Get Gud, Scrub

A shot of

I’ve always loved video games. My whole life, I’ve been enamored with the gaming world, from the PS2 to the Nintendo Switch, from arcade machines at the movie theater to the PC (which is obviously the best but we’ll save that for another post). But there is one thing I’ve been noticing recently that I never really had an issue with when I was younger. I’m not sure if it’s just me or if it’s like, a newer game problem, but: Everything is too difficult.

I know, I sound like a big crybaby who isn’t very good at video games. And you’re right, I am exactly that. But I honestly believe that combat in recent video games is too difficult! I tried to play Fallout 4 on the PS4 this year and no joke I got my shit rocked by glowing ghouls and synths alike. I’m less than halfway through the game because I simply can’t complete the missions I’m supposed to, I just get sick of trying after like my seventh attempt.

I’m mentioning all this because I was planning to write a post this week over Red Dead Redemption 2. All I had to do was complete the last mission and then I was going to write up my post, easy peasy. However, when I sat down yesterday to finish the game, I found that I was getting my ass handed to me on a silver platter by some cowboy NPCs. So instead of making that post, I’m making this one to complain about how tough this shit can be.

Most of my life, I’ve played games where you can adjust the difficulty setting. Even some newer games, like Spider-Man for the PS4, have choices between easier combat for players who are more focused on the story, and harder combat for those who like a challenge. Some games like this will make fun of you for choosing the easy route, but I’m not about to set myself up for failure by picking something harder than I can handle.

A picture of the Castle Wolfenstein difficulty setting "Can I Play, Daddy?"

This difficulty setting from Wolfenstein is especially funny to me because when I was a kid I would play games with my dad on his computer. I would sit in his lap and he’d let me be the guns and he’d do the movement, and we’d kick the shit out of aliens in Half-Life.

When it comes to games being so difficult you can’t even play them, I think the first one that comes to anyone’s mind is Dark Souls. Absolutely bonkers. Rage quit every time. Listen, I bought the remastered version on the Switch earlier this year and I’m quite literally not even past the second boss. This game gets a pass in my mind though because it’s specifically meant to be hard as fuck. Or is that false, and I just think that because I’ve heard my whole life that it’s ridiculously hard?

Anyways, maybe I’m just worse at video games than I previously thought. Maybe I just don’t have that pro-gamer gene in me. All I know is, I’ve abandoned a lot of games, games that I really liked and enjoyed and thought were super cool, just because I simply can’t continue. It’s just too hard.

This is one of the interesting things about a game like Skyrim. You can go around and explore and find things to fight in the woods. However, if you accidentally come across a level 90 dragon priest up in the mountains, you can RUN AWAY. You don’t have to fight! You can outrun pretty much any enemy. So yes, the combat can be hard if you stumble upon an NPC that’s a way higher level than you, but you can just as easily avoid said conflicts or even run away from them. You should always have a “chicken out” option.

There are just so many games I’ve stopped playing either halfway through, or at the final boss fight. Another good example is Breath of the Wild. As much as I adore practically everything about it, the Divine Beasts are ridiculously hard. I started with the elephant and the camel, and I had to look up walkthroughs for both. I would have never gotten them on my own, and they’re supposed to be the easier two of the four!

I’m really starting to think this might just be a me problem though, because all of my friends that play the same games seem to have no trouble with them. Especially the handful of my friends that are really good at Dark Souls. Maybe I’m just the weak link in my gamer group, y’know?

(Unrelated to combat being too difficult, but can we talk about how RIDICULOUSLY DIFFICULT Rocket League is?! GOD that shit is so annoying.)

Okay, back to my original point. It’s especially frustrating to not be able to beat a game when you spend sixty bucks on it. Like, at that point I’m just mad at myself that not only am I not good enough to win, but I spent money on this unbeatable game!

So, yeah. Just wanted to have a quick vent about that and explain why you all shan’t be receiving a Red Dead Redemption 2 post (yet). I’m off to give it another whirl. Yee-haw!

-AMS

The Art VS the Artist

Athena ScalziLast night, I wrote a post for the blog. It was only about seven hundred words, and it took me probably an hour or just over that to write it. In the post, I was talking about how much I liked a piece of media, and telling all of you to consume the media, too. However, after completing the post, I told my friend what it was about, and they informed me that the creator of said media was kind of a bad person.

I had known the creator wasn’t, like, an ideal person, or someone to really look up to, but after learning about this heinous thing they did, I decided I simply couldn’t post something that was promoting them or giving them the spotlight in any kind of way.

And so comes the age-old question; how much can you separate an artist from their art? Are you a bad person if you enjoy the creations of a flawed creator? Can I still watch Baby Driver even though Kevin Spacey is in it? Can someone enjoy a Woody Allen movie or does that make them complicit in his awfulness? Can I still love a book series even if the author turns out to be really problematic?

If you consume the creation and enjoy it and don’t know about the bad deeds of the creator, does that make it okay because you simply didn’t know? And then if you find out and continue to enjoy that thing, does that make you a bad person? What if it’s been years and years since said celebrity got “cancelled”? After a certain time period, is it okay to enjoy your problematic faves again? If you acknowledge that the creator is flawed and keep that in mind while consuming their media, does that make it acceptable, or worse?

If we got rid of every single piece of media ever made that had someone problematic star in it, direct it, write it, sing it, or create it, how much would we have left? How many people are actually bad and problematic, how many were falsely “cancelled”, and how many people have more complicated cases that we don’t know all the facts about?

For example, Johnny Depp. Here’s a celebrity that has starred in pretty much everything, and has done a good job, and became widely loved by the public. So when it came out that he might be an abuser, a lot of people were completely shocked. Some swore off Johnny Depp movies forever, and some adoring fans stood at his defense. Then, recently, when it was revealed maybe he was actually the victim, those same fans said they knew he wasn’t bad all along, and suddenly all those people who had banished Johnny Depp movies from their lives could watch Pirates of the Caribbean again without feeling guilty. But his case is ongoing. Is he the victim, the victimizer, or both? During this ongoing case, should we continue to enjoy his movies in good faith that he is a good person, or steer clear of his work just in case he isn’t?

I can’t get on a high horse and say “you shouldn’t engage with this media because so and so is a garbage human” but then turn around and consume media from people I definitely think are a problemIs piracy a viable option in this situation? If there’s a movie you want to see but don’t want to put money in the pocket of the problematic director, is that fair to subsequently be taking money out of the pocket of all the actors, producers, and others who worked on the film? Maybe you could just borrow a copy of the DVD from a friend who already purchased it, or get a copy from your local library? Same with books from problematic authors.

On the other hand, old books that are now seen as kind of bad, the ones where the authors are long dead, if you buy a copy, where does that money go to? It’s okay to buy it if it isn’t supporting the racist/sexist/homophobic dead author, right?

I don’t really have the answer to any of these questions. I think it’s okay sometimes to like art made by problematic people, but also to make sure you don’t give them a platform or showcase them to others like I almost did with my post last night. And maybe don’t buy the problematic person’s merch. There are some cases where you’d literally have to be living under a rock to not know what someone did, and then there are cases where you really had no idea that this person did a bad thing a decade ago. It’s okay if you didn’t know, I think. It’s not your job to keep tabs on every single creator and celebrity in the world. Ignorance is okay, so long as it’s not willful.

-AMS

Hey, I’m Doing an Audible Live Event Tomorrow (9/24/20)

An advertisement for me, featuring a photo of me, taken by me.

In which I will discuss my Number One Top Audible Plus Listen(ed to) audiobook Murder By Other Means, and other things about writing and life and cats and stuff and things. If you’re not doing anything tomorrow (September 24, 2020) at 8pm ET, come on by. And if you are doing something at the time, if you find it boring and inexorable, then fake a charley horse to get out of it, and then come see me do my thing. Simple!

— JS

The State of Masking in Trump Country: An Anecdotal Report

A picture of me, wearing a mask, today.

I had a doctor’s appointment today (spoiler: I’m fine, everything’s fine), and I was excited about it because I haven’t been out of the house for a while and also I bought some new masks and I was excited to try one of them out. The new masks are triple layer (one of the layers being an N95 insert), have an elastic band around the back of the head so they don’t fall off, and fit snugly around the chin for extra cover-your-faceness. Welcome to 2020, masks are so in this year.

Well, sort of. As most of you know, I live in a county that went 78% for Trump in 2016 and is likely to pull similar numbers this year, and out in Trump Country, masks are the sign of a multinational Soros-funded conspiracy to compromise our precious bodily fluids, or whatever. So the question is: What is the status of mask wearing in rural-ish America, or at least the part of it where I live and move around in?

The answer: Spotty! At the doctor’s office, of course, it was full compliance; all the receptionists, nurses and doctors wore masks (mostly basic disposable surgical masks) and wore them the entire time they were working on me. I also wore mine the entire time, as I was not there for anything that involved anyone needing me to breathe on them, or them looking down my throat. I suspect it would be a bad time for anyone trying to argue in a medical office that masks weren’t needed or required.

Then I went to Kroger, to pick up some things, and the mask-wearing percentage dropped significantly. Who were wearing masks? Well, it wasn’t middle-aged-and-younger dudes, I can tell you that much; not counting the dudes working, I was the only man my age or younger wearing a mask. Older men (and older people in general) were wearing masks, probably because regardless of their political positions it’s been drilled into their heads by now that older people are more susceptible to the ravages of COVID-19 than younger people. That said, of the younger men I saw not wearing masks, a rather lot of them had, how best to put it, obvious co-morbidity factors. It probably wouldn’t be great for them if they got sick.

Anecdotally, this has been the way of it for a while now out here: If you’re a man visibly under the age of 60 (and here where I live, in a county that is 98.5% white, this means basically white men under the age of 60), you’re far more likely not to be wearing a mask out in public, and in the retail sphere, than you are to be wearing one. Now, note that Kroger and nearly all other retail establishments have signs at the entrances telling customers that masks are required; the dudes are ignoring them and the retail workers (all of whom are masked) are not stopping them, because we’ve all seen the videos of people completely losing their shit when asked to wear a mask, and retail doesn’t pay enough for that sort of nonsense. Over the age of 60, men wearing masks becomes more common, because they don’t want to die. In my experience the ratio of women of all ages wearing masks is the inverse of the men under 60; most women wear masks, but some don’t.

Mask wearing, at least as I see it here and in my own anecdotal experience, is very definitely coded by sex, and while I haven’t done any sort of serious study of it — I’m not out in front of Kroger, tallying up masks and not masks — it wouldn’t terribly surprise me if the correlation between who refuses to wear a mask and who is voting for Trump is very high. Likewise the correlation between the dudes not wearing a mask and their level of education (less than a quarter of the people who live in Darke county have a bachelor’s degree), which again correlates well with one of Trump’s most solid voting constituencies. Trump eschews the wearing of masks and has made wearing them both political and a referendum on masculinity, so it’s not entirely surprising if his supporters have followed suit.

Does this mean that I am getting terrible looks from dudes because I’m wearing a mask? Not at all; mostly everyone in Kroger and elsewhere is working on minding their own business. I do find anecdotally that dudes have far less of a problem with the “social distancing” aspect of things, which doesn’t surprise me all that much — Trump and his associated lackies have made much less of an issue of standing six feet apart — so it’s been relatively simple to keep a prudent distance from the maskless in any event. Most people here seem to have settled on the “If you want to wear a mask, wear one; if you don’t, dont,” level of things. Which, again, is against current retail regulations. But rules that aren’t enforced aren’t really rules, are they.

Important point: I’ve made the anecdotal connection between supporting Trump and not wearing a mask, but let me take a moment here to note that my anecdotal experience is anecdotal; I’ve literally not been more than 15 miles from my house in months. It’s entirely possible that dudes under 60 in deeply blue areas are just as useless about wearing masks as the dudes under 60 here in my deeply red area. In which case, it’s not about rampaging Trumpism, it’s about dudes under 60 generally being shit when it comes to caring about other people. Dipshit masculinity is a hell of a drug, y’all. Those of you elsewhere, you can tell me your own anecdotal experience in the comments, if you like.

I’m not thrilled by people who don’t wear masks; at this point, however, I’ve sort of wearily accepted that some people are just never gonna, and since the Governor of Ohio has not vested in me the power to be Mask Warden, what I’m going to do is a) stay home most of the time, b) mask myself up when I do go out, and c) keep out of the way of the maskless when I can, and I mostly can. This is low-density living and people are mostly just fine giving everyone else space. Hopefully that will be enough for now.

— JS

The Big Idea: R. B. Lemberg

Who needs to be the Chosen One at the age of thirteen, or to save the world at sixteen? With The Four Profound Weaves, author R. B. Lemberg takes us on a fantastical journey with an older character, one whose story has just begun.

R. B. LEMBERG:

I’ve been writing in Birdverse, my LGBTQIA+ centered fantasy world, for about a decade. For a while, I primarily published poetry. Then I began writing short stories that revealed, from different angles, a complex and diverse fantasy world in which queer and trans people take central stage – in the world’s mythologies, histories, politics, and in my storytelling. One of these short stories was “Grandmother-nai-Leylit’s Cloth of Winds,” a novelette published in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, which became a Nebula finalist in 2016.

The story, told from a perspective of a young, cisgender queer woman called Aviya, looked at what happens when one’s family members don’t fit into the mold prescribed by one’s culture. I always knew that there is a big story – a much bigger story – to be told about Aviya’s transgender grandparent, and in 2017, I finally began working on the book which is my Birdverse debut, the novella The Four Profound Weaves.

My Big Idea for this piece has always been this: what if older transgender people get to tell their own stories, get to go on a quest, on a grand and tragic and hopeful adventure in which they can finally, in their sixties, truly begin their stories? 

This shouldn’t be, perhaps, such a Big idea, but older people – especially older women and older queer people — are underrepresented in SFF unless they are mentors. And of course, there are barely any older trans people in SFF, even as mentors. Older mentors are often in the stories only briefly – they endow the hero with cool magical skills or the Really Big Sword, and then the mentors go on to be tragically killed, so that they can continue to inspire the much younger hero from a safe distance of being dead. I always wanted to write a “mentor’s own adventure” type of story, in which these brilliant mentors get to be in focus.

I was curious about the nameless man, the trans protagonist of my book. He transitioned in his sixties, after forty years of agonizing and closeted life. I wanted to know what he would do after he finally transitioned. Well, almost immediately he made a friend, another trans person, Uiziya, who became the other protagonist of The Four Profound Weaves. Together, they embarked on a mystical quest to find Uiziya’s exiled aunt Benesret, a master weaver who knows everything about death. Uiziya and the nameless man need to learn to weave from death itself to defeat an evil ruler who’d once, a very long time ago, imprisoned and killed the nameless man’s lover.

I often write people with histories of trauma. Sometimes, exploring my characters’ traumas helps me think about my life, and sometimes my own CPTSD interferes with my process; I need to stop and attend to my feelings and memories before I can proceed writing my characters’ intense and emotional worlds. It is a very intimate process. The Four Profound Weaves took shape after my father of blessed memory passed away in a different country, before I could get to see him for one last time. I was en route when he passed.

For months after, I thought I would never write again. The grief was so big it was like the whole world was blanketed in snow, and I could not see or hear anything else. Then, slowly, writing resurfaced, and it was time to tell this story. I wrote the initial draft quickly, followed by many revision rounds. After the book sold to Tachyon, the fine folks there helped me through two big rounds of revision. I love revising, especially with such excellent editors.

The road to publication has been emotional for me. The situation is unusual – I am a debut author who’s been writing and publishing in Birdverse for a while – and it feels so right that it’s this particular book. It feels right that a poet’s debut would have a fable-like and lyrical feel. It feels right that it’s a trans book, that it’s a book about older trans people fighting a tyrant, that it’s a book which is rooted in grief and which is, at the same time, deeply hopeful and triumphant. 

I am deeply grateful to all my readers, editors, and allies for believing in this book. It’s amazing to see The Four Profound Weaves out in the world. I hope many more readers will discover it, engage with its core ideas, find meaning and wonder and and solace in this story. Some of my readers described reading this book as a religious experience. I cherish that.

—-

The Four Profound Weaves: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

Ask Me a Question!

Athena ScalziHey, everyone! Today I thought I’d mix it up and have a Q&A. I’ve been writing on the blog for over a month and a half now, and I thought to myself, these people read my posts, but how much do they really know about me? Obviously, you probably know at least some stuff, considering how much my dad has posted about me in the past, or if you follow me on Twitter or Instagram then you probably know a considerable amount! But I thought it would be fun to open up more and have y’all learn some trivial information about me.

So, if you would like to know something, leave me a question in the comments! Please leave only one question, but it can be about any topic! You can ask me about writing, my home life, my favorite ice cream flavor, or even something philosophical or political — but note, since this will be for just one entry, my response will probably only be a paragraph, at most. I plan to pick a handful of questions and answer them all in a post sometime next week. Fair warning that your question may not be picked, but I will definitely read all of them.

And as always, have a great day!

-AMS

Internet Speed Update

The picture shows my download speed at 41Mbps and upload speed at 2.78Mbps.

John ScalziThis will sound slightly ridiculous, but I can’t tell you how nice it is to have reasonable internet speeds after close to two decades of having to make do with substandard bandwidth relative to the rest of the county. When I moved to Bradford in 2001, the only local internet provider had speeds of 9600 baud, and since then every internet connection I’ve had was a compromise — slow and/or metered and/or susceptible to clouds or rain. Prior to this upgrade I could either have fast internet or unmetered internet but I couldn’t have both, and I spent a non-trivial amount of time doing the daily internal calculus of how I was going to access the internet with which gadgets and for how long, and whether it would affect what the other people in the house were doing.

Now for two weeks I haven’t had to do that, and it has been delicious. Again, an internet speed of 40mbps down/3Mbps up isn’t great, either in itself or relative to speeds available in non-rural areas. But it is enough — enough that I don’t have to do any of the connection calculus that I’ve been doing on a daily basis for literally years. I can just use my connection, like I can use my plumbing or my electricity. You turn on the tap, and there it is. A long-standing resource issue has been effectively solved, and I can use the brain cycles previously occupied dealing it for something else.

And yes, it’s been a genuine resource issue; more than most people, my life and livelihood are tied into my ability to get on the internet and use it. Or, more accurately, more than most people until recently, as the plague times we’re living in have made it clear to everyone that internet access is no longer a luxury or nice to have when you can get it; it’s an actual necessity for work and for school and for communication, for better or worse. The rural internet gap is no joke. I could get around it, sort of, because I have the money to do so; not everyone who’s been in the same sort of rural internet desert as I’ve been in has the same (imperfect) options I’ve had.

Intellectually I’m annoyed at how pleased I am at my increase of internet speed; emotionally I don’t care what I’m feeling about it intellectually. What a pleasure it is to simply to have enough bandwidth, for now, anyway.

— JS

The Big Idea: Karen Osborne

Sometimes, good things can emerge from bad circumstances. Author Karen Osborne’s newest book, Architects of Memory, is a prime example of that. What started as a medical emergency spiraled into a novel about facing one’s fragility. Read on as the author shares her emotional journey from pain to novel.

KAREN OSBORNE:

An orthopedist once saved my life with a phone call. 

Two weeks before, he’d slapped a walking boot on my broken foot and told me I’d be on crutches for a while. The break had been painful, but the pain I felt that day was worse—a ravening agony, like someone had shoved a knitting needle made of molten lava up my femoral artery. 

He took one look at my swollen calf, frowned behind his Claus-congruent beard, and told me to drive to a specific hospital where the radiologists had special training in vascular issues. He called ahead—I skipped triage and was delivered almost immediately to an ultrasound room in the vascular department, where a technician tried her very hardest to keep an adequate poker face as she stared at the massive time bomb in my leg.

The orthopedist had not been my first stop. I’d appeared in his office without an appointment, literally crying in pain. I’d previously been to two urgent care doctors and my GP, who all told me that I’d probably just pulled a muscle or was experiencing referred pain, that I was too young for a blood clot. I believed them—they were doctors, and I was not—but I couldn’t shake the crawling sense of doom that was making a slow apocalypse of my composure. That day in the ER was the very first time I really understood that you could know down to your bones that something was wrong with your body and the world. I did have a blood clot, and it would have killed me if left to its own devices. 

They also found that I had a clotting disorder known as Factor V Leiden. FVL is a funny little genetic twitch that tells the platelets in my blood to keep right on singing “Come On Eileen” like they’re bartending at Coyote Ugly when they should be staggering on home after the last rendition of “Closing Time.” People with FVL have to worry about blood clots forming all the time: after surgery, after broken bones, or when they’re minding their own business walking down the street.

Recovery was $600/day of blood-thinning tablets, injections, and near-daily lab visits. It was also a major hit to my mental health: since I’d almost been gaslighted out of going to see the orthopedist, every minor pain in my leg for the next decade sent me into an anxiety spree (which the support groups actually said was completely normal). 

Pre-clot, I’d wanted to be a freelancer, but post-clot, that was completely out of the question. See, this was 2006 in the United States of America, and FVL was a pre-existing condition that put you on the no-fly list if you didn’t have employer insurance. The diagnosis stapled me to a job until I died. Want to live, Karen? Pay for it. Your worth is in your wallet.

If you’ve never had issues with American healthcare, say a prayer to whatever level of divine pasta monster you believe in that you never will. I can’t imagine what would have happened if I’d been freelancing for my paper instead of on staff. It’s a story told over and over again around here: she didn’t think she could afford the bill, my friends would have said. So she didn’t go.

A lot of us with pre-existing conditions ugly-cried when the Affordable Care Act became law. And we just haven’t been all right since the election of 2016, when the “businessman” holding the nation’s highest office started farting off about tearing it down whenever possible. 

I had just started Architects of Memory. I was angry. I imagined my protagonist Ash uninsured and staring down a healthcare system that wouldn’t give her the time of day. I gave her a quintessentially American problem: I put a time bomb in her blood and sent her off to a world where she couldn’t get treatment because she had a pre-existing condition, just to see what would happen. She’d recognize the steaming humanitarian crater that is the healthcare system of the most developed country in the world.

At least Aurora pays for your hospital bills if you get hurt on the job, she’d say. At least the CEO believes in science.

Science fiction is the literature of ideas. But ideas live in minds, and minds are meat like the bodies they run. They are linked together with an unassailable bond. When we love, we feel butterflies. When we lose, our heart aches. Ideas are married to the bodies in which they are born. Creativity is not some heavenly state divorced of care; it is a chronology of pain and nausea and viscera and breathing and moving and being. And so is science fiction. 

But Ash doesn’t have the luxury of money or time or health—the secrets of Tribulation are coming for her, whether or not she wants them. Life doesn’t wait. Everyone’s a terminal case. It’s only a matter of time. Until then, it’s a matter of if you want to be like the doctor who dismisses your crying patient, saying “it’s just anxiety”—or the one who listens and makes a call. 

Writing Architects helped me get through a time in my life when I felt like I was collecting chronic diagnoses like extremely crappy Pokemon, but at least I was allowed to actually go places. Since COVID was revealed as a disease that causes serious, fatal clotting, I’ve basically walled myself up as much as I can with a partner that plays church services for a living. The walls of my house are pretty much my world. Going for a walk feels like going EVA.

That’s the funny thing. I gave Ash her world and her problems. She gave it all right back to me. We’re all Ash now, facing down our squishy, delicate bodies, going no no no no, not symptoms, it’s too early for symptoms. Every twinge says: is this the day? Is it now? Is this it? Can I afford to go to the ER? I’ll be fired if I go, so should I go to the office instead? It’s care for those who can pay and everyone else can have prayer and oleandrin.

One of my first readers said they didn’t understand why an organization like Aurora doesn’t have more resources to deal with the problems at Tribulation. Look at how many ships they have, he said. They shouldn’t need to pick the bones of old wrecks to function. 

They shouldn’t, I agreed, but they do. Kinda like us.

And organizations like that never forget that you, too, have bones.

—-

Architects of Memory: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

Clash of the Geeks, Ten Years On

me as an orc, doing battle with a totally ripped Wil Wheaton, who is astride, of course, a unicorn pegasus kitten.

John ScalziIn the more innocent days of 2010, I commissioned artist Jeff Zugale to create the amazing image above, of me as an orc, doing battle with a totally ripped Wil Wheaton, who is astride, of course, a unicorn pegasus kitten. The image was designed to evoke wonder and curiosity, like “what the hell?” and “why is John Scalzi, as an orc, doing battle with a mega-buff Wil Wheaton, who is riding, of course, a unicorn pegasus kitten?”

It’s that last question that gave us the impetus for Clash of the Geeks, a small chapbook anthology whose several stories, by me, Wil, Patrick Rothfuss, Catherynne Valente and Rachel Swirsky, all centered on, what, exactly, was going on in the illustration. These stories were, well, rather silly, but obviously that was sort of the point. If you can’t have fun with the picture above there’s something wrong with you.

But there was a serious goal for the chapbook as well: To raise money for organizations supporting those who suffered from Lupus. Clash of the Geeks was offered for free here on the site, but we encouraged people to donate to lupus-related organizations, and specified the Michigan Lupus Foundation in particular, because our friends at Subterranean Press, who published the chapbook, were in Michigan (and Gretchen Schafer, wife of SubPress publisher Bill Schafer, was and is someone living with lupus). We ended up raising something like $25,000 for the Michigan Lupus Foundation, in addition to whatever people donated to other lupus-related charities (we weren’t keeping track of those). For something silly, we did some good.

The actual cover to Clash of the Geeks, with type, etc. Today is the tenth anniversary of the release of Clash of the Geeks. Because Whatever and its various subdomains (including unicornpegasuskitten.com) have been moved around and/or redirected over the years, direct access to the Clash of the Geeks chapbook has been difficult — it’s become a bit of a lost, if fondly remembered, piece of Scalzi ephemera. Given the day, it seems appropriate to make it accessible once more.

So: Here is the PDF of Clash of the Geeks. Here also are the ePub, Mobi and RTF versions, courtesy of the Internet Archive (which will also show you a version of the original UnicornPegasusKitten.com site here). As before, there is no cost to this chapbook — it’s yours, enjoy! — but if it inspires you to donate to a lupus-related charity, that would be lovely. Thank you for continuing to make Clash of the Geeks something that is useful as well as fun.

And what about the brilliant artwork above? Well, we made two prints of it. One, we auctioned off for charity. The other I framed and now it’s displayed in our guest room, over the fold-out bed. When people come into the room, their first question about it is “what the hell?” and, “why?!?” or some variation thereof. It’s nice to see that even after a decade, it still reaches people.

Also, for everyone who visits my house and then sleeps under the orcish Scalzi and buffed out Wheaton, and, of course, a unicorn pegasus kitten: Sweet dreams.

The art in my guest bedroom.

— JS

Pass the “Ammunition”

Athena ScalziI don’t always listen to albums, but when I do, there are usually only a couple of songs on it that I enjoy. Usually one or two, sometimes three, and on rare occasion, maybe four or so. But I have never in my life enjoyed an album in its entirety. Until I came across Ammunition by Krewella. This six-song album (or “EP,” as the old people call it) takes up only 21 minutes of your time, making it the perfect album to listen to while you shower or while you drive to the grocery store.

This is the thing with albums: they’re just a few songs too long in my opinion. It’s always the first couple songs that are good, and then everything after it is just kind of there. Back before my time, there were LPs, and they had about ten songs on them, an ideal number for an album, in my opinion. And then the CD came around, and suddenly you could fit more songs in an album. However, bigger is not always better, and that is certainly the case with albums that have, like, eighteen songs on it. It just seems excessive at that point.

But no one my age even buys CDs anymore. Or really ever buys music. Why buy one CD when you can just pay the same amount for a streaming subscription, or why pay at all when you can listen for free on platforms like YouTube? Why buy a whole album if you can just go listen to the one song you like from it? Does anyone even make albums anymore? It seems like artists just release singles nowadays. Which is preferable to me, because I have a very short attention span, so asking me to listen to something that’s longer than like, half an hour is a tall order.

The first song I heard from this album is the song which it is named after, Ammunition. I listened to this song a lot for about a year before I even thought to look and see if they had more music. I was hesitant to listen to their other songs, because I didn’t think any of it could top Ammunition. And I was right! Ammunition, in my opinion, is still by far the best song, but I was surprised that I liked the other ones, too.

So without further ado, here’s Ammunition:

If you want to look up the rest of the album, it’s on YouTube and on Spotify (if you go on Spotify make sure you don’t listen to the remix album of Ammunition). If you gave a listen to the song above, let me know what you thought of it in the comments! And as always, have a great day!

-AMS

Put a Ring On It

A ring light, behind my desktop monitor. Spice sits at my desk, looking up suspiciously.

John ScalziI have been doing rather a lot of virtual events and other video-related things this year, and thus is was decided that I should have a ring light, in order to light my face flatteringly and otherwise even out things, in terms of basic luminosity. It arrived today and I have installed it behind the monitor. Spice the cat is annoyed, because she and the other cats like to hang out behind the monitor to nap and/or attack my fingers while I’m typing, and now the ring light is all up in there, taking up space. I imagine I will take it out from behind there when I’m not using it, if not other reason than to keep the cats from murdering me.

But I did use it today, during my event with Christopher Paolini, and it mostly worked as advertised; I was well-lit, which made it easier for my webcam to spot me, and to make me not appear like a grainy pointillist mess. I have two more events and one tech test next week, so I think I’ll keep it where it is for now. Nevertheless I feel like I’ve gone over some line and now it’ll be nothing but vlogging for me from here on out (note: This won’t happen, I’m too lazy). At least I’ll be pleasantly illuminated.

— JS

The Big Idea: Hannah Abigail Clarke

The cover to The Scapegracers.

Hey, remember all those teen movies with the girl cliques? So does Hannah Abigail Clarke. Their new novel The Scapegracers is one of the things that happened when these films and the author collided.

HANNAH ABIGAIL CLARKE: 

I wrote The Scapegracers when I was 19 because I was lonely and pissed. Let me elaborate.

At 19, I was rageful. Teenage anger is a well-documented phenomenon, as the rapid onset of political, psychological, and physical changes makes for a trifecta of awful brain space. In my specific circumstance, my rage was augmented by a sudden awareness of the fact that I felt lonely for a reason. I was a dubiously gendered lesbian in the rural Midwest. Among all the other Things we could remark upon here, the most relevant is that the lack of likeness in media abraded me constantly. Three years ago, there was next to nothing on genre fiction shelves with lesbian protagonists, much less gender nonconforming ones. Still ain’t much. So! Rageful teen Clarke ate a lot of media that wasn’t intended for them. 

I’m talking here about kitschy girl clique movies from the late eighties through the early aughts. Think Mean Girls and Heathers and Jawbreaker and The Craft. All of the above are absolute camp fests with intense focus on homosocial relationships between teenage girls. These movies all seem to feature eccentrically dressed girls with substantial social power who have bizarre, stylized dialogue and absolutely despise each other by the movie’s end. The girl clique falls apart, often with great (comic?) violence. Lesbianism hangs over the narratives like a thorny pink-and-orange ghost. 

In Jawbreaker, the girl clique accidentally murders one of their own, but because a mousy little lesbian was obsessed with the murdered girl, they suddenly had a replacement that spared them jail time. In Mean Girls, members of a girl clique are psychologically tortured because one of them accused a non-lesbian of lesbianism and that insult warranted an elaborate revenge plot. I’ve said it before, but on vibes alone, Nancy from The Craft feels incredibly queer. Hollywood loves a crazy obsessive lesbian. Heathers is aggressively straight, we’ll forgive it that—though I could gesture at the atrocious remake’s insistence that the central clique is queer.

My point is this: a whole slew of fantastic movies, I’d argue some of the most fun movies about multiple girls and their relationships to one another, are drenched in some drab and ugly assumptions about girlhood and lesbianism. Even so! Man, do I love the beginning of these movies where a bunch of high femmes are jackasses together.

So, I’m not a girl. We don’t need to get into the specifics of lesbian gender viper pits, but it goes to say that I’m not much like the girls in a girl clique film. YA has plenty of girls who will tell you endlessly that they also aren’t like girls in a girl clique film. I’m not what they mean by that. The Not Like Other Girls trope allows for a character to disavow femininity on the grounds that femininity is shallow/opulent/unintelligent/garish/promiscuous/Bad, but the trope is very careful about binding its character enough to femininity that nobody mistakes them for a butch dyke. There are bad ways to be Not Like Other Girls, and the YA that fell into my hands when I was young summarily avoided them. 

Again: I was lonely and pissed.

The Scapegracers is a book that weds a lot of these consternations of mine into a single narrative—a girl too far away from femininity to be Not Like Other Girls appropriately, befriends girls so saturated with femininity that they become the Other Girls themselves; their friendship does not unravel because of cattiness or bitchiness or violence or what have you, they are ridiculous and campy and ill behaved, and wrathful, and extremely gay. They navigate a magic system that I built around our dirtbag protagonist, Sideways Pike, and the trauma that’s been mapped onto her body, both interpersonally and structurally. They mercilessly hex those who transgress them. They party harder than they probably should. They hang out. They yearn together.

I’m not 19 anymore. Time happens, I guess. Even so, The Scapegracers exists to acknowledge not just the queerness of its characters, but the pain and joy they feel as legitimate, immediate, and tangible. It’s a sketchy, neon triage tent for the pocket dimension version of Clarke who will always be 19 in farm country, Ohio. I know that there are a plethora of other living beings adjacent to pocket dimension Clarke who might need this book, either because they’re currently rageful queer teenagers, or because they’ve got pocket dimension egos of their own to affirm and look after. I mean for it to be the book object equivalent of a novelty match book. I hope that whatever little fires it strikes can warm your hands awhile.  

——

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

Read an excerpt. Follow the author on Twitter.

The Reagan Test and Donald Trump

A picture of Donald Trump with the words "Are you better off today" superimposed over him.

Original photo of Donald Trump by Gage Skidmore, used under Creative Commons license.

John ScalziIn 1980, which is now — Jesus — 40 years ago, Ronald Reagan asked a question of the American people: “Are you better off today than you were four years ago?” Reagan asked this question because he was running for president against Jimmy Carter, and it was in his interest to make the election a referendum on the incumbent. And while it would be inaccurate to say the question won Reagan the White House, it is accurate to say the question was a particularly useful framing device for Reagan: It took the election campaign and set it on personal terms for every voter, in a way they could easily quantify and apply to their own lives.

Now it’s 2020, and Donald Trump is president and running for re-election, and aside from any over-arching political issues with, or my own personal opinion of, the man, I think it will be interesting and useful to apply Reagan’s question to my own personal life: am I, in fact, better off today than I was four years ago?

Well, let’s see.

My income has been stable for the last four years, thanks mainly to contracts signed more than four years ago. Like the economy at large (until the coronavirus struck, at least), my generally robust economic condition was a continuation of Obama-era practices and strategies, rather than new conditions. Likewise my investments have done fine: more or less on the same path as they were four years prior, minus of course that significant divot earlier in the year. The government has propped up the stock market during the current economic blowout, and there will probably be a reckoning for that, but that’ll be later, not today. I hope Future Scalzi has figured that one out. For Present Scalzi, it’s fine.

Four years ago I paid higher income taxes. In my real-world experience this doesn’t mean I’m better off; the marginal utility to me of the money that no longer goes to taxes is relatively small, and meanwhile the national deficit has skyrocketed, which will almost certainly have significant economic and quality of life issues later on. But that’s another economic problem for future Scalzi, I guess. Today Scalzi is no worse off because of the tax cuts.

Oh, and my local internet provider finally upgraded my internet speeds.

So, those are the positives! Now, let’s see about everything else, involving me on a more or less personal level:

Four years ago, I could leave my house without wearing a mask (I mean, I guess I could leave the house without one, if I was an asshole who didn’t care about the health and safety of others as well as myself, but I’m not, so I wear a mask).

Four years ago I could go to a restaurant or see a movie or go to a party or get on a plane without worrying about possibly contracting a disease that could put me on a respirator, kill me or give me serious, chronic, long-term health issues.

Four years ago I didn’t worry about sending my kid to school.

Four years ago I didn’t have family and friends who had to choose between exposing themselves to a disease that could kill or seriously debilitate them, or being able to pay rent or buy medications.

Four years ago I had a federal government that actually had a well-thought out plan for dealing with highly-infectious, potentially pandemic-level diseases like the one we’re currently living through.

Four years ago I could trust the information from the CDC (and NOAA, while we’re at it) to represent the best available scientific information, not the information that was deemed the least damaging to the president, according to political apparatchiks installed into those organizations by the White House.

Four years ago I didn’t have a president who lied about the severity of a pandemic to the public while privately acknowledging that severity.

Four years ago tens of thousands of people more than there should have been weren’t dead, and even more sick, of a disease that they might have avoided if accurate information and a well-formulated plan had been offered at the federal level. These numbers include people I know and care about.

Four years ago there were far more countries I could travel to with an American passport than ones I could not, including the one directly north of us.

Four years ago, I could go to conventions and have book tours to promote my work and to make connections with business associates.

Four years ago I could get nearly any kind of soda I wanted in an aluminum can.

Four years ago there were no shortages of basic home necessities.

Four years ago I did not have a president who championed white supremacy and conspiracy theories over science and the well-being of all Americans.

Four years ago I didn’t worry whether my vote, or the votes of family members and friends, would be counted fairly and accurately.

Four years ago my health insurance cost less and covered more.

Four years ago I didn’t think about whether my mail would be sent or arrive in a timely manner.

Four years ago I had a president who hadn’t insulted the work and sacrifice of service members, who include both friends and family members.

Four years ago I didn’t worry whether my access to the services and function of the federal government, in an emergency or at all other times, would be contingent upon whether the president had decided someone in my state state was his friend or his foe, or had flattered him enough that he felt inclined to do the job that he was in fact required to do, by law and by the Constitution.

So, no. I’m not better off today than I was four years ago. I am in fact rather worse off: I have a little bit more money, at the expense of an actual, functioning country and society. This is not a good exchange. I will vote accordingly.

Who is better off today than they were four years ago? The ultra-rich, grifters and white supremacists (there are no small overlaps amongst those circles), although since the latter group also highly correlates with people who don’t wear masks in public, possibly not even them for long.

Now, the card that Reagan was palming 40 years ago was that not everything that was bad then was the fault of the president; likewise, not everything that is bad today is the fault of Trump. He is not responsible for COVID-19, for example. What he is responsible for is his and his administration’s response to it, and the effects that response has had on the lives of the American people. Likewise his and his adminstration’s choices at various junctures over the last four years, when it had the choice to make people’s lives better, and didn’t, unless they were ultra-rich, grifters, or white supremacists. That’s more than enough, in this case, for Trump to have made things worse than they were, four years ago.

So, again, no. Trump fails the Reagan Test for me. For that among so many other reasons, he doesn’t deserve a second term. I am well aware that there are millions of people who are worse off than I am after four years, who will still be voting for Trump. I would suggest they have not honestly answered for themselves the question Reagan asked Americans forty years ago. Perhaps they should, before they cast their vote.

— JS

The Big Idea: J.R.H. Lawless

Everybody come on down to The Rude Eye of Rebellion! In today’s prize package we have: dark comedy, torture based reality entertainment, and a slow-brewing Marxist revolution! Now please put your hands together for your host, J.R.H. Lawless!

J.R.H. LAWLESS: 

If The Rude Eye of Rebellion, the second book in the General Buzz series, could be summed up in a Gif, it would probably be one of those Shutterstock “cute kitten” pictures—maybe even one of the especially nightmarish ones where the cat looks like it’s wearing a suit—with the words HOW CAN I HAZ REVOLUTION?

Then again, the same could be said about a lot of things these days, starting with the year we’re all enduring.

Rude Eye is a dark humor novel all about The Grass is Greener, a reality game show where the corporate world-state of the 2070s exploits its worst victims, the ones with the most ridiculous, nonsensical jobs and lives, to make everyone else feel better about their own lot. And perhaps worst of all, the contestants are willing participants, since they’re competing for recognition as the world’s biggest victim, and the life of luxury alongside the corporate elite that goes along with it. 

The “opium of the people” has never been so good, since now it’s composed of the people themselves, like some sort of weird hybrid between A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, and Soylent Green.

But all the humor stirred into the brew, all the absurd situations, the wordplay, the puns, and the quirky etymology footnotes are only the teaspoon of sugar added by a particularly messed-up Mary Poppins to make the medicine go down. And that medicine is the real Big Idea in Rude Eye: Marxist revolutionary theory applied to a late 21st century corporate world-state.

I work as a lawyer when I’m not mashing my forehead against a mechanical keyboard (although, admittedly, that’s also a large part of being a lawyer), but my original training led to me picking up two Master’s degrees in political science, for some reason. And among the many vital lessons I learned even though they weren’t necessarily the ones the schools were trying to teach, I’ll always remember the class where my French “general culture” teacher started waxing lyrical about “entrism”, the Leninist and Trotskyist notion of having agents of marginal movements integrate more mainstream and influential organizations in order to reach a position where they can effect change from the inside. 

That moment planted the seed for what would become the General Buzz series, and especially The Rude Eye of Rebellion, since the book explores the extent and limits of the main character’s power to use a position of relative influence within the corporate structure to uphold his principles, help right wrongs, and make the world a better place.

He meets a small host of characters along the way, and some of them are relatively thinly veiled opportunities to explore and question the Marxist revolutionary themes within the world of Rude Eye at greater depth. Whether it’s through fireside conversations about bases and superstructures in an isolated farm commune, or in the novel’s climax—which involves a covert mission to seize and free the new means of production of the corporate era, entertainment content streaming—the novel is all about applying the ever-timely notions and categories of Marxist revolutionary thought to the world we’re careening towards, faster and faster every day.

As if all of that wasn’t tongue-in-cheek enough, I even have the main character take a forced trip to a literal corporate era superstructure—”Paradise Mars”, the extraterritorial haven built in the hollowed-out husk of Phobos, where gravity is a commodity and the corporate elite can do whatever the hell they like, which most definitely includes abducting and brainwashing important corporate assets who may have started showing disturbing signs of thinking for themselves.

Independently of whether the main character succeeds or not—you may have guessed from the overall dark humor tone of the book that things generally aren’t going to end with sunshine and roses—the main thing Rude Eye highlights is that revolution is a process. 

The seeds planted by any individual’s actions might only bloom years or decades later, in the most unexpected of ways, but always stretching towards the same goal—offering a credible, Direct Democratic alternative to the inevitable confrontation between globalized corporate rule and a return to fascist, nationalistic authoritarianism.

And, at this point, I’m obviously not just talking about the world of the General Buzz series anymore.

—— 

The Rude Eye of Rebellion: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Kobo

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s website. Follow them on Twitter

The Big Idea: Mark Oshiro

Sometimes, it takes a try or two, or a rewrite here and there, to really nail down a story. Author Mark Oshiro tells us about just that as he takes us through his Big Idea, Each of Us a Desert, and shows us that we shouldn’t be afraid of reframing our narratives. It might turn out better than the original could’ve ever been.

MARK OSHIRO:

After three and a half years of work, my second novel, Each of Us a Desert, is finally released today. It is a sprawling, ambitious story about a teenage girl whose magical power as a cuentista—someone who can pull “stories” out of people’s bodies in order to cleanse them of their wrongdoings—is called into question when she discovers she may have been lied to about who and what she is. It’s my first attempt at secondary world fantasy and virtually nothing like my debut novel.

But my Big Idea? The thing I wanted to accomplish and that took four attempts to nail down?

I wanted to write an absurd narrative framing device. 

I love epistolary stories. I love wacky, irreverent, or unreliable narrators. I love books with ridiculous concepts and premises that just utterly commit to telling a story how they need to be told. Books like Railsea (China Mieville), Parable of the Sower (Octavia Butler), House of Leaves (Mark Z. Danielewski), and Room (Emma Donoghue) all left their mark on me not just for the content of the stories, but how they were written. Each has their own narrative devices or quirky premise at work to tell the story, and they’re not the same book if you remove them. They are entirely integral to the novel!

I did not get the idea for the framing device of Each of Us a Desert until draft three, which was the second rewrite. (Some day, I’ll write a novel in the correct genre the first time around!!!) While the first round of edits brought to life much of the world of Xochitl, her god Solís, and the world of las cuentistas, I still hadn’t found the heart of the story. Specifically, Xochitl’s voice was still too dry, too dark, and too detached. In hindsight, I get why! My revisions had helped craft this detailed, intimate, and frightening world, but what was the emotional core of this story? Why did it even matter that it was being told?

I was sitting across from my editor (the brilliant Miriam Weinberg at Tor) over lunch when the idea arrived in my brain and flew out of my mouth. I nearly lunged over the table as I blurted it out: What if the entire story was Xochitl’s prayer to their god, explaining why she had done what she had done? What if the way I found out the importance of this story was to have her literally tell us?

The book’s new outline for that revision took shape in a few days, and I re-wrote the entire thing—quite honestly every word of it—in less than a month. That’s not a humble brag as much as it is a sign of how infectious this idea was to me. It helped me frame this character’s arc; it helped me ground her emotions as she told this story; it helped bring Each of Us a Desert to life! It allowed me to play with language in a fascinating way, too, and there are portions of the manuscript that trick the reader into a bizarre form of second-person. Xochitl is addressing her god, Solís, so there are times when it feels as if the novel is breaking the wall between storyteller and reader. 

This framing also made it easier for me to lean into other components of the story. I wanted Spanish to be a fantasy language, and suddenly, I had a very natural means for this character’s native tongue to constantly appear in the text. Cuentistas are necessary in this world because if a person avoids sharing their story in ritual, their secrets can manifest as harmful beings called pesadillas. Suddenly, I had a wonderful way to anchor horror to the narrative, as Xochitl spends much of the story caught between her religious duty and the visceral terror of it. 

But perhaps my favorite part of this Big Idea is that I got to use Xochitl’s magical ritual to tell multiple short stories within the novel itself. I needed the reader to understand what this ritual was like for the protagonist. Thus, as Xochitl experiences a ritual in real-time, so does the reader. My goal was to add physicality to the story, but also to further complicate the many people Xochitl makes on her strange, frightening journey.

But I also don’t want this to make it seem like this task was easy. That’s the thing about Big Ideas: the execution of them is usually harder than you can possibly imagine when you first think of them. There were absolutely times when I believed that I had bit off more than I could chew. One such struggle was with something that is a requirement in secondary fantasy: exposition. How could I convey this world to the reader while sticking to the format? I think the final version accomplishes that in some interesting ways, but this Big Idea challenged my own understanding of how stories can be told.  

As Each of Us a Desert goes out in the world, I’m thankful that I got to experiment. There is the chance that fans of my contemporary debut will be bewildered by this experience. What I hope is that readers are willing to give me a chance while I take them on this ridiculous, fantastical, and magical ride. 

—-

Each of Us a Desert: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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