Five Things: June 3, 2020

Let’s get to today’s five, shall we?

Hey, did you remember that there’s a presidential campaign going on? Well there is, and seven states and the District of Columbia even had primaries yesterday. Not that you would know it from the front pages of the news sites, I had to dig deep, deeeep into the New York Times site to find all of yesterday’s results. Part of that is that the world’s on fire, and part of that is also that at this point it’s a cakewalk for Biden, who will officially clinch the Democratic nomination next week with the Georgia and West Virginia primaries. But still, it’s very odd to be in an election year where the presidential campagin feels like an afterthought at best.

Hit the road, Steve King: It’s an indication of how weird a year 2020 is that while I had to dig for the delegate counts from last night, the news of US Representative Steve King, Iowa’s notorious racist fucknugget, losing his primary race, was splashed all over the place. And of course, it is delightful news, as King is a loose bag of hate and unearned superiority, shambling about in a vaguely human form. Liberals should enjoy their delightful moment of schadenfreude now, since Randy Feenstra, who won the GOP primary over King (and will likely win the general in November), is unlikely to vote any differently than King has in the House, he’s just probably smart enough not to spout explicitly racist words over a live mic and then be flummoxed why anyone should think that’s a problem. But yes! Enjoy it now! And best of luck to King in his next endeavor, which will probably be as a columnist for the Federalist or something else similarly egregious.

I put on pants today. First time in a month! More or less. The reason for the occasion is that I actually left the house and went into the world, because I had a dental appointment. Turns out I need a crown (which I knew) and I also have a cavity (which I did not know, but I’m honestly not all that surprised about). So I’ll be going back to the dentist’s in a couple of weeks. I will put on pants then, too. Pants between now and then? We will see, but I wouldn’t get your hopes up.

Bill & Ted congratulate the Class of 2020 at San Dimas High School. This just warms my heart. I’ve mentioned this before but I’ll mention it again: I lived in San Dimas during my high school, in fact right across the street from the water park. I did not go to San Dimas High School, but I still feel mighty pleased that this little town has been immortalized by two of Gen X’s most notable fictional characters. Much of “San Dimas” in the film was filmed elsewhere, but I can say that indeed there is a Circle K there. And strange things were indeed often afoot.

And now, what you’ve been waiting for, the Ant Situation Update: I’ve seen a couple of stragglers, but that’s it, so I’m going to go ahead and declare victory, and also credit Febreeze with the MVP role for totally wiping out the pheromone trails and otherwise sowing fear and confusion in the Formicidal ranks. Mind, they may just be regrouping. But I’ll have the ant traps here today or tomorrow. I’ll be ready for any counterattack (or any attack on my counters). These days we take our wins where we can.

The Big Idea: Robert J. Sawyer

Hugo and Nebula Award-winning author Robert J. Sawyer has gone “back to the future” with his newest novel The Oppenheimer Alternative. But why does he go back at all — and back to this particular Great Man of History? Sawyer is here to explain it all.

ROBERT J. SAWYER:

It’s been obvious since the days of Hugo Gernsback that science fiction could be set in the future, and that’s the standard mode today.

And the field’s progenitors ably demonstrated that science fiction could be set in the present: consider Mary Shelley with her Frankenstein, notably subtitled “The Modern Prometheus,” not the “Futuristic” one, and H.G. Wells with such works as The War of the Worlds and The Invisible Man.

But, except for those stories employing time travel or alternate history as their central conceit, rarely has science fiction been set in the past.

I’d spent most of the last decade publishing big-ideas hard-SF set in the present day—from Wake through to Quantum Night—but wanted a new challenge, and found myself drawn to the rarely trod path of setting an honest-to-goodness hard-SF novel in the days of yore.

But who or what to write about? Well, although J. Robert Oppenheimer will forever be praised or damned as “the father of the atomic bomb,” prior to becoming scientific director of the Manhattan Project he was doing research in astrophysics. In fact, it was he, along with his grad student Hartland Snyder, who first proposed what we now call black holes.

Now, yes, others have written fiction about the Manhattan Project, but most of them took the easy way out by having their main character either be wholly fictitious or, if real, so obscure that he or she might as well be.

I set myself the challenges not just of putting Oppenheimer (one of the few Manhattan Project figures who never wrote an autobiography) front and center, but also of having every other character in the book be a well-known real person.

See, normally, a novelist has a get-out-of-jail-free card. When a reader grouses “I don’t think this character would do that,” the writer can reply, quite truthfully, “Actually, I’m the world’s foremost expert on that character and I assure you she would.”

But with a cast consisting entirely of famous people who have been explored in multiple biographies, have been studied in depth by historians, and are still vividly remembered by many alive today, I had to cheerfully concede that I was not now and never would be the world’s leading authority on any of them.

Still, I wanted to make sure that my portrayals—not just of Oppie but also of Edward Teller, Leo Szilard, I.I. Rabi, Richard Feynman, Enrico Fermi, Kurt Gödel, Freeman Dyson, Albert Einstein, General Leslie R. Groves, and Wernher von Braun, among others—passed muster with the true experts.

And I didn’t want to tell an alternate history. That is, I didn’t want to say, well, sure, you can gainsay me until this page—the point of divergence—but after that, anything goes. Rather, I decided to tell a secret history: a series of plausible events that were, in themselves, authentic big-ideas hard SF, and have them occur in the lacunae in the public record. I wanted no one to be able to say, “Okay, that was fun, but of course it never happened.”

The more I dug into the research, the more obvious it became that there really was something major beyond what the public record shows of that period.

Deak Parsons, Oppie’s second-in-command at the Manhattan Project’s Los Alamos Lab, concurred. He told colleagues, concerning Oppie being cut off from classified information after the war, that even President Eisenhower was in the dark about the truth:

“I have to put a stop to it. Ike has to know what’s really going on. This is the biggest mistake the United States could make!” Unfortunately for him—and damn near as much for Oppie—Parsons died the next day of a heart attack before speaking to the president.

Even Freeman Dyson, Oppie’s great post-war colleague at the Institute for Advance Study, who died this year at the age of 96, felt Oppie was hiding something:

“As a direct result of Oppenheimer’s work, we now know that black holes have played and are playing a decisive part in the evolution of the universe. He lived for twenty-seven years after the discovery, never spoke about it, and never came back to work on it. Several times, I asked him why he did not come back to it. He never answered my question, but always changed the conversation to some other subject.”

Indeed, as Oppie himself declared, “There is a story behind my story. If a reporter digs deep enough he will find that it is a bigger story than my [security-clearance] suspension.” My goal was to tell that bigger story, and to make it one that could only be portrayed in the science-fiction genre.

Oppie has always been an enigmatic character: nonfiction books about him have titles as conflicting as Oppenheimer: The Tragic Intellect (by Charles Thorpe) and The Hope and Vision of J. Robert Oppenheimer (by Michael A. Day), as well as the on-the-nose Oppenheimer: Portrait of an Enigma (by Jeremy Bernstein). But that just made it all the more enticing to crawl inside his thundering brain and try to see things from his point of view.

I’ve often said my favorite science-fiction novel is Gateway by the late, great Frederik Pohl, in part because Pohl never cared whether his main character, Robinette Broadhead, was likable but only whether he’d been portrayed with raw psychological truth.

In Oppie, history handed me a similarly flawed person—one that just happened to be an erstwhile astrophysicist who went on to change the world for all time—and I hope I’ve done him justice in The Oppenheimer Alternative.

—-

The Oppenheimer Alternative: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

Uncle Hugo’s Fundraiser + Editorial Note

First things first: Uncle Hugo’s, the venerable Minneapolis science fiction bookstore, was burned down last week (along with Uncle Edgar’s, the next-door mystery bookstore). Almost immediately a GoFundMe was set up, but it wasn’t endorsed by Don Blyly, the owner of the bookstores. The GoFundMe has since been taken over by the Blyly family, who has made it the official GoFundMe for the stores, with an eye toward using the funds for rebuilding the bookshops.

I’ve done signings at Uncle Hugo’s and I know how important the store has been for fandom in Minneapolis and Minnesota, and am heartsick that some foolish (or malign) person set it alight. If the store was important to you, or if independent bookstores are important to you in general, for what they do for their communities and for readers, considering contributing to this GoFundMe. Again, it’s controlled by the Blyly family, so the money raised here will go to Don and to the stores. Check it out, and thank you.

—-

Second things second: I got an email today about the Uncle Hugo’s GoFundMe, one of several I’ve gotten over the last few days. I was aware of the GoFundMe and have been for several days, but I was also aware that it was originally set up by a third party, whose association to the store and its owner were unknown to me. I wasn’t going to point to a GoFundMe I didn’t know was endorsed and supported by the store or its owner, and I knew Don Blyly was thinking of doing his own fundraising effort. I held off and then I got busy. When this most recent email showed up, I clicked over to see if the GoFundMe was the one that Blyly was planning to set up. It turned out it was the original GoFundMe, but the Blyly family has taken over its administration. All well and good; it was now something I could point to.

The sender of the note (who I am keeping unnamed, for reasons that are about to become clear), also wrote this:

Personal note to John: Larry Correia is already exhorting his fans to help, and I really don’t want to see him do more than you on this, please help!

And friends, I will tell you what, this really really pissed me off.

For those of you who are somehow lacking context, Larry Correia led the “Sad Puppy” campaign for a couple of years, and it’s well-known that I was not a fan of that little adventure, and that Larry and I had our go-arounds because of it. It was not a pleasant time for science fiction (I am, you will understand, eliding much for the sake of brevity), and neither Larry nor I are on each other’s respective Christmas card list. But it’s largely in the past now and both of us are off doing our own things.

With that understood, two things here.

One: Good for Larry Correia! Dude donated a thousand bucks to the GoFundMe and is apparently exhorting his fans and friends to contribute as well. What’s not to like about that? Well done him. I applaud his efforts.

Two: I don’t know how to explain this to people, but I don’t think about Larry Correia all that much, and when I do, it’s not really with any heat. He’s not all that important to me. I feel pretty comfortable suggesting that he doesn’t think about me all that much, either. Why should he? He’s got his own life, which I touch on almost not at all. I’m guessing I’m not all that important to him, either.

So I am annoyed and actually sort of resent the fact this random dude thought Larry was the perfect foil to poke me with here. I am not so seized with animosity toward Larry that I will leap up from my chair to “beat” him in a fundraising score just because we hates him, precious, nor am I interested in reheating the whole Puppy bullshit one more fucking time, and certainly not in the service of a GoFundMe that is in point of fact absolutely and entirely unrelated to that particular lamentable moment in science fiction fandom history.

More bluntly: the thought process of “I want someone notable to contribute to a fundraising project I think should be important to them so I will motivate them by dragging the spectre of someone I think they hate into their field of view! It’s the perfect plan!” is really weird and fucked up, y’all. Don’t do it.

Even more bluntly: Look, asshole, if you want to rally a community together, don’t start by trying to fucking divide them. Helping Uncle Hugo’s isn’t about me, or Larry, or our respective fans (which almost certainly have significant overlap in membership) fighting over who can do more. It’s about saying this place was and is important to us all. Let’s all help.

So let’s do that. Let’s all help.

Five Things: June 2, 2020

Oh, not much going on in the world at the moment, is there?

Here are today’s five things:

Trump gassing peaceful protestors to walk to a photo op: I think we’re all used to the president being appallingly tone deaf, but this one seems destined for the top ten collection (I’m hesitant to rank it any higher at the moment simply because there are at least eight months left in his presidency, and he’s going to be more desperate as he goes along). The fact that the tear-gassing begun during his “Oh boy I sure wanna do me some martial law” speech, and then the president walked over to the church and held up a Bible like a cudgel, surely did give the event symbolism. Just not the symbolism he was aiming for, and definitely not the symbolism history will provide it.

The topper, of course, is that the Church was neither told he was coming nor wanted him to be there. As the Bishop Mariann E. Budde noted:

“He did not pray. He did not mention George Floyd, he did not mention the agony of people who have been subjected to this kind of horrific expression of racism and white supremacy for hundreds of years. We need a president who can unify and heal. He has done the opposite of that, and we are left to pick up the pieces.”

Mind you, gassing protestors and wielding the Word of God like a club makes the president’s base of racists and Really Bad Christians happy, and he wants them happy with him because no one else is, or will be. Trump is not the anti-Christ, but I tell you what, if a Democratic president did exactly the same things Trump is doing now, the same Very Bad Christians who are oozing with joy over Trump would be tossing the term around with impunity. But that hypothetical president wouldn’t be the anti-Christ, either. Just a very very very very very bad president.

Update on the ant situation: Lacking a strong pheromone trail, the ant legions are bit scattered and confused in the front hallway, and I thunder through regularly, deploying the Thumb of Doom on them. I tried cinnamon as some suggested to see what it would do to them; the answer is, it doesn’t seem to do anything, and now I have cinnamon in my hallway. What does seem to work, however: Febreeze. It corrals them pretty effectively. This is all containment until the ant traps arrive in a couple of days. I’m making a science project out of it, basically.

For all that:

That blackout thing: I missed the “Blackout Tuesday” thing in the planning stages and found out about it after people started complaining that associating lots of black screens with the #blacklivesmatter hashtag was making it useless for actual transmission of information. Good intentions have unexpected consequences, basically.

While I would not tell others how to do their thing, for myself I’ve been largely resistant to changing up my social media profile pictures or jumping onto hashtags. That sort of thing often feels like empty calorie activism to me, I suspect in part because I have other ways to signal how I feel about current events and social issues (hint: you’re reading it right now). But I also acknowledge that if you feel like you want to do something but don’t know how, profile pics and hashtags are at least a start. It does help to pay attention to consequences, however, unintended or otherwise.

Crazy Rich Asians: I eventually maxed out on reality last night and decided to indulge in some escapism, which involved a) salted caramel ice cream, and b) Crazy Rich Asians, which has become one of my go-to films for a bit of happiness. There are lots of reasons I like this film, but one of them is that — having gone to a high school that had its share of kids whose families were “comfortable” (to use the euphemism one character in the film uses for being really rich) — it does a pretty good job of simulating the casual aspects of being wealthy, i.e., what your concerns and cares are like when money literally is no object. I don’t want to go too far in that, since there are a lot of clearly amped-up-for-plot-purposes bits (the bachelor and bachelorette parties are prime examples), and ultimately this movie is a fairy tale complete with a marriage proposal. But when it’s not directly doing that, it gets the everyday utopia of wealth right. These folks have problems, but rent sure as hell isn’t one of them.

A wretched record: Speaking of films, this is an interesting story in Variety about how The Wretched, a low-budget horror film I certainly haven’t ever heard of before, has been the number one movie at the box office for weeks — because it’s showing at drive-ins, which are the only theaters currently open. This is one of those “technically correct, but come on” records. 2020 is going to be full of those before the end, I suspect.

The Big Idea: Drew Murray

Author Drew Murray knew he wanted to write a technothriller with his novel Broken Genius — but how to do it in a way that reader would not get lost in the technological weeds? Murray explains his solution for you now.

DREW MURRAY:

Very close on the heels of every technology humans invent is a way to misuse it.

One crisp fall weekend a couple of years ago, I went to visit an old friend I’d last seen in Northern California while on a pilgrimage to see the birthplace of the computer age in Silicon Valley. Over pasta heaped with bacon, he filled me in on his new job in the world of programmatic advertising.

On some level, I knew we all, as consumers, were being watched online. But how much can be found out about us? The answer is a gut-crunching, tingle-down-the-back-of-your-spine feeling of being spied upon. I wondered, What could happen if the collector of said information were to use it for something less benign than advertising?

I had a protagonist in mind who would also be interested in the answer to that question. I’d come up with him for a short story I wrote at a writing conference with the theme, “Murder at the Beach.” I wanted my detective to be a creature of Silicon Valley, but that presented a problem. What would cause someone to leave the lavish tech industry with its catered Michelin-star-rated buffets and eye-watering wealth? Something terrible. I had several ideas. Will Parker ended up being so fascinating to me that I wanted to explore his character in the greater space afforded by a novel.

Writing about current technology requires research to get the details right, or people won’t feel it’s genuine. Writing about distant future technology in a science fiction setting has few boundaries, but must feel familiar enough to the reader to suspend disbelief. Writing about a near-future technology combines both of these challenges. Too much detail and a reader could lose interest. Not enough detail and a reader could fail to believe in the possibilities. Either way, the reader is taken out of the story.

One technology capable of elevating an eerie amount of information collection to frightening and dangerous is a quantum computer. Able to analyze almost limitless amounts of data instantaneously, it’s the hardware that will enable true artificial intelligence. But so far, this technology remains experimental. Explaining the details of how that technology might evolve in the future makes a great science journal article but is snooze-inducing in a novel.

The lifeblood of a thriller is stakes. People being killed to possess this technology is a great start and raises juicy questions. Who wants it? What would they do with it? And who else is in danger? If the answer to the last question is everyone, you’ve hit the gold mine of stakes.

The next challenge I had to keep the tension high was to find action. In some thrillers that comes naturally. In military thrillers, soldiers jet around the world getting into battles. In spy thrillers, secret agents operate under constant threat of capture. Action is everywhere! Tech thrillers have to work harder because the truth is, high-tech work is boring to watch. I spent over twenty years in technology, and most of the time it was people sitting at a computer screen, typing away. At first, it was in cubicles, later in large open spaces, and now at home because everything is connected. Not exactly gripping stuff. I needed a way to get out of the office.

To get the movement I was looking for, it had to be about hardware. A physical device, disconnected so it could move around. Even better, it could be lost, becoming the treasure in a treasure hunt. Something so valuable on the loose and up for grabs would trigger real physical action and a healthy dose of danger, since we’ve established that people are willing to kill for it.

But where would this object, this high-tech McGuffin be lost? For that, I considered what would be a natural and interesting environment for my protagonist, Will Parker. He’s a techie. He’s from California. He’s definitely a fan of science fiction in popular culture. My answer was a Comic Book Convention.

The problem with setting a book at a comic con is that like technology, the level of detail is everything. Not enough detail and it won’t feel authentic, especially to fans that have gone to one (or if they’re like me, lots of them). Too much detail and you get lost in the comic con itself, breaking the tension of the high-tech treasure hunt. What followed was a process of trial and error. It took several revisions to get that level of detail right, and the feedback of a carefully selected panel of early readers with varying levels of experience with comic cons.

The winning strategy was to choose elements of a comic con that are readily understood by someone who’s never been to a one, and then have the story interact with it in some way—such as celebrity autographs. Everyone knows what an autograph signing is, whether it features sports heroes, movie stars, or tech entrepreneurs. By choosing that element, I had only to show how it typically works at a comic con, and then have it play a role in the treasure hunt. Approaching it this way led to surprising and humorous outcomes.

The last piece that brought it all together was to choose a first-person point of view for Will Parker. Being inside Will’s head inherently makes him a guide through the worlds of tech and comic cons, while allowing him to bring his own particular style of commentary to the sights and events as they unfold. His narrative perspective allows me to fine-tune the level of details for readability because of what he focuses his attention on. We trust that he understands the details of technology, so that when he’s fearful over what could happen if this new technology is misused, we share that fear. And who doesn’t want to feel that creepy tingle when reading a thriller?

—-

Broken Genius: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

Five Things: June 1, 2020

For the month of June I thought I would try something sort of new, sort of not: A brief daily write-up of five things I’m thinking about in one way or another for that day — could be news, could be personal things, could be a piece of entertainment, whatever (there’s that word). The point of it will be to a) be brief, and b) be daily. It’s not unlike the “various and sundry” pieces I’ve done from time to time, although a bit more formatted, for the simple reason that I think it’s probably easier to write to a format.

It doesn’t mean I won’t write longer pieces if I feel like it (honestly, I’ve never had a problem with that), but after a few months of feeling fairly disconnected to the world, I think it might be time to re-engage with a little more… after I’m done with my actual paid writing for the day, that is. Which is another reason to do a “Five Things” sort of column; if I’ve had a brain-draining creative session in the morning (which sometimes happens), then spieling out five things is less taxing than writing at length on a single subject. It’s all about me, folks!

When I say “daily” I’m gonna mean weekdays; I may do it on the weekend too, but if I do those will be bonus pieces. After the month of June, I’ll check to see how I feel about them. If I like the format, I may continue it. If I don’t (or find that contrary to expectation I’m spending too much time on it) then I won’t, or will amend it to better fit into my life. We’ll find out! It should be fun.

Also, generally speaking expect them later in the day than earlier.

With that as preamble: Five Things for June 1, 2020.

Trump wants to label “antifa” as a terrorist group: Well, except for the issue that “antifa” isn’t an actual group, it’s a descriptor and shorthand for “anti-fascist.” And while it would be, shall we say, bold for Trump to publicly say that being anti-fascist is terroristic, I think it’s more to the point to say that Trump and his administration are trying to use “antifa” as a general umbrella for “any left-wing group of people we don’t like for any reason.” Which is also bold, and stupid, and bound to make more headaches for this dim-witted administration than anything else.

As I noted on Twitter, I am personally and politically adamantly anti-fascist, and I think that not only is that a non-controversial thing to say, it should bluntly be a foundational part of any American’s political philosophy. Someone noted that no one says that they’re fascist; they call themselves “patriots” or “real Americans” or whatever. Which is true enough, but as in all things, the thing one keeps one eye on is not what people say but what they do. It’s not that hard to see who is leaning into their fascist tendencies these days, both in government and out of it.

Ants have invaded my home: On a much smaller scale than the item above, we found ants marching across the floorboard in the downstairs hall, on their way to the pantry. Despite living here for 19 years, this is a new one for us; we might get the occasional wayward ant but this is the first serious incursion I can remember. I wiped down the floorboards with soapy water to dissolve the pheromone trail, so we’ll see how that does before the next step. Of course people on Twitter have been very vocal about what to do next, from Windex to diatomaceous earth to nuking the site from orbit, it’s the only way to be sure. I’m pretty confident we’ll not do the last one.

Making My Phone See Me: I have face recognition on my Pixel 4 and I use it, so it’s been annoying for the last several days when the phone has decided to only see me intermittently. I dropped my phone fairly hard recently so I suspect I might have dislodged the part of the phone that “sees” me in some way, but if I did that I would think that it would not see me all the time, not just some of the time. That’s the thing that makes it especially aggravating, honestly. Either work or don’t, please! (It’s not the front-facing camera — or not just the camera, since there’s an infrared sensor in play too, to reveal depth.) I do wonder if it might have something to do with my quarantine look at the moment; it’s safe to say I’ve let myself go a bit, facial hair-wise, in the last few weeks.

Christo dead: For those for whom the name is not familiar, he was an artist who did very large scale art installations, some more memorable than others. The one that sticks out in my memory is when he installed very large umbrellas in the “Grapevine,” the mountain pass that connects Los Angeles County to the Central Valley region of California. I was in California when he installed them, and I had reason to go through the Grapevine during the time the display was there, and you know what — it was beautiful, and made me happy all the way through the drive. Near the end of the display, one of the massive umbrellas got loose and caused a fatality, unfortunately; I remember seeing the picture of Christo during the press conference for that and he looked grief-stricken. As well he should have been; it changed the tenor of the installation entirely. But I at least will remember the joy it gave me when I drove through it.

And Now, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar on George Floyd: The link is to the LA Times, which is paywalled but which also should let you look at the article if you don’t visit all that often (I just checked; I could get at it fine on a browser I don’t have my LA Times account on). If all you know about Abdul-Jabbar is that he played for the Lakers way back, then I will update you by letting you know he is also a very fine writer of both fiction and non-fiction, and an incisive opinion writer. What he has to say on George Floyd and the current waves of protest is well worth reading and thinking about. So get to it.

11 Week Quarantine Check In

I actually had to count it out at this point. We went into quarantine after coming back from the JoCo Cruise, and that was on Sunday, March 15. That was eleven weeks ago, which feels both a long time ago and also not that long ago now, because time is funny that way. I also entertain the idea I may have miscounted weeks somewhere in there, honestly, it’s a lot of weeks.

I think also at this point the quarantine era, or at least this first one, is over. States have largely opened back up despite the virus still being out there and spreading, and people are out and about — rather dramatically in the last few days, as it happens. I don’t think they’re going to go back in after this, at least not in the way they were before.

Which brings me to the subject of the protests that have been going on this week. On Twitter a couple of days ago I wrote this, which still holds true:

With that said, I can safely say the following:

1. All that had to happen not to have (these) protests go down was for Derek Chauvin not to have put his knee into George Floyd’s neck.

2. If I’m ever caught passing a bad check, or a counterfeit $20, or whatever, you know what’s not going to happen? Me dead because I had a cop’s knee in my neck for close to ten minutes.

3. I know for certain even these two utterly non-controversial statements above will have some dude show up in my comments suggesting that no, that’s not true, and trying to imagine a scenario where a Chauvin choking out Floyd was somehow justified. Dude, yes the fuck it is true, and no the fuck it wasn’t. (Also, don’t, I’ll just Mallet your tiresome ass).

The bifurcation of my eleventh week of quarantine is that I’m at home and it’s been lovely here, and in the rest of the country, people are out in the streets and cities are literally on fire.

On a personal level, this eleventh week hasn’t been that great for me; I’ve been short-tempered and irritable this entire week. Part of that was due to news from the outside world — it’s not been a great week for the whole country, folks — but part of that was just, well, sometimes I’m cranky and people just plain set me off. I don’t think I can chalk up my crankiness this week to quarantine life. I think it’s just me. It was actually a very good week for me not to see people, in point of fact. Or for other people to see me! I’ve been doing all y’all a favor by being mostly absent the last week, and posting pictures of cats and flowers. I hope you appreciate my restraint.

This next week I will actually leave the house; I have a dentist appointment on Wednesday, at which I suspect I will be told I need a crown (this will not be news to me, we’ve been watching this particular tooth for a while). While I’m not necessarily looking forward to the dentist appointment, I’m looking forward to a drive there and back. It’s the little things, these days.

The Nebula Weekend Dance Party Set List

Last night I DJed a dance party for SFWA’s Nebula Weekend — and because it’s the world we currently live in now, it was done all online. How do you do an online dance party? Well, you spin the tunes over Zoom and then a bunch of people in their own homes dance about in front of their computers. Yes, it was nerdy and awkward. Yes, it was a ton of fun.

I was asked if I would share the set list from the dance, and as it happens the DJ software I’m using (DJay 2), keeps track of the songs one plays during a session and saves it as a file. So, here’s last night’s dance party, track by track. Three hours, almost exactly, of happy hopping about. In case you feel like replicating the moment in the privacy of your own home. Enjoy.

1. Let’s Dance, David Bowie

2. Good as Hell, Lizzo

3. Gonna Make You Sweat (Everybody Dance Now), C&C Music Factory

4. September, Earth Wind & Fire

5. You Spin Me Round (Like a Record), Dead or Alive

6. Bang Bang, Jessie J & Ariana Grande & Nicki Minaj

7. Hey Baby, No Doubt

8. Just Like Heaven, The Cure

9. That’s The Way (I Like It), KC & The Sunshine Band

10. Baby Got Back, Sir Mix-A-Lot

11. All About That Bass, Meghan Trainor

12. A Little Respect, Erasure

13. Heart of Glass, Blondie

14. Free Your Mind, En Vogue

15. Come On Eileen, Dexys Midnight Runners

16. What is Love, Haddaway

17. Can’t Feel My Face, The Weeknd

18. Funkytown, Lipps Inc.

19. Connection, Elastica

20. Handclap, Fitz & the Tantrums

21. Miss You Much, Janet Jackson

22. Believe, Cher

23. Super Freak, Rick James

24. Maniac, Conan Gray

25. Get Down On It, Kool & the Gang

26. Don’t Stop the Sandman, Rock Sugar

27. Kiss, Prince

28. Bad Romance, Lady Gaga

29. Night Fever, Bee Gees

30. Jump Jive An’ Wail, The Brian Setzer Orchestra

31. Tik Tok, Ke$ha

32. Dancing With Myself, Billy Idol

33. It’s Tricky, Run-DMC

34. Time Warp, Rocky Horror Picture Show

35. Vogue, Madonna

36. Bizarre Love Triangle, New Order

37. Single Ladies (Put a Ring On It), Beyonce

38. You’re the One That I Want, Grease Motion Picture Soundtrack

39. Moves Like Jagger, Maroon 5

40. Jungle Love, The Time

41. Uptown Funk, Mark Ronson & Bruno Mars

42. Brick House, Commodores

43. Make Me Feel, Janelle Monae

44. Groove Is In the Heart, Deee-Lite

45. Starships, Nicki Minaj

46. Burning Down the House, Talking Heads

47. Hollaback Girl, Gwen Stefani

48. Love Shack, B-52s

49. Goodbye, Goodbye (Boingo Alive Version), Oingo Boingo

Thinking About June

First, for no good reason whatsoever, here’s a picture of Spice, turned into a faux-pastel drawing through the magic of Photoshop filters. I think it looks pretty good, actually.

Second, June starts on Monday and I’m going to use the switchover in months as an excuse to get back into a work setting. Don’t get me wrong, I haven’t been entirely idle prior to this; January and February I actually did a fair amount of work (I finished the next Dispatcher installment and wrote a couple of TV scripts) and in April and May I promoted The Last Emperox pretty heavily and also did some backend business stuff, which I personally find pretty exciting but the fruits of which you’re not likely to see for a while (and which I can’t talk about in detail yet, sorry).

What I haven’t done since I’ve gotten back from the JoCo Cruise in mid-March, however, is any new creative work of note. I don’t feel too bad about this, because the world has undergone some literally cataclysmic changes in that timeframe, and I think most of us can be forgiven in being shaken up about it and also trying to find our feet again. But I also know when the deadline to turn in my next novel is, and this time I would like to write it in a manner that doesn’t require a mad rush of writing at the end. Which means starting writing now (well, Monday). That’s the plan, anyway. We’ll see how it works.

Over the last couple of projects, I have developed a process that I think works reasonably well for me. In the mornings, between 8am and noon, I use my Freedom app to block news and social media sites, so that I don’t have those to distract me from doing my creative writing during those hours. After that I tend to my other business (emails and non-creative writing) and, while I don’t have any blocking software on at that point, I pretty much try to avoid most news until about 5pm, i.e., when everything I need to do with my day is done and I won’t be distracted by being angry at whatever is happening in the world that day. It’s weird to think of scheduling one’s angry time, but, well. Welcome to 2020, y’all.

More to the point (for me, anyway), having a schedule is pretty much how I have to live my life these days. Younger me might be a little appalled at how much 51-year-old me needs schedules, but 51-year-old me has come to terms with how easily distracted he is, and how distracting the world is, especially now. It’s not a good combination for getting creative things done. Creativity, or my creativity, anyway, needs a little bit of space and time on a daily basis in order to get going and keep going. That means a schedule. Shut up, you’ll be older too, one day, and when you are you’ll probably find a schedule helps you too.

So, June: Back to work for me. I think you’ll appreciate the effort. Eventually.

Zeus Officially Pronounces The Week Done and Over With

Go on, take a break for a couple of days. You’ve earned it. Probably.

A Dream Possibly Indicative of My Mental State at the Moment

In the dream I and Krissy and (a slightly younger) Athena are on vacation, in Denver of all places, when it’s suddenly the end of the world — we’re talking mudslides and mushroom clouds. And as we watch this from the hall leading to our hotel room, I hand Athena the ice cream cone I’ve been eating (vanilla with red sprinkles) and say to her, “you finish this.” Because in my dream I know it’s the last ice cream she’s ever going to have, and I want her to have a memory of what ice cream is like.

So, uh, yeah. That’s my brain at the moment.

To be clear, I’m fine, the family is fine and the pets are fine, and there is no reason to believe we’ll be anything but fine for the foreseeable future. But like anyone in these times, I have my ups and downs. The last few days have been… down.

The good news is, I actually have lots of ice cream in the house — I was sent a bunch as a congratulatory gift for The Last Emperox. Maybe I’ll go have some.

The Big Idea: Margo Orlando Littell

In her latest novel, The Distance From Four Points, author Margo Orlando Littell tests the proposition of whether one can indeed come back home — and whether her protagonist’s experience of doing so can and will differ from her own.

MARGO ORLANDO LITTELL:

Like most novelists, I can say that the finished version of my novel is a completely different novel than it was in early drafts. Plot elements were sliced away; characters asserted themselves or stepped aside. The big questions that led me to write The Distance from Four Points, however, never wavered: what would happen if you were forced to move back home? What if you returned to the place you swore you’d never set foot in again?

I grew up in a small town in southwestern Pennsylvania, the kind of place where your high school homecoming queen, first-grade teacher, and second-cousin-once-removed are all people you run into regularly at the supermarket. Everybody knows your name and your business. Most people who grow up there don’t leave, settling in the same zip code, or even on the same street, where they were born. This was not my path. I left town for college in Dayton, went on to grad school in New York City, spent years in Barcelona and Sacramento and New Jersey, acquiring a house and family along the way. With my husband’s job in Manhattan and my kids in New Jersey elementary school, moving back to my hometown has never been part of any life plan.

And yet. I’ve always viewed my hometown as a safety net. It hasn’t been home for decades, but it’s home—Robert Frost’s home: “the place where, when you have to go there, / They have to take you in.” If something were to happen—some crisis, some loss—it would be a soft place to land. It wouldn’t be the life we’d expected, but we’d carry on and be okay.

In my writing, I wasn’t far from home. Fictionalized versions of my hometown are the settings for both of my novels. I could walk the quiet streets and make conversation at the gas station through the characters I created. It felt right to set down roots in my books as I wrote about familiar territory.

Then it got a little too familiar.

The Distance from Four Points takes up the big question of my life directly: what would it be like to actually go back home? Robin, my protagonist, is forced to return to her hometown—Four Points, Pennsylvania—when her husband dies, leaving her with only a few decrepit rental properties he blew their savings on. Robin must become a landlord to make ends meet. Researching the novel, I had a realtor take me into the worst homes available for sale in my hometown—the long-abandoned, much-abused properties available for a song.

These are not ordinary rundown homes. My hometown, an hour south of Pittsburgh, used to be a wealthy hub for coal and coke, and it was once home to more millionaires per capita than anywhere else in the country. These are houses where the town’s most powerful families lived, and, grotesquely, the opulent details remain: original woodwork amid ripped-up floors; in-tact stained glass amid missing windows; turrets; wraparound porches. Architectural ghosts of better days. One of these homes, a giant yellow-brick beauty too ruined to enter safely, was listed for $10,000 and wasn’t worth half that much, as it was actively crumbling into the ravine behind it.

A romantic-leaning person would feel strongly that these ruined homes had souls.

Not long after my visit, a friend bought one of these homes, and we partnered for a flip. It was a stately, five-bedroom, red-brick landmark with a turret. The project’s purpose was to rescue a town relic and help improve the neighborhood where both sets of our parents still lived. The flip failed. The renovation itself was spectacular—photos went viral on Facebook, with over a million views—but no one could afford to buy it. So we took in tenants, all of whom lied egregiously—we were easy marks, as absentee landlords—and failed to pay rent. Courtrooms and collection agencies entered my life. We lost a lot of money, a lot of sleep. The house we’d meant to save bowed to a new cycle of abuse.

All of this meant that the lifelong fondness I had for my hometown took a beating. Before, I would have described it as having Appalachian charm; I viewed it through the lens of a visitor, someone who’d show up to ride on the bike trail by the river or attend the annual Italian church fair. Now, having invested time and resources, all I could see were tenants who’d punch holes in walls and strew needles in the attic. It was a heartbreaking re-vision. Too gritty, too real.

Worse, for the first time, I felt like a true outsider. During visits, I’d always been welcomed, easily resuming a place that held the shape of my body even after so many years. Now, interacting with tenants by phone and email, I was only an absentee landlord. A stranger.

Meanwhile, in my novel, the path Robin walked was the reverse of mine. Her longstanding revulsion of Four Points evolves; while there, she finds unexpected community. What she believed was the worst of her hometown turns out to be what her affluent suburban life had lacked: unvarnished worldviews, blunt truth-telling, long memories. She sheds her bland existence and reaches for freedom. Though she returned to Four Points kicking and screaming, the acceptance she achieves is a triumph, not capitulation.

Researching this novel gave me an unwelcome look at the other side of this place I once knew, far away from family and childhood memories. Robin gets an answer to my novel’s big question—what would happen if you went back home?—and her contented future is, in those pages, assured. My own attempt to get closer to where I came from, however, to maybe even test the waters for a hypothetical return of my own, came up sadly short of a happy ending.

—-

The Distance from Four Points: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Visit the author’s site. Follow her on Facebook.

Petals and Raindrops

So this morning I went and took pictures of the flowers in the front yard, and I posted the pictures on Twitter and Facebook and misidentified the flowers, so of course every single comment was correcting me on the flower identification. So I thought, well, fuck you all, you don’t get any flowers then, and deleted them. Because, apparently, today I’m not in the mood for goddamned fucking nitpicky bullshit.

So anyway, here’s a flower. Of some indeterminate sort. With raindrops. Enjoy. I’m taking the rest of the day off from social media, since it’s clear I need to walk away from it today.

I Have No Opinions of Note to Express Today, So Here, Have a Cat

She’s not feeling very argumentative herself at the moment. And that’s okay.

The Big Idea: Swati Teerdhala

It’s said that revenge is sweet — but in this Big Idea for The Archer at Dawn, author Swati Teerdhala argues that the taste may be something else entirely.

SWATI TEERDHALA:

Revenge fantasies are powerful.

We’ve all had one, whether it’s as petty as dripping oil on your annoying neighbor’s fancy loafers at the gas station or drastic, like sideswiping a car that always parks in your parking spot at work. And maybe you’ve gone through with that revenge fantasy. It feels good. No, it feels amazing in the moment.

But revenge is an unusual, cruel thing. It dresses itself up as a balm to your wounds. Something that will soothe you, allow you to evolve past your grievances with the mere act of retribution. It’s the answer to a question you desperately think you need. And in some cases, the desire for revenge can be understood. A good chunk of action movies use revenge as the core motivator for a character––to good and bad results. Even in classic literature, The Count of Monte Cristo is centered on a long, drawn out revenge fantasy. It’s a shorthand that every human on this earth can understand.

You’ve been hurt. You must hurt. But an eye for an eye blinds the world, or so they say. Turn the other cheek, etc. There are any number of sayings or parables that encourage forgiveness as the proper response to a devastation delivered by another. To the hurt and rage and despair that drives someone to revenge.

I wanted to explore this idea, not with a forgiving character, but with someone who has used that rage and anger to shape the core of who they are. How does forgiveness work then? Is it even possible? And what part of yourself do you lose when you allow forgiveness to enter? I wasn’t sure if you could even be the same person anymore. Or if you could truly forgive, especially a crime that has defined your life.

Esha, one of the main characters in The Archer at Dawn, saw her parents murdered in front of her eyes as a kid. The one cruel act has molded her into the person she is––a rebel fighting for what’s right and good. Someone committed to making sure no one else has to endure what she went through as the Pretender King took power of the land. She’s dedicated her whole life to bringing him down. And still, the Pretender King isn’t enough for her revenge. There was someone else who held the sword, who committed the act of killing her parents. When she realizes she has a chance to avenge her parents, she must decide––her past or her future? Taking revenge will ensure that her past is clean, that her rage will diminish, but it could spell doom for her and her land’s future. Forgiveness is the harder path.

Throughout The Archer at Dawn, the characters must deal with their demons in different ways––the thirst for revenge, the desperate need to prove their worth, the unending burden of duty. I delved deep into these ideas, forcing these characters to live through their worst nightmares before offering them a chance to do better, to be more.

Forgiveness was a lantern at the end of a dark tunnel. And hopefully, they’d walk toward it.

The Archer At Dawn: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Bookshop

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

Memorial Day Flowers, 2020

From around the Scalzi Compound. 

I hope today has been a fine and reflective Memorial Day for you and yours.

Sunset, 5/24/20

Some good drama in this one.

Have an excellent rest of your Sunday, folks.

About That Deal, Five Years On

Today is a red-letter day in my personal history, because five years ago (and also on a Sunday, calendars are weird), the New York Times announced that I had signed a 13-book deal with Tor books for $3.4 million, a deal notable for its length (we expected it to run for roughly a decade) and for the amount of money being splashed out. In the wake of the announcement was a week of congratulations for me (which I appreciated) and a whole lot of Monday morning quarterbacking about whether this deal was actually a good deal for me, or for Tor (which I found mostly amusing). We’re now halfway through the expected decade of the deal, so I figure now is as good a time as any to offer some thoughts on it and how it’s been for me, living with it in the real world.

First, how has the deal been working out? Well, so far, four books covered by the contract have been released: The Collapsing Empire, Head On, The Consuming Fire and this year’s book, The Last Emperox. Of the four, three were New York Times bestsellers and the one that wasn’t was nominated for the Hugo and won the Locus Award (there was an additional bestseller in there too: The Dispatcher, which showed up on the NYT’s inaugural Audio Fiction best seller list). In terms of the Interdependency series, the sales and bestseller rankings grew from the first of the books to the last. All the published books in the deal have been optioned for film/TV, and some of the currently unpublished ones have been, too. All the published books have sold in multiple languages.

This isn’t (just) luck. The deal was designed, in large part, to allow Tor and me the luxury of time to strategically build on the sales and the following I already had. One of the things I said to Tor when we were negotiating the deal is that I was perfectly happy to be known and to be labeled as a science fiction writer — I didn’t want to suddenly go “mainstream,” but I would be happy to be science fiction’s ambassador to the mainstream. Since the deal, that’s been the general thrust of our efforts; I write unapologetically science fictional books that non-genre readers might find approachable, and Tor’s magnificent marketing and PR people pitch me to the usual suspects in terms of press and readership — and then beyond that, too.

So yes, the deal has absolutely been working out so far. I have been the beneficiary of intentionality, and the agreement of the two primary parties to work strategically toward a goal, that goal being selling loads and loads of books to as many people as possible. To my credit, I’m writing accessible books that people (mostly) seem to like, and to Tor’s credit, they’ve been very active and creative in marketing and selling the books, and me. I can’t overstate the importance of the latter, and I saw it in action in the last few months, when my physical book tour had to be scrapped and Tor’s PR/Marketing folks built an online tour for me in a matter of days. I am in awe of and grateful for Tor’s publicity machine (and particularly Alexis Saarela, my direct PR person), and in return I try to hold up my end of the deal, not just in what and how I write, but in helping them promote me, and in supporting Tor and the other writers they have and promote. This is how the deal is supposed to work, and how things get done.

I’ve been asked if having a contract with so many books on it exposes me to pressure, as in Oh Jesus, I just finished another book and yet I still have nine more books that I have to write please release me from my prison of words. The short answer to this is, lol, no. I get to write for a decade (at least!) and don’t have to worry about whether what I’m writing will sell and if I’ll get paid for it. There are very few writers who would turn down that deal.

The slightly longer answer is: Hello, have you looked at the global economy at the moment, it’s in a shambles and it’s absolutely the freelancers and gig economy workers of the world — including the writers — who are going to take it on the chin. It might be years before things hit a new equilibrium. Many if not most of the writers I know are incredibly apprehensive about what this means for their ability to support themselves and their families through writing. And then here’s me, who all he has to do is — write. If I write, I get paid. Someone is contractually obliged to pay me a specified amount for every single book they’ve already agreed that they will take from me when I finish writing it. I have many problems with the state of the world today — oh boy, let me tell you about that — but getting paid isn’t one of them. That is an actual gift.

(Well, no, not an actual gift, since I still have to, you know, write the books in order to get paid. But I think you know what I mean.)

When I first talked about the deal five years ago, one of the things that I noted was that it gave me stability — rare for a writer in any era, and it feels even more rare in this one. Stability, as it turns out, is a huge boost to my productivity. This should not be a surprise — strange how when you don’t have to devote brain cycles to how you’re going to afford eating or keeping a roof over your head, you might have more cycles to commit to creativity — but when talking about a large, long contract, I think people tend to see the obligation it requires rather than the constancy it affords. For me, I don’t really see the obligation, because, you know, as a commercially-oriented author whose only job is writing, I’m obliged anyway. If I didn’t have this bigass contract, I would still have to write a book a year, more or less, plus a bunch of other things, or else I wouldn’t be able to pay my bills. That obligation was already baked in to how I live my professional life.

What the contract did, again, was alleviate the anxiety of whether what I wrote would sell, or whether I would get paid for it (or more accurately, if I would get paid what I thought was reasonable). Now, being the lucky dick that I am, I will cheerfully note that selling work was never really a problem for me prior to the contract; my modus operandi was to say to Tor, “Hey, here’s a book, want it?” and they would say “Thank you, yes, that would be lovely.” But on the other hand, there is a three-year gap in my novel publishing schedule between 2008 and 2011, and it’s there for business reasons, not because I didn’t want to write novels in there. Yes, it’s weirdly coincident to the last major global economic downturn. Strange, that. Lesson: There are no guarantees in this business, even if you’re already a best selling award magnet. Unless you get that guarantee in the form of a contract.

That stability has business applications aside from money. For example, Tor has, for print and eBook, my entire back list of novels — fourteen so far, and (obviously) more to come. Having them all with the same house means we plan and strategize on how to use the back list to our advantage. So, for example, this April we did a one-day giveaway of The Collapsing Empire and a one-day $2.99 eBook sale of The Consuming Fire, directly ahead of the release of The Last Emperox. Tor can also do things like make the entire backlist readily available to bookstores when a new release comes out, so people who like the newest book have no problem finding older work, to the benefit of us and to bookstores. Book sales aren’t just about new books and bestseller lists — Old Man’s War is still my biggest seller, and it’s never been near a NYT list — and having stability and continuity in who is distributing the Scalzi library is a huge competitive advantage not every author gets to have.

Mind you, when the deal came out, there were a number of commentators who suggested that I had traded stability for the opportunity to make real money, since, depending on how one decided to slice it, an average of $261,000 per book or $340,000 per year, guaranteed, wasn’t all that much money; it wasn’t, really, what a bestselling, award-winning author should be making, now, was it?

(This is where actual authors, and actual bestselling authors, throw their heads back and laugh outrageously loudly, by the way.)

But these commentators are not entirely wrong. I mean, they’re wrong about $261k not being “real” money for a book, honestly, that’s just a ridiculous assertion in a world where the average advance for a science fiction novel from a “Big Five” publisher is something like $12.5k. But they’re not wrong that stability was as important to me as the price tag on the deal. And this was for a couple of reasons.

The first is: Look, unless you’re buying yachts and helicopters and trophy spouses and cocaine, or live in San Francisco, there comes a certain financial threshold where all your life needs and wants are taken care of and more money just becomes more money and not much more. What that number is for you depends on several factors, including where you live (see: San Francisco above), what your debts and owes are, how important being flashy with your money is, whether it’s really critical to you that your kids go to an Ivy-level school rather than Eastern Michigan University (or your state’s equivalent), where you vacation and (hopefully) how much you save for the day when you’re not making money anymore.

Turns out, for me, that number is somewhere around $200,000. At $200,000 all my bills and debts are paid, I’m able to invest and save and pay for my kid’s college, I get to buy whatever thing it is I want to buy (usually tech stuff and musical instruments), I can donate to charities and most of all I can just stop worrying about whether I can afford to live. More money after that? Great! Love it! I’m a capitalist! Into savings and investments it goes. But for me, the quality of my day-to-day life is not manifestly changed above $200k — a sum which in itself, incidentally, would still put me in the top ten percent of income earners in the United States.

What that realization means for me is that after a certain point, I had the luxury of looking at a book deal not just in terms of what the money was, but what else I was getting from it and what that would mean in the long term, financially and otherwise. It might not surprise you to know that before Tor made their offer, I was actively being scouted by other science fiction imprints, and had more than one lunch with editors and publishers where we talked about how I would fit into their house and plans. I think it’s not unreasonable for me to suggest that I could have gotten something like a seven-figure, three-book deal from another Big Five publisher, where the average advance per book would have been significantly higher than what I got from Tor.

But here’s the other reason stability was as important as the money: Because the tradeoffs matter. Is it better, for example, to go for a book deal that offers more money up front but has a shorter term, and represents a concrete break with your publishing past (this is the back list thing again), requires you to get used to a new publisher, editor, PR/Marketing team and so on, with the knowledge that if those three books underperform, for whatever metrics “underperform” represents, you’re out on the pavement again and everyone knows why? Or is it better to get possibly less per book up front than you might get elsewhere (but still more than enough, I mean, Jesus), work with people you know, like, and respect professionally, know — because it’s in the contract — that your books will be a priority on release, and if one or two (or more!) underperform, you have time and resources to adjust and compensate? For a decade, at least?

There is no wrong answer to this, incidentally — the answer is entirely about one’s own tolerance for risk and/or desire for the ability to do long-term planning and strategy. By this point, I think, my own answer is obvious.

And part of that, and because I’m not entirely immune to the charms of money, even when I have enough, is because here’s a thing I know: Money makes more money, and calls attention to itself — which is to say that the longer you’re making significant amounts of money, the easier it is to make significant amounts of money, and to be visible to the people who will give you money. When commentators looked at the deal as $261k per book or at the $340k per year figure, they were only seeing the money in a blunt and not very useful breakdown that was only about the money in the contract. What they didn’t see was what the attention a $3.4 million, decade-long, 13-book deal, could get me.

Which was, in this case: a separate deal for the audiobook rights, mirroring the Tor deal in length, with the result being that each book release is a priority for a second publisher (Audible, who is a delight to work with), meaning more publicity and marketing, also from exceptionally smart folks. More long-term deals from foreign publishers with more money attached. Increased interest from Hollywood, with option deals following. Paid speaking gigs and other business opportunities. Write ups and profiles and analysis in mainstream media, not just genre and trade publications. A raised profile that Tor and my other publishers can work with and use to increase interest in my work and grow sales, which makes the next round of publicity and marketing easier, raising my profile further — something we can do over and over and over, not just two or three times. And — this is important — increased interest in my back list, which generates sales and royalties between new releases.

Money makes money, or can, anyway. With this deal, at least, that has absolutely been the case. Krissy does not like for me to talk specific sums and I think she has a reasonable basis for this. I can say, without being overly specific, that with respect to the contract and all the knock-on deals and benefits that accrued because of it, and after (absolutely earned) agency and lawyer fees, we left that $3.4 million figure in the dust a while back. With luck, we’ll close out the contract having made a respectable multiple of that amount (Ifif I don’t mess up and write something unreadable, if the economy doesn’t crash so hard that people just stop reading, or at least, paying for books, if I don’t die of coronavirus or marauding bears, if I don’t become such a complete jerk that people can’t bear the sight of my name on a book, if a meteor doesn’t dinosaur us all, if, if, if). Please note that if I’ve already cleared that sum, my partners, Tor most of all, are doing pretty well with the arrangement too. Sometimes things work like they should.

So yes, I paid for stability. I’m happy to say it’s paying me back.

Perhaps the best thing I could say about this contract five years in is that if I had to do it over again, I can’t think of much that I would do differently. It created for me the ability to write the books I want to write, and apparently the books that people want to read. All while knowing that I have partners I can trust to sell the work, and me, to the world, over and over again. Again, this is a gift that not every writer gets to have. I’m immensely grateful for it, and I look forward to writing more books under this contract. Nine more, in fact. I can’t wait.

New Books and ARCs, 5/22/20

As we begin the Memorial Day weekend, here’s a stack of the new books and ARCs that have come to the Scalzi Compound. Anything here that speaks to you as we head into the long weekend? Share in the comments!

The Big Idea: Nancy Kress

In today’s Big Idea, Hugo and Nebula Award winner Nancy Kress takes a look at controversy, science, and change — Sea Change, as a matter of fact.

NANCY KRESS: 

At parties in my city—environmentally conscious, crunchy-granola, high-tech and socially activist Seattle—it is easy to start a flaming argument. Just walk up to a group, tilt your head, and say inquiringly, “What do you think of GMOs?” Then stand back to avoid being scorched.

Genetically modified organisms have passionate denouncers and equally passionate supporters. This is especially true for GMO crops, since the genemod bacteria and animals are usually hidden away in labs, ranches, or manufacturing facilities. But there is GMO food right out front on your table, plated in front of your kids. Everybody has an opinion.

Including me.

But I didn’t want my new novella from Tachyon, Sea Change, to be a polemic for one side of the controversy. I wanted to explore in a balanced way both sides of the myriad questions involved.  In this corner of the boxing ring: GMOs aren’t natural! We don’t know what they do to the human body long-term! GMO crops will contaminate wild flora and/or kill animals, possibly including us!  There are studies! Look at the science!

And in the opposite corner: Neither is most of medical science “natural” to the human body, from Tylenol to heart transplants! There are decades of research already! Not one person has ever died from a GMO! If we don’t engineer crops, climate change and a growing world population will starve billions of people! Those studies have been invalidated! Look at the science!

The pugilistic metaphor is a deliberate choice. It isn’t only in Seattle that “GMO” is a fighting word, and with reason. There is a lot at stake: money, scientific reputations, food security, perhaps the future of the planet. The politics of genetic engineering, of agribusiness, of food regulation are all more complicated than they first appear. Both sides have waged wars of disinformation. Sometimes the war of words has spilled over into actual violence, with test farms attacked and crops destroyed, or Monsanto employees bodily threatened.

I am not a scientist. I think I would make a very bad scientist: not detail-oriented enough, or patient enough, or logical enough. Science fascinates me (forget rock stars and movie actors—I’ve always been a science groupie, sometimes embarrassingly so). But what I find really compelling are people. Why does a given person believe, act, love as they do? This is fortunate, because a writer cannot make a story solely out of controversial arguments. The science needs to happen to characters.

Sea Change happens to Renata Black. As I age, my protagonists get older (eventually I expect to be writing about octogenarians), partly because I get tired of brash, young, badass heroines. So Renata is a middle-aged woman in a near-future Seattle. Her life is not going as expected. She is a mother, a wife in a difficult marriage, an activist in a secret organization. An idealist, but one who recognizes that realizing ideals happens slowly, with effort, imperfectly, and sometimes at great personal cost.

Sea Change also happens to Jake, Renata’s actor husband. To their chess-loving son, Ian. To thirteen-year-old Lisa, a member of the Quinalt Nation. To Kyle, an ex-NFL wide receiver turned teen counselor, who has the unenviable task of trying to hold together a revolutionary cell of talented, utopian-minded misfits.

Finally, the novella is about other things as well as GMOs. Ocean blobs. Legal jurisdiction fights. Love and loss (if I hadn’t thought of it too late, I would have called my story Sea Change: A Love Story). The Quinalt Peninsula northwest of Seattle, which contains the world’s only temperate rainforest: wild, coastal, and beautiful.

A section of the Peninsula belongs to a Native American tribe, the Quinalt Nation, and so they, too, are part of my story.  For this, I had the help of a Native American sensitivity reader. The Quinalt, who have occupied their land for 1,000 years, depend heavily on salmon fishing, which is threatened by modern agricultural run-off, in addition to the host of other threats the outside world poses to Native American cultures.

Sea Change spans twenty-eight years. It begins in 2005, the year that Switzerland banned genetically modified foods and the United States added sugar beets to the GMO foods available to consumers, which already included summer squash, soybeans, papayas, and tomatoes. Renata is in college. When the novella ends, she and the world are both very different. But the battles over science go on.

And, as I read the news each day, it seems that they always will.

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Sea Change: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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