What’s the Ethical Use of AI-Generated Art?

John Scalzi

First: The above bit of whimsy, generated by Midjourney from the prompt “A peppermint kaiju in a gingerbread city.”

Second, some thoughts about AI-generated art I’ve had recently, which I posted on my personal Facebook account but am reposting here to open up the discussion a bit. I wrote:


I have fun playing with AI-generated art, and also, as someone who has numerous artist friends, I have qualms and concerns about how their pre-existing art is used for “training” in a way that is both qualitatively and quantitively different from human learning, and how that use impacts artist livelihoods. More specifically with regard to the latter, the question is how does what I do with AI art have an impact on real live artists.

It’s easy to say here “there are no easy answers” but for me there are in fact a couple of easy-ish answers in how I might approach and use AI-generated art in my personal and professional life. They are:

1. I feel it’s all right to use AI-generated art for personal enjoyment and visual inspiration, or to use it in a place where I might use my own art/photos or Creative Commons-licensed art/photos, and where there is no intent to make money from the art, or from what it accompanies (like social media or blog posts).

2. In all other circumstances, and especially when there’s a commercial intent or application, or when I would otherwise hire an artist, I will seek out artists and commission art from them. Likewise, tell art directors/others that my work for them needs to be illustrated/marketed by art from artists, not AI generation (I don’t think I will have to tell them this, not the least because of copyright issues surround AI-generated art, but still).

As a small example: Although I’ve been having a ball generating holiday-related pictures with AI, when it comes to holiday cards, I’ll be commissioning art (or using my own photos) because that’s a time when I would hire an artist or use my own photos. As a larger example, it’s possible in the nearish future I’ll need to collaborate with artists for projects, and there’s no question, for legal, practical and ethical reasons, that AI-generated art is not the way to go for that.

The short version is: Hire artists, and make an intentional, affirmative choice to hire artists (also, pay artists fairly for their work, not just because I can afford it but because also that should just be the baseline assumption).

I think AI art generation is fun. I also think it requires recognition on my part that these images don’t come from nowhere. Sooner or later, they come from artists. I don’t want my fun to hurt the artists I know, or the ones I don’t.

Thoughts?

— JS

The Big Idea: Kayleigh Nicol

It’s no surprise that today’s generation of authors might also be gamers… but the influence of gaming on their writing may be more substantial that you might suspect. Kayleigh Nicol, who co-wrote Crystal Awakening with Andrew Rowe, speaks to this integration of writing and gaming, and how the latter informed the former with this novel.

KAYLEIGH NICOL:

Before I introduce the Big Idea behind my latest novel Crystal Awakening, I’d like to take this opportunity to introduce myself. Up until now, I’ve been an indie author, writing and publishing my own fantasy novels on Amazon. I’ve been an avid reader from the day I could first hold a book, I’m an animal lover, I’ve lived in more than six states across the U.S., and in my free time I love to play video games.

From side-scrolling Mario games on the NES to Pokemon Red, Blue, and Beyond on the handheld Gameboys, and from competitive party games to massive online RPGs, I have always considered myself a gamer. Some games are purely relaxing and help me unwind, some games include social components that make me feel connected to a community, and other games require intense concentration, which helps get me out of my own head for a little while. I even use rhythm games as motivation for exercise and a gamified website as motivation to write every day. For me, video games aren’t just a hobby, they’re a tool I use in my daily life.

So when Andrew Rowe asked if I would be interested in contributing to his fantasy series Arcane Ascension — a series that I so easily envisioned as a video game from the first time I read it — I jumped at the opportunity. Here was an opportunity to combine two of my favorite passions: writing and video games. The soaring spires described in Arcane Ascension are remarkably similar to video game dungeons, not just by way of fighting monsters, but also with the types of puzzles and challenges found in almost any classic RPG.

Andrew’s six-person climber teams reminded me of dungeon raiding parties, with each team member specializing in a unique and necessary role, most commonly tied to the magic marks called “attunements” which are granted after successfully completing a trial called a Judgment. As soon as I received the invitation to join Andrew Rowe’s expanded universe, I knew exactly the type of series I wanted to write: a dungeon-crawling adventure featuring unique magic and a dynamic cast of climbers.

What I struggled with was coming up with believable reasons why six individually intelligent and talented people would willingly subject themselves to the dangers known to exist within Kaldwyn’s soaring spires.

In video games, players hardly need a reason to venture into dark and dangerous places. “Oh, I’m the chosen hero and some princess I’ve never heard of is in danger? Alright, I’m all in!” It’s only a video game, after all. What’s the worst that could happen?

But as I started writing, I realized it wasn’t quite that simple when the dangers were real. What kind of person really wants to go head-to-head against a horde of monsters? Is earning a bit of treasure really worth risking life and limb? What could be worth risking life and limb? When it comes down to it, why does anyone do anything?

Asking myself these questions helped me develop my Big Idea: There is no one “right” or “only” reason for anything. Even if the goal is the same for the whole team, each team member might have different and valid reasons for striving to achieve it.

This may seem obvious to some, but lately I’ve been noticing a disappointing trend in online video game communities that really takes issue with an individual’s “reason” for playing specific games. There’s an elitist mindset that chooses to define “real gamers” as the people who choose to play games on the highest difficulty setting, who play every single storyline through to completion, or who rank consistently among the best on community scoreboards.

Anyone who plays a game just for the story, or doesn’t dedicate tens to hundreds of hours to one game is considered a “casual” player, and can sometimes face online ridicule. I usually see this on Twitter, or other social media platforms, where someone makes an innocent comment like “I’m really enjoying this new game!” and suddenly internet strangers are commenting on the original post that “real” gamers already finished that game ages ago, or that a different game is more challenging and therefore “better,” or that somehow this player isn’t enjoying the game the right way. This elitist mentality makes it difficult to interact with online game communities and, for me, takes away some of my enjoyment of certain games.

And isn’t that the point of video games? To enjoy them? If someone just wants to play a game just to find out the ending to the story, that’s a valid reason to play. If someone finds enjoyment in seeking out every single side quest, every piece of gear, every last Easter egg, then that’s also a valid reason to play. Many games have different elements of enjoyment, attracting different people for different reasons. One person might revel in the player versus player challenges, while another might prefer completing quests in solitary ventures. Another person might play that same game for exciting endgame content and someone else could just be interested in collecting items, completing achievements, or socializing with friends. Some people even play to enjoy a game’s aesthetics, such as graphics, music, and voice-acting. To me, there are no “wrong” reasons to play a video game, so long as the experience is an enjoyable one.

In Crystal Awakening, the team of adventuring spire climbers has one goal: complete the challenges ahead of them and ascend to the next floor. Along the way, they will collect treasures, defeat monsters, and become stronger and more competent in their areas of expertise. But each of these adventurers possess a deeper reason for why they choose to challenge the dangerous and often deadly soaring spires. One climber seeks to repair their family’s reputation while another seeks only the thrill of risk and reward. One adventurer desires to have an ardent wish fulfilled by the continent’s goddess, while another uses the spire to remain hidden from those who would seek them. One team member only wants to remain alongside friends while another sees climbing as little more than an occupation. While their reasons vary, the team’s goal is singularly aligned: Keep climbing, and stay alive.

The spires of Kaldwyn present challenges meant to be surmounted and overcome through magic, strength, preparation, and most importantly, teamwork. But what happens when team members become insistent on what makes a “right” reason to climb? The slightest distraction could mean the death of a teammate, or worse. The Big Idea is looking past their individual reasons for climbing, and instead implement patience, acceptance, and compassion in order to survive the rigorous demands of the spire.

But sometimes even that isn’t quite enough.

In the end, everyone who ascends a soaring spire is a climber, no matter their underlying reason. Just like everyone who plays a game can consider themselves a gamer, regardless of their reason for playing.


Crystal Awakening: AmazonBarnes and Noble,  Indiebound

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

Whatever Holiday Gift Guide 2022, Day Two: Non-Traditionally Published Books

Today is Day Two of the Whatever Holiday Gift Guide 2022, and today the focus is on Non-Traditionally Published Books: Self-published works, electronically-exclusive books, books from micro presses, books released outside the usual environs of the publishing world, and so on. Hey, I put my first novel up on this very Web site years ago and told people to send me a dollar if they liked it. Look where it got me. I hope you find some good stuff today.

Please note that the comment thread today is only for non-traditional authors and editors to post about their books; please do not leave other comments, as they will be snipped out to keep the thread from getting cluttered. Thanks!

Authors/editors: Here’s how to post in this thread. Please follow these directions!

1. Authors and editors of non-traditionally published books only. This includes comics and graphic novels, as well as non-fiction books and audiobooks. If your book has been traditionally published — available in bookstores on a returnable basis — post about your book in the thread that went up yesterday (if you are in doubt, assume you are non-traditionally published and post here). If you are a creator in another form or medium, your thread is coming tomorrow. Don’t post if you are not the author or editor, please.

2. Completed works only. Do not post about works in progress, even if you’re posting them publicly. Remember that this is supposed to be a gift guide, and that these are things meant to be given to other people. Likewise, don’t just promote yourself unless you have something to sell or provide, that others may give as a gift.

3. One post per author. In that post, you can list whatever books of yours you like, but allow me to suggest you focus on your most recent book. Note also that the majority of Whatever’s readership is in the US/Canada, so I suggest focusing on books available in North America. If your book is only available in the UK or some other country, please let people know!

4. Keep your description of your book brief (there will be a lot of posts, I’m guessing) and entertaining. Imagine the person is in front of you as you tell them about your book and is interested but easily distracted.

5. You may include a link to a bookseller if you like by using standard HTML link scripting or URL. Be warned that if you include too many links (typically three or more) your post may get sent to the moderating queue. If this happens, don’t panic: I’ll be going in through the day to release moderated posts. Note that posts will occasionally go into the moderation queue semi-randomly; Don’t panic about that either.

6. As noted above, comment posts that are not from authors/editors promoting their books as specified above will be deleted, in order to keep the comment thread useful for people looking to find interesting books.

Now: Tell us about your book!

Tomorrow (11/30): Other creators (musicians, artists, crafters, etc!)

Whatever Holiday Gift Guide 2022, Day One: Traditionally Published Books

Welcome to the first day of the Whatever Shopping Guide 2022 — Our way of helping you folks learn about cool creative gifts for the holidays, straight from the folks who have created them.

Today’s featured products are traditionally published books (including graphic novels and audiobooks); that is, books put out by publishers who ship books to stores on a returnable basis. In the comment thread below, authors and editors of these books will tell you a little bit about their latest and/or greatest books so that you will be enticed to get that book for yourself or loved ones this holiday season. Because, hey: Books are spectacular gifts. Enjoy your browsing, and we hope you find the perfect book!

Please note that the comment thread today is only for authors and editors to post about their books; please do not leave other comments, as they will be snipped out to keep the thread from getting cluttered. Thanks!

Authors/editors: Here’s how to post in this thread. Please follow these directions!

1. Authors and editors only, books only (including audiobooks). There will be other threads for other stuff, later in the week. Any type of book is fine: Fiction, non-fiction, graphic novels, etc. If you are not the author/editor of the book you’re posting about, don’t post. This is for authors and editors only.

2. For printed books, they must be currently in print (i.e., published before 12/31/2022) and available on a returnable basis at bookstores and at least one of the following three online bookstores: Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Powell’s. This is so people can find your book when they go looking for it. For audiobooks, they must be professionally published (no self-produced, self-published audiobooks) and at least available through Amazon/Audible. If your book isn’t available as described, or if you’re not sure, wait for the shopping guide for non-traditional books, which will go up tomorrow. 

3. One post per author. In that post, you can list whatever books of yours you like (as long as it meets the criteria in point 2), but allow me to suggest you focus on your most recent book. Note also that the majority of Whatever’s readership is in the US/Canada, so I suggest focusing on books currently available in North America (if your book is available only in the UK or elsewhere, please note that).

4. Keep your description of your book brief (there will be a lot of posts, I’m guessing) and entertaining. Imagine the person is in front of you as you tell them about your book and is interested but easily distracted.

5. You may include a link to a bookseller if you like by using standard HTML link scripting or a URL. Be warned that if you include too many links (typically three or more) your post may get sent to the moderating queue. If this happens, don’t panic: I’ll be going in through the day to release moderated posts. Note that posts will occasionally go into the moderation queue semi-randomly; Don’t panic about that either.

6. As noted above, comment posts that are not from authors/editors promoting their books as specified above will be deleted, in order to keep the comment thread useful for people looking to find interesting books.

Got it? Excellent. Then tell the folks about your book! And tell your author friends about this thread so they can come around as well.

Tomorrow (11/29/22): Non-traditional books!

How to Weave the Artisan Web

I wrote on Twitter yesterday:

John Scalzi

“But Scalzi,” I hear you say, “How do we bring back that artisan, hand-crafted Web?” Well, it’s simple, really, and if you’re a writer/artist/musician/other sort of creator, it’s actually kind of essential:

1. Create/reactivate your own site, owned by you, to hold your own work.

2. When you create that site, write or otherwise present work on your site at least once a week, every week.

3. Regularly visit the sites of other creators to read/see/experience the work they present there.

4. Promote/link the work of others, on your own site and also on your other social media channels where you have followers. Encourage your followers to explore more widely, beyond the algorithmic borders of “social media.”

Now, why should we bring back that artisan, hand-crafted Web? Oh, I don’t know. Wouldn’t it be nice to have a site that’s not run by an amoral billionaire chaos engine, or algorithmically designed to keep you doomscrolling in a state of fear and anger, or is essentially spyware for governments and/or corporations? Wouldn’t it be nice not to have ads shoved in your face every time you open an app to see what your friends are up to? Wouldn’t it be nice to know that when your friends post something, you’ll actually see it without a social media platform deciding whether to shove it down your feed and pump that feed full of stuff you didn’t ask for?

Wouldn’t that be great?

“But Scalzi,” I hear you say, for a second time, “I spent all this time on social media and all my people are there! You’re asking me to start from scratch!” Well, see: You don’t have to leave Twitter or Facebook or TikTok or wherever. Stay as long as you like, and post whatever you like there. Just carve out some of that doomscrolling/toiletscrolling time for your own space, that you control, too. And when you do, then link to your own site from that other social media, and invite your followers on those services to visit you in your own place. And link to other people’s personal sites, so your followers can visit them, too. Make social media work for you, and not just for the amoral billionaires.

That said, yes, it will take some work. Setting up a site, or reactivating it, takes a bit of time. Writing or presenting work exclusive to your own site takes some work. Getting your followers on social media used to the idea of leaving those walled gardens of content takes some work. It’s an actual project. But look at this way: You have just spent years building an audience on a platform someone else owns. Why not take a little time to do it for yourself? And to help others build their own platforms, too. No rush! Let it build over time. But put in the time.

Your platform, one post a week. It’s not too hard, and the upside is less reliance on other people’s platforms, and a healthier, more varied Web. Stay on social media! Make it work for you, not you work for it.

Build a better Web. An artisan Web. A handcrafted Web. Take the time to get people used to it. We’ll all benefit from it. We just have to decide to do it.

— JS

Whatever 2022 Holiday Gift Guide Starts Monday!

John Scalzi

Every year as the holiday season begins I run a gift guide for the holidays, and over the years it’s been quite successful: Lots of people have found out about excellent books and crafts and charities and what have you, making for excellent gift-giving opportunities during the holiday season. I’ve decided to do it again this year.

So: Starting Monday, November 28, the Whatever Holiday Gift Guide returns! If you’re a writer or other creator, this will be an excellent time to promote your work on a site which gets tens of thousands of viewers daily, almost all of whom will be interested in stuff for the holidays. If you’re someone looking to give gifts, you’ll see lots of excellent ideas. And you’ll also have a day to suggest stuff from other folks too. Everybody wins!

To give you all time to prepare, here’s the schedule of what will be promoted on which days:

Monday, November 28: Traditionally Published Authors — If your work is being published by a publisher a) who is not you and b) gets your books into actual, physical bookstores on a returnable basis, this is your day to tell people about your books. This includes comics/graphic novels and audiobooks.

Tuesday, November 29: Non-Traditionally Published Authors — Self-published? Electronically published? Or other? This is your day. This also includes comics/graphic novels and audiobooks.

Wednesday, November 30: Other Creators — Artists, knitters, jewelers, musicians, and anyone who has cool stuff to sell this holiday season, this will be the day to show off your creations.

Thursday, December 1: Fan Favorite Day — Not an author/artist/musician/other creator but know about some really cool stuff you think people will want to know about for the holidays? Share! Share with the crowd!

Friday, December 2: Charities — If you are involved in a charity, or have a favorite charity you’d like to let people know about, this is the day to do it.

If you have questions about how all of this will work, go ahead and ask them in the comment thread (Don’t start promoting your stuff today — it’s not time yet), although I will note that specific instructions for each day will appear on that day. Don’t worry, it’ll be pretty easy. Thanks and feel free to share this post with creative folks who will have things to sell this holiday season.

— JS

The Big Idea: David Sandner & Jacob Weisman

When two writers join forces… how does the work actually get done? David Sandner and Jacob Weisman get real on this topic, and how it was their collaboration on Hellhounds got done.

DAVID SANDNER:

“90% of the work, 50% of the profits.” 

I remember seeing that on t-shirts worn by two collaborating sf writers circulating at a con back in the day. It’s a joke, of course, but also a warning. Writers like to keep control over their work and collaboration can seem like trying to change drivers while the car is still on the road—likely to end in a spectacular crack up. Or maybe it’s just some atavistic memory of doing group work in school where the kind of perfectionism that makes a good writer meant they did it all, performing all tasks for just one grade. But I’m writing this to talk about my successful collaboration with my old friend Jacob Weisman on the publication of our novelette Hellhounds now available as an elegant albeit tiny book from Fairwood press.

Fairwood put out an earlier booklet, Mingus Fingers, which was well reviewed. (Our current work is a sequel, tracking the growth and trials of a figure whose magic comes from the music he plays; but each story functions as a standalone work, too, so you can start with either.) Paul Di Filippo at Locus Online kindly wrote: “The team behind this charming, low-key but powerful tale…blend their voices beautifully into an organic whole….” That made me think maybe we had something to say about collaboration. And we have a method I haven’t heard described anywhere else, so there’s that.

Mostly, in collaborations, one person writes one section and the other another. Trying not to get in each other’s way, I suppose, and avoiding the bruising of writerly egos. But then one can tell the difference between parts. The seams show. I have seen this issue handled by having different POV characters or a similar trick to “explain” the difference in style by embedding difference into the structure of the work. But that’s not how we do it.

For us, one of us sets to work. The other person gets to do nothing (and I enjoy twiddling my thumbs and still getting credit for “writing a story.”) When we send the work to the other person, they can do whatever they want. The writing can be pared, changed, or even scenes tossed. This only works because of trust. We trust that each of us is working to make the story work. When it comes back, the original writer can do whatever to the new material and the old. They might even bring something back from a previous version. These back-and-forths work themselves out. If someone brings something back, you think hard before cutting it again. And the reverse: if they cut your work again, how can you revise to keep what you wanted from what they cut? In the end, while certain things (like subject) tip me off, I often can’t tell who wrote what—because we both did everything!

The joke here is that we decided not to write this column collaboratively. Because it’s funnier that way. Still, after all this time, let me guess where he will begin: “50% of the work, 90% of the profits,” because, you know, someone must be getting all those profits. J?

JACOB WEISMAN:

Hellhounds is a sequel to Mingus Fingers, but both stories are prequels to an earlier story that we published in Realms of Fantasy back when Shawna McCarthy was still editing the magazine.  David had started “Egyptian Motherlode” about an aging, obscure funk band on their final farewell tour and was either not sure about where it was headed or was looking for an excuse to rope me in – I doubt even he remembers which.  

I added a much younger band of rap singers that joined the Motherlode on their ill-fated tour, at least that’s how I remember it.  And the stories of both bands, through the push and pull of two authors taking the stories in several different directions before finally finding the way forward, plotted themselves extremely neatly.  

Years later, when David suggested we write a novel together, I wanted to come back to this story since I thought there was a lot more to it hiding beneath the surface.  To do so, though, we needed to create a backstory for the main character first, which is what we’ve done in these two stories.  They can be read independently or as a duology, and maybe someday as part of a novel.

When we started on these stories we knew that the main character, Kenny here but later referred to as The Prophet, has a brother.  We’d written very briefly about him in “Egyptian Motherload.” He’s written out of Mingus Fingers, but he’s the main character in Hellhounds.  Lamond is one of our favorite characters in the book.  He becomes the defacto leader of the band, but will never be its creative inspiration.  He holds everything together for his brother and is Aaron to his Moses.  

David and I, in writing this story, alternately get to play the role of the two brothers.  For a time we each get to be the creative source and alternately we are also the one who provides support for the other.  So, yes, 90% of the effort and 50% of the profit seem about right.  But the entire process is 100% rewarding.


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

Visit David’s website. Follow him on Instagram. Follow Jacob on Instagram.

The Big Idea: Sharon Shinn

Everyone wants to be authentically themselves, but sometimes it can be dangerous to show your true colors. In author Sharon Shinn’s newest novel, The Shuddering City, everyone can express themselves as they truly are. Read on to see how they go about doing so.

SHARON SHINN:

A few years ago, I was at REI buying a stack of chemical foot warmers when the cashier said, “I didn’t know star captains got cold toes.” I stared at him uncomprehendingly a moment before I remembered that I was wearing my gray sweatshirt embroidered with the Starfleet Academy logo. Then I laughed and explained that I’d bought it at the Star Trek Experience in Las Vegas many years ago. Wearing the shirt had marked me as a bit of an sf/f nerd, and the cashier had happily recognized a kindred spirit.

I think a lot about the sides of ourselves that we choose to show in public. In my new book, I had fun creating a system in which everyone uses bracelets as a way to introduce themselves to other people. On their left hands, they wear bands stamped with patterns that show their occupations—for instance, crossed swords if they’re soldiers, quatrefoils if they’re part of the temple. For their right hands, they design bracelets that supply more personal information. People who identify as men wear gold, people who identify as women wear silver, and they use the same metals to indicate the type of partners they’re attracted to.  

So for instance, Pietro is a gay man who wears a bracelet made of woven strips of hammered gold. Madeleine, a straight woman, has commissioned a silver band inset with gold flowers. Whenever characters meet someone new, they try to surreptitiously check out the other person’s bracelets. Or sometimes not so surreptitiously. If it’s someone they might be interested in, they try to make sure their own jewelry is visible. Sometimes they even hold their arms out for inspection. It becomes a way of flirting. 

One of my beta readers said, “I want a bracelet!” But of course, in the real world, we all have ways of showing off the sides of our personalities we want others to see. 

Sometimes we do it through jewelry. Among the people I know are a Catholic who wears a crucifix, a Wiccan who wears a pentacle, and a pro-choice activist who wears a necklace with a charm shaped like a coat hanger. 

Sometimes we do it through clothing. I figure I know at least something about a stranger if that other person is wearing a MAGA hat, a Black Girls Code T-shirt, a Harley-Davidson jacket, or a Cardinals baseball jersey. (Well, in St. Louis where I live, about half the population is dressed in Cardinals red, so maybe that doesn’t tell me too much.) I had a friend whose daughter had to switch high schools in the middle of the school year, and she was despondent because she hadn’t made any friends in her first two weeks. Then one day she wore a manga T-shirt to class, and suddenly she met all the cool people in the anime club. We display our passions in part because they help define us, and in part because they might help us connect with like-minded souls.

Most of the accouterments I’ve collected over the years show off an affection for certain kinds of pop culture. My T-shirts feature the Blue Sun logo, the Soft Kitty lyrics, and a Dunder Mifflin nametag. I still have an old feminist “Eve Chose Consciousness” shirt from my college days. (It no longer fits.) My Cardinals paraphernalia ranges from clothing to jewelry to kitchenware. My first car sported an “I’ve Escaped with Blake’s 7” bumper sticker; the current bumper sticker says “COEXIST.” 

None of these are likely to earn me any particular animosity. (Well, maybe the Cardinals gear. If I’m in Chicago.) But I know that displaying certain affiliations might rouse hatred or anger. In 2003, I put an anti-war sign in my front yard. It was torn down, so I put up another one. It was also torn down. I considered setting a third one behind my living room window, but decided I didn’t want to risk having a rock thrown through my window. Or worse. In a world where a woman runs over a teenager with her car because she “thought the girl looked Mexican,” where Wikipedia maintains a list of people who were attacked for being LGBT, you have to be careful about what how much of yourself you’re willing to show. 

So I think many of us only display our true selves when we feel safe to do so. In the world I’ve created for my book, nobody cares about gender identity or sexual preference. I mean, they care insofar as they want to know where they might have a chance to develop a romantic relationship. But they’re not going to hunt somebody down or torture and kill someone just because that person is gay. They’ll just sigh over the sexy brown eyes that will never look their way. 

I know that these outward symbols only tell us so much. People are way more complex than their love languages, their political parties, and their favorite TV shows. But I like the idea that—at least in an imaginary world—you can be free to be honest about who you are. There’s plenty of mystery left, if you’re safe enough to explore it.


The Shuddering City: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

Whoops We Bought Another House

John Scalzi

What?!? How could this have happened?!?

Well, actually, because the house we bought is directly next door to The Old Church (see said church in the right of this photo), and when it came up on the market, we decided that it would be really useful to have that land for some things that would be beneficial to have at the church, like, as just one example, off-street parking. So we bought it.

The house itself, as well as its detached garage, is, to put it euphemistically, in not-great shape; we are going have it taken down reasonably soon. In its place, aside from the parking in the rear of the property, is likely to be a garden and/or outdoor area for the church, something that will add to the aesthetics of the community, and be both useful and pleasant. If we go the garden route I would like to do something that incorporates local plants and encourages local pollinators and other fauna, but I want to strongly stress that we are right now in very very very very early stages of thinking about this. Please do not hold us to anything just yet.

With the acquisition of this house and its land we now own three adjacent properties in the center of Bradford: This house, The Old Church, and the former parsonage of the church, which was originally going to be sold separately from the church building, and which we acquired to keep the land it was on, and to reduce headaches for making improvements on the church site. We have no ambitions to buy anymore of our little village at this point, and in any event, nothing around this new compound of properties is currently up for sale.

Besides, we will have enough on our hands with what we now already have. We want to make it pretty great. It’s a good project.

— JS

RIP, Greg Bear

I think most people in the science fiction community know this, but in case the news has missed you, Greg Bear has passed away, after complications from surgery. File 770 has the details of that, as well as a general overview of his life, so I commend you to that site for the details. What I will add here is the personal observation that in my experience of him, he was kind and decent, and treated me as a peer from a very early stage in my career, which is something I noted and appreciated, and tried to emulate in turn. I have condolences and care for Astrid and their children, and all who knew him, either personally or through his work. He will be missed. He is missed, already.

— JS

Universal Yums: November 2022 Review

Hello, everyone, and welcome to another Universal Yums review! Every month upon receiving the snack box, I open it and ask my dad to guess what country it is. This month, he actually got it first try! It’s Italy!

An top down view of the snack box, showing the

I was pretty impressed, so I let him assist me in my review.

A top down view of all the snacks from the box laid out.

As you can see, there’s nine regular snacks, and then two candies from the Yum Bag, so eleven things to try total!

We decided to start with the biggest package, the Garlic and Parsley Bruschetta Bites:

A large package that is purple and white. The image on the front is of the mini garlic bread type snacks inside. The name says

For some reason, the bag was covered in oil that was clearly from the inside of the package. It seemed like it had somehow seeped through the package, even though the material seemed plenty thick. It was strange. Anyways, when we opened it up, I was surprised to see the parsley explosion that was the inside of the bag.

A view of the inside of the bag. The inside is covered in chunks of garlic and parsley. There's also a ton of mini garlic breads inside.

After reaching in and grabbing some mini garlic breads, I definitely had some oil and parsley covering my fingers. Not the most pleasant but here’s the snack:

A shot of the mini garlic bread.

Athena ScalziOkay, so, if you like garlic and you like croutons, you will like these, because they’re basically giant croutons. They’re crunchy, pungent, garlicky, and there’s tons of them in the bag. It felt like there should be a salad included with these, because they really are just big croutons. My dad and I agreed that they could use some dip or something, like they should be a vehicle for something else. They were fine by themselves, though, but definitely room for improvement, so I gave them a 7.5/10 and my dad gave them a 7/10.

Switching to something sweeter, we tried these Cranberry and Sesame Cookies:

A small white package of cookies, the waffle-looking cookies displayed on the front alongside some cranberries.

Four small waffle-looking beige cookies.

The flavor of these were immediately apparent to us as raspberry-esque rather than cranberry-esque, and the sesame was barely detectable. So, these really just tasted like vaguely raspberry cookies. They weren’t overly sweet, they were pretty subtle, more like a slightly sweet biscuit. They were crunchy and small, and reminded me of something you’d be given on an airplane. I gave these a 7.5/10, and my dad went for a 7/10.

I was super curious about these Pizza Flavored Corn Rings, so we gave them a shot:

A green chip bag style package, displaying the orange pizza rings on the front beneath a large red square that says

A bunch of orange rings that look like cheesy puffs coming out of the bag.

If you like stale cheesy puffs that taste like super salty marinara sauce, you’ll love these. Honestly, I’m not sure if I can fault them for being slightly stale, as they do have to travel pretty far to get to me. Regardless, they were addicting despite not being that good, and earned a 7/10 from both of us.

Going back to sweet, we tried this Chocolate Tiramisu Cream Cake:

A small yellow package containing a snack cake.

A small, chocolate covered snack cake with a drizzle of extra chocolate on top.

The snack cake, broken in half to reveal the cross section. It has a cream filling sandwiched in the middle.

I was excited to try this snack because I love tiramisu. It is one of my favorite desserts. I didn’t have super high expectations for this snack, as it is just a snack cake, but this little cake was totally lacking in all things tiramisu. It had no coffee flavor, no amaretto flavor, so it was pretty disappointing. It was pleasantly soft, though. It got a 6/10 from both of us.

Next was these Paprika Potato Chips:

Upon opening the bag, I smelled the chips, and to my surprise, smelled nothing at all. My dad also said they smelled like literally nothing. Off to a strange start, but moving on, these honestly just tasted like a not very good BBQ chip. Apparently that’s because one of the flavors in BBQ chips is paprika, so this was like that but worse. These chips were definitely disappointing, so they got a 4/10 from me and a 5/10 from my dad.

Sixthly, we had these Amarettini Almond Cookies:

A white bag of cookies, the cookies being displayed on the front underneath

A dozen or so of the little beige cookies arranged in a circle.

My dad and I had a feeling that these would be the best item in the box, and we were totally right. These tasted pretty strongly like almond extract, or like an almond biscotti, and were super duper crunchy. They seemed to have some sort of crystalline sugar layer that made them extra crunchy and sweet, and were so small and addicting. These were highly rated with a 9.5/10 from me and a 10/10 from my dad. I would gladly eat like a hundred of these.

All that was left after the cookies was candy, so we started with this Hazelnut Milk Chocolate Bar:

A chocolate bar package that is all brown and gold and shows chocolate covered hazelnuts all over it.

The chocolate bar, broken in half to show the cross section. There's a hazelnut visible.

If you couldn’t tell from the name containing both hazelnut and chocolate, this was basically a Nutella bar. It was soft and melty, and the hazelnuts added a nice crunchy contrast. The chocolate itself was pretty plain tasting, just a mild chocolate bar all around. 7.5/10 from both of us.

Next was this bag of Italian Fruit Jellies:

A big white and pink bag of individually wrapped fruit jellies.

All the individually wrapped candies spilling out from the bag.

This big bag of candy actually had four different flavors of fruit jellies, so of course I gotta tell you about each one. First, we tried the gooseberry one.

A small, rectangular shaped candy covered in sugar.

The inside of the candy, showing just how jelly-esque it is.

The last time I had gooseberry was several years ago in a gooseberry pie, so I don’t have a ton of reference for how gooseberries taste, but this candy tasted so good! The outside was covered in sugar, which was like a great textural contrast to the gelatinous, chewy candy.

After the gooseberry, we tried the raspberry and strawberry, and I only got a photo of one of them but I’m not sure which because they look the same.

A small, pink, rectangular jelly candy covered in sugar.

The raspberry and strawberry were pretty good, I especially liked how non-artificial the strawberry tasted. And here was the blueberry!

A small, dark blue/purplish rectangular jelly candy coated in sugar.

The blueberry was my personal least favorite, it had sort of a strange flavor. Overall, the candies were really good. The gooseberry was an 8/10, the strawberry and raspberry were a 7/10, and the blueberry was a 6/10. I wish I had a whole bag of the gooseberry ones.

Back to chocolate, we tried this Salted Caramel Milk Chocolate Bar:

An orange chocolate bar wrapper that says

The chocolate bar broken in half.

This chocolate bar was unlike any I’ve ever had before. It didn’t even taste like a chocolate bar. It was like a strange diet chocolate, or like a “healthy” type of chocolate where the brand’s slogan is “satisfy your cravings” but it will never satisfy your craving, it’ll just be a sad excuse of what you really want. Anyways, yeah, pretty nasty. I gave it a 4/10, and my dad gave it a 3/10.

Finally, the Yum Bag candies!

A small, circular chocolate wrapped in a white and red striped wrapper. The other candy is a small rectangular piece of taffy wrapped in white and red packaging, as well.

First was the strawberry Italian Fruit Chew, which I forgot to get a picture of unwrapped. I also forgot to get a picture of the peach one at all. We tried both, and they were both bad. They were weirdly chalky, and the strawberry one tasted like how lotion smells, while the peach one was like a nasty version of peach rings. I was disappointed by how bad they were, as I feel like they had a lot of potential. I gave them a 3/10, and my dad went with a 4/10.

Last but not least, the Milk Chocolate Popcorn Bites:

A spherical piece of chocolate.

A slightly blurry picture of the cross section of the chocolate, revealing the yellow cream inside.

Sorry for the blurry picture, I literally did not realize it was blurry until I just added it to this post, so my bad on that one, but hopefully you can still see the small pieces of popcorn in the cream! This candy was really interesting, as the popcorn pieces added some great crunchy contrast to the sweet creamy filling. I would’ve never thought that popcorn cream was even a thing, or that it would be good, but it is pretty tasty! I like the uniqueness of it. My dad gave this a 5/10 but I thought it was deserving of a 7/10.

Overall, my dad and I really liked the variety within the Italy box, there was so many different flavors, textures, and types of snacks. This was a really enjoyable box!

What looks the best to you? Do you like gooseberries? Have you ever been to Italy? Let me know in the comments, and have a great day!

-AMS

The Scalzis Go Corporate

John Scalzi

I have previously and briefly noted that we over here at the Scalzi Compound have had some business reorganization going on, but now that all the applicable business licenses have been filed, paperwork done and bank accounts opened, it’s time to expand on that news a bit.

The short version is that Krissy and I now have three corporate entities to cover our various business and philanthropical interests. They are:

Scalzi Enterprises: Which will handle the development/merchandising/licensing of Scalzi-related intellectual property, both existing and upcoming;

Church of the Scalzi: Which despite its name is neither a religious endeavor nor a cult, but is our real estate holding company for The Old Church and other properties;

The Scalzi Family Foundation: Our non-profit corporation, which will be the vehicle for our charitable and philanthropical giving beginning in 2023.

Why do this? Well, because at this point it makes sense to, both for organizational and legal reasons. Krissy and I have long talked about doing more with the ideas and properties that I create and develop, and needing both space and a business structure to deal with that. This is the primary reason we bought The Old Church in the first place, you may recall: So we could have office space for the companies we planned to have. Now, as it happens, having that particular space also opens up more potential for the things we can do, which dovetails right back into having these new companies, so that’s nice too.

We have lots of plans for these new companies (well, for Scalzi Enterprises and the Scalzi Family Foundation; Church of the Scalzi is just an unsexy but useful way to organize our property), but I should stress that everything is in very early days, and basically still being built out. Do not expect vast amounts of ScalziProduct™ from Scalzi Enterprises in the near term. Also, if you start lobbying me for grants, funds and donations from the Scalzi Family Foundation any time soon, you’re going to be disappointed. Sorry. Please be patient. It’s all me and Krissy at this point, and we have other jobs, too.

(On the flip side of this, you can’t donate to the Scalzi Family Foundation, either; it operates under very specific rules, which means it’s difficult for anyone but us to put money into it.)

Also, for those of you who are now mildly worried that you will get no more novels from me as I strive to become a Content Tycoon: Don’t panic, I am not giving up my very fun and really profitable day job. It’s the basis on which all the rest of this proceeds. Indeed, if everything works out right, you will get more work from me, not less, as we build processes that let me do what I am good at (writing, selling, developing more things to write and/or sell), while Krissy, as CEO, does what she’s good at (business, did you know she has a business degree? She does!), and the business builds from there. In the meantime, however, writing books is my bread and butter and will continue to be for the foreseeable future.

That said, again, we have plans. If we can get them off the ground, it could be interesting. Stay tuned.

— JS

Experiment 111722

I got some new music software and played with it to see how it sounded; this is what came out. It is good? Meh. It’s more of a fragment than a whole composition, although I like the breakdown in the middle. Is it noisy? Oh my, yes. I think I’ve learned about myself that when it comes to my own musical compositions, I’m a fan of noisy. Or maybe it’s just that “noisy” masks many of my musical deficiencies. I wouldn’t be the first to play that card (see: the entire genre of “punk”). Anyway, enjoy.

— JS

The Big Idea: Elijah Kinch Spector

One can imagine another time and place for a novel, but the when and where of one’s life will find a way into the telling of that story. Or so Elijah Kinch Spector discovered in writing Kalyna the Soothsayer. Today’s Big Idea delves into this phenomenon.

ELIJAH KINCH SPECTOR:

The United States is simply too big to function properly. It always has been, really—we have states, and not provinces, because each one is, in many ways, its own little country. But the U.S. isn’t that special, plenty of countries throughout history have felt like someone slapped together disparate groups with spit and duct tape.

My debut novel, Kalyna the Soothsayer, is secondary world fantasy in a vaguely 18th century eastern and central European milieu, and I didn’t consciously write any part of it to be about the U.S. But every story is actually about the time and place where it’s told, right? I’ve always loved this bit from a Studs Terkel interview with James Baldwin, who was promoting his own novel: “Another Country. … It’s about this country.”

Soothsayer was always meant to be a book of spycraft and intrigue, so I made up a state that would lend itself nicely to internecine squabbles and complex politics: The Tetrarchia. Four separate kingdoms that stopped (officially) going to war with one another two hundred years before the novel starts, in order to become one ungainly, four-part state.

Each of the kingdoms has its own proper culture and language, alongside countless smaller peoples and traditions that the governments have tried to bulldoze in favor of singular ethno-national identities. Once a year, the four ruling monarchs meet to hammer out laws at the “Council of Barbarians,” named for how each kingdom sees the other three. Kalyna, our reluctant hero, is from a family of nomads with ancestry from every part of the country—she is extremely of the Tetrarchia, and yet outside of it, considered foreign everywhere.

It’s a tenuous arrangement that could collapse at any time, which made it perfect for the kind of suspenseful story that I wanted to tell. Planning out the Tetrarchia’s nooks and crannies also got me to think even more about what countries, borders, and ethnic groups even are, why they matter, and to whom. In 2013, I read the book Vanished Kingdoms: The History of Half-Forgotten Europeby Norman Davies, which I bought on a whim at a bookstore in Dublin on my honeymoon. (And thank God I bought it there, because the U.S. edition replaces its romantic subtitle with the deeply boring, “The Rise and Fall of States and Nations,” which… my dude, that could be the subtitle for any book in a shop’s Popular History section.)

Vanished Kingdoms dedicates each of its chapters to European countries that no longer exist and, in doing so, demonstrates just how porous and nebulous national identities and borders really are. Davies covers the “five, six or seven kingdoms” that were named Burgundy, most of which contained people we would now call French; he discusses Galicia, but not the one in Spain, the one in eastern Europe, where my family fled pogroms; and he rants wonderfully about how western scholars decided the Roman Empire “fell” in the 5th century even though it continued for another thousand years.

When I read Davies, I already knew, vaguely, that Germany wasn’t founded until the 19th century, but I didn’t know that the same was true of Italy. Both of these countries, whose national myths and cohesion are presented as being so strong, were groups of city states, fly-by-night duchies, and parts of larger empires for centuries. There were so many people we would now call German or Italian who would’ve considered themselves Prussian or Sardinian (or perhaps Etrurian, if they spent formative years in Tuscany between 1801 and 1807). But leaders want consolidation, so they speak of a monoculture; normal people are scared and alone, so they want to be part of something great and old. I don’t need to tell you where German and Italian jingoism, specifically, led in the 20th century, although they’re far from the only countries that have used nationalism to fuel atrocities.

At the same time that Davies’ thesis was swirling around in my head, I learned about the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, a country that, growing up in the U.S., I’d never even heard of. (Fun fact: they elected their kings. Well, the nobles did.) This was all a huge influence on that first draft of Soothsayer, because I finally had greater proof of something I’d always suspected: that “national identity” is crap.

I’m an Ashkenazi Jew (don’t act so surprised), which means my ancestors were kicked around eastern Europe for centuries: pushed or pulled over borders, when those borders weren’t changing around them instead. Most of them had to speak at least three languages: the local language, to get by; Hebrew, for prayer; and Yiddish to speak with one another, and probably to think in. Believe me when I tell you that almost never did my ancestors, nor their neighbors, consider them to be Polish, Russian, German, or even Galician. They were Jews. Stateless. (Not that having one’s own ethno-state is necessarily a good thing.)

Point being, Soothsayer is a fantasy swashbuckler about secret plots, duels, prophecies, and things that slither in the dark. It’s also a book about being othered, about how ethno-nationalism thrives, and about how impermanent the institutions we see as infallible often are. I’m very proud of how it all turned out, and I hope that strange mix appeals to you. (There is also a handsome guy who’s an expert on fruit.)


Kalyna the Soothsayer: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

The Kaiju Preservation Society an Amazon “Best of 2022” in SF/F, and an Opening Round Nominee for the Goodreads Choice Awards

The headline pretty much sums it up. I’m pleased on both counts. It’s nice to be appreciated here in the bottom half of 2022.

That said, if you would like to vote for Kaiju for in the Goodreads Choice Awards (or for any other nominee, if in fact you prefer them better, although if you do, you don’t have to tell me), here is the link to do so. Vote away!

This is a good time to remind people that I’m doing my holiday “sign/personalize books for holiday gifts” bit with my local indie bookstore, Jay and Mary’s Book Center in Troy, Ohio. To get in on that action, click here.

— JS

The Big Idea: Jim Ottaviani and Jerel Dye

We all know Albert Einstein — he’s the personification of “scientist” in the minds of most of us — but as always, there’s more to the icon (and the man!) than we expect. Jim Ottaviani explains what this means in this Big Idea for his (with artist Jerel Dye) graphic novel retelling of the life of the famous physicist, Einstein.

JIM OTTAVIANI:

Though I put Einstein on the cover of my very first book — it was 1997 and nobody was making comics about scientists, so I figured we’d better show someone everybody recognizes! — I avoided writing about him for years.
Einstein was, at least to my mind, a cliché.
And yet he kept appearing, both in books I read and in books I wrote. First Second, my publisher for Feynman and Hawking, noticed. I think his ubiquity, his omnipresence, prompted them to have me take another look, and consider why I was reluctant to write more about him. And to no one’s surprise (except for maybe me; I can be slow on the uptake) Einstein is anything but a cliché.
Maybe my blind spot resulted from the fact that Einstein and his discoveries are almost too perfect for comics.
His theories about the inseparability of space and time? That’s Comics Storytelling 101, and as a minor spoiler, since you’ll see this on the third page of the book, Jerel and I use the space between panels, or the intentional lack thereof, to visually conflate space and time, expanding and contracting it to suit our narrative.
His exploration of how frames of reference influence what reality you experience? Storytelling 101 again, so in our book we told Einstein’s story through the eyes of his friends, family, enemies, and fans.
His life of the mind, where what’s happening in his head is just as real as the world of his senses…at least to him? Comics, again: Einstein’s are the only thoughts you get to see in the book. Everyone else only ever acts, and only ever speaks their mind.
His iconic status? Not to give away too much, but you may notice that Jerel’s depiction of Einstein at the beginning of the book differs from how he draws him by the end.
So if, like me, Einstein feels overly familiar because he’s always there, always quotable?
I hope you’ll join us in experiencing this story — and I use that word on purpose, since this isn’t a typical biography, even though it’s as true-to-life as we could make it — with your own eyes, and that it gives you a new appreciation of Einstein, both as a scientist and as a person.
When you do, I think you’ll find that he’s more than an icon but less than a saint. And you’ll see why Einstein is someone whose name has meant genius for more than a century.
—-
Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s website. Follow him on Twitter.

A Workin’ Woman

Back in October, I told you all about a cool job opportunity I had coming up, and I’m happy to report back that I did in fact get the position at… wait for it… Twenty One Barrels!

Me, smiling at the camera, wearing a Twenty One Barrels dark grey t-shirt and matching baseball cap style hat.

If you missed it, Twenty One Barrels is the winery/cidery across the street from me that I recently did a Small Business Saturday over. When I went over there to do the interview with one of the owners, I saw they had a help wanted sign, and I asked her about it. She encouraged me to apply, and then we set up the job shadow to see if it was something I wanted to do. After the job shadow went well, we dotted some i’s and crossed some t’s, and now I’m officially a Tasting Room Attendant!

Thank you so much to everyone that wished me good luck and all that nice stuff. So far I’ve enjoyed it! You can still expect to see me posting on the blog, though, as the winery is only open on the weekends, and I’m not scheduled for every weekend, anyway.

I’m happy to have this opportunity, as I’ve always been interested in being a bartender, but sports bars aren’t really my vibe, and I never wanted to do it at a club because I want to preserve my hearing, so this seems like something much more suited for me.

So, if you’re in the area and decide to come check out the winery, I just might be the one pouring your glass!

-AMS

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