A Trip to Stillwater

Athena ScalziHey, everyone! I hope your weekend is going well so far. This Saturday is a rainy one, but before it started pouring, I went to Stillwater Prairie. It’s a reserve/park with lots of nice trails, a river, and a pond. I wanted to see if I could get some good pictures of flowers starting to bloom or other spring-y things.

Here’s a couple of the shots I took!

This cluster of little flowers was close to the parking lot. Does anyone know what they are?

Mushies! These little guys were on the end of a log by the bridge. (Don’t worry I didn’t eat them.)

More flowers! These were closer to the river than the other set of them.

And of course, the river. I would imagine it will be much higher after the rain stops. It started raining right when I left, so I kind of nailed the whole expedition timing wise!

Anyways, I hope you enjoyed these photos, and I hope you have a good day, rainy or otherwise!

-AMS

The Beast Arrives in Bradford

Look at this ridiculous thing. It’s here, and it’s delightful. And also has arrived reasonablyish intact — one of the six string necks has two busted strings and one string on the seven-string neck has weirdly migrated to another string’s slot, and a strap on the frankly ridiculous gig bag has ripped away from the bag itself. But these are all fixable and quite honestly, considering everything involved in getting this from England to Ohio, perfectly acceptable.

I have some work to do on it before it’s entirely ready for an official public debut, including restringing and some other stuff. But, hey! It’s here! And it’s ridiculous. And I love it.

— JS

A Sweet Review For You This Friday

Athena ScalziI feel like my reviews are just getting more and more random. Like, last time was toasted corn crackers, this time it’s honey lollipops. I buy weird shit, okay? I am weak to the powers of Facebook advertising. They just know exactly what I want! Before I even know I want it!

Anyways, today’s products, the aforementioned honey lollipops, come from a brand called Waxing Kara. Waxing Kara is a small company in Maryland that specializes in bee-related/inspired products, and states that they’re dedicated to saving the bees and promoting sustainability.

They’ve got tons of honey flavors, like blackberry, orange blossom, wildflower, and even seasonal ones like spring and autumn. All their honey is raw and unpasteurized. Other than the regular jars of honey, though, they also have honey lollipops. This is what I ended up buying!

I got four flavors, including just original honey flavor. The other three were ginger, vanilla, and bourbon. I chose these ones specifically because I knew my dad would enjoy ginger, and I wanted to get bourbon for my mom even though I’m not exactly partial to that flavor. And vanilla for me! Though I did consider getting lavender instead.

From left to right, there’s original, ginger, vanilla, and bourbon. These are the canvas bags they came in (nine to a bag).

These lollipops are certainly a treat! They’re perfectly sweet and flavored just right, not overpowering at all! The ginger was subtle enough to make itself known but not hog the show, despite it having visible chunks of ginger within the honey. Same goes for the vanilla, it was definitely vanilla-flavored, but without making a big deal of it, y’know? It tasted like I was drinking a cup of Twinings Chamomile Honey & Vanilla tea. It was definitely good enough to eat by itself, but my mom could not say the same for the bourbon flavor. She ended up mixing hers into her cup of tea, but then again she only likes sweet things in small doses. Eating honey on a stick by itself isn’t really her style (it’s totally mine, though).

So, overall, these honey sticks were super yummy! I would definitely try their regular honey, as well, which they have even more flavors of than they do the sticks.

Other than edible products, they also make candles, as well as tons of beauty related items like body scrubs, body butters, lip balms, lip scrubs, and bath soaks. After ordering the honey lollipops, I was really close to free shipping, so I decided to get a bar of soap. I ended up getting the Milk and Honey soap, to match the theme of honey I was going for.

Upon opening it and testing it out, I would not say it smells like milk and honey. I do like how it smells, but it smells very strongly of cloves and spices. It’s pretty strongly fragranced, and I guess I was expecting a more mild scent? But it’s a good size and feels good on the skin and whatnot, and it says it’s paraben and phthalate free (and uses no artificial dyes).

I didn’t order anything other than the four flavors of honey lollipops and the bar of soap, but they actually threw in a free Lemon Drop lip gloss! I couldn’t find it on their website by itself, only in this duo Lip Kit. It not only smells amazing, but is super soft and luxe feeling on the lips. It works really well! I can only imagine the lip scrub that comes with it is nice, too.

So, that was really cool of them to add that freebie in!

Besides selling all this neat stuff individually, they also sell honey gift boxes and spa bundles. These are perfect gifts for brides, moms, or anyone, really. I’m thinking I’m going to order more body products from them, they have so much variety!

So, now the bill comes due. How much did four bags of honey lollipops and a bar of soap cost? A hundred dollars! Each bag of lollipops was $24, and the bar of soap was $12. But if you go to the honey lollipops page, it tells you a code to use if you buy three bags that gives you 15% off the pops, so each bag only ended up being $20 for me. So my total was actually $93.

If we take the original cost of $24 for the pops, that puts the lollipops at about $2.50 a piece. Is it worth the cost? I mean, you have to consider that this is a small business that makes and produces everything themselves, and a portion of it goes towards saving the bees and all that jazz, so, yeah, it’s worth it.

I really recommend these lollipops! Especially the vanilla, super duper yummy! I’d really like to try the lavender or the blueberry next time, and get some body scrub while I’m at it.

Are you a fellow honey lover? Have you tried this brand before? Do you keep bees? Let me know in the comments, and have a great day!

-AMS

The Big Idea: Oliver K. Langmead

When you think of things that may outlive you, do you think of your children, your students, maybe even your pets? In Oliver K. Langmead’s Big Idea, he tells you of something else that will outlive you: trash. These objects we throw away, as well as climate change, play a huge role in the concept behind his newest novel, Birds of Paradise.

OLIVER K. LANGMEAD:

Timothy Morton first defines “hyperobjects” in his 2010 book The Ecological Thought. Hyperobjects, he tells us, are humanity’s lasting legacy. Long after we’re dead, the plastic bottles we drink from will still be around. Hyperobjects are larger than we are; larger than we can comprehend; distributed so massively across space and time that they transcend us. A plastic bottle is a hyperobject, yes – and so is climate catastrophe. Anthropogenic climate change is so enrmeshed in every part of our lives, and so vastly distributed across time and space, that it becomes difficult to think about. Like Lovecraft’s great old ones, it can become a thing of unthinkable, unknowable, weird horror.

I’ve been thinking a lot about hyperobjects over the past few years. It’s a difficult term for an elusive idea, and I prefer to think about the spatio-temporal distribution of the plastic bottle first. I think about my brief encounter with one; picking it up off a shelf, unscrewing the cap, draining its contents, and discarding it into a bin. In the bottle’s lifespan, I have touched it for a mere moment. The bottle will sit in a landfill, or float in the ocean, long after I have died. The bottle will, in a sense, outlive me; an artefact hardier than many deliberate human monuments.

Climate change is a fact; scientifically irrefutable, and inevitably catastrophic. Its role as a hyperobject makes it difficult to talk about, though – it’s obvious that something about the weather is changing from year to year, but attributing it to a vast global shift in ecological systems caused in large part by wasteful anthropogenic systems makes it feel abstract and distant. It’s hard to reconcile drinking from a plastic bottle with hurricanes and forest fires. But this is where speculative fiction can be useful, because speculative fiction gives us tools to confront the weirdness of hyperobjects. 

For Birds of Paradise, the book I wrote in part to express how I’ve been feeling about climate change, I decided to apply hyperobject characteristics to its characters. They are all, much like the plastic bottle, distributed massively across time and space. They are immortals; leftovers from the Garden of Eden. My characters live plastic bottle lives: they are worn and scarred by their endless momentary encounters with the world, but are still recognisably themselves, embodying the characteristics given to them on the day of their creation. And among them is the first man himself: Adam, the first Earthly hyperobject, and the progenitor of Earth’s dominant species. 

What if, instead of thinking about climate change in terms of a global network of ecological systems, we think about it in terms of a garden (Eden). What if, instead of thinking about the effect of climate change on entire species, we think about it in terms of its impact on individual animals (Owl, and Rook, and Crab, and Pig). What if, instead of thinking about what humanity might do to prevent climate change, we consider what a single individual might do (Adam). Birds of Paradise has a story with hyperobject characteristics, but it condenses some of the most unfathomable aspects of climate change down to manageable thought-sized moments, in the ways that speculative fiction makes possible.

In the face of climate catastrophe, ecologically minded fiction is a means of finding useful ways to think it through. More often than not, it doesn’t present solutions – but it does offer perspective. Hyperobjects may provoke weird horror in the same way that Lovecraft’s great old ones do, but, just like in a horror movie, revealing the monster often makes it far less frightening.


Birds of Paradise: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

A Winter Wonder Worldcon

John Scalzi

Discon III, this year’s Worldcon, is moving from August — when it was likely to be entirely virtual — to December, when at least some of it is likely to be able to done in-person, including the Hugo ceremony. Some folks are going to get rocket-shaped holiday gifts, for sure.

How do I feel about this? I think it’s fine. Most of the membership (who responded to a polling about it) seem to want an in-person Worldcon this year, and I can certainly sympathize with that; after more than a year of virtual events and conventions and conferences, there’s a pent-up desire for actually being in a room, and it seems by December enough people will have been vaccinated to make it feasible. So, why not? The only real downside will be for any potential Hugo finalists, who will have an additional four months of suspense, but if that’s the major downside, that’s pretty minor, really.

(The actual major downside will be trying to fit Worldcon in to a month already jammed with holiday events and commitments. But inasmuch as several conventions have perennially scheduled themselves alongside Easter and (in the US) both Memorial and Labor Day, nerds are used to accommodating holiday conventions.)

I have a membership for Discon III and assumed that it would end up being virtual, because August is still cutting things close (September is the earliest I’d be totally comfortable with an in-person experience, if it was handled correctly, and in fact I have concert tickets for that month). So now having the option of being there for the thing is nice. And I have a few more months to see where we as a nation are on the road to in-person events. I like having options, is what I’m saying. And if I go I may wear a Santa hat the entire time I’m there. Because why not.

— JS

The Big Idea: Leah Cypess

Sometimes stories aren’t really about the main character: it’s the side characters and their stories that make the main character’s world so vibrant. Author Leah Cypess gives one of these side characters a voice in the first novel of her Sisters Ever After series, Thornwood.

LEAH CYPESS:

Many years ago, I wrote a book that I thought had a Big Idea. The idea was this: what if Sleeping Beauty woke up after her curse, only to find that the curse hadn’t ended? Even though she was awake, she was still trapped in her castle by a forest of thorns. Somewhere in that castle was a vengeful fairy who still didn’t think they were even. Meanwhile, the prince who had woken her was super sketchy, and it seemed probable that she was actually in love with someone else. (An unsuitable but handsome commoner. I was in high school, okay?)

It was a pretty good idea, if perhaps not as original as I thought. I wrote a whole book based on it, in my typical floundering-pantser style, throwing problems and complications at the now awake princess… and then I lost interest in it. I made only a few attempts to revise the manuscript before I trunked it. It just didn’t have that spark that made me want to throw myself into it again and again.

Turned out, that was because it didn’t have a Big Idea yet. All it had was a starter idea. 

I figured that out years later. I was looking through my old unpublished manuscripts, partly out of nostalgia and partly in search of inspiration. (Not long after that, I would look through my old manuscripts much more intensely, in search of reading material for my children while all the libraries were closed.) I came across that Sleeping Beauty retelling and vaguely remembered a lot of what I had thrown into it. But my clearest memory was of one minor scene. In it, Sleeping Beauty walks into the kitchen and discovers herself faced by a group of kitchen maids who hate her. Because of her curse, they have been asleep for a hundred years. Their families are dead and their lives are destroyed, simply because they had the misfortune of being minor characters in Sleeping Beauty’s story.

In the original manuscript, I didn’t do much with that scene. But it struck me now because I had, for a while, been mulling over the question of main characters and what we require of them. What makes a person a main character? Is it just the fact that they’re the person we’re telling the story about? Is it possible to write a satisfying genre book about a side character who has no agency and no effect on the story?

And just like that, I realized why that original manuscript had never come to life. The Big Idea wasn’t about how Sleeping Beauty’s curse had messed up her life. It was how it had messed up the lives of everyone around her – the people the original fairy tales barely bother to mention.

So I invented a new character: Sleeping Beauty’s eleven-year-old sister, living in the shadow of her sister’s curse and not all that happy about it. She loves her older sister, but she also resents her. She wants to save her… but she can’t, because no one can.

In the end, I didn’t lift a single word from that old manuscript. I wrote the new book from scratch, in a mad rush, in the same floundering-pantser style that hasn’t changed much since my high school days. (Though now, as a professional writer, I don’t have to write a whole book before figuring out whether it will work. Twenty thousand words or so are generally sufficient). A lot of elements from that old book did wind their way into the new one: a castle trapped within a magical forest, a prince with secrets of his own, a creepy fairy godmother. Some of the romantic complications also came through intact, though they are much more fun when viewed from the perspective of a snarky eleven-year-old. 

But the core of the story, what made the whole thing work, what made me willing to revise it and re-read it dozens of times, was the character at its center: a powerless girl who is trapped in events not of her making, and who is really, really tired of being unimportant.

In other words: a main character.

I did not, I fully admit, overturn Western storytelling conventions in this book. My protagonist protags. She discovers that she does have agency, and in the end, it is her actions and choices that will determine her future.

And now that she’s realized the story is about her, what is she going to do about all the other people in it? The true side characters are still there: the other people in the castle – the kitchen maids and laundresses and blacksmiths – who truly have no power to affect their own fates. One of the choices that faces my actual main character is how to treat those people, the ones who don’t matter to the story. She knows what it’s like to be powerless, to be sidelined, to be a character the storyteller doesn’t even bother to mention. She’s raged against it – and now, she’s the one telling the story.

Her response to that choice is the core of my Big Idea. Because what we do when we tell stories is choose certain lives — and certain types of lives — to focus on. And in the end, as every writer knows, which person you focus on can change what the story is all about.


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

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

Second Shot Down

John Scalzi

And right on schedule, too. It’s been a few hours now and so far no side effects, not even soreness around the shot site (yet). My first one was likewise relatively symptom-free; I felt tired the day of, and went to sleep early, but otherwise no problems. Having now had my second shot, I’m now two weeks out from the full protection the shot will offer; I have not made any plans to celebrate by going to a crowd of people or anything, but, well, I still have time to plan.

I have words and thoughts for people who still see the vaccines as a political or conspiratorial issue, mostly revolving around variations of “For fuck’s sake, pull your head out of your asshole and get a goddamned shot, you mountainous pile of shit,” but I realize that is not me wearing my persuasion pants, as it were. At this point either you understand that getting vaccinated benefits you (good) and others (better) and can get us back to a more normal state of events (best), or you’ve decided that you want to make an effort not to understand that, in which case, neither I nor anyone else will be able to persuade you anyway. You’re just actively making it worse for the rest of us and dragging this thing out, and apparently some people these days don’t mind being the person actively making it worse for everyone else and dragging things out.

But, to the extent it may persuade: pretty please and with a cherry on top go get vaccinated, it would be lovely if you did. And in any event, now I have had my shots, and I feel pretty good about having it done and over with. I have a list of people I want to see. It’s long. I plan to spend a chunky portion of the rest of 2021 going through it.

— JS

A Look At the FabFitFun Spring 2021 Box

Athena ScalziWelcome to another post of me gushing about my love of subscription boxes! Today, I will be telling you about one that I have been getting for quite a while now, just over a year, in fact. It’s called FabFitFun, and it’s a subscription box that contains a variety of items pertaining to beauty, fashion, home goods, accessories, fitness, skincare, the usual wellness lifestyle box items. Specifically I’ll be talking about the Spring 2021 box, which is pictured below. 

(Image courtesy of FabFitFun)

The boxes are seasonal, so you get four a year, and each one contains between 8 and 10 items. FabFitFun is definitely more tailored towards a specific demographic, but I think the boxes contain a lot of items that could be enjoyed by all sorts of people, not just who their target audience is. 

Personally, I’ve really enjoyed getting FabFitFun, I think they offer a lot of bang for your buck, being priced at $50 a box (or $45 a box if you pay for a year of boxes up front). Eight items is definitely a good amount for that price, especially considering how pricey the individual items that can come in a box can be! Generally, the goods inside the box are worth about $200 total, so getting all that at a quarter of the price seems like a pretty solid deal. 

Not to mention, each box comes with tons of customization options, so you can actually pick some of the items that you’ll be receiving (pick from several options they offer, that is). Even though you get more customization options as an annual member, you still get three customizations as a seasonal member, which I feel like is a pretty decent amount. 

So, yeah, I really like FabFitFun. So much so that this past box I decided to upgrade to being an annual member. I figured since I’d already been getting their boxes for a year and was paying the seasonal price and wasn’t getting the annual member benefits, I might as well just upgrade and get the boxes for another year since I like them so much. 

After becoming an annual member, I tried to make the additional customizations that annual members are promised, but the window of time in which you’re allowed to make the customizations had closed a couple days earlier. Obviously, I was bummed out. Part of why I had decided to upgrade right then and there was because there was a specific customization I wanted to make for the Spring Box, but now I wasn’t going to be able to. 

I decided to email them and try to see if I could maybe possibly still make the customizations. I ended up getting some very friendly customer service, in which the person assisting me said they would manually put my choices in the system for me, if I just told them what items I wanted. So, I told them my preferred options, said thank you (of course) and was very happy with how everything turned out! 

Skip forward a couple weeks, I get my box, and literally none of the items inside are the ones I chose. I picked five out of the eight items in customizations, yet none of them were right. Obviously, I figured the choices inputted in the system didn’t go through, or some technical error like that, so I emailed them again and told them my customizations were wrong. It wasn’t something I was super upset over. After all, they’re just accessories and skincare products, y’know? But I still wanted to see if I could send back the items they gave me in exchange for the ones I wanted. 

When I explained what happened, they replied that their records showed that I never made any customization options, and that’s why every item in the box was randomly selected. They offered to send me three of the customized items I wanted. As I mentioned earlier, there were supposed to be five, but three was a damn good compromise in my opinion, since I got to keep all the items in the box and was getting the three items for free. So, basically, I got eleven items in one box. This meant I was only missing two of the things I wanted, which honestly I can live with. 

I wanted to share this customer service experience with you, because I can sit here and talk about how great a subscription box is and how cool the items are (which I’m totally going to do still), but rarely does anyone talk about how the company treats their clients. Sure, they might send awesome stuff, but if they make a mistake, or you have a question, don’t you want to be assured that you’ll be taken care of by friendly, helpful people? How a company treats their patrons is always very telling, and is something that isn’t addressed enough in reviews, I think. 

All in all, I’m super satisfied with FabFitFun’s customer service! Even if things didn’t go exactly right or as perfectly as possible, what really mattered to me was their friendliness! 

So, now that we’ve got all that straightened out, I wanted to show you what I ended up getting in the box. If you go here, you can see all the different items that could come in a box. I’m going to be going through in order of each customization on the list and telling you what I got from each one!

In the first one, I was sent the Perricone MD Essential Fx Acyl-Glutathione Rejuvenating Moisturizer. I’m actually pretty happy with this item, because I really love luxury skincare items, and this one seems pretty bougie if I do say so myself. I have not tried it yet, though, because I’m currently finishing off my current facial moisturizer, but I’m excited to try it out very soon! 

What I had actually wanted, and ended up getting after I emailed a second time, was the Monré Solerosé Watch. This watch is probably my favorite item in the box. It is just so classy looking, and I really just like the timeless, simple look of it. 

For the second one, I got the Steel Mill & Co. To-Do Planning Bundle which is pretty great because I actually needed a planner and was going to buy one right before this came! I love the floral design, plus it came with STICKERS! Which I am just so stoked about. It wasn’t what I originally chose, though.

My original choice for this option was the Josie Maran 100% Pure Argan Oil. I did end up getting this one, as well, just like the watch, it was one of the ones they sent me after figuring everything out. I’m so happy I ended up receiving this oil because it can help with split ends, which I have a ton of! 

Thirdly, I got this Joy Dravecky Chloe Ring. It is so cute! It fits me perfectly, and I love the color of it (though it is kind of color changing depending on the lighting/what way you angle it in the light). This is probably my favorite item that I received that I wasn’t supposed to get. 

What I was supposed to get, and eventually did get, however, was the Verso Super Eye Serum. This item is perfect for me because I have the worst dark circles under my eyes. I haven’t started using it quite yet because I’m using a different eye cream from another box I got, but I’m not having any luck with that one so I’m going to switch over to this new one. I’m very hopeful for good results!

For the fourth item, I received the Lark & Ives Hair Scarf Bundle. This is definitely my least favorite item in the box, mostly because I just don’t have any use for them! I literally only wear my hair down, and I don’t put accessories in my hair. Even if I wanted to put my hair up, I have no idea how to use a scarf to do that! I mean, they’re cute and whatnot, but totally not for me, so I’ll probably end up gifting them or something. 

The fifth item was the Summer & Rose Rose Tweezers with Pouch. Again, not something that’s super practical for me, since I get my eyebrows waxed instead of plucking, but it’s still pretty cute and is like, a perfectly acceptable item. 

Sixthly, these EACH Jewels Flower Hair Clips 2 Pack came in the box. Yet another impractical but totally cute item! I don’t wear hair clips! But these ones are so cute I might honestly have to start. Could I rock a flower hair clip? I guess we’ll find out. 

I actually am pretty happy with the seventh item, which is this Cali Cosmetics Islands of Italy Bath Gel (In Capri). It smells so flippin’ good, and it lathers perfectly well, so all in all a good item! 

Finally, I got these Saie Reusable Beauty Rounds. These are generally used in place of makeup wipes, but I don’t wear makeup, so while I love the whole sustainability thing and whatnot, I don’t have much use for these. But I’m sure I can find something they’re good for, like applying toner instead of using a cotton ball. 

So, there you have it, all the things I got in my Spring 2021 FabFitFun box! In terms of items, this box was not my favorite I’ve ever gotten, but this was definitely the most memorable box thanks to my experience with the customer service reps! 

FabFitFun also has an add-on shop where you can buy items at discounted prices that’ll ship alongside your box (they aren’t really unique in this feature, as I’ve seen a couple subscription box services that do this). I have never used this feature before but I did for this past Add-on Sale and I snagged this awesome Indie Lee Coconut Citrus Body Scrub for half the price, as well as a pair of Nectar Blue Light Blockers for only $12! (I also bought a ton more from the Edit Sale, but that’s probably enough links for you for now.) 

Anyways, like I said, I really like FabFitFun, it’s one of my all-time favorite subscription boxes! If it seems like something you’d like to try out, you can use this link to get ten dollars off your first box. If you want to sign up without the link, that’s okay, too! I won’t be offended. 

Do you also get FabFitFun? Do you like it? Are there any boxes you get that you think I’d like? Let me know in the comments, and have a great day! 

-AMS

The Big Idea: Nancy Werlin

Missing conventions in these unprecedented times? So is New York Times best-selling author Nancy Werlin. Follow along as Werlin takes you on a tour through her train of thought in creating her newest novel, Zoe Rosenthal Is Not Lawful Good, which began with a convention.

NANCY WERLIN:

The Big Idea: I just want to hang out at the con with my friends!

Zoe Rosenthal Is Not Lawful Good was born from love; from the memory of a con I went to a long time ago. I was planning to room with some other women I’d met online, on something called a listserv. (We later discovered our listserv was run by a fifteen year old boy on a file server in his bedroom, which is another story.)

My very first con! We called it a convention then. I’d kept my travel a secret from my parents. Sure, I was post-college, living on my own, but usually I told them where I was going—God forbid they should worry! This time I was cagey, though, because: You’re going to share a hotel room with people you met on the Internet?! (We capitalized “internet” then.) 

After that weekend, my therapist commented: “Nancy, I have to say, you sound like you’ve fallen in love.” 

“Not exactly,” I said, excitedly. “But I’ve met my people! We write books for kids! We read books for kids! We talk about books for kids! It’s—see—they’re my people! They exist!” 

It felt like a miracle then, and by now I know it really was, because those friendships are still going strong and deep. (Thanks, internet! Thanks, listserv! Thanks, Ryan, you super-competent teenage liar, you.)

I wanted to write about the feeling of that weekend and that first year with my new friends, my soulmates, my best beloveds. The shared obsession. The neurotic moments. The crazy random happenstances. The in-jokes. The sheer joy of getting to know each other and of belonging. 

“So this new book, it’s about a group of older teenagers. They’re fans of this TV show, Bleeders,” I told my editor. “They go to cons together. They stay up and talk all night. They geek out about their show, and they cosplay. They eat Twizzlers. They play Cards Against Humanity. They go to a panel about Princess Leia. They fret about college plans—some of them are already in college, but my main girl, Zoe, she’s a senior in high school. It’s going to be episodic—they meet at a different con every month. Zoe lies about it, though.” 

“She’s a liar?”

“And a sneak, but very relatable! She’s kind of neurotic. She’s ashamed of being a fan, for reasons having to do with her Lawful Good boyfriend. But she just can’t resist her show. Bleeders! The fans call themselves Bloodygits. It’s all spaceships and robots and very gory special effects. Female doctors on a ship called the Mae Jemison. Kind of a cross between MAS*H and Firefly.” 

“Go back to her being a liar.”

“Well, yeah. It’s very innocent to start with, I promise, or sort of—well, maybe not quite—she’s a control freak—but basically one tiny lie leads to another. You know how that goes? Anyway. Oh, also! There’s a cat.”

“Uh . . why?”

“I just really want to put a cat in this book.”

“I . . . see. You said ‘episodic.’ Is there a plot? At all?”

“Well, Zoe’s life gets messy because of her sneaking off to the cons—but the complications of that are offstage. I don’t really want a plot per se. They group is going to hang out and be themselves. It’s about that—hanging out, getting to know each other, talking about the meaning of life and being scared of the future, and your hopes and dreams and longing for love. Or not. And . . . just everything. They get together at con after con after con. They’re also trying to save their show from cancelation. That’s the plot, such as it is.” 

“It sounds pretty nerdy.”

“Exactly! Oh, did I mention the cat? She’s mad at the cat. Zoe is.” 

“You did . . . mention the cat.” 

Possibly I didn’t do such a great job of matching Zoe with that particular editor, but an entirely different editor, the right editor, totally got it. She laughed with me about my favorite line—a wail from Zoe’s chaotic heart: “Everything came down to this one truth: I had traded in my boyfriend for a TV show.” We started in on edits. 

Then the universe threw the Covid-19 curve ball. 

Of course, the pandemic affected my personal world, as it has affected everyone’s. As a writer, however, I was fascinated to see how it changed the way in which Zoe-the-book reads, and how it feels. The contents were the same but they had shifted in terms of emotional impact. For one thing, the thought of cramming into a hotel room with a bunch of strangers became nostalgic, wistful, a vision of the world as it used to be, and as it might still have been—on a timeline other than ours.  

Also, there’s something I didn’t mention before. The show within the book, Bleeders, concerns a deadly virus to which humanoids are uniquely vulnerable. The renegade doctors (also vicious fighters wielding stethoscope-garrotes) are trying to devise a vaccine. 

So there you have it. I wrote Zoe in one world of laughter and joy and innocence, in which such a virus was a plot point and togetherness was something I took for granted. But we edited the book for publication in an opposite world. 

Today, as Zoe publishes, the past world shimmers into possibility once more, thanks to our own medical and scientific heroes. Our new reality won’t be the same as the old; nor should it be, I suppose. And we can’t know exactly what it will be like. But I have lots of hope that it will be again be full of real-life togetherness. 

See you at the con, my friends. We’ll catch up and and laugh and cry and talk about everything. 

Fingers crossed. 


Zoe Rosenthal Is Not Lawful Good: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|BookShop|IndieBound|Powell’s| iBooks|Google Play 

Read an excerptVisit the author’s website. Visit the book at the publisherChat with the author on Facebook or Twitter.

Spoiler-Free Thoughts On Invincible So Far

Athena ScalziLook, up in the sky! It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s… an Amazon Prime original animated series about superheroes? Interesting.

I hadn’t heard of Invincible at all until my friend mentioned it, and I was shocked I hadn’t seen anything about it. Me, loving superheroes, immediately watched it. At the time I watched it, the first three episodes were out, and I binged all three in one night (even though it was like one in the morning when I started, and each one is forty-five minutes long).

Funnily enough, after I watched it, I started getting ads for it everywhere. Which I don’t mind, but it is odd. You would think the algorithm would know that I’m already super into it (haha SUPER).

Anyways, there’s only four episodes out right now, so it’s a little soon to be making calls about whether or not it’s a masterpiece or revolutionary or anything like that. However, I wanted to talk about some of the reasons I like it so far and why I think you should give it a try.

To give some context, Invincible is about a high school student named Mark Grayson, who is the son of the world’s greatest superhero. He, however, is a late bloomer coming into his powers. After finally getting them, he becomes a superhero known as Invincible.

Before I discuss the reasons the show itself is good, I wanted to take a minute to address how fantastic the cast is. Just looking at the lineup, you know you’re in for something special. Steven Yuen, J. K. Simmons, Zazie Beets, and Zachary Quinto are just a few of the amazingly talented people involved in this show. So, definitely a promising cast.

What I expected from this show and what I got were two totally different things. I can almost guarantee it will knock you on your ass within the first episode, which is something I can appreciate in a show. You think you have a standard, run of the mill superhero show on your hands, but you don’t know what you’re in for.

It’s fun, it’s colorful, it’s humorous, it’s all the positive things a superhero show should be. But it’s also dark, and mysterious, and more than a little disturbing.

The characters are relatable, and better yet, likeable. Invincible has Superman-like powers, but unlike Superman, he’s more human. I don’t just mean that literally, but in terms of character. He’s a high school kid, struggling with hormones and navigating bullies and crushes, and he can accidentally be a dick sometimes, but is all around a good guy. He’s human. Between Superman’s perfection and Batman’s unyielding brooding and moodiness, humanity is not something you see often in heroes.

On top of that, the secondary characters are so much more than just extras in the main character’s life. They’re more than the best friend that offers one liner advice, and more than the girlfriend that gets captured by a villain and becomes the “damsel in distress.” They’re their own, unique, fleshed out characters that are a lot of fun and have a lot of personality.

Aside from the characters, the fight scenes are pretty enjoyable. I really like the animation style, it’s very much like watching a comic book come to life. Seeing combat in this style is especially interesting. Fighting in comics has always been something I struggle following along with, just because I feel like a lot of the movements and punches can get lost in between the panels. To me, comic fights end up being hard to follow and it’s unclear what’s going on. Invincible does not have this problem, so you get all the pros of the comic style with none of the cons.

So, yes, I think this show is really great so far and I’m really enjoying it. But it’s important to address the issues it has, too. To be clear, this is not an issue that is specific to Invincible, but is something that seems to be an issue in almost all adult animation I see.

Not to be a total stick in the mud or anything, but adult animation consistently has the problem of trying to prove that it is for adults by being overly gratuitous in terms of gore, violence, sex, etc. Adult cartoons always seem to be trying too hard to show it isn’t for kids by putting in shocking amounts of blood and nudity, when it’s not really called for. Don’t get me wrong, I love violence and nudity! But I think there’s a line between tasteful and too much. And adult animation almost always crosses that line in an attempt to show that it is, in fact, adult.

Invincible seems to be guilty of this as well, but only in small doses. It’s not a constant or consistent problem, but it is note-worthy, at least. It’s not raunchy or full of sex or anything, but it can be gory. So much so that I was watching a scene through my fingers in shock and a bit of disgust.

So, aside from Invincible seeming to be afflicted with the usual adult animation curse of being overly graphic in one way or another, it’s really great! I do, in fact, recommend checking it out if you have Prime, since it’s free and whatnot.

I have high hopes for this show and am really looking forward to the rest of the season!

Have you seen it yet? What do you think so far? Who’s your favorite character? Let me know in the comments, and have a great day!

-AMS

Reader Request Week 2021 #10: Short Bits

And now, some of the questions I didn’t answer at length, answered briefly:

Jim Randolph:

I gather one of the things that you get satisfaction from is the work (both art and music) that you have had the opportunity to commission on your own. I’d love to hear more about how you make that happen. And are you planning a music commission for the new novel?

Most I make commissions happen by contacting the artist and saying something along the lines of “Hey, I like your work, can I commission something?” Sometimes they’re too busy, but often they’re not, and when they’re not then we figure out if what they want to charge is what I want to spend, and so on. I enjoy being able to support artists with actual money, and also getting cool work, so generally it works out just fine. With regard to a music commission for the new novel: We’ll see. I don’t have anyone particular in mind, but we have a year before it comes out, so there’s time to think about it.

Paul Wiley:

Considering the current states of society, technology, and the Earth, what are your thoughts on colonizing the Moon, Mars, and/or other possible sites in the solar system? Yay or nay?

We have the technology now to do it if we really wanted, albeit not necessarily easily or comfortably or cheaply; the question is whether we really want to and what it would entail. And while it’s not an either/or thing, I think we’re generally better off working on this planet before going off to fuck up another one.

Richard Gibbons:

In the 2028 election, you vote for Republicans for president, congress, and senate. What has happened that has resulted in this outcome?

It’s more likely I bounce to the moon on shoes made of flubber than vote straight ticket GOP in seven years, so, yeah, I don’t see this scenario happening.

Penn Davies:

Have you ever tried out or trained in any weapons or martial arts, modern or historical, as part of research for a book?

As research for a book? No.

David Border:

Are you into Historical Sites, such as Lincoln Memorial, The Mall, Smithsonian Museums and such? Have you visited them?

I used to live in the DC area, so, sure, I’ve visited the various museums and historical sites there, and also in other places. Am I hugely into them? I don’t think so, but on the other hand if I’m there and they are easily accessible to me, I’m happy to go to them.

Gottacook:

How’s the Mini Countryman holding up?

Actually very well. This month marks the 10th anniversary of me taking receipt of it, and in all that time I can’t recall a major mechanical issue. Part of that is due to me maintaining it fairly well — for eight of those years I had it under an extended care contract where the Mini dealership would pick it up, service it and detail it, and then return it, all without me having to do anything. Also it has relatively few miles on it — not quite 80k after a decade. This is because I don’t have to commute for work, and also because if I travel further than, say, Chicago, I tend to rent a car for the extended trip. I actually need to go get it serviced soon, but once I do I expect it to chug along happily. At some point I’ll get a newer car, but I’m not in a huge rush.

Gregory:

You’ve mentioned you’ve suffered a miscarriage. What effect did this have on you? Do you feel it’s something guys can talk about freely?

I wrote a piece about it when it happened, which you can find here, and which still very well encapsulates what my thinking about it is. I can’t say whether other men talk about miscarriages openly, but I think they should be able to and I think it’s okay for men, and anyone else, to mourn the loss.

Pete L:

You’ve had your fair share of haters, but have you ever had to deal with the other side of the coin, e.g. stalkers?

I had a stalker a while back and had to file a police report about them. I’m happy to say that the situation resolved itself reasonably well for everyone involved; filing the police report helped convince the person they needed to get back on their meds, and since then I believe they have continued to maintain their mental health, which makes me happy. It was really a “best case scenario” version of a stalking, and as such I don’t tend to compare it to what many other folks, particularly women, have to go through when they are being stalked.

Rick M:

I can envision you as a mischievous grandfather. What plans do you have in place to subvert your daughter’s undoubtedly excellent (yet hypothetical) parenting?

To subvert? None, since I think parenting is hard enough without some relative getting in there and messing up how one raises their kid. But I certainly plan to have fun with any potential grandchildren. I think it’s possible to be a mischievous grandparent without making my kid’s parenting duties more difficult.

BenInIndy:

It seems you have opinions on most every subject and freely share your thoughts on multiple topics all across the spectrum. What is the topic you have least background to provide an opinion and what is that opinion?

I don’t actually know! In fairness to myself, I do tend to preface opinions on subjects I don’t know a whole lot about with “Here is me talking out of my ass” or something similar, or I skip them entirely. But it’s difficult for me to say accurately what I know the least about. That’s something someone else would probably have to identify.

Colonel Snuggledorf:

I wonder if you’d be interested in sharing your thoughts on the proposals for a $15 federal minimum wage.

Mostly a) that it should be higher than that to keep up with what it should be had it been indexed to inflation all this time, b) that whatever wage they set it should be indexed to inflation moving forward so we can stop having to try to drag it forward to what it would have been and should be. And then general thought that if we really believe as a nation people have to work to live, then we should make it so they can live on what we pay them to work. That seems pretty simple.

Tim:

Any updates for OLD MAN’S WAR on Netflix?

It’s still in development and I’m still getting option payments on it, and aside from that I can’t say much. When/if I can say more, you’ll know.

William Patrick:

Given your love for movies, why don’t you have a home theater?

I mean, dude, I have a 65-inch OLED screen hanging in my living room, how much bigger and nicer do I need the screen to be? I’m doing all right on this score!

Dan S:

You are given the authority to create a new monument representing 2020. You have unlimited budget and can place it anywhere in the United States (including unlimited eminent domain powers). What in your mind does it memorialize, what does it look like, and where would you put it?

An eternal trash fire at Mar-A-Lago sounds about right.

Thank you everyone for your questions this year! Let’s do it again, oh, in 2022.

— JS

Reader Request Week 2021 #9: Short Writery Bits

In which I quickly answer some questions of a writeresque bent. Let’s get started!

Chris:

What are your views/experiences with collaborations – whether in a book, film, or television setting or other? How have you dealt with conflicts in these situations? Compromising your vision say with another writer’s vision? How flexible have you had to be? What are the challenges? And have you ever been in a situation in which you were a “hired gun” so to speak and had to write what someone else wanted you to write and how have you handled this challenge ?

I don’t typically collaborate because I find it as much work if not more than writing alone, so why not just write alone? That said, I have written things where I have had to take input from other people, and in that situation, I just make the point to myself that I’m writing for someone else and therefore the goal is to make a final product they’re happy with. When you have that as a goal, taking direction is not that difficult. Also, in the future I don’t rule out collaborating with another writer, but if I do I will be likely to be the boss in that situation, so they will write to my specification, not the other way around.

Jeffery Otterman:

What words inspire you and what words do you despise?

I like “We’ll pay what you asked for this project,” and dislike “We’d like your work, but we can’t pay for it.”

Ctein:

Dear John,

Since you’ve got movie critic chops…

What did you think of TOMOROWLAND?

I personally enjoyed it, although I think in a general sense it was a movie in search of an audience. I suspect the reason it got made was because Brad Bird had done very well for Disney on the Pixar side of things, and they were willing to throw him a live-action bone to keep him in the fold (it paid off, too, as Incredibles 2 did gangbusters business). I wouldn’t have greenlit it as it was (at least, not for as much as Disney paid for it), but I’m happy it exists in the world.

Lazysubculturalgirl:

Do you think talent is more genetics, or does it come from being surrounded by certain influences as a child? I’m thinking in particular of sports greats who also have very talented children, but there are a great many acting dynasties, as well as writers who grew up in a family of writers.

I don’t think it’s an either/or situation; it could be either or both or neither. There were no professional writers in my immediate family nor any obvious genetic predilection toward creativity, and yet I became a creative and professional writer; Athena, of course, has a professional writer in her house with whom she share genes and who actively encourages her to develop her writing skills, but she might eventually decide to do something else with her professional life, which would be fine. I do think that if you are in an environment where a certain skill or profession is part of your everyday life, it’s easier to see yourself doing it, and also you’re likely to have “a foot in the door,” as it were, because of connections and knowledge. But I also know that for every kid of an athlete or writer (for example) who becomes an athlete or writer, there are others who pursue completely different professions.

Dan:

Do you have anything in place to make sure that your works are protected in the event that you are no longer able to look after your works?

Yes; it’s called a will. The disposition of my intellectual property is dealt with there (short version: Krissy controls it if I’m dead/incapacitated, then Athena). I’m not especially precious about my work after my death; as far as I’m concerned its job will be to keep Krissy and Athena comfortable through their lives.

Cesc:

Why is there so much human totalitarianism and monarchy in the novels of not so right wing authors as yourself?

I can’t speak for anyone else, but for me: Because it’s fun to write about. It’s certainly not an endorsement of those political systems, however.

Brown Robin:

There are literally a bajillion books out there, most of which are never read. In a world of diminishing resources and a culture of diminishing returns, why do we need even one more?

Well, first, I disagree with the assertion of diminishing resources and diminishing returns, especially as regards books, and second, why not? Writing a book is an accomplishment independent of anyone reading it, and if it gives the author satisfaction to have written it, then that’s a good enough reason for the book to exist. I mean, I play my guitar and will probably never be a professional musician, but playing the guitar makes me happy and therefore it has value in itself. Not everything has to be about someone else.

dchotin:

How should book titles be printed on the spine? Vertical, so that the title is easily readable when the book is properly shelved; or horizontal, so that we can easily read it where the book lies carelessly on the side table where we tossed it 2 months ago? 

I mean, I can read both equally easily, so… either way is fine with me? I have no real preference? The only real preference I have is for consistent cover/spine design across a series. That way when they’re in a bookshelf together they look nice.

Thomas:

Do you consider there to be a difference between writing for reading text and spoken text? i.e. do you feel there a distinct between in medium between the two?

The two are very distinct, in part because spoken text is as much about the voice delivering the text (or, if viewed, the body language of the person) as it is the text itself. Text meant to be read has a very different dynamic, even when it’s dialogue (i.e., acting as speech). As a writer you can really mess yourself up if you forget these are separate modes.

Charles:

Now that Athena is working for your blog in a non-term position, have you found any difficulties in reconciling being her dad and her boss? I totally understand if that’s more behind the curtain than you’re interested in getting, but figured it couldn’t hurt to ask.

Actually I’ve found being her boss pretty congenial. It helps I had an idea of who she was prior to hiring her, so that to some extent the job could be tailored around her as much as it was tailored around the things I wanted and needed in a staff member. To that end she’s being doing what I’ve asked of her, and she’s writing things for the site that I wouldn’t write about, either because I have differing interests, or because we’re in different life stages and have different life experiences. I have really enjoyed reading her work, and also watching her develop as a writer (and helping her do so). She’s good staff. I think I made a good decision hiring her.

— JS

Reader Request Week 2021 #8: Local Favorites

srs asks:

Whenever we visit family in Ohio, they like to take us to Marion’s pizza. As an Ohio resident, can you explain the appeal?

(I didn’t think it was bad, just completely unremarkable and not deserving the enthusiasm)

We have a Marion’s near me (they’re Marion’s Piazza’s, not “Marion’s Pizza”; it’s describing a place, not a food), and I would agree with the assessment that the pizza there is perfectly fine but not particularly memorable or exceptional in any significant way. Likewise the ambiance is not especially notable; the one near me has an interior that is meant to resemble a piazza, which is doesn’t, really, but it’s their thing, so fine. You order in a line and then you pick up when your order is called and then you eat and then you leave. It’s fine! But it’s not the greatest dining experience you’ll ever experience (and if it is, get out more).

It’s not great! But it’s local, and it’s what people grew up with and establish as their baseline of what pizza (or burgers, or burritos or whatever) are and should be. It’s their version, the version that looms large in their head. And therefore, it’s the best! And therefore, they want to share it with you.

And it get it — not with Marion’s, which I did not grow up with, but with In-N-Out Burger, which I did. To me, the In-N-Out Double Double (animal style, of course) is the platonic ideal of the fast food burger, the burger all other fast food burgers aspire to be, and largely fail at becoming. It’s not that those other burgers are bad, some of them are quite good, they’re just not the Double Double. They can’t be blamed for that. The only thing that can be a Double Double is a Double Double.

Then people who did not grow up with In-N-Out try a Double Double and… they think it’s fine? But not the greatest burger in the history of fast food burgers and perhaps not worth making an actual pilgrimage for, and waiting in either In-N-Out’s ridiculously long drive-thru lines or jamming one’s self into their famously crowded (in pre-COVID times) dining rooms. “It’s good but it’s not Whataburger/Culver’s/insert regional chain they grew up with here” is their take.

Which makes sense to me, because that’s what they grew up with. That’s what’s established in their mind as the platonic fast food burger. And they are no more wrong about that as I am about the Double Double being the best fast food burger, or srs’ family thinking Marion’s is the exemplar of pizza, or anyone thinking their own particular area’s specific weird food of choice is pretty amazing and worth sharing.

The last one, incidentally, is how Krissy and I found ourselves at Maid-Rite a couple months after moving to Ohio, because locals swore their loose-meat sandwiches were legendary and we couldn’t consider ourselves locals until we had some of our own. Well, we wanted to experience the local thing! So we went! And it was fine! But also I’ve never developed a fanatical love for loose-meat sandwiches in the time since. I missed the window in which the “it’s local and therefore awesome” filter would get passed over them. This is also why I am entirely immune to the so-called “charms” of “Cincinnati Chili,” which strikes me as an abomination of the word “chili” and also of the word “food.” But other people love it. I am content to let them love it. They can have my share. More for them.

The thing about local favorites is this: when people are taking you to the local favorite, what they’re doing is saying “this is a what I love, and is a part of how I see myself, I want to share it with you.” It’s not about the food so much as it is about the experience and what it means to them. And one can certainly honor that impulse, even if one finds the actual food underwhelming. And they will do the same, when you are sharing your personal regional favorite, if you have one, which you almost certainly do.

— JS

I Got Moderna’d

Athena ScalziThat’s right, y’all, I have been vaccinated! To be more specific, I got my first dose of Moderna. I’m due for my second shot at the end of the month.

In case you didn’t see, I had corona back in early December. Though it wasn’t bad for me, I decided to get vaccinated anyways because there’s like different strains and sometimes you can get it twice and yada yada, so better safe than sorry!

While I am not the biggest fan of needles, it wasn’t that bad, it only hurt for a split second, which was when they first injected the needle. But then I didn’t even feel it when they pulled it out! Definitely worth being vaccinated over, anyways.

It’s been about four hours since I got it, and so far my only side effect is a sore arm. It’s very tender, mostly in the part of my arm I got the injection in, but I’m hoping that that will go away in a day or two.

Anyways, I’ve heard with Moderna that the second shot will really do me in in terms of side effects, but I was told I might not even experience any at all since I already had COVID! So here’s hoping, but I’ll probably update y’all when I get the second shot and let you know if it knocks me on my ass or not.

Have you had your shot(s) yet? Did it hurt? Did you have any side effects? Let me know in the comments, and have a great day!

-AMS

Reader Request Week 2021 #7: Does Money Satisfy?

Steve Calhoun asks:

Does the money satisfy? I mean this sincerely. I know it’s probably nice to be rich. And I’m personally much better off this year than I’ve been in years past but I also find that obtaining some of the things I’ve wanted while I was poor for decades don’t necessarily make me feel better. So, Scalzi, what is best in life? And what, other than 5 part guitars, do you spend your money on?

First, a clarification: It’s a six-part guitar.

Second, having been both poor and rich (in the context of being an American, and, more broadly, a member of the developed world), I can say that in my experience money doesn’t satisfy, it alleviates. In drug terms, money’s not a mood-lifter, it’s a painkiller.

What on earth are you saying, Scalzi, if I was given a million dollars my mood would definitely lift! Well, sure. Speaking from experience there is a definite short-term bump that comes from suddenly having in your possession a larger sum of money than you would experience on a day-to-day basis. But also speaking from experience, that euphoria is both short-lived (the hedonic treadmill of money moves quickly), and usually masking a wider and more complex emotional response to the money. Give most people a (to them) large sum of money — or make it possible for them to have a stable and comfortable income — and after the happy shock wears off, what they feel is often something like relief. That money can go to solve problems: rent and bills and things that can make life better and less precarious.

This is what I mean by money being a painkiller. So many of so many people’s day-to-day problems are caused by the lack of money. Lack of money causes uncertainty, anxiety and worry — causes pain. When you have money that pain goes away, and depending on the amount of money involved, that pain can go away pretty much permanently. When you don’t have pain, you don’t think about that pain, and you don’t think of all the things you have to do to manage that pain. You just… get to do and think about other things.

Generally speaking, you don’t need all that much money to avail yourself of its painkilling properties. People like to talk about a specific number — $75,000 is the number I see a lot as being the amount after which any more money doesn’t add much to your emotional happiness — but I think it’s more that when all your needs are economically taken care of, and a reasonable percentage of your wants are achievable, if not immediately at least over a not-too-onerous amount of time, then money has achieved its analgesic duty. You’re free to live your life away from a certain type of discomfort.

But it doesn’t mean all your problems are solved, and it doesn’t mean you’re happy. Money doesn’t buy happiness. It can buy material comfort, and a certain amount of security, neither of which is to be discounted. But they’re not the same thing. And like any painkiller, too much money can create problems and pains of its own, and it can be abused. If you don’t understand money and how to manage and use it, having too much of it can become a curse, especially if it is suddenly dropped into one’s lap. There’s a reason lots of lottery winners struggle with their new-found riches.

In my own personal life, I don’t notice myself being particularly happier now, when I have money, then I was when I was in my 20s and making substantially less, or as a kid when I was poor. I feel a lot less uncertainty, economically speaking, but that’s about it. I had a not great year in many ways in 2020, for example, even though financially speaking it did just fine for me. I will note that in a general sense I’m happy enough, and even in a less-than-great year like 2020 I was happier more days (and happy on average on more days) than when I was wasn’t. But money wasn’t a driver in my happiness or lack thereof. I’m not unhappy because of money issues, but not having money issues doesn’t make me happier overall.

I know people who have more money than I do, and those who have less. The happiness they feel as individuals is all over the board. There is no real correlation between money and happiness, save that the folks who have less money can be made unhappy by economic concerns. But I feel pretty sure that if everyone in the US suddenly didn’t have to worry about rent and bills and health insurance and whatever, that a year later the general happiness quotient would be about the same. It’s great not to worry about your bills! But you do find other things to be unhappy about.

So what does satisfy? I think it depends on the person. For me, I admit to finding a particular level of material possession satisfying; you could call it “upper-middle-class with weird hobby expenditures.” That taken care of, what I find satisfying in life is less tangible: good relationships with family and friends, a certain number of intellectual pursuits, the ability to write for a living. There are things I want in life, but none of them are down to money at this point. I would like to be able to play most of my musical instruments better! But no amount of financial expenditure will do that. I just need to practice more.

As for what I spend my money on: Well, most of it, I don’t spend. Inasmuch as most of our material needs and desires are taken care of within our income, and we are fortunate at this point not to have medical or other expenses that are a substantial amount of what we bring in, most of what comes in goes into savings and investments. We give a fair amount to charity on an annual basis, because we can and should. There’s the occasional splurge, like ridiculous guitars. And we improve the house a little bit at a time to make it nicer to live in. This year we’ll be redoing the master bath! I’m actually really looking forward to that.

So, no: Money doesn’t satisfy, it just can solve some problems that can make life unsatisfactory. The rest really is on the individual to do with their life what is necessary to provide satisfaction and happiness. That’s different for every person, and I wish each of us success in finding what those things are.

— JS

The Big Idea: Thomas K. Carpenter

Ever feel like “the algorithm” just knows too much? Would you trust an algorithm with something as important as space travel? In Thomas K. Carpenter’s newest Audible Original, Saturn’s Monsters, AI has the potential to make much more dangerous calculations than just advertising bizarre things to you.

THOMAS K. CARPENTER:

All data lies.

I’m an engineer by background.  I’m used to data.  But show a group of engineers or scientists the same graph, and you’ll have a dozen different interpretations.  Now take that idea and supercharge it with algorithms that cannot step back and contemplate the impacts of their decisions—and you have a recipe for disaster.

In Saturn’s Monsters, a group of scientists and engineers grow interplanetary ships in our friendly ringed gas giant’s atmosphere.  By using the materials present in the clouds, and nanobots they bring with them, they’re “3-D printing” surfaces onto a flying ship, growing it large enough to travel outside the Solar System.  But that kind of work can’t be done manually, so they release the ships into the gas giant, using algorithms to keep the ships aloft in those hurricane-like winds.  

The Big Idea is about the dangers of algorithms, and how the very data we select to build our machine learning programs have many unintended consequences.  Don’t get me wrong, algorithms can be a powerful force for good, they tease out relationships our human brains might never have seen, helping design technology that meets people’s needs, but as I said in the opening sentence, “All data lies” and those lies can get people killed, or at the very least, ruin their lives.  We’ve already seen that insurance companies or banks, using algorithms to predict safe customers, have essentially coded in the implicit biases contained within our society, and financially injured those the algorithms should have protected.

This Big Idea didn’t happen on the first go around of the story.  I wrote a shorter version about five years ago that focused mostly on the ships after they’d been grown, which was exciting, but lacked the details about the team and how they worked together on the project.  It was more Michael Bay than Michael Creighton.  So I scrapped it after a few rejections.

I started a second version of Saturn’s Monsters after encouragement from Andrea Stewart who was always asking me if I’d sold the first story, but quickly realized that the gravity was all wrong on Jupiter, where I had initially set the story.  I enlisted my teenage son, who was in the middle of his AP Physics class, to calculate the gravitationally habitable portion of the planet, only to learn that the station would have to be too far out from the cloud structure to work.  Thankfully, Saturn is significantly lighter because it doesn’t have a heavy metal core, coming in only 8% heavier than Earth, making it a much safer location for our team (Thanks Aiden!)  

During this rewrite of Saturn’s Monsters is when the Big Idea of the danger of algorithms became a part of the story.  As I focused on the team and how they managed to pull off this amazing feat—the pain and hard work of laboring under dangerous conditions—the story, and most importantly the characters, came alive.  

I won’t ruin the tale for you, I’m sure you can guess that things don’t go as planned with these AI driven ships that were named after mythological monsters (You might also wonder: why would you bother naming ships after creatures that kill humans?  But hey, the NSA named their machining learning communication network Skynet, so I guess we all think that the lessons of the past don’t apply to us).  

In an algorithm based world, the type and quality of the data we use to create this machine learning will matter, as well how much human intervention we choose to keep in the system as a circuit-breaker.  The crew of Saturn Two proves on their mission to make the human race space faring that not only does data lie—but data kills.


Saturn’s Monsters: Audible Original

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Read Request Week 2021 #6: Krissy and Dogs

Krissy and Charlie.
John Scalzi

Susanpeak asks:

What is it about Krissy that dogs like so much? You mentioned that Charlie has already attached strongly to her, and I remember Kodi did so as well (and I assume Daisy?). Why?

I should note it’s not just our dogs. I honestly have yet to meet a single dog that does not more or less instantly fall in love with Krissy and swear fealty to her and her entire line. Krissy tells me that when she goes out on house inspections (she’s an insurance claims adjuster) she often meets dogs, and they almost always come up to her and are friendly and want love. And then their owner will come out and say something like “That’s Chauncy, he hates everyone and tried to eat the neighbors’ children, I don’t understand why he likes you.”

Part of it is I think dogs are pretty good judges of who likes dogs and who doesn’t, and Krissy, as a rule, likes dogs. She’s not scared of them and doesn’t project an air of uncertainty when approaching them. If Krissy’s somewhere, she means to be somewhere. Krissy is not foolish around dogs, mind you — if one was acting aggressive and angry, I don’t think she’d be heedless of what the dog was doing — and she’s respectful of animals as a general rule. But she’s also not trepidatious. When she sees a dog, she’s generally happy to see that dog, whatever dog it is. And dogs, as a general rule, like when people like them.

Part of it is that Krissy gives off “pack leader” vibes at all times. I don’t think it will come as a surprise to anyone that Krissy is the head of the Scalzi family, both nuclear and extended — she’s extremely capable and gets results, and is sensible and level-headed. We all pretty much look to her to get things done and to get us all doing what we need to do.

(I’m not running myself down here, I’ll note — I’m useful for long-term planning, creative solutions to difficult issues, and funding the whole operation. But I’m also the person who, when Krissy first moved in with me, was on third notice on all his bills because he couldn’t be bothered to get stamps, despite working literally next to the post office. Krissy is in charge of things, and I’m very happy that she is.)

Dogs are pack animals; one of the things they do is figure out who is really running the show. Any dog who is with us longer than a day figures out Krissy is the pack leader. Clearly they are going to give their allegiance to her. I don’t mind. It’s not like they don’t like or love me, or refuse to acknowledge that they should be listening to me when I tell them to come inside or to stop bothering the cats. It’s just clear they like and love and look to Krissy more. I get it! I think she’s pretty great, too.

Finally, and importantly, Krissy is super-demonstrative of her affection for her pups, which is also keeping in line with Krissy’s personality generally. Krissy is polite and self-contained with people she meets until she decides she likes them; after that point she’ll help you bury a body in the woods if it came to that, whether or not that body was still moving at the time. So when a dog becomes part of the family, they get all of that affection and loyalty.

Who can resist that? No one can resist that, that’s who. Certainly not a pup! Krissy is a dog’s best friend, basically. Again, I totally get it. Krissy is the best.

(There’s still time to get in a topic request for this year’s Reader Request Week — go here to learn how to do it and to leave a topic suggestion!)

— JS

Reader Request Week 2021 #5: American Fascism

Rick asks:

Being a child of the late 20th century, I always thought the USA was somehow immune to fascism, and I’m honestly surprised to discover recently that this isn’t the case. Is this simple naivete, or have things fundamentally changed in American politics?

Well, you know. In 1939 American Nazis held a rally at Madison Square Garden. It was very well attended! And among other things they hung a big damn portrait of George Washington between their swastikas, with full intent:

That giant portrait of George Washington was no afterthought. “One of the things they tried to do was to say that this is what America has always been and this is what the Founding Fathers would have supported,” said Churchwell. Indeed, they referred to Washington as “America’s first fascist.”

And they might have gotten away with it too, if it weren’t for that meddling World War II and Germany (and Nazism) becoming the enemy. Inconvenient for the American Nazis, that. Set the whole fascist movement back decades in the US.

At least, the part that overtly called itself fascism. But otherwise it still managed. McCarthyism? That was fascism. Jim Crow? Fascism. Definition nerds will quibble about whether America’s long-standing authoritarian, anti-democratic impulses qualify as true fascism, but two things here. One: If it quacks like a duck, etc. Two, let us recall that when actual no-shit fascists were looking at ways to codify their power and to demonize their enemies, including and specifically the Jews, where did they look for useful examples? If your answer is anything other than “Why, at the United States and its systemic suppression of its own minorities over the years,” then, surprise! Here’s a reading list to catch you up.

To be clear, the US is not (directly) responsible for the rise of Nazism and the horrors it perpetrated on the Jewish population of Europe. Hitler was fucking evil, and Europe was not exactly new to anti-semitism in the first half of the 20th century. Hitler would have found a way to get where he wanted to go, and the German nation would have gone along, as it largely did. But this doesn’t change the fact that when the Nazis were looking for pertinent examples for legally disenfranchising parts of its own population, the United States was there for it, with laws that, if not technically fascist in themselves (quibble away, definition nerds!), were certainly proto-fascist.

In a larger sense, the history of the United States is a history of Will to Power, competing neck-to-neck with what we prefer to see as our more noble and democratic Power to the People. What is “Manifest Destiny” if not Deus Vult in mid-18th century dress? Did the US not essentially pick fights with Mexico and Spain for land and political influence? Did it not ignore whatever treaties it made with the Native Americans whenever it felt like it? Did it not rise to prominence on the labor and pain of African slaves, and tear itself apart because the South decided it was better to gamble on a quick war to keep those slaves, than to imagine them as people? And then, having freed those slaves, did the US then not engage in a century-long effort to keep those slaves and their descendants as legally close to a slave state as possible? Did the US not likewise demonize and restrict the rights of Chinese and other Asians? In the end, who benefited from the United States, who still benefits from it, and how was it managed that only they received the vastly largest share of the benefit?

If you know the answers to these questions, and yet still wonder how the United States might not be immune to fascism, the likely problem is that you’re hung up on the word “fascism” rather than the conceptual, social and political elements that allow for fascism. “Fascism” is a brand. Authoritarianism is the substance inside the can. The United States has had all of the ingredients for authoritarianism as long as it’s existed, and we make a fresh batch of it whenever we feel like it.

To go back to World War II, one of its side effects was that for as long as the generation who fought it was the engine of the economy and politically active, overt fascism was more difficult to support in the US — we could manage it if we could, say, argue we were doing it to fight communism or something, but indulging in it purely for its own sake was a bad look. But the generation that fought World War II is mostly dead now, and a lot of their (white) children are of the opinion that maybe fascism got a bad rap — it’s not so bad, it’s just how it was done before that’s the problem. Creeping fascism has been the goal of the US Republican Party for a while now, what with its policy of steadily eroding and ignoring democratic norms, and its strategy of creating economic and informational insecurity to scare poor and working class whites, with the goal of inflaming their systemically-inculcated bias toward racism, for the benefit of the wealthiest of its party members, and to retain power even (especially) as the majority of US citizens have left it and its political interests behind.

And it certainly got a boost in that from Donald Trump! If someone like Mitch McConnell is the GOP’s ego, Trump is its id, a loud, proudly ignorant racist and buffoon who doesn’t give a shit about democracy, admires dictators, was enraged he wasn’t treated as a king, and who ended his presidency with an attempted putsch against his democratically chosen successor. Trump may not have come into the White House as a fascist, but he certainly left as one. His party — with some notable exceptions — gave him aid and comfort in his transformation and in his attempt to overthrow democracy in the United States. Moreover, it is now actively, unapologetically and with full fervor attempting to curtail the ability of United States citizens to participate in the democratic process, in a manner we haven’t seen so openly since the time when the Nazis were looking for a legal model for the persecution of the Jews and everyone else they found inconvenient. That is in fact actual fascism. You could say fascism has captured the GOP, but that ignores that fascism (and specifically, white christianist fascism) was always the plan, from at least Newt Gingrich onward. The Republicans meant to get here. And now they are here.

But again: We have always been here, in one way or another, here in these United States. The greatness of the US, its ability to be an actual force for good, and for hope, and for the democratic model of governance, has always gone hand in hand with its ability to be the worst of nations, and to indulge in authoritarianism, imperialism, bigotry and, yes, fascism. What we work for — what you should be working for, anyway — is to have the better aspects of our nation to be in the fore, so it may be the sort of country that fascism can’t provide: Tolerant, wise, open, diverse and focused on the common weal.

During the Trump administration I would occasionally see on Twitter: “If you were wondering what you would have done in Germany during the rise of the Nazis, it’s whatever you are doing now.” That was true! Just remember it’s always been true, in every time, here in the United States. Our nation’s darker nature is always there, and is always waiting for good people to lack conviction and to do nothing. Whatever you’re doing now, that’s what you’re doing to fight that darker nature. Or not. It’s up to you.

(There’s still time to get in a topic request for this year’s Reader Request Week — go here to learn how to do it and to leave a topic suggestion!)

— JS

The Big Idea: Michael Muntisov

Have you ever considered going vegan, or living a zero-waste lifestyle for the sake of the environment? It might be a good idea, especially if we get judged later in life for how we fought against climate change in our past. In Michael Muntisov’s newest novel, The Court of Grandchildren, the choices we make today decide our fate tomorrow.

MICHAEL MUNTISOV:

George Orwell once wrote “If you plant a walnut you are planting it for your grandchildren, and who cares a damn for his grandchildren?”

Today we witness not Big Brother, but many people in positions of authority insisting that climate change is a hoax. If that makes your blood boil, it’s because you know those people have nothing other than their own self-interest at heart. They don’t give a damn, even about their own grandchildren.

Well what if, thirty years from now, those very same grandchildren decided it was time to hold today’s decision makers to account? That is the big idea behind Court of the Grandchildren.

By then, supercomputers will have advanced enough to tell us what the climate consequences were of every past policy decision or non-decision. There will be no gray areas. The excuses for today’s inaction will seem like parodies.

In one way this may feel satisfying — those damn deniers will get their comeuppance! But wait a second. How will you, dear reader, distinguish yourself from the ‘evil-doers’ in the eyes of the grandchildren? Are you just as much to blame? After all, you watched, participated and let it happen. What if you were lumped in with the ‘burners’?

And there are further annoying questions: How would your track record survive being picked apart by an AI lawyer? How would our generation be punished? But then, what is the value in attributing blame and seeking retribution? 

These were some of the philosophical ponderings that ran through my head as I contemplated what sort of book Court of the Grandchildren would be.

One thing I already knew. Talking about climate change is hard. Harder than talking about sex and religion. Why? Because, as Rebecca Huntley says, the science of climate change is relatively orderly and neat, but people are not. 

How a person responds to climate change messaging depends on how they see the world. Their politics, values, cultural identity, and even their gender identity play a role. So I had to stop laying out the rational and start being emotional. And what better way than through storytelling.

At first, I thought my target audience would be people active in the climate movement. Secretly, I wished that climate skeptics would be interested too. It took me a while to admit that actually neither of those groups would be the core audience. The climate skeptics wouldn’t bother once they saw the reference to the ‘Climate Court’ in the blurb. And the novel wouldn’t go far enough for the hard-core activists. 

Once I was released from the bond of these fictitious audiences, I found the freedom to tell the story I wanted to tell. 

After eighteen months of work, the publisher’s acceptance of the manuscript was a gratifying moment. But as COVID delayed the book’s release, my satisfaction was whittled away. The delay tried my patience, but it provided an unexpected benefit. I took the opportunity to write a stage adaptation of Court of the Grandchildren. 

Adapting a novel demands a lot of discipline. You have to identify the core story. You have to simplify. You have to reduce the number of characters and action scenes. These necessities for the stage exposed several weak or half-hearted conflicts in the novel. The COVID delay meant I had time to rectify these weaknesses before publication. As an added bonus, The Magnetic Theatre in North Carolina has selected the play for performance in their 2022 season.

My big idea was about climate change responsibility. But as the story evolved, as it became more emotional, it became more personal. I realized that while Court of the Grandchildren questions the legacy we are leaving our grandchildren, it also questions me: Am I doing the best I can?


Court of the Grandchildren: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Google Play|Kobo

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

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