View From a Hotel Window, 4/20: Los Angeles

Overlooking Pershing Square. Nifty. And if you don’t think the photo has the required amount of parking garage , know that there’s a parking lot directly under the square. It’s there, all right. It’s just subtle.

No events today or tomorrow but I will be at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books on Sunday, where at 10:30 I will be in conversation with a fellow named Wil Wheaton. I looked him up on Wikipedia. He seems nice. I think I’ll try to engage him on the subject of burritos. If you are in or near Los Angeles on the day, you should totally be there. I will also be signing books! And possibly stealing golf carts.

View From a Hotel Window, 4/19/18: Minneapolis

It’s a very vertical view today, because I’m downtown in a major American city. I like it!

Tonight: 7pm in the Har Mar Barnes & Noble! Be there! Or don’t be, I guess. Although we’ll miss you and spend all our time talking about how much our life is incomplete without you.

(Note: We won’t actually do that)

The Big Idea: Jerry Gordon

In today’s Big Idea, author Jerry Gordon tackles truth, pandemics, religious cults and the possible end of world. You know, as you do. Here’s how it all comes together for his novel Breaking the World.

JERRY GORDON:

In 1993, David Koresh and the Branch Davidians predicted the end of the world. What if they were right? That’s the question lurking behind Breaking the World, my apocalyptic thriller set during the largest and longest standoff in law enforcement history.

Twenty-five years ago, over one hundred ATF agents in full body armor stormed the Branch Davidian church in Waco, Texas. Military helicopters circled overhead as both sides traded gunfire. When the smoke cleared, four agents and six church members were dead. A fifty-one-day standoff followed the botched raid, dominating the news.

At the insistence of the FBI, reporters were kept a mile and a half away from the site of the actual stalemate. This forced the press to depend on the FBI’s daily briefings for all their information about the standoff. Officials portrayed the church as a military-style compound. They branded the Christian congregation, an offshoot of the Seventh-day Adventists, a cult. And David Koresh, the pastor of the church, became a madman with a messiah complex.

This all took place in a time before the Internet and cell phones. Controlling the crime scene meant controlling the flow of information. In the middle of the standoff, desperate church members unfurled a banner fashioned from a white bed sheet. The message, which hung from a third story window, had been spray painted in letters big enough for the news media’s telephoto lenses. It read: WE WANT PRESS.

The Branch Davidians never got their audience with the press. The standoff ended in a tragedy so profound it sparked multiple investigations. Congressional hearings questioned the justification for the raid, autopsies conflicted with official accounts, and enough evidence was lost or destroyed to spark calls for a special prosecutor to look into obstruction of justice charges against agents of the ATF and FBI.

Twenty-five years later, the myth of Waco still eclipses reality.

I’m old enough to remember watching the fifty-one-day standoff play out on CNN. My step-father worked for the FBI as a field agent, so it should come as no surprise that I took the official account at face value. It wasn’t until years later, when I tried to write David Koresh into a short story as a religious boogeyman, that I started to question the myths of Waco. The more I researched Koresh and the Branch Davidians, the more I found reality far different from the official story I had been told.

That’s not to say I found the Branch Davidians without fault. David Koresh and his congregation bore significant responsibility for the tragedy of Waco, but they had been held accountable in a way the ATF and FBI had not. Long after I wrote and sold the short story, I continued to seek out obscure interviews, devour documentaries, and sift through congressional testimony. My questions about the standoff multiplied until they demanded to be answered in a novel.

The story needed to be told from an impartial point of view. I wanted characters that could question, as I do, both the actions of the church and law enforcement–characters in conflict with all sides of the struggle. Luckily, the nurses and lawyers and retired police officers that lived and worshipped at the Branch Davidian church brought something with them genetically designed to question everything: teenagers.

I decided to tell the story from the perspective of three atheist teens, a trinity of nonbelievers dragged to the Christian commune by their born-again parents. Trapped together, these teens would struggle to survive the historic conflict between David Koresh, an erratic FBI, and a pandemic that seems to confirm the worst of the church’s apocalyptic prophecies.

I stumbled onto the big idea for Breaking the World by asking a simple question with profound real and fictional implications. What if David Koresh and the Branch Davidians were right? Not just right about the raid or the injustice of their treatment. What if they were right about the end of the world?

Twenty-five years later, it’s time to find out.

Breaking the World: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|iBooks|KoboRead an excerpt.

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

View From a Hotel Window, 4/18/18: Iowa City

My hotel room is overlooking a lovely patio area, which unfortunately is not in use because it is currently 34 degrees outside (although the weather app assures me it feel like 26 degrees). April, I gotta say, you’re kind of sucking right about now. But my room is nice and warm, at least.

Tonight: I am at Prairie Lights! Which is a lovely place to have a book event, I have to say. Everything starts at 7. Please come. Please bring along all your friends and relations as well. We can keep warm together.

(Hmmmm, that sounded bad. Forget I said that. But still please come, and bring everyone.)

Tomorrow: I am going to be in the Twin Cities at the Barnes & Noble in Har Mar! I do not know what “Har Mar” means. Is it a hipster shortened version of something else? Someone will have to let me know. Nevertheless, there I will be, and at 7pm! Once again, please come and please bring along every single person you’ve ever met in your life. It will be fun, I promise.

 

Happy Birthday Krissy

The only real problem with having a book release in April is that it increases the likelihood that I won’t be on hand to celebrate my wife’s birthday, which is today. And as it happens today I will be in Iowa City rather than home. Be that as it may, I want to take a moment to wish happy birthday to the person without whom my life would be far less bright and wonderful. There is not a day that goes by that I literally do not take a moment to reflect on how much better my world is with her in it, and on this day above all, I think it’s a good thing to acknowledge all the ways I am improved by her presence and her wisdom and her love. She’s pretty great.

Happy birthday, Krissy. I love you!

View From a Hotel Window 4/17/18: Ann Arbor, MI (Plus: Release Dates in 2005 and Today)

To start off my travels, I am on a high floor overlooking a church. However, the brick building at the right of a picture is a parking garage, so I think we’re in good shape in terms of the “where is the parking lot” aspect of my travel pictures.

Tonight: I am at the Literati Bookstore here in Ann Arbor, and everything starts at 7pm. If you’re in the area, come be the guinea pigs for the rest of the tour, and hear everything first!

Tomorrow: I will be in Iowa City, at the famed Prairie Lights bookstore, also at 7pm. If you live in or near Iowa City, come on down, and bring everyone you know!

Etc: I got an email from a reader who noted that Head On is my 13th novel (which is true, uuuh, I think) and wondered how a book release day is different now than it was when Old Man’s War, my first published novel, was released back in 2005, and if it’s still exciting 13 years on.

Well, some of the things that are different:

* Old Man’s War came out on January 1st, so Head On isn’t competing with a major holiday where most people stay at home watching football and/or nursing hangovers. So that’s a positive!

* I was at home for the Old Man’s War’s release, not only because it was New Years but because I wouldn’t do a book tour for a release until The Last Colony in 2007. I’ve toured with every new novel since Fuzzy Nation in 2011, which means that for the last seven years, I’m usually somewhere else when the book comes out; like, for example, Ann Arbor, where I am today. This is not a complaint, incidentally. I like touring my books and it’s a thing not every author gets to do. But it is different from when I started out — now when a book comes out, I’m on the road.

* I’m a lot less stressed about the book release, in terms of sales. When Old Man’s War came out I was constantly checking Amazon rankings and wondering how the sales were and so on. These days and for the last several books, I don’t really check online sales rankings. One, because I know that they’re not exactly indicative of actual unit sales, and two, because as I go along and I understand the dynamics of my own sales profile, there’s less reason for me to sweat my opening numbers. In terms of sales, I’m generally a marathoner, not a sprinter, a fact that’s useful for backlist and royalties. Knowing that makes me less anxious about my opening numbers. Don’t get me wrong, I like it when I’m up near the top of sales numbers; that’s always nice. But I’m not constantly pinging my Amazon rankings.

* Likewise I worry less over reviews. I like it when they’re positive — who doesn’t? — but I don’t worry too much when they’re, shall we say, less than glowing. Part of that is simply having been a pro critic myself and remembering how the sausage gets made, and another part is simply always having had something of a thick skin. But the other part — the part I grew into, shall we say — is realizing that with very rare exceptions, an occasional bad review doesn’t hurt a book. The example I give for this is Redshirts, which got two of my worst trade reviews ever from Publishers Weekly and Kirkus, but then went into the bestseller lists and won several awards including the Best Novel Hugo. Perhaps more accurately, if every review of a book is a negative one? There might be a problem. But the occasional pan that comes as part of a whole range of reviews? I don’t lose sleep over them, and they don’t bother me (or cause me to want to respond) as they might have when I was new out of the gate.

* What hasn’t changed is, simply, my fundamental excitement that something that started off in my brain is now out there in the world. And some people like it! And talk and think about it! And want more of it! I mean, how can that ever get old? It can’t. Well, I guess it could, but I’m glad it hasn’t for me. I still have what I think is the coolest job in the world. I felt that way in 2005, and I feel that way now.

Head On is Out! How to Get It, Where to See Me, and Introducing the Theme Song

The day has arrived! Head On, the stand-alone sequel to Lock In, is now officially out in North America! (UK, you will have to wait two more days.) “Stand-alone sequel” means that although the book follows the characters and universe of Lock In, it’s been written so that it can be enjoyed even if you haven’t read that book. The book has been getting some of the best reviews of my career:

“Scalzi expands his complex future with master strokes, balancing buddy-cop wryness with thought-provoking social and political commentary.” — Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“[Scalzi’s] prose flows like a river… his characters are beautifully crafted; and his future world is impeccably designed, at the same time wildly imaginative and wholly plausible.” — Booklist (starred review)

“Very clever, wonderfully satisfying fun.” — Kirkus Reviews

And, well. That doesn’t suck.

How can you get this book?

Print: It’s available at your local independent bookstore, and Barnes and Noble and other chains, as well as through your favorite online retailers, including, of course, Amazon.

eBook: Available through Amazon, BN.com, Google Play, iBooks, Kobo and other ebook retailers.

Audio: Available through Audible.com and in two(!) flavors: One narrated by Wil Wheaton, and the other by Amber Benson. They are both fantastic versions, you can’t go wrong with either (or both!).

“What if I want a signed copy?” I hear you ask? Well, there are several ways: One, Barnes & Noble has quite a few signed copies available. Two, Jay & Mary’s Book Center, my local bookstore, has a couple dozen signed copies on hand. Three, come see me on my book tour or order the book from one of the bookstores where I will be appearing; even if you’re not there in person I will sign and personalize your book for you.

Speaking of the book tour: Yes! I am on tour! Staring tonight in Ann Arbor, and then heading to Iowa City, Minneapolis, Los Angeles (for the LA Times Festival of Books), St. Louis, New York, Washington DC, and then back home to Troy, Ohio. At every stop aside from Los Angeles, I’ll be brand new work; in LA, I’ll be having an hourlong discussion with Wil Wheaton. I hope you’ll come see me on tour; it’s going to be fun.

Speaking of fun! Those of you who follow my works know that I frequently commission songs to tie into the release of my books. For Fuzzy Nation, I had Paul and Storm write one. For Redshirts, Jonathan Coulton. And for Lock In, former The Academy Is… and current solo artist William Beckett provided a fantastic song. For Head On, which is a stand-alone sequel to Lock In, I asked William to come back for another song. And because Head On features a massively popular new sport called “Hilketa,” I asked him for a song that would be at home in an arena, blasting out as fans are cheering and the players are coming out onto the field.

Did he deliver? Why, yes. Yes he did:

Yeah, I’m pretty darn happy.

I hope you enjoy Head On. I had a blast thinking it up and putting it down into words. I hope you’ll have as much fun reading it.

See you on tour!

It’s New Shirt Time!

So, remember when it was Back to School time, and you’d go shopping for new clothes for the year? Yes, well, I still do that, except Back to School is now Going on Book Tour. The new book tour starts tomorrow, so I went out and got all these shirts.

The rule of the shirts is simple: They have to be easy to pack (because they’re all going into the same roller bag), they have to look reasonably nice, for a very casual definition of “nice,” and they have to fit. The last one has been a bit of a problem recently as I have put on a bit of weight in the last year, boooooo. Working to bring that down is a goal I’m currently working on, with a small bit of success so far, which is nice. But that doesn’t change the fact that at the moment, some of my older shirts do not exactly offer me a flattering silhouette.

So: New shirts! Hooray! For certain values of “hooray” that correspond to “You let yourself go a smidge, middle-aged dude!”

The only possible fly in this “short sleeves in festive designs” ointment is that most of the stops on the tour are in places that still have snow on the ground, because this April has been goofy, weatherwise — I mean, it was nearly 80 degrees outside two days ago and right now I’m looking out the window at a snow flurry. Ann Arbor looks to have snow when I’m there, Iowa City will be in the low 40s, and then I’m going to Minnesota. When I’m in LA, it should be sunny and in the 70s. Thank you, California. The rest of the time, well. I’m traveling with a jacket, too.

In any event, I enjoy new clothes shopping in conjunction with a tour. It’s part of what makes a book release day feel “really real.” The other parts being, of course, the book coming out, and actually going out on tour to see all y’all. Not long now. Tomorrow, in fact.

New Books and ARCs, 4/13/18

This is a very lucky Friday the 13th, I have to say, because it brings us all this very fine stack of new books and ARCs. What in this stack bewitches you? Tell us all in the comments.

The Big Idea: Catherynne M. Valente

Disclosure: I liked Catherynne Valente’s new book Space Opera so much I gave it a blurb. And as you read the Big Idea below about the book came to be, you might understand why the book appealed so much to me.

CATHERYNNE M. VALENTE:

Sometimes you plan a book. Carefully. Meticulously. You hone it, prune it, and shepherd it through the publication progress with all the gentleness you’d give to a particularly shy child.

And sometimes a book comes to you. And the book says: I’m happening. Deal with it. I’m happening right now. Just…hold on to something.

Space Opera, you may not be surprised to learn, was the second kind of book.

It’s a ridiculous book. I’m not even going to pretend it isn’t. I never had any intention of writing it. I was quite happily busy with other projects.

The trouble, in the end, always comes down to love. When I love something too much, it inevitably gets me into trouble.

In this case, what I loved was Eurovision.

I have spent a long time already in the trenches, explaining Eurovision to Americans. And now, I suspect, I’ll be doing it for the rest of my life. Here’s the short version: the Eurovision Song Contest is a combination of The Voice, Miss Universe, and WWI. Every year, countries in Europe, and these days, several that are decidedly not in Europe, send a pop singer or group to compete in a musical extravaganza for which the costumes are unspeakably glittery, the special effects tend toward gouts of flame, and the prize is really very little but the right to host the contest next year, and if one is lucky, a middling summer hit.

It’s glorious.

Viewers can vote from home alongside a panel of judges, but the key element is that you can’t vote for your own country, so Eurovision ends up being a glam rock snapshot of the current European political situation in any given year, as alliances come together. The whole point of it in the first place was to unify Europe again after WWII. It’s a bright mirrorball of pop art, but it’s got darkness at its heart.

I love Eurovision. I genuinely believe it’s one of the best things humanity has ever accomplished, and no that’s not a joke. When else has our species ever looked around and thought: we’ve just annihilated each other for a decade. The whole continent is a smoking ruin.You wanna…sing it out?

So two years ago, I was livetweeting it, as you do when you just get so excited at the mere thought of an event that has a bigger global audience than the Super Bowl but no one in your own country knows or cares about it. And one of my Twitter followers joked that hey, I love this weird, bright, dumb, showy thing so much, I should write an SFF version of it.

Do not dare me to do things on Twitter when I am in the middle of a Eurovision drinking contest. I simply cannot be held responsible for my actions in such a situation. Especially when an editor slides into my DMs and offers to buy that book right now.

My agent refers to it as the fastest deal in publishing. It was done and I was committed before I could catch a breath. As I was signing the contract, my fiance asked: “Does it really just say ‘Eurovision in space’? Do you actually have any idea how you’re gonna pull that off?”

“Yes, it does,” I said. “And no, I don’t.”

And I didn’t. Part of me was terrified. How the hell do you even begin to write that? I mean, you can’t play it straight. It’s too absurd. It’s obviously a comedy. Ah, but if you try to write science fiction comedy, the ghost of Douglas Adams appears and asks you with a stern expression if that’s really necessary. And even if it was a comedy, the core of Eurovision is that political darkness and artistic light. You can’t play it totally camp, either. And given the politics all around me, I wasn’t sure I was actually up to singing it out just this minute. What had I agreed to?

But the deadline approached. And I sat down at a blank screen. I laughed nervously.

And then I stopped trying to worry about whether I could do this thing at all and wrote some shit about Enrico Fermi and I was off, and off at breakneck speed.

And that’s how Decibel Jones came to be.

Fast forward just a bit into our future, and Earth finally gets the alien invasion we always dreamed of. It didn’t go exactly as planned. It’s not about gunships and stern admirals and grim battles. There don’t seem to be any admirals at all. But there’s a whole teeming galaxy out there, and they’re extremely suspicious of us. They tore themselves to pieces a centruy ago during the Sentience Wars, and are thus very careful about newly-discovered species. They simply can’t afford any more monsters out there. And humans do have such monstrous habits. We’re a borderline case—we may be sentient, but given our behavior on our own planet recently and historically, we may simply be a particularly unpleasant invasive species.

Fortunately, they’ve got a way to sort this out. Mankind must compete in the Metagalactic Grand Prix, a contest of song and dance in which every sentient civilization performs its most staggering acts of punk rock beauty. All humanity has to do is not come in last, and we’ll be welcomed into the greater interstellar society with open arms.

If not, we’ll be quasi-painlessly exterminated, and Earth is welcome to try again in another million years with dolphins or something, no questions asked.

The trouble is, humans really are rubbish at music, comparatively. It’s embarrassing, honestly. They drew up a list of musicians they thought might have an outside chance at appealing to the finer sensibilities of non-primate cultures, but unfortunately, the Keshet, a race of time traveling red pandas in charge of intelligence gathering, fudged their landing a bit and everyone on the list is tragically dead. Except for one. Decibel Jones and the Absolute Zeroes, an early 2020s British glam-trash rock trio headed by a multi-ethnic genderfluid former glitter messiah who only ever managed one hit album when they were at the top of their game. But these days they’re aging into their 40s, a heap of bitterness, a lot of cheap wine and divorces, and particularly humiliating birthday party performances.

And now, they’re going to have to save the planet.

Space Opera is a headlong dive into a wormhole of music and idiocy and human failings and inhuman intelligences and a whole mess of awful costuming choices. It’s a comedy with a molten core of hardcore XXX feelings. And it’s got blue space flamingoes in it.

It’s as unlike what I usually write as it’s possible to get, and I’m so proud of it. I tried so hard with this book, you guys. I tried so hard to make it good enough for you. To pour my bitter, glittery, aging into my 40s on wine and divorces, dumb, hopeful, innocent, needy heart into a wormhole so it can fall out into your living rooms. To make you feel for a page the way Eurovision and Hitchhiker’s Guide and David Bowie and Prince and life on this stupid, terrible, gorgeous planet makes me feel. Even if it’s just one page.

Even if it’s just one paragraph.

So go on. Give my little tune a listen. Put the record on. Side one, track one. 3…2…1…

—-

Space Opera: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

New Books and ARCs, 4/11/18

Oh, look, new books and ARCs at the Scalzi Compound. That so rarely happens! So, anything here that tickles your fancy? Tell us all in the comments!

Finally a True Sign of Spring

To wit, the lawncare people come to aerate and fertilize the yard. It’s a nice, sunny day, too! Let’s hope it sticks.

The Big Idea: Ilana C. Myer

It’s an adage that writers use everything for their writing. In the case of Fire Dance, the follow-up to Ilana C. Meyer’s fantastic debut Last Song Before Night, a trip to Spain laid the floor for her novel to dance upon.

ILANA C. MYER:

The heart of a story doesn’t always come first.

This one began with a visit to Andalusia, though I didn’t know it at the time. All I knew, watching torchlit Flamenco singers in a courtyard one night, was that I would use it. And had a similar thought on a garden tour in Cordoba, winding through hedge mazes. The palace in Seville with its stonework and grand spaces—I’d use it all. Writers can be obsessive in that way.

In Last Song Before Night I had written about magic based on the art of poetry and music, drawing on the lore of the Celtic poets and the troubadours. A second book could expand on this theme while incorporating another art—the art of dance, inspired by the rich tradition of Flamenco.

And what would the magic in a place like Al Andalus be? For this, I looked to historical sources and medieval Arab cosmology for clues. I decided on magic that would be centered on astronomy, with a structure and clear-cut rules. It would employ equipment such as an observatory, charts, astrolabes. Almanacs which foretell the positioning of stars through the year would be forbidden to the common people, so no one can idly get their hands on such power. Because their magic was never lost—unlike the poet’s enchantments in Last Song—centuries of development have resulted in a refined, sophisticated system in close alliance with the court.

Into this setting I would send Lin Amaristoth, in her new role of Court Poet, to investigate a series of mysterious raids.

The story moves back and forth, between the Academy of poets on its wind-torn Isle, and the exquisite court inspired by Al Andalus. Between lonely enchantments and political intrigue. I envisioned the structure of this book as a dance, back and forth between two worlds. Until those worlds collide.

But sometimes we can have all the elements we need for a book, and still search for its heart. Sometimes the characters must have their say before we know what the book is about. Until then, what you have is not a book, but trappings. I wrote several beginnings to the book, several thousands of words, in the course of that search. With the help of those draft beginnings, I came to realize what I had been missing.

This book is, above everything else, Lin’s story. Beyond war and political intrigue and even magic, Fire Dance is about Lin’s transformation. Being in power means making choices. It also means being tested, sometimes in unbearable ways.

In Last Song, Lin is a survivor. Trauma and depression are her constant companions, each day about staying alive. Finding meaning in the world is her primary motivation. In Fire Dance events have compelled her to move beyond this mindset: she has responsibilities that affect the lives of thousands of people. She doesn’t have time for herself. But she also knows an enchantment is stealing away her life—in a year she’ll be dead. The tension between desire and responsibility have replaced simple survival. The trauma of her past remains, but now there is also rage at the future. Because there is no future. She has been compressed in a sliver of time.

Pure transience—what is dance, if not that?

Once I found the heart of Fire Dance, the elements I had gathered coalesced, took shape in a narrative. The heart of the character, and the heart of the book, had turned out to be one and the same.

—-

Fire Dance: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

One Week Until Head On

The author copies for Head On have arrived at the Scalzi Compound and they look groovy. In just a week they hit the stores. Wheee! Also, a reminder that if you want signed copies, Barnes & Noble have a bunch available for pre-order. Or you can get me to sign one for you when you come see me on tour (you can also pre-order from the stores hosting my tour and I’ll sign/personalize when I get there).

I’m very excited that soon you’ll all get to read this. Soon, I say!

The Big Idea: The Oracle Year

The Oracle Year by Charles Soule

I’m going to make the prediction that you’re going to want to read author Charles Soule’s Big Idea post on The Oracle Year, in which he talks about the future and how each of us makes predictions, every single day of our lives, and what that means for his novel. Am I correct in my prediction? There’s only one way to find out.

CHARLES SOULE:

The future.

What is that, really? It’s not now, and it’s not the past, and that is the sum total of what we know about it.

Everything else is just a guess, a projection based on past events, a calculation of probability. Let’s think about this in terms of a glass of water. (Bear with me – I’m going somewhere with this.)

No, water’s boring. Let’s say… a delectable cocktail (for me, that’s a Manhattan, but YMMV), or a frosty beer on a hot summer’s day, or an ice-filled fountain soda at the movies, or, yes, even a glass of water. You obtain that beverage, and you lift it to take that first sip, and you are certain that what you’re about to drink will be that Manhattan, beer, soda or water.

But why? Primarily because you’ve put together a string of prior events that suggest that it will be what you think it is. You’ve poured the glass of water out of your tap, say. But the city’s water could have been replaced with rubbing alcohol by a nefarious ne’er-do-well, or cosmic rays could have altered the soda from cola to root beer (totally, 100% possible, by the way (I assume)), or your bartender could be trying to poison you, or magic is real and your beer was transformed into something else. We can’t know for sure. Honestly, though, the odds of any of that stuff happening are slim at best, so unlikely that they become pretty much impossible. So, we predict that the drink will be what we think it is, and we go ahead and chug-a-lug without doing an exhausting analysis of the container’s contents.

Just like that drink, every single action we take, every choice we make, is a prediction of the future. We run the odds based on all available information and prior experience that Action A will result in Consequence A (or a range of likely consequences), and we will still be living in a world where the rules of physics apply as they always have, or even bigger, that the world still exists and we are still alive in it.

But hey, there are no guarantees. Anything could happen at any moment. For all we know, an undetected meteor will hit before you finish reading this…

…sentence.

Why am I talking about all of this? Well, I wrote a novel, The Oracle Year, which is concerned almost entirely with the future. It’s about a man in New York City who obtains a hundred and eight specific predictions of future events, large and small, due to occur over about a year’s span of time. He then decides if and how he’ll release the information to humanity, and we see how that changes him, flips the world on its axis, and so on. It’s a twisty-turny thriller, exciting and (hopefully), pretty unpredictable.

In the course of writing The Oracle Year, I had to think extensively about the future and our relationship to it. I’d go so far as to say the future is almost all we ever think about. It’s in the small things, like that automatic, subconscious analysis we do when we’re taking a drink of something, but also the big stuff: wondering about what we’ll do this weekend, who we’ll marry, our career, what our kids will grow up to be, when and how we’ll die.

We make decisions based on our analysis of the future – lots of them. We constantly predict what will happen next on timelines short and long. We have to. It’s the only way to operate, to live.

We’re all prophets, in other words, predicting the arc of our lives moment to moment.

I feel like that’s a given, a premise hard to dispute (although this is, of course, the Internet, which means it’s not impossible to dispute.) Now, here’s the second part of the equation, though – the result on the right side of the equal sign that I came up with after thinking about all of this for, oh, a few years while writing my book.

We’re all, on a very fundamental level, optimists.

After all, if we weren’t, we’d never do anything at all. We’d never drink that drink, because there’s a possibility it’s been magicked into poison. We’d never go to work, we’d never eat food, we’d never ask someone out… because why bother unless the world will continue to exist and we’ll still be alive to see it? We make choices because we assume we’ll get to see at least some not-tiny portion of the future, and human society will exist in a recognizable form therein.

That’s optimism, right? That’s deciding in favor of structure and continuity rather than entropy. Every day, with literally every choice and action we make, we are predicting a future that includes us, and is worth maintaining and building.

How about that, huh? Even in chaotic times (and I think it’s hard to argue that we’re in one of those at the moment), basically every person on Earth is predicting that they’ll still be around tomorrow with every single thing they do.

We’re all prophets, and we’re all optimists.

That, I think, is a pretty Big Idea.

—-

The Oracle Year: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

And Now, Almost Entirely to Shove the Picture of Me at the Hospital Down the Page a Bit, Here’s Me Wearing a Clown Nose

As one does. This photo was taken at the Subterranean Press warehouse last week, while I was signing and personalizing pre-orders of Head On. Why did they have a clown nose? Maybe because they’re a fun-loving lot! Or maybe because they have a basement clown abattoir filled with body parts. Maybe both! Anyway, here you go. I think it doesn’t look half bad on me.

Also thank you to everyone for their kind words and messages, regarding my trip to the hospital on Friday. I’m happy to say I’m feeling generally much improved, which I suspect is down to the Pepto Bismol. Fear not, I’m still scheduling a doctor’s appointment for this week. Better safe than sorry. I also kept my weekend pretty basic and restful. The most strenuous thing I did was mock some dimwits on Twitter, which honestly wasn’t strenuous at all. I won’t go into detail about the mocking here (check my Twitter timeline for it, if you’re curious, it won’t be hard to find), except to say that the last couple of days left me with the firm belief that the concept of free speech, both as a constitutional right and a general ideal, sadly continues to be out of the grasp of many of those who choose to bleat about it online. And that’s a shame.

But enough about me. How was your weekend?

How I Spent My Afternoon

Spoiler: I’m fine.

For the last few days I’ve been having a bit of a low grade pain in my chest that wasn’t really going away. I mentioned it to Krissy last night, who informed me I’d be calling to schedule a doctor’s appointment this morning, and this morning, when I indeed called to schedule my appointment and ran down my symptoms to them, they said, “You know what, maybe just go ahead and get yourself to the ER.” Which was not precisely encouraging, I have to say.

Nevertheless, off I went to the ER, to get pricked and prodded and EKG’d and x-rayed and so on and so forth. And the good news is: I’m fine, my heart is fine, everything appears to be largely groovy and there’s nothing even remotely life-threatening going on with me. The less good news is they have no idea why I’ve been having chest pains, so I still have to schedule a doctor’s appointment on Monday and get a stress test and possibly other stuff. It’s probably an alien growing in my chest cavity, which means that if you come visit me on tour and sit in the front row, I can’t guarantee you won’t get wet. Bring a tarp.

Bearing in mind that I was in a hospital ER room with needles in my arm and wearing a hospital gown because of a weird pain in my chest, the experience was oddly mellow and, if not precisely enjoyable, not horrible either. I mostly was just plopped on the hospital bed reading Twitter or napping, and every once in a while someone would come in to check that I hadn’t expired while I waited on the doctor. Honestly I’ve had worse afternoons.

In any event, I’m home now and everything is fine. I’m not dead! And on the way home, I picked up some Pepto-Bismol. Seems to be working. Let’s see how it goes.

The Big Idea: Leo Carew

For his debut novel The Wolf, author Leo Carew considers what it might take to be more human than human — not superhuman, but differently human. And what does it take? Read on, humans!

LEO CAREW:

Our current age is unusual, in that we are the only species of human on earth. For most of our history, we have shared our planet with some interesting evolutionary cousins. I love the thought of how that might have felt – to be walking in a forest, and encounter something that was shaped roughly like you, but also deeply, profoundly alien. What would they have been like, had they survived to an historic age? What kind of society might they have created? And how would that have changed our own identity? My debut novel, The Wolf¸ starts from the Big Idea that more than one species of human survived the Ice Age, and went on to set up their own society.

This idea first came to me as a child, when I realised that every animal of comparable weight seems to be stronger, faster and toothier than we are. That got me wondering about a race of humans who were the wild equals of the deer, the lynx and the wolverine. What would they have looked like? How would they have behaved? So the Anakim – the main alternate race of people in the book – were born. Developing them has probably been the most enjoyable part of writing The Wolf.

It was many years later, during my studies in anthropology, that I discovered why we seem so physically hopeless. When we started farming, we domesticated ourselves just as efficiently as we did cows, sheep and crops. In the blink of an eye (anthropologically speaking), we grew drastically shorter. Our jaws retreated, our brains shrank, our bones became much less dense, and our faces grew charmingly fragile and expressive. We are a domesticated version of Homo sapiens, physically akin to our ancient ancestors as a dog is to a wolf.

That idea fascinated me, and the Anakim are partly inspired by how human beings once were, thousands of years ago. They are taller, more rugged, and more robust. But how could the Anakim have built a complex society, and yet retained their wildness? There seemed to be two options. Either, they did not develop agriculture, and so were never subject to the selective pressures which caused our domestication. Or, they had a social structure which counteracted the effects of agriculture and sedentism, and rewarded high levels of physical robusticity and aggression. I couldn’t choose between these ideas. So I took them both.

In one of my wilder flights of imagination, I thought that maybe that aggressive social structure would have unforeseen consequences. For good measure, I therefore gave the Anakim plates of rust-coloured bone armour beneath their skin. The idea is that their society is so ancient, and so war-like, that they have evolved innate defences to spears, bows and arrows. The rust-coloured bone is due to its high iron content, which was also inspired by nature. There are several species of shrew which have blood red teeth because they’re so full of iron for added strength.

However, physical differences are easy. Much more challenging, and more interesting too, is how the Anakim might have been cognitively. It is difficult to know where to start with this, as your brain is shaping your thought-patterns, even as you try and abstract yourself from them. For inspiration, I turned to the ancient cousins about whom we know most: Neanderthals.

One of the prevailing theories for a while has been that Neanderthals had limited ability to understand symbolism. I think this is wrong, but it’s an idea with interesting consequences. If symbols meant much less to the Anakim, it would change their art (if they had art at all) and perhaps make them physically incapable of developing reading and writing. And what would the result of that be? They’d need a formal means of memorising information. That’s where the idea for the Academy – a sisterhood of historians who commit to memory all Anakim history – came from. They’d need it to maintain a powerful sense of identity, and store all the knowledge that would enable them to progress as a society.

Another interesting idea came from the fact that Neanderthals lived in very small home-ranges, which we know from the isotope signatures in their teeth. They tended to travel very little, while modern humans of the same period were dying hundreds of miles from where they were born. We seem to be something of a pioneer species, with a mindset adapted to long-distance locomotion, which makes sense anecdotally. How many people do you know who don’t enjoy travelling? But I suspect the Neanderthals didn’t. And that got me wondering again about how a species who did not enjoy travelling would have thought about their home-range. Presumably they’d have been unusually attached to it. There might be a new dynamic there, where your home becomes as important as your family. And how would you feel when you then travelled far away from it? Like homesickness, but multiplied tenfold.

The Neanderthals and ancient humans gave me some interesting starting points for physical and mental differences. After a while, other facets of Anakim cognition and society started falling into place. In the same way that characters begin to take on a will of their own, and the story changes because you realise that you’re asking a character to do something that they never would, I developed a strong sense of what the Anakim would and would not do. They would be very austere. And obsessed with wilderness, which was in some way holy to them. Without writing, memory would become very powerful to them. And maybe that would be connected in some way to the land in which they lived.

And eventually, though I’d intended to make them as otherworldly as possible, I started slightly falling in love with these people. They haven’t got everything right, but it seemed to me that by and large, they have a much better sense of perspective than we do. They don’t care about money. Most of them don’t care about status. They only want to be fulfilled, and recognise that is best achieved through self-discipline, rather than self-indulgence. The fact that their symbolic understanding, and ability to read and write is poor, made them kindred spirits. As a dyspraxic, a hopeless artist and someone who didn’t learn to read until very late, I imagined myself fitting right in on that front.

Almost last of all came the name for these people, which I ended up finding in the Bible. It mentioned several giant races: the Rephaim, the Nephilim and the Anakim. I’ve always wondered whether Biblical stories have their origin in cultural legends. Perhaps the story of Noah and the flood is based on some kind of cultural memory of the catastrophic rise in sea-levels after the Ice Age. I wondered the same about these giant races. Maybe (just maybe) those are based on some distant cultural memory of the Neanderthals, or Denisovans – a prehistoric species of man like us, but somehow other. I liked that idea, and the nod it gave to the Neanderthals. The Anakim they became.

With the Anakim society constructed, there was one big question left. How would they react, when they encountered other humans, and vice versa? In The Wolf, I like to think I am not so much making stuff up, as trying to explore the underlying principles of our own world. So what evidence is there for what happened in the past when two human species encountered one another? It seems that interbreeding was pretty common. Modern humans carry DNA from Neanderthals, Denisovans, and probably one more unidentified group of humans. But though interesting, that doesn’t tell us too much. Hybrid children did exist, but under what circumstances they were conceived will likely never be known. There seem to have been more problems with the male offspring than the female offspring though (something else I borrowed for the book). The fact that Neanderthals and Denisovans are both extinct doesn’t tell us much, either. We could have outcompeted them, rather than massacred them. Or their demise might have been more related to a rapidly fluctuating climate, than our arrival.

I had to turn to more contemporary evidence. When modern human groups rub alongside each other, they often exhibit signals to demonstrate allegiance to their own group. The human mind seems to like clarity, and contrast, and when cultures feel threatened, they tend to respond with a renewed display of unity. So the Anakim, and their modern human neighbours might take that to extremes, not being merely different cultures, but different species altogether. They identify themselves by the fact that they are not the other. Stubbornly, the Anakim do not use personal adornment – that is something those other people do. Likewise, the modern humans detest wilderness – that is disorder, inherent to the Anakim. Unfortunately, putting these species together in the same land, the only outcome I could foresee was conflict. But maybe the result would also be greater unity between races of modern human. With this great external threat, perhaps we would focus more on our similarities, rather than our subtle differences.

Developing the Anakim was fun, but it also put a lot into perspective. We are a creature like any other, and there were once many more like us. They were not worse at being human than we are. They may very well have been our cognitive equals (even our superiors). They were just different, and as a species, we too came very close to extinction. We survived more through luck than skill, something we might do well to remember.

—-

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

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

I Can Neither Confirm Nor Deny That I Am A Timeless Goofy Immortal

No comment. NO COMMENT I SAID.

The Big Idea: John Schwartz

 

Anyone who knows me knows that I spend I lot of time urging people — particularly writers — to get their financial houses in order. John Schwartz is a writer — a reporter in fact — and the way he got motivated to get his financial ducks in a row was to give himself a writing assignment, which became the book This Is the Year I Put My Financial Life in Order. Hey, whatever works!

JOHN SCHWARTZ:

In writing This Is the Year I Put my Financial Life in Order, I was working through a puzzle: Most of the people who could benefit from a book on personal finance would never read one. I knew this because I was one of those people.

Money scares me. I don’t mean I’m scared of not having money—that’s a fear most people have. And I don’t hate money, or think it’s inherently dirty. It’s not even that I can’t understand money. As a newspaper reporter for the New York Times, I’ve tackled plenty of difficult topics, including space travel, climate change and the hurricane protection for New Orleans. I write about investing for the NYT business section in a quarterly humor column. Give me an assignment and I’ll learn what I need to learn to get the job done.

And I’m not particularly cowardly: I’ve flown (briefly) in a jetpack, gone cattle herding from a helicopter and stood inside a suit of armor while a Tesla coil zapped me with a million volts of electricity.

So it’s none of that. No, it’s just that I’ve always hated thinking about my own money. I got a 401(k) early on, but I could barely bring myself to open the envelopes to see whether the accounts had grown or shrunk. I was already in my mid fifties, but had put off thinking about whether I had enough money to support me and my wife in retirement. I didn’t know whether I had enough insurance. I didn’t even have a will.

It was time. It was past time.

So I forced myself to confront these demons the best way I know how: I wrangled myself an assignment. I got paid to figure out where I stand for retirement. I dove in, did the research and wrote the story, confessing my qualms in the process.

If my inbox was to be believed, there are many, many people out there who share my sluggish fretfulness, who are a little money phobic. Procrastinators. The financially squeamish. A colleague called it “frighteningly familiar.”

And then there was Brian, a neighbor, a great guy in his 30s with a couple of kids. He told me his father sent him a three-by-five index card, his usual epistolary medium, lauding the piece. “Take it to heart,” he wrote. “Before you know it, you are looking at your ability to keep paying for things during the 2nd half of your life.” Brian told me in an email, “I have to say, this is one of the longer written notes I have received from my father in the past several years, or maybe ever.”

There are plenty of personal finance books out there. But if you’ve ever checked the shelf, you know that most of them suck. They overpromise—you’ll get rich!–when what most of us want is security. They claim that they hold arcane secrets, when the principles of providing for retirement are actually pretty straightforward. And they bark orders like some kind of drill instructor, when what we really want is a well-informed friend.

That led me to pitch the book, another assignment to get me to do what I hadn’t been able to do on my own. I spent a year (okay, a little more than a year) figuring out my finances, learning what I should have known about investing and taking care of my unfinished business. And yes, I finally got that will.

This Is the Year I Put my Financial Life in Order goes on sale this week. I have tried to write about the process of learning all of this stuff in a way that readers can follow my example and begin to get their financial lives in order, too. And to ease their fretting. It tells of my own financial misadventures as well as our scarier moments, like buying a New York apartment at the top of the market and then being unable to sell it, and the tenant who refused to leave. Yeah, that guy almost put us into bankruptcy. There’s the offer from my old super to kill the tenant. (Hey, it’s New York.)  And there’s the bankruptcy lawyer who Jeanne still calls “the angel,” who talked me out of filing for bankruptcy. For a while, times were so tight that my regular lunch in the cafeteria at work was French fries with gravy, a filling meal that cost me less than two bucks.

We’re more comfortable now. And we’ve learned some lessons along the way. Maybe readers will learn from our mistakes. I hope, at least, they’ll be entertained by them. After all, who doesn’t enjoy the sweet tang of schadenfreude?

—-

This Is the Year I Put My Financial Life in Order: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. See the author’s recent bylines. Follow him on Twitter.