The Big Idea: Alexander Dan Vilhjálmsson

If you’ve ever tried to learn another language, or grew up bilingual (or tri or quad), you know that there are some words in each language that just simply can’t be translated. Author Alexander Dan Vilhjálmsson experiences this dilemma in the translation of his novel, Shadows of the Short Days. Read on to see how this Icelandic author keeps each word meaning exactly what it’s supposed to.

ALEXANDER DAN VILHJÁLMSSON:

I never intended to translate my own book. The way it happened felt almost as if by accident. 

I self-published a fantasy novel called Hrímland in 2014. I was exhausted after the process, but soon after I decided to try out translating it. Gollancz had opened their submissions for a limited time, and I used that for motivation.

It was just supposed to be an experiment to see how on earth I would manage to translate this work. I never imagined it would go anywhere. That book ended up becoming Shadows of the Short Days.

See, I knew this was the kind of book where I couldn’t just hand it off to a translator and get a good result without massive interference from myself. I wanted to find out how I could do it, and perhaps in doing so learn something new about how I wrote in English.

Writing fantasy fiction naturally lends itself to a lot of worldbuilding – and that worldbuilding is done through language. In Icelandic, I had pillaged my country’s archaic vocabulary when coming up with fantastical terms in universe, also looking up old kenningar, poetical words and phrases. I turned these words into species, warrior-castes, sorcerer names. Icelandic also lends itself well to making up new words – a language with a lot of compound nouns is fun that way. So, when I looked how I would tackle the translation, I had to decide what to keep and what to translate into English.

When is something too precious to worldbuilding lost in translation? When is something a bit too untranslatable, too culturally important, or just too damn cool to be turned into English?

A whole lot, according to the glossary at the end of the book.

I decided to approach the text like I was writing it anew. I suppose this is what all translators do, but being the writer meant that I could rest assured that authorial approval was on my side. I thought about the English novels I’d read and how they approached which words to make up – and which they kept in English.

First off was, of course, the magic. The world of Hrímland has two types of magic: seiður and galdur. These words are derived from Norse mythology, and Icelandic folklore by extent. In universe, they are vastly different methods of magic. Seiður draws upon a magical resource found in the world, called seiðmagn (made-up word there), and channels that through the user to reshape the world. Galdur is a spoken-word type of magic – incantations and convoluted rituals – drawing upon an incomprehensible, otherworldly force. Galdur is derived from gala, which means to sing, or sometimes howl. I wanted all of this to be there, to be felt. These words have a heavy cultural connotation to them, but technically they could be translated. Galdur could be magic, and seiður sorcery, for example.

It might be easier on the reader to translate these words, but I felt that something important would be lost in doing so. A sense of identity, of a living world. Magic and sorcery are very generic words, and I wanted this world to feel specific.

Using this as a starting point, I went on to leave several words untranslated that still had a counterpart in English. Every time I asked myself: would I make up a word for this if I was writing a fantasy novel in English? Or: Is this an important aspect of the culture depicted in the book? When the answer was yes, I let the word stand in Icelandic. So it was that marbendlar remained untranslated, despite being piscine merfolk, the náskárar were not called Corvians or ravenfolk, and hrævareldar stood as-is, despite being a will-o’-the-wisp.

Some of these things might be familiar to an English reader, so why not translate them? To an Icelandic reader, a part of what makes the book fun is seeing something familiar rendered unfamiliar. Sometimes it’s a landmark in Reykjavík transformed into a thaumaturgical power plant, or a figure from folklore twisted into a dark reflection of what they were historically. These things would be unfamiliar to most English readers, having a different cultural background, but I still wanted them to experience this feeling of the familiar made unfamiliar – the uncanny.

This approach worked fine until I had to translate a náskári speaking to a human.

In the Icelandic text, the ravenfolk speak a very strange type of Icelandic (or, well, Hrímlandic). Their corvine vocal cords can mimic human languages effectively, but they care little for the ways of land-bound species. They much prefer to speak in the rough caws of their native skramsl (which is an archaic word for a raven crowing). They speak a faux type of Old Icelandic, like something you see when reading the Sagas of the Icelanders. The Sagas took place in the 9th to 11th centuries during the settlement of Iceland, written a few centuries later. In universe, the náskárar learned the human tongue then, and have since not bothered with updating it much.

So how do you translate someone speaking fake Old Icelandic in English?

What the hell was I thinking?

I considered several options. Perhaps they should speak in old-fashioned English, or I could use translations of the Sagas as a reference point. None of it felt weird enough. The more words turned to English, the more they lost their archaic and strange way of speaking. It was a big part of what made them unique from other peoples.

This is where it becomes convenient being the author as well as the translator. I did something a bit strange. I rewrote their dialogue and kept a lot of Icelandic words in there. Like, a lot. They almost speak Icelandic half of the time, although it’s the same kind of strange, faux Old Icelandic. The fusion feels like something from another world, a different time, and the English reader gets a real sense that these bastards really are speaking the old tongue. This was a big part of why I wanted to do the translation myself. I knew I wanted to do something unorthodox with them, as with so many other parts of the world.

Even if it’s just mundane things like not translating landi as moonshine.

I’m just thankful that genre readers are real used to strange words.

—-

Shadows of the Short Days: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

Fake Young Scalzis

Artificially de-aged versions of John and Krissy.

A new edition of Photoshop dropped today and one of it’s new feature sets is “neural filters” which can, among other things, make one’s face look younger or older. So for fun I took pictures of me and Krissy from the last month and ran them at the “-25” age setting, which may or may not correspond to minus 25 years.

The result: Well, Krissy certainly recognizably looks like her, and looks not unlike what she looked like when she was younger. I, on the other hand, look like (as my friend Monica put it) the creepy android version of me. I definitely did not look like that when I was in my mid 20s. Also that forehead, oy.

I’ll give the Photoshop age filter a “C” for now; it’s a fun toy, but don’t necessarily expect to apply it to your face and come up with, well, you. I mean, unless you’re Krissy and you don’t age like normal humans, anyway.

Also, I ran the clock the other direction, so here’s me at “+25” age. Apparently at some point in the future I become Bill Murray:

Fake old me.

So I have that going for me, which is nice.

— JS

How Jack Skellington Is the World’s Most Lovable Problematic Skeleton

A picture of Jack Skellington with the words,

Athena ScalziIt’s that time of year again when The Nightmare Before Christmas is finally socially acceptable to watch, and thankfully it will remain in season until Christmas, because it is a wonderful film that doubles as both a Halloween and a Christmas movie. Though if you’re anything like me, you watch it far more often than just around the holidays.

You may remember I did a post about The Nightmare Before Christmas back in 2018. However, that post was only to express my adoration of the movie and tell you all it was my favorite. So, with the knowledge that it’s my favorite, let’s explore why my favorite character in my favorite movie of all time is actually kind of dick. And of course, spoiler warning (but it’s been almost thirty years since it came out, do you really need a spoiler warning after like, ten?).

Jack Skellington at the Halloween Town town hall.

Let’s talk about the fact that throughout the movie, it’s made very clear that Sally loves ol’ Bone Daddy. And she loves his presentation to the town over Christmas! That is, right until he swings back into Pumpkin King mode and describes Santa Claus, or Sandy Claws, as the monstrous ruler of Christmas Land. You can see the admiration and wonder on her face be replaced by a disturbed look.

So when the town starts getting ready for Christmas, Sally has some concerns, and tries to talk to Jack about them, but the boney biatch doesn’t listen. She tries to warn him of her vision, but he’s too obsessed over giving her a task to make his suit. He dismisses her worries about his “grand” ideas and then talks over her the entire time, until he basically says “okay I’ve given you your task now leave and get to it” without taking the time to hear her out. He never asks, “why do you think this?” or “what makes you feel this way?” He’s just so adamant about what he wants that he doesn’t give her the time of day.

I’m not sure about etiquette in Halloween Town, but Jack literally had three children kidnap someone. Verbatim, just straight up snatch and throw him into a trash bag. That’s pretty messed up! Spooky skeleton or not, you can’t just nab someone (even the music for that scene is called Nabbed). But, Jack feels literally no remorse about it, and you can tell by the way he steals Santa’s hat right off his head before the kids shove him back into the bag after presenting him to Jack.

It’s only after he ruins Christmas, gets blown out of the sky, and saves Santa and Sally that you can tell he feels bad. Jack apologetically hands Santa’s hat back to him; Santa yanks that hat out of Jack’s hands, then reprimands him for not listening to Sally.

(Also why do the kids just get off scot-free even though if they hadn’t given Santa to Oogie Boogie none of that would’ve been an issue? Jack specifically said to “leave that no good Oogie Boogie out of this!” But whatever, this isn’t about the kids, and their song about kidnapping Santa was fantastic, so I’ll let it slide.)

Jack Skellington in Christmas Town.

So, obviously, the big glaring problem with Jack and what makes him such a dick is that he tried to take over an entire other holiday, simply because he was bored and discontented with his life, and he felt he could, and even should, as seen in the quote from the song “Jack’s Obsession,” “And why should they have all the fun? It should belong to anyone. Not anyone, in fact, but me!”

It started out with a child-like wonder, and then grew into an admiration and love of everything Christmas Land had to offer. He loved the colors, the gifts, the decorations, the tree, everything about it. And then he tried to take it, and do it all himself, and just erase Santa out of the picture entirely and make Christmas his. And that’s what we call appropriation.

Being the ruler of one holiday wasn’t enough for ol’ Jack, the selfish skeleton wanted another one, but still wanted to keep his, too. That’s like the worst part, it wasn’t even a trade, he didn’t offer Santa Halloween, he just took Christmas and kept his own holiday on top of that. That’s a dick move.

Of course, by the end, Jack realizes his mistake and feels bad, and defeats Oogie Boogie and apologizes to Sally and everything, so he’s not a total dick. He was just misguided. At least that’s what I tell myself so I can still love Jack and The Nightmare Before Christmas as a whole.

Jack Skellington and Sally at the end of the movie.

Let me know in the comments if you think Jack was a total ass (and that Sally deserved better), or if Jack is just a lovable scamp, or somewhere in the middle. And have a great day!

-AMS

The Big Idea: James S. Murray

Have you ever felt the crippling anxiety of being lost? How about the feeling of being watched? Or both at the same time? Author James S. Murray (writing with Darren Wearmouth) explores this fear in his Big Idea for his new novel, Don’t Move.

JAMES S. MURRAY:

I’ve only been lost in the woods once. It happened recently, in the fall of last year.

My wife Melyssa and I had just moved from an apartment in the city to a quiet house in Princeton, NJ. As a lifelong New Yorker, I felt like I’d teleported to another dimension, surrounded by a natural setting that seemed light years away from the chaotic hustle and bustle of the city.

We suddenly had this big new backyard with grass and songbirds and trees: the kind of things city dwellers only dream about. Most appreciative was our fluffy 1-year old puppy Penny, who despite only being 10 pounds, made herself at home in this new wild kingdom.

After the move, Melyssa and I were eager to explore the trails and hiking paths in the area, many of which are steeped in history. Miles of trails important to the Revolutionary War zigzag around the back roads of Princeton. We were determined to hike them all.

One cool October evening, Melyssa was finishing up some work in the house, so I decided to pack up the puppy and take her for a walk along one of the older trails. Just the two of us. I parked the car near a trailhead by the Princeton Battleground, a spot where George Washington and his soldiers made a valiant stand against British forces in the late 18th century. 

It was serene. The sun had just dipped below the tree line, casting long sideways shadows across the forest floor. Penny and I walked for a while, and though I like to consider myself good with directions, I knew how easy it could be to get lost. One wrong turn and the whole forest could transform into a maze.

Eventually, we got deep enough into the trail where I figured there wouldn’t be other people or dogs around, so I let Penny off the leash so she could sprint and get some of her energy out. We must’ve only been about a mile from our car, but night was beginning to fall. The shadows along the ground were beginning to creep up and turn the tree silhouettes from the brown color of bark to black. Penny was just about out of breath. I figured a couple more minutes of walking and then we’d turn back.

But then I heard a noise.

I stopped dead in my tracks. Something rustled a few yards in front of us on the trail.

My mind raced. A bear? A murderer? The vengeful ghost of a fallen soldier?

It was a squirrel. Penny saw it before I did and within an instant, her instincts took over. She howled with ferocity as her little legs darted off the path in front of me, weaving in and out of the low brush. The squirrel took to the tree tops, shaking the canopy of leaves as it tried to outrun the barking fur ball chasing it from below. It all happened so fast.

And then, in an instant, I was alone.

At this point, the sun had sunk below the horizon. October nights get dark quickly, so it wasn’t long until the buzzing of insects filled the air. All of sudden, the trees felt like they were closing in around me. I pulled out a flashlight and trekked forward in the direction where Penny had run off. I called out her name while trying to avoid tripping on any of the rocks or vines that dotted the overgrown brush.

My imagination started running wild. The massive oak trees and pines that lined the path were hundreds of years old. It made me wonder. What other ancient creatures could be dwelling in these woods? Watching me at this very moment? The thought chilled me to the bone.

Just as the fear was setting in, a familiar jingling sound carried through the air. It was the bell on Penny’s collar. I focused my flashlight on the noise and spotted her thirty yards behind me. She was circling the base of a tree, trying with all her might to will the squirrel down from its perch. I breathed a massive sigh of relief and scooped her up into my arms.

The walk back to the car turned into more of a jog, and eventually, into a run. I was ready to get out of there. Whatever creatures I had imagined in my mind, it felt like all of them were after me. And considering I was armed with only a flashlight and a Shih Tzu puppy, I didn’t stand much of a chance.

Each night, when the sun goes down, the woods transform from a place of relaxation into a place of the unknown. I think that’s what makes it so scary as a setting. We just don’t know what’s out there.

So what happens when a church group from the Bronx ends up stranded in an untouched canyon inhabited by a prehistoric arachnid with an unquenchable thirst for blood? 

Don’t Move is all about that idea of survival. Megan Forrester has just lost her family in a horrific tragedy that haunts her every waking moment. She sets out on a camping trip that was meant to be a turning point for her. But just like in my experience, her venture into the outdoors takes a turn for the worse when she realizes that she’s up against a creature that has survived for thousands of years by defying evolution at every turn.

And that’s the big idea. When life has seemingly taken everything from you, how do you go on? How do you pull out the will to survive when it seems fate is trying to take you down? Some of us use sheer grit and determination. And some of us use Penny.

—-

Don’t Move: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Bookshop

Read an excerpt. Follow the author on Twitter.

A Bit of Disclosure, Re: Sneak Previews and Special Events

A picture from a Lovecraft Country special event, with a very tall, spacey-looking creature, who recited poetry.

In the last couple of months, I’ve — quite mysteriously! — been added to a number of PR lists inviting me to virtual sneak previews of upcoming shows and other related media events. The way it works is you’re invited to an online “red carpet” event, with either sneak previews of the show/movie or some ancillary-but-related event: The picture above, for example, is of a spoken-word performance by Jurnee Smollett in a VR space, associated with her show Lovecraft Country. With the invite often comes swag of some sort, sometimes something as goofy as package of space-related candies, and sometimes as expensive as a virtual reality rig. If one accepts the invite to screening/event, the PR company will ask that in return one notes that one is participating in said event on social media, often by using a particular hashtag, so they can track who is talking about the event, etc.

So that’s the basic deal. PR companies are doing this at this point because they can’t do the traditional red carpet events but they still want to get the word out, and with regard to me, I expect that they see me as someone reasonably well-connected into science fiction/fantasy circles, so getting me to talk about their shows/movies on social media is a useful thing.

I’ve been invited to more of these sort of events than I’ve accepted, but occasionally something will pique my interest to attend — for example, a trio of Lovecraft County-themed VR events (because I was a fan of the book, and now, the TV series), and just today I accepted an invite for a screening of Moonbase 8, an upcoming comedy series starring John C. Reilly and Fred Armisen, because I thought it looked funny. In keeping with the Whatever disclosure policy, I feel it’s ethical to note that I’m getting these invites, that sometimes I accept them, and that sometimes they’ll send along swag when I accept the invite.

Also, while generally speaking I’ll be happy to note that I’ve attended/participated in one of these events (up to including hashtag use), as a matter of principle I won’t falsely say I enjoyed a screening or event if in fact I did not enjoy it. If I say something positive about the event, it will be because I genuinely enjoyed the experience. I’m not bought off by a box of candy (or by a VR rig). This is reminiscent of when I was a professional film critic and would attend junkets to see movies early, and they would give us swag bags and t-shirts and do various events for us. I remember specifically being taken to a really cool event for Super Mario Brothers. It did not entice me to speak well of that mess of a film.

In any event, that’s the deal. If I chat up these events, I’ll happily disclose their nature as something I was invited to, so you’ll be aware of it and can tweak your expectations accordingly. It does no harm to pull back that little bit of the curtain, I think, and quite a lot of good, in terms of credibility.

— JS

And Now, Some General Thoughts About the Election

A picture of foliage which also says

John ScalziAnd to do it, I’m bringing back the “talking to myself” format. Hello, me!

Hello, you! Who, uhhhh, is also me. 

Indeed. So, what are your questions for me about this year’s election?

Well, since you’ve already detailed how you think Trump will do in your own county, any thoughts on how you think he’ll do otherwise?

Sure. I think he’s gonna lose.

You’re sure about that?

Nope! I was almost certain he was going to lose in 2016, and look where we are now. So I have a healthy respect for my being wrong. That said, I feel pretty confident he’s going to lose.

And why is that?

Because this year isn’t 2016, and we are no longer under the illusion a dangerously incompetent and racist con man can’t win. He totally can! And did already, thanks to the intricacies of the electoral college and some good ol’ fashioned foreign interference in our elections. I mean, no one, not even Trump himself, thought he’d win it — and he didn’t want to win it. When he won, it totally fucked up his plans to add a wing to his media empire. But he did win, and now we all know better.

So I think people who have disliked having Trump as president these last four years are taking the election more seriously. They’re voting early, they’re voting down ballot to get rid of his enablers when they can, and they’re aware of the consequences if he stays in office for an additional term. Lots of people, myself included, are not voting for Biden and Democrats as much as they are voting against Trump and the GOP. Which I think is fine — whatever gets people to the polling stations.

But more than that, it seems pretty clear from the polls that Trump is way behind, two weeks from the actual election date.

He was behind in the 2016 polls, too, you know.

I do know. But as others have noted, and in more detail than I will go into here, the 2016 polls were not as wrong as people thought they were in the aftermath. The national polls had Clinton up by a couple of percentage points and a few million votes — and in fact she got more actual votes from actual humans than Trump, by about three million. The polls were not horribly wrong; they were, however, somewhat optimistically read. I don’t think anyone’s being optimistic about poll numbers this year, and they have a rather healthier respect for things like margins of error.

With that said, at this point Biden is polling far better than Clinton was, not only nationally but in “battleground” states, and a few other places besides. I mean, fuck me, Biden is within two points of Trump in Texas, and only .2% ahead in Ohio, which means at the moment it’s a statistical tie here. Trump’s significantly behind in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania polls, and behind but within the margin of error in Florida. He loses any of those states on election night, he’s probably toast. Biden can lose one or two of them and he can probably still win.

Two weeks is still a long time and lots of things can happen (hey, remember the Comey bombshell?) but the point is that Biden is in a much stronger position than Clinton was all the way around, and Trump is both a known (bad) quantity, and is currently not doing anything to help himself in the home stretch. There’s a reason all those Republicans are suddenly trying to put some distance between themselves and the president.

Yeah, hey, what’s up with that, anyway?

Look, no one can see the road ahead better than a boot-licker; they’re kind of at that level. The more sitting Republicans you see peeling off from Trump, the more you know they already think it’s over, because Trump, how to put this, is not forgiving of sudden yet inevitable betrayal. If he does win, there will be retribution. No one in the modern GOP is exactly a profile in political courage, so their abandonment is telling.

Are you worried about election day hijinks at the polls? 

I am but less so than I was before.

Why is that?

Because so many Democratic and/or anti-Trump voters have decided to vote early — it’s possible the majority of Biden voters will have their votes in before election day — that if the GOP or Trump tries to fuck with day-of voting, the only people they’re going to hurt is themselves. Trump is a bit of a Bond villain, in that he loves to monologue and the longer he talks the more he reveals his secret plans. Trump made it clear early that he wants to sabotage the electoral process and that he’s not planning to accept results he doesn’t like, and, oh, hey, if actual fucking Nazis want to patrol polling places, well, that’s fine with him. So, yeah, a lot of people seem to have taken that as a hint to get their votes in early. I sure did.

Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s still likely there will be at least some day-of issues. There will be long lines, I do think at least some homegrown fascists will be about waving their semi-automatics, and there’s a real possibility that at least a couple of states will have their electoral systems hacked because the GOP is bound and determined to make the actual process of democracy in the US as vulnerable as possible. But again, if most people voting against Trump have gotten their votes in by then, then fucking with polling places mostly hurts Trump.

This is a long way of saying: Hey, get your vote in early, okay? In person if you can (the mail is going to be… unreliable), but if you are voting by mail, don’t screw around, put it back into the mail the same day you get it.

Admit it: you’re not gonna be that upset if Trump voters can’t vote.

Well, no, actually I am.

Scoff! Scoff!

Stop that. Look, here’s the thing: Either you believe that every adult US citizen has the right to vote, or you don’t. And if you do believe that every adult US citizen has the right to vote, then you accept it’s entirely possible that, in a fair election, the majority of voters might not vote the way you want them to. If Trump wins the election fair and square, then, a) oh fuck, but also b) then he’s won the election and that’s how it goes.

Now, the thing is, as it stands today and right now, only one of the two major parties in the US is generally for every adult US citizen voting, and it’s not the Republicans. The GOP has clearly gone out of its way to make it as difficult as possible for many adult US citizens to vote, correlating its largest efforts in areas that are Democratic leaning and/or substantially non-white districts. Anyone who argues otherwise is tendentious and supporting the cause of racism and disenfranchisement. And, you know. Fuck them right in the ear for that.

There would be irony if, in attempting to destroy confidence in the 2020 election, Trump ends up screwing himself and the GOP, and I admit I am not made of such stolid moral timber that if that happens I won’t chortle a bit. But, again: Either you believe that every adult US citizen has the right to vote, or you don’t. If you don’t, we’re not allies, even if we’re voting in the same direction. You’re not substantially different, ethically speaking, than the modern GOP.

What do you think is gonna happen down ballot?

I think it’s more likely than not the Democrats are going to win the Senate and keep the House. And while I would be delighted to have Mitch McConnell lose his seat to Amy McGrath, that seems not particularly likely, so I will settle for him no longer being majority leader, and being treated with the same care and consideration as he treated the Democrats.

GWAAAARGH WHAT ABOUT HUNTER BIDEN AND HIS LAPTOP —

Man, shut the hell up, what’s wrong with you?

Sorry, I was trying to get into the head of a Trump supporter for a minute there.

I mean, I appreciate the effort, and also, when the NY Post reporter who was made to type out that bullshit refused to have his name put on it, that tells you something. Or tells me something, as a former journalist. No one, including the people who are desperately trying to get it into the mainstream news as an “October Surprise,” think it’s anything other than Russian-generated disinformation fed to a useful tool. I do think it’s interesting how frustrated the right is that no one seems to be falling for the obvious bullshit this time around, however.

What’s your thought if Biden wins and Trump doesn’t concede?

So what?

What do you mean?

I mean, so what? Show me where in the Constitution of the United States it says that no presidential election is valid unless the loser concedes. My expectation — and again, I’ve been wrong before — is that Biden is going to win by a fairly substantial amount, both in the popular and in the electoral vote. If and when that happens, I think the collapse of GOP support for Trump, which is already happening, will intensify as everyone asks themselves if Trump is actually worth a civil war. Call me optimistic, but I like to think most GOPers would prefer not to have that, especially when the alternative is bland, safe, chummy Joe Biden.

Aside from that, Trump doesn’t actually control the elections, the states do. There’s been talk about some states ignoring the election results and having their GOP-led legislatures assign their electoral votes to Trump no matter what, but — again, I may be overly optimistic — I don’t really see that happening, especially if Biden is way up in the results.

The moral to this story is that it will be really helpful if Biden’s margin is too big to fuck with, so please remember to vote, early if you can.

If Biden wins, then the electors will meet in December, the results will be certified in January and Trump will be out the door on January 20 at 12:01pm regardless of whether he accepts the result or not. So, you know, fuck him if he doesn’t concede. He doesn’t have to. He’ll be just as gone.

Even if he loses, he’ll still have nearly three months to go as president. 

Yup, and it would be foolish not to expect some malice between election day and January 20, 2021, because Donald Trump is a horrible shitpile of a human, and also, if he wants Putin to give him asylum, he’s got to wreck as much shit as he can on the way out. I do imagine Biden’s team is already factoring that into the transition period and will hit the ground running on January 20th.

Do you really think he’ll go to Russia?

No. I think he’ll pardon himself as he walks out the White House door on January 20 and announce a new media network by 3pm. But I do think he’s well aware of to whom he owes money, and he’ll be happy to have as much of that forgiven by doing favors with the time he has left to him. Good news, such as it is: He can’t pardon himself from state crimes, and I expect New York State is going to have a nice packet of summons and subpoenas waiting for him at 12:01pm, January 20. I mean, maybe they’ll give him a day at Mar-a-Lago first. I wouldn’t count on it, though.

This idea does not displease you.

Nope. I’d be happy for the rest of the man’s natural life to be one criminal case after another. He deserves no less!

Any last comments?

Yes! Hey, folks, did I mention you should vote? And vote early if you can? In person would be best! But however you do it, get it done as soon as possible. It’s going to matter. Thanks.

— JS

Reporting in From Trump Country, 2020

A picture of a Trump/Pence sign, with the notation by me: Same sign. Different year.

John ScalziFour years ago (almost exactly), I wrote about Darke County, the place in Ohio where I live, and how I expected it would vote in the 2016 presidential election. Darke County is a small rural county, and like most small rural counties in the United States, it skews pretty seriously conservative and Republican. As part of the 8th District of Ohio, it hasn’t sent a Democrat to the House of Representatives since 1932, and it hasn’t voted for a Democrat for president since 1964. It’s as reliably Republican as you can get, and in 2016 I predicted that Donald Trump would take the county with about 70% of the vote, a number I picked out of the air based on the share of the vote previous Republican candidates for president garnered in the county while I was living in it.

Well, I was wrong about that. Trump won the county with 78.53 percent of the vote — not just outstripping my own prediction by eight and a half points, but winning the county by the largest percentage of any presidential candidate going back at least to 1856, that being the presidential election where Wikipedia stops breaking down the Ohio presidential votes by county. He also did so by a substantial margin over the next highest percentage-getter (that would be Mitt Romney, with 71.72%).

Regardless of whether I like it or not — and I don’t — Trump was a historic candidate for Darke County, and one whose selection cannot merely and entirely be explained away by reflexive Republican lever-pulling. My county chose Donald Trump, specifically. The vast and unambiguous majority of the voters here wanted what he was selling. And, well. They got it, all right.

Now it’s 2020, and you may ask: How does Darke County feel about Trump four years on?

The answer, at least as far as I can see: Pretty much the same, actually, and those who are in the tank for him are even more obviously in the tank for him than they were four years ago. Four years ago in Bradford, the town where I live, there were Trump street signs, like the one in the picture above. Here in 2020, there are multiple signs per yard, and banners, and flags, not just with Trump’s name on them, but of him standing on a moving tank whilst screaming eagles fly alongside him, and no, those flags are not being flown ironically, they really mean it. There are occasional Biden signs, mostly of modest size, but anecdotally they are outnumbered by Trump signs by at least twenty to one. The 2020 Darke County Trump tank is deep and perhaps a bit frantic. If Trump is hoping for “shy voters” to suddenly spring up to take him to victory, he’s not going to get them here. Darke County Trump supporters may be many things, but shy does not appear to be one of them.

Whether the ostentatiousness of Trump’s supporters here will translate to the same number of votes as he got in 2016, or if it’s just whistling in the dark(e) by people who can read the news as well as anyone else and can see the looming electoral massacre, I can’t say. I can say it would not surprise me at all for Trump to once again get 79% of the Darke County vote, give or take a few percentage points. I will be surprised if he gets less than 75% of the vote. If he somehow slides below 70%, I’ll be in shock, and Biden will almost certainly have had a landslide victory, which will include taking Ohio as a whole.

And you may ask, well, how can this possibly be? Did Darke County not experience the same previous four years as all the rest of the country? Does its citizens not see how historically awful Trump is? What are they thinking? How can this be explained away?

Well, and in no particular order, here are some of the reasons why I think Trump is still going to take Darke County, Ohio (note well: My explanations will mostly not be the reasons offered by actual Trump voters):

1. In fact, Darke County didn’t experience the same four years as some other places. Darke is, again, a small rural county in Ohio. It’s 98.5% white, and conservative in a Republican state. Trump’s awfulness is mitigated here by the county’s whiteness, Trump’s general lack of antagonism for Ohio as a whole, and by the fact that although agriculture has been disrupted by his administration’s dimwitted policies, Trump and the GOP are perfectly fine with welfare for farmers and the agricultural sector. The pandemic has not bitten down as hard here as it has in other places, both in the state and in the US in general. Don’t get me wrong, Darke County has not escaped the general rain of shit from the last four years. But it’s fair to say it’s been a lighter steady patter of raindrops at the periphery of a much larger storm.

2. Trump is offering up conservative policies and judges. He’s doing a whole bunch of other really shitty things, because he’s a corrupt and bigoted grifter, but also, you can’t deny that he’s danced with them whut brung him, and given doctrinaire social and economic conservatives pretty much everything they’ve wanted over the last four years. And guess what? If he wins the election, they get another four years of that! There are a whole lot of people for whom that’s enough — or at least, there are enough who want what they can only get with a Trump win (Biden’s not gonna stuff any more poorly vetted, stridently doctrinaire conservative judges on the bench) that they’re willing to put up with graft and corruption that they don’t think is going to affect them, anyway.

3. A whole bunch of the voters are being fed shit from social media and questionable news sources and either they don’t know it or they don’t care. It’s not an exaggeration to say that the epistemic capture in the US of (not only, but in particular) poor and working class whites by conservatives, billionaires and propagandists is one of the great social engineering success stories of the last half century. This includes an informational ecosystem that’s easy to get into and hard to get out of because it simultaneously stimulates fear and anger responses, degrades one’s own ability to reason, and breeds mistrust in outside sources and political points of view. In other words: cult conditioning.

Now, it would unfair nonsense to suggest the people of a county that hasn’t gone for a Democrat since LBJ would not be reliably voting for whomever the GOP candidate was every four years. But it’s not unfair nonsense to say that convincing a historically large percentage of these folks to vote for someone who four years ago was clearly not competent to be president, and in 2020 has a nearly four-year record of venal graft and malice, is the fruit of a decades-long effort to get into their heads and make them resistant to actual facts that are right in front of them. It’s not coincidence that QAnon is metastasizing through conservative and GOP circles at breathtaking speed; having a millions-strong corps of voters willing to lap up even that level of rank bullshit is in fact the goal.

(“But her emails!” Well, yes, and that’s to my point exactly — the decades-long demonization of Hillary Clinton far out of proportion to any actual misdeed or misstep she might have ever made is a perfect case study of how this epistemic capture has worked, and helped to make her a weak enough candidate that a walking loaf of unearned privilege like Trump could edge her out of the presidency.)

Related and slightly more charitably:

4. Not everyone actually follows or cares about politics. These are low-information voters but it doesn’t mean they’re stupid; it just means on a day-to-day basis they’re worried about what life is dishing out directly in front of them. The US is really good at filling up all your hours with work and family and errands and Dancing With the Stars and/or The Bachelor, especially if you are poor or working class and you’re on an economic precipice anyway. Politics is a luxury item in the United States, and again, we work really hard to make it so. So when it comes down to voting, often it’s just easier to pick a team to root for, and probably the one that all your friends and family are rooting for and the one you see and hear talked about on radio, TV and social media.

I understand that most of the people who are reading this aren’t that sort of person and possibly cannot fathom how someone could be this sort of person. But if you’ll allow me a moment of cynicism here, let me suggest that these sorts of voters are some of a political party’s favorite. Nothing like someone unthinkingly punching in a party line vote, no matter if you are Republican or Democrat. The parties rely on that sort of “this is my team” thinking. And here in Darke County, that team is the Republicans.

5. Some of the people voting for Trump are just shitty bigots. As I (and others) have said before, not everyone who votes for Trump is a shitty bigot, but all the shitty bigots are voting for Trump. I’m not going to pretend my home county doesn’t have its fair share of shitty bigots. They’re everywhere! Darke County is not different.

6. Rather more of the people voting for Trump are not shitty bigots in their daily lives, but don’t have to deal with the fallout of shitty bigotry, so, meh. Hey, you know what’s really hard to make white straight cis people understand? The dynamics of systemic bigotry! It will not be news for many of you reading this that the US is really good at convincing people that so long as they aren’t actively a shitty bigot every waking moment of their lives, that they don’t have to be concerned with, or engaged on, issues of systemic bigotry — and indeed (see point 3 above) there’s a whole apparatus designed to make them feel like when other people want them to engage on those systemic issues, it’s them who are being attacked when they’re good people, okay?

And they are perfectly good lovely people on a day to day basis, who also aren’t wrapping their heads around what a vote for Trump means to so many other people and in a larger context… or they are, and have decided it’s not really all that bad.

I’m not here to excuse voting for a shitty bigot. What I said four years ago about it still stands, and here in 2020, you can’t say you don’t know who Trump is as a president, even if you are a low-information voter. My friends, no one who has the mental capacity to fill out a ballot is that low-information at this point. Voting for Trump in 2020 is an explicitly racist, sexist, homophobic and transphobic act, among the many other terrible things that it is.

Also, it’s something that at least 70% of my neighbors, and possibly as many as 80% of them, are planning to do in a couple of weeks, if they have not already done so.

I’ve had a lot of folks ask me (and some others judge me) about that and ask me what it’s like. The answer I have for that is, well, I don’t know, what’s it like for you? Very few of us, I suspect, and especially the straight white cis folks, are completely without a Trump voter somewhere in our social orbit, just as very few Trump voters are completely without a Biden voter in their midst — I mean, for at least some of those Trump voters, that person is me. 63 million Americans voted for Trump in 2016; it’s not unreasonable to predict he’ll pull close to that number in this election as well (I’m hoping for much less, mind you). And some of those voters might be, and statistically speaking are likely to be, your family members, or friends, or neighbors or co-workers or classmates.

For me: the ones that are active, shitty bigots I am happy to leave by the side of the road, and have, when it’s come to that. As for the rest, well, you know, look: I am not innocent in my life of having benefited from and even having leveraged to my advantage the biases of the system. I’m still working to be a better person on that score. I recognize that I’ll be working on myself, and to make the world and my country fairer and more just for everyone, until I die, and that I will leave the work undone when I go. We are all in process.

Including, potentially, people who voted for Trump. There are some people who voted for Trump in 2016 who are actively casting a vote against him in 2020 because they realize now the danger he represents. There are going to be some people who will need to have him lose (knock on wood) this year and have all his presidential protections stripped away before they recognize all the graft and corruption and malign incompetence he brought into the White House, and how it damaged the country. Part of me is gonna want to yell at them because Jesus Christ it was all right there how could you not see it, but another part of me is going to take a breath and remember we are all on the metaphorical road to Damascus, and some people take longer to have the scales fall from their eyes. When they do, work can begin.

Biblical allusions aside, I’m not, shall we say, expecting miracles. I’m also not expecting Darke County to go blue in 2024. But I think it’s okay to hope for some change, and to work for it as well. We’ll see how it goes.

In the meantime, please vote, folks. It matters.

Small Business Saturday: Tarabusi Creek Cosmetics

Athena ScalziWelcome to another Small Business Saturday! In case you missed the last one, this is where I write about a brand/company that I have bought and tried products of. These are not paid promotions or instances where I have been given free items in return for a post about them. These are just things I have bought and consumed on my own time, and liked enough to talk to all of you about. So let’s jump right in to the second installment of Small Business Saturday!

Today I’m here to talk about Tarabusi Creek Cosmetics, a Michigan-based skincare brand that makes soaps, scrubs, perfumes, lotions, candles, and more! All of their products are vegan and homemade in small batches. I actually came across them on Twitter, and you can check out theirs here!

The soap here swirly black and white.

Like I mentioned, they make a wide variety of skincare products, and so far I have tried three of their soaps. I have almost never used bar soap in my life, I always use liquid body wash, but I’m seriously loving the bar life. One thing I hate about liquid soap is when it gets low or close to empty, you have to shake it like a fuckin’ ketchup bottle and squeeze the shit out of it. Bars are kinda nice because they just like, disappear and you don’t have to throw away the bottle, so that’s cool regarding like sustainability and whatnot.

The first one I bought was called Toasted, and I chose this one because it was the very beginning of fall and I wanted something that matched the season, and what better to do that with than soap that smells like cinnamon and pumpkin chai? I was really impressed with this soap! I loved the way it lathered and it also smelled super amazing. It lasted about a month and a half for me before I bought a new one, and the second time around I bought two bars!

The second one is called Sunburst, and it’s a much milder soap that’s not as strongly fragranced. I decided on this one because at the time I bought it, it was on sale, and who doesn’t love a good sale? It’s really simple and nicely scented. The third one is called Ren Fest, and this one has such a fun design! It’s all colorful and marbled, and you can really tell here that they’re handmade because no two bars are the same. This one was a little too “manly” scented for me, but it is a really nice scent if you’re into that! I’m more of a floral or classic clean scent person myself, but I still really like the quality of the third one.

So, yeah, be sure to check them out, try a soap or a scrub, or even a candle! I hope you have as good an experience with this brand as I have so far. Oh, and shipping was really quick, too! So that’s a plus.

Have a great day!

-AMS

 

Something To Listen To This Fine Friday

Today I have a song for you, and you may or may not enjoy it, but here it is regardless of your enjoyment levels.

I actually first heard this song because it was used as the background music for the season 7 trailer of Voltron: Legendary Defender. It’s quite fitting for that show, which I’m sure is why they picked it.

But anyways this is definitely a favorite of mine, I listen to it almost everyday or at least every other day, so I hope you like it! Let me know your thoughts in the comments, or if you have anymore “dark pop” genre recommendations similar to this. And have a great day!

-AMS

The Big Idea: Carrie Vaughn

When the main character is away, the side characters and antagonists will play! Ever wonder what goes on behind the scenes in a novel? Read on to hear about Carrie Vaughn’s newest book, Kitty’s Mix-Tape and see what lies beyond the first-person perspective.

CARRIE VAUGHN:

Sometimes a big idea is the culmination of a lot of other ideas. Sometimes, it happens toward the end of a process rather than at the start. 

I wrapped up my series of novels about a werewolf named Kitty five years ago. . .but I had some loose ends. A handful of short stories connected to the series that hadn’t yet been collected anywhere, some crazy rough drafts that needed finishing. . .  I wanted to pull them all together and get them out in the world. 

Collecting a decade’s worth of material is a chance to reflect on characters and a world I’ve lived with for quite a long time now (the first Kitty short story appeared in Weird Tales in 2001). How did I do? What did I miss? Would I change anything? Is there anything left to mine?

Heck, there’s always something left to mine! These are ideas, not molybdenum. They propagate. Short stories are the perfect form in which to explore maybe not big earth-shattering plots. But ideas. Weird ideas that don’t fit in a novel outline, that might not work stretched out over three hundred pages but might pack a punch at 30 pages. For example:  What happens when a werewolf goes to her 10 year high school reunion? I don’t know, let’s find out!

The novels were all written in first person point of view. First person is great for getting inside a protagonist’s mind, for intimately sharing their perspective, experiences, and emotional journey. It’s popular with many readers because it’s so immersive. But it has one big drawback:  you can only tell the reader what the main character knows. Their knowledge is limited to her knowledge. And it turns out a lot of Kitty’s friends—and enemies—weren’t very forthcoming with their own secrets and stories. Kitty kept asking and they kept not talking.

But I wanted to know what they were all about. Many of the short stories I wrote set in the Kitty universe are the back stories of other characters. (Rick the vampire needed his own whole collection, The Immortal Conquistador, which came out earlier this year.) What do these people do when Kitty isn’t around? A lot, it turns out. Not to mention the other random questions that come along. Like, it turns out if you’re writing a long-running urban fantasy series, and to relax from that you obsessively watch lush adaptations of Jane Austen novels because they’re the opposite of urban fantasy, eventually you begin to ask the question:  What would Regency society look like with werewolves? So yes, that topic gets covered here as well.

These are the Bonus Features. The Easter Eggs. I hope my long-time readers will enjoy these glimpses into other corners of Kitty’s world. I hope that through them, new readers will get a fine introduction to my series. Starting a fourteen-novel series is sometimes a big ask. But a short story? An appetizer? A taste? That’s easy, and new readers might just like it enough to ask for more.

So, that’s my Big Idea: short stories are gold. They’re my R&D department, my container garden where I can work on ideas that maybe don’t fit anywhere else. If I want to cut loose and shake off some cobwebs, run a sprint and not a marathon. . . I write short stories. And for readers, they’re a sample tray, a tasting menu, those delightful bites carried around by elegant servers at a high-end party. Or at least, I like to think so.

—-

Kitty’s Mix-Tape: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Visit the author’s site.

Today In “I’m Occasionally Reminded I Live the Life of a Hermit, Even Without COVID As an Excuse”

John ScalziI went into a bank for literally the first time in years. 

Why would I do such a thing? Because Krissy, who usually does our banking, is currently laid up recuperating from her foot surgery (she’s doing great, thanks for asking, but she’s not up to doing errands out of the house yet) and I had some checks I needed to deposit. And yes, I still get checks sent, because I like to see some physical form of my money before committing it to the banking system.

So, off I went to the bank, as part of a whole day of errands, which also included grocery shopping and going to the post office, two things I also do seldom, but not seldom as going to the bank.

And it was fine — I handed the checks over to the teller along with a deposit slip (which Krissy filled out in advance, because she’s good like that), she handed me a receipt and some cash that I has asked for, we made chit chat while the transaction was happening (she recognized my name and noted Krissy was usually the one depositing the checks), and we both wore masks as we did it, because neither of us are fucking monsters who wish to potentially infect other people with disease. It was all very civilized.

But as the headline suggests, it did remind me both how infrequently I get out of the house, not just now, when it’s best to stay at home unless you have a compelling reason to be elsewhere, but in general. I work from home and when I am home, and not traveling, I generally don’t have much call to wander. Krissy is the one who works out of the home, usually, so she handles most of the out of the house errands, if for no other reason than she is already out and about (well, there’s also the fact that I am notoriously lackadaisical about things and that if it were left to me, the checks and bills would pile up for months, and Krissy, who likes and expects order, would have to murder me. But never mind that right now). It’s a good system for the both of us.

It also reinforces how much I rely on my spouse for, well, lots of things. Which is why when she is unable to do things — or asks me to do pretty much anything — I snap to and pick up the slack as directed. Even when it means (gasp!) leaving the house, and walking into an actual bank.

Question: Is there some formerly regular task outside the home that you have not done for a very long time? It can be because of COVID, but it could also be just because. I’m curious to know.

— JS

The Big Idea: Amanda Bridgeman

Cover to

Ever feel like your tech knows too much about you? Like it’s literally in your head reading your thoughts? What if it was literally in your head? In Amanda Bridgeman’s newest novel, The Sensation, she explores a world in which neural implants are a reality, but much like the tech we have today, it might do more harm than good.

AMANDA BRIDGEMAN:

A discussion on our deepening relationship with technology has already begun in society. Whether it’s our spiraling addiction to social media, organizational data breaches or political hacking, many believe that technology is actually starting to make our lives worse, not better. We’re more hooked to our notifications than we are to our loved ones, and advertisers have harnessed our data to create powerful selling tools that know more about us than we do ourselves. That said, there’s nothing really wrong with being social online or buying things you want or need, right? But what if technology was used to control people in more overt and sinister ways? 

The Sensation, book 2 in the Salvation series, follows homicide detective, Salvi Brentt, as she hunts down sadistic killers in a world left divided by a tech-terrorist attack known as The Crash. In the wake of The Crash, which left early adopters of connected neural implants either dead or brain damaged, some elements of society turned their backs on technology and set up tech-free communities outside the cities. Some of these communities are religious, some are survivalist, some are neither. Meanwhile, those who remain in the cities, hold on to their tech tighter than ever and some even fight to have connected neural implants made legal again. 

In my previous book, The Subjugate, I explore the divisions created in this near-future society. Firstly, the division between those for and against neural implant technology (and technology at large). Secondly, the divide between saint and sinner; between organized religion and the penal system – and the places where these two worlds of control overlap. In this universe, Salvi investigates the murder of a young woman in a religious tech-pullaway community, Bountiful, which soon turns into a series of murders and the hunt for an escalating serial killer. The case is complicated, however, by a nearby high-tech prison, the Solme Complex, which legally uses neural implants to reform its violent criminals and then set them free in the religious community to serve and repent. But now women are winding up dead. So just who is responsible? Are these criminals truly cured?

The main idea in this book, which carries through into The Sensation, is on the use of neural implants to control people. In the case of The Subjugate, it’s to ‘cure’ violent criminals and stop them from reoffending. Essentially a tracking bracelet for the brain, the neural implants, attached to an external device worn on the skull, known as a ‘halo’, are used to analyze electrical activity in the areas of the brain that control such things as anger, violence and sexual arousal. When activity in these parts of the brain begin to spike, the halos act as a warning system – coding blue – which allows those around the offender to take the necessary measures before they can reoffend. And in a worst-case scenario, the implants can be used to subdue the offender. Between this ‘alarm’ system, chemical castration, and a healthy dose of religious repentance, these criminals should be tightly controlled, right?

I’ve always been fascinated with the ‘why’ of violent criminals, and a lot of research indicates a prevalence of neurological disorders that cause them to act the way they do (though one can’t ignore sociological or economic issues either). So, I explore the big idea of using this technology to possibly ‘cure’ violent criminals, but I also explore whether this cure, which essentially uses violence and oppression to cure violence and oppression, is the right answer.

And this same idea in threaded through into The Sensation as well. Though this time, I flip the idea on its head. Here the focus shifts back to the city (San Francisco) and a new drug-tech experience that has hit the streets, resulting in an epidemic of violence and a spiraling body count. I pose the question – if we can use neural implants to deaden the areas of the brain that control anger, violence and sexual arousal, what would happen if we used neural implants to intentionally heighten these areas? Could this be the ecstasy and methamphetamine use of the future, where the drugs are used in conjunction with neural implants that stimulate these areas of the brain to maximize their effects? And what would be the result? Some would use it purely for pleasure, yes; a drug-tech party experience that would blow everything that came before it out of the water. But in the wrong hands, without a doubt, some people would use it to control others in ways that could be incredibly detrimental to society. 

And what would happen if those seeking to control others with this technology had a lot of money and power behind them? Would they become an unstoppable force? Neural implants could be used to stop killers, but they could also be used to create them too…

So, these are the big ideas behind the Salvation series: the good, the bad and the ugly of our relationship with technology, and the desire for control – those who seek control over others, those who submit to it, and those who fight against it.

—-

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

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

Once Again, My Annual Unsolicited Appreciation Post, Regarding WordPress

The WordPress logo

Every year around this time I take a moment out of my day to express my unsolicited appreciation for WordPress, which, in October 2008 and after a particularly rough year keeping my site up and running due to surging traffic, helped me transfer Whatever over to their tender care (specifically via their VIP service). In the dozen years since, I can count on a single hand the number of times there have been any connection issues with the site, and in each case, they were resolved quickly enough that sometimes the only person who noticed was me. That’s good service.

These days, more than ever, I think it’s important for creatives, journalists and anyone else who wants to keep control of their own online presence to have their own website. For a dozen years WordPress has helped me to do just that. If you are looking for your own site online (or looking to revive a site you once had but let lie fallow), I can easily and enthusiastically recommend WordPress, which has all sorts of options available to fit whatever your need and/or budget. Check them out. They’re really worked for me, and I look forward to keeping the site going for another year, and beyond, with their help.

— JS

 

This Just In: I Shaved

Me, smiling, clean-shaven

Why? Because, one, I was bored of my face as it previously was, and two, it’s been a couple of years since I saw my chin, and I was wondering how it was holding up. Turns out, it’s holding up okay! Also, the last time I was clean-shaven I was about 30 pounds heavier, and I was curious how losing that weight would affect my face. The answer is: Some, but not a whole lot — I still have jowls, for example, which I think is a natural consequence of having a 51-year-old face. Barring plastic surgery, which I’m not currently inclined to do, the jowls are here to stay. So it goes.

Me being me, I couldn’t resist making goofy faces, either, as evidenced by the following tweet:

It turns out I have a fairly rubbery face. The world lost a very fine character actor when I determined that I can’t actually, you know, act. Luckily the writing thing is doing okay for me.

I think I’ll stay clean-shaven for a bit; I made the effort of shaving, after all. Seems a shame not to let my chin get some sun.

— JS

The Big Idea: C.L. Polk

The cover to

As C.L. Polk reveals in this Big Idea for her latest novel The Midnight Bargain, the state of affairs in our world can have a significant effect about the state of affairs in a fictional one… even if the connections are not immediately evident on surface of thing.

C.L. POLK:

When people talk about The Midnight Bargain, they say nice things about how it’s a romantic fantasy with sharp social commentary. I’m glad they do, because while I wanted to write a story with the flouncy dresses and big hairstyles of the 18th century, the true big idea behind The Midnight Bargain is an image that I’ve seen on more than once over the years: a woman, with the silver curls and don’t-give-a-fuck aura of a crone at a pro-choice rally holding up a sign that reads, “I Can’t Believe We Still Have To Protest This Shit.”

Because wow, I can’t believe we’re still fighting for the right to control our bodies. I am astounded that even today, a person capable of carrying and birthing a child will not have their wishes respected if they become pregnant, when they don’t want to be pregnant anymore (and I don’t care what the reason is!) that in many states in the U.S., they can’t end that pregnancy. If I think about it too long, I start clenching my fists.

When I’m angry about something, it usually winds up in one of my books. This time, I’m digging into the dark side of hereditary magic. When magicians are born and not made in a fantasy story, we all assume that magicians will occupy a special place in society–advisors to rulers, if not rulers themselves, or members of groups with the ability to manipulate power on multiple levels. It seems almost inevitable that magicians will wind up dominating whatever society they’re a part of.

But that’s not the dark side I’m talking about here. Because you can imagine a world where natural born magicians have shaped a society where magic users are expected to improve the lives of others, and all kinds of noble things that I’ve enjoyed reading about. I spent an afternoon thinking about the creeping influence of hereditary magicians on institutional power, and then stumbled into wondering–what happens to the mothers?

Let me back up a little bit. If someone is a magician living in a society where magic is an advantage, and some people are born with it, and other people are not, then they’re going to want to pass that on to their children, to give them the same advantages.

Right? I mean we see that all the time in our history. We know that most of the places in expensive, prestigious schools don’t go to the best scholars across the society, but to the children of alumni who also attended that school, sometimes for generations, regardless of how well they performed in school previously. We know that wealthy people generally had generations of wealthy people behind them. We know that working class people are less likely to hold political office than wealthy people. We know that people want their children to have all the advantages they can give them. I don’t think that the inheritance of magic would be any different from the inheritance of land or wealth or power. But what does that mean to the people who can carry children?

I am a bit of a pessimist. I can’t look at ages of sexist beliefs and practices that perpetuated themselves in society after society for thousands upon thousands of years and even entertain the idea that child-carrying people in a world with hereditary magic would be given a scrap of meaningful choice about how they put those bodies to use. I simply cannot. And so I am certain that the addition of hereditary magic would only mean more oppressive control placed on the people who can carry and birth children.

But I wasn’t sure that the simple cruelty of sexism was enough. And so, I tied the essential element of magic–the assistance of a spirit capable of altering reality in specific, individual ways–to the desire to have the home of a body. To feel, see, touch, hear, taste, and smell with a body. And that it was possible, if a spirit managed to inhabit a developing fetus at just the right time. Faced with this problem, a sexist society is simply going to find a solution that puts all the burden on the person capable of carrying the child. Sound extreme?

Okay. Go ahead and list ten methods you can use as a sexually active person to reliably prevent pregnancy in the 21st century, assuming that there’s a penis and a vagina in intimate congress. You have one minute. Go!

Time’s up! How many of those methods placed the responsibility on the person with a penis, compared to how many of those methods placed the responsibility on the person with a uterus? You probably came up with two – condoms and vasectomies. Any more? No?

That’s because there aren’t any. Oh, I know there’s a contraceptive pill that reached clinical trials that effectively stopped sperm production. Can you walk into your Wegmans and get it? No? Then it doesn’t really count, does it?

And that’s the simmering, terrible anger that lives under the flouncy dresses and genteel conversations in The Midnight Bargain – that some people bear almost all the responsibility of carrying and birthing children, and some people barely have to think about it at all, and it is that way because the societies we live in deliberately shaped themselves to be so. And if that wasn’t enough, the people who don’t have to worry about it have more personal and institutional power over the bodies of the people who do.

It infuriates me that we still have to fight for the most basic right to control our bodies. It enrages me that we still have to choose between career advancement and childcare when the chips are down–today, right now. I can’t believe we still have to protest this shit.

But we do. So here I am. And if this is where you are, please know I wrote The Midnight Bargain for you.

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The Midnight Bargain: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

Mars Through the Trees, 10/13/20

Tonight we’re as close to Mars as we’re going to be for a few decades. I thought I’d go out and get a picture of it. You can see it just barely clearing the trees here. It’s bright and beautiful and I’m glad I got to see it tonight. If you have time and a clear sky, go and take a look at it yourself. You won’t regret it.

— JS

How “The Good Place” Kinda Messed Me Up

Ponts from Athena ScalziDo you ever wonder about life after death? If you’ve ever seen The Good Place, you know that their version of the afterlife is based on a point system that determines a person’s goodness. When a person dies, they either have negative or positive points, depending on what they did in their lifetime, and that score determines whether or not a person goes to “the Good Place” or “the Bad Place”. It’s very much like a Heaven and Hell sort of thing, but without the religion/faith aspect and just based purely on if you were a good person in your lifetime or not.

For me, I’ve always believed there’s nothing after death. But I really like the idea that the only qualification for a nice eternity is that you’re a decent person. But it makes me wonder about how many points things are worth. In the first episode, they mention that you even get good points for making a sandwich! Does that mean that Subway workers get a shit ton of free good points? Is anyone who works at Jimmy John’s for ten years guaranteed to get into “the good place” even if they do a lot of bad stuff just because they’ve been racking up points for years?

I’ve only seen the first season of The Good Place, so maybe all of this gets explained later on (or maybe I just don’t remember since I watched it when it came out), but it really makes me wonder which actions are better than other actions? Is it better to give money to a person standing on the corner with a sign asking for help, or is it better to offer to buy them a meal? Is it better to volunteer at an animal shelter or adopt a highway? What gets you more points, helping an old lady carry groceries, or helping your neighbor change a tire?

Who is the decider of how many points something is worth? Who dictates what is a good action and what is a bad action?

Anyways, I’ve lived my entire life not believing in an afterlife, so I didn’t really think of whether or not my actions would affect anything like that, except maybe in the ways of like, “karma is a bitch”. But after watching The Good Place, I started thinking about the point value of every single one of my actions. Like obsessively. Would doing this make me go into the negatives? How close am I to zero right now? Would doing this give me a substantial boost of positive points? Of course, I didn’t actually base my decisions off of these thoughts, but they still nagged at me constantly, and still do, two years later.

I keep thinking, if I died right now, would I go to “the Good Place”? But I guess people often think that about Heaven and whatnot as well. I wonder if right now I’m in the negatives, or if I’ve been a good enough person in my life to be in the green, y’know?

I don’t want to say I’m worried about it, but it definitely makes me think. I want to be a good person so badly. But I worry that every good thing I do is actually just performative, that I do it just in case it gets me good karma. Just in case someone is keeping score. I want to be selfless and generous and kind, but if I do anything that is considered “a good deed” am I really doing it because I’m a good person, or am I doing it because I want other people to think I’m a good person? I mean, I do want people to think I’m a good person. But I don’t want that to be my only reason for doing “good” things.

In The Good Place (spoiler), one of the characters did a ton of good things in their lifetime, but she didn’t it for the right reasons, so she ended up in the bad place despite having done a bunch of stuff that should’ve gotten her positive points. I worry I’m like her a lot.

The Good Place legitimately made me reevaluate my life and all the choices I’ve made. Which is kinda whack. I definitely want to watch the other seasons, I just haven’t gotten around to it.

Anyways, have a good day!

-AMS

The Big Idea: Christen Carter

The cover to Button Power, which as you might expect has many buttons on it.

Few things in this world are as quirky a choice of fashion as a button, and according to author Christen Carter, few things encapsulate a story as well as one, too. This is their power — which might be why the title of the book Carter co-wrote with Ted Hake is called Button Power.

CHRISTEN CARTER:

I bought my first button when I was twelve – it was one of the first things I ever bought with my own babysitting money. This little Snoopy and Woodstock button made me feel like we were all buddies. As a teenager, I would wear punk buttons, hoping to find other people that were into the same weird stuff as me. And I did! These buttons told a story to the world about who I was, and what I valued, and helped me connect to others who shared those values.  Today, I still wear them to express my political views, support a cause, and just wear art that I like.

Coming from a DIY/punk scene which was all about community, I wanted to help give others the means to share something about themselves and connect with their own communities. So, in 1995, I started Busy Beaver Button Company, and since then we’ve manufactured over 50 million buttons. 

Along with making buttons, I’d been casually collecting them for many years. When I decided to create the Button Museum, I wanted to learn about the history of each button. My research led me to seek out an out-of-print book I had seen several years previously, Collectable Pin-Back Buttons written by Ted Hake in 1986, it’s still the bible for button collectors. It’s an incredible book, it shows a breath of styles and designs. I reached out to Ted and we became fast friends. To call Ted an expert is an understatement. He catalogued advertising and other popular culture buttons, basically created that button market for collectors. He’s been in the button dealing game for over 50 years. Ted and I both love the art and the stories (and the mysteries!) behind each button and we can talk about them forever. 

After working on this book solo for about 5 years, I asked Ted if he’d like to create the book with me since I was asking him so many questions anyhow and I was way in over my head. To my delight, he said yes. We decided to gather our collections and organize by year, starting in 1896 and continuing to the present. For each year, we wanted to make sure that we caught the zeitgeist of the moment as well as any big events that took place. Our requirements to be considered in the book were: 

  1. if the button was beautiful or nicely designed
  2. if it told a story of its time
  3. if it was dated, and 
  4. if it’s a “first” of anything, like, if it was the first band button

 Buttons may seem like a very niche, even quirky thing, but they can tell American history over the past 125 years like nothing else can. Buttons are a people’s history – they are mementos of personal pride, family reunions, and stupid jokes; sliced bread and electric mushrooms; punk rock and presidents; social justice, swimming lessons and space travel. They depict images that are both familiar and foreign. In their tiny format, buttons tell stories that are deep and wide.

In 1896, when the pin-back button was invented in Newark, New Jersey, it was really special to own a printed object; people weren’t as inundated with images as we are now. It’s fascinating how over time the messaging, the artwork, and the materials of buttons have changed to tell a story of what’s important to people and how we express ourselves.

Initially, Ted and I probably considered over 10,000 buttons before choosing the ones we wanted to include in the book. We ended up submitting 4,000 or so to the publisher. After lots of discussion and deliberations over each button, about 1,500 or so made the final round to be displayed in Button Power

Ted, Jonell (Ted’s wife), and I went on many buttony adventures that took us around the country. We got to see the backrooms of the Smithsonian and visit famed collections in Newark, NJ and at the Met. We also spent so many hours in his office not just talking about the buttons, but about the inventors, the various manufacturers, the social context of them, the materials, how companies advertised and sold their buttons. How many times did we say, “What a beautiful button”?! To go into something so deeply and to find someone who cares and much and knows so much is an amazing treat. Making this book is one of the most fun things I’ve ever done!

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Button Power: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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