beat myself up if I don’t reach that word goal.
12pm – 1pm: Exercise, shower and lunch, usually but not always in that order. Take the dog out for a longer walk. Check the mailbox. Turn on social media again but try not to spend long stretches of time on it until the end of the business day. Avoid news if it can be avoided until the end of the business day.
1pm – 5pm: Any other business-related tasks, other writing (including blog posts) and email, and any phone/zoom meetings or out-of-house errands. If work is not pressing, read something that is not social media or news. If there’s time left over, practice music. Probably some photography in there if I feel like it.
5pm – onward: Work day is over so, really, whatever I feel like doing. Check out the news (or maybe not if I don’t feel like bothering), spend time with family, watch movies/TV, read, nerd out of social media, write more on Whatever, etc and so on. More dog walking! And then, because I’m old now, usually in bed by ten.
So that’s the theory!
How will it work in practice? As with so many things, it depends. The most dependable part of the schedule is the 9am – 12pm block, since it really is the part of the day when my creativity and energy levels are at their highest. I really need to protect that part of the day if I’m going to, you know, get anything done and make money and whatnot. Everything else is movable — I might exercise later in the day if I have a meeting that needs to be scheduled at noon, or decide to read but not practice music, or vice versa, and so on.
Also, it’s possible that if I crawl out of bed before 8am, and as I get older this happens more often, then I’ll shift my day backward a bit: Start that 8am-9am block at 7am, for example, and then do the 9am – 12pm block from 8 to 11. The amount of time is more key than the exact hour.
One thing I am really working on this year is ratcheting down the time I aimlessly spend on social media; I have the ability to endlessly scroll if I’m not paying attention. My new guideline for the year, during 1pm – 5pm business hours, is to limit myself to five or so minutes an hour on Twitter/Facebook and then ask myself if there’s anything else I could be doing with my time. The answer is usually yes (see: reading and music). I don’t think people on social media will notice if I spend only five or so minutes an hour there rather than endlessly scrolling, but I will notice it on this end. I’m 52 now; there’s more I want to be doing with my time than staring glassily into Twitter all day long.
(That’s not entirely true: experience tells me that I am actually delighted to stare glassily into Twitter all day long. It’s more accurate to say I have other things that I want to do, and the time to do them will have to come out of the time I spend, slack-jawed, on social media.)
This is the work plan for 2022, and probably beyond. Let’s see if I can stick to it.