How I’m Spending My Saturday

Both playing the ukulele and making semi-arty illustrations of me playing the ukulele. Both are enjoyable! To me, anyway, which in this case is all that counts.

Hope you’re having a lovely Saturday wherever you are.

A Note About Borderlands Books and Alan Beatts

This news story hit me like a punch to the gut. It features of accusations of sexual assault and domestic violence against Alan Beatts, the owner of Borderland Books. Borderlands is one of my favorite bookstores in the world; Alan is literally one of the first people I met in the science fiction and fantasy community, and a friend. He’s been a huge supporter of me and my work, and conversely I’ve been a supporter of him and Borderlands. It’s the store I’ve held all my San Francisco events at, basically for as long as I’ve been doing events at all. I’ve supported Borderlands annually as a patron, and I lent the store money to purchase a new building, which it’s currently in the process of moving to.

It actually and genuinely hurt to read these accusations, which I believe. I wrote yesterday on Twitter that I was in shock about it, and I still am. This one stirs up emotions for me in a way I’m not prepared to publicly quantify or express. Suffice to say it hits close to home on a number of levels.

So, about the money I gave to Borderlands for its new store. It’s a loan, and as a loan the store’s LLC pays me back a little each year. I’ve gotten a couple of payments on that loan to date. This morning I estimated the sum of those payments to date and donated that sum to RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network). I’ll go into my financial records over the weekend to confirm amounts, and if necessary adjust the donation amount upward. At the moment I can’t hazard a guess as to what will happen with regard to the principal of the loan, or any future repayments. I can say that any amount of either that returns to me will immediately go out the door again, to RAINN or to other organizations helping survivors of sexual abuse.

I am inexpressibly sad about all of this, and for those who are hurting because of it.

That’s where I’m at right now.

Five Things: July 9, 2020

Slow news day, am I right? Nevertheless, here are five things for you today:

This just in: Trump not king. Which is to say the Supreme Court ruled against him today with regard to the release of his taxes to the State of New York, and didn’t rule for him with regard to having to answer congressional subpoenas. As I understand it everything is going back to lower courts to get hashed out, but the gist of it for me is that the Supreme Court has finally decided on some limits to executive power, and honestly, not a damn moment too soon for that. And while it’s unlikely that any of this tax information will be out before the election, it seems likely to me that it will be out eventually, and if it doesn’t show, shall we say, a certain amount of legerdemain and nefariousness, I will eat my hat (it will be a hat I specially make to be edible, but even so). Short version: Trump’s probably a criminal, probably in hock to foreign interests, and will go down as abjectly the worst American president since James Buchanan, and (depending on how the next few months go) possibly finally edging into a tie with that benighted soul. I look forward to all of that coming out.

Oh, and half of Oklahoma is Native American territory: I mean, that’s certainly a hell of a thing, isn’t it? Apparently the Supreme Court was all “oh, hey, the US has to actually honor a treaty,” which, you’ll forgive for saying so, is a thing I never ever expected any branch of the federal government to say out loud. Maybe I’m cynical. I honestly can’t pretend to understand all the implications of the ruling, since it wasn’t something I had ever thought about before it was ruled upon, but it certainly feels big, both for the ruling itself and what it means for future jurisprudence regarding Native Americans and their treaty lands. Someone with more expertise will need to tell me what it all means.

No mask, no venti latte: Starbucks will be requiring masks for service now, which a) they should have already been doing and b) I expect will be part of a wave of many business finally figuring out that if they’re going to stay open and not be infections pit (and thus be on the hook for liability), they have to tell people to wear masks, which are, after all, the literal least they can be doing so as not to infect other people. I personally won’t be going to Starbucks, since I don’t drink coffee, don’t like paying $5 for drinks, and even if I did the nearest Starbucks is like 11 miles away. But I do appreciate them actually doing more to keep Covid from being transmitted than the literal national government right now. Admittedly the bar is low.

No slurs for Scrabble: The North American Scrabble Players Association has banned the use of apparently 236 racial and -phobic slurs from official play, and Hasbro (which owns the game) is changing the official rules to note that slurs are not acceptable in “any form of the game.” I don’t have the list of now-banned slurs in front of me, but I am curious, outside some of the most obvious, what words are on the list and which are not. I strongly suspect some rules-lawyering bigots are going to be out there trying to get around the intent here. Because some people are just assholes (a word which, by the way, is apparently still allowed in play).

Here, have a hibiscus. They’re pretty. And I get a kick that they grow in my yard here in Ohio. They’re out of place but thriving, which is something I, a native Californian, can empathize with.

The Big Idea: Catherine Asaro

Finally! An author brave enough to give an answer to The Question all writers get! The author: Catherine Asaro. Her newest book: The Vanished Seas. Her answer? Read on!

CATHERINE ASARO:

“Where do you get your ideas?”

The dreaded question. It’s also a good one, deserving a good answer. Unfortunately, I never have a good response. The best I can muster is, “I don’t know.” Ideas percolate in my brain like in an old-fashioned coffee maker, and I can’t say what happens before the coffee pours out, rich and fragrant.

So I imagined the Undercity, where part of The Vanished Seas takes place. The Undercity exists in the ancient ruins beneath the City of Cries. The wealthy citizens of Cries consider it a slum, a place sparsely populated by drug-dealers, the homeless, and the elusive Black Mark, an illegal casino that entices the Cries glitterati.

However, the Undercity is far different than outsiders imagine. Isolated for thousands of years, her people evolved their own civilization, an achingly beautiful culture, yet one that can also crush the soul, with poverty and grace existing side-by-side, light and darkness, the violence of life combined with exquisite arts.

Outsiders can never find the true Undercity. The extraordinary ruins where her people hide spread for many square kilometers under a desert called the Vanished Sea. Although some back and forth exists with the outside world, no one can enter who doesn’t belong. If outsiders venture into the ruins without an invitation, they’re lucky to make it out alive.

In some ways, the Undercity offers a darker version of the Camelot legends, with its tales of a shining place that no longer exists, having vanished into the mists of history. My intrigued readers wanted to know where those ideas came from. I’d never have found an answer if I hadn’t become involved in a seemingly unconnected and far more mundane task, helping to write the Wikipedia entry for my high school.

I attended John F. Kennedy High in Richmond, California not far from Berkeley and Oakland. People often describe JFK as inner-city and urban. I’ve never felt easy with those words. It’s true that the school lies within walking distance of downtown Richmond, with its attractive public library and county buildings, but mostly residential areas surround the school. Is that urban? Inner-city? What do those words even mean? I’d suggest they are a code that implies a primarily minority enrollment, lower income levels, and a higher crime rate.

JFK also once ranked among the top public high schools in California. In its earliest years, it offered a model of what an urban public school could become at its best. Harvard came to recruit. Athletes won scholarships. Graduates became state district attorneys, celebrated musicians, scientists, doctors, NPR correspondents, and authors. Richard Mitchell, the first Black student to rank among the top speakers in the National Forensics League, became City Planning Director for Richmond. Judy Tyrus rose to stardom in the Dance Theatre of Harlem. The lawyer Christopher Darden of OJ Simpson fame attended JFK. Salim Akil, a co-producer of the show Black Lightning, graduated from Kennedy.

Many considered JFK a model for successful integration, with a student body back then about half Black and half other races, primarily White, Hispanic, and Asian. The school also pursued an innovative approach to teaching, with flexible scheduling similar to a college. That isn’t to say JFK had no problems; violence, drugs, racial tensions, and crimes exacted their toll, and the price we paid for that toll also lives in my memories. Yet that went hand-in-hand with an enthusiastic young faculty and a vibrant student body.

But what makes Kennedy even more distinctive—what has spurred articles and an entire masters thesis on the school—is how over the course of forty years it went from being a flagship of the California public education system to one of the worst schools in the state.

The changes at Kennedy arose from a perfect storm of disasters, starting with the unintended consequences of the Serrano legal rulings for California education, followed by the ravages of Proposition 13, the loss of industry in Richmond, and shifts in district policies. The decline was gradual but inexorable. In recent years, JFK has rebounded, as the school district climbs out of a slump that lasted decades.

Knowles Adkisson at the Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism explores the reality of the school in his 2018 masters thesis titled Kennedy High School: Fall of an Educational Camelot. Many people refer to the early decades at JFK as the Camelot years, evoking the term used to describe the administration of President Kennedy, the school’s namesake, and also the song lyrics from the musical of the same name: “Don’t let it be forgot, that once there was a spot, for one brief, shining moment that was known as Camelot.”

Is it true that for one brief moment, an inner-city public school defied the stereotypes and shone like a star? I would argue the magic never left; it still exists, often unseen by the outside world. You may not find the true soul of the community if you don’t know the city; you risk your safety if you go looking in places where you don’t belong. But the beauty thrives.

Adkisson’s thesis traces the history of JFK—and it hurt to read those words. I remembered how we believed our generation stood witness to a new age of tolerance and equality. Together all of us, black, brown, and white, could solve the problems of the world and usher in a brighter future.

So yeah, we were naïve.

But we weren’t wrong. The push-back we’re seeing now in the country echoes a backlash against those dreams of past generations. It isn’t that society hasn’t made progress, but that the progress terrifies some. Yet change never stops. Attempts to turn back the clock ultimately fail.

Did I think about all this as I wrote The Vanished Seas? No. If not for the Wiki article, I wouldn’t have recalled it at all. The Undercity is an original creation, a fantastical place immersed in science fiction.

And yet…

I see my childhood interwoven with that world. I didn’t grow up in poverty; I came from a middle class family. Many of us at the school did, despite the implications of words like inner-city. Even so, I lived a markedly different youth compared to that enjoyed by the kids I met at UCLA, students from places like Beverly Hills and Pacific Palisades. When I went to Harvard for graduate school, I felt the weight of its traditions. I loved being a student at both schools, and I’m grateful for the doors that my degrees opened. But I felt a certain distance. It wasn’t only that in the late 1970s, I was often the only woman in my graduate physics and math classes. I also discovered my peers couldn’t relate to my background. Although I didn’t consciously stop talking about it, I realized as I put together this essay that it’s the first time I’ve written about my experiences at Kennedy.

I grieve the contrast of today’s world with the glowing idealism we carried as teens. But I also feel hope. Dreams like Camelot never truly vanish. They live within our communities, within every person who dares step outside the boundaries of their life to strive for a better world.

We’ll find our way to that shining place. I’ve always believed it, because I’ve seen how even our darkest hours can give birth to miracles.

—-

The Vanished Seas: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

Back to College? Not Yet

I posted this on Twitter a little while ago (with, of course, Athena’s consent):

This comported with Athena’s thinking on the matter, as it happens. But I am rather famous in this family for stressing the importance of getting a college education, so it was important for me to say I was all right with an additional pause. Athena took off last semester as well (she’d made that decision before Covid became a thing), so her gap semester is now a full-blown gap year.

Which, again, I’m fine with. Last semester I joked that she saved us a lot of money on a dorm room she would have been sent home from anyway; and while I don’t mind not paying full freight for an online education this next semester, I feel less jokey about it now. I don’t think it’s a very good idea for colleges and universities to bring back students, not when we’re currently at new highs for infection rates, and when basically every attempt to put people into large groups ends up with scads of newly infected.

I’ve told Athena that it took me four years after my high school graduation to get my bachelor’s and seventeen years for Krissy to get hers, so if she ends up getting hers somewhere in between those markers, she’ll be fine. The simple fact of the matter is this pandemic is tearing up schedules all over the place. As I’ve said elsewhere, I’d like my kid to have her degree. I’d like her to be alive and with lungs that don’t crinkle when she breathes even more. We’re fortunate to be able to cover this time off for her. We’re going to cover it.

Goodreads’ 100 Most Popular Sci-Fi Books List: I’ve Got Some Stuff On It

Specifically Old Man’s War, Redshirts, Lock In and The Collapsing Empire. Neat! Here’s the full list for your amusement, perusal and commentary. In all it’s an interesting list, and it’s (reasonably) balanced between classics and newer work; the timeframe here ranges two centuries, from Frankenstein to some of current Hugo nominees.

It’s worth noting that a) the list only concerns itself with adult science fiction, so YA SF and adult (and YA) fantasy books are not included in the list (including some books which could be considered either SF or Fantasy, like NK Jemisin’s Broken Earth series), b) Goodreads excluded multiple books from a series, so any one series is represented by its most popular entry only, c) “popular” is different from “best” or “most important” or “influential,” although of course there is some overlap. It’s a list meant to be argued with, basically.

Because I was curious and also have an ego, I checked to see if any other author had four books (or more) on the list. Turns out, no! There’s a seven-way tie for second place, with Heinlein, Bradbury, Clarke, Vonnegut, Dick, (HG) Wells and Stephenson placing three works each on the list. This is, I expect, literally the only time I’ll have one up on that group of writers, so I will take it, thank you.

(Even then there a couple of caveats, including the fact that my top-ranked book, Old Man’s War, shows up at #44. Sure, I have two more books on the list than George Orwell, but his two books are at #1 and #2, so he has that going for him, which is nice. But! Still! Four!)

Anyway, this is my little ego boost for the day. Thought I’d share. It’s nice to write things people seem to like. I hope I get to keep doing it for a while longer.

The Big Idea: Sarah Henning

From the title alone, The Princess Will Save You suggests there will be some trope-flipping involved in the story. But as author Sarah Henning explains in today’s Big Idea, flipping the trope isn’t enough. There has to be more.

SARAH HENNING:

The Princess Will Save You is the story of Princess Amarande of Ardenia, whose commoner true love, a stable boy named Luca, is kidnapped in a bid to push her into a political marriage. But rather than play the game, she changes it—setting out to rescue Luca, and possibly her kingdom’s future in the process.

The Big Idea behind The Princess Will Save You is, as evidenced by its title as well as my short pitch, to take the classic damsel in distress trope and turn it on its head.

I’m not the first to do this and I won’t be the last—there is literally a thousand years of “rescuing the damsel” literature to flip, explore, unpack. Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, Princess Buttercup (who was a big inspiration in my tale)—the damsels march on, one after one, throughout our collective consciousness. They are sometimes main characters, but most of the time not—a prize to be won, along with their adoration, via brave rescue.

In this case, it’s the princess with a sword doing the rescuing, and the title itself is a hint to the fact that the boy she’s rescuing believes she will. Luca flat-out tells his kidnappers Amarande will come for him, and of course is treated to the pitying laugh of someone who doesn’t believe him: “The princess will save you. Yes, yes, that’s right. That’s how all the storybooks go.”

I think it’s crucial to tell stories with female characters that have agency and stand up for themselves. But, at the same time, I think it’s important to explore the trope itself. A simple gender-swap does nothing to really examine the roots of this trope and subvert them.

To that end, there are several layers I wanted to examine in consideration of the damsel and what is typically missing from her story arc: character agency, mutual consent, and a challenging of patriarchal power structures.

In the very classic sense, the damsel typically has no agency when it comes to her role in the story—she can’t help but be stolen away, she can’t rescue her herself, she can’t help but be saved.

And, most often, the way the story ends, she can’t help but fall in love with her rescuer.

It’s easy to see why the “damsel in distress” has become such a popular archetype across cultural lines. In one tidy plot line it showcases the helplessness of a victim, the bravery of her savior, the evil of the rival/witch/mystical creature who put the damsel in such peril in the first place, all the while giving the audience a natural beginning, middle, end of a hero’s journey.

And beyond just being the scaffolding for a good story, the damsel trope also feeds into a strong pull of human nature: we want to believe someone will value us enough to save us. If we are in a bind and can’t rescue ourselves, we want to believe someone will come for us. Again, the lean-in toward popularity from this angle is easy to understand and hard to deny: whether it’s a natural inclination or something that is culturally ingrained, this ideal is reinforced with every damsel-type climax we consume.

The problem is that because for the last bajillion years, women have been cast as damsels, and, thus, are often reduced from a being with free will to something of value.

They are the golden reward on the treasure map. The Holy Grail. The item to be acquired.

No consent, agency, or testing of patriarchal powers in any of it from page one in this set up. Therefore, simply by flipping the roles, we can examine our own gender norms while examining both sides of the rescuer-damsel paradox.

In The Princess Will Save You, Princess Amarande struggles against those same conceits, despite the fact that she is not in the damsel position.

Though born into power, Amarande faces a very similar struggle to the classic damsel simply because she’s a woman in a purposefully hyper-patriarchal world. So much so that when her father dies, she cannot rule on her own without marrying even though she is the king’s sole heir. Despite her blood, or maybe because of it, she’s something to be claimed.

This grates on Amarande because she was trained from a very young age to be a warrior, and now, here she is, an object to be won by scheming royals, eager to take control over her kingdom, via ring and vows. Plus, she’s sixteen, and in love with her best friend, and not interested in giving away her birthright to someone who may or may not have killed her father.

She feels at a loss and plans to do something about it…which leads to Luca’s kidnapping. He is someone she values—making him the perfect blackmail. And thus, the damsel trope is in effect, upside-down.

It would’ve been easy enough to create commentary around how we treat damsels by making my male-in-need-of-rescuing, Luca, in the image of previous female damsels. Helpless, shrinking, fainting. You know the type.

But having strong women on the page does not mean the men must be weak or dull or less in any way. Luca is only a damsel in the sense that his true love comes to rescue him.

And isn’t that the story’s purest thread? Seems like a Big Idea to me.

—-

The Princess Will Save You: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

Five Things: July 7, 2020

It’s thundering and storming outside, so let’s see if I can get these five things out before my power cuts out on me.

Donald Trump a father-damaged sociopath: Or so suggests niece Mary Trump in her new book about her uncle, and it’s difficult to argue the point. Advance copies of the book have made their way to various news organizations, which sounds slightly nefarious but is in fact just standard practice (review copies of books go out weeks and sometimes months in advance), and in this case has the laudable side effect of making any additional last-minute attempts to forestall the publication of the book irrelevant, since now all the juicy parts are already out there in the world. My own very quick take on the juicy parts that are out there is that this book is very likely not to tell us anything we didn’t already know about Donald Trump, it just adds additional context. And honestly at this point if you don’t know Donald Trump is a terrible person, it’s because you’ve decided you don’t want to know.

(Oooooh, the entire house’s electrical system just flickered.)

Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro tests positive for coronavirus: Which, well, good, since he’s pretty much the only major world leader further into denial about the virus than our own president. It is unkind and uncharitable to hope he dies from the disease, but I have to admit I wouldn’t feel entirely put out if the virus kicked his ass a little, or maybe a lot. Him coming out of this with minimal effect on his well-being would probably be even worse for Brazil than him not getting it at all, since he really does seem like the “see, it wasn’t so bad, fuck you for thinking otherwise” sort. Considering Brazil has the official second highest number of infections and death (after our own dear US of A), this wouldn’t have any upside for that country’s citizens.

Lin-Manuel Miranda with a healthy response to Hamilton criticisms: Now that the show’s out on Disney+, people are rolling up on it on how it portrays and deals with the issue of slavery, and other aspects of the Hamilton and Revolutionary-era story. Miranda’s response is basically “Sure, I had a lot to cover and two and a half hours to cover it all, choices were made, criticize away,” which is a) a very sensible way of dealing with criticism, b) easy to say when the art in question has garnered one Tonys and Pulitzers and literally millions of dollars. The latter point is not a criticism, by the way, since on a somewhat lower scale I feel the same way about criticism about my work — it might sting more if I hadn’t already been significantly materially rewarded for having made it. But as I was, sure, criticize away! Also, bluntly, criticism means the work is still alive in culture. That’s not chopped liver for an artist.

You’re made of starstuff, part the many: A new study suggests that most of the carbon in the universe (that’s the element the solid bits of you are mostly made of, by weight) come from white dwarfs, i.e., the cooling husks of old, dead stars. This is a less dramatic manner of stellar manufacturing than heavier elements, which get pumped out of supernovae and/or more exotic stellar entities, but, look, not everything has to happen dramatically. Also, “less dramatic” is a relative term here, considering what has to happen to a star for it to get to the white dwarf stage anyway. If you don’t know, hang around the earth for another four or five billion years; you’ll see.

New Far Side panels: Well, that only took a couple of decades. There are three new ones today from Gary Larson, two of which gave me a chuckle, and one of which I went “huh?” for. So basically, the same ratio as during the cartoon’s heyday. Can’t complain about that.

(Also, looks like I got through writing this whole entry without the power going ou

Dragon Con Going Virtual in 2020

You can click on that tweet for more information, but the gist of it is this: 2020 is a bad year for live events, and Dragon Con is no exception to that. Instead of in-person events this year will be an online experience, with the live event moved forward to 2021.

As the 2020 Literary Guest of Honor for Dragon Con, I fully support this decision on the part of the convention. As much as I would have loved to see everyone in Atlanta this year, it’s just not feasible or practicable.

Dragon Con will be updating with more information about their 2020 online plans soon, and when they do, I will let you know here as well. Until then, be safe, wear your masks, and take care of each other.

Back Into Quarantine

Covid infection numbers are up in Ohio, as they are in a whole lot of places, and in the US in general; I’m particularly looking at the infection numbers for Georgia, where I am meant to be at the beginning of September, and they are higher there now than they have ever been before, and by a considerable margin. The deaths that are being reported relating to Covid are not spiking, but those have tended to trail the infection rate (i.e., we’ll likely see more of those soon), and in any event we have discovered that surviving a Covid infection very often doesn’t mean you just bounce back as if from a cold or flu — it often damages lungs and hearts and other organs and takes months (or longer — we’re in the process of finding out) to fully recover.

Nearly every other Western country in the world has seen their infection rates drop down from the March/April time frame, but we haven’t, and now our leaders want to suggest that this is just the way it is and we’ll have to “live with it.” In fact, it’s not the way it is, or at least, wasn’t what it had to be. The reason we’re in this mess is that the GOP followed Trump’s lead in deciding this was a political issue instead of a health and science issue, and radicalized its base against dead simple measures like wearing masks and other such practices, and against waiting until infection rates dropped sufficiently to try to open up businesses again, because apparently they thought capitalism was magic and would work without reasonably fit humans.

The GOP is getting it now, purely out of necessity — Texas now has a mask requirement, as an example — but it’s probably too late in terms of not torpedoing the economy for the rest of the year, and possibly too late for an entire demographic of people who are now convinced that wearing a mask is an admission of weakness and/or fealty to George Soros. It also means that all that time we spent in quarantine in March, April and May was effectively for nothing, and that if we want to actually get hold of this thing we’ll have to go back in quarantine again, at least through September and possibly for all of the rest of 2020.

Which, honestly, really pisses me off. We could have managed this thing — like nearly every other country has — if we had political leadership that wasn’t inept and happy to use the greatest public health crisis in decades as political leverage for… well, who knows? Most of the areas being hit hardest now — places like Florida, Arizona, and Texas — are deep red states; there is no political advantage to be had by having them hit by infection and death and economic uncertainty four months before a national election. The fact that Joe Biden is currently in a statistical tie with Trump in Texas voter polls should terrify the GOP. I don’t expect Biden to get Texas’ electoral votes in November, but honestly it shouldn’t even be this close now. And the thing is, things are almost certainly going to get worse in Texas before they get better.

In April and May I had held out some hope that the second half of 2020 might be salvageable, and that it would be safe, or at least safer, to do the things we normally might have done with the year. Now that we’re in the second half of the year, it’s pretty clear that 2020 is going to be unsafe all the way through. It didn’t have to be this way. If we are going to have to live with it (and hopefully not precisely in the “fuck it, I guess some of you are just gonna have to die” way that the GOP wants us to), we should admit to precisely whose fault it is. The GOP needs to be punished in November for a number of reasons, and this is certainly qualifies as a major reason. I will leave my house to vote, if I need to.

In the meantime: wear your masks, practice social distancing, and stay home if you can. As my friend Ashley Clements put it:

She’s right. Alas.

On July Fourth, What to Get a Nation That Has Everything

It’s simple: Your vote!

(Provided you are a US citizen of legal age.)

Have you registered to vote? If not, do so here, it’s simple and easy.

If you are registered to vote, then check your registration to make sure it’s current. This is also (usually) simple and easy.

This year voting may be more difficult than usual because of the coronavirus and/or governments trying to restrict ways for certain people to vote. So be sure to know the procedures for absentee, mail-in and early voting in your state. The earlier you know this stuff, the better you prepare to get your vote in on time.

Finally, check with friends and relatives and other people you might know to encourage them to vote, to check their registration status, and to prepare for absentee/mail-in voting if necessary. The 2020 elections are an “all hands on deck” sort of historical moment, folks. We need every US citizen who can vote, to vote.

Happy July 4th!

Smudge Wishes You a Very Fine Independence Day Weekend

“Please enjoy your long July weekend. Take it easy on the fireworks. Have a cookout with those in your social bubble, appropriately distanced, of course.”

(And here’s a note from the human — I’m out for the rest of the day! See y’all later.)

A Note on the American Flag in 2020

I recently posted a couple of photos from my front porch and it was noted that we fly an American flag, which led to some comments about folks being reluctant to fly the flag considering the state of the nation and its leadership.

While I understand the motivation there, I don’t particularly agree. The flag of the United States has survived bad presidents and bad administrations before, and it’s flown through the administrations of better presidents as well. Intolerant people have always tried to wrap themselves in it, because they want to arrogate it to themselves and to those they think are true believers. They also tend to confuse the symbol for what the symbol is meant to represent.

I’m not that keen to let these folks just have the flag of the entire damn country. It’s my flag too, and I like it. I think it’s pretty. And I also see it as a symbol of a nation that is never perfect — often far from it — but is perfectable, in the sense that we are always meant to be moving toward that more perfect union we can become. The flag for me is not about who we have been, but who we can be, if we keep working at it.

So, yes. We fly an American flag here at the Scalzi Compound. I like having it here. As we come up on the nation’s birthday, it’s worth reflecting on what sort of nation we would like it to be a symbol of. I’m hoping it will be a better and kinder one than we have today. I’ll work toward that.

This Tweet Did Not Age Well

For those of you missing context. Was Cain at Trump’s Tulsa event? Oh, my, yes he was.

Thoughts and prayers to everyone attending that Mt. Rushmore rally this weekend.

Wear your masks, folks. If you won’t listen to me, then listen to Tom Hanks.

The Big Idea: C.T. Rwizi

Many authors have learned that just because a character comes out of your own head doesn’t mean they won’t fight you from time to time. Author C.T. Rwizi learned this very thing while writing Scarlet Odyssey. The details await you below.

C.T. RWIZI:

The big idea behind Scarlet Odyssey begins at my little sister’s preschool graduation some years ago. All the kids are lined up in front of the seated guests, and we’re at the part where they each introduce themselves and tell us what they aspire to be when they grow up. Most of the girls want to be doctors, scientists and nurses. Most of the boys want to be engineers and police officers. There’s a pilot here and there, a president, and a judge. All the things many African parents wish for their children.

Then one boy breaks the mold and says he wants to be a nurse, like his mother. Instead of applause, he is greeted with a smattering of snickers and scornful laughter. Not from his peers on the stage with him, mind you, but from the adults in the audience.

I’ll never forget the mortified look on that poor kid’s face.

This incident isn’t precisely what inspired me to write Scarlet Odyssey, but it was on my mind as I built the world. I wanted to explore how societies often place arbitrary gender restrictions on roles that, in and of themselves, often have nothing to do with gender. But instead of the very respectable profession of nursing—which is more vital today than ever—I decided to use magic as the vehicle for this exploration. The main character, Salo, is a young man whose affinity with magic, considered womanly in his society, puts him on the outs with his clan and his hypermasculine father, brothers and uncles.

Now, I didn’t want to fall into the stereotype that only gay men choose roles traditionally associated with femininity; this is simply not true. But I felt compelled to extend my exploration of gender roles into an exploration of sexuality, and I also wanted to write a character I’d personally never read before: a gay kid from an African-inspired setting.

So that’s what I did, and I was having a blast. But as I became more serious about the project, I started to get cold feet.

“Come on, Rwizi,” I said to myself. “You live in Africa. In a very Christian neighborhood. What are people going to think of you if you go through with this?”

The truth is, I didn’t want to find out. So I started to change Salo and his story, succumbing to the very same social pressures I was trying to have him face and surmount. I turned his love interest into a brother to remove the romantic component while keeping their relationship close. I made him flirt with young women. I tried to justify my decision by saying, “Well, wouldn’t it be more interesting to write a story about a man who doesn’t conform to his society’s standards of manhood but is actually straight?”

But this was not the story I wanted to tell. This was not my truth. I wanted my book to be free of controversy, however, and I was the author, so I could simply decide to make my main character be whatever I wanted him to be, and if I wanted him to be straight, he’d be straight, and that would be the end of it.

Right?

What I discovered is that once a character becomes alive in your mind, they can develop a personality distinct from yours, the author. They can want things you don’t want them to want. Say things you’d never say. And if you attempt to write them in any other way, you’ll feel like you’re trying to put on a shirt several sizes too small.

The shirt will fight you. Put too much force and it might even tear apart at the seams.

And this is precisely what happened to my story. I developed a serious case of writer’s block. Salo’s scenes in particular became impossible, and never felt right no matter how long I slaved over them. Every time I made him flirt with some young woman, I could almost feel him frowning at me from the shadows of the closet I’d shoved him into, like he disapproved of my attempts to mischaracterize him, to deny him his right to exist as he was.

The sense of guilt I felt was very real.

So, naturally, I decided to do away with his sexuality altogether. Sanitize the whole thing so I didn’t have to deal with it. No love interest, no attraction, no controversy. Problem solved.

Admittedly, I had more success with this approach. I completed the manuscript, and it was good enough to land me an agent and a publishing house. But my editors sensed that something was missing and encouraged me to fill in the blanks. Salo was blurry at the edges, they said, and while they found him sympathetic, I’d deprived him of a certain je ne sais quoi I’d bequeathed to the characters around him. They felt I could do better.

I was forced to finally look him in the eye, and in doing so, look myself in the mirror and admit that there’s such a thing as artistic honesty. It’s not just about writing what you know, but also what you feel, because other people will sense when you’re holding something back.

When you’re not being authentic.

I’d made the conscious choice to deny my character his sexuality so as to avoid courting controversy, and my work suffered as a result. But when I finally allowed myself to be completely honest about who Salo was, I achieved a level of characterization that had previously eluded me, and a more profound exploration of the themes I’d set out to address in the first place.

It was like a weight coming off my shoulders. And while I’d always loved my story and the world I’d built—I couldn’t have finished the work otherwise—now I was completely, wholly, unreservedly in love with it.

I have no regrets.

—-

Scarlet Odyssey: Amazon

Read an excerpt. Follow the author on Twitter.

Nikon D780 Followup Report

I got my Nikon D780 in May as a birthday present for myself and explained my reasons for getting it (as opposed to a mirrorless camera) then. Today I archived the last couple of months worth of photos (roughly 2,000), and I thought it would be a good time to check in with how (and if!) I’m still enjoying my latest photographic purchase.

The short answer is: Yes! The new sensor is very good with colors and their gradients (I’ve noticed this particularly with my sunset pictures) and is otherwise superior to the one that I had in my previous camera, the D750. The battery life has been tremendous — I charged it when I got it, took 2,000 photos with it and was still at just under a half charge when I charged it today — and I can charge it now with a USB-C cord, which is pretty great. And while I usually compose photos through the eyepiece, the “quasi-mirrorless” option of taking pictures with the back screen has been very useful, particularly for when I want more control with focus. The camera is heavier than a mirrorless camera would be but it’s no more heavy than my previous camera, so I don’t really notice.

Complaints? A couple, mostly relating to the fact that I notice graininess more in my lower-light photos shot on auto than I did with the D750. I don’t know if that’s because of something with the sensor or the camera’s auto choices for ISO and shutter speed, or because the way the D780 processes RAW photos is different, or some combination. But it’s noticeable to me and I’ll have to look into that. With that said, this problem is generally fixable by turning on a light; I also have a faster prime lens which will likely make the problem if I ever fix it onto my camera. This is a long way of saying the problem here is probably the operator (waves). I’ll look into it more.

Overall, however, a very good camera and I have been delighted with the purchase. I plan to take lots and lots and lots of photos with it.

Five Things: July 1, 2020

As I wrote on Twitter earlier today, well, the first two decades of 2020 are done. Let’s get to the next few decades! And to start off, these five things:

Trump, doubling down on being a racist piece of shit: This time by asserting that “Black Lives Matter” is a symbol of hate, which is not something he would say about, oh, the battle flag of a racist country that went to war specifically to own people. Because he’s a racist, you see. But we knew that about him. Also, you know, look: When the actual government of Mississippi is to the left of you on the whole “symbols of hate” thing, you may be too far out on that racist limb. The silver lining here is that there’s increasingly little wiggle room for the few remaining Trump supporters who want to believe that they are not racist to maneuver that particular rationale; Trump is seeing to that. Meanwhile:

The GOP defection is real: At least for old establishment Republicans who did time in Washington, in this case, a bunch of Bush-years folks. I don’t think individually these sort of public defections matter that much, but what it is doing by aggregation is giving a whole bunch of GOP voters sick of Trump’s bullshit cover to step into a voting booth and vote for a Democrat just this once. Of course, it doesn’t solve the problem of the fact that the GOP base is filled with racist ignorants who want conspiracy theorists as their elected representatives. But, I guess, one problem at a time.

Meanwhile, Putin, Ruler for Life: Russian voters (or, at least, we’re told Russian voters) approved changes in the Russian constitution that lets Putin run for president there at least twice more after his current term ends in 2024. You can bet our current president is super-jealous today about that. I don’t know enough about the Russian electoral system to know if the fix was actually in there, although I do know that Putin is more popular generally in Russia than our own president is here, so it’s entirely possible that the Russians would be happy to have Putin run things until he’s 83. Live your dreams, Russian electorate!

Catching readers up: Over on Reddit, someone asked about repetition of information in series books and why it’s done, and used the Old Man’s War series as an example of such repetition (and in the poster’s opinion, not a great one, although they liked the series generally). Since I was in a position to know why I repeat information in the series, I went ahead and explained it. If you’re interested, go ahead and click the link at the head of this paragraph (also, please don’t give the original poster any guff; it was a fair criticism and I wasn’t offended by it).

It’s Debbie Harry’s birthday! She’s 75. It’s a good age. Have a Blondie video.

The Big Idea: Alma Alexander

In this week’s Big Idea for The Second Star, author Alma Alexander goes big… and then gets small… and then tells how it’s all connected.

ALMA ALEXANDER:

There isn’t just one Big Idea in The Second Star – there are half a dozen of them, interwoven into a complex story tapestry. This is at once a story about voyaging to the stars and coming home again, about our other selves hidden inside of us, about what people are willing to believe and to endure for the sake of that belief. But what it all boils down to is macro and micro universes.

There is an incredible video which starts with a closeup of a woman’s eye and then spirals out, showing her body on a sward of grass, the park she is lying in, the city, the country, the earth, the solar system, the galaxy, the galaxy cluster, into deep space…and then back, into her eye, diving deep inside her body, her veins, her red blood cells, her DNA, her molecules, her atoms.

It is all linked; it is all one; we are starstuff, as we are reminded by the poetically minded scientists (or the scientifically inclined poets) amongst us.

We know almost as little about what goes on in deep space as we really know about what happens inside a human mind, a human soul, and The Second Star is in essence that woman’s eye in that video, vision turned inward and outward, a bridge between two worlds.

This is a story about how something OUT THERE – out amongst the unknowable stars which are still shining in a dangerous here-be-dragons expanse, in which literally anything might be possible – meets something inside a human mind and human soul, misinterprets what it finds, changes everything it touches, and then leaves the shattered human beings to battle with the consequences.

We all love our science fiction aliens – but the truth of it is that a truly ALIEN alien would leave us floundering in a morass of incomprehension because there may not be a way to make one of us understand the other. There could be mistakes made in the way the alien perceives us – which leads to unspeakable consequences, not necessarily because the alien entity wished to hurt us but because it was simply ignorant of what causes us hurt. There could be our own utter misinterpretations of the aliens’ contact with us to the point where we might have built worlds and worldviews on completely misunderstood phenomena (and what would it do to us if a glimmer of true understanding was permitted to spark through?).

The Second Star is science fiction – but in the end, the ‘fiction’ is a story about people, and what they would do when faced with a ‘science’ which changes everything they thought they knew, changes their most deeply held beliefs.  It is the irresistible force of change and of the sheer pure strangeness of the universe, meeting the immovable object of our fundamental humanity and how we might respond to such a shattering stimulus.

In my story, it’s what frightened and intractable authorities (secular and sacred) might do to preserve their hold on power. It’s about how far someone who is ‘just obeying orders’ is willing to go. It’s about how much honorable, dedicated, and empathetic people might be willing to sacrifice on behalf of someone whose care has been placed in their hands.

And finally it’s about what human beings with the immeasurable courage to take their lives into their hands and go out into the universe on behalf of all of us here on the home world would need to face in order to accomplish their task and fulfil their vision, and about the very real possibility that such people may never truly be permitted to return to the place they left behind.

This is a Big Idea novel which is really a bridge spanning several Big Ideas, knitting them into an even bigger whole.

Just remember. We are all starstuff.

—-

The Second Star: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|IndieBound|Powell’s

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

Five Things: 6/30/20

The last one of the month! Let’s get to it.

So will there be any more “Five Things” after today? I think so! It’s a good, quick format for me, in that it covers a lot of territory regarding things I’m thinking about and/or want to share, and makes for lively comment threads that (at least so far) don’t get too bogged down on a single topic. And it gives me new stuff here on the regular, which I like. It doesn’t seem to have stopped me in going deep on specific topics I want to go deep on, either, which I was curious about. It seems like a good and useful feature, and I think I will continue it.

Will I continue to do it daily? I think I’ll aim for dailyish, which is to say if I skip a day because I wrote a longer piece, or just decide to skip it for a day because of reasons, that’ll be fine. And sometimes if I only have three or four things, I might say “close enough” and post that. But generally speaking it’s not difficult to come up with five things. So, yeah, let’s keep doing this thing for now. If I get bored with it later, I’ll drop it! But I’m not bored with it yet.

Carl Reiner, RIP: This is one of those “you knew it was coming, and you knew it was probably coming soon but still” things. The man lived to 98 and you can’t say that’s not a good run for anyone, and in his case his run included being one of the acknowledged masters of modern comedy, so there is that. My favorite thing of his was the “2,000 Year Old Man” bits he did with Mel Brooks — Reiner modestly gave Brooks the lion’s share of the credit for that, but a two-hander bit of comedy needs both hands. It wouldn’t have worked without Reiner. I liked it enough that I did my own version of it, once. It was okay. Reiner did it better. Farewell, sir.

The “Russian Bounties” thing is gonna stick, I think: The President has been saying he hasn’t been briefed on that thing, but all the evidence points to the contrary; the best you can say is that Trump ignored the material because some didn’t distill down to a single sentence and speak it at him veeeeery slooooowly, because apparently that’s what you have to do if you want the President to know something that didn’t come from a Fox News morning show or OAN. But that doesn’t make things better; it makes things worse. It’s really hard to spin “The Russians are paying for American deaths”; it does directly to the heart of the Trump constituency. Trump (or his administration) knew and did nothing about it, and it’s possible American soldiers are dead because of it. That’s going to stay.

Lights out on Broadway: Through January at least. Your further reminder that 2020 is going to be a strange, lost year, entertainment-wise. Movie releases scheduled for July have been pushed back in August, and I suspect will now be pushed back even further than that, because, surprise! Turns out the coronavirus didn’t give a shit whether we were all bored and hated masks. So rude, honestly! At least we have Hamilton on TV later this week. But that’s not exactly comfort to everyone in NYC theater currently out of a job, and out of a job for another six months at least.

Oh, look, arty roses. Krissy has upped the flower quotient around the Scalzi Compound recently and I’ve been having fun taking pictures of them. Here’s a picture of our miniature rose bush, done up in “handpainted monochrome” style. Enjoy.

Check In, 6/30/20

First, in my brain I had today, Tuesday, pegged as the first day of July when I took my break. I was genuinely taken by surprise yesterday when I looked at a calendar and it was the 29th instead of the 30th. Math is hard, y’all. Anyway, today was the day I put in my schedule to check back in with everyone, even if it’s a day early on the calendar. So, uh, hello.

Second, I feel better, thank you. I spent most of my days off reading, watching movies, playing video games and taking pictures, such as the one above, of a lily that’s in my yard. And also, you know, thinking about life and things and stuff. Taking time away from the world was a good thing for me, because the week before this felt like getting repeatedly punched in the face by news and revelations, and I needed time to process all of it, away from people who (it at least felt like) wanted me to immediately respond to everything that was happening, and then wanted to nitpick how I responded. I can handle a lot of that, but eventually I need to tap out, as I expect anyone else would. Four days off did a lot to help get me on a more even keel.

(Although not entirely. Still processing, folks. Still thinking about things. But feeling a little less like I’m being punched in the face by events.)

Third, looking back on June I got less writing done that I would like: about 12,000 words, which is not bad, but I spent most of the second half of the month distracted by events, both public and personal. Tomorrow starts the second half of the year — I know, what the actual hell, right? — and if I write a thousand words a day, every day, between July 1 and December 31, I will just about be on schedule for everything I have due by the end of the year in terms of pay copy. This doesn’t count other projects, both professional and personal, I’d like to engage with before 2020 is history.

My solution here is something I already know — run away from social media for some portion of the day. When I did that in the first half of June I did fine; when I didn’t in the second half, well. I lost a considerable amount of focus. This is, for me, a tale as old as time.

With that said, there’s another aspect of it, too, which I think I’ve been minimizing: it’s not just time on social media, it’s engagement when I am on it, and how social media is making me feel when I use it. The term “doomscrolling” refers to how people basically suck down fountains of bad news on their social media thanks to friends (and others) posting things they’re outraged about. It’s gotten to the point for me where, particularly on Twitter, it feels like it’s almost all doomscrolling, all the time, whether I want it to be or not.

I don’t want to leave Twitter (or other social media), but I do have to recalibrate how I manage it if I want to stay on it. So that’s a thing I’ll be doing — I’ll be trying some things on Twitter and other social media starting today and recalibrating as needed going forward. How will this affect Whatever? I don’t think too much, except that I am considering turning off comments on posts here slightly more often, if for time and/or other reasons I’m not able to ride herd on the conversation. We’ll see.

So that’s where I am at the moment! Wheee, it’s fun! I hope you’re okay, and wearing masks and being smart about social distancing and all that good stuff. We’re about to get into the second half of this year. It’s going to be a thing. Let’s get to it.