Our hibiscus plant nearly died because after keeping it in a heated garage all winter, we replanted it too early in the spring and it got snowed on, so the hibiscus flowers this year have been few and far between. It just makes me appreciate the ones we have gotten. Here’s today’s.
Travel broadens the mind, or so they say, but for Monica Byrne, travel to a particular Central American country did much more than that — and the result was her novel The Actual Star, which (disclosure!) I liked so much I gave it a blurb, and participated into an author Q&A, which you can view at the bottom of this Big Idea. For now, read on as Byrne explains what travel gave to her, and what she did with it.
“Where does your inspiration come from?”
Writers dread getting this question. Don’t feel bad if you’ve asked it—now you know!—and it’s extremely common. Most writers have a stock answer. Some are vague (“everywhere”), some are sarcastic (“the mail”), and some are entire lovely essays (thank you Neil). Whenever I try to answer, I get tongue-tied about how inspiration isn’t really discrete, it’s more like a whole life orientation, and blagghh, what am I trying to say, anyway…
…but now I have my stock answer. It’s one that might surprise you. I’ll tell you how I got it.
Rewind to the day that altered the course of my life: January 21, 2012. It was a Saturday.
I’d been traveling in Belize, in honor of my mother. She’d taught there in her twenties and never got to go back before she died. For me, it was a pilgrimage, worth it even though it had wiped out my bank account. I figured I’d see the places she’d lived, check out the tourist attractions, and probably never return.
Then I signed up for a tour to an ancient Maya site called Actun Tunichil Muknal. I heard from other tourists that the trip would take a whole day, because the cave was deep in the jungle, but they didn’t tell me much else—just that I had to see it for myself. So I showed up the morning of the tour and thought, sure, let’s have a whirl. I’ve seen stalagmites before.
Ten hours later, I emerged from the cave, soaked to the bone, and said to my guide, “I have to come back.”
Why did I feel the way I did? Giddy and choked up, like I was in love? Like I wanted to turn right back around and go back in and press on, deeper into the mountain, farther up that river, and never stop? Especially when the ancient Maya regarded the place as a realm of terror—why was I so happy there? When my group came out of the cave, I felt like my whole body was ringing. Like I was on drugs, or possessed. I was embarrassed at how strongly I felt, and kept lingering in the euphoria, talking to the guides, talking to fellow tourists, going out to dinner and still talking about it to anyone who would listen. It made no sense. I just wanted to go back.
I didn’t know how or when I was going to come back, because I was broke. All I had waiting for me was a handful of freelance editing gigs. But the conviction remained so strong that when I came home, I sat down and bought a plane ticket back to Belize with the last of my savings, before I’d even taken off my shoes.
Nine years later, I’m sitting here writing this on the day The Actual Star comes out. It’s a novel about the cave, yes. But it’s also the story about the origins and destiny of humanity, as told by three brave, vulnerable, fallible people making their way through history, from the collapse of the ancient Maya elites to a far-future utopia. I could never have guessed the full dimensions of what was pushing to come through me, at the time; just that I had to serve it. That feeling became my characters’ feelings: repeatedly, they are overwhelmed by a physical, noetic certainty that they must act upon. In 1012, Ket is overwhelmed by the desire to make a blood sacrifice to help her royal family. In 2012, Javier is overwhelmed with love for a young tourist he’s only known for a day. In 3012, Niloux is overwhelmed by a sighting of Venus that causes her to rethink everything she ever believed. All of these feelings set the course of the book in motion.
And that brings me to my stock answer.
For me, inspiration comes from the body.The body loves what it loves, and it’s my job to follow its wisdom, especially when I don’t understand. Now that I look back at all the things I write, from start to finish, my body is always the instrument by which I measure its rightness. Does this excite me? Does it bore me? Does it resonate? Just…does it feel right? I wish I could be more specific, but the verbal originates in the pre-verbal. I wrote The Actual Star just because my body felt the way it felt in that cave. It took nine years and 160,000 words.
I’m grateful to have learned that so clearly—and to the ones in the cave, who taught me.
The annual reappearance of these particular cereals has arrived. Krissy saw these in a three-pack and assumed I would want them because I eat like a sugar-amped child, and she is not wrong! I do want them. But as it happens when I was an actual sugar-amped child, I don’t think I ever partook in any of these; they just never showed up in my house, in part because my mom was more of a granola-and-Grape-Nuts sort of person. I guess I’m making up for lost time now. Honestly, it’s a miracle I’m still alive.
Ideas come out of anywhere, and for Amanda Jayatissa, the motivating spark of the novel My Sweet Girl came out of being really, really, really annoyed. Hey, whatever works. Here’s Jayatissa to fill you in on the circumstances and what came out of that moment.
If there’s anything this blog has shown me, it’s that big ideas often lurk in the unlikeliest of places. They are sparked by things people have said years ago, inside jokes, thoughts that wriggle their way into your mind and don’t leave you alone. If you’re lucky, that spark will come from something wondrous. If your luck is of a more complex nature, sometimes that spark comes from something unfortunate. As unfortunate as astoundingly poor customer service at a bank.
I was in a bad mood already. I couldn’t help it. I was trudging my way through a disastrous WIP and my dissatisfaction with it colored pretty much everything else in my life at the time. I had woken up late, not had my coffee, was behind on a million mundane tasks, and here was this customer service agent telling me that they’ve “misplaced” my paperwork (again).
Of course, I didn’t make a fuss. I hadn’t been trained my entire life to be anything less than a picture of understanding. I ranted and raged inside my head while I made my way to my favorite coffee shop, and (finally caffeinated) did what most writers would do— I pulled out a notebook and pen and really ripped that customer service agent to shreds. Things I would never say out loud, some things I never even let myself think, were bubbling up to the surface. And after a while of this— my big idea— I was having a blast being angry. Which is how my main character, Paloma, was born.
My old WIP forgotten, I dived into this new voice I had found. A voice where I gave myself permission to think angry thoughts. To give myself a lens to look through situations that I faced myself when I lived in the US, where much like Paloma, I had to wear the mask of the polite, well-mannered model minority, trying not to take up too much space with my big feelings in the white spaces I had been trying to navigate.
And then, the next spark. Most of the thrillers I had read at the time (and I had read many, many of them) didn’t have a protagonist who was like me. Sure, they were mostly women, mostly in their 30s, and always racing against some sinister force before time ran out, but they were always white. And just like Paloma being brown impacted her story, these heroines being white impacted theirs. There was nothing wrong with their experiences. There were just other stories to tell also.
It took me a moment to make my peace with it. That this biting, sassy, layered woman had a story worth telling. That she was fully realized enough to be the Main Character in her story, not just a token exotic beauty, or (shudder) math geek that most brown women play.
Then, what I suppose was the biggest spark of all. It was okay that Paloma wasn’t likable. She didn’t have to do what every other brown woman navigating a white space felt compelled to do and conform to a set of ever-changing rules. Paloma didn’t feel bad for thinking the way she did or for her behavior. She was done with being a model minority. She was ready to step out into the world and take charge of her life. And so was I.
I often get asked if Paloma is me. The answer is no. Probably thanks to years of practicing yoga and a very understanding husband, I don’t have that much anger pent up inside me (until my next visit to the bank, that is). The more honest answer is that my love of green-goddess smoothies and mom jeans makes me exactly the kind of person Paloma would make fun of in her head.
Sometimes it can take a few sparks to ignite a big idea. Sometimes, a big idea can be born out of being really, really pissed off.
I woke this morning to the news that California governor Gavin Newsom has defeated the recall initiative against him, and apparently by a margin large enough that even committed conspiracists can’t make a claim that the vote was tainted with a straight face. Oh, some of them will, because they can’t not, but every time they do they weaken the argument for later by showing that there’s no election result they won’t claim “fraud” for, no matter the circumstances. So on second thought, go right ahead, conservatives, whine that this election was tainted.
Back in the real world, however, the result is not entirely surprising in a state where the Democrats have a 2-1 party registration advantage over the GOP, and where the conservative candidate’s pitch was that he planned to make California more like Florida, where the recent infectious peak of COVID (August 16) was almost four times higher than California, despite the latter state having far more people. “Make California More Infected” turns out not to be the winning slogan GOP folks seem to think it is.
That said, and like every other commentator out there, I would in fact warn people on reading too much into Newsom’s unrecalled status here, with regard to signs and portents about the nation at large. California really is sui generis when it comes to politics, and it’s not like Newsom is universally beloved. The vote to deny his recall had as much to do with Democratic (and Californian) annoyance at the GOP wasting everyone’s time (and Elder being a pro-COIVD dimwit with a shady history) than any referendum on Newsom himself. In my view as a former Californian who spends at least a little time keeping up with my former state’s politics, it was unlikely that Newsom would have been recalled in any circumstance, but if I were Newsom, I wouldn’t be smug about the result. He’s still got fences to mend, and not with the GOP.
The one thing I would take away from this result that I think does have national import is the idea the Democrats remain activated and hyper-aware of GOP electoral shenanigans. One of the reasons this recall was attempted at all was that GOP folks figured that the turnout in a recall election would be low, like any non-presidential year election, but even more so as there was nothing else on the ballot. Low turnout traditionally favors the GOP, because, among other things, the old white people who are the GOP base turn out for every election come hell or high water. But it looks like somewhere in the area of 13 million Californians turned out to vote in the recall, in a state with something like 22 million registered voters. That’s a very solid result for an off-off-year vote, and a reminder that Democrats aren’t taking their votes for granted these days. Hopefully this left-side ambition to vote at every possible opportunity continues through 2022 and beyond.
So, yes, congrats, to Newsom, who shouldn’t get cocky. Good riddance to Elder, although I suspect he’ll try again in an actual election year, which will be good for Newsom’s re-election chances. And as always, folks, remember to vote, each time, every time, no matter what.
Want a kid? Okay, but it’s gonna cost you. And before you say, “Yes, I know, I’ve seen college tuition these days,” read Calder Szewczak’s big idea for The Offset. The cost is something else entirely, here.
Having children might be one of the most cruel things a human can do.
No one consents to being born. It’s a simple fact, but one we don’t talk about all that much. Probably because the conversation is too fraught, too easily hijacked. Reproduction always takes place within a matrix of numerous power imbalances; those of class, race and gender, those instilled by heteronorms and biological norms. In turn, these are filtered through circumstance: accident, abuse, regret, hope. As soon as you lose sight of the contextualising nature of these factors—of the fact that reproduction doesn’t happen in a vacuum—it’s all too easy to find yourself debating who you think deserves full autonomy over their reproductive rights and who does not. The conversation can too easily slide into misogyny (bad) and eugenics (also bad).
So let’s tread carefully, then, and stick to the initial point: that being a biological parent is to enact a very unique sort of power dichotomy that is far from ideal.
Suffering has always been part of existence; disease, destruction and despair the unavoidable side-effects of being alive in the world. Sophocles knew it when he wrote: “What foolishness it is to desire more life, after one has tasted / A bit of it and seen the world; for each day, after each endless day, / Piles up ever more misery into a mound.”
What foolishness it is to introduce children into this world of suffering. We have always known this, yet we have always continued to procreate, making more and more people to undergo the trauma of life. Perhaps it’s because we’re all hopeless optimists, believing matters will improve, or perhaps it’s just because misery really does love company. Either way, the ethics are skewed.
We speak of life as a gift—that to be alive is something to be grateful for—which brings to mind the words of Germaine Greer: “The compelled mother loves her child as the caged bird sings. The song does not justify the cage nor the love the enforcement.” As much may be said of the experience of being alive. Whatever small joys may be derived from living do not themselves justify the creation of life.
In the modern era, of course, with all its medical and technological advances, you might be forgiven for thinking that the good can outweigh the bad, that—given the right circumstances—a child might be guaranteed far more years of stability and happiness than those of precarity and pain. But if that were ever true, it isn’t now. The climate crisis has changed everything.
The children of the next generation are already grappling desperately with how their forebears have all but destroyed the planet on which they must, somehow, find a way to live. Young as they are, they don’t have the comfort of knowing, like their parents and elders do, that (if they’re lucky) they might still die before things get really, really bad. What will these children’s lives be like with global temperatures notching ever upwards? How will they survive? Will they survive? What untold catastrophes will they endure along the way?
Given the likelihood of suffering to come, might it not genuinely have been better for them not to have been born in the first place?
And (whisper it) might that not have been better for everyone else, as well? Because children are part of the problem. More accurately, children of wealthy, developed countries are part of the problem. It’s no secret that having fewer children is by far and above the most impactful way to cut your carbon footprint. Switch to a plant-based diet? That will save you 0.82 tonnes of CO2 per year. Cut out a single transatlantic flight? 1.6 tonnes. Eschew your car in favour of public transport? 2.4 tonnes. But have one fewer child? 7.8 tonnes.
Whichever way you run the numbers, there’s only one conclusion: people are a net loss for the planet. The fewer of us, the better.
Funny, isn’t it, that it all essentially comes back to women’s reproductive rights? That familiar battleground. One could be forgiven for being a little suspicious; suspicious of how responsibility is being apportioned, suspicious of the bottom line being drawn. 7.8 tonnes for a child, but how many tonnes for an oil refinery? Or an eleven-minute passenger flight to the thermosphere?
It is this—the intersection of environmental activism with reproductive rights—that provides the central concern of The Offset. Core to the book is anti-natalism, the ethical view that one ought not to create new people. Although the concept has gained traction in recent years (you may have come across the man who sued his parents for bringing him into the world or various women who have gone on birth strike) it is still not widely discussed and has been rarely examined in fiction, to the point where the world’s foremost anti-natalist David Benatar has said that our book “may be a literary first in giving central place to anti-natalism”.
In creating our anti-natalist society, we knew there were many real-world examples to draw on; horrifying methods, such as one-child policies and forced sterilisation, that have been used at various points across the world to cap fertility rates. But none of these were in keeping with the spirit of anti-natalism, which typically sees individuals freely making a commitment to never reproduce. Accordingly, in our fictional world, any rule of anti-natalism would have to be self-enforcing rather than imposed, something adhered to as a way of life or a cultural practice. The point was not a world where people were prevented from having children per se, just one where few would want to.
So what if every birth had a cost? What if bringing a child into the world meant your own life was forfeit?
There was an appealing balance to that: a life for a life. One in, one out.
Of course, if we were positing a world in which every child still had two biological parents, then there was the small matter of working out which parent would die. For all that we were constructing a dystopian world, we were nevertheless set on creating one that put queerness first. We had already decided upon our main characters: Alix and Jac, a lesbian couple who used ovum-to-ovum technology to have their child, Miri. But we knew that if we mishandled the mechanism of selection, we would still risk reinforcing the heteronormative.
The solution was straightforward. The decision would be given to the children of our dystopia, each of whom, on their eighteenth birthday, would have to pick one of their biological parents to die as a carbon offset for their own life.
And so the mechanism became a reckoning, a way to hand back power to the children (and so, too, the burden). It felt like something that parents and offspring alike could believe in as a resetting of the scales, a righting of a wrong, a restoration of balance. Something, in short, that would be cruel enough to match the cruelty of having been brought into existence in the first place. Of course, few anti-natalists would approve of such a drastic measure—their intent is to reduce suffering, not to increase it. But that is, perhaps, the point: that any attempt to clamp down upon and control reproduction can only ever increase suffering. The critical issue is not how many of us there are, but how we live—specifically, in developed countries. Our only hope is that, in speaking frankly about what it means to create life within the context of the climate crisis, we can, with renewed vigour, once more turn our attention to restoring the world for the next generation.
Another September 13, and another year of Whatever in the (virtual, electronic) books. For the site, an unusual year, in that I was not the sole writer here — through most of it Athena wrote nearly as much as I did (more accurately, I had more posts, but more of my posts were cat pictures and sunsets, so she probably wrote more words). I think that change of tenor was a pretty good thing. Athena is back at school at the moment and we’ll figure out to what extent she’ll be involved here while she’s also doing classwork. Could be a little! Could be a lot! Could be none at all! We’ll see, and whatever it is, that’ll be fine, because she has a life outside this site.
Me? Slightly less so. We still have a plague going on, thank you very much dunderheads who won’t get vaccinated, so despite a couple of memorable forays out into the world, I’m still mostly at home. Whatever continues to be the place where I write out my longer thoughts on the world. In the last year, with the exception of the events between the election and Joe Biden’s inauguration, in which we were living in genuinely historical times, it feels to me I’ve steered away from commenting on politics as much as I normally do, partly because of burnout (who could be blamed for that, honestly) and partly because much of the politics of the moment boil down to “aspiring fascists having performative tantrums” and “literally everybody else,” and that’s not interesting to me to write about. Politics right now makes me cranky, basically, which is why I’ve been putting my political thoughts mostly on Twitter. There I’m cranky in 280 characters or less, and then can immediately follow up with a picture of a burrito or the dog de-sequeakifying some poor stuffed animal. I don’t not write about politics here (go back just a few posts, you’ll see), I just write about it less frequently than I have at other times. That may change in the next year, going into a mid-term election year as we are. We’ll see.
For all that I find Whatever to be a pleasant thing to do, and to have. The last year in particular it feels like it hummed along nicely, as Athena did her writing and posted Big Ideas, and I posted and tended to other things. I especially miss have someone else post up the Big Ideas; it’s not difficult but it takes time, and I’m still posting more of them than I have in years past because book tours and physical appearances are still thin on the ground thanks to the pandemic, and authors need all the help they can get. Perhaps I’ll get an intern (I probably won’t get an intern). Regardless, in the last year it was nice to have it here, doing its thing, often without me.
The funny thing about writing on the site for 23 years is that it seems like the “blogosphere” is coming back around again, it’s just that now we’re calling it “Substack” and “Medium” and “paid newsletters.” Nevertheless the dynamic is still the same: One writes in one’s own space, and people come around to read it (or have it delivered by feed or email). What is old is new again. While I have both Substack and Medium accounts, I am unlikely to turn Whatever into a paid newsletter. I feel it runs against the ethos of Whatever to turn it into a job replacement. I don’t need another job, and I don’t need your money (this way; please buy my books). But to the extent that this new flourishing of personal media begins to pull people away from the Facebook/Twitter/Instagram triopoly of attention, so much the better. I mean, use those sites! I use them too. But then go other places too. Of course I don’t need to tell you this, you’re already here. Tell other people, maybe.
Whatever will, of course, go on. At the moment there is no plan to stop, or to much change how this site works. I write what I want to write here; you get what you get when you come here. That’s been the deal for 23 years and it doesn’t seem likely to change anytime soon, unless I drop dead, which to be clear I have no intention of doing, but which might not be entirely up to me. I like doing what I do here, and there is no reason to stop or change. In a way it’s nice. Fashions come and go, online media empires rise and fall, trends wax and wane, and through it all Whatever is here, doing its thing in its corner. Come around when you like, it’ll be here. Which means I will be here. Welcome.
Australian blogger and science fiction genre commentator Camestros Felapton (not their real name, the pen name is taken from logical syllogisms) has taken it upon themselves to write a fairly exhaustive history of the Sad/Rabid Puppy mess in science fiction lit, calling it “Debarkle” and posting it up on their site on a chapter by chapter basis (you can find it here). It’s still being written but as a practical matter it’s beginning to wind down, as the current installments cover the era where the Pups had stopped actively trying to game the Hugo Awards and had mostly dissolved as an ongoing concern. It’s far enough along that I feel all right looking back at the events recorded in a retrospective fashion without worrying too much about new information popping up.
I’m not going to review “Debarkle” in detail here; suffice to say I think it’s reasonably accurate though with a distinct point of view, a well-sourced but somewhat scattershot retelling of events, and as someone who pops up in the narrative relatively frequently (indeed, there are a couple of chapters about me and my work), it’s interesting to see how I come across from the outside. But reading the history as it’s come along has prompted a few of my own thoughts about the events the narrative covers, and their aftermath. Note well that these thoughts will only be interesting to the extent you both know and care about the events under discussion, and I will assume people reading will know what’s being discussed. Also, these thoughts of mine are in no particular order.
1. It really does seem like so long ago now. The nonsense the Sad/Rabid Puppies (henceforth to be referred to as “the Pups”) perpetrated is largely contained in the years of 2014 – 2016, and while that’s not actually all that long ago — a mere five years since MidAmericon II, where new Hugo nomination rules were ratified to minimize slate nominating, and NK Jemisin won the first of her three consecutive Best Novel Hugo Awards — it feels like a distant memory now, a kind of “oh, yeah, that happened,” sort of event.
There are reasons for that, but I think the largest part has to do with the fact that the Pups, simply and bluntly, failed at every level that was important for their movement. The bifurcated goals of the Pups were to champion science fiction with a certain political/cultural point of view (i.e., largely white, largely conservative), and to destroy the Hugos by flooding the nominations with crap. They did neither very well. Toward the former, the material they slated was largely not very good, and with respect to the latter, the Hugos both still persist and remain a premier award in the field.
Their strategy was bad because it was addressing a problem that largely did not exist and was arrived at in a backward fashion, and their tactics were bad because they exploited loopholes and antagonized everyone who was not part of their clique, activating thousands of dormant Hugo voters against them. They were routed through a simple mechanism for which they had not accounted (“No Award”), and once their slating tactic was blunted by a nomination rule change, they flounced entirely.
When your only track record is that of complete failure, it’s not surprising you don’t have much of an impact. Meanwhile the Hugos have been doing perfectly well, with excellent finalists and winners in most categories, and a wider and more diverse range of authors and creators. Nor are these works or creators obscure, either to fans or the general public; of the six Best Novel finalists for the current year, four are New York Times bestsellers (and commensurately bestsellers on other lists as well), and the authors of the two that are not, have won Hugos and other awards before. The Best Series finalists add a couple more bestsellers and award winners to that stack as well. The Hugos reflect what they are assumed to reflect: What’s interesting, and to varying degrees popular, in the larger field of the genre.
Basically, the post-Pup era has been a golden one for the genre and the award they tried to brigade, and that’s a much more interesting narrative.
2. The authors The Pups put on their enemies lists have done pretty well. This is correlative, not causative, to be sure — nothing the Pups did had much to do with these authors’ critical and commercial successes, and indeed those successes are to some degree why these authors were on the enemies list to begin with — but it’s certainly interesting.
Among the several authors who qualify in this category, I’ll mention two: Me and NK Jemisin. We were particularly favorite targets of the various strains of Pups, who liked to declare that we were nowhere as popular as we were made out to be, that various politically correct forces in publishing and fandom were responsible for our successes, that the fix was in regardless of whatever tripe we published, that our actual sales numbers were terrible, and so on. Along with that was a lot bigoted nonsense; the Pups spent a fair amount of time attempting to devalue my masculinity (among other things it was simultaneously hinted that I was gay and dominated by my wife, which is a nice trick if I do say so myself), and the nonsense I got was nothing compared to what was aimed at Jemisin, a black woman.
Fast forward to 2021 and… well, I’m certainly doing just fine these days, in terms of sales, awards and career opportunities. As for Jemisin, she’s inarguably the most important speculative fiction writer of her generation (note: I’m in her generation), a MacArthur Genius Grant recipient, and currently writing scripts for the upcoming big studio adaptation of her Broken Earth trilogy. Oh, and both of us are Hugo finalists this year. Now, sure, the Powers That Be may have simply decided to really go all in on faking our respective successes over the last half decade, but the simpler explanation is that, rather than being propped up by The Politically Correct Man, we’re actually good at what we do and we’re savvy enough, business-wise, to catch a wave swelling beneath us. If the Pups have shown us anything, it’s that you can’t simply brigade questionable material to success. There has to be quality there.
3. The Pups have largely not benefitted commercially from their actions. During the course of the Pup nonsense, I was made aware that at least some of the industriousness of a couple of the prime movers was the belief that the noise and controversy of their actions would help drive sales, perhaps through curiosity about the work and perhaps out of the adage that there’s no such thing as bad publicity. Some of the more obscure Pups hoped to become less obscure, and the ones who were already comfortable perhaps thought they might move up a rung or two on the ladder.
And, five years later… not really? The best case scenario sees the most popular Pups more or less at the same level of sales and popularity as they were when the nonsense started; they were not hurt by it because they already had their fan bases, contracts and distribution, and their fan base was either sympathetic to their Pup positions, or didn’t know and/or care.
(The latter, incidentally, is important to note; the Pup nonsense really was inside pool and few people not deeply committed to the genre knew much about it. Almost no one in the larger world would (or does) know or care much about an internecine struggle involving the mechanics of a genre award. Bestselling writers are so because they can draw in readers outside of the relatively small base of established SF/F fandom. They weren’t going to be substantially hurt by the Pup antics.)
With that said, the relatively small base of established SF/F fandom can be important for new, struggling and midlist authors, and “new, struggling and midlist authors” describes a fair number of the Pups. I don’t think those authors did themselves any favors alienating fandom, both in actions and in their characterization of fandom at the height of the nonsense, and (for some of the more traditionally established and published authors) by associating themselves and their personal brands with actual hateful bigots. Of the main Pups who were not bestsellers before the nonsense, none of them as far as I can see have really broken out since, in terms of sales and popularity. They’re no longer new, just midlist and/or struggling. They’re not gone — lots are still publishing — but five years on, any benefit they might have gotten from the nonsense is well over and done, and there’s not much record of any benefit.
The one silver lining, perhaps, is that as time goes on the Pup events will become even more obscure than they are today, and there will be a generation of fandom that neither knows much about it, nor care about it if they do. So they have that going for them, which is nice.
4. Even if it had succeeded, the Pup nonsense was futile; the genre had already changed. To the extent that the less malignant Pups had a strategy at all, it missed the realities of the publishing world. Even if the Hugos had lacked a “No Award” mechanism and some of their work walked away with rockets, it wouldn’t have changed what was being published in science fiction and by whom… and who was buying it. Brute-force manipulation of award results, at best, devalues the award itself. But awards, while nice and occasionally useful, aren’t actually hugely significant to the bottom line of publishing. Acquisitions and sales are.
What the Pups missed (or, if they did not miss, at least severely misunderstood) was who is acquiring genre work these days and who is buying it. Hint: it’s not all straight white dudes, and indeed, it may not even be majority straight white dudes anymore. The legions of associate-to-senior editors in publishing right now and in the last decade are more diverse than they’ve ever been, less white, less male, more queer… and with a hellaciously passionate work ethic and a damn fine eye for material. They didn’t necessarily come up through “traditional” science fiction. Lots of them came up through YA or from other genres, and developed their own personal canon of works that may or may not have included “classic” SF work. When they bought work, they didn’t just buy for the audience that SF/F books were assumed to address. They bought for the audience they wanted to bring into the field. They did it in book publishing, and in short fiction publishing as well.
And guess what? It fucking worked. The Pups liked to assert, without much in the way of evidence, that “New York Publishing” was and still is on its way out (which would not be great for them, as the major publisher in the Pup space, based in North Carolina as it is, nevertheless is distributed and put into stores through a New York publisher). Someone should have told that to New York publishing, particularly its science fiction and fantasy imprints; they’re doing just fine. And not only fine: they’re minting more bestsellers and bringing in more readers to the genre and being a larger part of the cultural conversation than they have done before. Likewise, short fiction publishing features more diverse material and storytelling than ever before. Genre literature is finally catching up to where the genre is in other media, in terms of popularity and influence — in large part, I would argue, because the doors are open wide to a larger base of readers and writers.
By the time the Pups noticed this, in their profoundly negative way (not “hey, the field has more and different people in it” but “I’m not winning awards which should be mine, for reasons, waaaaaah“), it was already too late. The more diverse associate-to-senior editors were already in place, working like hell, and their books were already selling and finding and expanding audiences. The Pups didn’t think this stuff was selling, I suspect because they certainly wouldn’t read it, which is a monumental self-own. But it was selling, and is selling, and a lot of it is terrific. And a fair amount of that terrific stuff is now on the bestseller charts and in the award finalist lists.
Yes, yes, but what about the straight white man? Is there a place for him in the science fiction literary culture now? I mean, yes (waves), and even if you consider my straight white male credentials suspicious in some way, there are plenty of other examples — including the Pups themselves, who again are still publishing away, albeit in some cases not with the notability they felt they were entitled to. We straight white dudes show up in bestseller and award lists, still. We just share them more now.
This was already happening when the Pups finally noticed. And by the time they noticed, it was already too late. The genre had changed. It wasn’t just about them anymore, or more accurately, they could no longer assume that it was just about them anymore, as they had done before.
5. The Pup movement is what entitled mediocrity looks like. Which is not to say that the Pups were (or are!) uniformly mediocre writers. Some of them had gotten on to finalist lists on their own steam with their stories and prose, and got decent-to-glowing reviews for their work, and of course sold from all right to very well indeed. But fundamentally the Pup movement was about resentment: Resentment about not winning awards. Resentment about sharing the genre with others. Resentment about having to compete, and being outcompeted. Resentment that had they started their careers 20 years earlier, they might have had more acclaim and baubles. Resentment that says that if you can’t have the success you want, exactly how you want it, then you are entitled to make sure no one else has it either; that you would rather burn something to the ground than to have someone else get it.
At the end of the day, everything about the Pup movement was “I can’t compete, I don’t want to compete, and also, I shouldn’t have to compete, the whole set-up is inherently unfair, so I’m justified in wrecking it.” And that line of thinking is the product of mediocrity, whether or not the prose in question is fine and fair. I don’t know whether that can be fixed, or whether the Pups want to fix it at this late point. Five years on, however, it doesn’t much matter.
On the same day that “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was officially released as the first single off of Nirvana’s Nevermind album, September 10, 1991, I started my first post-college job: Film critic and feature writer for the entertainment section of the Fresno Bee. I had done freelance work before — indeed, I paid for a lot of my senior year of college by writing for the Chicago Sun-Times and New City magazine — but September 10, 1991 was the start of my full-time paid career as a writer. Since that day 30 years ago now, I have never not been a professional writer; it has always been the way that I supported myself and my family. At this point, three decades in, I can’t imagine doing anything else for a living. I suppose I’m stuck, now. You may imagine I am all right with this.
Thirty years on I do not have the writing career I thought I would have when I started out. I’ve said this before and I think people disbelieve me, but: I had no intention of being a novelist, or, at the very least, I assumed that if I were to write novels, that they would be a nice occasional side hustle. What I hoped for at the time — and what I assumed would be the case — is that I would write for newspapers all my life. The gig at the Fresno Bee would lead to gigs at other newspapers, and eventually I would land up at the New York Times/Washington Post/Los Angeles Times/Chicago Tribune as a daily columnist, riffing off local and world events like idols such as Mike Royko or Molly Ivins. Twenty-two-year-old me fully expected an entire career of daily deadlines and 800-word bursts of opinion.
And, I’m not going to lie, part of me is sad I didn’t get that life. Not too sad, because, well. Hello, welcome to Whatever, which I have been writing at for twenty-three years come Monday. But I loved working at newspapers when I was there; loved coming into the newsroom and seeing and talking other reporters and writers, loved having to have everything in by 3pm, loved the whole life of it. In 1991 there was little indication just how quickly that mode of work and storied kind of job would be outmoded, outsourced and outdated, and it’s kind of a tragedy. We are not better as a nation for having our local newspapers being a half or third of what they used to be in terms of writers and editors (if they still exist at all), and taken over by hedge funds who starve the papers and squeeze their staff. We can say it was inevitable once the Internet became a thing, but I don’t think that’s it. Choices were made, large and small. Not the best choices. I miss what newspapers were, and call me silly, but I hope one day there’s a way for them to come back.
So I didn’t get that life. The life I did get, I think, is better for me. Since 2001 I’ve been writing in the same northwest corner of the office that is in the northwest corner of my house, in a village of 1,800 people in Ohio. From that one same spot (plus occasional laptop travel) have come over thirty books, split between novels and non-fiction, plus thousands of other bits of writing: blog posts, reviews, newspaper and online columns, scripts and script notes, newsletters and corporate consulting. A lot of it done in a bathrobe, with pets sleeping in the office whilst I type. That life has seen me go all around the country and world to talk about my writing, to sign books and meet people, and to make friends that I would likely have never met if my life had gone to the plan my 22-year-old self had imagined. It’s gotten me published two dozen languages around the world, won me awards (including the Hugo, the one award that young me absolutely would have geeked out about), and, as a bonus, made me a decent amount of money to support myself and my family.
This has been a good life and career, and I’m happy to have gotten this one, out of all the possible ones I could have gotten. I think I would have been happy in the life I had planned at 22. I think I’m happier in the life I have now.
30 years of writing professionally is a long time, and it doesn’t feel like that long at all. Realistically I can hope for another twenty years of it; I wouldn’t mind getting another thirty. I’ll keep at it; honestly at this point I’m not qualified for anything else. The good news is, I still like doing my job, and doing it mostly every day.
And that’s the very best thing: To love what you do and to keep wanting to do it. I love my job, and love writing to all of you in this northwest corner of this northwest room in my little Ohio town. Thank you all for letting me have this life so far. I’ll keep at it, and look forward to what happens from here.
In point of fact, these days on 9/11 I don’t tend to think about it much at all, which is I think a healthy thing. It was a national shock and tragedy, and we are still living with many of the things it set into motion. But the day itself was twenty years ago now, and as with every grief, it fades with time. It’s not forgotten by me but I also don’t use it as an excuse to retraumatize myself. Today is a day for remembrance, not for refreshing the pain of the day.
Because it’s the 20th anniversary, and we tend to attach importance to round numbers, some people seem to want to use the day as a cudgel. In the run up to the day I’ve seen a lot of memes berating other folks for not being in, I guess, an appropriate state of reverence for the day. Most of these I found, of course, on Facebook, the home of amateur psyops (and of professional psyops made to look amateur enough to be shared). This caused me to write a post, which I will now share here:
Folks, reposting memes that pre-emptively shame people for having forgotten 9/11 is kind of a shitty move, and more or less an update of the “I bet people won’t repost this” meme dynamic that is so very deeply annoying and manipulative. I assure you that anyone who was alive and cognizant in 2001 has not forgotten the day. They will remember it in their own way. May I suggest you let them do so without further editorial comment, pre-emptive or otherwise, on how they choose to do it.
And indeed, I remember the day. I know where I was and what I was doing and what I was feeling through the whole thing. It doesn’t make those thoughts and emotions and memories any less real not to revisit them on an annual basis like the stations of the cross. It’s okay to let them lessen and subside and to let time do the thing it does. But if you do want to revisit them — if that’s you’re way of dealing with the day — then that’s fine too. Do what you need to do for the day. Try not to judge how others do the same.
Here’s how I plan to spend this 9/11: As if it were an ordinary Saturday, which, god willing, it will be. I plan to go into town with Krissy and do a little shopping. She’s out of coffee, and we need to buy a set of trash cans with lids and foot pedals because Charlie likes to graze out of our current trash baskets as if they are a buffet, which is kind of gross and makes a mess. I will remember the day — I’m remembering it now, after all, here, with you who are reading this — and I will also live my life within the day. Both the remembering and the living are important. The country came to a stop one day, twenty years ago. It’s all right to keep going now.
A confession: I meant to post this stack of new books and ARCs last Friday, but then I was at Dragon Con, and I was… busy. So: Here they are now! What here in the stack looks interesting to you? Tell us all in the comments.
Bluntly, I blame this on (of course) Donald Trump. The GOP has been a mess for years — decades, really — but allow me to suggest that had any other Republican been president when COVID hit, that person would likely have been reasonably sensible about things like masks and vaccines and taking advice from the CDC and its scientists. They would have acknowledged that the way back to a roaring economy (which always advantages the GOP for some unfathomable reason, given how terrible they are at even basic economic policy) was squashing the COVID virus as as soon as possible. But Trump was (and is) a smugly ignorant poltroon, so of course the rest of the GOP, craven and spineless as it is, fell into line.
The result is that now it’s murdering its own constituency, and dragging this out for the rest of us. Let’s be clear that the vast majority of people who are currently dying of COVID aren’t Democrats and liberals, all of whom vaxxed up as soon as possible. The majority of the people hospitalized and dying are the unvaccinated, and the people who are willfully unvaccinated are the people who have been lied to by the GOP and their media outlets about vaccines and masks and “personal freedom” and so on. When GOP politicians in Florida or Texas (or Ohio!) block a local masking or vaccination policy, the people most at risk for that policy (aside from, you know, children and those who actually have a legit medical reason not to be vaccinated) are Republicans and conservatives. When the GOP says it will fight for your freedoms with regard to vaccinations and masks, it’s basically saying to its base “We want you to die.” And how does the base respond? By cheering, and taking another shot of horse dewormer, and literally shitting itself.
It’s genuinely astounding to me. The GOP messaging machine has for decades done a fine job at making poor and middle-class white people vote against their own economic interests through the clever use of aspirational messaging and veiled racism, but the fact it is now actively working to kill off its base by extending a pandemic — and the base is loving it — really feels like a floor. What else can you do, once you’ve killed off your base? The phrase “eating your seed corn” is made for moments like this.
Now, I’m aware that the GOP is simultaneously trying to blame Joe Biden for trying to contain the pandemic, and trying to blame him for when its constituents die, and some of the most committed constituents are with their dying breaths denying that what they have is actually COVID at all (metaphorically; their dying breaths are usually under a respirator and they are in a medically-induced coma to keep them from clawing the tubes out of their own throats, but you get what I’m saying). At the end of the day, however, some others of these folks are saying “I should have gotten the damn vaccine” before they die, and their friends and loved ones are hearing them say it. It will be interesting to see how many of these folks still keep to the path that the GOP has put them on.
I live out here in GOP country; Darke County, Ohio, the small, conservative county where I live, is one of the bottom ten counties in Ohio in terms of vaccination rates (34%, 79th out of 88 counties). People here have heard the GOP and conservative messaging on vaccines and masks and “personal liberty” loud and clear and they are making their choices because of it. A fair number of them will actively resent Biden’s plans to more aggressively get people vaccinated, for no other reason than that Trump was a stubborn dimwit about COVID, and a bunch of ambitious GOPers decided to keep doing that even after Trump lost the presidency, the House and the Senate for them.
I’ve talked before about how badly the rest of us should feel when someone who is willfully unvaccinated dies of COVID. My position on this hasn’t changed much, but I really want to emphasize just how much culpability the Republican party and conservative media and propogandists have for their constituency refusing to get vaccinated and wear masks. Yes, people make their own choices and they are responsible for them. But when the people and organizations they trust to tell them about the world (and have been told to trust only) intentionally lie and actively put them in the way of a virus that can, does and will hospitalize and kill a non-trivial number of them, at the very least, those people and organizations share in that responsibility. Everyone at the GOP headquarters and Fox News is vaccinated. No one there is shitting their guts out thanks to livestock medicine. They know what the virus is, how it works, and how to keep it in check. And they keep lying to their people about it anyway.
I’m going to leave you with this: An article on the CNN site, about a conservative county in Missouri, where the vaccination rate is 27% and if you wear a mask, you’re branded as a Democrat. Are people dying there? Oh, yes, they are, and still people are hesitant to get a simple, free and effective vaccine because now it’s been made political, and because they’re told, in so many ways, not to.
Here’s a quote from the piece:
“I had both shots of the vaccine, and people just acted like, ‘Oh, it doesn’t help,'” Cheryl Wetton said. “It bothers me sometimes that people act like Covid is a big joke. I always want to say, ‘Well, why don’t you just come right up here to the cemetery, and I’ll show you my husband’s grave? And I can show you it’s no joke.'”
Wetton actually did say that to a guy in town, she later confirmed. “He just got real quiet.”
They’re killing their own people because of politics. Not anyone else. Not any more. And they’ll keep doing it. For as long as it takes. Because this is how they think they will win.
Three weeks ago I talked about why, although I was excited to be getting a Ford F-150 Lightning electric truck, I was also glad that at the moment we still will have a gas-powered car for longer trips, because the powering infrastructure for electric vehicles (particularly non-Tesla vehicles) isn’t quite where it should be. Day to day, presuming one is powering up at home, electric vehicles are going to be great; going anywhere over any significant distance is still going to have its challenges.
As if reading my mind (or at least, my post), Marques Brownlee has posted a video about taking two electric cars (and a gas-powered car as a control) on a two-day, 1000-mile road trip. One of the electric cars is a Tesla, the other a Ford, and the video goes into the experience for each, as well as for the gas car. Unsurprisingly to me, the Ford, with the less-integrated charging system, experienced some significant hiccups in completing the journey. It still did, mind you, just far behind the time of the Tesla and the gas-powered auto, which of course was able to gas up just about anywhere.
This does not dissuade me from getting that F-150 Lightning! I think it will be worth the investment, and the problems noted will almost certainly addressed over the life of the vehicle. But, yeah. For the first couple of years at least, if we go long, we’ll probably end up taking the Mini.
There are lessons that you are lucky to learn if you have the right friends at the worst times. One of them is that abusers, the ones who know how to hurt you on a molecular level, who make you stay lifetimes longer than you should, who whittle you down and make you forget who you are, forget there was a life outside of the pain they hand-feed you each day, weaponize your best qualities and turn them against you. They make use of your trust, your willingness to self-sacrifice, your patience, your hope, your faith in the people you care about. Hollywood tells us that abuse happens when we’re not strong enough, that we become victims when we’re too weak to walk away, too weak to say no, to burn it all down so we can grow a better life from the devastation.
That’s not always true.
Sometimes, it happens because we’re tough assholes who will weather anything for the people we love. Sometimes, it happens because we won’t break.
Maya, our protagonist, is the embodiment of this idea — she’s one of twelve criminals who call themselves The Dirty Dozen. Though all of her cohorts are trained for violence, Maya’s totally the main muscle, unafraid to die over and over again to accomplish her goals, and always ready to be recalibrated so as to be capable of even greater amounts of lethality. She acts like it too. Maya’s all bite in every social interaction, as happy with the profanities as she is with shooting down anyone who stands in her way. She’s a badass, but she’s also indelibly broken by the abuse she has sustained.
The emotional heart of the book centers around her engaging in that revelation, and also what abuse has done to her relationships with the people around her. In fact, a lot of the book revolves around scrutinizing the far-reaching effects of abuse, how it can subsume our identities, how it can force us to choke down our pain if everyone insists on acting like there’s absolutely nothing to worry about at all. It’s like that story of the frog steeping in hot water. Do it slowly enough, do it subtly enough, and no one will notice a thing.
But this isn’t all the book is.
I wanted The All-Consuming World to deal too with the complications of escaping such relationships, and what it can mean to escape them. For some, like Verdigris, it means making up for last time, embracing life with an impossible incandescence, drowning all the darkness you’ve accumulated in light. It can mean dedicating yourself to wanting, needing even, to extract others from similar pain, to be there for them when you can. For others, it can be much harder. When you’ve spent too much time with a hurt, you can forget what it is like to live without your agony. Pain can take up so much space inside you that it can hollow you out when it’s gone. Which is why some of us stay as long as we do.
A stranger asked me why I would write such a thorough examination of abuse, what was the point of it when it was the lived experience for so many reasons. I thought a lot about this, and I think at last I have an answer for that.
It’s because sometimes, we need to be reminded that we will survive this pain, that others have walked similar paths and come out on the other side. That the dark ends, that we get to be okay again.
That it isn’t always an easy process and sometimes, we stumble. Sometimes, we find ourselves turned out and in the place where we started.
But that’s okay.
Sometimes, life is like that.
I don’t know if everyone needs such things in their lives. But I know I did and that I wouldn’t have survived a lot of what happened to me if it were not for other people’s stories. And at the cost of sounding mawkish, I hope The All-Consuming World helps someone in a similar way too.
“Nature versus nurture” is a question that humans all through the years have weighed in on, and it seems likely in the future they will continue to do so. Or at least, in the future of Kelly Jennings’ new novel In the Deep, that question, or more accurately a unique spin on it, comes into play.
Even since I discovered what genes are, which was when I was about ten, I have been interested in how much our genes control who we become, and how much of who we become is subject to the choices we make (or think we are making).
In 2018, I wrote a novel, Fault Lines, about a genetic engineering program, the Calypso Project, run by immense multi-planetary corporations called Combines. The Calypso Project aims to create ruthless leaders for the Combines and ruthless soldiers for their Security forces. And by “ruthless,” we should read “intelligent psychopaths.”
In Fault Lines, Brontë Ikeda, heir to a powerful Combine, just barely escapes being killed during one of the frequent coups that sweep the top power echelons. Wanting to rescue her missing security cadets, Brontë enlists the aid of Velocity Wrachant, Captain of the Susan Calvin. Velocity was also heir to a powerful Combine, but chose to leave that society altogether and take her chances as a free trader. Through the events in Fault Lines, Brontë and Velocity learn that they, as well as Brontë’s cadets, have all been created by the Calypso Project. As the novel ends, the Susan Calvin is heading out to join forces with the Pirian fleet, long-time enemies and technical superiors of the Combines, hoping to learn more about the genetic mix that has created them.
In the Deep, the second in the Escape Velocity series, takes up the thread three years later, as Velocity and her crew, now working for the Pirians, come to a Combine-held planet, Durbin. Their mission is to retrieve Pirians who have been impressed into labor on that planet, and evaluate the planetary population’s potential for rebellion. They soon learn, however, that someone has been collecting Calypsos on Durbin: over 1500 Calypsos now live, and are reproducing, on Durbin. That’s only the first complication to what should have been a quick and easy job.
The question of genetics and free will was one of the big ideas I wanted to wrestle with in this novel – indeed, in this series. But I’m also fascinated by common misconceptions of how genetics work, and the problems those misconceptions create: notions of genetic purity leading to inbreeding, for instance; or the belief that we can breed humans for such attributes as intelligence or specific talents. My Pirians have a relatively small population which went through a genetic bottleneck as it escaped Earth; my Combine citizens have deliberately created, through strict endogamy, a dangerously limited gene pool. Can either population science their way out of the catastrophic situations they find themselves in?
I’m also interested in how culture controls what we’re allowed to see, and whether those blinders can be shucked off. The Pirian fleet sees the universe one way; the Combines another. In the first book in the Escape Velocity series, we saw how the Combines warp their population. This time I take us into the Pirian fleet, which has a different sort of enculturation; as well as to that planet filled with Calypsos, most of whom have been very strongly enculturated indeed.
In one sense, the crew of the Susan Calvin – polyamorous, shaped by the various cultures they have fled, and strongly bonded to one another – are an answer to these questions. They seem to have free will, and seem not to be controlled by their genes or the worlds they came from. How completely can any of us remove our cultural blinders, though?
That’s the final big idea I’m exploring in this series of books: how we manage to see past what we’re allowed to see; and specifically how the act of learning to do that is not a single act – we don’t just strip off the blinders in one victorious moment of enlightenment – but a difficult, ongoing and endless action.
I had fun! Thank you, that is all.
Okay, I’ll add just a few more comments.
1. The first is that I was surprised and happy I was asked to be the Literary Guest of Honor this year. I had been asked to be so for 2020 and had accepted, and then COVID happened and everything went virtual, and I assumed that was that. Which would have been fine! Dragon Con is a major convention and I have no doubt that it has any number of people to ask to be a guest of honor. So that they would ask me to repeat was a happy-making event. I accepted again, and I was also pleased that this year there was an in-person component as well as a virtual component.
2. I was also mildly curious how I would handle that live component! Dragon Con 2021 was my first in-person science fiction convention since January 2020, and my first public appearance of any sort since March 2020, when I was on JoCo Cruise. In the intervening time I had done almost no travel at all, had taken no airplane rides or had even been to an airport, did very little speaking to non-family or friends and otherwise had kept largely to a 50-mile radius from my house. Going to Dragon Con after that was basically a cannonball into the deep end of the social interaction pool; even at a “reduced” level of in-person attendance, the convention still had at least 42,000 attendees when all was said and done.
So how did I do? Reasonably well. I did find myself getting “peopled out” more quickly than I usually did at previous conventions, which I think is an artifact both of having been away from public events for 18 months, and also, you know, just getting older. I generally solved this problem by retreating to my hotel room between events and (Saturday excepted) going to bed at a shockingly early hour for a convention. I averaged more than eight hours of sleep a night at Dragon Con, which is substantially more than I get at home. I chalk that up to not having cats waking me up to show me their ass at 3am, but regardless of why, it helped me get through the con without having my brain fry up.
3. It also helped that, as it turns out, everyone at the convention was uniformly lovely and happy to see to me there. The Dragon Con staff were terrific and solicitous of my well-being, and attendees were likewise generally appreciative to see me in the flesh. I think overall people were so happy just to be out of the house that it added an extra level of excitement and gratitude to the events, and (in my experience anyway), everyone was willing to play nice with each other maybe a little more than they might otherwise. It made for a legitimately genuinely pleasant convention experience, more so than usual, especially with regard to a convention the size of Dragon Con.
4. Yes, you say, but what about COVID? It’s still out there! And yet you went to a 40k-attendee convention! What’s up with that? Well, look. I’m vaccinated and all my immediate family is vaccinated, and Dragon Con’s attendance policy was that everyone attending had to be vaccinated or have a recent negative COVID test (the convention also had pop-up testing and vaccination opportunities). Moreover, everyone had to be masked; panelists (all of whom, at least on my panels, were vaccinated) could take off their masks when doing panels but attendees had to keep theirs on. Speaking for myself and only for myself, this set-up was an acceptable level of risk.
And for some people it wasn’t — I know at number of Dragon Con guests/panelists/attendees/etc decided to stay home, including some I know personally, because they weren’t comfortable with that set-up. Which is fine! Some of them have kids at home below the current vaccination age, or have family members who are in a larger risk pool for breakthrough infections, or simply just did their own math and decided it didn’t work for them. You can’t argue with that and I won’t. Everyone should do what they’re comfortable with. But for me, the math was, I feel pretty good about my chances; let’s see how it goes.
(It’s also my understanding from various Facebook posts I’ve seen that at least a few (mostly) dudes dropped their attendance because they were spittle-flingingly angry that their god-given right to be a public carrier and/or recipient of the COVID virus had been unconstitutionally abridged by the convention’s “mask and vax” policy. Bless their hearts, as they would say in Atlanta. They weren’t missed by me.)
Now back home, I feel tired, and I have a mildly sore throat from (I very strongly suspect) the fact I talked non-stop for five days because LOOK PEOPLE WHO ARE NOT MY FAMILY OR PETS, but otherwise I feel fine. My plan is to sleep a lot when the cats let me and otherwise take it easy. Or in other words, welcome to my usual week these days.
5. I had a pretty great time across the entire convention, but four events in particular stand out for me. One, meeting Maurice LaMarche, perhaps best known as the voice of The Brain in Pinky and the Brain but also the voice of the narrator in the “When the Yogurt Took Over” episode of Love Death + Robots. I got to express my appreciation to him for that work, and to otherwise geek out about him. And that was just the first day! Two, getting to take part in the DragonCon parade. They sat me up in a Camaro convertible and had me wave at the crowd, nearly all of whom squinted at the sign on the car to see who I was. Which was not surprising! I don’t actually expect people to know who I am. It was still a fun and delightfully surreal experience. Three, DJing the “Last Party on Alderaan” dance. I was a last-minute sub for whoever the original DJ was, but that was fine by me, since I’ll take any excuse to spin tunes and have a good time and dance with my wife. Here’s a brief video of the dance, with a cameo by me and Krissy at the end. We had a bunch of fun and I was super-sore the next day. Four, taking part in the charity D&D game DMed by John Hartness, in which I played a very grumpy dwarf. Very grumpy. Some would say it was typecasting, and they would be right. It was a blast anyway.
6. In all, Dragon Con 2021 was pretty much exactly what I had hoped and wanted it to be — a really wonderful first time back into the world. I’m deeply appreciative that the convention folks had me back, and I hope I was a good and useful guest to them. I was happy just about every minute I was there, and very glad I got to come visit. I look forward to coming back.
Many years ago, television interviewer Barbara Walters rather infamously asked Katharine Hepburn, “If you could be a tree, what kind of tree would you be?” I don’t know whether author David Liss remembers that particular media moment, but in The Peculiarities, at least, he presents us with at least one character who might have an answer for Walters.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve been fascinated by historical magic, by which I mean magic as it was performed by real people who believed that their practices had an impact on the world around them. That, more than anything else, was the origin of The Peculiarities, a novel set during the late Victorian occult revival. In particular, I wanted to write about the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, the hugely influential organization of turn-of-the-century London magicians who played a major role in transmitting ideas about ceremonial magic into the popular imagination.
I wanted to write about real magic with its limited goals and affects, but I also wanted to write about a character undergoing a bizarre physical transformation. In this case, my self-centered and somewhat acerbic protagonist is, as the novel opens, turning into a tree. Obviously that’s not particularly realistic and out of the range of what historical magicians could accomplish, but I didn’t want that to stop me. Some of my favorite projects began when I forced together two ideas that don’t necessarily go together. In making them mesh, I come up with something that has its own internal logic.
With this book, I first wanted to get a handle on how magic should work. When I started out, all I knew for sure what that I often dislike how magic and the occult are frequently represented in popular culture. I wanted to do something different and also something more logical.
What if, I asked myself, Golden Dawn magic had been demonstrably effective? The concept appealed to me in large part because Golden Dawn magic was generally subtler than most fantastical magical practices. Many of their rituals were spiritual and meditative. Their spells were meant to nudge real world outcomes rather than affect massive change. Spells to generate wealth, for example, might be expected to produce some minor windfall or business opportunity, not turn a pauper into a millionaire. At the more extreme range were practices like divination, astral projection or demonic summoning, the results of which were often impressionistic and subjective.
If this kind of magic could be practiced effectively, how would that change the world? How would the knowledge of accurate tarot card readings or provable astral voyages change society?
This question led me to an interesting problem: if these magical practices worked, then they had always worked, so why would people just now be discovering them? I’ve always pushed back against fictional depictions of occult secret histories and hidden societies. If there had always been vampires or werewolves or sorcerers, then why was their existence a secret? Try imagining a world in which the existence of left-handed people has been kept a secret, but they’re out there, and they have their own agenda. It makes no sense. If magic, in whatever shape, were real and something people could learn, then lots of people would learn it. Golden Dawn magic was relatively low impact – we’re not talking about shooting lightning bolts out of fingertips or dragon-riding – but even so. Maybe these are skills that relatively few people could master, but that’s true of playing the violin, and the idea that violins might have been kept hidden from the bulk of humanity seems pretty silly.
As I toyed with all of this, it occurred to me that certain things had indeed changed about magic in the second half of the 19th century. Until this point, it had been a traditional practice for magicians to hide their secrets, either by teaching only selected initiates or, if they chose to write down their practices, to bury nuggets of wisdom behind veils of impenetrable writing. The 19th century, however, saw the emergence of popularizers of magic like Eliphas Levi, whose books attempted to present the basic information of western hermetics in clear and readable prose. Indeed, what was original about the Golden Dawn was neither its beliefs nor its practices, but rather its method of systemic instruction which made ancient magical ideas accessible to any dedicated student.
This, it occurred to me, was what changed – not the efficacy of magic but the accessibility. This concept led me to the big leap that allowed the book to take shape. I’d begun by thinking what effect magic might have on behaviors, but now I turned it around. What effect might behaviors have on magic? What if, in other words, unprecedented numbers of people practicing traditional magic made that traditional magic stronger and more effective?
The end result was a novel in which magic demonstrably works and is changing society, but it is also a new development, and so not accepted by everyone. I’ve always loved to write about moments of major historical reorientations. It just so happens that this one centers around a main character who is metamorphosing into a tree.
Last day of Dragon Con, which for me has been a terrific experience about which I will write about more later, and also a travel day as we head home from Atlanta. While my Labor Day will be busy, I hope yours is relaxing and fun. See you on the other side of the day.
Especially when I am in it!
Because I am the literary guest of honor here at Dragon Con this year, I was put into the parade. I got into a Camaro convertable, sat on the back seat, and waved and smiled at the folks as we went by. As I understand it the parade route this year was closed to everyone but Dragon Con attendees, all of whom had to be vaccinated (or testing negative). There were still quite a lot of folks. It was fun.
Hope your weekend is also going fabulously.