Final Day In Atlanta

Athena ScalziAnd really, it was only half a day because I spent almost ten hours driving home. But in that first half of the day, I went to the World of Coca-Cola! So this post is more or less only a review over that.

Before I get started, I just want to preface by saying I don’t even like Coke. I dislike the taste of cola in general. I’m a black sheep in my Coke-addicted family. I’m really more a Sprite gal. I do like root-beer (not Barq’s) and Dr. Pepper, though.

Though I walked to the aquarium the other day, I did not walk to World of Coca-Cola because I had checked out of my hotel and was leaving for home straight from World of Coca-Cola, so I drove and parked in their parking garage for twenty dollars.

The World of Coca-Cola building in the center of the shot, the rest of the skyscrapers of downtown Atlanta surrounding it. The ferris wheel is also visible all the way to the right of the photo. The sky is filled with fluffy white clouds.

Entering was a super easy process. They take photos upon walking in but you can just say you don’t want a photo and walk right through, where you’ll find a large room filled with dozens of screens displaying Coca-Cola being poured into glasses with ice.

You’ll be asked to wait in this room until the timer next to the door for the next room is up, then you shuffle with everyone else into a room full of Coca-Cola memorabilia, merch, and vintage ads called The Loft. There was a presenter dressed in a costume of all red at the front, and he told us a bunch of facts about the founding of Coca-Cola and the creation of it and all that, as we waited for another timer to end so we could enter the next room, which was called the Coca-Cola theater.

The theater played a six minute video over how “Coca-Cola is a part of so many moments in peoples’ lives, big and small.” The video showed people at birthday parties, people proposing, people having a good time and drinking Coca-Cola from glass bottles. Classic stuff, really. Nothing we haven’t all seen a million times before.

After you exit the theater you’ll find yourself in the hub of the museum. It’s big and bright and full of giant Coca-Cola bottles with funky designs. From here there’s a few different exhibits you can enter. There’s a room called The Vault which is all about the secret formula of Coke, a place to take pictures with the mascot, the Polar Bear (though apparently there’s only certain times of the day he’s out and available for photos), a section where you can see how the bottling process works, and of course the big attractions such as the tasting room.

I decided to go into the “Pop Culture” section first, as I totally loved The Loft and all the vintage stuff and wanted to see more of that kind of thing.

They had a whole wall of the classic Santa Claus style ads, which I thought was really neat:

A white wall full of gold framed posters of the Coke ads that feature Santa Claus.

There was lots of home decor that was Coca-Cola themed, like a lamp that looked like it could’ve been Tiffany’s. There was also a signed poster of someone from American Idol drinking a Coke, next to a red and white couch that apparently was sat on by American Idol stars? I’m not entirely sure. Behind glass there was items such as Coca-Cola Checker sets, old fashioned bottles, and animal statues made out of shredded up Coke cans.

There was also a display of these super awesome bottles with styles from Chinese artists:

Eight metal Coke bottles, each one with a different artist's design.

(You can actually see the American Idol stuff I mentioned in the reflection of the glass.)

It was a relatively small section, so I moved on to the exhibit next to called Scent Discovery. This was a dark, very open room, with several different sniffing stations for you to smell scents at.

A neon glass sign with the letters

Other than fruity, there was also spicy and sweet. The sweet smelled just like cotton candy, or basically just sugar. There wasn’t a whole lot to do in this room other than sniff the three smells and move on, so I did! To the tasting room!

A large room filled with people. There are several giant drink stations throughout the room where you can sample sodas.

This room was basically the final stop before the gift shop, and once you entered the gift shop there was no re-entry to the rest of the museum.

I grabbed a cup and starting making my rounds of the drink stations, which are basically like soda machines at a fast food place:

A soda machine with eight sodas. Hi-C Poppin' Lemonade, XXX Acai-Blueberry-Pomegranate Vitamin Water, Peach Fuze Tea, Thumbs Up, Country Club, Pineapple Fanta, Manzana Lift Roja, and Kolita Fanta.

I got through the station pictured above, and then about halfway through the second station when suddenly the fire alarm went off. Everyone shuffled into one big crowd and meandered towards the emergency exit, but a lot of us kept being held up by people that were stopping to fill their cups with soda and then proceed to stand there and drink them. It was a real “bruh” moment.

So once everyone exited the building we were all instructed to wait on the grass.

A huge crowd of people standing and sitting in the grass outside the front of the Coca-Cola building. The aquarium can be seen in the background.

I figured it would be a while before we could go back in, so I headed over to the Bottle Cap Cafe (in the background on the right) before anyone else got the bright idea to wait it out there. Sure enough, after I got in the relatively small line, about a dozen people got in line behind me and the line ended up going out the door. Though, it was a pretty small place on the inside, so it’s not like a line out the door is saying much considering the lack of room inside.

Anyways, I ordered a pesto flatbread for eleven dollars, and a mini flight of floats for fourteen dollars.

Here’s the flatbread:

A rectangular piece of flatbread with green pesto and parmesan shreds on top. There is also a few breaded chicken pieces on top.

It actually wasn’t half bad. It was kind of on the luke-warm side but meh, no big deal. Also, I expected the chicken to be dry as fuck but it wasn’t at all!

As for the mini floats, this was the photo of it:

A photo of the menu screens behind the counter of the cafe. It displays the mini float flight in six little glasses, lined up on a wooden serving board.

And this was what I got:

A cardboard drink carrier containing six paper cups full of soda.

Lil’ bit of false advertising to be certain. Not that I care, really. Obviously having it all be throw-away items makes it easier on the workers, which is important. But it was definitely not what I expected. It came with root-beer, Coke, Cherry Coke, Sprite, Grape Fanta, and Orange Fanta. For me the only thing worth drinking was the root-beer float, since I don’t like cola, hate grape soda, and don’t want ice cream in my Sprite.

So why did I order it, you may be wondering? Well I thought it was an interesting menu option with a cool presentation, and thought it would be neat to try out and document. But the presentation was obviously not the cool version, so it made for much less of an interesting photo-op for the blog. Ah, well.

Moving on, as I was finishing eating, they started letting people back into the museum, so I waltzed over there only to find a ginormous crowd waiting to get back in through the front. Not only were the letting the original people back in, but also selling tickets and having those new people enter at the same time. I didn’t want to waste my time going through the presentations again, especially with such a huge line, so I snuck off to the backside of the building where the gift shop exit was.

There was a security guard standing inside the exit doors, and when I walked up he opened the door for me and let me in. I was astonished that that actually worked out for me. So, I had made it back into the gift shop, the place where there was no re-entry to the rest of the museum. Time for me to buy my shit and leave.

I am sad that I missed out on the rest of the sodas I didn’t get to taste. I was especially excited to try Inca Kola. But at least I got back in without having to go through a giant crowd and everything.

Anyways, the gift shop was huge, and I bought way too much shit I don’t need. I have no idea why, but I have always loved Coca-Cola merch, and now I finally get to own some!

Of course, I got some super cool glasses:

Three Coca-Cola glasses sitting beside each other. One is a taller bottle style with a screw-on lid and straw, one is the size and shape of a Coke cane, and one is a regular sized glass.

Each one was between five and ten bucks.

I got this nifty vintage-style metal poster for fifteen:

A rectangular metal poster of a drawn Coca-Cola ad, saying it costs 5 cents and is delicious and refreshing.

This vintage vending machine style piggy bank for ten dollars:

A small piggy bank in the shape and style of a Coca-Cola vending machine. It is red and white.

I also got way more tops than I need, each one between thirty and sixty dollars:

A red hoodie with dark grey sleeves. The front of the hoodie is a drawing of all the old styles of Coca-Cola bottles in a timeline fashion.

A pastel purple hoodie with a Coke bottlecap over the left side of the chest, with the words

A black long-sleeve shirt with a red Coca-Cola logo on the front. Beneath it is the Coca-Cola logo in Japanese.

(They are all super wrinkly from being stuffed into a gift bag and traveling.)

Of course I had to get a pin for my collection (it was the last one!):

A square, black pin with the Coca-Cola in silver at the top, and Atlanta at the bottom. In between the two is a Georgia peach.

And a postcard!

A white postcard displaying all the different styles of Coke bottles throughout the decades.

Finally, at checkout, the girl asked me if I wanted to add one of their mystery bag items, one for 3.99 and one for 5.99, and I got both:

Two small white bags with Coke logos on them.

One was a reusable straw kit:

A capsule containing a silicone reusable straw and a brush cleaner.

The other was a pair of shoe laces:

A pair of black shoe laces with the Coca-Cola logo in different languages in white all over them.

So, yeah! That was basically all I did before I headed home.

Oh, and I grabbed a churro on the way back to my car from a food truck:

A super long churro.

Or rather, I was going to get one, but they only came in a two-pack for nine dollars, and the guy in front of me bought the two-pack, turned to me and said “I only want one, do you want the other?” I said yes and he gave me the other churro for free! I told him to have a great day, and I hope he did.

And then I headed home! And it was super uneventful. A traffic jam here, a gas station stop there, and soon enough I was back in Ohio.

Do you like Coke? What’s your favorite variation? Do you agree Sprite is superior? Let me know in the comments, and have a great day!

-AMS

Thoughts on “The Sandman” Series

John Scalzi

I’ve now watched all ten episodes of the first season of The Sandman on Netflix, and while I absolutely cannot be unbiased in my opinions about the series in any way, because a) Neil Gaiman is a friend of mine, b) Netflix is the service where I have been extensively involved in a series (Love Death + Robots), and have a movie currently in development (Old Man’s War), I do have some observations that I don’t think are out of line to note to you all. Please be aware that this post assumes you have some experience with/knowledge of The Sandman series, in both the comic book and the television iterations, and also, that you do not mind spoilers. If you don’t have the former, this piece may not make much sense, and if you do mind the latter, you should probably read no farther than this.

So noted, my thoughts, in no particular order.

1. Up front: I enjoyed the series quite a bit, and I strongly suspect I would have even if I did not know Neil personally. But as I do know Neil, I am also pleased that the version of The Sandman which has now been committed to television is one that he was both happy with and actively involved in. It’s an open not-so-secret that Sandman’s journey to screen has been filled with twists and turns and takes on the character and property that had almost nothing to do with the things Neil wrote into the series. The screen version of The Sandman deviates from the comics, sometimes significantly, but the emotional gestalt of the series is the same, and the variations have less to do with someone else new trying to “improve” the text by adding to/deviating from Neil’s work, and rather more to do the practical considerations of condensing down two full graphic novels worth of story (“Preludes and Nocturnes” and “The Doll’s House”) into one ten-episode series, and also, updating a three-decade-old property into 2022.

It mostly worked well for me, and the small quibbles I may have had with the adaptation were not nearly enough to affect my enjoyment. This is screen adaptation done well, with the involvement of a creator who has done enough film/TV work prior to this to be involved not just usefully but essentially.

2. The one thing I was particularly happy to see in the Netflix version of the story was the near-complete ejection of the DC Comics hooks in the “Preludes and Nocturnes” part of the series. I understand why they were there in the comics; The Sandman was a legacy character, and when the series started out, there had to be some obeisance to the DC machinery. Thus, the appearances by Martian Manhunter and other “mainstream” DC characters. But here in 2022, Neil’s Sandman is the Sandman. The story he tells in this arc does not suffer one whit from the removal of the traditional DC elements, and given the chaotic state of the DC cinematic and TV universe at the moment, there’s no benefit whatsoever trying to tie this series into any of that. If I had ever been given The Sandman to adapt (which to be clear was never offered, nor would I have taken it when Neil was right there all that time), punting the DC elements would have been job number one for me. So I was personally pleased to see my instinct here was a good one.

3. The best thing about the series is the cast, which is, down the last and least character, incredibly well-selected. Again, I have to think that this was substantially due to Neil being actively involved, although I have no detailed inside knowledge about this (you may assume for the purposes of this piece that I did not speak to Neil in any great detail about the production side of things, and have no special knowledge I’m trying to sneak in here).

The casting is impressive enough that I can say that Tom Sturridge as Dream is possibly the weakest bit of casting here, and he’s friggin’ perfect in his role — beautiful and haughty and a real hot mess who has the emotional intelligence of a sulky teen, but is who also, you know, trying. When I say Sturridge is the weakest bit of casting, it’s less about Sturridge — again, friggin’ perfect — than it is about the character of Dream himself, who is a cultural icon (so any actual human in the role would be deeply judged) and who in the context of the story is strongly defined by his relationships with and reactions to other characters. The role of Dream suffers, in other words, if other roles are not well-cast.

And again, the series nails these, and the way you know it’s nailed them is the fact you want more of almost all of them than you get on the screen. The most critical of these were the two of the other Endless that play a substantial role in this season, Death (Kirby Howell-Baptiste) and Desire (Mason Alexander Park). Neither of them is onscreen long — Howell-Baptiste is there for one episode, while Park is in there less than ten minutes across across several episodes — but when they were there I couldn’t take my eyes off them. Howell-Baptiste is deeply warm and empathetic and draws out Sturridge’s best acting, and Park — well, Park has the devious fucktoi energy the role needs and then some. In the case of both of these performers, there was some performative outrage by shithead bigot “fans” when they were announced in the roles, because Howell-Baptiste is black and Park is non-binary. Well, these “fans” can go fuck themselves, not only for technical reasons (i.e., canonically the Endless are seen differently by everyone anyway, depending on their cultural and personal opinions on what an anthropomorphic representation of their respective concept should be, so their wholly insincere “argument” is invalid on its face) but also because these performers are just so damn good.

Indeed, there is quite a lot of casting in the TV series that is different from what it was in the comic book series, notably Johanna Constantine rather than John Constantine, but also the characters Lucienne, Rose and Jed Walker, and Lucifer among several others. I assume these were done for varying reasons and again all approved by Neil, who I quite reasonably consider the final word on these matters. And, once again, all the performances are grand. So, yeah. I’m more than fine with the changes to the characters in the original text; in the TV series, they work.

4. On the subject of changes to the original text, I was really curious how the series was going to handle the “cereal convention” section of the comics, and in particular the character of Fun Land, who is definitely a child murderer and probably also a pedophile (I can’t remember at the moment if the latter is spelled out in the comics). In the comics Fun Land’s fate is, uhhhhhh, rather more charitable than I personally would have had it be. The TV series deviates from that in a manner I personally found more satisfactory.

That said, that change was one of the few where the TV series pushed forward with violence/gore/unsettling revelations relative to the comic rather than pulled back. The TV Sandman felt largely PG-13ish with occasional sallies into soft-R territory (excepting the “24/7” episode, which has as much gore as you might like — although even that is scaled back from the comic), while the comics dipped rather more heavily into gore and body horror, which is easier (and cheaper!) to portray in drawings than in high-quality special effects. This isn’t a negative in my opinion, and in any event the TV version doesn’t have a problem going hard when it makes sense to go hard (again, “24/7”), but if you’re coming from the comics, it is noticeable.

5. Others have noted, and I agree, that season one of The Sandman is actually two smaller seasons: The five episodes that are “Preludes & Nocturnes,” the four that are “The Doll’s House,” and the mid-season breather that is essentially “That Bottle Episode With Death and Hob Gadling.” Of all of these, the least successful is the second half of the bottle episode, not because it’s not done well or is uninteresting, but because it’s a bit out of sync with Dream’s emotional arc in the TV series (the actual story represented happens later in the comics than it does in the TV series). It’s a bit of fan service, and Hob Gadling is important to the story later; the TV folks might have reasonably decided that Gadling’s tale would be difficult to insert later, so might as well do it now. These are the decisions you make when you have to make sense of a decade’s worth of comics.

Speaking of which, this is going to be an interesting needle for the TV series to thread: So much of comics version of The Sandman are stand-alone stories that involve Dream and the rest of The Endless to some extent, but aren’t about them so much as the universe the Endless inhabit and shape. In many ways The Sandman comics are an anthology series, and some of the most beloved stories there have little to do with Dream directly. How to incorporate those stories and still tell Dream’s overall tragic and triumphant narrative arc? Will they be incorporated at all? The ending of the first season suggests there will be some skipping ahead in the comic book narrative, which makes sense to me. I have no idea how this all will be handled, but I’m curious to find out.

6. If I have one criticism of The Sandman series that I would want to share here, it’s one that’s largely technical: I’m not 100% sure The Sandman benefits from what I call “The Netflix Look,” which is a certain grade of visual presentation shared in common with a lot of Netflix product, in no small part due to Netflix having specific imaging and production requirements. Netflix ostensibly does this to make sure everything they bring to the service has a certain level of production clarity. This is laudable most of the time, and also means there’s a certain baseline look that becomes recognizable the more you see it; all that clarity adds up. I think The Sandman could have benefitted from, well, a little more murkiness and grain and a more film-like presentation — an emphasis on atmosphere rather than sharpness.

This is entirely a personal aesthetic choice relating to these specific stories, mind you, and one I think other people can argue with. I will note that in general I think the look of screen entertainment shouldn’t be chained to technical legacies like, say, 24 frames per second, just because that’s the way it’s always been done. If you have a larger toolbox, use the whole damn toolbox. But if you do have a larger toolbox, try to use the best tool you have in there for the particular task at hand.

7. Would I recommend folks watch The Sandman? Yup! After three decades, it has a screen presentation worth watching, and one its creator is personally proud of. These two things don’t always align, but they do there, and that’s a nice thing. I’m looking forward to the next season, too. I can’t imagine the series won’t get another one at this point.

— JS

The Big Idea: Sarah Henning

In author Sarah Henning’s third and final installment of her The Kingdoms of Sand & Sky novels, The King Will Kill You, we’re taken on a journey through what real change looks like, and are shown how it is both quick and slow at the same time.

SARAH HENNING:

I’m extremely lucky that this is my third time in three years sharing The Big Idea about my gender-swapped damsel-in-distress books—The Princess Will Save You (2020, Tor Teen) and The Queen Will Betray You (2021, Tor Teen).

The first time I was here, I wrote a post about turning the damsel and her tale on its collective head by engaging with the archetype in a way that makes a male character the “damsel” and the female character in the position of playing “savior” while dissecting the patriarchal framework that supports and reinforces the generations-old damsel trope.

Then, last summer, I was welcomed back to discuss The Queen Will Betray You and the double-edged sword of being an ambitious woman in a hyper-patriarchal world. To quote myself, “When men do these things—gamble, lie, cheat—as characters or even in real life, they are often lauded as clever, intelligent, savvy. When women do these things they are called wicked, nasty, a shrew. The difference that hangs between these descriptions is the scaffolding of the patriarchy. So hard to escape, impossible to change, weighted in the direction that it is.”

Lots of wicked, nasty, and perhaps shrew-like things happened in Queen regarding the four women in that book who could easily be called queens, all of them maneuvering either within the societal rules or outside of them to achieve the power they wield.

And, what happens when you finally get the power you want? At the beginning of The King Will Kill You, Amarande has everything she wanted the first two books. Thus, The Big Idea of this post is about the after—happily ever or, well, not.

What happens when you get everything you want on the surface in a world that’s both changed and not? In many stories, we never see this adjustment period. There’s the big climax and then things are tied up in a bow or maybe glossed over or referenced in an epilogue that skips ahead in time.

That’s because the after is not smooth. It’s equal parts pedestrian—the world is completely changed but you’re wearing the same clothes—and ugly. It’s the cleanup after a rollicking party, when you’re mopping up spilled wine in your dancing shoes at 2 a.m, rather than skipping ahead to the house looking perfect the next morning when brunch guests arrive, a flashback and a tired smile the only indication of the between.

To avoid spoilers, three of the four “queens” make it out of the second book, including our main character, Princess Amarande, who, because of a certain fall of events is set at the beginning of The King Will Kill You to finally and fully take control of the Kingdom of Ardenia as its first unwed queen. (Previously, she would’ve had to marry someone to access her birthright power…which seems incredibly unfair.) Along with her true love Luca, she’s ready and willing to shake up the archaic and misogynistic laws of the Kingdoms of The Sand and Sky, rewrite them, and modernize the continent for the better.

And the timing does seem perfect—every single kingdom in the continental union has a new leader. A huge crisis was just adverted at the end of Queen, and Amarande’s neighbors seem poised to work with her and Luca to make change. And though Luca is resurrecting the Kingdom of Torrence from the ashes and formally joins the union, which gives her a direct ally and means at least two of the five kingdoms will always be on the same page as they navigate the growing pains that will surely pop up with modernization, Amarande finds…the patriarchy does not die easily.

In fact, it doesn’t die at all. Not really.

This is both metaphorically and actually true in King for reasons I can’t explain without a big spoiler. However, I can discuss the fact that the status quo moves at a glacial pace, even when someone like Amarande is dead set on shoving it downhill. And so, despite all she’s been through and all the growth she’s endured, Amarande finds herself and her kingdom set back in unexpected ways.

It’s only been days, the dead are still being buried, and people in far-flung places on the continent are still finding out exactly what happened in the previous fortnight. To everyone but Amarande and Luca, their thirst for change is almost like whiplash. Their subjects ricochet from one extreme to another, and even so, in Luca’s case because there hasn’t been an approachable ruler in what is now again the Kingdom of Torrence in years, he suddenly hasn’t done enough, even as he engages with his people for the first time.

But that discomfort is nothing compared to Amarande’s stated goal of making the continent a better, fairer place for the people. She tries unprecedented communication with the common classes, providing transparency of what has happened in the past fortnight, because she understands that knowledge is power, and she believes the people—of her kingdom and all the kingdoms—deserve to hold that power. That does not sit well with the surviving old guard who do not believe the common man of any kingdom should see the ugliness of ruling peeled back. A very “you can’t handle the truth” situation, to put it mildly—and they believe Amarande to be naïve simply for sharing the information in the first place.

Then, there’s her goal of allowing women to rule without marriage and to make all heirs equal. Though the other kingdoms stand by and watch Amarande’s coronation, she soon learns they weren’t silent in support, they were silent because they were plotting—using her own ambition as a wedge to steal the kingdom out from under her. At every turn, Amarande’s positive movement toward change is checked against the boards by the patriarchy…until she figures out exactly how to move herself and her people forward to truly make for a happily ever after.

I hope you’ll check out Amarande’s journey now that it’s complete.


The King Will Kill You: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

Day Three In Atlanta

Athena ScalziMy third day in Atlanta was Friday, and I was going to write it up on Saturday, but I drove home on Saturday, and now it is Sunday, so here is my slightly late third day!

I started the day as all days should start: with brunch. After debating between all the recommendations y’all provided in the comments, and some recommendations I saw online, I settled on a place called Poach Social. It was tucked away in a neighborhood outside the busy downtown of the city. The parking lot was small and enclosed by walls, painted with a bright mural.

A white wall, painted with bright pastels, there's eyeballs and lips and circles and squares, it's quite abstract.

Poach Social is found inside a small black building, but upon entering you’ll find a bright, open space with a neon yellow sign that reads “FOOD  + MOOD”, fake plants, and a wall painted black and white with a chevron pattern. It’s hip! Modern! All the things brunch places tote nowadays. The menu seems to be comprised of a bit of an upscale version of classic Southern foods. And lots of mimosas!

I ended up getting the French Toast.

A white, rectangular plate, with four pieces of triangle-cut French Toast on it. There's a drizzle of lemon icing, and fresh blueberries and strawberries on top, with a sprinkle of powdered sugar dusted on top.

It was brioche, with a lemon drizzle, berries, and powdered sugar. It came with a little cup of syrup and their Jamaican rum sauce, but I only used the syrup, as the rum sauce tasted too alcohol-y for my liking. It was totally scrumptious. It was also fifteen dollars, which is definitely the most I’ve ever paid for French Toast, but that’s city-livin’ for ya.

After that, I headed to Zoo Atlanta, which was right down the street from Poach Social. I’m still confused why it isn’t called the Atlanta Zoo, but maybe that’s just me.

Once I arrived, I found a parking lot much, much smaller than I had been expecting. We’re talking like three or four rows of parking. There was a sign that said the lot was full, so I wasn’t really sure what to do about that other than hope it was wrong and search for a spot anyways. Lo and behold, a spot! Which I totally only got because someone happened to be leaving right as I was coming down the aisle.

So, I got out and started walking towards the front, only to see a machine where to pay for your parking. I was miffed that I had to pay to park, especially because it’s pretty much the only parking option, since the surrounding area is pretty much totally residential. It was three dollars per hour to park, so I chose hourly pay, but then it wanted me to put in the number of hours. I didn’t know how long it would take me to get through the zoo, so I just chose “all-day” parking, which was twelve dollars. Which is about half the cost of the ticket, which was like thirty bucks. Seems like a lot to me.

Anyways, I finally entered the zoo!

Have you ever wanted to be depressed? Say no more and head straight to Zoo Atlanta! Upon entering, you’ll be greeted with the overwhelming, gag-inducing scent of piss. At first I thought I was just close to the restrooms by the entrance, but those were all the way across the main courtyard area that contained the gift shop, a place to buy drinks, and the restrooms.

I did actually go in them and it took me THREE TRIES before I went into a stall with a lock on it. Then, only one of the hand soap dispensers had any soap in it.

Moving on, I was ready to see some morally-questionable contained animals. First up was the rhino!

The rhino enclosure. There's some big rocks, mostly just brown dusty dirt and some patches of grass. The perimeter is surrounded by trees.

And there was no rhino. I figured it had to be in there somewhere, but after standing there for a few minutes there was definitely no sign of it, so I moved on to the meerkats.

The meerkat enclosure. Again it's mostly just brown dust and a few desert-type shrubs. No meerkats in sight.

And there were no meerkats.

For some reason there were rabbits next to the meerkats, but the only rabbits I saw were these weird statues?

The rabbit enclosure. There are two statues of rabbits, one pink and one blue. They seem to be made out of LEGOs.

Finally, I did see an animal. There were three elephants standing in their enclosure space.

A high, electric fence, keeping the brown elephant in.

There was huge building next to the enclosure (you can see it in the background of the above photo), and when I went in it was just a big glass window to view the elephants if they happened to be inside instead of outside. Here’s the view of the inside:

A huge warehouse-type room, with tons of metal bars to serve as a barrier between the elephants and the outside world. There is a ton of brown dirt/dust in the enclosure portion of the floor.

It just looked so… industrial. There was a screen playing a repeating video of all the different things the elephants had as “enrichment”. The video showed a ball on a string they could play with, a water trough they could drink from, and a few other things, but I wouldn’t really say any of them could really be considered “enrichment”.

After the elephants, I went through a section that contained some birds. The bird enclosures seemed a bit on the small side to me (as all zoo enclosures are), especially because they are arguably the most free animals in the world, and now they will only fly around the same fifteen foot box for the rest of their life.

There were definitely some interesting ones, though, like these yellow-faced guys.

Two grey birds sitting next to each other, each one with a bright yellow face. The mesh-cage-wiring is visible in the entirety of the photo.

Once I was done with the birds, the next area was a kids’ center, with a little train to ride around in, a splash-pad, a carousel, and a climbing adventure course called “Treetop Trail”. The parking lot was visible from this section and I remembered seeing the backside of the climbing thing from the front entrance area.

Each attraction cost a few bucks individually, or you can get a wristband for about ten bucks that gets you unlimited rides on the train and carousel. The Treetop Trail is fifteen dollars and not included with the wristband. I thought that price was pretty expensive, considering a kid’s ticket to the zoo is twenty dollars already, so if you have three kids and they all want to do the trail, you’re looking at a hundred dollars right there.

There was also this sad looking Birthday Party Pavilion:

A red and green gazebo with a sign that reads

It was all just so incredibly lackluster.

I didn’t stick around the kids’ area for very long and moved on to the Cloud Leopard, which is one of my favorite animals!

A cloud leopard sleeping on a pedestal in its enclosure. Its tail is hanging off the edge and its back is facing the camera.

What you see here is just about the entirety of the enclosure. On the other side of the right wall was the tiger’s enclosure. It was also sleeping.

A panda, sleeping facedown. The glass of the enclosure is wet and streaked with drops of water dripping down. The enclosure's walls are painted to look like mountains and trees. There's a hammock in the middle of the enclosure for the panda to sit in.

The pandas (all three of them) were also sleeping. For some reason the inside of the glass was wet, I’d guess from the humidity. I looked at the bios of the pandas and one was born in 1997. That was a year before I was born. This panda was literally older than me and was in captivity the entire time. It seems so wrong. This feeling only got worse when I saw the ages of the gorillas (one was born in 1976).

Moving on from the clearly depressed animals in small rooms, I came across this enclosure that I didn’t even realize was an enclosure until I happened to see a turtle inside.

A box made out of wooden fence.

A dark, almost black, turtle. It is smol.

Smol.

There were a lot of initials and names carved into the bamboo that was all around the walking paths of the zoo. I saw this one and was confused at first why someone put a year that hasn’t happened yet.

A stalk of bamboo with DT 2024 carved into it.

I quickly realized what it meant and it’s super fucked up someone would do that into a STALK OF BAMBOO. Not even bamboo is safe from crazy ass fanatics.

The red panda was also sleeping.

A red panda, sleeping, nestled in a tree.

The lions were also sleeping but we’re tucked away in a cave for shade.

After feeling like I’d seen just about all the sleeping animals I could take, I entered the reptile house. I thought it would be air conditioned inside, and it wasn’t, but at least it was out of the sun.

And I actually did find the reptiles super cool! They had tons of awesome snakes, and poison dart frogs, and an iguana. I like this lil’ guy:

A green and blue lizard sitting on a branch.

I tried to take more pictures but the reflections of the glass really got in the way, but I did get one of this emerald tree boa, which is one of my favorite types of snakes:

An emerald tree boa, curled around a branch, facing away from the camera. It is green and has white markings.

And whatever this majestic creature is:

A water bottle inside one of the enclosures. It is sitting on a rocky ledge.

A quick side note (as by this point I had basically been through the entire zoo), I noticed tons of food and drink stands throughout the zoo, and every single one of them was closed.

A food stand called Sweetwater Brewing Company. All the registers are covered with tarp and there is no one working the stand.

This one was an alcohol stand so I can understand it being closed, but the food truck next to it was also closed.

A

Aside from the alcohol (which again, I can understand being closed) there were several of these “dippin’ dots”, snack, and drink stands throughout that were all also closed. The only food place I saw open was an actual restaurant the zoo has called “Nourish Cafe” by the pandas.

And to be clear, I was here at 12:30pm on a Friday. There were tons of families and people in general, so I didn’t understand why they’d choose not to have any drink stands open. I surely would’ve bought a water, at least.

Finally, I made it back to the front and went into the gift shop. The only thing I really wanted was a red panda plushie, but it was a hundred dollars, so I put it back. I exited the gift shop and left. I would not recommend Zoo Atlanta.

Clearly, I had a long, hard day of looking at sleeping animals, so I decided not to go out for dinner, and instead had dinner in the hotel’s restaurant, which is called “Livingston Restaurant + Bar”.

The restaurant was in a huge room, and quite grand. There was tons of seating, and when I arrived it was completely empty. There was no staff in sight either, so I thought maybe it was closed, but a bartender came around the corner after just a moment. There were tall columns emitting light that were covered with a white mesh fabric to diffuse the light, and a huge chandelier. I found the most interesting thing to be the purple velvet couches.

The menu. It is a white piece of paper pinned to a black backing. The menu offers a loaded hummus plate, Brussel sprouts and kale, a cheese and butcher board, pickled fried green tomatoes, a fried chicken sandwich, teriyaki chicken lollipops, a pulled pork sandwich, and a burger.

I decided to start with the cheese board. I like to judge places pretty heavily on their cheese boards.

A rectangular cheese board featuring what appears to be salami, prosciutto, cheddar, gouda, thin crackers, honeycomb, mustard, and pickled okra.

This one had two kinds of meat, salami and what I thought was prosciutto but it didn’t really taste like prosciutto to me. The board also had four kinds of cheeses, though I should’ve taken a better picture because you can only see two, maybe three of them. Underneath the crackers are the two you can’t really see, one being a blue cheese. The other one was white and semi-firm with a dark red rind. The two visible ones are gouda and cheddar. I quite enjoyed all of the cheeses. The mustard was a dark ale mustard so it was especially strong and could only be handled in small doses. The pickled okra was something I’d never encountered before, but it tasted exactly like a normal dill pickle. And I always love honeycomb.

I didn’t get through much of this before my entree came; the teriyaki chicken lollipops.

Five pieces of bone-in chicken covered in a red sauce sitting in a line on a white rectangular plate.

The bartender told me that the chef must’ve been in a good mood, because he gave me an extra piece. I thought that was nice of him.

Unfortunately, I could not even come close to eating these. Before biting into them, I sampled the sauce, and my mouth was immediately on fire. I didn’t realize they’d be spicy! It said teriyaki! That’s usually a really great flavor in my book! Obviously, I’d never ask to be comped for something that is too spicy for me (because I am a baby about spice), so I told the bartender that I wanted to order something else but would keep the chicken.

So here we have the burger:

A white circular plate with a burger and fries on it. The top bun of the burger is off so you can see the slice of cheese on top of the meat. There are pickles on the side.

And I actually really liked it! It was cooked just how I asked, and I found the potato bun to be interesting. I will say that the fries were totally bangin’. They were super hot, crispy, overall very fresh fries.

I asked if they had a dessert menu and the bartender said there were no desserts. I figured that was for the best since I was full anyways.

The bartender also told me that this place used to have “real upscale food, steak and scallops and whatnot”, and ever since COVID they reduced their menu to basically just burgers and chicken sandwiches. I would’ve liked to try it when it was like he said it used to be.

To end my day, I went and saw Nope at a nearby AMC theater. I got an Icee and it was almost eight dollars. I was shocked and appalled, but sacrifices must be made for my red Icee.

The theater was totally packed, which is not what I’m used to. Usually when I go to the movies I’m the only one in the theater. Thankfully, it was one of those places where you buy your ticket and reserve your seat ahead of time, so I already had a seat picked out.

However, someone was in my seat. I told her “I think you’re in my seat” and she scooted one over.

This girl was on a phone call the entire movie. She had her earbuds in so she was talking through the microphone on those, and her phone wasn’t up to her ear. She was actually holding her phone, and on it a ton, and had flashing notifications on, so every time she got a notification, the flashlight on her phone went off several times.

She didn’t talk often or loud enough to whoever she was on the phone with enough to really bother me, but whenever something big would happen she’d tell the person on the phone about it. I was baffled. But it didn’t stop me from hearing the movie, so that’s all that really mattered.

Finally, I made it back to my hotel, set my alarm so I could check out on time the next morning, and went to sleep.

(Side note to this post; I recognize I have a negative bias towards zoos. I have had weird feelings towards them for as long as I can remember. I tried to keep my feelings of ethics regarding zoos mostly out of my review for Zoo Atlanta. My experience with it was negative for reasons other than my morals.)

-AMS

Review: Prey

John Scalzi

To begin, it’s pretty damn good, if not the best “Predator” film than certainly the most nuanced, and the one that actually feels like real live humans dealing with a seemingly unstoppable adversary. The characters in this film are not roided-out mercs, cops or a murder’s row of assassins and psychopaths, they’re just people, in this case members of a Comanche tribe from the early 18th century. The protagonist, Naru (Amber Midthunder, who I had not seen before but would be happy to watch again) is not a super-fit super-soldier, but rather a smart and determined woman who chafes against tribal expectations, and who fights not just with muscle but with observation, intuition and understanding. She fights both harder and smarter, and she needs to do both to survive.

I liked that. To be clear, I don’t mind watching a Lt. Col. Beefy McChesterson punching an alien weightlifter in the face — it has its place and time, you know? — but in an era of super heroes smacking around super villains in the Inevitable CGI-Filled Final Battle, there’s a certain sameness to it all at this point. Prey does not lack for action sequences or violence (it’s just as “R” rated as the original), and no one who has come for that aspect of the series should walk away disappointed. But having human-scaled stakes, and the characters trying to save themselves and their tribe rather than the whole universe, is surprisingly welcome, especially when pulled off well, like it is here.

There’s been some discussion about the fact that Prey was sent directly to Hulu rather than getting a theatrical release, and what that all means for the film and its makers and cast. As a filmgoer, I would have been happy to see this film in theaters. Taking place as it does in the 18th century North American plains (and filmed in the modern day in Canada), the vistas are gorgeous and the scale of the movie fits a large screen. The action scenes are designed well enough to be intelligible on smaller screens, but seeing them on a large wall in surround sound would have given them a nice jolt. You can’t see this in the theaters, but you should probably see it on the largest screen you can, with a nice sound system if you can manage it.

That established, I at least understand, and think there might be some advantages to, Prey having been released to streaming rather than theaters. The first is a purely practical, economic decision: The Predator series has been, shall we say, extremely hit or miss in terms of quality and box office, and the most recent installment of the series (2018’s The Predator) was both a critical whiff and a financial bust, grossing just $53 million domestically ($160M globally) against a nearly $90 million budget. None of the “Predator” movies has ever cracked $100 million domestically, even the original, which brought in $60 million (in, to be fair, 1987 dollars), and the average domestic box office take for the series hovers around $50M.

Where the Predator movies tend to be best appreciated (and drag themselves into the black, financially) is in the home: video rentals when those were a thing, and endless cable and streaming viewings today. That being the case, there is a perfectly reasonable argument that 20th Century (now part of Disney) should just skip the essentially loss leader segment of its life (and its attendant millions in marketing and advertising) and go straight to where most people will see it anyway, and in the process give a boost to Hulu by providing it a “marquee” property of a sort that people will happily watch at home even if they might not have dragged themselves to a theater to see it. Now it doesn’t matter if Prey makes money; it only matters is if it attracts eyeballs and helps Hulu with subscriber retention and (to a lesser extent at this point) acquisition. It will certainly do that; I would not be entirely surprised if it ends up being Hulu’s most popular original film to date.

Second, I think its release on streaming lets the studio and filmmakers change the conversation around Prey to something other than its first weekend box office. Prey has a cast that, while excellent, are unknowns (Midthunder, the lead, is best known from genre TV and secondary film roles) and are all largely Native Americans. The former is a disadvantage when it comes to box office — people still go to theaters to see stars — and if the movie flubbed its first weekend box office, it’s likely the notoriously financially (and therefore not-so-secretly socially) conservative film industry would have taken the wrong lesson from the latter (“No one wants to see movies with Native Americans in the lead”).

With Prey at Hulu, the conversation about the film this week is not about the box office, but where it fits in the rankings of Predator movies (most rankings I’ve seen have it at number two, behind the original, which is a fair call), how Amber Midthunder is coming out of this a star (also a fair call), and how this movie and Reservation Dogs herald a new era of Native American representation in mainstream entertainment. These are much better conversations to be having than the inevitable small squib of “whoops, another Predator series stumble” if the film had finished in second place (or worse) at the theaters behind Bullet Train, which stars Brad Pitt, playing a Brad Pitt-like character doing very Brad Pitt-like things, Brad Pitt-ily.

All things taken into consideration, I think 20th Century positioned Prey as well as it could to be seen by the Predator series core audience, and then, through press and word of mouth, have a chance to build outside that core audience when it becomes known that, actually, Prey is not only a good Predator film, but surprisingly, a good film that has a Predator in it.

And it is that! A good film, with a fine cast — in addition to Midthunder, take note of newcomer Dakota Beavers as Naru’s older brother Taabe; he’s also terrific and I’d be happy to see more of him — and a solid story. And also, it’s got a Predator. A pretty nasty one at that. You’ll want to see how it gets handled.

— JS

Day Two In Atlanta

Athena ScalziFirst off, thank you to everyone that commented on my first day post that recommended me places to check out, welcomed me to the city, or just said they enjoyed the post. I especially appreciate y’all saying that I’m good at this whole travel writing thing, it means a lot to me!

So, I was planning to start day two of my vacation with brunch, but the place I went to (Atlanta Breakfast Club) was far too crowded and loud for my enjoyment, so I went across the street to the aquarium, which was where I was planning to go after eating, anyways.

The aquarium was the thing I was most excited for on this trip. However, I didn’t really have a very good time.

Upon entering, it was immediately cool and dark, and there was a huge wall of moon jelly fish leading up to the ticket scanning machines. I love jellyfish, and moon jellies are by far one of the best types, so I was instantly happy to see them. There was a sign next to the tank with a QR code that said you could donate and name a jellyfish! I was super excited about this opportunity, but upon opening the link, the only option is to donate $50 to name one. I thought that that was a little more than I wanted to spend, considering the tickets to get in are about $40.

Moving on, after you scan your ticket and walk through the little gate thing, you will be standing in the central lobby area. Everything in the aquarium is like a branch that loops and comes back to this central part.

A large room with blue lighting filled with people. There's a giant screen displaying the ocean and sea creatures swimming around. There's also the aquarium's restaurant

The other half of the large, blue-lit room, divided into three sections,

I took some pretty not good photos, so I’ll tell you a bit about what you see here. Like I said, each section goes away from the main area, and then loops back to it. Here we have “River Scouts”, “Dolphin Coast”, and “Cold Water Quest”. In the first photo, there’s the cafeteria called “Cafe Aquaria”, and another exhibit section called “Ocean Voyage”. Not pictured are two sections called “Predators of the Deep”, and “Tropic” something. Also a gift shop called “Sunken Treasures” or something corny like that.

I decided to get overpriced food from the cafe first, since I hadn’t eaten before coming, and ended up getting a corndog and cotton candy mini melts. It was about ten dollars.

A tray with a paper basket on it containing a small corn dog. Alongside it is a small plastic bowl of cotton candy flavored mini melts.

And talk about southern hospitality, look at all the sauces they gave me!

A pile of ketchup, mustard, and BBQ packets.

I don’t even like yellow mustard.

The cafeteria was crowded, and I decided to sit in the upstairs seating in hopes that it would be a little quieter.

After finishing, I went to the section right next to it, “Ocean Voyage”, and was met with this sixty foot long tank:

A dark room, the only light coming from the wall that is almost entirely made up of tank. There are a variety of ocean fishes swimming around, and people standing in front of the glass watching them.

This was obviously the main attraction of the exhibit, so people were swarming it like they were never gonna see a fish again in their lives. Besides the variety of fish you see here, there were sting-rays, manta-rays, and most interestingly, a whale shark. It was huge, and the star of the show. Everyone got riled up when it swam into view, only to disappear just as quickly.

A whale shark, swimming amongst the variety of fishes in the clear blue water.

That was pretty much all there was to see in that section, so I moved on to “River Scouts”.

Here we had tiny tank after tiny tank of small fish. Honestly, the only exciting thing to see in this area were the otters. And since that was the case, everyone was so crowded around the glass that you wouldn’t be able to see them unless you shoved your way to the front. Which, I didn’t, so I only caught a glimpse of them when someone would move to leave, only to be instantly replaced by someone else gunning for the spot. (This ended up being a common thing throughout the day.)

It was definitely an underwhelming section, so I moved on to the one next to it, “Dolphin Coast”. At the entrance of this section, there’s a staircase upwards, and two escalators that both go down. I thought that to be an odd choice, especially considering there are so many people with strollers. After heading up the stairs, there was a long corridor with screens, all displaying grainy ass videos of dolphins. I was beginning to be convinced that there were no actual dolphins here, only screens of them, when I finally reached a tank with a little viewing area that everyone was pressed up against.

Lo and behold, dolphins in a depressingly small tank. The viewing window was pretty pathetic, you could barely see anything, and there were signs everywhere promoting the dolphin shows. Basically, if you really want to see the dolphins, you have to go to a show. “Dolphin Coast” ended up being supremely underwhelming, as well.

I went back down the long corridor, down the escalator, and into “Cold Water Quest”. Now here was a cool exhibit. There were tons of freaky looking creatures in darkly lit tanks, like Japanese spider-crabs and sea dragons.

I really wish I had some photos of any of these things for y’all, but it’s so hard to get a shot with everyone being so close to the glass that their breathing fogs it up. Plus the glare and reflections on the glass was so bad that I couldn’t really take a photo even if the place wasn’t filled to the brim with people and strollers. God, it’s so hard to move around so many strollers all the time. They’re so big, and the areas are so small. Sheesh.

Anyways, every exhibit was pretty quick, once you could find a clear path through the crowd, so I was already moving on to “Predators of the Deep”. This section was basically just one big shark tank with several viewing windows throughout the wall. I was starting to get really tired of everyone basically smushing themselves against the glass, and then screaming “there it is!” whenever they saw an inkling of a fish. I like aquariums for the dark, quiet, atmosphere. They always seem like such peaceful places, but I guess anything can become unpeaceful when you get enough people in an area.

After the sharks, there was another beautiful wall of jellyfish, and it was the loudest, most impossible to get through area I’d been in all day. There were blockades of strollers, people having conversations louder than you have to talk at a rave, kids banging on the glass, and tons of blinding flash photography despite all the signs saying not to do that.

Right next to it was a smaller window of white-spotted jellyfish. So small that only one person could view it at a time. So I waited as patiently as I could for a chance to look, but every time the person in front of me would leave, someone would shove their way in front of me before I had time to fill the space. I got so fed-up of people cutting and being inconsiderate. It was hard to believe that other adults could be so rude.

I was definitely having sensory overload after that, so I headed to the gift shop to check the fuck outta the aquarium. The line was a mile long, and everything was overpriced, but I got a plushie, so it was all worth it in the end.

This is Percy:

A stuffed animal. It is a grey and white penguin with a yellow beak and yellow feet. It has glass eyes.

I also got this bag of chocolate covered pretzels, but upon opening was disappointed to see that there’s a completely unnecessary divider in the plastic to intentionally cut down on the amount of pretzels they give you:

A plastic container of chocolate covered pretzels.

All in all, I would say if you have any problem at all with crowds, or noise, or claustrophobia, do not go to the aquarium. I have never encountered so many rude, inconsiderate people with rude, loud kids to match. I don’t really blame kids for being kids, but I do have an issue when kids do things like bang on glass, scream, run around and bump into strangers, and the parents do nothing to stop them.

Also, practically all the exhibits were underwhelming because there was a lot of “pay-to-play” action going on. It felt like you had to cough up cash at basically every turn. Speaking of which, after I purchased my items from the gift shop, I noticed they didn’t put my items in a bag (which normally isn’t an issue but I was going to be walking back to the hotel after so I didn’t want to carry them), so I asked for one and they said they don’t have bags, but you can purchase a five dollar reusable tote if you want. Sheesh.

I would say that I did have a positive experience at the aquarium, but just barely. Like it was negative a lot of the time, and almost enough to make me regret going, but I did see some cool fish, and got a stuffed animal, so whatevs.

After decompressing at the hotel for a couple hours, it was time to go to dinner. This was the one dinner this trip I had a reservation for, and have been looking forward to since I decided to come to Atlanta in the first place.

I went to the Sundial, which is on the 71st/72nd story of the Westin Hotel, and I definitely think I had dinner with a view.

A high up shot of part of Atlanta, featuring a couple different sky scrapers and the highway.

The menu was fairly small, but had seafood, steak, chicken, lamb, a porkchop, and a vegetarian option of gnocchi, so there’s certainly something for everyone.

The Sundial menu. It is a white piece of paper rubberbanded to a piece of light colored wood. The menu is sectioned off into

I decided to start with a peach lemonade.

A tall glass filled with pink-orange liquid. It has a red straw and a cherry.

They also brought out some fresh bread that was quite soft and fluffy, with whipped butter.

A small piece of white bread with pale butter spread on it.

I totally filled up on bread before the appetizer even came, but I have no regrets.

I ended up getting the wagyu as the starter.

A white plate with several pieces of wagyu on it, along with a sauce cup filled with green liquid.

It was so tasty. The meat was super tender, and the contrast between the softness of the meat and the crunch of the flaky sea salt was superb. The cilantro sauce was light, bright, and had a slight kick to it. I absolutely loved this appetizer and would totally recommend it to anyone who loves a good steak.

For the entree, I knew the salmon was the right call for me.

A white plate with a piece of salmon on it, resting on a pile of parmesan risotto, alongside some asparagus.

While the salmon was perfectly cooked and moist, the risotto was more on the meh side than the delicious side, though I can’t say I’ve ever really been the biggest fan of risotto, so maybe I’m not the best person to judge it. As for the asparagus, I think a few more pieces would’ve been nice, but the pieces I did get were tender and juicy. It was definitely an enjoyable dish, but I think I liked the appetizer better. I ended up getting a box because I just had to get dessert.

The dessert menu. It is a white piece of paper with

As many of you know, I am on a quest for the world’s greatest crème brûlée, so this was an obvious choice for me.

A white ceramic circular dish containing creme brulee. It has fresh strawberries, blueberries, and a mint leaf on top.

This crème brûlée was certainly good, and I thoroughly enjoyed it, but it was not the best in the world, so my search continues. This one in particular was lacking in that perfect crystalline top layer. As you can see, it has some, but it was rather sparse. So much so in fact, there was no cracking when I tapped it with my spoon because there was so much space in between each section of burnt sugar. The berries were really fresh, though!

I would love to go back to the Sundial sometime, it’s been the best part of Atlanta so far.

I was totally stuffed after dinner, so I went back to the hotel and fell asleep almost immediately! This second night indicated the halfway mark of my trip! Let’s hope the third day is totally bangin’.

-AMS

The Big Idea: Jason Sizemore

Apex Magazine is running a Kickstarter to help fund their new year of publication, and editor Jason Sizemore asked if he could borrow the Big Idea stage here to talk about his publishing company, and the concept of fandoms in the current era. Here he is!

JASON SIZEMORE:

I have a hot take to share with you. Are you ready?

This whole pandemic thing is a drag.

Shocking information, I know. Naturally, I’m being facetious, but the first step in overcoming a problem is acknowledging the problem. The fact is, for many, the pandemic has taken a bite out of our mental stamina. We’re constantly facing questions regarding personal and family safety. Should I go out? Will engaging in social activity be beneficial enough to offset the possibility of contacting COVID-19?

This is where online fandom can be a lifesaver. There is no replacing in-personal interaction, but online engagement can be a social bridge until you are comfortable and safe enough to participate in public events and activities. We’ve seen this through the rise of virtual events, online reading and writing groups, and Zoom, Discord, and Slack becoming a part of our daily lives.

Personally, online engagement has been an important part of my mental health. Sometime ago, I joined a Discord server for Hearthstone. Using Discord reminded me of the fun I had in my post-college days of goofing around on IRC. I eventually decided to create a server specifically for Apex Books and Apex Magazine. The community we’ve built on our Discord server has been an endless source of delight and fun. We have in-jokes. We play games. There are writing sprints. Arguments about how gross (or tasty, I guess) black licorice can be. My online friends do a lot to help my brain stay even-keeled.

While I won’t claim that online fandom engagement is a substitute for in-person socializing, I do believe it has helped me not be so reliant on public social exposure. It extends the time I can endure between activities.

Recently, the need to see others created a stressful situation. I had an opportunity to attend a local writing convention. I knew attending would be a great boost to morale. It was also a chance for professional development. But the news was filled with reports of yet another highly contagious variant spreading its way across the country.

I decided to chance it.

The convention was fun, of course. It felt great being with friends and colleagues. Leaving Sunday evening, my spirits were soaring. I was confident I had made the right decision. Then the day after, I received a message notifying me someone I had interacted with at the convention had tested positive for COVID. On Tuesday, one of my friends I had spent much time with that weekend was positive. Queue the worrying about every cough, body pain, and sniffle. The concern grew worse as more attendees reporting coming down with COVID. Ultimately, I avoided it, but I probably added to the grey in my beard from the stress.

I think about how stressed I felt the whole week after the convention. It’s made me think long and hard about attending ChiCon 8 in September. Every day, the mental calculus spins my head. The week of stress has also made me thankful for my online friends and communities.

Whether you’re into Hearthstone, Apex Magazine, or something mega-popular such as K-Pop, don’t be afraid to jump into online fandom. Many genre publications run Patreon accounts that offer Discord server access. SFWA has long had online forums and the organization just recently started a Discord server. You’ll find that your fandom commonality becomes secondary to the importance of the social engagement offered by the community. Like in-person socializing, once in a while you’ll encounter a toxic individual. Thankfully, they are few and far between and most online interactions are lovely.

If you’re looking for a place to chill, come hang with me and hundreds of others on the Apex Books and Magazine Discord server. A great way to do that is to join our Patreon or with an Apex Magazine subscription.

Most conveniently, we’re currently running a Kickstarter to help fund our 2023 publishing year. Backing the Kickstarter at any level grants you access to our community. You’ll also receive some wonderful exclusive rewards such as free original fiction, a one-page RPG scenario, and alien head swag!

Camaraderie. Award-worthy fiction. Alien head cocktail coasters. What more could you ever want?

House For Sale in Bradford

Not the one we live in, but one that we own. We bought this house for Krissy’s mother several years ago and in the time since upgraded it rather considerably, including building a garage and a lovely pergola in the back yard. We recently moved Krissy’s mom to a newer, ranch-style house, so this one with all its improvements is back on the market as of this very morning. Here’s the actual listing. Please note that if you live in a coastal state, you may grind your teeth at the pricing. Welcome to small town Midwest house prices!

— JS

Day One In Atlanta

Athena ScalziHello, Atlanta, I am in you! For the first time, in fact (unless you count tons of layovers in the airport).

After hitting the road at just past 8am yesterday, I ended up arriving a little after 5pm. Immediately, parking was a bitch. The hotel I’m staying at says it has “self-park”, and a public parking garage right next to it. I pulled into it and it had two machines, one for the public where you could take a ticket, and one for the hotel guests where you swipe your keycard for entry. I hadn’t thought to get the keycard and whatnot first, so I just took a ticket, parked, and went inside to check in.

I’m staying at the Georgian Terrace, which actually looks pretty cool from the outside.

A shot of the outside of the Georgian Terrace.

And the inside isn’t half bad, either.

The lobby of the Georgian Terrace. There are decorative trees in yellow pots with string lights around them, grey chairs, and white marble-esque flooring.

Okay, so, for some reason I thought I had to repark my car now that I had the keycard. I should’ve just thrown the ticket away, but my brain doesn’t work right sometimes, so I gave the ticket to the machine and paid ten dollars to exit the garage, then went around the block to re-enter with the keycard. I pulled up and swiped it, and nothing happened. It didn’t work. I tried it every-which-way I could, but to no avail. So, I reversed and did a 3-point turn to park in front of the hotel, then went in and asked about it.

Apparently, I needed a parking pass keycard, which is separate from your room keycard. So, I obtained a parking pass card, got back in my car and pulled back into the garage. Upon swiping the parking pass, nothing happened. I didn’t understand why it wasn’t working, and I was just about to reverse again when a car pulled in behind me. The panic set in as two more cars immediately pulled in behind that one. So now I had three cars behind me and a non-working parking pass. So I took another ticket.

I went back inside, said it wasn’t working, and was given a different parking pass. This time I had the common sense to throw away the ticket. Before moving my car again, I stood in front of the machine and swiped the parking pass. Instead of doing nothing, it said “no car on lot”. Okay, so it worked, it just didn’t sense a car. But I wasn’t fully convinced yet, so I decided to try exiting again, and if it didn’t work I would just reverse (hopefully).

Finally, it did work, and I exited, circled the block, and entered successfully with the parking pass keycard. SHEESH.

Also, if you stand in the middle of the lobby and look up, you see this:

An upwards shot of the inside of the glass tower. It looks like a fifteen story high spiral of metal.

And here’s the shot of it once you get off on your floor (depending how high up you are):

A shot down into the lobby from high up.

I’m not sure if every room comes with cookies, or if it’s just because I got a deluxe suite, but there were cookies in the room!

Two lemon sugar cookies in a plastic package.

They tasted just like lemon cheesecake.

Speaking of the deluxe suite, I hate to be that bitch but you would think if you stay in a suite in what is claimed to be one of the nicest hotels in Midtown, that you’d get a mini fridge, or a microwave, or a bath tub. But there aren’t any of those things. And the bed is honestly pretty small even though I specifically got a king. Also, one of my towels had holes in it. So far, I’m not terribly impressed for the price. (Also the art is ugly, but that’s subjective.)

After settling in and relaxing for a bit, I set out for dinner. I was in the mood for anything, so I just looked around on Maps until I came across a ramen place that sounded bangin’, so I started on the twenty minute walk to E Ramen.

It was pretty crowded, which makes sense considering it was peak dinner time. The inside was open, sleek, minimalistic, and way too echo-y for how many people were there. It was uncomfortably loud (it got better after it cleared out a bit, once there were less people it wasn’t painfully loud anymore).

I ordered gyoza first, and it came out within about three minutes.

A black plate with six pieces of gyoza dumplings on it. There's a silver sauce cup with brown liquid in it.

These gyoza were super delicious, some of the best I’ve ever had, and the sauce was really great, too. And there was plenty of the sauce as well, so I didn’t have to skimp on each dumpling.

I ordered The Dark Knight ramen, which is basically just black garlic tonkotsu ramen (my favorite kind). It came out in under two minutes!

A white bowl filled with ramen. There's half a soft boiled egg, spinach, pork belly, sesame seeds, and noodles visible amongst the brown broth.

The ramen was seriously delish. The noodles were really good, the egg was cooked perfectly, the broth was incredible, and honestly my only complaint is that the pork was a little on the dry side. I like a super tender pork belly, but I know some people don’t like the texture of pork belly when it’s all fatty and soft, so maybe they’d prefer this style.

I managed to stop before I got too full (just barely), and saved room for panna cotta for dessert:

A white plate with a glass jar sitting on it. The jar is filled with white panna cotta topped with brown crispies.

This panna cotta was odd to me because it had a layer of what I can only assume was Rice Krispies on top. Between the crispy layer and the soft panna cotta was maple syrup. I thought it to be a strange combination, but it worked super well together!

A spoonful of the panna cotta, with the maple syrup and crispies.

It was really yummy, and was the perfect finish to a great meal.

On the walk back to the hotel, I saw some really neat stuff, like this frog!

A frog made out of plants.

And this very interesting stretching studio.

A business's front window, with a logo of two people stretching, like yoga. The words say Kika Stretch Studios.

There was sign in the window that said “first stretch free!” How could one resist such a great deal?

And finally, I passed this church that I have dubbed “the gay church”:

A large, stone church flying a pride flag. There's white steps with black railings leading up to three red doors with black handles. There's an arch shaped window above the doors.

After some more chilling, I decided it was high time for some Insomnia Cookies. If you don’t know what that is, Insomnia Cookies is a chain that is usually only found in cities and college campuses. They serve cookies until 3am, and even deliver. They’re quite pricey, with the deluxe ones being around five dollars a cookie, but so damn good.

The delivery guy got here quickly, and I’m convinced that he must’ve been driving like a maniac, because my cookies were wildly askew when I opened the box.

A box of cookies, some chocolate chip, a sugar cookie, a peanut butter cup cookie, a rainbow sprinkle cookie, a white chocolate macadamia cookie, to name a few.

(My eyes were way bigger than my stomach, I ate half of one of the big ones and decided that was plenty for the time being.)

Also, I only ordered cookies, but somehow ended up with two cups of cookie dough and strawberry cheesecake ice cream.

A small paper bowl of cookie dough ice cream.

The delivery guy handed me my box of cookies and a brown paper bag and drove away before I could question it. Upon opening it, I found the ice cream. So if you’re in Atlanta and ordered Insomnia last night and did not receive your cookie dough ice cream, I’m sorry. It was very tasty. Especially the strawberry cheese cake flavor, would highly recommend.

Then I went to sleep because it had been a long, pretty tiring day!

Not such a bad first day, I think.

-AMS

The Big Idea: Sunyi Dean

What is fiction good for, anyway? Sunyi Dean has an idea, and in this Big Idea for The Book Eaters, she delves into it, and how our stories can cause us to change our lives.

SUNYI DEAN:

Back in August 2012, I was attending a teacher training course and got talking to a fellow trainee. We drifted into discussing linguistics and literature. He loved reading, which we could agree on, but only nonfiction. I liked nonfiction, too, but was surprised by the vehemence of his distaste for novels.

“There is nothing in fiction which can surpass the complexity and beauty of real life,” he said. “What even is the point of stories?”

The kind of question that book-nerds dream of being asked.

“Stories aren’t in competition with reality,” I told him. “They’re a framework for making sense of reality.”

Everything in life is a story. Including this essay. Conducting a science experiment? Data is just a set of numbers until you draft a narrative to explain their relevance. Trying to win votes? Create a political yarn that frames your ‘vision’ of the future. Advocating for rights? Proselytizing for religion? All of that is crafting a narrative about the world and how it works, ordering pieces of the universe into a shape that makes sense to the human psyche.

We need stories to understand ourselves, as individuals. Share your story, social media begs—and we oblige, weaving narratives about our lives in which we are important, interesting, unique. Our species is adept at the self-made myth.

That’s not an indictment of humanity; we’re just doing what is necessary. Without those narratives, humans would be adrift in a sea of sensory input and chaotic data, struggling to impose order on existence. But with them, we can key into the universe.

Stories aren’t pointless; they’re powerful.

That power also makes them dangerous.

I grew up watching Star Trek, and it changed my life. The ST universe  portrayed an inclusive, socialist, and largely secular society. In other words, it was an antithesis to the conservative, suspicious, and theocratic culture that I’d been raised in. While the adults around me were busy insisting the world had to be a certain, fixed way, Star Trek cheerfully but adamantly assured me that it did not. 

That is where stories veer into being dangerous. Data can be skewed. So can politics. Advocacy can be subverted. Religion can be controlling. All of those negative aspects can be effected with a sufficiently skilled narrative. Stories can ruin us.

In writing, authors will say that villains are always the heroes of their own legend. This is equally true in real life, and not limited to fiction. Abusers tell themselves that their actions are justified. The wealthy elite spin stories where their wealth was deserved and earned. Dictators, criminals, and killers all have stories to shore up their actions.

Many people consider the human race to be bad, yet most people also don’t consider themselves to be bad humans. For better or worse, that cognitive dissonance is down to stories.

The question then becomes: how do we separate good stories from bad, or skewed stories from truthful ones? How do we frame the story of our lives in a way that is empowering for ourselves, without doing harm to others?


My debut novel, The Book Eaters, is about stories and their power—both good and bad—and navigating those tricky issues. 

The book eaters are a race of paper-eating humanoids who are dying out. Infertility is reducing their numbers, and an increasingly technologized world makes it harder to remain hidden and safe. To stay alive, they rely on an archaic system of arranged marriages and forced births to keep their dying species limping along, and live under a veil of strict secrecy.

In order to maintain their system of control, the family patriarchs have laid down strict rules about what books their children are allowed to eat. Girls are fed fairytales and taught to be ‘princesses’ who think only of marriage. Boys are given adventure stories and raised as ‘knights’ who enforce laws, or else patriarchs who rule houses.

In short, book eaters have crafted a very specific narrative about their society, one which keeps its members alive and safe even as it oppresses and warps them.

Enter Devon Fairweather, a book eater woman and the main character. As a woman, Devon is forced to comply with the system of arranged marriages, and produce children with different husbands. She desperately wishes things were different, but like the rest of her people, she suffers from a critical lack of imagination. Her worldview has been moulded by her family’s selective diet of fiction, and she struggles to imagine her life outside of the ‘story’ the patriarchs have framed.

Ironically, I also suffered from this failure of imagination.

In my early thirties, I thought my life was ‘over’ in the ways that mattered. I thought I had no path out of my marriage, or back into work. I had spent so long chasing happiness and being disappointed I could no longer imagine what it would be like to find it.

Writing salvaged me.

I began drafting The Book Eaters in 2018—my third novel, since the first two had failed to sell or attract interest. While grappling with Devon’s arc, I examined my life and really thought about who was telling my story. I realised that if I wanted things to change, I would need to relearn how to craft my own narrative; I would have to trust that the future could be different, even when I lacked the ability to envision that new path.

Long story short, I ended my marriage in the spring of 2020 and moved out, mid-lockdown. Starting over is hard; financial free-fall is terrifying. Covid was everywhere and the kids were miserable. I don’t miss those days.

But making drastic changes in my life became the catalyst I needed for understanding how Devon could make drastic changes in hers. A few months after separation, I finally had the clarity to type up an ending for The Book Eaters that did both of us justice, and set a new path.

Stories have power, especially the ones we tell about ourselves. What is your story, and what is it saying?


The Book Eaters: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: Izzy Wasserstein

When events are on a precipice, where can we look for the support we need to help pull them back? Izzy Wasserstein has an idea, and in this Big Idea for All the Hometowns You Can’t Stay Away From, she’s ready to share with you what she thinks it might be.

IZZY WASSERSTEIN:

It all began with punching fascists.

I don’t want to give you the wrong impression. I’m not a violent person. Outside of wrestling with my siblings as a kid, I’ve never punched anyone. But fascist-punching is an obvious moral necessity.

What’s less obvious is what we do when punching fascists isn’t enough. When fascists or other authoritarians hold power, when they’ve co-opted institutions and are counting on anticipatory obedience: what do we do then?

That’s the question that I’m obsessed with in my debut short story collection All the Hometowns You Can’t Stay Away From. It’s also compounded by other problems, like the existential threat of climate change. So I find myself asking: how we might survive, even (someday) thrive?

If you’re hoping I’m about to give you the answer to those questions, I’m sorry to disappoint you. I don’t have the answer. But I’m pretty sure I know where to find the various answers we’re going to need: in our communities.

That’s the idea at the heart of my work: that we need each other, we need our communities, our loved ones, our chosen families. Politicians and leaders can’t save us. We can’t even save ourselves. But maybe we can save each other.

That’s not to say communities are uncomplicated or without flaws. Like lots of queer folks, I know first-hand that the communities of our birth don’t always welcome our differences. Chosen communities can fail us, too. Communities of all kinds can shelter predators, can be undermined by power, by hierarchies, by outside influences. We can fail each other in so many ways. But that doesn’t change the fact that all we have is each other. I write stories about desperate people facing hard times.

They’re not always happy stories, but they’re not nihilistic, either. I think a better world is worth fighting for, and so I keep asking myself: what might that world look like, and how might we get there?

In my work, it looks like

  • two women working on saving the ocean with people they’ll never meet
  • a princess and an assassin finding what they need in each other and in a bigger cause
  • students at a boarding school deciding which monsters are preferable: those within or those without
  • a diviner of the future who joins the attempt to kill a tyrannical god, knowing it will mean her death
  • runaways with chimeric bodies finding ways to keep each other safe in the face of a world that wants them dead

As I’m writing this, our rights are under sustained attacks by courts, politicians, thugs with guns, fascists, and fascist enablers. The rich are getting richer while everyone else struggles to get by. A pandemic is still raging, climate change threatens to shatter human civilization, and our self-proclaimed leaders aren’t doing enough about either problem.

I don’t have the answer to these problems, and don’t believe there is an answer. I do believe we can find answers, but we’ll need to listen to, protect, and support one another. We’ll need to lean on each other’s expertise, and on each other.

I’m still working to understand what that will look like. I expect I’ll spend the rest of my life working on it. I hope you’re thinking about it too, because we desperately need your answers.


All the Hometowns You Can’t Stay Away From: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

Pixel Buds Pro First Impressions

John Scalzi

I’ve been using Google’s Pixel Buds since their first iteration a few years back, and just picked up the newest version, the Pixel Buds Pro (seen above in their “Lemongrass” colorway) because I was curious how this new “premium” version of the buds, complete with active noise cancellation, stacked up to the previous versions I’ve had. I got them today and have been fiddling with them since; here are some first impressions.

1. To begin, the ear buds themselves are both larger and have a different shape than the previous versions of the Pixel Buds, in part to accommodate the active noise cancellation. I understand that, but I preferred the previous design, in no small part because the last two iterations of the buds included little plastic “wingtips” that helped secure the buds into the ear. These don’t, and I’m already having problems with the left bud, because my left ear canal shape is such that non-secured buds of any sort have historically never stayed put without effort. I went for a short walk and the left bud fell out twice.

Some of that I can probably fix by changing the little rubber flange that fits inside the ear to a different size (the buds come with three different sizes for these), but it would have been even nicer — for me, anyway, your mileage may vary — if Google could have kept the wingtip design feature. As it is, for now I’m unlikely to use these particular buds for vigorous exercise or running.

2. Does the new active noise cancellation make up for the (slight) inconvenience of the missing wingtip? I suspect for a lot of folks, the answer will be yes. The ANC is pretty decent; it doesn’t block out noise like my Sony wh-1000xm4 headphones, but then I didn’t expect them to, because these are earbuds and the Sonys are over-the-ear headphones. A one-to-one comparison isn’t fair. The Pixel Bud Pros do bring the outside noise way down; I can still hear the world with the noise cancellation on (provided I’m not blasting music at a ridiculous level, which I don’t do much anymore because I am old and my hearing is a precious resource), but it’s unobtrusive and easy to ignore.

When one does need to pay attention to the outside, the Pixel Bud Pros come with a “transparency” mode, which is different from simply just turning off the noise cancellation mode — in my experience it bumps up frequencies for speech, and one presumes some other critical noises, so they can cut through whatever else you are listening to. I tried it to speak to my wife and mother-in-law while listening to music; it does the job just fine. You can swap between noise cancelling and transparency modes with a long touch on the buds. One may also simply just turn off noise cancellation entirely in the settings.

3. With regard to music, it sounds pretty good out of the buds. Again, these are earbuds with tiny drivers, so don’t expect monster bass response, but by and large everything I threw at the buds sounded decently full (especially electronic/EDMish things), and I could pick out little details in the music that I would miss with lesser earbuds or if I’m listening to something off my two-watt computer monitor speakers. They’re the best-sounding Pixel Buds, certainly, and I’m happy to listen to my music with them. I also used them for a phone call with Krissy earlier in the day; again, they did perfectly well in letting me hear her, and they had no problem picking up my voice to talk to her.

4. The buds are touch sensitive and you can control volume, pause, play and noise cancellation with them (you can also assign touch for Google Assistant if you want it). All of these work perfectly well, as they did with previous versions, but I’d also add the caveat that if you have to fiddle with the buds to any extent — hello, weirdly shaped left ear canal! — you’re gonna trigger the hell out of these various functions as you fiddle, which is vaguely annoying.

On the subject of Google Assistant, I have it set to be voice activated, and in the times I used it, it worked exactly how it was supposed to, without any hiccups or problems. Google Assistant is simultaneously the most useful and most colorless of all the virtual assistants, and that’s fine with me. I don’t need it to be vivacious and interesting, I need it to access things on my phone when I want it to. It does that really well.

5. Speaking of things done really well, the Pixel Bud Pro integration with my Pixel 6 Pro (yes, I’m well sucked into the Google ecosystem) was flawless and ridiculously easy; I literally just flipped open the lid of the Pixel Buds Pro holding case and my phone said “Oh, hey, look, Pixel Buds, you want I should connect?” Why, yes, Pixel 6 Pro, I do, thank you. So much easier than having to do the usual Bluetooth sacrificing of chickens to get something to connect, or whatever. And there’s no lag or (so far) any dropped connections or connectivity static that was a problem with earlier Pixel Buds before software/firmware updates.

For things that aren’t Pixel Phones (or Pixelbooks, as I understand the integration there is similarly easy), there is regular Bluetooth connectivity available. You’ll have to check with someone else about how it does with that. I’ll be over here, enjoying my seamless connection experience.

6. Other things: I’ve had these for less than a day so I can’t speak to battery life, but Google claims an up to seven-hour listening session before they need to be slipped back into their case for recharging, which is something like a 40% boost from the previous iterations, and the case will handle 20 hours of charging before needing a recharge itself. Google’s previous versions of the buds/cases hit their advertised marks in this respect, so I don’t have any reason to doubt this estimation.

The carrying case for the Pro Buds is marginally larger than the ones for previous iterations but not by enough that I could see it by looking at it on its own; I had to actually put the Pixel Buds A case up next to it to see it. This iteration of the case can wirelessly charge if that’s a thing you want. The buds come in four colorways; I got the “lemongrass” colorway because it stands out, and that way when my left bud falls out of my ear I can find it more easily on the floor.

7. Are the Pixel Buds Pro worth the $199 Google is charging for them? If you’re as deep into the Google ecosystem as I am and you want noise cancellation in your earbuds, I’d say yes; even with my annoyingly troublesome left ear canal, at this early stage I’m very much enjoying the overall sonic experience they provide. If you don’t care about noise cancellation, still want Pixel Buds and want to save $100, you’ll be fine with the Pixel Buds A iteration, which is still available for purchase, and with which my user experience was perfectly good.

But, yeah: So far, the Pixel Buds Pro are pretty nifty. More updates as warranted.

— JS

The Big Idea: Greg van Eekhout

Even in fiction, pets are a big responsibility. Author Greg van Eekhout makes that extra clear in his new novel, Fenris & Mott, where we’re introduced to a new version of a particularly legendary dog. Follow along in this Big Idea as the author tells you a little about a dog ownership in a world in the midst of major change.

GREG VAN EEKHOUT:

By the way, the world is ending. I don’t mean Earth is going to do a Krypton, but our way of life is causing mass extinction and extreme weather and generally making the planet a less hospitable, more difficult, more dangerous, and more costly place to live. I know you know that, but the reason I bring it up is that I decided to write a middle-grade novel (i.e. marketed to readers aged 8-12) in which Ragnarök is taking place now, and to describe massive floods and fires and storms without acknowledging climate change seemed dishonest. 

What I’d set out to do was write a book about promises. When Mott finds a baby Fenris abandoned in an alley, she promises to take care of him no matter what. Even when she learns that Fenris isn’t a dog puppy but rather the wolf of Norse mythology destined to bring about destruction and eat gods in the twilight of the universe, she is determined to keep that promise. And even when Fenris’s appetite grows and he starts devouring pick-up trucks and A-list movie actors, she remains undeterred. Not even the gods who are using Ragnarök to their own benefit can stop her. Mott’s a tough cookie when it comes to keeping promises because she knows how lousy it feels when someone breaks a promise. But what is the Ragnarök prophecy if not the universe’s promise to end in mayhem, disaster, and strife? 

It can be a little tricky writing about kids who take action to save the world. Too often we look to them as the solutions to the problems we created. We shrug our shoulders and say, “Sorry, youngsters, we failed you, but we have no doubt that, through your heroic efforts, you’ll turn things around, because you’re awesome.” That’s lazy, irresponsible, and hugely unfair. Do I want to promise kids they can beat the gods (in this case, the gods being fossil fuel companies and those who owe their fortunes and political careers to fossil fuel companies)? Sure. But to paraphrase Jewish scholar, Shlomo Bardin, it’s the job of every one of us to mend the world. We’re not required to finish the work, but neither are we allowed to quit. That means we adults still have to fight this battle. 

I like my books to be layered, so it’s not all climate catastrophe and musings about promises. There’re also musings about root beer and sleep overs and a young Valkyrie who doesn’t understand why she can’t just stab people in Los Angeles. And I went through pains to make sure Fenris was both as cute and chaotic as any puppy with the capacity to eat the moon. I hope the book is funny, fun, exciting, and hopeful. 

Finally, I’ll close by making a promise of my own, the same one I make to readers of all my books: The dog doesn’t die. 

—-

Fenris & Mott: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: Sim Kern

The change of climate around the world brings a wide spectrum of thoughts and strategies about it — no less in fiction writing than anywhere else. In Real Sugar is Hard to Find, author Sim Kern is thinking about their own thoughts and strategies to bring the topic to their own writing, and what their own choices here mean.

SIM KERN:

Get two climate fiction authors together, and you’ll hear a debate about the most useful kind of climate fiction. We don’t fear the criticism of being “too didactic.” Rather, many of us have explicit agendas that we’re happy to debate at a moment’s notice—whether to communicate climate science, inspire people to action, or even dismantle global racial capitalism. One of my favorite cli-fi authors, Aya de León, author of A Spy in the Struggle, calls herself the “Minister of Climate-Justice-Fiction Propaganda.” We agree that everything is a culture war; stories are the most powerful weapons in a culture war; so if you’re trying to change the world, you better think critically about your themes.

Among sci-fi writers of climate fiction—those of us rendering how the biosphere and humans might adapt to climate change in the years to come—the recurring debate is: dystopia vs. utopia. Which genre is a better kind of propaganda?

There’s no question that dystopian worlds dominate both science fiction and near-future climate fiction. The old adage holds true: it’s easier to publish the end of the world than the end of (extractive, oil-soaked) capitalism. Solarpunk, however, is challenging dystopian domination. Mostly coming out of small presses or short story outlets, authors are increasingly envisioning radically optimistic, abolitionist, anti-capitalist, green and sustainable futures.

Dystopian cli-fi authors, meanwhile, are doing important work translating scientific climate predictions into narrative; setting urgent, human stories in hothouse, fire-drought-and-flood-ravaged worlds. A dystopian-leaning editor friend of mine recently announced he’s no longer interested in stories set in utopian worlds, because he just can’t suspend disbelief that our fossil fuel addiction gets magically solved in the next few years.

In this debate, I agree with everyone, even when their points are contradictory, because my feelings about climate change are contradictory. It isn’t useful to ask us to choose one modality over the other—despair or hope. I feel a huge range of emotions about living through mass extinction. I want to write and read stories that let me feel all the things. Real Sugar is Hard to Find, my collection of cli-fi stories, contains both dystopian and utopian worlds, and stories that fall somewhere in between.

The titular story, “Real Sugar is Hard to Find,” follows a mother and son’s quest to bake a cake for their suicidal family member, in a world where common baking ingredients are scarce. The story explores how climate change will disrupt agriculture and food supply, but it’s also a reminder to the climate nihilist inside me that there will be cake—and birthday parties, joy, jokes, dancing, babies, and falling in love—even during environmental collapse, even after 2 or 3 or more degrees of warming. For as long as there’s a handful of humans left, there will be joys worth celebrating.

“The Propagator” comes from a place of screaming rage about living under the threats of rising sea level and rising Christofascism. Set in a flooded, future Houston, a woman who is forced to carry an unviable pregnancy to term turns to a life of crime: propagating houseplants. In the soilless city, all reproduction is tightly controlled under a carceral surveillance state. Written in 2018, the story has proven horrifically prescient, as the protagonist mulls a cross-continental journey to obtain an abortion, fears even searching the term on the internet, and her job takes her to a designated “repro crimes” ward at a county jail.

We also need stories that don’t ask us to force a smile, or call us to action, or do anything—stories that simply let us grieve. “The Listener” is born from the grief I felt in the drought of 2008, when 300 million trees died across the state of Texas. The protagonist is a queer, closeted scene kid, kicked out of her house and in love with her best friend, who eats too many mushrooms and gains the ability to talk to trees. At a really bad time.

“The New Nomad” and “The Night Heron” unpack the torments of parenting in a time of ecological collapse, while the last two stories in the collection are wildly, unabashedly utopian. More than out of any political allegiance to the solarpunk movement, I wrote them because I was tired of both living in a dystopia and trying to imagine even-worse-dystopias in my head. Ironically, the less hope I feel for reality, the more I’m called to write optimistic futures. It’s looking increasingly likely that I won’t live to see a better world, but at least I can escape to one in my mind.

“The End of the Nuclear Era” presupposes a green, anti-capitalist revolution that’s already occurred, and explores what would happen if children had the right to free themselves from abusive, neglectful families. The story kicks off as a runaway teen approaches the gates to a “Children’s Center,” where any kid can show up and find food, lodging, safety, and education—no questions asked.

I dreamed up “The Lost Roads” while buckling my three-year-old into her car seat in the blistering Texas heat. The premise is: What if there were no roads? Fuck car culture. Fuck asphalt. What if we figured out green mass transit and purposeful communities, so we could dig up all the roads and rewild them? It’s a story of unbridled hope, joy, and reconciliation with the natural world and each other. 

Whatever you feel about climate change—despair, denial, grief, rage, hope, and fear—all those feelings are justified and valid and needed. So I guess my overarching “agenda” for Real Sugar is Hard to Find is to invite you to feel those feelings along with me. Hopefully, these stories offer some badly-needed catharsis as we stand amidst climate change and mass-extinction and wonder how much worse things are going to get before (and if!) they ever get better.


Real Sugar is Hard to Find: Publisher | Amazon | Barnes & Noble

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

The Big Idea: Alan Smale

Look, up in the sky! It’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s a NASA spacecraft! Come along in Alan Smale’s Big Idea, as he tells you about his new novel, Hot Moon, where an alternate history involving Russia and the moon has occurred.

ALAN SMALE:

I’m writing this blog post on one of my very favorite anniversaries: July 20th. Which, in this noble year of Two Thousand and Twenty-Two, is the 53rd anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moon landing. 

My love for the Apollo Program has been deep and abiding, and has played a critical role in my life. It strengthened my interest in science from a very early age, influenced my most significant career decisions, and has given me some of my most powerful memories and experiences. And, given the various groups I hang with these days, I know I’m not alone in that. Show of hands?

Nice.

When Neil and Buzz walked on the Moon I was an eight-year-old living in Yorkshire, England, fascinated by every detail. I studied up and memorized everything I could about the Apollo astronauts (from all the missions), the Saturn I and Saturn V rockets that took them into orbit and beyond, and all of the technical details of their Lunar Modules and Command and Service Modules that were available to me. I was gripped by the dramas, like Apollo 8’s orbits of the Moon, the Apollo 11 landing, and the Apollo 13 Lost Moon mission, but also had an insatiable appetite for the small stuff: the meticulous and extensive engineering testing they did on the earlier Apollos, the minutiae of the spacesuits and the ALSEP experiments, the dorky aluminum golf carts of the Lunar Rovers, the routes of their surface excursions. The rocks. The rolling. The entire package.

Back then I really, really believed I’d be living in space by the time I reached the age I am now. I mean, why wouldn’t I? 

In 1969, some of the pundits were saying we’d be on Mars by the 1980s. And even back then I knew that might be a stretch, but hey: I didn’t need to go to Mars, exactly. I just wanted to slip the surly bonds of Earth, meaning its gravity, and get up there to live and work in space. 

Well, dang it, that didn’t happen, and I’m still subject to those surly bonds, but I gave it my best shot. Took physics and astrophysics at college. Even ended up working for NASA, though not on human spaceflight – I do astrophysics research, manage one of NASA’s Big Three astro data archives, and help others to do science. But, bottom line: here I am, still stuck on Planet Earth. Le grand sigh.

What I’m leading up to is this: Hot Moon was the book that I always wanted to write. My labor of love, my tribute to the Apollo Program that inspired so many people way back there in the dark ages, shortly after the dinosaurs perished and just a few moments before Vietnam and Watergate crushed the idealism of a nation. Because: it was Space, people! 

My Big Idea was not that the Soviets get to the Moon first, although in Hot Moon they do, and I do believe it would have changed everything if it had happened that way in real life. The Big Idea is that the Apollo program continued. And it was ambitious, and glorious, and exciting. And of course there’s conflict: the book features war in space, this world’s first ever space battle, between clunky Apollo and Soyuz craft, maneuvering around a Skylab in lunar orbit. Honestly, a lot of things don’t go well for my characters. But the technology, science, orbital maneuvering, and just the sheer risk and excitement of spaceflight: all of that is as accurate as I could make it, and I hope the heady thrill of those years comes across.

Just like me, the commander of Apollo 32, Vivian Carter, loves the Moon. She’s utterly dedicated to her ten-day exploratory mission to the Marius Hills area. A mission that … she ends up losing, due to the Cold War turned hot. In space.

Hot Moon is a thriller with a nerd’s beating heart, and perhaps a hint of competence porn. It’s MacGyver on the Moon, trying to figure out how to beat back an armed-and-dangerous Soviet threat with rocks and model rocketry, ingenuity and improvisation. And once everything hits the fan, there may be a touch of Andy Weir in the math that will keep Vivian Carter alive, and eventually help her solve the book’s deeper puzzle about What’s Really Going On. How to defeat the relentless KGB/Spetsnaz cosmonauts arrayed against her, on the surface and on the captured Columbia Station in orbit. And, how to survive the hostile Moon itself.

Have there been other alternate-space-program stories recently? Yes: it feels like this is our moment. You should obviously check out Mary Robinette Kowal’s Lady Astronaut series. Rosemary Claire Smith has a nifty story in the Jul/Aug 2021 issue of Analog, “The Next Frontier”, which you should read too. There’s also a certain TV show with a similar premise. I started writing HOT MOON in 2017, long before I knew anything about For All Mankind, and had delivered a complete draft to my agent and beta readers before the first episode aired (publishing is a slow business, especially when you toss in a pandemic). But Hot Moon has a very different feel and direction than other alt.space stories I’ve seen. For one thing, it takes place entirely on and around the Moon. And it’s very much a technothriller rather than a soap opera, though hopefully one with heart. Suffice to say that there’s room for a few different alt-Apollo takes, and those listed above are all very different. 

I’m here for all of it. I have a thing for the Moon, and so do Vivian and her crew, and the astronauts at Columbia Station and Hadley Base, and those tough guys from USAF Special Ops, and some of the more sympathetic Soviet characters whose viewpoints we get to see along the way. I hope you’ll join us all for high jinks in one-sixth gravity. 

Obligatory PSA: if you’re about to fire off a social media post along the lines of: “The Moon landings were fake! How do we know they really happened?” I’d ask you to pause, take a very deep breath, and consider: the 400,000 people who worked on Apollo were all lying? And the Soviet Union, our adversaries in the Space Race, would have let us get away with such a brazen deception? 

Nah. NASA really did it. And if they’d kept on doing it, maybe we’d now be in the future that I assumed I’d be living in, having passed through a 1979 something like the one in Hot Moon along the way.

And that would have been really cool.


Hot Moon: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

Trying Out A New Recipe: Blueberry Crumb Cake

Athena ScalziThe first time I got into cooking videos on YouTube was back in 2012, when I was thirteen. And the channel that got me into cooking videos was a channel called Kin Community. There were several different content creators that all made their own videos and then posted under Kin Community’s channel, but the only one I was interested in was a woman named Beth.

I’m not sure when, but eventually she broke off from Kin Community and became her own channel, Entertaining With Beth, and I stopped watching Kin Community (now just called Kin) after she left. She ended up being my favorite cooking person on YouTube for years to come, and just generally my favorite creator on YouTube for a while there. I even wrote a post over her back in 2018 talking about how awesome her recipes are and how much I love her channel.

Funnily enough, I’ve only made a handful of her recipes throughout the years, but there is one that I have consistently made that I love, and that’s her Blueberry Lemon Muffins. I used to have a screenshot of the recipe, but when I went to make the muffins recently, I couldn’t find the screenshot. I checked her website to see if she had it there. And in my searching, I found a Blueberry Crumble Cake recipe. I thought I’d move on from the muffins and try something new. And boy am I glad I did! This recipe was surprisingly easy, and the results were super yummy!

For the ingredients list, it’s all standard stuff that you probably wouldn’t have to make a trip to the store for, other than the blueberries (but I had blueberries which is why I had been looking for a way to use them in the first place). There’s no complicated ingredient like Dutch process cocoa powder or vanilla bean paste, there’s pretty much just regular ol’ flour, some vanilla, butter, a couple of eggs, and sugar. Easy peasy.

You just put all that in a bowl and mix until you get this:

A silver mixing bowl with off-white batter in it. An off-white rubber spatula rests in the batter.

After you gently stir in the blueberries, you just put it in your greased pan:

A square silver baking pan with the batter spread in an even layer in it.

And then you make the topping, which is just more of what was already required for the cake itself! So convenient. I will say, though, that my butter wasn’t very cold by the time I got to this step so my topping ended up much more cohesive than a “crumble” topping probably should be:

A white mixing bowl with a lump of light brown sugar/butter mixture in it. It looks like wet sand.

This was definitely supposed to be more like dry sand and less like wet sand, but it’s fine, I covered the surface perfectly if I do say so myself:

The square silver baking sheet, filled with the batter, which is now topped with the cinnamon/sugar/butter crumble top mixture.

45 minutes later, BAM:

The fully baked crumble cake, with a golden brown top. Some blueberries are visible.

Golden brown, baybee.

I was so excited that I cut into them way too soon, and my first piece completely lost all its structural integrity.

A black plate with a completely fallen apart piece of blueberry crumb cake sitting on it. It's a total mess.

I was upset because I didn’t realize the only reason that this happened was because I didn’t let them cool. I just thought they’d all be like this and that it was a total failure. But that was not the case! I had more patience, and the second one came out like this:

Me, holding a piece of the cake so you can see the insides and all the blueberries and whatnot.

And don’t ask me why I’m holding it like I have LEGO hands.

Four squares of the cake sitting alongside each other on a black plate.

So, yeah, badda bing badda boom, blueberry crumble cake!

I highly recommend giving this recipe a try. It was so easy and came together quickly. Also, it tastes awesome! I will for sure be making this again in the future.

-AMS

The Big Idea: Dan Moren

In blank we trust. Who is that blank for you? Are you that blank for others? Trust is a valuable thing, and according to author Dan Moren, the lack of it is prevalent in his new novel, The Nova Incident.

DAN MOREN:

Who do you trust? 

It’s a harder question than you might think. Maybe because trust is in such short supply these days. Nowhere is that clearer than in our relationships with the institutions in our lives—especially the ones that nominally exist to look out for all of us. From the police to the highest levels of our government, trust isn’t something that can be taken for granted these days. (And, indeed, the idea that we’ve ever been able to trust those institutions is one deeply rooted in privilege.)

There’s an element of this lack of trust that is decidedly personal, though. As of this fall, I’ll have been a self-employed freelancer for eight years—longer than I ever worked for any single organization. The reason for that isn’t precisely rooted in distrust, but it’s certainly played its part. 

My longest run at a single workplace ended when I was abruptly laid off in 2014, along with the majority of my colleagues, as part of a cost-cutting measure. Unsurprisingly, that experience left a sour taste in my mouth. I’d been good at my job and I’d thought my performance and loyalty would count for something in the long term, that the company was as invested in me as it expected me to be in it.

Not the case. 

That certainly colored the way I view large institutions and made me less inclined to go work for another large organization (something that I’ve been fortunate enough to not have to do). 

I won’t say the genesis of The Nova Incident necessarily stems from that specific event, but a mistrust of institutions is definitely a major theme. Nova may be a sci-fi adventure story, but it’s also a spy thriller (two great tastes that taste great together, trust me) and a classic spy trope is that when you’re in a duplicitous business, you can’t really trust anyone—even (or perhaps especially) the people who are supposed to be on your side. In this line of work, being too trusting can get you killed.

Commonwealth covert operative Simon Kovalic and his team have been through a lot together throughout the Galactic Cold War series thus far; they’ve taken on planet-sized corporations, megalomaniacal royalty, and brutal crime lords, just to name a few. But suddenly they find themselves dealing with a threat much closer to home: when a bomb explodes on Nova, the Commonwealth’s capital world, an organization called Nova Front claims responsibility, demanding that the planet withdraw from the galactic alliance.

To reveal too much more of the plot risks spoiling some surprises, so let’s say this: issues of trust—or the lack thereof—run throughout this story. In investigating the attack, Kovalic and his compatriots quickly find themselves in murky waters, questioning if they can even trust what they think they know about Nova Front and the bombing itself.

Meanwhile, trust is fractured from within as well as from without. Despite everything that this group has experienced together, there are still undercurrents of uncertainty among them. Pilot Eli Brody has lingering suspicions about the death of former teammate Aaron Page; sniper Addy Sayers is given information that plants seeds of doubt about the team’s true loyalties; even the stalwart Sergeant Tapper knows something is amiss, even if he’s not sure what. 

But what really defines the story is the team’s relationships with the larger institutions that they come into conflict with, especially organizations of their own government. After all, the team is itself the instrument of that government, and if they question the motives of its other arms, they must by necessity question their own. 

Ultimately, The Nova Incident delves deep into the big questions about trust: can we ever really trust an institution to act in the best interest of people it represents? Should one expect loyalty from an organization that demands it from you? And, when the chips are down, who really has your back? Because trust might get you killed, but going through life without it is an awful lonely way to live. 


The Nova Incident: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Visit the author’s site. Follow them on Twitter or Instagram.

Upscaling and an Important Note About Photo “AI”

One of these is a photo. One is a digital illustration.
John Scalzi

Because I’m a digital photography nerd, I have a lot of programs and Photoshop plugins designed to tweak photos and make them better, or, maybe more accurately, less obviously bad. One of the hot new sectors of digital photography programs is the one where “Artificial Intelligence” is employed to do all manner of things, including colorizing, editing and upscaling. Some of this is baked into Photoshop directly — Adobe has a “Neural Filters” section for this — while other companies are supplying standalone programs and plugins.

Truth be told, all of these companies have been touting “AI” for a while now. But in the last couple of iterations of these tools and programs, there’s been a real leap in… well, something, anyway. The quality of the output of these tools has become strikingly better.

As an example, I present to you the before and after picture above. The original picture on the left was a 200-pixel-wide photo of Athena as a toddler. There had been a larger version of it way back when, but I had cropped it way down for an era when monitors were 640 x 480, and then tossed or misplaced the original photo. So the blocky, blotchy low-resolution picture of my kid is the only one I have now. The picture on the right is a 4x upscaling using a program called Topaz GigaPixel AI, which takes the information from the original picture, and using “AI,” makes guesses at what the picture should look like at a higher resolution, then applies those guesses. In this case, it guessed pretty darn well.

Which is remarkable to me, because even just a couple iterations of the GigaPixel program back, it wasn’t doing that great of a job to my eye — it could smooth out jagged edges on photos just fine, but it was questionable on patterns and tended to make a hash of faces. Its primary utility was that it could do “just okay” attempts at upscaling much faster than I could do that “just okay” work on my own. This iteration of the program, however, does better than “just okay,” more frequently than not, and now does things well beyond my own skill level.

It’s still not perfect; some other pictures of Athena from this era that I upsampled didn’t quite guess her face correctly, so she didn’t look as much like she actually did at the time, and more like a generic toddler. But that generic toddler looked perfectly reasonable, and not like a machine-generated mess. That counts as an improvement.

Now, it’s important to acknowledge a thing about these new “AI”-assisted pictures, which is that they are no longer photographs. They’re something different, closer to a digital illustration than anything else. The upscaled picture of Athena here is the automated equivalent of an artist making an airbrushed painting of my kid based on a tiny old photo. It’s good, and it’s pretty accurate, and I’m glad I have a larger version of that tiny image. But it’s not a photograph anymore. It’s an illustrated guess at what a more detailed version of the photograph would have been.

Is this a problem? Outside of a courtroom, probably not. But it’s still worth remembering that the already-extremely-permeable line between photograph and illustration is now even more so. Also, if you weren’t doing so already, you should treat any “photo” you see as an illustration until and unless you can see the provenance, or it’s from a trusted source. This is why, incidentally, AP and most other news organizations have strict limits on how photos can be altered. I’d guess that a 4x “AI”-assisted enhancement would fall well outside the organization’s definition of acceptable alteration. So, you know, build that into your world view. In a world of social media filters turning people into cats or switching their gender presentation, this internalization may not be as much of a sticking point as it once was.

With that said, it’s still a pretty nifty thing, and I will play with it a lot now, especially for older, smaller digital pictures I have, and to (intentionally) make illustrations that are based from those upscaled originals. I’m glad to have the capability. And that capability is only going to get more advanced from here.

— JS

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