Smupdate

In other words, Smudge update! This little guy has been living it up here in the Scalzi compound and is being an adorable pain in the neck! He is the most playful kitten we’ve ever had, Sugar and Spice as kittens don’t even compare to how crazy this dude is. He loves chewing on cords, which is kind of an issue, especially since we have a lot of different chargers in this house. And he loves attacking literally any part of your body, not just toes, as most kittens do. He will straight up attack your hair or your thigh, totally unprovoked. He’s a real wild child.

But, as you can see, when he’s sleeping, he’s a little cuddly angel who does no wrong. He is also a major explorer! If you leave a door open, he will not hesitate to venture forth into the unknown. Smudge is also very unafraid of the other cats, even though they still largely dislike him. They hiss and bat at him, and yet he still charges at full speed towards them. He doesn’t take hints very well.

Well, anyways, enjoy this adorable picture of Smudge, and have a great day!

New Books and ARCs, 7/13/18

Friday the 13th is a lucky day here at the Scalzi Compound, because I get to show off all these new books and ARCs to you. What here would you consider yourself lucky to read? Tell us all in the comments!

The Big Idea: Raz Greenberg

My first personal awareness of Hayao Miyazaki didn’t occur until I was well into adulthood, but for Raz Greenberg, his journey with the great animator started much earlier, and led him to write a book on the filmmaker, Hayao Miyazaki: Exploring the Early Work of Japan’s Greatest Animator.

RAZ GREENBERG:

The roots of the big idea behind my book, Hayao Miyazaki Exploring the Early Work of Japan’s Greatest Animator, go back to a childhood experience I share with many other members of my generation – that is, kids who grew up in Israel of the 1980s. We only had one television channel back then, the national broadcast channel, and it had a very strict, pedagogic agenda about what kids are supposed to be watching. One show that fell into this category, which the channel broadcasted many, many times during that decade (almost every other summer vacation), was known in Hebrew as Halev (“Heart”). It was an animated adaptation of a short story included in Edmondo de Amicis’ classic 1886 children’s novel of the same name, and it followed a courageous boy named Marco on his journey from Italy to Argentina to find his mother, after letters from her stopped coming.

The original novel, with its deep patriotic themes, was already considered a classic in Israel; many young Israeli parents who read it in their childhood were overjoyed to discover it again and watch the show with their children, following Marco’s weekly adventures all the way to the happy end. But there was one element in the show that left both its young Israeli viewers and their parents puzzled: why would a show about an Italian boy travelling to Argentina have Japanese end credits?

Yes, that was my generation’s first major exposure to anime. We’ve had a couple of science fiction shows to watch as well (Star Blazers and Battle of the Planets), but for the most part, we were raised on a healthy diet of Japanese-produced adaptations of classic children’s literature, with Halev being the one show that all the ‘80s children remember.

Flash forward to the end of the ‘90s: my interest in comics led me to the discovery of the world of anime and manga, which in turn led me to major in Asian studies during my BA. It wasn’t long before I became acquainted with the works of Hayao Miyazaki, first through his incredible manga epic Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind and later through his films. This was a few years after Princess Mononoke made a lot of noise in the Japanese box office, and a few years before Spirited Away made Miyazaki a household name all over the world, a time when little of Miyazaki’s work was actually available in translation, but even the very few items I could get my hands on made me fall completely in love with what I saw. The more I got into Miyazaki’s work, the more I realized that something in his design style feels very familiar. A few searches through the internet revealed that indeed, Miyazaki was one of the animators who worked on Halev.

My initial reaction was “cool!” and that was pretty much it. But when I started working on my MA thesis about childhood in Miyazaki’s films, by which time most of his cinematic filmography became available for the non-Japanese audience, I realized that this filmography actually tells only part of the story. Miyazaki directed his first feature-length film in 1979; during the 16 years that preceded this movie, he worked as an animator in other people’s films and television shows, and also as a director in various televisions projects. There was an entire Miyazaki filmography here to be discovered beyond his familiar cinematic work. At some point, I realized that I want to write a book about it.

I started collecting materials – relevant films, television episodes, comics, books, articles and interviews. As often happens, other stuff got in the way: I was struggling with my PhD thesis (my academic focus now being animation theory in general, rather than Japanese animation), work, other stuff… but when I finally set down, and started writing, I began to understand that it was no coincidence that the animator who worked on a Halev is also responsible for classics like My Neighbor Totoro, other than the very obvious elements of the former that echo in the latter.

Like all great storytellers, Miyazaki’s works are about people – and whether these people come from Japan, Italy or anywhere else, he always takes his audience in an unforgettable journey as they watch his protagonists grow emotionally. Exploring Miyazaki’s early works and seeing how they inspired (as explained in the book’s concluding chapters) his later acclaimed works gave me a fascinating perspective on how Miyazaki himself grew as an artist. I hope readers will find it equally fascinating.

—-

Hayao Miyazaki: Exploring the Early Work of Japan’s Greatest Animator: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Visit the author’s site.

What You Should Be Watching: Final Space

Hello, everyone, and welcome to another edition of “What You Should Be Watching”! Today I’ll be telling you about Final Space, a TBS original adult cartoon. It’s a sci-fi that takes place in an Earth where aliens are totally normal, and the Earth has a military-style organization called “Infinity Guard” that has spaceships and lasers and all that cool stuff.

There’s only ten episodes currently, but the plot is pretty interesting. Basically, there’s this super adorable planet-destroying creature (see above) that the bad guy, Lord Commander, is after. The main character, Gary, a prisoner aboard an Infinity Guard prison ship, finds the little creature floating around in space, and now Lord Commander is after Gary in pursuit of the super weapon, who is now named Mooncake. The ten episodes follow Gary and Mooncake on their adventure to save the universe and stop Lord Commander, and include a variety of interesting characters you’re sure to love.

If you’re thinking, “another sci-fi adult cartoon right after Rick and Morty?” I can assure you, the two are pretty different. And what’s wrong with there being more than one sci-fi adult cartoon out at a time? Don’t you all like sci-fi?

Anyways, not only is this show super cool because of its sci-fi technology and weapons and cool planets and aliens, but also it’s hilarious! It made me bust up laughing a good number of times. It’s not just what’s said out loud that’s funny, it’s a lot of little things, like the fact one of the characters is named Avocado, or that the main character can never obtain the chocolate chip cookies he so desperately wants. It’s honestly really funny without being that “too vulgar” or offensive kind of funny that a lot of adult cartoons seem to do.

It’s also surprisingly emotional! I actually teared up, like, three times! The characters have real backstories and emotions, and a lot of them have very realistic personalities.

Anyways, I highly recommend this show to anyone who likes funny, action-packed cartoons. If you’ve seen it, did you like it? Do you have a favorite character? Let me know, and as always, have a great day!

The Big Idea: Jay Schiffman

What is best in life? If you are, say, Conan the Barbarian, you have one sort of answer. If you are Jay Schiffman, or one of his characters in his novel Game of the Gods, your answer might be very different indeed.

JAY SCHIFFMAN:

There are two aspects of my life that have significantly shaped my worldview, and in turn, influenced my novel Game of the Gods. Family and politics.

Therein lies the big idea.

I’m from a big family, married into a big family, and have created a big family of my own. If numbers matter: my wife and I have 6 kids; my wife is from 6, and I’m from 4. I can fill a small school bus with nieces and nephews and they just keep coming. Even if I wasn’t close with my kin (I am), the sheer volume of siblings, in-laws, cousins, nieces, and nephews would probably define who I am. I can throw a rock and hit a relative.

Similarly, my love of politics, academic background as a political scientist, and my current political obsessions have greatly influenced my work as a writer. I’ll keep my political views to a bare minimum and simply say I’m a political junkie addicted to all things Trump. A New York Times piece about the underbelly of Trump, Inc., coupled with a caffeine chaser, is my drug of choice.

Politics and family lie at the heart of my novel and pump life into its dramatic passages and character development. At its core, my novel is a sci-fi action adventure. The main character, Max Cone, is an accomplished military leader and judge in a futuristic nation that is losing its power. His family is taken and his friends are killed. He assembles an unconventional band of outcasts to help him fight for his loved ones. This talented, but unpredictable group must navigate a dangerous world filled with despots. Action drives the narrative, but what motivates the characters is integral to the story.

If there is a single animating idea tying these disparate characters together it’s the significance of close personal relationships versus collective identities. For some characters in Game of the Gods, the bonds of family are far more important to their human experience than transcendent ties to religion, country, or politics. “Truth” is more likely to come from a child’s hug than from a charismatic clergyman. Some characters know who they are and what’s important to them, while others struggle aimlessly—meandering through different “isms” and oscillating between the terra firma of family and the lofty dogmas of religious movements.

The tension between close family ties and transcendent ones often takes the form of characters questioning what they once believed to be right. For some characters, questions arise about the truthfulness of a father or spouse, and for others it’s their faith in the divine.

Max was once a “True Federate,” an accomplished military commander and the highest judge in the Federacy. But we learn early on of his disillusionment, and soon after, the heartbreaking reasons why. In Max’s case, the love of family and nation are in direct conflict. The Federacy deemed his wife a traitor and punished her harshly as a result. Max recognizes that she was in fact disloyal, but he cannot forgive the Federacy for her punishment. As we follow Max on his adventures, his relationship with his wife, country, and God are called into question and he must come to terms with the authenticity of each.

Max’s group of outcasts faces similar existential concerns. Mavy Sway, a loyal emissary for the world’s most powerful religious leader, the Holy Father, balances the love of her family with her desire to see the truth about God’s purpose. Trace Rollins, a natural cynic, spends much of his life shuffling through different collective identities—revolutionary, partisan, abstainer, dissident. Finally, he gives up and becomes a drug addict. But whereas Mavy has a major crisis of faith in her family and her God, Trace, an otherwise lost soul, never questions his commitment to his loved ones. Each member of Max’s group struggles with questions of identity and meaning.

Except one. Pique Rollins.

Although Pique is only 13 years old, it is not her age that causes her not to question. To the contrary, it is her wisdom.

I should say here that Pique is my favorite character and one that is modeled on women in my family I greatly admire. Pique has all the “answers” to life, but only because she has so few questions. She’s content. She knows herself. There’s no existential crisis. No need for deeper meaning. She finds fulfillment in friends and family.

When Max first interviews Pique to see if she’s worthy of becoming a Federate citizen, she tells him that all he needs to know about her is that she’s a good fighter and she doesn’t lie. To the extent Pique has a guiding moral philosophy, it’s humility about sweeping claims.

In an important exchange between Pique and Mavy, we see their different worldviews, and Max’s take on it:

“Either there’s one righteous path that the Holy Father is leading us down or there isn’t,” Mavy says. “If you prove to me that the Holy Father isn’t the shepherd I believe him to be, then I don’t know what to make of this reality we’re living in. I need to trust him. You hear me. I need to trust him.”

Pique nods her head as if she understands. She doesn’t, but the most important thing for her is that Mavy feels like she does. For Pique, it’s not about Truth with a capital “T.” It never has been. It’s about the little truths people share every day: honesty, caring for loved ones, showing compassion to strangers, being better than our instincts. Her idea of what’s important couldn’t be farther from Mavy’s. “I’m a good fighter and I don’t lie,” Pique tells her. “I don’t understand a lot more than that. I’m not sure I want to. But I know one thing. Someday, I hope you and I can be close. Like sisters. Okay. You and I can be sisters.”

Pique understands what I—and my alter-ego Max Cone—only sometimes appreciate. When you’re surrounded by loving friends and family, there’s little reason to search elsewhere.

—-

Game of the Gods: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

My Three Sons, One a Parrot: A Twitter Story

It began innocently enough.

What a heartwarming tale of love and acceptance of Myke Cole, my son, who identifies as a parrot.

Postscript:

The Big Idea: Ruthanna Emrys

Community matters, even when or if your community is something… eldritch. As Ruthanna Emrys explains in her Big Idea for her newest novel, Deep Roots.

RUTHANNA EMRYS:

I’ve never lived among my own people. This was obvious to me, growing up, and I came to the logical conclusion that I must be an alien. Maybe I was from Pluto? My childhood grasp of comparative planetary ecology wasn’t very clear, but I definitely wasn’t from around here. Occasionally I found snatches of belonging at retreats and summer camps and holiday get-togethers. Eventually I pieced together the commonalities, and realized that I was not so much Plutonian as Jewish, learning to pass among Protestant neighbors and their culture almost, but not quite, entirely unlike the beliefs and assumptions I picked up at home.

Of course, by that time, I didn’t quite fit in with all-Jewish communities either. Instead, I became most comfortable in places with no majority at all. Urban cosmopolities, where no one is expected to be just like anyone else, and we build bonds around the assumption of mutual weirdness. But I always wondered what it would be like to fit in perfectly. To take for granted that my neighbors think and believe just as I do.

Aphra Marsh, the protagonist of Winter Tide and Deep Roots, had that—and lost it. Until she was twelve, all her neighbors learned Enochian alongside English, worshipped together at the Temple of Dagon, and walked down to the beach every evening to welcome their elders from the waves. Then came the raid.

Two decades later, Aphra and her brother were all that remained of the Deep Ones on land. In Winter Tide, they returned to the ruins of Innsmouth to recover a piece of their heritage—and ultimately promised to rebuild their childhood home. So in Deep Roots, they head for New York City, following the rumor of people who carry a trace of their family’s blood. Maybe enough that—if these lost cousins are willing to move back to the place their ancestors fled, and learn the ways once practiced there—their children might be strong enough to go into the waves as elders. Maybe enough that Aphra won’t truly be the last.

Of course, Aphra’s cousins have their own ideas about what they want to do with their lives, and their own communities, some of which aren’t just multicultural but multispecies. The Outer Ones offer the polar opposite of Innsmouth: a life of endless exploration and cosmopolitan conversation, at only the smallest of costs. It’s not what Aphra thinks she wants, but it’s closer to what she’s started to build. I wanted to explore the tension I’ve found in my own life, between the comfort of familiarity, and the risks and joys of living with difference. And, deeper, the ways that comfort can mask brittleness, and seeming risk can mask resilience.

If you do the math, I was writing Deep Roots in 2016. Actually, I was mostly not writing Deep Roots in 2016, an issue that I understand was somewhat common among my fellow authors. I would start on a scene, someone would say something horrible on the news, and I would spend the evening freaking out on Twitter. I figured I’d catch up after the election, when the grand drama of fighting back the Dark Lord would finally resolve and I’d be able to relax.

Obviously, I’d misidentified which book we were up to in the trilogy.

The election infuriated and terrified me. It also brought many things into clearer focus. One of those was how strongly I valued my cosmopolitan community, and the embrace of neighbors who didn’t expect me to fit neatly in a box. But another was how those communities can fail. Sometimes we love our neighbors—and sometimes we only manage a surface civility, without the deeper caring and respect that make relationships work. And so the story began to come together: one about the glories of Innsmouth and of New York, and the things that are hard to find in either place. It’s a story about learning what we really want out of community, and family, at those rare and terrible points where we’ve lost so much that we’re forced—and able—to build something new.

—-

Deep Roots: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

What Does Death Look Like?

Hey, everyone! I’m writing a story that has Death as a main character, and it’s been really fun coming up with what I think Death looks like, what Death wears and sounds like, and basically Death’s personality overall.

In my head, Death is a guy with pale skin who wears pretty much all black, but is still somewhat stylish. He’s a little over six feet tall, and is insanely thin. His eyes are dark brown and his hair is black, and he has that fabulous kind of fluffy hair that all gorgeous immortals have. He’s quiet and doesn’t waste words; he’s a very busy person so he doesn’t want to waste time with small talk and unimportant things. Although he seems cold and uncaring, he possesses a lot of empathy but just doesn’t show it due to his field of work. Death has a big ass scythe with a blade made of obsidian and can shadow-travel. Oh, and he loves sweets! He doesn’t need to sleep or eat or anything, he just happens to love sweets.

So that’s my version of Death, and I’m curious what you all think. Is Death a skeleton with a scythe? Is she a badass goddess? Is he polite? Do they have long hair? Do they even have a form at all? Let me know in the comments, and have a great day!

Private Lives in a Public Era

Writer Ella Dawson posted a piece on her blog (subsequently posted to Vox) entitled “We Are All Public Figures Now,” in which she tackles what she sees as the erosion of personal privacy due to social media and other factors, and what she thinks it all means. It’s an interesting read and I recommend it, and also, I agree with much of it, in spirit, if not in the letter of the law.

More specifically, relating to the letter of the law, “public figure” is means a specific thing here in the US, and in fact most people aren’t one, even if you have a Twitter or Facebook or other social media feed. It takes a reasonable amount of effort to become one (although if you want a shortcut, get elected to something). There is such a thing as a “limited public figure,” which essentially carves out a slice of your life for which you can be held up for public comment and scrutiny. But even then, that’s not most people. It takes some work in the US not to be a private individual, and I suspect most people don’t want to make that effort. So from a strictly legal, New York Times Co. v. Sullivan point of view, no, we’re not all public figures, nor are we likely to be found so.

But it is absolutely true that these days, far more of our daily activity is able to be made public, though use of phones, cameras, social media and other tools. Words or activity that would previously be confined to a select few — and would be expected to be private — can now be transmitted to a much wider audience, very quickly. This includes words and actions you might have reasonably expected would not be in the purview of the public at all.

For example, the instigating action of Dawson’s piece, in which a passenger on a plane livetweeted an apparent “meet cute” between two other passengers in the row in front of her. The livetweeter, among other things, illustrated the tweeting with photos (with faces scrubbed but even so), noted the two people being tweeted about had active social media accounts, and did other things to make it easy (or easier) for the people following the livetweeting to suss out who these two people might be — and indeed, they were found online — at which point the Internet does what it does, for good and ill, and then it came for the original livetweeter.

None of these people, it should be noted, are public individuals — the meet cute couple certainly not, but also not the livetweeter, even if they later admitted hoping to get a writing gig (being a writer also doesn’t automatically make you a public figure). And also, the couple chatting away at each other almost certainly did not expect to have their private conversation documented by someone else, particularly in a way that made it possible for their identities to be discovered by total strangers. Now, you can argue whether or not a commercial plane qualifies as a public or private space, and we’d be here all day about that, but I think it’s reasonable to say that the two people chatting with each other believed their discussion would not leave the confines of their airline row. Thanks to this, neither of the two of them will likely think that again.

And the question (or a question, anyway) is where the proper line should be for things like this. If the livetweeter had posted the rundown of their discussion, but without pictures or identifying details, would that have been kosher? If the couple had been excessively loud, so that anyone in the surrounding rows could have heard them, would they have been fair game? If one or the other had been making an ass of themselves, would, say, pictures, be back on the table? Is there a hard and fast rule for what is acceptable to tweet about strangers on airplanes? Is it different if they’re in a cafe? Or at a political rally? Is it different if retelling is not livetweeted but is instead saved for a blog post or article at a later time?

This is all interesting for me for at least two semi-competing reasons. The first is that I am a writer; I do a lot of observing of other people and listening in public. Occasionally I’ve written about what I’ve seen or heard. I tend to be very expansive about what’s fair game to listen and look at in public and quasi-public spaces (i.e., if I can hear your conversation when I’m on the street or in a cafe or on an airplane without making an effort to, I’m not going to feel like it’s out of bounds to pay attention to what you’re saying, and maybe you should be quieter, my friends). But I’m equally aware that not everything I hear or see needs to be documented, commented on, or be offered up for public enjoyment on social media, not in the least because the people I’m observing are usually just leading their own private lives. My awareness of my own megaphone, and my responsibilities in using it, comes into play here. I have to make judgment calls about whether what I see is commentable, and how so, and when so. Whether you agree with those judgment calls will be your own decision to make.

The second is that I’ve been on the other end of this equation too: I’ve had my public whereabouts and whenabouts commented on in real time by people on social media, and not when I was doing something meant for public consumption, like a panel or tour event, but when I was just loitering about in an airport or a coffeeshop. And you know what? That’s a little weird. It doesn’t bother me, generally, and I’ve personally never been made to feel unsafe because of it, and sometimes it’s even nice. But on the other hand, what’s comfortable or acceptable for me is not necessarily so for anyone else in a similar position, and in any event I’m not sure it will do anyone on social media any good, least of all me, if someone takes a picture of me scratching my ass or picking my nose while I’m waiting at a boarding gate. I’d want people to exercise the same judgment as I try to have in a similar situation.

(And for the record, with that couple on the plane, in the same situation I probably wouldn’t have tweeted anything about them, or if I did, I suspect I would have kept it to a couple of non-specific tweets — but I might have stored away the meet cute scenario for later, if I ever get around to writing a contemporary romantic comedy, which, hey, I might, so there.)

With a lot of this, honestly, a little empathy goes a long way — remembering that other people have lives beyond their capacity to be tweet fodder or story material for you, and that for the most part they want to keep it private, and reasonably have that as an expectation. As should you, if the situation was reversed. What’s “public” is a lot wider now, but in the appropriate times and places, we can still extend the courtesy of privacy, or, if not that, then anonymity.

John and Athena Talk About Stuff, Episode Three: Jurassic World Fallen Kingdom

Athena and I are back at it again with another dive into the cinema’s sequel-mad summer, this time visiting Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom to see what we think about dinosaurs this time around. We talk about the movie, the differences between the Jurassic Park and Jurassic World films, and whether we’d ever go pay to see the dinosaurs ourselves.

Warning: Some spoilers in the podcast.

And Now, For Your Summer Monday Viewing Pleasure, My Backyard Maple

It’s very green. And yes, maples are generally best photographed in the fall, when they’re all blazed up in yellows and oranges, but I think there’s something to be said for the moment when they’re in the height of their green as well.

It’s been a beautiful summer around here so far. Hope yours has been, too.

Saturday Afternoon Catnapping, Starring Smudge

He’s all kittened out. Hope your Saturday is going well.

Store-Bought VS Food Network Recipe: Butternut Squash Soup

I fucking love soup, man.

Soup is the greatest food known to mankind. There’s so many different types, so many different flavors and endless possibilities as to what can be created. Some soups have grains, some have meat, some have cheese, it all depends. Some are chunky, some are creamy, and others broth-y. Honestly, you can make any kind of soup, it’s truly magical!

One soup I really love is butternut squash. It’s creamy, flavorful, and reminds me of my favorite time of the year, fall. Also, it’s orange. How many foods do you eat that are orange?!

So I decided to try and make some butternut squash soup from scratch. I love Food Network, so I usually use them for most recipes, and I found one for butternut squash soup here. While I was at Kroger getting the ingredients, I decided to pick up a box of ready-to-eat butternut squash soup to compare it to the homemade version. So I bought Imagine Creamy Butternut Squash Soup. It was just the first box of butternut squash soup I saw, so I grabbed it, I didn’t realize it was organic or anything. When I went to their website, it says it’s also vegan, kosher, gluten free, soy free, and dairy free! So that’s interesting. The homemade version was made with chicken stock and butter, so it does not meet the same qualifications as the Imagine one. The homemade one is on the right, store-bought on the left.

Anyways, I made both, and had my dad and friend taste test them. They both liked the homemade version better. The homemade version was much thinner, not creamy at all, weirdly gritty (like orange juice pulp kind of), and had chunks of onion in it. The store-bought was pretty thick, really creamy, definitely on the sweeter side (like a lot of nutmeg or cinnamon flavor), and overall pretty good.

So, by majority vote, the Food Network version wins, but I didn’t really like it. It was far too thin. The flavor was fine (make sure to add a lot of salt), and I liked the onions, but it just wasn’t what I was looking for in butternut squash soup.

What’s your favorite kind of soup? What’s the best recipe you know for butternut squash soup? Let me know, and have a great day!

Keep Scott Pruitt Moist: The Dramatic Reading

I’ve been a fan of Alexandra Petri for a while now — she’s possibly the funniest person in newspapers today — but I think she went above and beyond with “Keep Scott Pruitt Moist,” a column that went up mere hours before the man resigned his position as head of the EPA, and which I think qualifies as an actual science fiction short story (one worth considering for awards, even). I liked it so much that I decided to make a dramatic reading of the column. With Alexandra Petri’s permission I am presenting it here. Enjoy.

 

New Books and ARCs, 7/6/18

I hope you like books, because this week we’ve got a very fine stack of new books and ARCs that have come to the Scalzi Compound. What here would you be loving to read right now? Tell us all in the comments.

Nanette, Hannah Gadsby and Me

You don’t need me to tell you that Nanette, a new Netflix comedy special by Hannah Gadsby, is an unexpected landmark in stand-up performance, because so many others will tell you that. But I’m going to anyway (before I go on to make a tangential point): For the first fifteen minutes or so, Nanette is a pleasant enough show, with Gadsby talking, in a winningly self-deprecating fashion, about growing up “a little bit lesbian” in Tasmania in a time when being such was actually and literally illegal. And then, having established this winningly self-deprecating mode for making her audience comfortable with who and what she is, Gadsby spends the rest of the special angrily and righteously deconstructing those first few minutes, not sparing herself, her audience or the culture at large.

I had heard about the special from friends who were discussing it in detail, so I knew a little bit about the outlines of what I was going to see when I flicked it on. But hearing about it and watching it are two entirely different things. I hadn’t heard of Gadsby before literally five days ago, and at this point I have two thoughts about her: One, I’m not sure I can go back and watch anything she did before this without knowing what it cost her, as she describes it in Nanette; Two, if in fact she doesn’t do stand-up comedy again (as she suggest she might not in the special), she’s quite possibly already changed how stand-up gets done. It seems nearly impossible to me that anyone who does stand-up comedy, or wants to, won’t see this special and realize how much it changes the game.

Well, let me back up on that. People are human, they like jokes; comedians are human, they like the attention they get from jokes. People aren’t going to stop performing comedy, some of it easy and simple; people aren’t going to stop going to comedy shows, many of them pleasant and disposable. Comedy is mostly entertainment, and not all entertainment is challenging or meant to be, and not every entertainer will want to push their audience to the edge of their comfort zone (and of course there’s more than one “audience”). Stand up as we know it will survive Gadsby and Nanette, for better or worse.

But I think that practitioners and audiences who are interested in how the stand-up sausage gets made are going to realize that Gadsby has raised the bar for them with this special. She’s given the game away, and made the point that the self-deprecation of comedy, the easy comfortableness of it, isn’t harmless to comedians from the margins of society, which still is anyone who is not straight and white and male. You can make the same jokes if you want, but you can’t go back from that understanding. Gadsby may or may not want the responsibility for that; ultimately with Nanette, as she says, she wants to tell her own story from where the focus of the story is not harmful to her. It’s her story, and it’s personal. But I’m pretty sure it will have implications outside of her personal life, particularly with comedians. Gadsby and Nanette has given them all homework.

I found Nanette a remarkable piece of writing and performance, and tangentially, in watching it I found Gadsby illuminated something for me about my own recent writing and thinking. I write a lot of humor and I’m pretty good at it, and over the years I’ve written quite a bit of humor about current events. I find myself rather less inclined to write humor about current event these days, particularly in a format longer than a Tweet (I’m having no problem being tweet-length snarky). It can still be done, and brilliantly — look at Alexandra Petri in the Washington Post — but I have a harder time doing it right now.

In Nanette, Gadsby makes the point that a punchline is the end of a joke but not the end of a story; she argues it’s often in the middle of a story, and focusing on the punchline comes at the expense of what comes after, which is usually more important for the people living the story (she illustrates this in the special in a way I won’t tell you now but I imagine will affect you deeply when she recounts it). I think one can quibble with this formulation in all sorts of ways, but I think for me it’s well on point as to why I feel restless and dissatisfied merely cracking jokes about what’s going on in the US right now. I’m less concerned about the punchline and more concerned about what’s coming after that. I don’t get much joy out of writing humorously about what’s going on today, because after the punchline is a miserable state of affairs that’s going to need more than jokes to get clear of.

I say my own observation is tangential to what Gadsby is on about in Nanette because it is, not in the least because Gadsby and I are coming from different places when we write funny stuff. We are different people and one of us isn’t in fact in the cultural margin. And I don’t know that this will stop me entirely from writing humorously about current events; I’m me. But it does help me understand why it hasn’t been making me happy: Basically, because it feels incomplete to me. I think it’s all right to write humorously about what’s going on in the world right now. But it’s not sufficient in itself. There’s more to be done, and more to be done by me, and I’ve got some thinking to do on that.

In this respect, Gadsby and Nanette is giving me homework, too. I can’t say I’m 100 percent happy about this. I’m lazy and I don’t necessarily want to do the work. But I also can’t pretend that I don’t know this about myself now. That’s a real thing.

The Big Idea: Mary Robinette Kowal

Elsewhere online I’ve been talking about how The Calculating Stars is one of my favorite science fiction novels of the year, and how I expect it’s likely to be remembered when “best of” lists and award nominations crop up. But here, today, author Mary Robinette Kowal is here to tell you about her book, and the Big Idea behind it… which may involve a very large rock.

MARY ROBINETTE KOWAL: 

The Big Idea for The Calculating Stars is pretty simple. Apollo-era science-fiction with women astronauts.

But the real Big Idea actually starts before I wrote the duology, with a story called “Lady Astronaut of Mars.” In that story, I wanted to capture the sheer wonder of what we accomplished during the Apollo era.  This is a time when Bradbury was putting civilizations on Mars, and my dad was programming with punch cards.  I mean, we put people on the moon in a craft that looked like a jiffy-pop container when the entire mechanical computing power of the world was less than in your cell phone.

The Calculating Stars is set in that world and begins about 30 seconds before a meteorite slams into the Earth in 1952.

This is before mechanical computers are prevalent or reliable. The word computer still meant “a person who computes” and those people were predominately women. Computers came up with equations, the algorithms, calculated trajectories, and shaped the early days of space travel. But…men with equivalent degrees and experience became engineers with higher rates of pay and status. The more things change, and all that….

My main character, Dr. Elma York, is a computer. She’s also a pilot, which isn’t a combination that I needed to make up.

You probably know about Hidden Figures, so let me tell you about the Mercury 13. These were a group of women who were put through the same tests as the original astronauts. All of them were pilots, and many were also computers, chemists, or business owners. The people running the program were interested in the fact that women were lighter than men.

At a time when weight factors were a big consideration in the space program, this was very appealing. After WW2 there were over a 1000 Women Airforce Service Pilots, who typically had more logged flight time than their male counterparts. So they called up some of the WASPs to see what they could withstand. When they got into the actual testing, they discovered that women could handle g-forces better, and generally performed better on stress testing. (Since one of them was a mother of eight, I imagine that stress testing was like a vacation.)

But, the testing was shut down by Lyndon B. Johnson because he didn’t think women should go into space. What would have happened if he hadn’t shut that down? What if, say, I dropped a giant rock on D.C.?

Now, if you’ll notice there are actually two big ideas in this book. The first is women astronauts. The second is an accelerated space program.

Here’s the thing… Wernher von Braun, widely regarded as the father of modern rocketry, had a plan to go to Mars in 1947. A viable plan. The principal barrier was funding. To be clear, if executed exactly as written, everyone would have died because he based it on a flawed understanding of Mars’s atmosphere. But if the plan had gone ahead, they would have sent orbiters and probes to the planet and revised it.

He wrote this plan in an era before we’d even gotten a satellite off the planet, much less a person. He wrote this before punchcards. He wrote it when all the math was done by hand.

What would have happened if we had continued to throw money at the space program at the rate we did during the space race? What could we have accomplished if it was an international cooperative effort? What if there was a strong imperative to get off the planet?

What if I dropped a giant rock on D.C.?

So that’s the big idea. Drop a giant rock and get off the planet in jiffy pop-container spaceships guided by smart women with sliderules.

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The Calculating Stars: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

Smudge & Zeus

This picture pretty much sums up their relationship at this point. 

In general the rest of the cats are slowly learning to tolerate Smudge, who to be fair does not make it easy for them by running right up them and getting into their respective furry faces, which they do not like at all. They’ll all figure it out eventually, I expect.

The Big Idea: T.J. Berry

Forgiveness: A complicated topic in any piece of literature, and one that doesn’t necessarily come up that often in science fiction. But it’s in T.J. Berry’s new novel Space Unicorn Blues, and the author is here today to explain why it’s integral to what goes down in the book.

T.J. BERRY:

I believe in second chances. That’s a hard thing to say, because I also believe we have the right to walk away from people who harm us and never look back. Reconciling those two positions is one of the big ideas at the heart of Space Unicorn Blues, and it’s the one that has the most resonance for me.

In the opening of the story, part-unicorn Gary Cobalt is reunited with the starship captain who kidnapped, tortured, and framed him for murder. A decade has gone by since his imprisonment at Jenny Perata’s hands, but he must now decide if he’s willing to give her another chance. Gary wrestles with how to cooperate with a woman he has never trusted. At the same time, Jenny struggles with how to make amends for the horrific things she’s done during a time of war. Gary eventually decides to join her crew, but that moment is only the beginning of their undertaking. Jenny and Gary continue to navigate the turbulent waters of re-forging a civil relationship throughout the book.

I don’t have a template for making amends—it’s a messy, nonlinear process—but I wanted this to be a key idea in the story. Making amends is often an ongoing work-in-progress, not a single apology or act of contrition. It contains elements of restitution, restorative justice, and trust building. It’s more complex than simply handing over cash or serving a prison sentence. Some amends may need to last a lifetime. How do you capture such a nebulous process in a 100,000-word book?

I started by rejecting the “instant forgiveness” narrative. In fact, I really dislike the word “forgiveness.” For me, it focuses on the survivor’s willingness to let go of the past instead of the abusive person undoing the harm they have caused. The burden of action is on the wrong side of the equation. Gary never offers Jenny forgiveness for her actions because she has not yet repaired the damage she has done. How could she possibly make up for a lost decade in prison? For treating Gary’s body like a seam of coal to be mined or a pocket of natural gas to be tapped? Figuring out how to atone for treating Gary as less-than-human is one of Jenny’s main conflicts throughout the book.

There are a lot of apologies in the news lately. Abusers are producing a neatly packaged mea culpas that deftly walk the line between acknowledging their harmful actions while at the same time minimizing them. Most of these apologies, frankly, are garbage. They focus on the perpetrator and their toils, both before and after the abuse. But nearly none of them touch on making amends to the people who were hurt. Sometimes, these “apologies” bypass remorse altogether and slide straight into self-forgiveness .

This is the kind of non-apology I tried to avoid in this book. Jenny admits what she’s done, apologizes for it, and makes clear she’s searching for ways to make up for the harm she’s caused. Gary acknowledges her efforts, but doesn’t ever absolve her of culpability. She doesn’t get an easy forgiveness checklist. At one point she says she doesn’t know how to to make amends, and he kicks the conversation right back to her with, “I hope you figure it out.” Gary’s not here to the do labor on her behalf. Jenny, like all abusers, has to do the work for herself.

Like most of us, I’ve been hurt by people in my life. People I cared for have caused tangible and lasting negative effects due to their carelessness or malice. Sometimes, I’ve cut those people out of my life. Other times, the solution is not so clear. What does it look like when there’s more good to a relationship than bad, but the wrongs still have to be addressed? Where is the template for when we want to rebuild that connection instead of discarding it? We don’t see that narrative depicted as often in books, television, and films.

Indulge me for a moment—because I’m quite fond of the Marvel Cinematic Universe—and think of the second Guardians of the Galaxy movie in which Peter Quill learns that his kidnapping by abusive gang leader Yondu was actually a rescue from his even more abusive godlike biological father. Yondu’s appalling treatment of young Peter Quill is instantly forgiven and his storyline gets one of the more poignant endings in the MCU. (I’ll admit, I cried.) But this means never see the nuance of Peter and Yondu walking the thorny path of making amends and rebuilding trust.

This is where I pick up Jenny and Gary’s relationship in Space Unicorn Blues. Gary feels there’s something to be salvaged between them and he’s willing to offer Jenny the chance to do better. Throughout the book, we get to watch Jenny make choices that prove her commitment to lasting change. And when she makes a choice that saves millions of lives while tearing her own family apart, Gary is ready to admit that she’s on the right path.

Just because making amends is the right thing to do, doesn’t mean it’s easy. Not all of us can apologize by writing our wives a single on our platinum-selling album, but every one of us can make changes to become a better person and repair the damage we’ve caused. I don’t offer any tidy solutions in Space Unicorn Blues, but I hope readers are willing to come along with me on this tough and complex journey.

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Space Unicorn Blues: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

What You Should Be Watching: The Hollow

Hey, guys! Welcome to another edition of “What You Should Be Watching”. Today I’m going to be talking about another Netflix original cartoon, The Hollow. This show is so easy to binge, with only ten episodes and each one being twenty-two minutes, I’ll be surprised if you don’t fly through it (I know I sure did).

Basically, these three kids, Adam, Mira, and Kai, wake up in an unknown place with no memory at all, and have to find a way out of this spooky, topsy-turvy world they’ve wound up in, all while avoiding monsters and death.

This show was one of the wildest I’ve seen in a while. It doesn’t mess around, it jumps straight into action and mystery and continues with it through every single episode. Each one more action packed than the one before, each one presenting new theories and ideas as to what the heck is going on in this crazy world the characters find themselves in.

The Hollow is one of those shows where you won’t know what’s going on until they want you to know, and suddenly it all makes sense. There’s minotaurs, sirens, the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, demon monks, a talking tree, spider-centaur people, an ice monster, and so many other obstacles these three have to fight just to survive.

Though the show might be a tad spooky for young viewers (it is a kids’ show after all), it has plenty of humor and fun moments in it. The voice acting is pretty great, however I do find the animation a bit odd, but I got used to it pretty quickly.

Overall, this is a really fun show with a lot of cool elements in it. I recommend checking it out, I bet you’ll be hooked right away. Also, if Kai annoys the frick frack out of you, don’t worry, he gets better… mildly better, anyways.

If you’ve already seen this show, did you like it? Who was your favorite character or the coolest monster? Try not to spoil too much though, for those that haven’t seen it yet. And have a great day!