The Last Best Time

Three fridays ago I was lying in bed on the Nieuw Amsterdam, the cruise ship that the JoCo Cruise was sailing on this year, trying to decide whether or not I wanted to bother to get my ass up, head down to the tender boats and go over to Half Moon Cay, our current stop on the cruise. I’d been there before and it was the last full day of a week-long cruise, and no matter how enjoyable a cruise is or has been, at some point you hit cruise fatigue. I was hitting it. Staying in bed and then wandering around a mostly-empty cruise liner for a few hours sounded like a pretty good day.

Then a thought came into my head: You know what you’re going to back to. Who knows when or if you will ever get back to this place again. Go and swim in the ocean, why don’t you. 

So I did. I went and took the tender to Half Moon Cay and hung out on the beach eating ice cream with friends and family, and then jumped into the crystal blue waters of the Caribbean and floated there as fluffy white clouds drifted overhead and my scalp became a rather alarming shade of red. I got out and had lunch with my wife and fed bits of bread to a rooster who knew a sucker when he saw one. Then I jumped back into the water, floated there again and took a moment to be mindful of where I was and who I was there with, and what an actual privilege it was to be afforded this one last best time.

To be clear, six days earlier, as we were boarding the Nieuw Amsterdam, I think most of us knew we were running ahead of a storm. There had been some question of whether loading 2,000 nerds on a cruise liner was a reasonable thing to do at all, given it was clear the coronavirus had landed in the US and was beginning to break out. The cruise line had put restrictions on who could get on the boat based on their previous travel through hotspots, which meant one of the cruise’s performers had to stay off the boat, and the boarding process featured spot health checks of the passengers. Hindsight being what it is, we were lucky that these precautions actually worked as hoped. But we were lucky.

I made a resolution that while I was on the ship I would avoid news and social media. I had email so that if there was a career emergency, my editor, agent or manager could get hold of me, but I had arranged things so that there should have been nothing that would have been an emergency during the week I was on the boat. We had departed on a Saturday; I was fully confident I wouldn’t have to think about the rest of the world until the next Saturday, when we returned to Fort Lauderdale.

In fact I made it until Thursday morning. Wednesday night my editor at Tor sent me an email, which was, basically: You have to call me immediately.

To which I replied: I’m in the middle of the ocean. There are no cell towers here. Just tell me. 

He responded in the early hours of Thursday, to tell me that my book tour for April had been entirely cancelled — and not just my tour; indeed, every event for every author my publisher published had been cancelled through April at least.

You have no idea what it’s like now, he told me. Everything’s changed. It’s been four months since last Monday. 

And I was all, well, shit, now I have to know. So I looked at the news.

He was right. Everything had changed.

For one, and very much least importantly in the grand scheme of things, no more cruise ships were going out. We were one of the very last to sail, and would be one of the very last to return.

By this time a lot of the performers and passengers on the cruise had also broken their news and social media fasts and were catching up on events in the world, and grasping what we were going to be coming back to when we arrived at port. Most of us also understood our first order when we got back to wherever it was we were going was to put ourselves in quarantine, for our own safety and the safety of others.

Because of that, at least some of us started looking at the cruise in a different light. The JoCo Cruise was always a good time — it’s why it had lasted for ten years and spawned a community that existed outside the confines of the cruise ship — but it was beginning to sink in that this might be the last good time for a while. Maybe for a long while. Or at least, the last good time we could spend with friends in reasonably close proximity, outside of the confines of our own homes.

So we enjoyed it. With the time that we had left to us, we enjoyed our time with each other. Our last best time. Then we came off the boat, got on our planes and came home to where we are now, and to the world as it is now.

We were fortunate. We were fortunate that on a cruise during a viral time, we avoided that contagion; it’s now been two weeks since we returned home, so we’re now outside the understood penumbra of its infection time. If any of us who were on the cruise get sick now, it’s far more likely that we got it here than there.

We’re also fortunate that we got to have this last, best time, with friends and music and laughter and blue skies and oceans to float in. It’s something that will help to sustain us through what we have now, and what is yet to come.

New Books and ARCs, 3/27/20

As we round the bend toward April, we have one more stack of new books and ARCs for March! What here is getting your attention as a possible Spring Read? Share in the comments!

Distance and Patience and This Moment of Time

The frustrating thing for me during this moment of time that we’re in is that I don’t think it’s quite sunk in to some folks that this virus doesn’t care about politics, or the economy, or in fact any human concern at all. It doesn’t care about anything. It just wants to spread, and will take any opportunity it is given to do so, to rich or poor, conservative or liberal, to any person regardless of their situation or circumstance or makeup.

And it’s really good at spreading — better at it than flu or many other communicable diseases — and it’s really good at hurting people. Right now we think its mortality rate is slightly above 1%, but I think equally important is that we estimate 19% of the people who get it will need to be hospitalized. That’s pain and fear and money and weeks if not months lost to recovery. Much of that avoidable, if people remember that this virus doesn’t care about politics, or the economy, or any human concern at all. It just wants to spread.

Now, let me speak of a particular human concern. I have lost hundreds of thousands of dollars (and, uh, possibly more) in the stock market in the last few weeks. I certainly understand how people might panic to look at it. I also know that historically speaking, the market will recover in time, as it did in ’87, and in ’08. It’s a good bet that if I’m patient I will see that money again.

If we rush to put this virus on a timetable that it cannot and will not honor, we will kill and hurt people who do not need to be hurt, and who do not need to die. I will see my stock market gains again, in time. I won’t see the dead again. They’ll be gone forever and every future moment any of us could have had with them lost.

It won’t just be the old, although that would be bad enough. Young people are dying of this too. People who are immunocompromised are dying, and so are people who were thought to be perfectly healthy. The virus doesn’t care who you are, what you want or what you believe. It doesn’t care who you will miss, or who will miss you. It doesn’t care that those lost will never be seen again.

The only weapons we have against this virus right now — the only weapons — are distance and patience. Right now we’re practicing the former, but we’re fighting against the latter, in ways both small and large. This virus doesn’t care if you’re patient or impatient. But if you’re the latter, it will take advantage of that to get to you, and it will use you to get to others. Please be as patient as you can, for as long as you can. It matters for you, and for the people you care about.

I understand some of you reading this will want to make political arguments, or argue about what we know about the virus, or (in the US, at least) make the very real point that money is running out for so many of us. Your points may be good, or they may not be, but I’m not going to argue any of them with you right now. I will simply remind you of what I said at the beginning: This virus doesn’t care about politics, or the economy, or any human concern at all. It just wants to spread. That’s it. That’s all. It will, if you let it. And won’t, if you don’t.

Try to Get a Message to Her: (Another) LP-Length Playlist

Hey, I made another playlist! Enjoy. Here’s the Spotify link, or follow along with the videos below.

The Big Idea: Robert Mitchell Evans

Science fiction writers don’t only grow up on science fiction. Their influences can be all over the map in terms of genre and medium. Just ask Robert Mitchell Evans, who for his novel Vulcan’s Forge has tapped into another rich vein of storytelling entirely.

ROBERT MITCHELL EVANS:

“I killed him for money and for a woman. I didn’t get the money — and I didn’t get the woman.” – Walter Neff’s confession, Double Indemnity.

My twin loves are film and science fiction. Drive-in movies are among my earliest memories. My older brothers, in order to obtain the family car, always promised my parents to take me along and that they would be going to Disney-like movies but invariably we went to lurid full-color horror spectacles. This goes a long way in explaining a great many thing about me. My affection for film noir came many years later when a history of cinema course introduced me to the dark and cynical genre. With Vulcan’s Forge I have fused my passions for movies, noir, and science fiction.

By far, I am not the first to combine science fiction and noir. Hard-bitten private eyes, dogged detectives, and fatales of every kind, produced by terrific writers, are numerous in science fiction but I wanted something else.

Don’t get me wrong, Spade, Marlowe, Hammer, and the rest of those classic characters, both on the page and the silver screen, are great and excellent SF version of these iconic archetypes are wonders to behold but I wanted something more akin to Walter Neff in Double Indemnity or Frank Chambers in The Postman Always Rings Twice, an person that, because they are unable to resist temptation, finds themselves suddenly in over their heads with lust and murder taking over their lives. It took me quite a while to find the characters and plot where everything came together for the kind of SF noir I wanted but eventually I did.

Writing a novel you discover surprising things about yourself and your subjects. Vulcan’s Forge taught me that noir stories besides being about crime and character are also about culture.

Noir characters, the outcast, the forgotten, and the greedy, propelled by taboo appetites, brawl with their cultures. They are characters that fall into crimes chasing forbidden desires and it is their culture that defines those taboos.

Invented cultures fill science fiction. Some are utopian and others dystopian but usually they are already well-established societies with readers meeting them mature and functional. But what about a culture being born? How do you teach a specific culture to a population? What about the people that don’t fit in? These are a few of the questions that nagged at me as I wrote Vulcan’s Forge.

In the backstory, near the end of the 21st century a rogue brown dwarf barreled through the solar system disrupting the planets and destroying the Earth. With decades of warning humanity launched thousands of automated arks loaded with human eggs and sperm, replicating technologies, and artificial intelligences. Advanced automation, the vast resources of the solar system, and artificial intelligences made producing individual arks so affordable so that even sub-cultures could construct their own in hopes of persevering their unique value. The net results were thousands of colonies spanning the vast complexity of human cultures, including somewhere a planet devoted to perpetuating Texas. Propelled by light-sails these arks dispersed through the local stellar neighborhood and a few found habitable planets. The onboard computer intelligences established colonies and with artificial wombs they raised the first generation of colonists — humans who had never have known Earth.

Jason Kessler lives in a colony dedicated to a mythologized view of mid-twentieth century urban Americana. Charged with helping establish this culture Jason, a third-generation colonist, carefully screens curated mass media to create a stolid society morally guided by Doris Day, John Wayne, and Mickey Mouse. However, he is far from ready to settle down to the life of a respectable family man. When Pamela Guest, sensual and mysterious, sweeps into his theater offering him a life free of suffocating societal expectations he leaps at the chance and lands amid corruption, crime, and a conspiracy beyond his petty concerns.

One of the central questions that emerged from writing Vulcans Forge was what does an individual owe their society and what does society owe them in return? To me this strikes at the very heart of what it means to be human. We are individuals with compelling drives to be our own persons and yet simultaneously we are also highly social animals fighting for in-group status. Jason’s desire to live as he wants, forsaking a ‘family life,’ whatever that may mean, is understandable but life isn’t just about selfish wants it’s about ‘us’ as well. One the other hand a culture that demands total obedience and compliance is despotism even if they are operating on a misguided belief that they are serving some greater good.

Vulcan’s Forge forced me out of my writing comfort zone. Noir is a deeply cynical genre; it is base drives that compel its characters. What ‘good’ characters may exist in these stories are often sidelined or ineffectual. None of my earlier novel length fiction embraced such a worldview and I seriously doubted my ability to sustain it. Following Jason as he made mistakes, as temptation overpowered his judgment, and he discovered truths about himself and his world challenged me but I firmly believe that outside of our comfort zone is where creation waits. That’s not to say I didn’t have fun writing this novel. I played games with myself burying references to favorite movies in the narrative. I wrote it ignoring trends and markets. It is a love letter to the shadowed world of film noir and a reminder that even among the stars we will remain our own worst enemy.

—-

Vulcan’s Forge: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Mysterious Galaxy|Powell’s

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

 

RIP, WIlliam Dufris

William Dufris was a voice actor known for a number of high profile roles, the most famous being “Bob the Builder” from the children’s television show of the same name. More relevantly for me, he was the narrator of five of the audiobooks in the Old Man’s War series (excepting Zoe’s Tale, which was narrated by Tavia Gilbert, who also co-narrated The End of All Things with Dufris). In the last couple of days he passed on from cancer, and I have to say I’m in a bit of shock about it. He did such a good job with the books that the voice I hear coming out of John Perry and Harry Wilson is no longer my own but his.

He will be missed by many, and also by me. RIP, sir.

Nothing But Blue Sky

So, here’s a thing I never expected to see again in my lifetime: A sky entirely devoid of contrails, and the planes that make them. This is a 360-degree “photosphere” panorama from my yard, so the entire sky is here, and not altered from the photo that came out of my camera (I did photoshop the yard, since Athena was in it and she didn’t want to be in the final photo). Minus the curving streaks from the sun that are an artifact of the camera lens, there’s nothing but blue sky.

There’s only one other time in my life I’ve seen a sky like this, and it was in similarly extraordinary circumstances. And just like that time, I am amazed to see the sky of my ancestors. I genuinely never thought it would come around again.

The Big Idea: Ilana C. Myer

Where some people end their books is where Ilana C. Myer, in her new novel The Poet King, begins hers. Why does she do it that way? She’s here to explain.

ILANA C. MYER:

Power is something we talk about a lot in fantasy—from rings of power to the One Power to the sword that makes a farmboy a king.

I wrote my first book, Last Song Before Night, intrigued by the idea in Celtic myth of poets wielding magical and political power. Through the eyes of multiple poets, I explored the tension between art and political gain. The path to success for a poet, in that milieu, was by using art to ingratiate himself with authority. And what did that mean for his art?

As the enchantments arise, so do new challenges. The second book, Fire Dance, explores the consequences of accessing enchanted power, on an expanded geopolitical landscape that introduces elements of Middle Eastern magic, Spanish flamenco, and more.

Finally, the last of the series tackles another fantasy preoccupation: The role of a king.

Many fantasies revolve around putting the rightful king on the throne as an end goal. Right at the start of The Poet King, that goal has been realized: A brilliant, charismatic poet has brought about the downfall of a weak king and taken the throne. He promises to bring the realm to heights of glory never before achieved, combining the enchantments of poets with the authority of the crown.

That is, however, the beginning of the story.

As a book where the enchantments of poets come at last to full fruition, at their most fierce, elemental, and dangerous, The Poet King required that I return to the original sources that first inspired the series. In order to write the end, I had to go back to the beginning. There is no roadmap for researching a novel, no syllabus assigned; there is only following one’s instinct. Mine took me to unexpected places. I went as far back as I could in time, to tales so strange to modern ears that even in translation they are nearly opaque. But the enchantment imbued between the lines needs no translation.

Readers will recognize some of the inspirations without difficulty: Arthurian literature, with its roots in Celtic myth, turned out to be indispensable as a source. And then there were other stories, wilder, that perhaps won’t be recognized by most but lent a hand in their own way. An accidentally well-timed trip to Ireland was useful as well, in particular for capturing the atmosphere of Academy Isle in winter. All these roads intersected to lead me to the story I wanted to tell about art, power, and the magnificent king who seems to flawlessly combine the two.

It may sound obvious to say that power comes at a cost, but that hasn’t always been the case in fantasy. Fantasy that relies on flashing wands like laser guns often doesn’t deliver a sense of awe for the forces that are being tapped. As someone who sees magic as analogous to the mysteries of our world, I believe a sense of awe is warranted. I also believe that power should function in fantasy much as it does in our world: Someone will always pay the price.

For me, literature is about the human heart or nothing at all. And there is nothing like a test of character for showing us who people really are.

Coming face to face with what we’re capable of—and what we choose to do about it—is the most meaningful use of enchantment I’ve found.

—-

The Poet King: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

CoNZealand Goes Virtual

This year’s Worldcon is going virtual, because we’re currently living in a global pandemic, and despite what some clueless politicians might say, we’re not going to be out of the proverbial woods by Easter. Moreover, the nation of New Zealand is currently under a stage four lockdown and will be for several weeks, which I imagine makes it very difficult for the Worldcon planners in country to do much of their work. Finally, who knows when international travel will be unfucked. Add it all up, and not only is going virtual this year the best and most responsible choice, essentially it’s the only choice, short of calling off the Worldcon entirely.

For the record, I fully support and endorse the online version of CoNZealand; I plan to attend and, if they want me, will participate in the programming as well. We’re currently in a world that calls for flexibility and imagination in order for people to get together as individuals and communities, and the science fiction and fantasy fandom is one of my communities. This is how our tribe comes together this year, and I want to be part of it. I’m sad I don’t get to do it in the physical New Zealand this year — it’s always been one of my travel goals — but that just means we can visit some other time. This works for me in the interim.

If you were planning or even thinking about going to CoNZealand, I hope you’ll support and attend this version; it will work if we want it to, and show up. I’ll be there. I hope I’ll see you there, too.

News Books and ARCs, 3/24/20

I’ve got two — yes! two! — new book stacks for you this week, to catch up from when I was away earlier in the month. And this is the first one! What here in this group is calling to you? The comments are waiting for your input.

The Big Idea: Christopher Swiedler

What kind of book is In The Red? As author Christopher Swiedler relates, this seemingly simple question turned out to have a more complex answer than one might assume.

CHRISTOPHER SWIEDLER:

Many years ago, an instructor in a writing workshop asked me whether my sci-fi novel In the Red was for middle grade or young adult readers. My answer was a blank stare, so she helpfully explained the difference. In young adult sci-fi and fantasy, the world can’t be trusted. Darkness and evil are omnipresent. Protagonists fight against the scary things, but even when they win, the balance doesn’t really shift.

I nodded. I’d seen these sorts of books, and they weren’t my thing.

On the other hand, she went on, readers of around eight to twelve years old are optimistic. They still want to believe that the world is good. In middle grade stories, evil, suffering, and conflict are aberrations that can be overcome. Characters know that when they grow up they will be part of a decent, honest, and fair society.

My ears perked up. Optimism about the future? A world that’s positive and trustworthy? I felt an instant connection. This was what I was writing.

My own love story with science fiction began when someone gave me an anthology of Robert Heinlein stories for my twelfth birthday. I quickly devoured Space Cadet, Podkayne of Mars, and every other Heinlein book that I could find. His juvenile novels were written decades before the term “middle grade” was coined, but everything about them fit perfectly into the genre. The stories all had plenty of conflict and danger, but the basic structure of society was always trustworthy. Younger characters had competent, positive role models to look up to. And most of all, the worlds were places that the reader wanted to be.

I explained to the class how In the Red is about a boy named Michael who lives in a domed city on Mars. He wants to join the planetary Rescue Service like his father and spend all his time out on the surface. That’s a little complicated, though, since putting on an environment suit tends to trigger a claustrophobic panic attack that’s bad enough to make him puke and pass out. His doctor has diagnosed him with environment suit anxiety disorder and his parents have forbidden him from going outside the dome, all of which makes him feel like a complete failure. In an effort to prove to them that they’re wrong, he and his best friend Lilith ‘borrow’ a rover and drive all night to his dad’s research station. They have a good shot at it, too—until a massive solar flare knocks out the planet’s artificial magnetic field and all of its navigation and communication satellites, leaving them stranded out in the middle of nowhere with a beautiful-but-lethal sun just about to rise.

The world of In the Red is tough and dangerous, but it’s not evil. Adults are trustworthy. Problems can be solved with ingenuity and courage. I’d been writing a middle grade novel without even realizing it.

“So it’s not a dystopia?” someone in the class asked.

“Actually,” I said, “I guess it’s kind of the opposite.”

This was the height of the YA dystopia craze, and I could see the disbelief on everyone’s faces. I just shrugged. I wouldn’t describe the world of In the Red as a utopia, but Mars in the twenty-second century is definitely a place that I wish I could have grown up. Domed cities? One-third gravity? Playing with friends, going to school, and living a normal life under a butterscotch sky? Sign me up!

“Is it science fiction like Star Wars?” another writer asked. “Or the ‘hard’ kind?”

This was a much easier question than whether the book is YA or MG. I’ll take a well-written space opera, but my bread and butter is the scientific accuracy of hard sci-fi. Long before a teacher got around to explaining Newton’s laws, Isaac Asimov taught me the principle of “equal and opposite reaction” in Marooned Off Vesta, where the characters melt a hole in a ship’s water tank to use as emergency propulsion. Similarly, the spinning alien spacecraft of Arthur C. Clarke’s Rendezvous With Rama helped me understand how centripetal acceleration works to simulate gravity. These stories gave me a love of science and engineering. I grew up wanting to emulate their logical, intelligent, and scientifically-minded protagonists.

In the Red has its share of futuristic magic bits, like an artificial planetary magnetic field that protects colonists from solar radiation. But I’ve done my best to be accurate about chemistry and physics. The characters use real scientific principles (and a big helping of courage) to escape their predicaments. Michael and Lilith manage to send radio signals over the horizon, plot ballistic trajectories, and navigate on Mars during a dust storm that blocks out the sky. And in my personal favorite bit, a timely application of Boyle’s pressure-volume law is instrumental in helping them escape a rapidly-flooding underground tunnel.

“It’s definitely the hard kind,” I told the class.

The skepticism was palpable. An optimistic-future, hard-science fiction book for middle grade readers? Exactly, I wanted to say. But it’s not as if I’m inventing anything. A half-century ago, Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, and Arthur C. Clarke did all this and more. I’m just following in their footsteps.

Young readers today are living in a radically different environment than the post-war world of sci-fi’s Golden Age. Instead of nuclear war, we now have global pandemics and the threat of climate change. Instead of MULTIVAC, we have computers in our pockets. But hope is just as essential now as it was during the Cold War. If we can’t imagine how our society will get better, then why bother working toward it? If we can’t dream of growing up on Mars, then what chance do we have of ever getting there?

The world that our kids will face as adults is literally the stuff of speculative fiction. They will encounter challenges that we can only dream of. Some young person living today will be the first human to set foot on Mars. Imagination and optimism aren’t enough to get us there—but they’re a good start.

—-

In The Red: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

Advice to Myself (and Others) About The Great Pause

Dear creative folks (and the people who love and/or buy their work):

Like many of you, I am looking at our current situation — which it seems were are moving toward calling The Great Pause — and wondering what this means, both in the long and short terms, for our careers and livelihoods. This is a perfectly reasonable concern! We should be having it! Because otherwise we will have to go back to actual jobs, which to be clear, are also kind of up in the air during The Great Pause. The Great Pause is like that.

The actual answer to what The Great Pause means for creatives is: Nobody knows. Because at the moment no one knows anything, except that staying at home and washing your hands so as not to overwhelm the medical system is a really excellent idea. Nevertheless, I have been thinking about the current moment a lot. Given where we are at the moment and where it seems reasonable (to me) to project where we are going, I have formulated a plan for myself, regarding expectations for the immediate future, and for the slightly longer term. I will share them with you now. Hopefully you find these points useful.

1. I’m grading 2020 on one hell of a curve. 

As many of you know, I have a new book, The Last Emperox, coming out in (checks watch) three weeks. It’s a very good book! With great reviews! And it’s the conclusion of an award-winning, best-selling series! With popular characters that people like! Which is in development for TV! If any book is positioned to do pretty well, it would be this one.

And it might! Still! Also, people are now shut up in their homes and away from their jobs, if they still have them, which rather suddenly a lot of people do not. My book tour, which is the way I usually promote my new work, has been cancelled because it’s not safe for me or my readers to meet up right now. Bookstores are still out there but a lot of them are closed for the duration. The economy is crashing and people are prioritizing where their money goes. And so, while a good book is in fact a really excellent way for people to pass time whilst in self-isolation, I understand that people, and this is an understatement, have a lot on their minds right about now. It’s possible that getting my book when it comes out may not be the same priority that it might have been even a month ago.

Nor am I the only author or creative in this position — a lot of us have work scheduled for release this year that now we’re looking at and wondering whether the audience will be there for it. Authors and musicians, at least, can get their work out; people who work in film, television or theater (as examples) are finding their work delayed, postponed or even dropped outright. It’s a mess, and it’s a mess that none of us have control over.

I want The Last Emperox to be a financial success out of the gate — I want people to find it and read it and love it. I also realize that, more than in any other year, that success is so very not up to me anymore. If the book doesn’t do what I hoped it would do in terms of sales, my official response is going to be to throw my hands up in the air and say, “It was 2020, baby.” And then watch every single creative I know nod and get a rueful look on their face. Because, man, 2020. You remember how that was. And if, in fact, Emperox does do just fine — and it might! Still! — then I’m going to be especially happy. Because, man, 2020.

So, yeah, creative folks: Don’t beat yourself up this year about how your work does, or doesn’t, do. This is nothing we could have figured into our plans. Do what you can to let people know your work is there, and be happy for the people who find it. But this year is not like other years. Be kind to yourself (and your work) when you think about it.

2. It’s going to take time to get to somewhere like we were before. 

Probably. Maybe we’ll get lucky and flatten that curve and navigate the economic fallout and come out of this all in six months not really worse for wear, and go back to something close to where we were in January. But, you know, I wouldn’t plan for that. I would plan for us dealing with this for the entire rest of the year and then spending a few years with the fallout, retrenching and then rebuilding. I’m assuming a recession of 2008 proportions.

Nor do I think we’ll get back exactly to where we were before — things are going to change and the models of how we sell and distribute and share things will likely be something other than what they are now. Mind you, “things will change and be different” is a statement that was going to be accurate anyway; a decade ago the landscape of my book sales was very different than it is now. Audiobooks came up, Borders bookstores went down, and there was a big fight over what the cost of an ebook should be. What I mean here is that the changes now are likely to come faster, because the economic situation we’re in is going to be that much more volatile. What’s going to come out of it will be good for some, less good for others, and who will be in those respective camps, we don’t yet know.

But no matter what, I’ll be working on the assumption that for the next couple of years, at least, people will be digging out from the economic mess of 2020. That’s going to affect the new books that I have coming out in the next couple of years — and also my backlist, which is my true economic engine. I expect my publisher (Tor in the US/Canada, but others elsewhere) are going to make adjustments to deal with this new era. Same with Audible, who handles my audiobooks. I think I’m going to be fine, but I also am, shall we say, tempering financial expectations for the next couple of years, which is going to have an influence on my how I plan for my life in that period. Which means, among other things —

3. Time for a thorough vetting of expenses.

I’ve always considered myself a thrifty sort of person who has an eye on the bottom line of things, and who doesn’t live extravagantly, given his income. However, having just looked over our taxes for the year prior to handing them over to our accountant, I can say that the variance between my self-image and my actual expenditures is… wider than perhaps it should be, let me put it that way. So this enforced downtime at the Scalzi Compound will not go idly by; one of my tasks for the next couple of weeks is to go through our finances and to do a triage of things we need, things we don’t need but are still willing to pay for, and things that it’s time to drop entirely.

Among those things in the latter category: Recurring online subscriptions, which as it turns out really pile up when you’re not paying attention. I currently subscribe to four separate music services, for example, which is, uhhhh, probably at least two too many. There are other services which I will have to give hard consideration about their usefulness in this era: We have Dish Network but watch streaming services rather more, so the question becomes whether to ditch Dish or at the very least cut back on the package, which features probably 280 more channels than we ever actually watch.

Other things: Last year’s biggest expenditure by far was travel. 2020 has cut into that considerably in any event by making us all stay at home for a currently indefinite period. Even after that stay is lifted we plan on keeping closer to home for the next couple of years. My MINI is ten years old next year so I’ve been thinking about whether it was time to move on from it; now I think I’ll keep it going for a while longer. I’ve been planning to make a music studio in my basement; in the short term I’ll work on getting better on the guitar I already have.

I don’t have any intention of withdrawing from the economy entirely. I will still buy and subscribe to things. But inasmuch as I do expect things to be economically variable the next couple of years at least, it makes sense to do an audit of what I (and we) spend and to bring those expenditures to a sensible level.

With that said:

4. Also time to support creatives and local businesses (more than I already am).

At least some of the savings from above will be going into the pockets of the creative people whose work I admire, and the local business that are feeling the pinch from this slow-down. In both cases, these groups are getting hit hard by this moment, and can use support. In the latter case in particular, if I don’t support them now, they might not be around to support later, and there’s no guarantee anything will spring up to replace them.

I want to be clear that on some level, as someone who grew up poor, and as someone who (factually or otherwise) sees himself as prudent with money, my initial impulse to current events is to listen to the not-so-little voice in my head which is incessantly screaming HOARD ALL THE MONIES FOR VERILY THESE ARE THE END TIMES. I’m gonna hoard some of it. But honestly, if I won’t support my local business, and the creatives whose work I like, a) who will, b) how can I expect anyone to support me and my work? And in any event, putting money into nearby businesses is an investment in the local economy, and my neighbors. Putting money into creatives means maybe I’ll get more stuff from them in the future. Again, an investment. It makes sense.

5. Try different things.

When the global economic collapse of 2008 hit, I was on, shall we say, a pause from publishing novels, out of contract and not actively pursuing one. Zoe’s Tale was published in 2008, and it wasn’t until 2011 that Fuzzy Nation came out. In the meantime, I: Wrote a novel for fun, with no immediate intention of selling it (Fuzzy); wrote a novella that was not representative of my previous work (The God Engines); edited and contributed to a shared world anthology (Metatropolis); and worked as a creative consultant on a television series (Stargate Universe). I also worked on a video game during this time, which never came out, but which was fun to be a part of. Of all of these things, the only thing I had done before was the novel-writing. Everything else was new and worth trying, one, to see if I had any facility for it, and two, to see if I could make any money from it.

I’m in a different place here in 2020 than I was in 2008 (I have a long-term contract, for one), but during this time I’m still going to try some new and different things, both to find out if I might be good at them, and also (although a lower priority, for now) to see if I might be able to make money from them. As I noted earlier, things won’t go back to exactly the way they were before, so it makes sense to me to be using this time to look at other things and see what I think of them. They could pan out! Even if they don’t, I’ll have learned things, not least about myself. It won’t be wasted time.

6. Don’t panic.

Right now is not a great time — we’re all isolated, afraid of getting sick with something that can really mess us up, worried about our financial futures and careers. Immediately after this time is not likely to be a great time, either; we’ll be digging out. I think it’s totally valid to be upset, and angry, and afraid, and bored and all those other not great things. Pretending not to be those things will often make them worse to deal with later. It’s useful to acknowledge all of these things that many if not most of us are feeling, and will continue feeling in the immediate future.

I do think there’s a difference between feeling all these things, and even feeling anxiety about them, and panicking about them. Mind you, it’s easy to say “don’t panic,” however, and harder to do, especially if there are accompanying personal life and/or mental health issues that are overlaying everything else that’s going on now. I am a huge supporter of addressing mental and personal issues, through therapy or medication or both. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, ask for help, however you can and in whatever way is best for you.

For me, however, the reason I’ve been thinking about all this stuff is so that I can put structure to it, and plan, and prepare mentally and financially for what I think is likely to happen next, without undue panic. That’s useful to me, and I think it’ll be useful for other people too. Maybe also you. This won’t be forever, and when we’re coming out of it, the planning and preparing we do now will help. This has been my experience so far. I think it’ll help in the future as well.

JoCo Cruise Concert Photos 2020

Each year I go on the JoCo Cruise I post up photos I take at the concerts I go to (or, at least, the ones I bring a camera for). This year’s collection is now up on Flickr, and you can look at it here. If you’re a Seamonkey, then you’ll know what I mean when I mention that the photos cover the opening Gold Team, and final Red and Gold Team, concerts. Everyone else: The album covers three separate concerts. I went heavy on black and white this year, but I like the results. I hope you do, too.

New Books and ARCs, 3/20/20

Seems like now is a fine time to return to one of the favorite features of Whatever — and accounting of the new books and ARCs that have come to Scalzi Compound! What here is calling to you this weekend? Tell us all in the comments.

After the Pandemic

Illustration by Mark Pernice

The folks over at the Washington Post have put together a piece on how the world will change after this pandemic — not in the huge ways, but in the smaller, day-to-day ways — and they asked me to write something for it. I did a piece on personal greetings, because, as it happens, it was a matter of some discussion on the cruise I just came back from. My piece, and the whole package, is here for your reading. Enjoy.

The Big Idea: Eeleen Lee

Travel delays are rarely the raw material for novels, but as Eeleen Lee found out, sometimes a little time — and a new obsession — can lead to inspiration, and eventually a novel, in this case, Liquid Crystal Nightingale.

EELEEN LEE:

In late 2005 I was stuck in transit at Charles de Gaulle airport, and to pass the time I bought a notebook and made myself do a few writing exercises.

“Write what you know” goes the clichéd advice. I had just begun collecting rocks and minerals as a hobby and was eager to use this new knowledge. As the novel took shape over the next several years it deviated from the original plan: I had envisioned a collection of science fiction short stories, in the style of Primo Levi’s The Periodic Table. Each chapter was to be inspired by a mineral or some aspect of gemmology.

The second story I drafted was about a city called Chatoyance. It looked like a giant cat’s eye when seen from space, and this trait was inspired by the interplay of bands of reflected light on the surface of certain minerals such as tiger’s-eye.

In collecting specimens I also collected myths, superstitions, and legends. Diamonds are a girl’s best friend and allegedly, they’re forever. The ancient Chinese believed when a tiger died its soul entered the ground and became amber. Opals are the captured interplay of fire and oil on water, according to Pliny the Elder. Diamond and opal are the birthstones for April and October, respectively.

Out of all this extensive lore and romance a universal recognition of eternity emerges, albeit bookended by birth and death. Gems⁠—and humans⁠— are shaped by and subject to the forces of time.

What is associated with power, magic and romance, is unfortunately also connected with ongoing exploitation, corruption, and the plundering of riches. In a few surreal instances, when my hobby transmuted into obsession, it has granted me unexpected glimpses into corridors of power, if not movement within them. It is supremely disconcerting to view scintillating jewelry pieces up for auction in a hotel ballroom, surrounded by traders and VIPs, and the next minute read about the latest embargo on conflict stones on your phone. These experiences inspired the creation of the wealthy Tier Dwellers in my novel.

Gemstones also remind us that we live in a universe subject to extreme forces of nature. To extract treasure from the rocky layers beneath our feet, is to enter the realm of various chthonic deities, and tempt fate. The mining company in my novel does not respect such forces. Which is why the asteroid miners in my novel conduct rituals and name their children after rocks and minerals as a form of appeasement. But the miners pay for their employer’s hubris when tragedy strikes.

I also highly recommend a visit to the Earth Gallery of the Natural History Museum in London or to the Smithsonian in Washington, DC. The most striking exhibits are the ammonites and amber specimens. The amber evokes raw honey with its trapped insects, grit, and pollen, and the ammonites are timeless and self-contained in their Fibonacci-sequenced spirals. Gemstones are also artefacts, bringing us into contact with our past and the planet’s deep past.

A writer working in a certain genre is all too aware of its past. The dazzle of preceding works is so bright as to outshine but she sets herself a Sisyphean task to improve on or at least match these past glories. The major sci-fi films hanging over my novel are 2001, Solaris, and Alien but I tried to avoid any throwbacks to my favourites. The goal was to throw-forward as far as possible: via an invented martial art, a sprawling yet claustrophobic urbanscape, and new spins on the science fiction staples of cybernetic implants, forcefields and guns.

In a genre that tends to feature action and explosions, I was seeking to reintroduce a sense of quiet, or disquiet, and a plot that prompts audiences to absorb its implications rather than merely following it. But there’s still action and explosions because it would be strange to not include these in a space opera. It’s all part of the experience and immersion. In gemmology you immerse your eyes and hopefully, in reading you immerse all of yourself.

—-

Liquid Crystal Nightingale: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

Till the Heart Caves In: An LP-length Mixtape Playlist

I felt like making a mixtape today! Which I did, and it turned out exactly as long as an LP, with five songs on each side. Here it is, in YouTube video form. I also have it on Spotify, here.

SIDE ONE

SIDE TWO

The Big Idea: S.A. Jones

It’s not every day that your book is the debut novel for an entire publishing line, but S.A. Jones has that honor with The Fortress, which is the first release from Erewhon Books. It’s a big responsibility, but as you’ll see below, Jones has a big idea to match.

S.A. JONES:

I began writing The Fortress when I was twelve, although I didn’t know it then. At the time I was a competitive swimmer and had the occasional dream of Olympic glory. But I also wanted to be Prime Minister of Australia and David Attenborough, so I was keeping my options open.

Along with four others in my swim squad, all boys, I had achieved the qualifying time to try out for the state team. This meant travelling from our tiny island in the Buccanneer Archipelago in Western Australia to the “big smoke” of Port Hedland in the Pilbara region.

Being four boys and me in the 80s, our squad was called “SJ and the Meaner Machine,” after the formidable Australian freestyle relay team “The Mean Machine.” My initials are “SJ.” We had shirts made up and everything.

We were chaperoned by the coach and his wife and billeted with a family in Port Hedland. A roster of chores was drawn up for us five kids while we were there. This was a sensible thing to do given we ate constantly and created mountains of chlorinated washing.

When it was Jeffrey’s turn to do the dishes, he refused. This put my coach and his wife in an awkward position, because Jeffrey was their son. His parents insisted.

Jeffrey refused and began to glow red around the ears. This was a warning sign we were all familiar with. Jeffrey’s tantrums were epic: a loud, kinetic spectacle that he claimed to have no memory of afterwards.

The embarrassment in the room at Jeffrey’s refusal became a palpable thing, another presence.

As the redness spread from Jeffrey’s ears to his temples and a high pitched whine began to escape his mouth, Jeffrey’s mother announced that I would do his dishes.

His dishes. As well as the dishes I was rostered to do.

“That’s not fair,” I pointed out.

But the desire to avert a scene was stronger than the inclination for fairness, and my protests fell on deaf ears.

As I stood by the sink doing Jeffrey’s dishes, my face burning with humiliation, Jeffrey smirked at me from the doorway.

For the few days we were billeted there, I had to do all Jeffrey’s chores as well as my own.

As injustices go it was trifling. It probably doesn’t even rank in the top ten most sexist experiences of my life. What is significant is that during those few days my consciousness of girlhood, and what that means in relation to boyhood, was born. Even setting aside the gross error of judgement in releasing Jeffrey from his chores, there were three other kids in that team that could have shared the load. But they were boys.

Housework was girl work. I was the girl. The SJ in the Meaner Machine.

I’ve given a lot of thought to what it is to be a girl. In some ways, Jeffrey has always been smirking at me from the doorway of that kitchen.

I’ve read wonderful, powerful books about the female experience. Kate Grenville’s Lilian’s Story. Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. Charlotte Wood’s The Natural Way of Things.

But where was the book about Jeffrey? About what happens to a boy who learns early in life that the world will bend his way. Who is not taught to discipline his emotions and appetites. Who expects that handmaids will clean up when he won’t.

And more importantly, what does it take for this man to change?

The Fortress is my answer to that question.

What is evident is that empathy is not enough. If it were, we would have no difficulty entering into the reality of other people’s lives and changing ourselves to better their reality. Fathers would discard sexist expectations as they raise daughters. White women would unpack their colonialism as they understand how it distorts the lives of their friends of color.

Clearly, some people do work from empathy to change.

But if empathy were sufficient in itself, our world would not look like it does. That is why The Fortress is so carnal. I could have told this story while being coy about the sexual elements in the way of “serious” literature. But I want the reader to be physically discomfited. The aroused and feeling weird about it reader is the reader I want. The reader I designed.

The Fortress is supposed to get under the skin because imagination – the gateway to empathy – isn’t enough. Change is not an intellectual exercise. It is gritty, visceral and awkwardly physical. Like shame (which often pre-empts change), it happens in the body.

—-

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

Visit the author’s site.

Great Scott

I noted this on Twitter yesterday but it bears a retelling and an archiving here: The folks at Jay and Mary’s Book Center, my local bookstore, knew that I and my family were away on a cruise the week that the coronavirus started to bite down hard, and people started freaking out and hoarding toilet paper. So out of their own purchases (which I can only assume were moderate and responsible), they saved us this 4-pack. Athena went and picked it up the other day.

As it turned out, we were not in want of toilet paper — we have an ample supply to get through the next two or three week at least — but I very much appreciated the neighborliness the act represented. That sort of simple kindness and consideration of those near us is the thing that’s going to get us through the next couple of months, and may hopefully set a pattern (or reset it) that we can continue on after this.

Also this is a fine reminder that I do sign stock at Jay & Mary’s on a frequent basis, and will be signing The Last Emperox for them when it comes in, so if you don’t have a local bookstore you already support, and you feel like splashing out a little extra in shipping in order for me to scribble in your book, you can give them a call and they will be happy to help you out.

The Big Idea: TJ Klune

In the writing of The House in the Cerulean Sea, author TJ Klune looked a little history north of our border — and current events right here in the US — to inform his world of magic, and bureaucrats who seemingly trudge through it.

TJ KLUNE:

When an author gets an idea in their head—one with legs that isn’t just a fleeting thought—it tends to worm its way into our brains and won’t leave us alone until we either write it down or kill it with fire.

Before I started The House in the Cerulean Sea, I had the pieces of an idea, these little shards that didn’t quite come together into a clear picture. It had to do with magical people dealing with fear and discrimination. Specifically, it would involve magical children, those who should have been protected at all costs, but instead were shunned for simply existing at all.

It helped (maddeningly so) that I could already hear the main character’s voice in my head, a fussy fellow named Linus, who was a stickler for the rules. He would be a caseworker in an Orwellian world, where the government sees all, knows all, and controls everything. Linus would work for said government with the bureaucratically gloomy name of The Department in Charge of Magical Youth (DICOMY), a drone who did as he was told because it was expected of him. And he’d be queer, because that’s what I write: queer people from all walks of life.

The pieces were there, but the picture was still fuzzy.

It remained fuzzy until I stumbled across the Sixties Scoop, something I’d never heard of before, something I’d never been taught in school (I’m American, by the way). In Canada, beginning in the 1950s and continuing through the 1980s, indigenous children were taken from their homes and families and placed into government-sanctioned facilities, such as residential schools. The goal was for primarily white, middle-class families across Canada, the US, and even Europe—to adopt these children. It’s estimated that over 20,000 indigenous children were taken, and it wasn’t until 2017 that the families of those affected reached a financial settlement with the Canadian government totaling over eight hundred million dollars.

I researched more, and discovered instances the world over, in my own country and abroad, of the same thing happening: families being separated because they were different, because of the color of their skin, because of their faith, because those in power were scared of them. I wrote The House in the Cerulean Sea in the spring of 2018, months later, in the summer, news exploded from our southern border about families searching for a better life being separated and put into government-sanctioned facilities.

History, as it does with terrifying consistency, was repeating itself once again.

Let me be up front about something: I’m a white dude. There really isn’t much I should be preaching about. I’m queer, and a loud one at that, but the marginalization I’ve faced because of this isn’t to be compared to others facing bigotry. It’s not a contest. It sucks across the board, but I’m a mid-thirties cis man in America. I’m privileged in ways others are not. I know this, so when I wrote Cerulean, I knew I had to do so carefully, to make sure that what I’d decided on to be the central theme of the story wouldn’t be lost.

That central theme?

Kindness.

Look, I get how that sounds. I’m sure more than a few of you reading this rolled your eyes at the word. It’s trite, isn’t it? Sure it is. But stick with me for a moment.

As I write this, it’s 2020, and we’re so divided, I don’t know how we’ll recover from it. Those in power fling insults as easily as they breathe. People take to the streets in masks and hoods, spreading their hate as if it were gospel. We’re all so angry almost every second of every day, and we have a right to be. We should be angry. The world is on fire. The news grows more dire with each new breaking broadcast. People are hurt—or worse, killed—because of who they love, what they believe, or the color of their skin. We’ve lost our way, and I worry that this has become our new normal.

I can only do what I think I do best: write. And so I began writing The House in the Cerulean Sea, imagining a world not so different from our own, where people who are different than the majority are controlled by those in power. The smallest of us—the children—are taken from their homes and placed into euphemistically named orphanages, overseen by caseworkers in DICOMY. Linus is sent on a top-secret assignment to investigate a special orphanage, one hidden away, housing what the world considers to be the most dangerous of children.

What he finds there changes him. How exactly, you’ll have to read for yourself, but I never strayed away from kindness as a theme. It was—and still is—important to me. To offer a hand in compassion rather than a fist raised in anger seems like it should be common sense, but many appear to have forgotten that. We, like Linus discovers, need to use our voices for those who can’t speak for themselves, those who should be allowed to be small in this great, wide world. But sometimes we also need to shut up and listen to those small voices, because if we don’t, we run the risk of drowning them out.

We are better than what we currently seem to be. I know we are. And I don’t believe it’s too late for us to course correct. It’s going to take time, and a hell of a lot of hard work, but we’re capable of it. The House in the Cerulean Sea is my great wish into the universe, a fable about the goodness in us all, if only we can believe in it. Hope is a weapon, kindness our battle cry. As long as we stand together, I know we’ll shape this place we call home into something we can all be proud of.

—-

The House in the Cerulean Sea: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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