Scared Of Surgery

Athena ScalziI’m having surgery for the first time in my life tomorrow and let me just say, I am hella nervous. I’m honestly really scared, mostly because I’ve never been put under with anesthesia before.

Also I’m getting my tonsils burned out of my throat so, that’s scary to think about, too.

I remember as a kid all my friends getting their tonsils out, and they got to eat nothing but buttered noodles and ice cream. It didn’t sound so bad, but I was glad nonetheless that my tonsils were a-okay and I didn’t need them out. In fact, once I turned into an adult, I remember mentioning to a friend that I was glad I made it through my entire childhood without needing them (or my wisdom teeth) out. Who knew you could need them out as an adult?

Well, I guess it was nice while it lasted. I can’t say I’ll miss them, and I’m probably better off without them, but OH MY GOD SURGERY I’M SO SCARED. If I think about it for long enough, I start to cry.

If any one of y’all has gotten your tonsils out, or has dealt with a kid that got theirs out, please give me advice! I want to hear all about your remedies and helpful tips! I could really use some advice. I think the more prepared I make myself, the less scared I’ll be, so please tell me all your post-tonsil-surgery secrets.

Well, I’m off. The next time you see me I will be tonsil-free! And probably whining about how much pain I’m in. So be prepared for me to be a huge crybaby.

Have you had any surgeries before? What’s it feel like to anesthetized? Do you still have your tonsils as an adult? Let me know in the comments, and have a great day!

-AMS

The Big Idea: Jeff Noon

The famous saying is that “life is like a bunch of chocolates.” In author Jeff Noon’s case, it’s more like a deck of cards, and for the same reason: You never know what you’re going to get. Follow along as Noon tells you how total chance helped him write his newest novel, Within Without.

JEFF NOON:

Theseus would be lost in the Minotaur’s labyrinth, and would probably have died in there, were it not for Ariadne’s skein of red thread. She gave him this clew (the Old English word for ball of thread) to use as a mapping device, and a pointer back to the exit, once the heroic deed was done. In Within Without, I used the red thread in a slightly different way – as a series of signposts pointing the way forward, deeper into the labyrinth. I am not speaking metaphorically: I actually used a red thread to create the novel.

I never plan. I get an idea that excites me, that seems to have potential, and then I begin to write. So, I had two things. The first a city, a city obsessed with borders, that would contain millions of borders, of every kind: physical, psychological, magical. Secondly, I had the notion that a famous person’s public image might be a sentient alien creature that lived in a symbiotic relationship with the host, increasing the star’s charismatic value. Imagine if Ziggy Stardust was actually a living entity that inhabited David Bowie’s body; that was the basic concept, to be explored. I had a feeling, not yet articulated, that the two ideas were connected, that the borderline between image and flesh was also a border in the city.

A few months before, a friend had gifted me a pack of cards. The pack is called The Red Thread. It consists of thirty-two cards, each with its own image and title. A red thread is printed on each card, arranged randomly, so that cards can be edged together, the thread connecting one image to the next in a patchwork effect, creating, in a sense, a narrative told by the cards. I decided to use these cards, and the thread connecting them, to tell the story of Within Without. So I shuffled the pack and turned over the top card… 

Hm. The Shoe. A Card of Utility. Not a very interesting way to begin a novel. Maybe this process would stall at the first signpost. But the pack also includes a separate list of all the cards, with a few sentences describing each one, and what they might symbolise. So I read the entry for The Shoe. “A journey. Protection on a rocky path.” Okay. We can work with that. My protagonist, Nyquist, is a private investigator. He’s about to enter Delirium, the City of a Million Borders. So I put him in a queue. A very, very long queue of people moving very, very slowly, squeezed into a very narrow corridor. And I started to write. A few pages later, I turned over the second card: The Pearl, a Card of Emergence. Right then: Nyquist will emerge from that queue and move towards the first border of the city. Here, something of importance would be found, or lost. In fact that “pearl” turned out to be a tiny black hole that the customs officer found in Nyquist’s suitcase. We were off!

And so it went on. Each start of a new chapter drew a new card, and often a chapter needed a further card halfway through. I never knew what was coming next. Sometimes the cards fitted the current episode very well indeed, and at other times I had to think laterally to make it fit. But all thirty-two cards were used, as they came up: The Twins, The Automaton, The Spectre, The Plumed Horse, The Owl. All found their place. Some of the cards led to major surprises, things that actually shocked me, when I worked out the hidden meaning. Things I would never, ever have invented on my own. As each card was used I laid it out on a tabletop, lining up the red thread with the previous card. Often the cards had to be nudged up or down or set at right angles, to make the threads connect. Slowly, throughout the first draft, the pathways twisted about, this way and that: my very own miniature labyrinth.

I came to the last few chapters, and the last card. Without thinking about it too much, I had allowed the thirty-two cards to fit, more or less, the novel’s length. And now this final card would end the story. I turned it over…. The Finger Post. A Card of Direction. I was astonished: after using the entire pack as a series of signposts, it all comes to an end with one last signpost. I envisioned Nyquist looking up at the place name written on sign. Here was the city’s final border, the most mysterious of them all, the reason why Delirium had been built in the first place. The journey, and the novel, moved towards its exit point.


Within Without: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

Ten Years of Fuzzy Nation

Fuzzy Nation, the book
John Scalzi

Today is not only my birthday, it is the tenth anniversary of the release of Fuzzy Nation, otherwise known (to me, anyway) as The Makeup Book, because it was the book that came out after Tor and I briefly and privately broke up for a couple of years before patching things back together.

Why did we break up? For all the usual reasons, mostly involving money, promises made and not quite kept, me being stubborn, and a few levels of misunderstanding which are amusing now that everyone’s made up but at the time were a little exasperating.

But! Had the misunderstandings and exasperation and failed money dealings not happened, then Fuzzy Nation would not exist! Fuzzy Nation exists because when Tor and I had our behind-the-scenes falling out, I suddenly had a bit of free time and the desire to do something that would be fun and just for me. And what I came up with was something I had mused about for a while, which was — what would it be like if a “golden era” science fiction story was updated with a more modern sensibility? H. Beam Piper’s Little Fuzzy was a good candidate to try this on, because it’s in the public domain, and also, I liked the story quite a bit and was familiar enough with it that I could use it as a basis for this particular project.

Original version of the cover, by Jeff Zugale.

People were (and are) generally skeptical when I say that I wrote Fuzzy Nation purely as a personal exercise, and given that I’m famously commerce-minded, I can certainly understand that. But, I swear, it’s true. While I was out of contract at Tor at the time, I was working on a video game with Disney (for a project that unfortunately did not pan out) and I was consulting for Stargate Universe. Plus Old Man’s War royalties had started to come in. My bills were being covered. And after what was essentially a disappointing contract negotiation, which is necessarily about money, I wanted something to reconnect me to the fun of writing, something that wasn’t commerce-minded. I had no intent to sell Fuzzy when I was writing it, and once it was done, I thought that if I did anything with it, I’d release it as a self-published thing, with the proceeds going to charity (indeed to that end I talked to my accountant and commissioned a potential cover, by my pal Jeff Zugale).

But then two things happened: One, my agent Ethan Ellenberg asked to see it and was convinced he could sell it; two, Tor and I started circling each other again, because both of us apparently had regrets about the breakup. On Ethan’s end, we worked out a thing where we got the endorsement of the Piper estate for the book, because although it was not required we get their clearance (the book I was working off was in the public domain, remember), we thought as a matter of personal ethics — and to avoid blowback from certain segments of fandom — it was a necessary step. And on Tor’s end, well, they paid me a lot of money for the book and then they made my name bigger than the title, thus making me officially a “big name author.”

And just like that we were back in business, and we continue to be, and very happily so, to this day.

The book was not without its controversies — as expected, some parts of fandom were (and continue to be!) scandalized that I did a rewrite of Piper’s classic, even if I did get the endorsement of the estate. A few folks have snarked that the book is “fan fiction.” Well, it is, in point of fact; that’s why I wrote it, because I was a fan of the original. What they intended to be dismissive is a badge of honor for the book. I always encouraged people to seek out Piper’s original because it’s great, and I thought it would be instructive to have folks compare and contrast; indeed, the book’s original audio release had the audio of Little Fuzzy included as an extra, which I thought was pretty clever.

Anyway, if people are still upset about me doing Fuzzy Nation, I guess they will just have to die mad about it. It’s been out for a decade. It’s a little late to do anything about it now.

I’m very fond of the book, myself. It did reconnect me with the joy of writing, which was a thing I needed. It repaired my business relationship with my publisher, which was also a positive thing, for both of us. And it’s low-key the favorite book of mine for a whole lot of people, which I find delightful (a lot of credit goes to Carl the dog, who apparently people really, really like. You can’t go wrong putting a dog in your book, people. This is a tip I am giving you for free). And as a side benefit, a number of people who have read my book went on to read Little Fuzzy and from there, other Piper works. I like that a lot.

So happy birthday, Fuzzy Nation! May people continue to find and enjoy you for years to come. I’m glad I wrote you.

And now, to close on a somewhat silly yet awesome note, please enjoy “Fuzzy Man,” the sublime song from Paul & Storm that I commissioned for the book’s release. The idea was that they would replicate the closing credits power ballad from a 1980s blockbuster, and let me tell you: They friggin’ nailed it. It makes me happy every time I hear it. Enjoy.

— JS

52

Me at 52. Phot by Kristine Scalzi
Photo by Kristine Scalzi

It occured to me last week, as I was coming up on my 52nd birthday, which is today, that I am now old enough that I have a year of my life correspond to every week of a standard-sized year. This is not a particularly deep thought, to be sure, but to someone who is a secret organizational nerd, it’s kind of fun to think about, and it does put an interesting spin on things. For example, the US had a really rough December, but things started to look up again just in time for the new year.

This formulation also means today is New Year’s Day, as it were, on the second year of my life. Whether I get through this whole year remains an open question (I think I’ll be happy to make it to Halloween), but I’m not going to worry about that right now. Instead I’m looking forward to what comes next in this new season. The last (actual not metaphorical) year had some real highs and lows for me, but especially in the last couple of (actual not metaphorical) months things feel like they’ve been on a real upswing. It’s nice to have a sense of optimism. I’m going to ride that wave as long as I can. You’re welcome to join me.

So Happy New Year (on several levels) to me, and to us, and to the world. Let’s get to what’s next, shall we?

— JS

Chocolate Chip Failures

Athena ScalziWelcome to another segment of me making something and having realistic problems along the way and being unashamed I fucked up a little bit!

I told my dad that I wanted to bake something, and he recommended cookies. I asked what kind, and he showed me Claire Saffitz’s chocolate chip cookie video that was just uploaded last week, which you can watch here:

So chocolate chip cookies it was! Which is fine, because who doesn’t love them?

This recipe uses brown butter, which I have only used once before, and it was also in a chocolate chip cookie recipe! Honestly, making it is a bit time consuming, but it’s not difficult. I was nervous I’d mess it up or burn it since it was only my second time doing it, but I managed to nail it. It smells so good when it’s on the stove!

Not only does it use brown butter, it also uses dark and milk chocolate! I love a variety of chocolates in my sweets. Like ice cream that has dark, milk, and white chocolate chunks throughout.

The batter for these cookies was actually incredibly easy. Like I was shocked how quickly it came together, and how little effort it took! Besides browning the butter, it really only ten minutes to throw together in a stand mixer. The recipe calls for discs of chocolate, but I wasn’t really sure where to find those, so I just used half a bag of milk chocolate chips and then chopped up a 60% cacao Ghirardelli bar and threw them both in.

The dough turned out so perfect. Honestly, I always eat at least a bite of cookie dough before turning it into actual cookies, and let me tell you, this dough was amazing, Like obviously cookie dough is always delicious, but this dough was so good tasting, I could’ve eaten the whole bowl if it wouldn’t have (maybe) given me salmonella. Cookie dough always tastes better to me than actual cookies, so I almost didn’t even want to bake this dough, that’s how good it was.

But, I did bake them! And I kind of maybe burnt them. Like, all of them. Even though I timed all the batches differently. The video said 18-22 minutes, but I made them a little smaller than the size she did in the video, so I decreased the time to 17 minutes. And they came out way too dark. And hard.

So, next batch, same size, fifteen minutes. Still too dark. Still too crunchy.

Last try of the same size, twelve minutes. Almost exactly the same.

This is the twelve minute batch, and it’s so dark! I started to think it was because of the browned butter that they looked so dark, but the bottoms of them (and the other ones) were black, and they were too hard. I just couldn’t get them right.

So, I made them exactly the size she did in the video. I used a 1/4 cup and spaced them out as evenly as I could, then baked them for 13 minutes.

LOOK AT THESE!

Ugly AND burnt. Utter disappointments.

How could they all turn out so poorly when I’d adjusted the times? I get that I messed up the first three batches by making them smaller than what she did in the video, but I thought that the fourth batch would turn out, at least.

I totally goofed on these! I’m a little bummed out by it, because I really did want to chow down on some freshly baked chocolate chip cookies. But, I might just try again and bake them for way less time, and experiment with different sizes more.

Anyways, yeah, there’s my fail of the day. But at least I learned something!

What’s your favorite kind of cookie? Do you prefer dark or milk chocolate for your chocolate chip cookies? Let me know in the comments, and have a great day!

-AMS

New Music from Matthew Ryan

You may remember Matthew Ryan as the fellow with whom I co-wrote that Christmas song late last year, or you may otherwise be familiar with him from his own extensive and excellent discography. He has a new project now, called The Pines at Night, and with it has released a maxi-single that leads off with “Song for a Hard Year,” which, as you might expect, is more than a little bit about the year recently passed. He’s releasing it via Bandcamp and his plan is to use the proceeds from the single to fund more songs down the line. Since I like hearing more from Matthew, I think this is a fine idea.

Here’s the song; if you like it click through and buy the three-song maxi-single. Enjoy.

— JS

The Big Idea: Griffin Barber

The difference between a tyrant and a king is found in if he is a ruler or a leader. But what makes a leader? Author Griffin Barber begins to answer this question in his Big Idea. Follow along as he tells you of his newest tome, 1637: The Peacock Throne, and how to write a true leader.

GRIFFIN BARBER:

Some authors talk about how their characters speak to them. I wasn’t so sure about that until I began writing 1637: The Peacock Throne, but I know it’s true now.

Those readers who have read anything in Eric’s 1632 Universe will naturally expect sweeping technological change, fierce battles, hard-nosed politics, some cloak and dagger, and a bit of good old fashioned romance. I think we delivered on those scores, but, at its heart, 1637: The Peacock Throne is the story of a family at war with itself, and of a woman at war with the constraints her family—and culture—place upon her. It further touches upon the burden of leadership, and how incredibly hard it can be for any leader to discern between the individual’s wants and needs in light of the needs of those she leads, and the differences I see between leading and ruling. 

It has been a rather long and winding road from the publication of 1636: Mission To The Mughals to this day, but I’m excited to have 1637: The Peacock Throne out there in the world, being read at last. We had some challenges to overcome to get here, not least of which were some serious health concerns. 

But I leap ahead of events portrayed in 1637: The Peacock Throne. Our story opens in the wake of the assassination of Shah Jahan, Emperor of The Mughal Empire. The assassins also left his eldest son, Dara Shikoh, with a traumatic brain injury that clouds his judgement and makes him quick to anger. Jahanara’s younger brothers, Aurangzeb and Shah Shuja, each have a vast army at their command. The dynasty has no history or legal precedent for primogeniture, leading to civil strife and war with every generation’s assumption of power. This time is different in only one respect: Jahanara, hoping to mitigate the bloodshed and ensure she has some say in her own future, steps up to lead Dara’s faction as a power behind the Peacock Throne, if you will. As the uptimers are firmly in her and Dara’s camp, they are dragged along in the wake of great events, doing their best to ensure their own survival in turbulent times.

The Big Idea, then, is this: I have some thoughts on leading versus ruling. Namely, that it is my belief that leading is an entirely different animal to ruling. 

This difference was much on my mind as I wrote this novel. My first career has, by the time this Big Idea is published, drawn to an unwanted early close (Did I mention health problems?). I had more than a few frustrations in that other career, not least of which was the propensity of those in command to rule rather than lead. Further, I saw this propensity rewarded rather than discouraged, leading to the present state where many commanders shift blame away from themselves rather than accept their responsibility for the current state of play.

A leader says, “Yes, and…”

Leading is a beast that requires recognition of—and frequent submission to— the will of those being led. So, when someone suggests something, offers guidance or expertise, the leader says, “Yes, and…” This leads (ahem) to better outcomes for those participating in the organization being led, as their collective intelligence can be focused by the accepted leader for more effective application to the challenges facing the group. 

A ruler says, “No, because…” 

Ruling requires only that those ruled submit to the ingrained courses of power regardless of outcomes for either the organization or the individual. Ruling is an acceptable substitute to leadership only when the challenges facing that rule are ones it has previous experience dealing with and the individual ruler has, in fact, learned from.

I think that proper leadership is important to any human endeavor. So, when and where she can, the fictionalized character Jahanara Begum does not rule, she leads. Indeed, under the rules and laws of her people, she would never be permitted to do many of the things she does in the novel. Jahanara rails against this while conscious only of wanting to do better, of being abler than her male siblings. Granted, the position Jahanara was born into was one of unimaginable privilege, giving her access to the halls of power no other upbringing could match. However, surrounding her relative privilege was an equally-unimaginable prison created by the rule of generations of men disinterested in her gender for anything more than reproduction and pleasure. 

So, we have this young woman, who could easily rest at the very pinnacle of the power structure her culture and times deem appropriate for her gender role and age, she looks about and she is not content. No, Jahanara wants more, needs more. Knows herself capable of so much more. 

In switching between ruling and leading, in being as human as we could possibly write her, Jahanara defends her chosen family with naked violence, hurts some of those closest to her, and yet jeapardizes everything for a chance at the most fundamental of human connections, love. Jahanara is as human as we could write her. She makes mistakes. She learns from them, she leads and accepts responsibility for both errors and successes, and the means used to accomplish both success and failure.

She leads.

We hope she’ll lead you to enjoy 1637: The Peacock Throne.

—-

1637: The Peacock Throne: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Visit the author’s blog. Visit the other author’s blog. Follow Griffin on Twitter.  

 

A Little Bit of Sugar

Sugar the cat, looking out onto the deck

In lieu of any posting of depth from me today, because apparently I’m not actually thinking about anything more deeply than can be essayed in a tweet at the moment, here’s Sugar the cat, looking out onto the deck, watching Charlie and the neighbor dog Buckley do their inexplicable dog things. Dogs, what are they even about, am I right?

Hope you had a lovely day.

— JS

The Big Idea: James L. Cambias

The Godel Operation by James Cambias

Sometimes a writer’s big idea is something that a single novel cannot hope to contain — even if that novel can give that idea a hell of a good start. Acclaimed author James L. Cambias came across one of those really, really big ideas, and he’s here to explain how The Godel Operation is just the beginning for it.

JAMES L. CAMBIAS:

May 4 marks the publication of my fifth novel, called The Godel Operation. It’s a hard science fiction space opera, set in the waning years of the Tenth Millennium.

The setting is called the Billion Worlds, because in that era the Solar System is home to more than a billion artificial habitats, hollowed-out asteroids, and colonies on just about every planet and moon — except Mercury, which doesn’t exist any more. The quadrillion inhabitants of those billion worlds range from ordinary humans, to uplifted animals, to exotic genetically-engineered creatures, to digital minds — some of which are thousands or millions of times smarter than “baseline” humans.

That’s all just the background. The story is about a machine called Daslakh and a young man named Zee, who leave their remote backwater habitat to search for Zee’s imaginary true love. Along the way they encounter a criminal cat, a cyborg killer whale spaceship, a paranoid supermind hiding behind Jupiter, the greatest thief in history . . . and a young woman who might really be Zee’s true love after all. All these characters are trying to get their hands or paws on the Godel Trigger, a conceptual superweapon that may save human civilization, or maybe destroy it.

It’s a book packed with the biggest ideas I could think of. Terraformed planets! Giant megastructures! Mining the Sun! A devastating war between humans and artificial intelligences! A giant laser inside Pluto controlled by clockwork computers and diamond-skulled monks, powered by microscopic black holes!

But the biggest idea of all is the Billion Worlds setting itself. How did I come up with that? I did the math. 

Back in 2012 I was thinking about the future. I wanted to write a story set in a rigorous hard-science far-future setting. I began with a note to myself:

“Let’s start playing around with a very-far-future world. A mature Dyson sphere Solar System.”

(I actually think by typing like that, and yes, I say “Let’s” and “We” to myself because there are two of us — the me who’s typing and the me who’s reading what I type.)

I went back to the original concept of a Dyson Sphere, the one proposed by Freeman Dyson back in 1960: a swarm of orbiting objects which soak up all (or nearly all) of a star’s output. Not a single sphere, just a whole bunch of things in orbit at various inclinations. Such a civilization, with the entire output of a good-sized star to play with, is also known as a Kardashev Type II civilization, in honor of the late Russia astronomer Nikolai Kardashev, who was classifying potential alien civilizations by the distance at which we could observe them.

So I looked up some numbers and did some simple math. How big a population can the Sun’s entire energy support? If they live like modern Americans, the number is about ten quadrillion humans. How long would it take for our population to reach that level? Straight extrapolation of population trends on Earth suggested we could have that many humans in less than 2000 years, although personally I suspect the growth curves will tend to flatten out so it might take longer.

How long would it take to build enough space habitats to house that many people? Again, I did the math, assuming the work would be done by self-replicating Von Neumann Machine robots. If each robot could build one square kilometer of solar collectors plus one daughter machine in a year — and that’s a pretty modest rate — then it would take less than two centuries to build a sphere of collectors around the Sun with a radius about equal to Mars’s orbit. Elon Musk, take note.

I checked to make sure there would be enough building material for all this. If you wanted to build a sphere of solar panels that big it would take about 1 percent of the mass of the Earth. Scrapping some moons and asteroids (and perhaps extracting mass from the Sun) gives you plenty of raw materials.

Wow! I could start writing stories set in a Dysonized Solar System taking place in the year 4000 if I wanted to. But I didn’t. I wanted an old, “mature” setting. I wanted my Dyson Sphere civilization to be the default, with more than half of all recorded history coming after the sphere was completed. All our time on Earth up to now is forgotten prehistory. That gave me a rough date of AD 11,000. Ultimately I dropped a thousand years because the Tenth Millennium sounds cooler.

So just three or four bits of mathematical fiddling gave me the bones of the setting: quadrillions of people in the Tenth Millennium, living on a billion space habitats circling the Sun. That number gave me a title for the setting: The Billion Worlds.

What wonders could I have in that future? What couldn’t I have? My future humans have pretty much complete mastery of matter and energy within the limits of known science. The only question was how much “magic” to include? What laws of nature would I break? I decided not to break any. No faster-than-light travel, no antigravity, no force fields, no “unobtanium” or “handwavium.”

I realized that there would still be limits on the technology available to my characters, but those limits would come from economics, not knowledge. Here’s how it works: characters who live on a small habitat, with only the population of a middle-sized modern city, are limited in what they can have and do, even if the overall technology of the Solar System is virtually unlimited.

For example, a community of a million people could sustain a solar powered space habitat — but they probably couldn’t support a computer chip factory, at least not the modern kind. The degree of specialization is too great and the return-on-investment is too small if there’s only a million customers for computer chips. And a self-sufficient space hab won’t have a whole lot of things to trade. So they won’t be able to make everything “smart.” They’ll have to save the expensive smart matter and supertech for important purposes, while much of daily life will remain unchanged.

This means that the people in the poorer parts of the Billion Worlds have lives that my early Third Millennium readers can understand and relate to. That was actually great news: I can tell a story about humans eight thousand years in the future but they won’t be incomprehensible godlike superbeings.

To be sure, there are incomprehensible godlike superbeings in the Billion Worlds, but most of them live in the Inner Ring, a band of super-dense data processing circuitry surrounding the Sun, made out of what used to be the planet Mercury. In numbers, intellect, and sheer power, the digital minds of the Inner Ring are the real civilization of the Solar System. The biological beings and baseline-equivalent mechs living on planets and habitats are utterly unimportant, but the poor things don’t realize that.

If there are a billion worlds, then a city-sized space habitat with millions of inhabitants is about as important in the grand scheme of things as a single human on contemporary Earth. If there’s a huge war among the Trojan asteroid communities in Jupiter’s orbit, the humans living in the Main Swarm of space habitats between Earth and Mars may never even notice — any more than people in modern Thailand would pay attention to a bank heist in Brazil. Societies on different habs can be vastly strange to one another. This means that even with super-advanced information technology, characters can still suffer from culture shock and conflicts with unfamiliar societies.

So . . . We’ve got a vast number of worlds with wildly different conditions. We’ve got thousands of types of intelligent beings. We’ve got literally millions of societies, and tremendous variation among them. Travel time from world to world is a matter of days or months. There are vast ancient powers lying dormant. There’s no central authority. Is this starting to sound familiar?

It’s a Space Opera setting! Except that it’s all packed neatly into the Solar System rather than sprawling across the Galaxy.

Once I realized that, and realized the sheer scope of the canvas the Billion Worlds represented, I got very excited. One can tell almost any story in that setting, and I’ve set out to prove it. In addition to The Godel Operation I’ve written three short stories about the Billion Worlds. One (“Calando” in Athena Andreadis’s anthology Retellings From the Inner Seas) is a story of contact between a human and the extremely alien “bioships” living around Neptune. Another (“Out of the Dark” in John Joseph Adams’s forthcoming anthology Lost Worlds and Mythological Kingdoms) concerns a quarrelsome pair of adventurers exploring a derelict space habitat. The third (“The Paoshi Problem” in a forthcoming Baen anthology) features a couple of characters from The Godel Operation solving a mystery on a city floating in Saturn’s atmosphere.

I’m currently writing another Billion Worlds novel, with the working title The Scarab Mission. In contrast to The Godel Operation‘s lighthearted picaresque romp across the Solar System, this one will be a gritty thriller about salvage operators trapped in an abandoned space hab with a gang of murderous pirates — and a lurking threat far more deadly. I’ve also got plans for a romantic comedy, a heist story, and a spy story.

While I’ll probably write other stories and novels outside the Billion Worlds setting, that future offers so much elbow room I’m likely to be playing in it for a long time to come. It’s the biggest idea I’ve had yet.


The Godel Operation: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s site.

Not-So Spoiler-Free Thoughts On Invincible

Exactly a month ago, I posted a spoiler-free look at Amazon Prime’s new animated superhero show, Invincible. In that post, only the first four of the eight episodes were out, and I was basically just saying it’s worth checking out and that I have high hopes for it.

Now, after finishing the first season this past weekend, I’m here to talk a little more in depth about it, and give my thoughts on it. So, if you haven’t seen it yet but are planning on watching it, maybe just stick with the spoiler-free post for now.

Here is your official SPOILER WARNING! Alright, let’s get started.

So, I’m mainly just going to be talking about the show overall, rather than focusing on each episode specifically, but will be pulling specific scenes and examples from individual episodes.

Personally, I loved Invincible. There wasn’t a single episode where I didn’t enjoy every minute of it. There were no episodes that dragged, or were boring, or where I thought, “I hope this gets better.” It was great straight from the get-go!

I think my favorite thing about Invincible was how realistic it was. I know it’s a bit far-fetched to think that an animated superhero show could be realistic in any way, but it offered a glimpse at what having superheroes among us would really be like. Much like Amazon’s other superhero (non-animated) series, The Boys. Superheroes in the world would mean tons of collateral damage. Whether it be from fighting villains and flinging them into the sides of buildings, throwing cars, using laser vision and accidentally slicing a pedestrian in half if they miss, there’s tons of things that can go wrong when you’re super-powered in a world full of non-powered people.

It also shows how heroes can’t really save everybody. Specifically, I’m thinking of Invincible’s first real fight, against the aliens known as the Flaxans. When he flies to the scene, people are in the middle of being massacred, and he freezes. He snaps into action when an old woman is about to get shot in the head. He grabs her and flies away, but crashes, and totally fucks her up in the process. He picks up her severely damaged body and takes her to the hospital, and we think, “at least he saved one person.” But she ends up dying anyways. Over 300 civilians died when the Flaxans invaded the first time, and Mark didn’t really save any of them.

Even the Teen Team was completely overwhelmed, and said that all that mattered was that they gave more people a chance to escape. They could only try to prevent more people from dying, and try to stop a tragedy from becoming an even bigger one. So, it’s pretty unrealistic to assume that if we had heroes in real life, they’d be able to save everyone all the time.

Another thing the show handles really well is making the main character seem like a real person. I mentioned in my previous post that Mark (while technically being a Viltrumite) is portrayed as very human. Compared to Superman’s perfection and inability to ever do wrong, it was interesting to see a character with Superman-like powers occasionally mess up and make the wrong call.

For example, in episode six when William wanted Mark to help him find Rick, Mark selfishly chose to go after Amber at a frat party, instead of helping his friend. This led to Rick being turned into a mostly mindless cyborg, and caused William to get captured, as well. William even brings it up later that none of it would have happened if Mark had just helped in the first place.

In this case, the superhero-thing to have done would have been to help without hesitation, to put saving Rick before everything else. But Mark isn’t a superhero all the time. He’s a teenage boy all the time. And in being so, it’s unrealistic to think that he wouldn’t be selfish sometimes, that he wouldn’t be a dick sometimes. Of course he’s going to mess up, and of course he’s not going to be perfect, because he’s human.

This concept also plays into the whole “I’m too important to deal with petty crime” narrative that Mark struggles with in episode five. Mark has this mindset that his job is to fight off alien invasions and save the planet from total annihilation, you know, big picture stuff. I believe this is partially due to his dad forcing this mentality onto him, especially when he says that helping someone is beneath him, because he could be saving millions instead of dealing with regular day-to-day crime.

What I mean is that of course Mark has an ego the size of Texas (like the meteor Omni-Man stopped from hitting Earth, hah), because he’s the son of the most powerful man on the planet, and can do incredible things. Of course he’s going to think helping one person isn’t important enough for him to deal with, because he believes he is meant for greater things. Wouldn’t you think that, too? Wouldn’t you think some lesser, not as cool hero, could stop bank robbers while you go deal with the big stuff? Again, Mark isn’t perfect, nor should we expect him to be.

Despite all his flaws, the show does a great job of making him likeable. Yes he messes up, maybe even a lot, but his heart is in the right place. He wants to be a hero, he wants to save people! Maybe he fails at it sometimes, or gets his priorities a bit mixed up, but he wants to do good. He wants to be good, and that’s admirable in anybody, superhero or not.

Aside from the main character, this show is truly amazing at fleshing out side characters and making the audience care about them. In fact, my favorite character is a side character! If you aren’t invested in the side characters, you’re not watching Invincible. Each one is so unique and has such interesting personalities and motives, you can’t help but want to learn more about them.

Personally, my favorite is Robot. There’s nothing I love more than a character that everyone believes has no emotions but they TOTALLY DO. Maybe I’m biased because I think Zachary Quinto is an absolutely amazing actor and I think he does a fantastic job voicing Robot, but Robot really is one of the most interesting characters to me. At first, you think he’s just a walking talking computer, but you start to be able to see glimpses of humanity in him, and wonder if there’s more to him than meets the eye. He’s really cool!

But then his interest in Monster Girl leads to a super weird and uncomfy situation, and is probably my biggest issue with the show overall. Monster Girl is technically 25 but in the body of like, a fourteen year old, and Robot is 30, but makes himself a younger body to copy his mind into. So now he is in a teenage body but has the mind of a 30 year old, much like Monster Girl. He claims he wants to help Monster Girl escape her curse of getting younger, and says he and she share the same struggle, so he understands her. So, he doesn’t really profess love for her or anything, but it’s still… super weird? I’m not sure how to feel about it. Monster Girl ends up holding hands with him (it’s important to note she grabs his hand, not the other way around), but not before saying how strange the whole situation is and how she needs time to process it.

Like, yeah! That is super weird! Robot has only known Monster Girl as a teenage girl, and while she acts and talks like an adult, and in fact used to look like one, too, there’s no denying she is in her child-self’s body. So it’s weird that Robot takes such an interest in her, but on the other hand, it almost seems like more of a fascination and desire to help her rather than that he likes her in any sort of romantic or sexual way. Then again, he did specifically choose a human body that he thought she’d find appealing.

Anyways, it’s just really odd and makes me kind of uncomfy.

Besides that, I only have one other issue. I think Omni-man’s backstory/motive is super fuckin’ bad. Like, it’s the classic, “our planet is better than all the others so we’re going to go around the universe and make everyone become part of our empire but it’s a good thing because we’re pulling them out of the mud and making them more advanced and yes they’re basically prisoners but it’s just because we’re sooo superior.” Talk about overdone (did anyone else think of the Galra from Voltron or just me?)!

Part of me thinks that they did this just so we wouldn’t have any empathy for Omni-man and would want him to lose. If he had some actual good reason for all his atrocities, we might side with him, and we can’t have that happening when he’s the antagonist, now can we? So, maybe it was a strategic choice to make him basic and awful, that way we wouldn’t like him. If that isn’t the case, though, then I honestly think they could’ve done better.

Moving on; in all honesty, the last episode made me cry. The sheer betrayal Mark experiences from his father, who he believed was the pinnacle of greatness, mixed with the unbelievable trauma of him proceeding to beat the ever-loving shit out of him and murdering thousands while doing it and blaming him for their deaths? UNREAL.

But that’s not what did it for me. What brought me to tears was after all that happened, was when Nolan asked him, “what will you have after five hundred years?” and he replied, “I’ll still have you, dad.”

Like, BRUHHHH. I didn’t think Invincible would pull at my heartstrings so much, but damn. I mean they really wanted to hurt you with this one.

I don’t understand how they made Mark so “okay” with everything after he woke up from his coma? Like that boy has to be beyond traumatized after getting his head bashed through an entire subway train full of people, let alone everything else that happened. Yet, he seems weirdly alright.

So, yeah, this show will kick you in the heart and you’ll never see it coming. My mom even said, “I expected a fun superhero cartoon and got tons of gore and all the damn feels.”

Anyways, I cannot wait for the next season! This first season was so good. I had no expectations when I went into it, and it ended up being one of the best things I’ve ever seen. Invincible was truly enjoyable, and I highly recommend it. Even if you don’t typically like superhero stuff, or animated stuff, or superhero animated stuff, I can almost guarantee you’ll find something to love about it!

Did you watch season one? What did you think? Who was your favorite character? (Please don’t spoil anything for me if you’ve read the comics or something!) Let me know in the comments, and have a great day!

-AMS

The Big Idea: John Gwynne

In author John Gwynne’s Big Idea, he tells us of not only his love for Norse mythology, but also of his passion to write something fantastic that will evoke an array of emotions within his readers. Follow along as he describes what some of those emotions are, and how they contributed to writing his newest novel, The Shadow of the Gods.

JOHN GWYNNE:

My writing mantra is ‘write what you want to read,’ and I want to read books that sweep me away on an emotional rollercoaster, that carry me off to other worlds and engage me emotionally. I want to read a book where I become invested in the characters; I want to care, and I want to feel: fear, hate, love, and everything in-between.  I want to fist-pump the air at the victories and feel that knife-twist in the gut at the betrayals. All those things that have moved me as a reader and got me hooked on books. If my books give even a fraction of those precious moments back to my readers, then I will count my writing career a success.

My latest book, The Shadow of the Gods, is a love letter to my deep and abiding passion for all things Norse. That spark was lit when I was a child, with tales of Beowulf fighting monsters, of giants and serpents and fierce berserkers, and of Ragnarök, that end-of-days battle where the gods fought to extinction. That childhood passion has led me to picking up a shield and spear as an adult and becoming a Viking reenactor, and it has fueled this new book, filling it with longships and trolls, shield walls and berserkers, rune-magic and blood-oaths. 

But I hope that there is more to it than that. 

I try to write tales that entertain, that sweep the reader away to far off worlds and snare them in stories that are magical and brutal, heartbreaking and uplifting, intimate and epic, but I also try to write tales that challenge, that encourage us to hope, and to dare, and to live. The themes of family and friendship and love are at the core of everything that I write, because they are what we live for. Each other. Those we care about and love. This is the beating heart of the human condition. 

Don’t get me wrong, In The Shadow of the Gods you will not find a sentimental tale of happy families and true love’s first kiss and a happily ever after. This is a cold, harsh, brutal world where slavery is the highest currency and people carve a life with hard hearts and cold iron, but by writing about this type of world I try to challenge those hegemonic power systems of prejudice and elitism and gender politics. Power systems that are reflections of our own world. And in doing that, to perhaps light a spark of hope in the hearts of my characters and my readers alike, to perhaps make the reader think about the choices we make in our own lives, and how those small, daily choices matter. That when taken as a whole our choices will both define us, and steer our course through this dark, awful, wonderful, heart-breaking and beautiful world.

Quite a lot to hope for in a book about dragons and trolls and creatures that have an overwhelming hunger for human teeth, but I am a glass-half-full kind of man, and so I will choose to live in hope.


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

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

Happy Just To Be a Finalist: A Twitter Thread

John Scalzi

I wrote a Twitter thread last night about awards and peer groups and being happy no matter who might win; I’m reporting it for archival purposes, and for those of you who don’t go to the Twitters. Enjoy.

1. One of the things that it’s sometimes hard to communicate about being a finalist for an award is one might genuinely be happy for any of the people to win. To make this point, let me talk about why I would be thrilled on a personal level no matter who wins this Locus Award.

2. Elizabeth Bear (@matociquala) was the Astounding Award winner just before me and one of my oldest friends in SF/F, and we used to teach together at @ViableParadise. A terrific writer and pal. It would be thrilling to have her win. 

3. At my very first SF convention, Cory Doctorow (@doctorow) was literally pulled out of a crowd in a hotel lobby by our editor to be my con buddy and we have been compatriots since. A great social thinker and writer, and would be a deserved award winner. 

4. Kate Elliott (@KateElliottSFF) I had the pleasure of hanging out with in Hawaii a few years ago; she was the best of company as we talked writing craft and other things. Her work is never less than excellent; how could I not want her to win? 

5. William Gibson (@GreatDismal) literally changed the course of written science fiction and has been challenging the way we think about the world for decades. And is a hell of a fine person. I could not imagine being upset to lose the category to him. 

6. Mary Robinette Kowal (@MaryRobinette) is one of my best friends in the world and there’s no one who has worked harder or more deserves their acclaim. Her “Lady Astronaut” series is groundbreaking and winning this award would reconfirm this. 

7. Paul McCauley (@UnlikelyWorlds) is the only person on this list I do not know! But I do know his work, and it is very fine. A win here would be an excellent recognition of his talent and effort. 

8. Kim Stanley Robinson (@ksrinfo) is the kindest and most decent of people, the deepest of thinkers, and the creator of some of the most fascinating worlds in science fiction. He doesn’t need to prove himself at this point, but this award would underscore his brilliance. 

9. Martha Wells (@marthawells1) is my favorite SF/F success story, a reminder that as long as you keep writing it’s never too late to make the world notice your work. Murderbot is not only liked; it’s beloved. This award would be richly deserved. 

10. Gene Wolfe was and is an acknowledged grand master of the SF/F genre; I should know because as president of SFWA I had the distinct honor of naming him as one. Which only confirmed what everyone already knew. A win here would be a perfect swan song. 

11. You see my point: Everyone here is deserving, and to get to call myself their peer in the category is a deep personal and professional honor in itself. I’d be happy to win. But I will not be at all disappointed to lose. I will genuinely cheer on any and all. What a group! 

12. And now, as tradition, I end on a cat picture. The cat is not a finalist for the Locus Award. This year.

–JS

The Big Idea: A. J. Smith

Reading can be a form of escapism, but so can writing. Author A. J. Smith’s tells us about his experience with this in the Big Idea for his newest novel, The Sword Falls. Delve into his journey with fantasy writing, and see just how quickly a hobby can turn into a profession.

A. J. SMITH:

I can write myself into corners, around corners; into and over walls and, mostly frequently, down dead-end alleyways. I get stuck, change my mind, delete and rewrite entire sections, and generally twist myself into knots trying to make everything hang together and become something people actually want to read. It’s never linear or straightforward, and is frequently seasoned with crippling self-doubt. I don’t say any of this to elicit sympathy or to moan on about the struggles of a fantasy novelist. It’s just necessary background to explain why I would never stop doing it.

I should probably confess at this stage that I am bipolar, and use writing as a form of therapy. 

Let me start at the beginning. I always knew my mind didn’t work the same as other people, but I didn’t get a useful diagnosis until my mid twenties. By then, I’d been unknowingly self-medicating with the empty page for years. My therapy of choice at the time was drawing elaborate fantasy maps and concocting role-playing games set within. I think I was good at it, and it was the only thing I did that didn’t make me feel I should be doing something else. When a doctor told me I was a manic depressive, I went home and planned a role-playing game. 

For years I maintained stability through a complicated dance of medication, fantasy role-playing, and filling the empty page. It was escapism, pure and simple, and I grew to love it. I wrote all sorts of things, experimenting with a hundred different genres and plotlines. Whenever the real world got too much, I retreated to the empty page. I sincerely loved writing and, when I decided to write my first novel, I grew to love it even more. When something is so important to you, you want to know if you’re any good at it. A close friend of mine issued a friendly challenge, wanting to know if I could write an entire book. I believe my reaction was to wonder why I’d not tried before.

For three or four months, with a few exceptions, it was basically the only thing I did. I pillaged role-playing plots, and found that I already had a world and a deep mythology. I got a massive kick as I immersed myself  in a complicated world and told a story. There’s a wonderful sense of peace and glee that accompanies fantasy writing. It’s any world you want it to be, with any kind of people you want to populate it with. And it makes me smile when nothing else can. My mind and I have not always been particularly good friends, but we bonded as I wrote. 

I remember saying at the time that, if I managed to work out how to write an entire book, I wouldn’t stop writing them. That was seven books ago, and I have no plans to stop. Sometimes you’re just meant to be doing something, and I’m meant to be doing this. As for my mental health, I go through phases of extreme creativity, and periods of deep reflection and planning, but I never stop writing. It’s my therapy and my medication, and I really hope people enjoy it… though I wouldn’t stop if they didn’t. 


The Sword Falls: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Follow the author on Twitter.

Moderna’d Part II

Athena ScalziWelcome to the much (or maybe not so much) anticipated sequel of me getting vaccinated! Last time, I posted way too early and said I had no symptoms other than a tender arm. Let me tell you, I got fucked up a couple hours later.

My arm hurt so badly that I couldn’t even move it, like in any direction, without it being super painful. It felt like my entire arm was one giant bruise. I couldn’t lay on it, touch it, or even have it come in contact with anything. Also, I got really intense chills. I was shaking like a leaf! It made my whole body ache. Despite having had five blankets on top of me, I was still freezing, and shaking for several hours nonstop.

I took 1000mg Ibuprofen and went to sleep, and when I woke up, I wasn’t shaking anymore. My entire body was still sore, but it was definitely manageable.

Fast forward almost a month, I got my second dose of Moderna. I was terrified, considering how badly I reacted to it last time. I cleared my schedule for the entire rest of the day and the next day, and vowed to lay around and relax, just in case I fell ill.

Much to my surprise, the second dose was a breeze! The shot hurt even less than the first one did, and though my arm was a little sore for a few hours after, it was nothing compared to the shot prior. I had no symptoms at all, which is great because I’ve heard from pretty much everyone that the second shot is the one that really does people in.

So, now I’m fully vaccinated! Though technically you’re supposed to wait two weeks after your second dose to be considered totally safe. Of course, I’ll keep wearing my mask everywhere anyways, even after the two week period is up.

If you haven’t got vaccinated yet, just know going in that more than likely, one of the two (if not both) shots might knock you on your ass. So clear your schedule if you can and be prepared.

What was your experience with getting vaccinated, if you have been? I know I asked last time, but if anyone has gotten their first or second one since that post, feel free to answer in the comments! And have a great day.

-AMS

The Last Emperox a Locus Award Finalist

The Last Emperox is a finalist for the Locus Award for Best Science Fiction novel, which is seriously cool and makes me happy. What also makes me happy is the excellent peer group I and my book find themselves in with the other finalists in the category:

Machine, Elizabeth Bear (Saga; Gollancz)
Attack Surface, Cory Doctorow (Tor; Ad Astra)
Unconquerable Sun, Kate Elliott (Tor)
Agency, William Gibson (Berkley; Viking UK)
The Relentless Moon, Mary Robinette Kowal (Tor; Solaris)
War of the Maps, Paul McAuley (Gollancz)
The Ministry for the Future, Kim Stanley Robinson (Orbit US & UK)
Network Effect, Martha Wells (Tordotcom)
Interlibrary Loan, Gene Wolfe (Tor)

Congratulations to each of them! The entire list of finalists in several other categories (which also includes numerous friends of mine who I am also very very happy for) is linked here. It’s a good year!

— JS

Friday Night Funkin’ Review

If you like rhythm games as much as I do (which is a lot), then you’ll want to know about an amazing new game called “Friday Night Funkin'”.

Athena ScalziThis game, found on Newgrounds, is basically a music-centered “Dance Dance Revolution”-type game, with the arrows keys serving as the controls. You play as “Boyfriend”, a guy who is trying to date “Girlfriend”, but her demon ex-rockstar father doesn’t approve, so you have to fight him one on one in a rap battle. Whether it’s hired assassins or spirits trapped inside of dating simulators, many enemies come after Boyfriend, each foe offering up three songs as challenges.

I was shown this game by a friend, and I spent the next hour playing it. I couldn’t stop, it was so addicting! Not only is the music awesome, but the characters are so unique and interesting. Each character has their own voice, and different animations for each arrow key, which really shows how much thought and effort was put into making the game.

I started off with the difficulty on normal, but by the fourth level (which they calls “weeks”) I switched to hard, and I haven’t gone back since. The learning curve is relatively easy, in my opinion, or at least easier than say, the learning curve from medium to hard on “Guitar Hero.” Also, I’d say the game is pretty forgiving if you hit a note a little late, it’ll still count it if it’s within reason, and you can still hit a “hold” note even if you missed the initial press of it. Additionally, there’s a tutorial! So, not so bad.

It’s programmed by ninjamuffin99, with art from PhantomArcade and evilsk8r, and the soundtrack is by Kawai Sprite. I’d never heard of any of these people before this, but dang do they make a good game.

“Friday Night Funkin'” is especially interesting because it is a work in progress. The creators are constantly working on it and adding new things. In fact, last week, a new “week” came out! They’re all the way up to Week 7 now, when last year they only had the first one or two weeks out as a demo version.

In fact, they’re hoping to turn it into a whole ass game, and have a Kickstarter for it! The game is so wildly popular that it surpassed their goal of $60,000 by about a million and a half dollars. If they make a full game, it’ll include 20 brand new “weeks”, as well as cool features like two-player mode (whether you want to play together or battle each other).

What I like about this game personally is how much heart it has put into it. The creators obviously really love their game, and their work is so stylistic and unique. Seriously, not a single one of these songs miss, they all totally rock, and each one is more fun to play than the last.

My favorite enemy is probably Pico, but I also love Senpai (I mean how cool is that pixel art?!). When it comes to songs though, I don’t think any set can beat the “Mommy Mearest” set (yeah, that’s Girlfriend’s mom and Daddy Dearest’s wife). So, my favorite songs to play are any of hers (“Satin Panties”, “High”, and “MILF”), “Philly” from Pico’s level, “Thorns” from Senpai’s level, and “Guns” from Tankman’s level.

There’s also a few super popular mods for the game, and my true favorite song (and true favorite enemy) is from one of these mods. Since it isn’t in the Newgrounds version of the game, I’ll just leave a video of it here for you. It’s called “Zavodila” and the enemy’s name is Ruv.

I highly recommend this game, though fair warning you need pretty good hand-eye-coordination. But if you don’t have that, if you play on easy, I’m sure you’ll be fine and can still enjoy the music and characters without worrying about failing right out the gate.

Have you played this game before? What did you think? What’s your favorite song/enemy? Are there any other rhythm games out there you think I’d like? Let me know in the comments, and have a great day!

-AMS

The Big Idea: Jonathan Glancey

Today’s Big Idea is a little different, with a large visual component. That’s because today’s big idea is about visual ideas. Jonathan Glancey, co-author of Logomotive: Railroad Graphics and the American Dream, walks us through the images of railways through the years, and what they mean for the companies who used them, and the people who interacted with them.

JONATHAN GLANCEY:

If there’s a big idea steaming through Logomotive: Railroad Graphics and the American Dream, it’s one that emerged as Ian Logan and I marshalled the book with Sheldrake Press. The original idea had been for a re-issue, in a more handsome and polished format, of Lost Glory: Great Days of the American Railways, published in 1977, a small and wistful book of photographs Ian had taken in the late Sixties and early Seventies of US railroads and their trains shortly before so many were swallowed up by large combines, became a part of Amtrak, or, as it seemed, simply vanished.

Ian’s photographs touched a chord when we looked at them afresh forty years on. Those that depicted faded logos and advertising slogans on the sides of weathered and rusting boxcars conjured not just railroads that had seen better days, but an American way of life that appears to have slipped away not only as those old railway companies faded from sight and public consciousness, but as a new, management-style corporatism insisted that local identities should go and everything, everywhere should be much the same as any other thing and any other place. 

Look, for example, at the classic Florida East Coast Railway logo, in use from 1936-60, evoking the state’s climate with an idyllic vista of sea, sun and palm trees and then switch your focus to the soulless modern “FEC” logo.  The contrast between these two images is very much Logomotive’s big idea. What pre-“business attire” logos, like the Florida East Coast’s said about American railways is that each was a distinctive part of a one of the near inexhaustible local landscapes and regional identities of the United States. 

The Santa Fe’s cross-in-a-circle logo, devised not by a professional ad agency, but, in 1890, by the railways traffic manager, J J Byrne, toying on a train journey with pen, paper and a silver dollar, evokes the Spanish mission world of New Mexico and southern California even before these were a part of the USA. The Santa Fe, which once operated some of the most glamorous of all American trains, among them the Chief and Super Chief, made a great play in its visual presentation, from logos and dining car menus to advertising and architecture with the character and heritage of the region it ran through, whether images of pueblos, American Indian chiefs, energetic cowboys or epic scenery. The Santa Fe, like so many other US railways, knew where it belonged and was clearly proud of its south western stamping ground. 

From the Amtrak era, railroad logos, liveries and what new architecture there was, appeared to take their cues from the aesthetics of gas stations, insurance companies, oil corporations and international modern graphics as if they belonged everywhere and nowhere at the same time. 

I’d been thinking about this change for years before joining forces with Ian Logan and Logomotive. As a child I borrowed a book from a London public library called Far Wheels: A Railroad Safari (1959) by Charles Small, an American oil executive who travelled the world on business yet never failed to squeeze in visits to characterful, and largely doomed, local railways. What Small saw all too well is that the very nature of his business was one of the reasons the obscure railways he visited in remote corners of the world would soon enough disappear, whether in the blazing East African escarpment or the backwaters of Japan. I found a copy of Far Rails again, some thirty years ago in a second-hand bookshop in Brooklyn. I opened it on a page that described the long-gone Chemins de fer du Kivu in the Congo as “a 60-mile narrow-gauge streak of rust.” How I long to be able to travel back to the mid-1950s and ride that African railway.

As I do the railroads of the USA at their zenith in the late 1930s, when speed, glamour and sophistication were matched by enterprising engineering, confident design and architectural prowess. Interstate Highways and inter-city and continental jets stripped American railways of their passenger traffic. What remained when Ian Logan began photographing US trains and their habitat were mighty freight trains and their faded logos and slogans. Railroads today continue to transport vast quantities of goods and raw materials across the USA, reliably and even highly profitably. What has gone – the glory that has been largely lost – is the American passenger train and a particular American dream that went with it. 

In his Introduction to Logomotive, the English architect Norman Foster – who first went to the States on scholarship to Yale in 1964, and was awed by the epic country that welcomed him – describes the American railroad system at its zenith as the “ultimate marriage of machinery, branding, graphics, color and lifestyle” at a time “when to evoke the words of Gertrude Stein, ‘There was a there’ and the railway systems magnified the difference between places”. This, I think, adorned with a host of tantalising illustrations, is the ‘big idea’ cantering through the pages of Logomotive.


Logomotive: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Sheldrake Press

Biden at 100 Days: Boring as a Secret Weapon

Biden at the Joint Session of Congress on April 28.
John Scalzi

It is a little odd to me that the very best thing about Joseph Biden in his first 100 days is that he is boring. First and most obviously, that’s in contrast to his predecessor, a narcissistic chaos engine who essentially held the nation’s attention hostage for four years; the idea that one might not have to think about one’s president several times in a day is delightful. Biden almost never uses social media and when he does (or more accurately when his social media staff does) he does it blandly. We never have to worry about a 4am rage tweet from the toilet from good ol’ Joe Biden, which an entire governmental apparatus will then have to bend to rationalize the next work day. You don’t realize what a gift that is until you’ve had to live through its opposite.

Second and slightly less obviously, there’s almost nothing for the GOP outrage machine to latch onto. Why did the GOP spend two days rather ludicrously screaming that Joe Biden, of all people, is going to take away your steak? Because that’s all they can manage with Biden. Biden and his team spend almost no time engaging in the GOP outrage machine; the most they get is White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki bemusedly schooling Peter Doocy on whatever patent bullshit Fox News is trying to push on its audience of ancient racists that day. Otherwise, Biden and his people are doing other things.

Third, and speaking of those ancient bigots, Joe Biden is a bland and genial old white dude who doesn’t trigger a “fight or flight” response on the sort of people who spent eight years forwarding horribly racist cartoons about Barack Obama to each other on Facebook. Oh, don’t get me wrong, these people are still there and now they’re gunning for Kamala Harris; it’s not for nothing that Kimberly Guilfoyle was just this week trying to push the idea that Harris is secretly running the White House. But it doesn’t really seem to stick. Biden is rather obviously not as mentally enfeebled as the right hoped they could portray him as, and Harris seems to be doing mostly normal Vice President-y stuff, working from the Obama-Biden mode of “first in, last out” executive collaboration. Turns out Biden is both in charge, and is the proverbial president you’d have a beer with. Even for ancient racists, that has an effect.

The political right in the United States has spent so much time turning politics into a loud grift that it forgot (or deemed it inessential) that the actual goal of politics is governance. Joe Biden, however, has not forgotten that. It turns out he’s pretty good at it, as are his people. As a result Biden can claim real and concrete accomplishments in his first 100 days, and all the right can do — all it’s trained itself to do, over the course of decades — is to whine and scream about socialism, or whatever. Trying to stick socialism onto Joe Biden is difficult. Joe Biden does not scream socialism. He doesn’t even hoarsely whisper it.

But his programs are socialist through and through! One, lol, no, and two, even if they were, it turns out “socialism” is pretty damn popular — lots of Americans like the idea of spending money to create jobs and fix infrastructure and future-proof the US rather than to simply cede the 21st Century to China. Biden’s address to the joint session of Congress had the word “jobs” in it dozens of times: good jobs, he said. Blue collar jobs. Union jobs. Jobs you can raise a family on. And so on. Biden is genial, and he’s also not stupid; it’s harder for the outrage machine to scream “socialism” when the mantra of Biden’s people is “jobs.” They’ll still do it! Again, it’s all they know how to do at this point; they’ve let their governance organ atrophy into nothing. They’ve staked outrage as the game. Biden and his folks are playing a different game, a boring one that’s not flashy but actually does things, and they’re doing all right at it so far.

Biden wasn’t my first choice as president and I’m not going to pretend he or his administration have done everything perfectly or even well. Left or right, if you’re looking for things to be pissed at the Biden administration about, they’re there, as Biden either moves too fast or not fast enough, or hasn’t delivered on something important to you, or has done something you vehemently oppose. You’re not wrong! We have not entered a golden age. We’re still dealing with the aftereffects of four years of a malign and incompetent US administration, and this current administration has an extraordinarily narrow legislative window to get things done in. It can’t and won’t get everything done, and they’ll be lots to be unhappy about as we go along.

But I have appreciated all the boring. I mentioned on Twitter earlier this week that aside from any executive or legislative accomplishment the Biden Administration wanted to claim for its first 100 days, another is that it allowed me to write a novel in that timeframe — after having to junk a novel that I’d been working on for the better part of a year, but which never gelled because of various reasons which included lack of focus brought on by pandemic, election and sickness, I thought up, wrote and turned in an entire damn novel between first week of February and the third week of March. Again, many reasons, but I would be lying if I said one of them was not that I was no longer immediately worried about the state of governance in the United States. Joe Biden and his people being boringly competent (or competently boring, take your pick) gave me mental headroom to write. In the grand scheme of things, this is one the administration’s lesser accomplishments, to be sure, and one I doubt it will take much credit for. But there it is.

100 days in, I like Biden being boring. I also think Biden being boring is working for him and his administration in terms of getting things done. I hope they continue being boring for a long while to come. I think the nation will benefit from it, and so will I. I think that because in both cases, we both already have.

Thanks, Joe Biden. Keep it up.

— JS

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