Clash of the Geeks, Ten Years On

me as an orc, doing battle with a totally ripped Wil Wheaton, who is astride, of course, a unicorn pegasus kitten.

John ScalziIn the more innocent days of 2010, I commissioned artist Jeff Zugale to create the amazing image above, of me as an orc, doing battle with a totally ripped Wil Wheaton, who is astride, of course, a unicorn pegasus kitten. The image was designed to evoke wonder and curiosity, like “what the hell?” and “why is John Scalzi, as an orc, doing battle with a mega-buff Wil Wheaton, who is riding, of course, a unicorn pegasus kitten?”

It’s that last question that gave us the impetus for Clash of the Geeks, a small chapbook anthology whose several stories, by me, Wil, Patrick Rothfuss, Catherynne Valente and Rachel Swirsky, all centered on, what, exactly, was going on in the illustration. These stories were, well, rather silly, but obviously that was sort of the point. If you can’t have fun with the picture above there’s something wrong with you.

But there was a serious goal for the chapbook as well: To raise money for organizations supporting those who suffered from Lupus. Clash of the Geeks was offered for free here on the site, but we encouraged people to donate to lupus-related organizations, and specified the Michigan Lupus Foundation in particular, because our friends at Subterranean Press, who published the chapbook, were in Michigan (and Gretchen Schafer, wife of SubPress publisher Bill Schafer, was and is someone living with lupus). We ended up raising something like $25,000 for the Michigan Lupus Foundation, in addition to whatever people donated to other lupus-related charities (we weren’t keeping track of those). For something silly, we did some good.

The actual cover to Clash of the Geeks, with type, etc. Today is the tenth anniversary of the release of Clash of the Geeks. Because Whatever and its various subdomains (including unicornpegasuskitten.com) have been moved around and/or redirected over the years, direct access to the Clash of the Geeks chapbook has been difficult — it’s become a bit of a lost, if fondly remembered, piece of Scalzi ephemera. Given the day, it seems appropriate to make it accessible once more.

So: Here is the PDF of Clash of the Geeks. Here also are the ePub, Mobi and RTF versions, courtesy of the Internet Archive (which will also show you a version of the original UnicornPegasusKitten.com site here). As before, there is no cost to this chapbook — it’s yours, enjoy! — but if it inspires you to donate to a lupus-related charity, that would be lovely. Thank you for continuing to make Clash of the Geeks something that is useful as well as fun.

And what about the brilliant artwork above? Well, we made two prints of it. One, we auctioned off for charity. The other I framed and now it’s displayed in our guest room, over the fold-out bed. When people come into the room, their first question about it is “what the hell?” and, “why?!?” or some variation thereof. It’s nice to see that even after a decade, it still reaches people.

Also, for everyone who visits my house and then sleeps under the orcish Scalzi and buffed out Wheaton, and, of course, a unicorn pegasus kitten: Sweet dreams.

The art in my guest bedroom.

— JS

Pass the “Ammunition”

Athena ScalziI don’t always listen to albums, but when I do, there are usually only a couple of songs on it that I enjoy. Usually one or two, sometimes three, and on rare occasion, maybe four or so. But I have never in my life enjoyed an album in its entirety. Until I came across Ammunition by Krewella. This six-song album (or “EP,” as the old people call it) takes up only 21 minutes of your time, making it the perfect album to listen to while you shower or while you drive to the grocery store.

This is the thing with albums: they’re just a few songs too long in my opinion. It’s always the first couple songs that are good, and then everything after it is just kind of there. Back before my time, there were LPs, and they had about ten songs on them, an ideal number for an album, in my opinion. And then the CD came around, and suddenly you could fit more songs in an album. However, bigger is not always better, and that is certainly the case with albums that have, like, eighteen songs on it. It just seems excessive at that point.

But no one my age even buys CDs anymore. Or really ever buys music. Why buy one CD when you can just pay the same amount for a streaming subscription, or why pay at all when you can listen for free on platforms like YouTube? Why buy a whole album if you can just go listen to the one song you like from it? Does anyone even make albums anymore? It seems like artists just release singles nowadays. Which is preferable to me, because I have a very short attention span, so asking me to listen to something that’s longer than like, half an hour is a tall order.

The first song I heard from this album is the song which it is named after, Ammunition. I listened to this song a lot for about a year before I even thought to look and see if they had more music. I was hesitant to listen to their other songs, because I didn’t think any of it could top Ammunition. And I was right! Ammunition, in my opinion, is still by far the best song, but I was surprised that I liked the other ones, too.

So without further ado, here’s Ammunition:

If you want to look up the rest of the album, it’s on YouTube and on Spotify (if you go on Spotify make sure you don’t listen to the remix album of Ammunition). If you gave a listen to the song above, let me know what you thought of it in the comments! And as always, have a great day!

-AMS

Put a Ring On It

A ring light, behind my desktop monitor. Spice sits at my desk, looking up suspiciously.

John ScalziI have been doing rather a lot of virtual events and other video-related things this year, and thus is was decided that I should have a ring light, in order to light my face flatteringly and otherwise even out things, in terms of basic luminosity. It arrived today and I have installed it behind the monitor. Spice the cat is annoyed, because she and the other cats like to hang out behind the monitor to nap and/or attack my fingers while I’m typing, and now the ring light is all up in there, taking up space. I imagine I will take it out from behind there when I’m not using it, if not other reason than to keep the cats from murdering me.

But I did use it today, during my event with Christopher Paolini, and it mostly worked as advertised; I was well-lit, which made it easier for my webcam to spot me, and to make me not appear like a grainy pointillist mess. I have two more events and one tech test next week, so I think I’ll keep it where it is for now. Nevertheless I feel like I’ve gone over some line and now it’ll be nothing but vlogging for me from here on out (note: This won’t happen, I’m too lazy). At least I’ll be pleasantly illuminated.

— JS

The Big Idea: Hannah Abigail Clarke

The cover to The Scapegracers.

Hey, remember all those teen movies with the girl cliques? So does Hannah Abigail Clarke. Their new novel The Scapegracers is one of the things that happened when these films and the author collided.

HANNAH ABIGAIL CLARKE: 

I wrote The Scapegracers when I was 19 because I was lonely and pissed. Let me elaborate.

At 19, I was rageful. Teenage anger is a well-documented phenomenon, as the rapid onset of political, psychological, and physical changes makes for a trifecta of awful brain space. In my specific circumstance, my rage was augmented by a sudden awareness of the fact that I felt lonely for a reason. I was a dubiously gendered lesbian in the rural Midwest. Among all the other Things we could remark upon here, the most relevant is that the lack of likeness in media abraded me constantly. Three years ago, there was next to nothing on genre fiction shelves with lesbian protagonists, much less gender nonconforming ones. Still ain’t much. So! Rageful teen Clarke ate a lot of media that wasn’t intended for them. 

I’m talking here about kitschy girl clique movies from the late eighties through the early aughts. Think Mean Girls and Heathers and Jawbreaker and The Craft. All of the above are absolute camp fests with intense focus on homosocial relationships between teenage girls. These movies all seem to feature eccentrically dressed girls with substantial social power who have bizarre, stylized dialogue and absolutely despise each other by the movie’s end. The girl clique falls apart, often with great (comic?) violence. Lesbianism hangs over the narratives like a thorny pink-and-orange ghost. 

In Jawbreaker, the girl clique accidentally murders one of their own, but because a mousy little lesbian was obsessed with the murdered girl, they suddenly had a replacement that spared them jail time. In Mean Girls, members of a girl clique are psychologically tortured because one of them accused a non-lesbian of lesbianism and that insult warranted an elaborate revenge plot. I’ve said it before, but on vibes alone, Nancy from The Craft feels incredibly queer. Hollywood loves a crazy obsessive lesbian. Heathers is aggressively straight, we’ll forgive it that—though I could gesture at the atrocious remake’s insistence that the central clique is queer.

My point is this: a whole slew of fantastic movies, I’d argue some of the most fun movies about multiple girls and their relationships to one another, are drenched in some drab and ugly assumptions about girlhood and lesbianism. Even so! Man, do I love the beginning of these movies where a bunch of high femmes are jackasses together.

So, I’m not a girl. We don’t need to get into the specifics of lesbian gender viper pits, but it goes to say that I’m not much like the girls in a girl clique film. YA has plenty of girls who will tell you endlessly that they also aren’t like girls in a girl clique film. I’m not what they mean by that. The Not Like Other Girls trope allows for a character to disavow femininity on the grounds that femininity is shallow/opulent/unintelligent/garish/promiscuous/Bad, but the trope is very careful about binding its character enough to femininity that nobody mistakes them for a butch dyke. There are bad ways to be Not Like Other Girls, and the YA that fell into my hands when I was young summarily avoided them. 

Again: I was lonely and pissed.

The Scapegracers is a book that weds a lot of these consternations of mine into a single narrative—a girl too far away from femininity to be Not Like Other Girls appropriately, befriends girls so saturated with femininity that they become the Other Girls themselves; their friendship does not unravel because of cattiness or bitchiness or violence or what have you, they are ridiculous and campy and ill behaved, and wrathful, and extremely gay. They navigate a magic system that I built around our dirtbag protagonist, Sideways Pike, and the trauma that’s been mapped onto her body, both interpersonally and structurally. They mercilessly hex those who transgress them. They party harder than they probably should. They hang out. They yearn together.

I’m not 19 anymore. Time happens, I guess. Even so, The Scapegracers exists to acknowledge not just the queerness of its characters, but the pain and joy they feel as legitimate, immediate, and tangible. It’s a sketchy, neon triage tent for the pocket dimension version of Clarke who will always be 19 in farm country, Ohio. I know that there are a plethora of other living beings adjacent to pocket dimension Clarke who might need this book, either because they’re currently rageful queer teenagers, or because they’ve got pocket dimension egos of their own to affirm and look after. I mean for it to be the book object equivalent of a novelty match book. I hope that whatever little fires it strikes can warm your hands awhile.  

——

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

Read an excerpt. Follow the author on Twitter.

The Reagan Test and Donald Trump

A picture of Donald Trump with the words "Are you better off today" superimposed over him.

Original photo of Donald Trump by Gage Skidmore, used under Creative Commons license.

John ScalziIn 1980, which is now — Jesus — 40 years ago, Ronald Reagan asked a question of the American people: “Are you better off today than you were four years ago?” Reagan asked this question because he was running for president against Jimmy Carter, and it was in his interest to make the election a referendum on the incumbent. And while it would be inaccurate to say the question won Reagan the White House, it is accurate to say the question was a particularly useful framing device for Reagan: It took the election campaign and set it on personal terms for every voter, in a way they could easily quantify and apply to their own lives.

Now it’s 2020, and Donald Trump is president and running for re-election, and aside from any over-arching political issues with, or my own personal opinion of, the man, I think it will be interesting and useful to apply Reagan’s question to my own personal life: am I, in fact, better off today than I was four years ago?

Well, let’s see.

My income has been stable for the last four years, thanks mainly to contracts signed more than four years ago. Like the economy at large (until the coronavirus struck, at least), my generally robust economic condition was a continuation of Obama-era practices and strategies, rather than new conditions. Likewise my investments have done fine: more or less on the same path as they were four years prior, minus of course that significant divot earlier in the year. The government has propped up the stock market during the current economic blowout, and there will probably be a reckoning for that, but that’ll be later, not today. I hope Future Scalzi has figured that one out. For Present Scalzi, it’s fine.

Four years ago I paid higher income taxes. In my real-world experience this doesn’t mean I’m better off; the marginal utility to me of the money that no longer goes to taxes is relatively small, and meanwhile the national deficit has skyrocketed, which will almost certainly have significant economic and quality of life issues later on. But that’s another economic problem for future Scalzi, I guess. Today Scalzi is no worse off because of the tax cuts.

Oh, and my local internet provider finally upgraded my internet speeds.

So, those are the positives! Now, let’s see about everything else, involving me on a more or less personal level:

Four years ago, I could leave my house without wearing a mask (I mean, I guess I could leave the house without one, if I was an asshole who didn’t care about the health and safety of others as well as myself, but I’m not, so I wear a mask).

Four years ago I could go to a restaurant or see a movie or go to a party or get on a plane without worrying about possibly contracting a disease that could put me on a respirator, kill me or give me serious, chronic, long-term health issues.

Four years ago I didn’t worry about sending my kid to school.

Four years ago I didn’t have family and friends who had to choose between exposing themselves to a disease that could kill or seriously debilitate them, or being able to pay rent or buy medications.

Four years ago I had a federal government that actually had a well-thought out plan for dealing with highly-infectious, potentially pandemic-level diseases like the one we’re currently living through.

Four years ago I could trust the information from the CDC (and NOAA, while we’re at it) to represent the best available scientific information, not the information that was deemed the least damaging to the president, according to political apparatchiks installed into those organizations by the White House.

Four years ago I didn’t have a president who lied about the severity of a pandemic to the public while privately acknowledging that severity.

Four years ago tens of thousands of people more than there should have been weren’t dead, and even more sick, of a disease that they might have avoided if accurate information and a well-formulated plan had been offered at the federal level. These numbers include people I know and care about.

Four years ago there were far more countries I could travel to with an American passport than ones I could not, including the one directly north of us.

Four years ago, I could go to conventions and have book tours to promote my work and to make connections with business associates.

Four years ago I could get nearly any kind of soda I wanted in an aluminum can.

Four years ago there were no shortages of basic home necessities.

Four years ago I did not have a president who championed white supremacy and conspiracy theories over science and the well-being of all Americans.

Four years ago I didn’t worry whether my vote, or the votes of family members and friends, would be counted fairly and accurately.

Four years ago my health insurance cost less and covered more.

Four years ago I didn’t think about whether my mail would be sent or arrive in a timely manner.

Four years ago I had a president who hadn’t insulted the work and sacrifice of service members, who include both friends and family members.

Four years ago I didn’t worry whether my access to the services and function of the federal government, in an emergency or at all other times, would be contingent upon whether the president had decided someone in my state state was his friend or his foe, or had flattered him enough that he felt inclined to do the job that he was in fact required to do, by law and by the Constitution.

So, no. I’m not better off today than I was four years ago. I am in fact rather worse off: I have a little bit more money, at the expense of an actual, functioning country and society. This is not a good exchange. I will vote accordingly.

Who is better off today than they were four years ago? The ultra-rich, grifters and white supremacists (there are no small overlaps amongst those circles), although since the latter group also highly correlates with people who don’t wear masks in public, possibly not even them for long.

Now, the card that Reagan was palming 40 years ago was that not everything that was bad then was the fault of the president; likewise, not everything that is bad today is the fault of Trump. He is not responsible for COVID-19, for example. What he is responsible for is his and his administration’s response to it, and the effects that response has had on the lives of the American people. Likewise his and his adminstration’s choices at various junctures over the last four years, when it had the choice to make people’s lives better, and didn’t, unless they were ultra-rich, grifters, or white supremacists. That’s more than enough, in this case, for Trump to have made things worse than they were, four years ago.

So, again, no. Trump fails the Reagan Test for me. For that among so many other reasons, he doesn’t deserve a second term. I am well aware that there are millions of people who are worse off than I am after four years, who will still be voting for Trump. I would suggest they have not honestly answered for themselves the question Reagan asked Americans forty years ago. Perhaps they should, before they cast their vote.

— JS

The Big Idea: J.R.H. Lawless

Everybody come on down to The Rude Eye of Rebellion! In today’s prize package we have: dark comedy, torture based reality entertainment, and a slow-brewing Marxist revolution! Now please put your hands together for your host, J.R.H. Lawless!

J.R.H. LAWLESS: 

If The Rude Eye of Rebellion, the second book in the General Buzz series, could be summed up in a Gif, it would probably be one of those Shutterstock “cute kitten” pictures—maybe even one of the especially nightmarish ones where the cat looks like it’s wearing a suit—with the words HOW CAN I HAZ REVOLUTION?

Then again, the same could be said about a lot of things these days, starting with the year we’re all enduring.

Rude Eye is a dark humor novel all about The Grass is Greener, a reality game show where the corporate world-state of the 2070s exploits its worst victims, the ones with the most ridiculous, nonsensical jobs and lives, to make everyone else feel better about their own lot. And perhaps worst of all, the contestants are willing participants, since they’re competing for recognition as the world’s biggest victim, and the life of luxury alongside the corporate elite that goes along with it. 

The “opium of the people” has never been so good, since now it’s composed of the people themselves, like some sort of weird hybrid between A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, and Soylent Green.

But all the humor stirred into the brew, all the absurd situations, the wordplay, the puns, and the quirky etymology footnotes are only the teaspoon of sugar added by a particularly messed-up Mary Poppins to make the medicine go down. And that medicine is the real Big Idea in Rude Eye: Marxist revolutionary theory applied to a late 21st century corporate world-state.

I work as a lawyer when I’m not mashing my forehead against a mechanical keyboard (although, admittedly, that’s also a large part of being a lawyer), but my original training led to me picking up two Master’s degrees in political science, for some reason. And among the many vital lessons I learned even though they weren’t necessarily the ones the schools were trying to teach, I’ll always remember the class where my French “general culture” teacher started waxing lyrical about “entrism”, the Leninist and Trotskyist notion of having agents of marginal movements integrate more mainstream and influential organizations in order to reach a position where they can effect change from the inside. 

That moment planted the seed for what would become the General Buzz series, and especially The Rude Eye of Rebellion, since the book explores the extent and limits of the main character’s power to use a position of relative influence within the corporate structure to uphold his principles, help right wrongs, and make the world a better place.

He meets a small host of characters along the way, and some of them are relatively thinly veiled opportunities to explore and question the Marxist revolutionary themes within the world of Rude Eye at greater depth. Whether it’s through fireside conversations about bases and superstructures in an isolated farm commune, or in the novel’s climax—which involves a covert mission to seize and free the new means of production of the corporate era, entertainment content streaming—the novel is all about applying the ever-timely notions and categories of Marxist revolutionary thought to the world we’re careening towards, faster and faster every day.

As if all of that wasn’t tongue-in-cheek enough, I even have the main character take a forced trip to a literal corporate era superstructure—”Paradise Mars”, the extraterritorial haven built in the hollowed-out husk of Phobos, where gravity is a commodity and the corporate elite can do whatever the hell they like, which most definitely includes abducting and brainwashing important corporate assets who may have started showing disturbing signs of thinking for themselves.

Independently of whether the main character succeeds or not—you may have guessed from the overall dark humor tone of the book that things generally aren’t going to end with sunshine and roses—the main thing Rude Eye highlights is that revolution is a process. 

The seeds planted by any individual’s actions might only bloom years or decades later, in the most unexpected of ways, but always stretching towards the same goal—offering a credible, Direct Democratic alternative to the inevitable confrontation between globalized corporate rule and a return to fascist, nationalistic authoritarianism.

And, at this point, I’m obviously not just talking about the world of the General Buzz series anymore.

—— 

The Rude Eye of Rebellion: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Kobo

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

The Big Idea: Mark Oshiro

Sometimes, it takes a try or two, or a rewrite here and there, to really nail down a story. Author Mark Oshiro tells us about just that as he takes us through his Big Idea, Each of Us a Desert, and shows us that we shouldn’t be afraid of reframing our narratives. It might turn out better than the original could’ve ever been.

MARK OSHIRO:

After three and a half years of work, my second novel, Each of Us a Desert, is finally released today. It is a sprawling, ambitious story about a teenage girl whose magical power as a cuentista—someone who can pull “stories” out of people’s bodies in order to cleanse them of their wrongdoings—is called into question when she discovers she may have been lied to about who and what she is. It’s my first attempt at secondary world fantasy and virtually nothing like my debut novel.

But my Big Idea? The thing I wanted to accomplish and that took four attempts to nail down?

I wanted to write an absurd narrative framing device. 

I love epistolary stories. I love wacky, irreverent, or unreliable narrators. I love books with ridiculous concepts and premises that just utterly commit to telling a story how they need to be told. Books like Railsea (China Mieville), Parable of the Sower (Octavia Butler), House of Leaves (Mark Z. Danielewski), and Room (Emma Donoghue) all left their mark on me not just for the content of the stories, but how they were written. Each has their own narrative devices or quirky premise at work to tell the story, and they’re not the same book if you remove them. They are entirely integral to the novel!

I did not get the idea for the framing device of Each of Us a Desert until draft three, which was the second rewrite. (Some day, I’ll write a novel in the correct genre the first time around!!!) While the first round of edits brought to life much of the world of Xochitl, her god Solís, and the world of las cuentistas, I still hadn’t found the heart of the story. Specifically, Xochitl’s voice was still too dry, too dark, and too detached. In hindsight, I get why! My revisions had helped craft this detailed, intimate, and frightening world, but what was the emotional core of this story? Why did it even matter that it was being told?

I was sitting across from my editor (the brilliant Miriam Weinberg at Tor) over lunch when the idea arrived in my brain and flew out of my mouth. I nearly lunged over the table as I blurted it out: What if the entire story was Xochitl’s prayer to their god, explaining why she had done what she had done? What if the way I found out the importance of this story was to have her literally tell us?

The book’s new outline for that revision took shape in a few days, and I re-wrote the entire thing—quite honestly every word of it—in less than a month. That’s not a humble brag as much as it is a sign of how infectious this idea was to me. It helped me frame this character’s arc; it helped me ground her emotions as she told this story; it helped bring Each of Us a Desert to life! It allowed me to play with language in a fascinating way, too, and there are portions of the manuscript that trick the reader into a bizarre form of second-person. Xochitl is addressing her god, Solís, so there are times when it feels as if the novel is breaking the wall between storyteller and reader. 

This framing also made it easier for me to lean into other components of the story. I wanted Spanish to be a fantasy language, and suddenly, I had a very natural means for this character’s native tongue to constantly appear in the text. Cuentistas are necessary in this world because if a person avoids sharing their story in ritual, their secrets can manifest as harmful beings called pesadillas. Suddenly, I had a wonderful way to anchor horror to the narrative, as Xochitl spends much of the story caught between her religious duty and the visceral terror of it. 

But perhaps my favorite part of this Big Idea is that I got to use Xochitl’s magical ritual to tell multiple short stories within the novel itself. I needed the reader to understand what this ritual was like for the protagonist. Thus, as Xochitl experiences a ritual in real-time, so does the reader. My goal was to add physicality to the story, but also to further complicate the many people Xochitl makes on her strange, frightening journey.

But I also don’t want this to make it seem like this task was easy. That’s the thing about Big Ideas: the execution of them is usually harder than you can possibly imagine when you first think of them. There were absolutely times when I believed that I had bit off more than I could chew. One such struggle was with something that is a requirement in secondary fantasy: exposition. How could I convey this world to the reader while sticking to the format? I think the final version accomplishes that in some interesting ways, but this Big Idea challenged my own understanding of how stories can be told.  

As Each of Us a Desert goes out in the world, I’m thankful that I got to experiment. There is the chance that fans of my contemporary debut will be bewildered by this experience. What I hope is that readers are willing to give me a chance while I take them on this ridiculous, fantastical, and magical ride. 

—-

Each of Us a Desert: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

Woman’s Weekend at Camp Willson

Athena ScalziWhen I was a kid, I went to Camp Willson, a YMCA summer camp in Bellefontaine, Ohio. I went for nine years. The first time I went, I was seven, and the last time I went, I was sixteen, and I was a counselor in training that time around rather than a camper. I had meant to be a junior counselor the next year, and become one of the legendary ten year campers, but I never did it, because I was more interested in being a camper and having fun than actually having responsibility.

Camp Willson was one of the best things in my life. I’m so glad my parents sent me to camp (even if the first year or two I got homesick and kind of maybe cried a smidge). I have always remembered my camp days fondly, and part of me always wished I could go back. Well, little did I know what awaited me at their Woman’s Weekend!

Once the summer camp season is over, Camp Willson offers a couple different programs. Usually they partner with schools in the area for field trips and whatnot, but they also have weekend camps for kids like spring, fall, and winter camp (which I also used to go to), and then for adults they have Woman’s Weekend twice a year and Men’s Weekend, as well. And it was exactly what I had been hoping for: Summer camp for adults!

My mom and I signed up and went this past weekend to Camp Willson, where we had a blast. But, how do you make something like summer camp safe during a pandemic? I’m here to say, Camp Willson did a great job of being safe and sanitary, by giving each party (for example, my mom and I) our own cabin. Cabins normally sleep fourteen, so to have one or two people staying in a whole cabin by themselves was interesting, but definitely a necessary precaution. The cabins had attached bathrooms, as well, so there was no worry over germy communal bathrooms.

Also, everyone sat six feet apart at the campfire and at meals, and instead of their usual serve-yourself style, gloved and masked staff served the food. Not to mention there were only a dozen women including my mom and I, and we rarely interacted with each other outside of the socially distanced meals, so contact was certainly limited.

My mom and I arrived Friday night, but the only thing that really happened that evening was the welcoming campfire. Oh my gosh there was the most amazing cheeseball, it was like strawberries and cream cheese and it was bright pink, it was really good. Other than that there nothing worth noting for that night, so I’ll just skip straight to Saturday.

Picture of a bucolic field of green grass.

We woke up at seven and went to breakfast. All the meals were outdoors (probably also a safety precaution), and watching the sun rise over the horse pasture in the crisp morning air while eating a fan flippin’ tastic waffle was definitely the right way to start off our activity packed day (man, those waffles… something about them was so good, they had some kind of crispy sugar crust on the outside).

First up, we did archery. It was just my mom and I and one other woman, and we all stood about ten feet apart, and the staff wiped down our bows with sanitizer repeatedly. My mom did a great job! I didn’t shoot quite as well, but I think we all could’ve guessed my mom is kind of a bad ass.

Krissy Scalzi pointing to the archery target she was shooting. She has gotten a bullseye.

We shot for about forty-five minutes before we went to our next activity, the Giant Swing. This is my personal favorite thing at Camp Willson, and something I haven’t done for roughly five years, since I was a CIT. My excitement was immense. The Giant Swing consists of three tall wooden poles, and you’re in a harness, then you get pulled to the top of one pole, about thirty-five feet in the air, and are dropped, and you swing in between the other two poles. It’s really hard to explain so I’ve provided a video of an attraction that is very similar:

This one is at an amusement park in Canada and is a LOT taller than the one at camp, but that’s basically the gist of it is you’re pulled to a high height and then dropped and swing around for a bit. It’s insanely fun and feels like flying, you feel totally weightless and free (maybe not exactly free because of the harness) and it’s exhilarating! Here’s my mom and me swingin’ away:

Athena and Kristine Scalzi in the sky, on a swing.

After the high ropes escapade, we had some lunch, and then hit the lake! My mom kayaked, and while I do really enjoy kayaking I decided to paddleboard instead, which made for a much more interesting (and carefully balanced) expedition. I didn’t fall off though, which actually surprised me, I did much better than I thought I would! It was super fun, and it’s a decently large lake. I didn’t get any pictures because I didn’t want to risk dropping my phone in the water, but it’s a very pretty lake with woods all around it.

Once we had paddled around a bit, we went horseback riding. Granted, it was only a trail ride, but it was nice to explore some of the paths through the woods and be in a saddle again; horseback riding is something I did more often in my youth that I miss a lot.

Horse in a field as clouds roll by.

These activities I mentioned weren’t our only options, by the way, the camp had a lot more to offer! There was yoga, wine glass painting, making your own bath bombs, a climbing wall, canoeing (and normally they offer massages and facials but due to COVID this year they only had manicures and pedicures, but those have like a 25 dollar extra fee). My mom and I had planned to go to a Sip and Paint (mocktails, not cocktails), but I ended up falling asleep super early in the evening and sleeping until the next morning.

Sunday morning, it was pouring outside, so my mom and I just sat on the cabin porch and read our books and drank the coffee the staff had brought to our cabin. The rain stopped just in time for brunch, where we had a really good quiche and some seriously delicious scones. One was chocolate strawberry and one was pumpkin spice, so my mom and I each picked one and then split with each other, because how could you not try both?! After brunch, we packed up and headed out for the little over an hour drive back home.

It was a seriously fun weekend, and I’m so glad I was able to do these awesome activities with my mom. There’s no one I would’ve rather gone with, and I hope we get to go again soon. And I’m so happy that places like Camp Willson exist. It gave me amazing memories as a child that will last for the rest of my life; I never expected it could give me new fantastic memories as an adult, too.

Kristine and Athena Scalzi at Camp Willson.

-AMS

The Big Idea: Paul Michael Anderson

Assassination isn’t always personal, sometimes it’s just business. And sometimes the people carrying out the business are from a different dimension and are dressed like nightmarish monsters. It’s all part of the gig in author Paul Michael Anderson’s newest sci-fi/horror novel, Standalone.

PAUL MICHAEL ANDERSON:

At the kick-off of what I’ve been calling The Standalone Promo Tour™ to my wife, writer Adam Cesare featured my new book on his Project: Black T-Shirt YouTube channel. Describing my slasher novella, he said, “Now, it’s being marketed as a horror book, it’s being marketed to horror people, but I would call this, without a doubt, a science fiction book.”

You know that meme where, in one frame, the stick figure holds up a finger as if to go, “hey, wait a minute,” but in the next frame, the finger wilts as the person reconsiders saying anything? That was me.  I couldn’t fault Adam for saying that about Standalone in a video where he gives a glowing recommendation for it. Adam, who’s written a slasher or two of his own (including the just-released Clown in the Cornfield from Harper Teen, which you should go pick up post-haste, and am I allowed to recommend someone else’s book while trying to sell my own? I hope so!), knows the genre, and Standalone…yeah, it has more than slight science-fiction undertones.  

See, Standalone is about a group of people who, once a month, jump from the Center of the Multiverse into various versions of Earth and, disguised as that location’s urban legend (think, like, Jason Voorhees from Friday the 13th), kill preselected groups of people with the purpose of maintaining the energy balance of all existence. However, something is now stalking them and it’s up to the sole survivor to figure out a solution before the Multiverse winks out.  

So, yes, it’s not a straight forward horror story. It’s also not a stereotypical science fiction story, either.  It’s a weird blend.  

But, thinking it over, I’m not particularly surprised by this, for two reasons. One, I had to think of some way of making mass murderers both evil and convincingly empathetic, as well as doing the same with the people hunting the murderers, and the only way my head could think to do that was through using blue-collar guys jumping multiple-dimensions, like Sliders and Ghostbusters by way of Scream.  

And, two, my head worked the problem out that way because of Harlan Ellison and Jack Ketchum.  

I have on the top shelf of one of my book cases a memorial, for lack of a better term, to both writers, collecting their hardcovers and paperbacks in one place, separate from my otherwise anally-organized books (genre, then last name, then chronological, and, yes, it’s exhausting). These two writers shaped the kind of writer I eventually became more than any other—more than Stephen King or William Gibson or Shirley Jackson or Octavia Butler.  

Jack Ketchum, the writer of such novels as Off Season, The Girl Next Door, Red, and (with director Lucky McKee) The Secret Life of Souls, was known for writing brutal, heart-wrenching horror of unflinching violence but also unwavering pathos. His work hurt the mind and the heart. And I don’t need to, on this website, go over Harlan Ellison’s accolades, do I? The infamous grump was at the forefront of science fiction’s new wave and, even afterwards, remained, reluctantly, its squawking Jiminy Cricket. 

Both writers affected me deeply, shaping not just the way a story could be told, but the motivations of the people within that story, and how hard the emotional truth can be not just to get to, but to put into words. It’s not unkind to say that these writers were polar opposites of each other in terms of content, mode, and execution. Ketchum, predominately a novelist, could never have come up with something as fantastic as “The Man Who Rowed Christopher Columbus Ashore” or “Shatterday”—but Ellison, who preferred to work in the short form, could never have written the heart-wrenching gray areas of Red or I’m Not Sam.

It’s in the middle of both writers and their respective oeuvre that I find myself more and more often, recently, none more so than with Standalone, which can be taken as something akin to a marriage between the two writers. I sometimes wish I was more out-and-out weird like, Harlan or Jeff VanderMeer or Kelly Link, or more hardboiled like Jack or Eddie Little or Jim Thompson, but the stories I tend to like to tell—and the stories that tend to resonate with readers—are those that shimmy between the two extremes.  It’s a tight-rope act, honestly. Will SF fans turn out for a horror story, and vice versa?  It’s cliché to say people should read widely, but the fact that we still have to tell others to do this lets you know how often people actually listen to that advice.

Standalone at the end of the day is about a single person who left behind their life and chose to commit extreme violence in a variety of realities, all in the hopes that it would somehow protect the people they left behind. Boiling away all the extra stuff—the multitude of genres, the punchy verbs I write to try and get your attention—Standalone is about that and nothing more.  

Hopefully, Harlan and Jack would’ve been happy with that. 

—-

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

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

 

“Murder By Other Means” #1 on Audible’s “Top Audible Plus Listens” List

A screenshot of "Murder" on top of the "Audible Plus Listens" chart.

John ScalziWell, this is a lovely way to start the week: Murder By Other Means, the sequel to The Dispatcher, has topped Audible’s new “Top Audible Plus Listens” chart, across all categories, not just science fiction and fantasy. This is the equivalent of topping the best seller chart, since the Audible Plus service includes access to the titles in the cost of the service itself, or, if you like, sort of the aural equivalent of being on Netflix’s “Most Watched” list. However you want to slice it, it’s pretty great.

Obviously, much of the credit here has to go to Zachary Quinto, who once again nails the narration, and to Audible for letting its subscribers know the story was there. And obviously to everyone who has been listening to it (including you, if you’re one of those folks). A little of that credit goes to me, too, however. Because I’m not gonna lie, I wrote a pretty good story this time around. I hope you’ll check it out if you haven’t already, either through Audible, or through the print/ebook edition that will come out from Subterranean Press in 2021.

In the meantime, I’m gonna enjoy being on the top of the heap. It’s a nice view! I’m happy Murder got there.

— JS

22 Years

John ScalziOnce again it is September 13 and once again I am reminded that on this day in 1998, I decided to start writing on my website on a regular basis, writing about whatever came to mind that day — thus “Whatever.” Twenty two years is a fairly long time; in fact, it’s long enough that Whatever is older than one of the current contributors to the site. That’s a hell of a thing.

That contributor is also the biggest change that happened to the site this year, and possibly ever. Whatever is now a multi-generational site, with Athena contributing a few articles a week and doing some backend work for me (including posting the Big Idea entries). We’re doing it because Athena is on a break from college — plague and all — but that doesn’t mean she needs to be on a break from learning, or from building her skills as a writer.

Having her on the site feels very much like an old-school apprentice situation, and we’re taking it seriously; we have staff meetings to plan out weekly schedules and to check on goals and progress. It’s been fun and interesting and also, and really not surprisingly, useful for me as well. If I have Athena on a schedule, I need to be on a schedule, too. Not just with Whatever, but with other writing in my life (and here I look at the manuscript for the next novel).

I don’t know how long this phase of the site will last, but I like that it’s here now, and I like the idea that the site is capable of change and growth. After 22 years, that’s a good sign, I think.

It’s also a reminder to me that although I think of Whatever as being my own personal site — because it is — it’s also become something else over the years as well. You may have noticed an relative increase recently in the number of Big Idea entries on the site; that was a decision I made once quarantine hit and a number of authors, myself not excepted, had to scramble to make alternate publicity plans because just plain showing up at a convention or bookstore wasn’t in the cards anymore. I have the bandwidth on Whatever, so, to the extent it helps other authors get the word out, why not open up the door a little wider.

But a side effect of this and Athena’s contributions is that at this point Whatever is not a majority John Scalzi site. As example, so far this September I’ve written nine entries (not counting this one), Athena has written five and there have been six Big Ideas. I’ve contributed 45% of the content on this site for September so far. I’m a plurality of the site, sure. But not a majority. Save for the rare times where I’ve taken a break and had guest bloggers, this is new.

And again, I kind of like that. Whatever’s been all John Scalzi before and probably will be again; I can see myself being 75 and using this site just to be kind of cranky all the time, I mean, more than I am now. But “whatever” isn’t just a site title, it’s kind of an ethos. This is whatever I want it to be. Right now, I want it to be more than just me. And it is. We’ll see what else happens as we go along.

And yes, we’ll keep going along here at Whatever. 22 years is a long time to have been writing anything, but that’s no reason to stop. I keep enjoying writing here, having this site and watching it become what it is. It’s gone from curiosity to next big thing to being a holdout from an earlier time, all in the space of two decades and change. Who knows what it will be next? There’s only one way to find out.

If you keep coming along with us, that would be grand. Thank you for coming to the site to see what’s here now, whenever that “now” may be.

— JS

Dude, That’s My Jam: A Review of Four Fancy Jams

Four different types of fancy jams!

Athena ScalziHere at the Scalzi Compound, we are big believers in jam. My mom and I just made homemade peach jam two nights ago, and my dad is a frequent buyer of “Frog Jam” at a local place, and it’s a general rule we don’t buy cheap jam in this household. Maybe it’s a little bougie, but we just really believe jam is one of those things worth paying a little more for, if and when you’re able.

So when I got an advertisement for Brin’s Jam & Marmalade and perused their website, I knew I had to get some. The advertisement (which I’m not entirely sure why I got in the first place…) was for banana jam, something I’ve never heard of, or even imagined was possible, which made me curious enough to click on their site. Other than their banana jam, I was also captivated by their cherry chai jam. If there’s one thing I love, it’s chai; so the idea of it being encapsulated in a jam form was definitely intriguing.

I consulted with my father about buying the jams and we decided to do a piece over it! So we bought the banana, cherry chai, strawberry lemongrass, and lemon saffron. We were originally only going to do the first three, but we decided we might as well get a fourth so we could get free shipping.

So I bought some fresh French country bread as well as sourdough from a local bakery that I used to work at, and my mom toasted some slices in a pan with butter, and we each tried the four jams. So without further ado, here’s our reviews of each of the jams!

Jams and breads, ready to be consumed.

Since the banana jam is what originally caught my attention, we’ll start with the reviews of that one. My dad said it tasted like bananas and honey, while my mom said it really just tasted like banana puree, and both of them liked it, my dad gave it a 7.5/10, while my mom settled on 6/10. Meanwhile, I absolutely loved it, it tastes like sweet banana bread. I could honestly eat it with a spoon, I thought it was so good that I gave it a 10/10. It exceeded my expectations. We all agreed it would be great on a peanut butter, banana, honey sandwich. It almost had an applesauce-like texture, definitely a more runny jam, but that makes it super duper easy to spread! Overall, the combined family score is 8/10.

Next up was the cherry chai! Upon opening it, it smelled like a candle, and you could almost mistake it for a jar of maraschino cherries with how chunky it is. In contrast to the smooth banana jam, the cherry chai was so packed full of cherry halves and pieces that you could pick out a whole cherry from it. While my mom was a big fan of the chunkiness, my dad said he would’ve liked a smoother consistency (however, when you spread it on bread, it does smooth out a bit).

The consensus on this one was also positive! My dad said it made him think of when you’re a kid and you smell a candle, and then you end up tasting the wax, this is what every kid wishes the wax had actually tasted like, instead of, well, wax. My mom said it tasted way better than she thought it would. Originally, she was skeptical of it and was pretty sure she wouldn’t enjoy it, but she ended up giving it an 8/10, while my dad gave it a 7.5/10 as well. As for me, I thought it was really pleasant, it tasted a little tart, but also tasted like a coffeehouse, soft aromatic spices and warmth underneath the fruitiness. It was an 8.5/10 for me, making the family score another 8/10.

Third on the list is the strawberry lemongrass. Unlike the previous two, this one was not quite as hard a hitter. It kind of smells like strawberry jam, but if the jam had body odor, which my dad said was an exactly correct description. As for taste, it was completely ordinary in my opinion, I didn’t even really taste any lemongrass, though my dad claims it was too lemongrassy (though he mentioned the aftertaste is better), and my mom agrees it’s really just a weak strawberry jam. My dad said that if we had no other jam in the house, he would use it for a sandwich, but it’s not great. My dad gave it a 5.5/10, while my mom only gave it a 5/10, and I gave it a 6/10, making the total family score a whopping 5.5/10.

And last (and certainly least, in my opinion) is the lemon saffron. To me, it smelled like paint thinner, while my dad said it was more of a household cleaner scent. When we ate it, I couldn’t help but make a face, it was awful. I almost couldn’t take another bite, it was so disgusting. Meanwhile, my parents said it would be good if we had it on something other than buttered bread, like it would go well on a charcuterie board with prosciutto or some kind of cheese, but I don’t think I’d like it even then.

My parents gave it a low score, my dad with a 5/10 and my mom with a 3/10, but said that its potential score — were it to be paired with the correct ingredients — would be a 7/10, or in my mom’s case, a 7.5. However, I give it a flat 2/10. It is consumable, but just barely, and I certainly will not partake again. The family score on this is inconclusive, due to the potential high scores it could have.

Overall, the jams were good! I’m sure some of Brin’s other flavors are enjoyable, as well, but I’m glad we got the ones we got. If you want to try one or two of them but aren’t ready to commit, they do offer five dollar mini versions, whereas the full size ones are ten. I definitely recommend the banana jam and the cherry chai (but especially the banana).

I’m off for the rest of the weekend. Have a great day!

-AMS

The Big Idea: Elaine Mongeon and Glen Zipper

Doing the right thing isn’t always easy, and a lot of the time, it’s easier just to do nothing. But when you decide to make a stand, are you willing to risk everything, even your life, for the cause? Authors Glen Zipper and Elaine Mongeon explore this idea of self-sacrifice for the greater good in their new novel, Devastation Class.

GLEN ZIPPER & ELAINE MONGEON:

The creative process, whatever form of expression it may take, can sometimes feel like it requires the deepest of Faustian bargains. Once you’re into it, you get to experience one of the most freeing, joyous, and exhilarating things life has to offer, but in order to get it you have to give enough of yourself to break through a six-foot thick brick wall and then climb Mount Everest. Barefoot. While juggling ferrets. And not nice ferrets. Surly ones.*

The wall can take many forms, but most of the bricks are usually self-doubt. Is my idea good enough? Am I good enough to make that idea a reality? And even if it is a good idea, and even if I am good enough to make my idea a reality, am I brave enough to share my idea with the world and risk the rejection of people not liking it? 

Everest (and the bare feet and the surly ferrets) are the metaphor for all those things big and small that stand in the way of making the commitment, day in and day out, to pulling that idea from your soul and bringing it into reality. The boss who says, “Umm, yeah… I’m gonna need you to come on in on Saturday.” Waiting for the inevitable fight when your partner says nothing is wrong, but one-hundred percent something is very wrong and seventy-five percent you’re going to be in a lot of trouble for it. The seemingly endless stream of bad news about the state of the world flooding into your eyeballs from social media (2020 please end now – thanks! Signed, Everyone). Or, most of all, the times where every one of your creative instincts seems wrong or just plain stupid.  

So how do you do it? Where can you accumulate enough speed and momentum to topple that wall, and where do you find the stamina to climb Everest, never stopping until you reach its pinnacle? For us, it’s all about that big idea. An idea that haunts us like a ghost if we dare entertain the thought of letting it be forgotten. An idea that operates like a rocket booster with an inexhaustible source of creative fuel. And an idea that helps us ask questions that deserve answers, even if we ultimately don’t find all (or any) of them. 

With Devastation Class that big idea was about being out of control, or, more specifically, how young women and men have to navigate a world with huge, increasingly existential stakes while older generations continually marginalize them or otherwise try to mute their voices.  The feeling of not being in control of your own destiny is, of course, familiar to any teenager, but the implications of their not being in control of their destinies are becoming exponentially more dire with each turn of the calendar page. 

Right now, today, those in power are making decisions that will affect generations to come. The pandemic. Climate change. Racial equality. Social justice. Why and how does it make sense that older generations, the ones with all the silver at their temples, get to make decisions about such critical issues that they are really just the temporary caretakers of? It is the generations standing behind them that are going to inherit and live with the consequences of these decisions. So shouldn’t Generation Z and soon Generation Alpha have a voice in where we are going and how we get there? And if their voice is not heard, what should they do to make sure that it is heard – even if that means challenging a norm, breaking a rule, or perhaps even breaking a law? When does the means justify the ends and when does it not? 

For us, one of our first memories of storytelling that asked some of these questions was the 1981 film Taps directed by Harold Becker – which also happens to be memorable for boasting a cast of then little-known young actors, such as Tom Cruise, Sean Penn, Timothy Hutton, and Giancarlo Esposito – all of whom would go on to enjoy much success. Taps, like Devastation Class, centers on a group of military cadets, but rather than being confronted with the life and death stakes of an alien invasion, they are confronted with the end of an institution that they love and believe in – namely a more than century-old military academy that represents an ideal that is inextricable from their identities. Instead of accepting the demise of the institution as well as the ideals it embodies to make way for the empty fate of yet another row of unnecessary condominiums, the cadets seize the campus, lock out the construction crews, and eventually have to fight the actual military to defend their position. 

If you haven’t seen Taps you should, so we’ll avoid wading into spoiler territory, but suffice it to say you will absolutely question whether what the cadets were trying to protect justified the extraordinary means they took to protect it. If they would have done nothing, if they would have just let it go, what would have happened? Sure, they may have felt disloyal to an ideal, and they might have felt shame for not trying to protect that ideal, but would life have gone on without any horrible practical consequence? Our guess is your answer will be “It probably would have.” 

The question we wanted to ask with Devastation Class was what happens when you reach the same crossroads as did the cadets in Taps, but, rather than it being a crossroads of the murky abstraction of loyalty to an ideal, it is a crossroads of true life and death? Even more specifically, what happens when you make a life-and-death choice you believe in your heart and gut is right, but making that choice also requires you to violate the most fundamental rules you are expected to obey? 

The main characters of Devastation Class, JD Marshall and Vivien Nixon, and their cadet comrades are faced with exactly this sort of situation when an alien invasion force, the Kastazi, threatens to destroy them and annihilate human civilization itself. If they do nothing, the cadets are almost positive they and everyone they love will perish. However, if they do take action there is still no guarantee they’ll survive, and, even if they do, they will instantly and forever become criminals and pariahs. 

How does someone make an impossible choice to sacrifice their future like that? Even if they feel like they have to make that choice, how do they overcome their fears and their learned, habituated instinct to “obey” those in power and their rules? And, most importantly, how do they deal with the domino effect of all the consequences of their choice – many of which they could never possibly have seen coming?

Today all you have to do is walk out your door to see choices like this being made in the real world. Whether it’s protesting for racial and social justice, or in any way espousing a just cause or view that is abhorrent to those in power, young women and men are making choices at their own risk and peril to do what they know in their hearts and guts is right. The critical question eventually becomes what do they do when the result they are trying to achieve requires taking action that could truly sacrifice their own well-being and future for the greater good of those who will continue to suffer if they don’t take action? 

Devastation Class, wrapped in the allegory of a mind-bendy YA space opera adventure, tries to ask some of these questions. While we don’t presume to offer any definitive answers other than perhaps some insight into our own POVs, the big idea wasn’t about finding any one answer. It was about asking the right questions and using the stakes imbued within those questions to drive our creative process.

And, let’s be honest… Big idea aside, our creative process was also motivated by wanting to blow stuff up in space. Like a lot of stuff. So we had that going for us. Which was nice.  

* No ferrets were harmed in the writing of this Big Idea. 

—-

Devastation Class: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Bookshop 

Read an excerpt. Visit their website. Follow the Devastation Class Instagram. Follow Elaine on Twitter and Instagram and Glen on Twitter and Instagram.

Murder By Other Means is Out on Audible + The World Premiere of “The Dispatcher” by Ted Leo

The cover to Murder by Other Means

John ScalziToday’s the day! Murder By Other Means, the second installment of the the “Dispatcher” series, is now available on Audible! Like The Dispatcher, it is performed by the estimable Zachary Quinto, and once again the story is filled with intrigue and danger, in a world where murder is a near-impossibility.

What is this one about? I’m glad you asked! Here’s the promotional text:

Welcome to the new world, in which murder is all but a thing of the past. Because when someone kills you, 999 times out of 1,000, you instantly come back to life. In this world, there are dispatchers – licensed killers who step in when you’re at risk of a natural or unintentional death. They kill you – so you can live.

Tony Valdez is used to working his job as a dispatcher within the rules of the law and the state. But times are tough, and more and more Tony finds himself riding the line between what’s legal and what will pay his bills. After one of these shady gigs and after being a witness to a crime gone horribly wrong, Tony discovers that people around him are dying, for reasons that make no sense…and which just may implicate him.

Tony is running out of time: to solve the mystery of these deaths, to keep others from dying, and to keep himself from being a victim of what looks like murder, by other means.

Pretty exciting stuff, if I do say so myself. As with The Dispatcher, Murder is novella length, which means it’s the perfect size for listening to around the house, and keeping you company on short trips and exercise.

How do you get it? Well, if you’re currently an Audible Premium or Audible Plus subscriber, all you have to do it hit up that Audible page I linked to above; it’s available to you as part of your subscription (as is The Dispatcher, the first in the series). You can download it instantly and be good to go. If you’re not an Audible Premium or Plus subscriber, or live somewhere the new Audible Plus service is not yet available, you can still purchase it from Audible, either with an Audible credit, or with actual money. Yes, actual money is still a thing!

I’m hugely excited to have this new installment of the Dispatcher series out in the world. I love writing this series and I love the fact that Zachary Quinto brings protagonist Tony Valdez and his world to life with his audio performance. I think you are going to like Murder a whole lot. I can’t wait for you to listen it.

Speaking of listening, I have a very special treat for you: “The Dispatcher,” the theme song for Murder By Other Means, written and performed by none other than indie music superstar Ted Leo. It’s having its world premiere right here and right now, for you, yes, you!

Can I tell you just how geeked out I am about Ted doing this song? I am super geeked out. I’ve been a fan of Ted’s for years, in pretty much all of his musical iterations. To have him make a song for Murder is just about the Best Thing Ever. I hope you love it as much as I do.

Happy release day to Ted, and Zachary, and me — and to you too! Come get a taste of Murder By Other Means. It’s ready for you to try!

— JS

 

The Big Idea: Dan Hanks

There’s a line, made famous from the movies, that Dan Hanks is thinking about with his newest novel, Captain Moxley and the Ember of the Empire. The problem is… that line doesn’t go far enough.

DAN HANKS:

“It belongs in a museum.”

That’s the quote we all know and love, uttered as the bad guys try to steal the priceless artifact away from Indiana Jones. And when he says it, the audience is usually cheering him on. He’s the scientist with the archaeological smarts after all. He knows how much these artifacts could benefit the world, so he’s going to risk his life to give us the chance to see them. Pretty damn noble if you ask me.

Except.

That’s not really the whole story, is it? 

Captain Moxley and the Embers of the Empire, was always meant to be a fast, fun, action-packed adventure in the Indiana Jones style. An entertaining beach read (or, I guess, ‘pandemic read’ now). However, it was also important to me to address some serious archaeological issues, in particular the colonial elements of these types of stories. I wanted to pull that aspect into the torch light and inspect it properly (while hoping it didn’t set off a trap). 

The big idea here is that the famous “it belongs in a museum” line is only half complete. In a world where archaeologists and museums are being nudged to move beyond their colonial past, it deserves a follow-up: 

Whose?

Museums are inherently collections of artifacts often obtained without permission. There’s no getting away from that uncomfortable fact, no matter how much we’ve been taught to overlook it in favour of the benefits they offer. 

Okay, yes, it’s tricky to get permission from the dead to show off their old coins, flints or ceramics. But a lot of material culture that goes on display is simply detritus and of arguably low personal significance to its past owners. (Burials and bodies are a whole other level of significance that would require a separate blog post/PhD to talk about.)

What I’m mainly concerned with here are artifacts of importance that quite clearly belong to other cultures or countries. Stolen items that continue to be displayed in usually Western collections, where the right to keep them might even be fiercely defended under some kind of weird, misplaced national pride. 

In order to tackle this much-needed conversation in my book, I felt it important to give the characters opposing viewpoints on it. To give them the knowledge to raise issues I know I’ve often thought about and have them argue the point.

Luckily, my background helped. 

I was literally old-schooled in Western archaeological thinking, studying the subject at university far too long ago, and almost venturing along the path to becoming a Doctor of Archaeology. I worked in the heritage sector in Australia, where issues of ownership and permissions were front and centre of all Indigenous archaeological projects. And, more recently, I’ve been listening intently to traditionally silenced voices on the subject – voices that must now be hoarse after talking for so long about the false romanticism of stealing artifacts from their native lands and displaying for outsiders to ogle over them. 

Of course, even with all this experience at my disposal, trying to inject it into a light-hearted, pacey action-adventure was challenging. Thankfully, readers always need a moment or two to catch their breath. It was in these quieter moments I was able to explore the topic more fully by making it a central conflict between our cynical, seen-it-all-and-killed-a-bad-man-to-get-the-T-shirt protagonist, Captain Samantha Moxley, and her younger, more blinkered archaeologist sister, Jess.

Readers will spot the theme elsewhere too. We also have an antagonist, Colonel Arif, who is a pretty awful human being, but who we sympathise with on some level because he’s right to be upset with westerners pinching things from his beloved Egypt. Meanwhile, the idea also helped bring the debate full circle at the end of the book, more closely tying the plot with the theme via a final revelation that poses a question the characters can’t answer… although maybe the reader can?

Thanks to my exploration of this big idea in Captain Moxley, I’ve come to more fully understand how possible it is to love something problematic, while also acknowledging its faults (as long as they’re not too faulty or beyond redemption). 

Some of my favourite places in the world are museums. And I will continue to champion their importance as places of learning where we can protect and study our past, learning more about ourselves and where we need to go next. BUT in certain cases they also bring with them a range of issues relating to the collections they hold. We might be grateful that they’ve saved priceless artifacts from harm previously, yet if there’s a chance to repatriate them now, why wouldn’t we? 

We can – and should – encourage them to do better. Which first means recognising the issues for ourselves. 

As for Indy… well, I’ll always love his stories. I didn’t quite follow in his footsteps and became an author instead (which is much less muddy, but with infinitely more curses). Yet being on the outside of the profession has meant I’ve been in a much better position to write a love letter to it, while tackling its less desirable elements. And I think that’s important. Because, in the end, it’s time for our thinking – and these stories – to move beyond the Western romanticism of travelling the world obtaining artifacts, and for us to realise maybe they don’t always belong in museums. 

At least, not ours. 

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Captain Moxley and the Embers of the Empire: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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