Just in time for Valentine’s Day weekend, this stack of new books and ARCs that have come to the Scalzi Compound. What here is putting an arrow through your reading heart? Share in the comments!
Just in time for Valentine’s Day weekend, this stack of new books and ARCs that have come to the Scalzi Compound. What here is putting an arrow through your reading heart? Share in the comments!
On the occasion of The Last Best Hope, the first novel associated with the Star Trek: Picard television series, author Una McCormack muses on Star Trek, the future it imagines, the present we live in today… and how it all comes together.
At the end of last year, I visited CERN. Yes, that CERN, of the massive magnets and the Higgs-Boson. I was one of a party that included a bishop and at least one other writer of speculative fiction. We were our own murder mystery in the making. It was a great day, talking to smart people about their visionary work, but the highlight was taking the lift down to see the Complex Muon Solenoid (CMS) experiment – one of the two vast particle physics detectors built on the Large Hadron Collider. We went down, down, underground, and came out to see an incredible monument to human ambition, talent, organisation. The bishop and I looked out across this work and shared the sense of awe and wonder we were both experiencing.
Afterwards, I spent the day in Geneva. I visited the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Museum. On the way home, I was able to travel on my British/EU passport for one of the very last times. I kept thinking about what human beings can achieve when we collaborate on a large scale. Vast secular cathedrals that bring us closer to understanding the fundamentals of our universe. Humanitarian organisations that bring relief and bear witness. International treaties and agreements that, for all the bureaucracy, have contributed to maintaining peace in Europe for the best part of a century. I thought about how much I’d taken these things for granted across my life, and how fragile these institutions all suddenly seemed.
Such things were much on my mind when I sat down to watch the first episode of Star Trek: Picard. In this, I think, we are following the narrative of a man whose story stands at the intersection of great individual talent and wider, social need. A man whose personal qualities – wisdom, compassion, a humanitarian outlook – once formed the backbone of the organisation he served. But now we find him at a time of his life when the values he holds have become no longer congruent with the organisation to which he has been dedicated.
For those of us of a certain vintage, Star Trek: The Next Generation (TNG) offered not only a positive vision of humanity’s future, but one predicated upon collaboration, in which species looked beyond ties of blood and nationhood to find common ground with all forms of life. At the heart of this project was the figure of Captain Jean-Luc Picard: explorer, diplomat, scholar, humanist, a man whose chief drivers are curiosity and compassion.
Of course, TNG had its flaws. But in its best episodes, such as ‘The Measure of a Man’, in which the civic rights of the android, Data, are debated, TNG dealt thoughtfully, and committedly, with questions of selfhood, and our obligations to each other. In ‘Darmok’, Picard learns to communicate with an alien species who speak through metaphor, showing the joy of immersion in another culture, and the thrill of meaningful contact with the other. In ‘The Inner Light’, Picard lives an entire different life, as a member of a species long extinct, coming back to his own time to bear witness to the fact that they existed – that they lived and loved, and hoped to be remembered.
In Star Trek: Picard, we are presented with a future where the powers that be are no longer committed to these great ambitions. Starfleet, it seems, withdrew from the great challenge of its age, the humanitarian project to save the Romulan people from the effects of their sun going supernova, making a distinction between ‘lives’ and ‘Romulan lives’. We see a man whose values are no longer shared by the institutions to which he devoted his whole life, and who is struggling with this misalignment.
My British nationality no longer gives me access to my European rights. By a quirk of history, I am able to claim these rights through Irish grandparents. So can my daughter – but my partner cannot. These great endeavours – these great projects of human collaboration and organisation – sometimes we seem to be retrenching. We seem these days to prefer to emphasize what disunites us rather than what might connect us. Science fiction reflects our times back to us – but can also remind us that the future is not yet fixed. And that once upon a time, we dared to dream of futures which were not constructed upon exclusion and exploitation, but which reached outwards in the hope of collaboration, diversity, and mutual aid. Perhaps one day we will learn this trick again.
Which, for the record (heh), I think is a better version than the original, not in the least because the instrumentation is more on point for the song, and also for whatever it is that Miss Sunny Holiday is doing over there in the corner during the song (yes, I know about the Sheeran/Beyonce version. I like this one better than that one, too).
I hope you’re having a fine Valentine’s Day.
McClatchy Co., one of the nation’s largest newspaper publishers, filed for bankruptcy protection Thursday, another harbinger of America’s deepening local news crisis.
The Chapter 11 filing will allow the Sacramento-based company to keep its 30 newspapers afloat while it reorganizes more than $700 million in debt, 60 percent of which would be eliminated under the plan. If the court approves, it would also hand control of the 163-year-old family publisher to a hedge fund, Chatham Asset Management, its largest creditor.
It makes me sad because McClatchy is the newspaper company that I worked for, way back in the day — it was the owner of the Fresno Bee, which gave me a job as a movie critic and opinion columnist in the early/mid 90s. I was also syndicated through McClatchy’s news service. In my remembrance it was a pretty good company to work for, or, at least, was back in the early-to-mid 90s.
It’s particularly sad that the company will now be controlled by a hedge fund, since historically the hedge fund playbook for newspapers is to buy them and strip them for parts. Some McClatchy papers were already running, shall we say, very lean (I visited the Fresno Bee offices a couple of years ago and the entire newsroom appeared to have shrunk to the size of what the entertainment department was when I was there). I don’t expect that Chatham Asset Management will be exactly staffing up anytime soon.
A sad day, for the newspaper industry and for the folks who work at McClatchy. I would like to think the company will get itself set right again, but, well. I’m not optimistic. We shall see.
Maybe you should think about your life choices, is all I’m saying.
In other news, hi, I just got a haircut.
One of the cliches of the writing life is the writer in their cold garret, scribbling furiously onto pages. As Kelly Braffet tells us in today’s Big Idea, in her case this cliche is not entirely wrong, and also, it led her on the long and strange journey that resulted in her latest novel, The Unwilling.
Modern book promotion goes like this: you write a book. You sell the book. You edit the book within an inch of its life. Then, in the weeks before the book is published, you write essay after essay and Q&A after Q&A for blogs and websites and – basically – anyone who’ll have you. Anything to get your name out there. Lots of the Qs in the Q&As are very similar, and one of the challenges is to come up with fresh answers. Which is to say that I expected to write more than once about crime novels versus fantasy novels, and about working on the same novel for 20 years, coming back to it in free moments like a room you never quite finish painting; and about, oh, I don’t know, systems of magic and research methods and where I get my ideas. (I don’t know if I get them so much as they accrue in the corners of my mind over time, like mental dust bunnies.)
What I didn’t expect to write about was my last college dorm room, not at all – but here I am, about to write about it for the second time in a week, and I guess that’s one of the interesting things about writing in general, that it leads you to unexpected places. That dorm room was where The Unwilling was born, and the first thing to know about it was that it was terrible.
I was a senior, which should have earned me a pretty sweet spot, but I utterly tanked the housing lottery, and I ended up in half of a converted attic in one of the older houses on campus. If I stood in the exact center of it I could almost stand upright. My housemates and I did not actually talk to each other, not because we weren’t all nice people but because they were all friends who’d signed up to live together, and I was the antisocial introvert who lost the housing lottery. In general, I think that living situation can be best summed up by the moment when I ran into a woman at a party who was friends with said housemates.
“So, your whole house has scabies, huh?” she said, and then, horrified by my expression: “Wait – you didn’t know?”
Other things that year were less than ideal. Most of my friends had graduated, and the few that were left weren’t on the campus meal plan, so I either ate solo, which was depressing, or brought sandwiches back to eat in my terrible dorm room. I was also nursing a broken heart, and I stopped sleeping. I knew I was depressed and thought a volunteering gig might help, but the one I found was a long commute away and I didn’t like it as much as I thought I would. Nothing seemed good or hopeful, and there seemed to be no road forward. The only things that brought me solace were video games and reading.
In the middle of all of this, I read a fantasy novel by a writer I liked, and was very disappointed. I can write a better fantasy novel than that, I thought. It’ll be about four people who live alone in a castle after their kingdom collapses. There’ll be a tower. There’ll be a big wall, with a city outside it. At the time, I saw no metaphorical parallels whatsoever between my lonely life at the top of Andrews House behind the wall of my depression and the world that would eventually become that of The Unwilling, where my four characters lived lonely lives in a tower behind a literal Wall. I mean, I see them now. But now I’m 44; then I was 21.
Writers have themes that we go back to, over and over again. The stories all change, but they often tend to nibble around the same central theme, like those pedicure fish that eat the dead skin off your feet. I’m very interested in power, for one thing: all of my books are about people dealing with powerlessness, and the power other people have over them. My second constant theme, though, is identity: who am I? Who do I want to be? Who does the world think I am; who does the world think I should be? I think everyone struggles with this issue; there might be somebody out there who feels absolutely no tension between who they are and who the world expects them to be, but I feel like that would require near-superheroic levels of confidence. Living that way would be pretty great, I suppose, but believe me when I say I wouldn’t know.
I’ve spent twenty years writing The Unwilling. During those twenty years, I’ve written five other novels and published three of them. Through all of it, I’ve come back to this story, these four people stuck behind this wall. Part of the allure is that I love fantasy stories, and have since I could read; also, the tropes of the fantasy genre are uniquely suited to exploring that central question of identity. All of the central characters in The Unwilling are given roles at birth: you are the future City Lord, you are his future wife, you will command the army. My protagonist, Judah, is the only one without a prescribed role, and she suffers for it. The existence of magic is a wild card that gives that otherwise heavily controlled world the potential of breaking wide open.
We don’t have magic, unfortunately. Our only hope of breaking the world wide open is constant, conscious examination of those big questions. Who am I? Who do I want to be? Who does the world think I am? How do I bridge the gap between the two – or do I even want to? This is the biggest question of all, and it’s one we spend our entire lives poking at: in the reading of books, in the writing of books, in terrible little dorm rooms. Wherever we happen to be, whatever we happen to be doing. It’s the question that drives us forward. And I’m sure I’ll come back to it in my next book, and my next.
Whenever I announce or talk about an upcoming book, I often get asked these following questions. I’m answering them here in one place because I get tired of typing the same answers over and over. Now all I have to do is post the URL to this piece! Everyone wins!
When will the book be out? In the absence of me stating it directly, check the pre-order page at your favorite online retailer, which will be posted several months in advance of the publication of the book.
Should I pre-order? If you’re sure you’re going to get the book, it’s a nice way of letting the publisher know there’s interest. While pre-ordering online is usually how people go about doing this, you can pre-order from your local bookseller as well; they will be happy to take your order and have the book for you to pick up on the day of release.
When will the ebook be out? The same day as the print version. These days print and ebook rights are almost always bundled into the same contract; certainly mine are.
Will the ebook have DRM? If the book is from Tor US or Subterranean Press, no. If it’s from some other publisher, maybe. My personal estimation is that DRM is entirely useless, but that doesn’t stop some publishers from having it, so.
When will the audiobook be out? If it’s one of my Tor US novels, the audiobook will be out day and date with the print/ebook release. That’s unlikely to change for the next decade at least. Nearly all of my new fiction through Subterranean Press also tends to have day/date release with print and ebook. My non-fiction books don’t tend to have audio releases and I honestly don’t see that changing anytime soon.
Note: Sometimes I will do an audio-first release (see: the “Dispatcher” series), which means the audio version will be available first, followed by a print release after the audio-exclusive window runs out. That’s usually six months to a year after the audio release.
Will the audiobook have DRM? Probably, since Audible/Amazon seems to like it and Audible is my most frequent audio publisher. Please see above for my opinions about DRM; I would be pleased if my audiobooks didn’t have it and Audible/Amazon knows this. But to date they seem resistant to my arguments on the matter.
Who will narrate the audiobook/will [insert person here] narrate the audiobook? If I haven’t already announced the narrator for the audiobook, it will be either because I don’t know yet, or because I’m not allowed to say yet. I usually announce who the narrator is when I am able.
What version of the book should I get? Honestly I get paid about the same regardless, so get whichever version you like the most — print, eBook or audio.
Will this book/ebook/audiobook be available in [insert country here]? For English language print versions of my novels, they are often available (either in the Tor US or Tor UK versions) via the local instance of Amazon, or you can (probably) special order them from a local bookstore. eBooks are more problematic because there are certain territorial rights involved and honestly it’s very complicated and annoying and I know almost as little about them as you do. English language audio should be available through Audible worldwide.
Will this book/ebook/audiobook be available in [insert non-English language here]? It depends on whether a publisher who puts out books in that language wants to publish it (and wants to publish it in those various formats). I am most reliably published in German, French, Japanese, Hungarian and Spanish; everything else, it depends. Publication in those languages usually happens between six months and two years after the English language version comes out. I have absolutely no control over what books get published in which languages and when they come out.
Will this book/ebook/audiobook be available in my library? Depends.
Print: It depends on whether your library decides to purchase it. If you request it, it is more likely they will purchase it.
eBook: Again your library would have to purchase it (or more accurately, purchase access to it). Some of my publishers have arcane rules in place about how many eBook copies can be in circulation and when. I didn’t make those rules.
Audiobook: Right now Audible doesn’t license audiobooks to libraries. Sorry.
I wish for you to inveigh upon your publishers to change their library access policies and here are several paragraphs — indeed, several pages — why: One, that’s not a question, and two, you can be assured that I have already expressed in no uncertain terms my opinions about library access to my various publishers, and will continue to do so when the occasion arises. With that said, please understand that the weight of my opinion, while not utterly insignificant, is only one datum in a sea of data by which these publishers have come to their current practices. Additionally, at this point you are better off going to them directly with your arguments.
Will there be a movie/TV show/video game/[insert other media type here] of this book? If someone options the book for that medium, then maybe! But they have to be the ones to make an option offer (at which point my team will then evaluate it and decide if we want to be in business with those folks). Even after an option is taken there is still quite a lot of work to be done, and you should know that most options of any sort fail to pan out.
Are you going on tour? Will you come to my town/country? I have generally (but not always) toured the US for my novels, and whether I come to your town is entirely dependent on some entity, usually a bookstore or library, making a bid to have me appear when Tor sends out a tour interest sheet. If the tour has already been announced, it’s almost impossible to add additional cities to the tour, because we’ve already booked flights and made other such arrangements. Also, I don’t tend to tour other countries (most of my foreign publishers don’t wish to spring for the cost of a tour), although I may occasionally show up for a book fair or other such event.
Will you sign/personalize my book? Yes, if you see me on tour or at a convention/book festival, or if you purchase a book from one of the places I go when on tour, or via Jay and Mary’s Book Center in Troy, Ohio, which is my local bookstore. Here are some details on all of that.
I won’t buy your book because [insert reason here]: Again, not a question, and also, I don’t care, although going out of your way to tell me directly that you don’t intend to buy my book(s) may indicate you’re a bit of an attention-seeking dillweed. Work on yourself, please, away from me.
That should hold us for now! I will update this with answers to additional questions when/if needed.
Moving always sucks. But especially when it’s unexpected. Even someone with Chrisjen Avasarala-level planning skills, when faced with an eviction or a sudden breakup, is going to lose a thing or thirty by the time she unpacks the boxes, bags, and bales in the new digs. Somehow, she’ll end up with both copies of Tom Petty’s Wildflowers, no can opener, a single black shoe, two years of Yankee-Swap gifts, and the bad phone charger. It can be a new home, but it’s never the same home, and it’s going to take a while to get comfortable.
That’s the big idea I kept in the crosshairs while I wrote The Light Years, which is springing from the presses at Angry Robot Books this month. In the book, which is set a mere thousand years from now, Earth has burned to a cinder and humanity is no longer living there. Generation ships, hibernation pods, and a little faster-than-light-travel for the well-to-do have given the species a fresh start, and after several hundred years in survival mode, things are settling into the new normal. There’s finally time for a few luxuries. They can begin unpacking the box marked “The Humanities.”
Naturally, time and travel left big gaping holes in all the packing boxes, and even with the best intentions, there was no escaping Earth without leaving a lot behind. There was data loss at every point in the exodus.
After all, the statue Winged Victory of Samothrace was so very, very heavy. It was carefully scanned, of course, along with The Mona Lisa and Starry, Starry Night. The Google Books servers were uploaded to the ship-based computers, along with as much of the Library of Congress as could be digitized and everything on Spotify and iTunes. All the shows on the streaming services came along, all the memes on Twitter, all the approved YouTube videos, even the ones being made right… now. I mean, now.
Is it still a work of art if the original no longer exists? That’s something the Earth refugees will no doubt want to debate later, after they’ve built the infrastructure of a new civilization. People with the means will debate it, I mean. Philosophy and classical studies will be luxuries for quite some time, I’m afraid.
The richer countries were better represented on the What-To-Bring-To-The-New-World Committees, which could explain the loss of so much non-Western art and culture. There was a representative sampling collected, but with only a generation or so to plan, sacrifices had to be made. And was it such a loss? If no one had made a parody or dorm-room poster of it by 2050 or so, how relevant could it be?
Hey, you know how after a breakup you tend to go through Facebook and Instagram to get rid of the pictures of your ex? There was a similar move to tidy up history and culture for posterity. No one remembers which version of Huckleberry Finn made the cut, and there are numerous books and films mentioned in the archives that were judged unworthy for inclusion. (However, the director’s cuts of Bloodsport, Home Alone 2, and Zoolander were carefully curated so that future audiences could enjoy them.) In a different political climate, different decisions might have been made, but that’s democracy for you.
Many of the recorded histories reflected poorly on the countries working so hard and spending so much money on the fleet of colony ships, so the rougher parts got sanded smooth or trimmed away. There was little political will to bring the mistakes of the past into the new future.
Science and tech? They brought everything relevant, of course. Every theory. Every paper. Every debunked anti-vaccination and Intelligent Design study. All those adverts about crystals and CBD oil. It was far easier just to bring everything then to engage in politically divisive debates over facts and merit, and the really important bits were locked away under patent and copyright and statutes of secrecy.
What else was there to pack? Pictures and videos of beautiful places. A recording of the mating calls of loons. The sound of a busy street in Manhattan. Genetic samples (but there was no way to get samples of everything) and seeds. A few, small personal items.
More data was lost in transit. Most of the Earth’s citizenry traveled frozen or in massive generation ships, but representatives and build teams from the greater nations had faster means. They got to the new worlds first to make them ready and, as was their due, claim the best spots. They set the rules, created the social system, and decided what was cool long before the other refugees arrived. Family recipes were modified for available resources, and soon no one remembered what a real meal from the Old Country tasted like.
Remember how the old iPod shuffle algorithm was only pseudo-random? That’s also how the bowdlerized, gerrymandered version of the Sum Total of Human Knowledge contained in the colony ships’ computers worked. Stuff that people wanted to find got stored at the top, search-engine-optimized and nicely cross-referenced with keywords. Other stuff was never seen again, like that song from that album that never shows up on your playlist. It’s still there in the depths, where even the nerdiest of the data-spiders never go. (Somehow, though, “Friends” made it into the zeitgeist again. Go figure.)
And, thus, a new civilization (and book) was made from what we carried from the old.
Most anyone who has taken a creative-writing class has been asked to consider the following prompt: Assuming friends, family, and pets are safe, what is the one thing your protagonist would grab whilst fleeing his or her burning house? A rational character would, of course, grab the perfect, narratively-useful, archetype-defining thing for its creator to use. However, rational behavior is a lot to expect out of someone in panicked flight, and I expect most civilizations, most lives–real or imagined–are made and remade from those off shoes, duplicate CDs, unfilled needs, and broken pieces.
The picture above is not exactly the sexiest photo I’ve ever taken, but it’s notable in that it represents the furthest up I’ve been able to raise my left arm for several months. That’s because at the moment I have a physical condition known as adhesive capsulitis (more commonly known as “frozen shoulder”), which restricts my arm mobility quite a bit. As physical conditions go, it’s more annoying than anything else; it’s not great not being able to lift your arm past a certain level, but given my life and profession, it’s not the end of the world.
Still, it does come with pain and there are certain things that are more difficult to do, including commonplace activities like putting one’s carry-on into an overhead bin. It can and does eventually go away on its own, but that takes a couple of years, so today I went for a consult with an orthopedic surgeon to see if there’s anything that could be done to shorten up that progression.
The doctor’s answer: A shot of (I think) steroids into my shoulder, to reduce inflammation and pain and to help loosen things up. It’s done the last of these to some extent — again, this is as far up as I’ve gotten my arm in a long time. The fact the shot featured two different types of novocaine so I’m not feeling a ton of pain when I’m hauling my arm up probably helps a bit, too. I’ll be scheduling physical therapy as well and will be going back in about six weeks to see how things are.
In the meantime: Wheee! Go, arm, go!
I started writing No Parking because of a chicken wrap.
No, seriously. A new restaurant came to town, and they make a killer shawarma. I was eating a chicken shawarma wrap, and I was listening to a customer complain about our full parking lot, and inspiration struck.
Set in a small town southwest of Boston and southeast of Worcester, not quite making the metro area for either, the town of Swanley is struggling to figure out just what community means and who it’s for. Is it the descendants of the settlers that built the town, the commuters looking for an affordable house in exchange for a longer train ride to work, immigrants seeking a fresh start in a quiet place, the kids who grew up wanting to leave and still somehow stuck around? Ultimately, how can all these groups work together to make a place they all can be proud of and want to live?
I’ve lived in Massachusetts for nearly fifteen years, and every town I’ve lived in I’ve tried to be a part of the community by joining groups, volunteering, being a poll worker, and meeting my neighbors. I’ve always been someone who jumps in with both feet in a new place, for better or for worse; I love town politics and neighborhood associations and anywhere where people who live in close proximity are forced to come even closer together and work out their issues in front of all their neighbors. It’s like a locked-room bottle episode, but the tension’s sometimes wound even tighter.
I see this every day at the Post Office. I work in a small town southeast of Boston, not too far from where the town of Swanley would be. I see so many ways the community rubs up against itself every day in line (and in the certified letters people send each other… honestly, you don’t spend six years working for the post office if you’re not at least a little bit nosy). But I also see the way it can be beautiful. I see condolence cards and wedding invitations, Bar Mitzvah invitations going out to hundreds around the world and postcards crossing back and forth across a mile of town. I’ve watched all the little old houses get knocked down, and huge new ones put up–and seen the fights over the affordable housing and senior living communities when those go up instead.
Watching a town fight itself from a working class town to a tech-startup-filled suburb of the upper middle class has been fascinating, especially since many of the million dollar houses are now owned by the kids of the carpenters and train conductors and beat cops who lived there decades ago. When a town changes, people change with it–some of them, anyway. The question remains, though, of whether it’s the same town at all at the end of it.
Swanley is a town in transition, too, and the key conflict of the novel ultimately breaks down to that question. Who is a community for, and who gets to determine what that community means? Marianne Windmere, the main character of No Parking, has watched her town grow and change over sixty years, and she’s not sure if she’s ever fit in. But sometimes we don’t realize what we have until it’s threatened. Marianne doesn’t know if she loves Swanley. But she’s willing to find out. Because it’s the place that loves her, that knows her, and it’s where the people she loves are all tied together in their own ways. It’s home.
And where does her queer community fit in in a small town? This question, at least, I can answer. Because queer people find each other. These characters–bi, ace, trans, pan, gay, and lesbian characters all find their place in No Parking’s Swanley–and their relationships are woven deeply into the heart of Swanley and the heart of No Parking. We build our own community inside the larger one, and in a healthy community, that building continues outward and upward to fight for other marginalized groups just as hard as they fight for their own.
No Parking has, at its heart, a queer love story, but that’s merely the core of a series of interconnected love stories: a woman falling back in love with her town, the platonic love left behind after the romance has cooled and the relationship ended, and the love of the family you don’t realize you’re building.
“Oh, posh, what could possibly go wrong eating an entire jar of emulsified oil?”
Sometimes storytellers miss out on telling a story. But as Jim Ottaviani and Maris Wicks learned with Astronauts: Women on the Final Frontier, that just means that some stories, you get to come back to.
Astronauts started on the cutting room floor of another book. More than ten years ago I wrote a graphic novel about the 1960s space race. In the course of doing research for that book (T-Minus), I came across the story of thirteen women pilots who took — and passed — the rigorous physical tests NASA gave the first astronaut candidates that made you shudder and cringe when you watched The Right Stuff.
We all know what didn’t happen next, and I know a good story when I stumble over it, but with only 124 pages to get readers from the dawn of rocketry to landing on the Moon I couldn’t fit that story into that first book.
This happens all the time, and I’ve learned over the years to not just wipe a tear of regret from the corner of my eye and move on. I set the story aside, knowing I would come back to it. And here we are!
But I don’t think having more than a dozen main characters works well outside of sprawling, multi-volume fantasy or science fiction epics, and besides, the Mercury 13 are only the beginning of this chapter of the Space Age. So when I came back to it I needed to find a focal character, and I decided that it should be somebody that wasn’t famous.
Not that Sally Ride’s story isn’t great. It is. So is Valentina Tereshkova’s. (Not to mention the bit where Star Trek’s Nichelle Nichols, who appears in the book as well, plays a key role in NASA’s astronaut recruitment.) But the more I thought about it, the more I realized how much more fun it is to discover someone new, and that the story itself would work better for me — and you, I hope! — if I made the famous people supporting characters.
Because that’s how real life is for most of us.
How to find her, though? Well, the great thing about NASA is they document everything, so I got to spend weeks pretending to work while really I was just having a ball reading oral histories of women astronauts, looking for someone who both witnessed and made history. And hey, if I ran across a person who sounded like they’d be fun to meet, that’d be a bonus. I did, and her name is Mary Cleave.
She’s been to space! She’s been the boss of NASA’s science directorate, deciding which robots go to space! She has a great sense of humor, which comes through even when interviewed by a deadpan and serious historian! So I started learning more, and working up the nerve to contact her directly. I eventually got her on the phone to pitch her the idea of doing a comic book about her, her colleagues, and doing in science in space.
Over the years people have asked me about that “comics about science” thing a lot, but there’s one group that never questions the idea. That’s people like Mary — the scientists and engineers themselves. They think and communicate visually, so they get it. What a lot of them don’t get (Stephen Hawking was an exception) is why I’d want to write about them in the first place, and why it takes me weeks to draft the initial letter asking them if they’d be interested. Mary was the same: When Maris and I went to visit she couldn’t figure out why everyone’s so impressed by meeting astronauts, or why we thought it was weird to have one offer to pick you up at the airport. “We’re just regular people!”
Well. Sorry, but I don’t buy that. Astronauts are competent and accomplished to a degree you and I can barely even imagine. But still, there’s something to what she said, since the famous and not-so-famous astronauts I’ve been lucky enough to meet are indeed people you can just talk to. Hang out with. Maybe even join at a pub where George Washington and Ben Franklin talked and hung out and had beers, and have some yourselves.
I didn’t have a beer during our first visit with Mary (I was driving) but next time? Heck yeah. And in the meantime Maris and I got to make a book with an astronaut, and maybe help make Mary Cleave a little more famous.
Late last month writer Alex Christofi posted a tweet about how he would physically cut long books in half to make them more “portable,” thus revealing himself as history’s worst monster, and also, starting up an internet conversation about how people treat their books. This has lead Slate to reprint an essay by Anne Fadiman about how people love their books — either in a “courtly” fashion (i.e., treating them respect and sometimes reverence) or in a “carnal” fashion (i.e., they’re physical objects meant to be used, so use them, up to and including dog earing them, cracking their spines or even slicing them in half). I’ve never come across this essay before, but I had a complex response to it when I read it, so I want to talk about it a little bit.
The first thing I should note is that I am heavily — heavily — in the camp that treats books carefully, if not actually “reverently.” I think books are practical things, meant to be used; if I buy one for myself, it’s because I’m going to open it up and read it, and I’m not going to worry too much if while reading it I ding a corner or fox a cover or whatever. At the same time, if I’ve purchased a book, I intend to keep it, and I’m going to treat it well, to the point that I suspect that for many people who look at the books I’ve had for years, they might suspect that I haven’t opened them up at all. I have. I’m just… careful.
You might think this is because I’m a writer myself, but that isn’t it, not exactly. It’s more to do with being a reader, and my own personal background. I grew up poor and had a lot of books that came to me secondhand and in various states of repair, so I learned early on that if I didn’t want a book to fall apart on me, I had to be careful with it. Likewise, most of my books were paperbacks, whose durability was easily compromised if one was not careful. The books that weren’t mine were usually library books, which I also treated carefully lest I incur the wrath of a librarian. Finally — look, they’re books. Books did amazing things and told you cool stuff. They deserved not to be treated like crap. All of this went into the pot with regard to how I formed my physical relationship with books.
This is why, if you ever see a paperback I own, it looks, if not pristine, at least very well kept. None of my paperbacks have broken spines (unless they came to me already broken) or dogeared pages, and very few have creased covers. College textbooks I’ve kept are unmarked with notes; I would have dorm mates ask to borrow my books, convinced they would chock full of useful highlights and margin notes, and were confused and I suspect in a couple of cases actually offended when neither of those were on the pages. My hardcovers are likewise generally mar-and-mark free. Again, if I drop or bump a book while I’m reading it and it gets a crease or smudge on it, I’m not going to freak out; it’s a book and it’s meant to be used and things like that happen. But there’s a difference between wear and tear happening because you’re using a material object as intended, and wear and tear happening because you’re going out of your way to damage the object.
Which brings us back to Fadiman’s essay, where she talks about people tearing, marking, and even physically destroying books as they consume the words inside them, not because they are (to their mind) disrespecting the book, but rather they are using the book as they see it ought to be used, and their relationship to the book and its permanence is different. If you consider a paperback as cheap and eminently disposable, for example, what does it matter if you rip out the chapters as you go along? It’s just a paperback book. If you want to re-read the book later, you can just get another cheap paperback copy. Likewise dogearing, highlighting, cracking spines and all the other things people do to their books — far less dramatic than physically tearing the book apart, but still.
And… I guess? I should be very clear that you should treat your own books as you will, and I will absolutely not judge you for it: At signings people come up to me with worn books and apologize for them even as they ask me to sign them, and I tell them, sincerely, that I am never offended by a well-loved book. It’s not disrespectful to read a book so much it falls apart; pretty much the opposite, really. But I literally don’t think I could get one of my own books to that particular state of repair. I don’t know that I have it in me to let a book get to that point — much less intentionally and with forethought take a book and slice it in half, just to make it easier to carry around. I just cannot even imagine doing that. To be any more alien to my own mindset, you’d probably have to be from Mars.
(And if you do terrible things to books that are not your own… well. Many years ago, a friend noted I had two unmarred paperback copies of the novelization of the movie Stargate, and after mocking me for having them at all (I had gotten one of them as part of the press pack for the movie junket; I have no idea where the other had come from) he took one of them and cracked its spine. And yes, it was a duplicate, and yes, it wasn’t the greatest novel ever written, and yes, this person is an otherwise kind and decent person who lives a good life and is kind to pets and children. Nevertheless it is forever a black mark in the annals of their life and I will judge them for it until the heat death of the universe, so there.)
I don’t have any great insights to offer here other than to note that Fadiman’s distinction between courtly and carnal book lovers has caused me to consider that people who mangle their books might not love those books (or the ideas in them) any less than I do, which is an idea that makes me intensely uncomfortable because you just don’t do that to books damn it. But I guess some people do. I don’t understand it. I can’t endorse it. The best I can do is almost unwillingly begrudge that she may — may — have a point. And I hate it.
I told him not to stay up for the Iowa results, but would he listen? Noooooo.
(I sent this picture to Krissy this morning and she immediately called to see if he was okay. He’s fine. I just caught him in an awkward moment.)
The paths we walk in our lives are not necessarily straight and narrow, and in writing her new novel, author Juliette Wade found she needed another metaphor entirely to explain her character’s movements. In this Big Idea, Wade explains on why the metaphor she landed on was Mazes of Power.
This is the story of a very old, and very big idea. When I first had it, I was thirteen years old, and the idea was so big that I couldn’t even wrap my mind around it. It was the idea for a world of cavern cities, where families were restricted in their professions, and about conflicts of power… but until I’d turned this idea over hundreds of times, over years, it always seemed out of my grasp. I learned about anthropology, and added a new social awareness to my idea, and realized it was for a work of sociological science fiction. I studied linguistics, and added that, too. I tried to write a story about it, knew it was wrong, and learned more, and wrote it again. I concentrated hard on learning how language and the world around us reflect our concepts of our social selves, and wrote it again.
Until it stopped being wrong, and became the world of Varin.
Varin has a caste system. This caste system has seven levels. It’s easy to think of such a system as a set of boxes, and to think that nobles go in one box, soldiers and police in another, servants in another, then artisans, laborers, merchants, and undercaste. But there came a point when I realized these were not boxes. In a real social system, all kinds of people are born into categories where they don’t necessarily fit. While they may be taught who they are, what their values are, and what they are supposed to be like, often, they struggle. People at every level will make bargains between their personal truths and the demands of society. They will use what power they can wrest from the world around them to achieve their ends. They will make the choices that become available to them.
Societal categories like these are not boxes. They are mazes.
What are the key properties of a maze? A maze is complex. It offers paths, but the pattern of these paths is difficult to see while you are moving through it. It appears to offer you choices, but at the same time, limits the choices you can productively make if you wish to achieve a particular goal.
There are three mazes in Mazes of Power.
The first maze is the competition for Heir to the Throne of Varin. Twelve boys enter, one from each of the Great Families of the Grobal nobility. Each travels a path through public events, interviews, deals, trials, and assassination attempts, trying to reach the center where only one may stand.
The second maze is the tangle of servants’ hallways that run behind the walls of the Eminence’s Residence. Imbati-caste servants, who must not hurry in the public halls where nobles might see them, are allowed to run there. They know the fastest ways from place to place, and they use speakers to listen in on the talk in public rooms, to know when to appear when they are needed, or to learn secrets no one realizes they possess.
The third maze is the society itself. Every person in Varin is born into a path they cannot see, and cannot choose. Some of those paths run through public places, and others through hidden places. Within these paths, the people of Varin make choices, as we make choices, but the choices they make are limited by the larger structure of the society around them. Expectations are set and reinforced, and there are consequences for breaking them. No person, no setting, no interaction exists outside this system. Nothing is untouched.
If you are a Varini, this structure limits you, but it also protects you, because it tells you who you should expect to see in the street, in the marketplace, or at the radiograph office. It tells you what you should say to a person with a green lower lip who wears a gray coat, or to a woman in rust-red, or to a man with a black tattoo on his forehead. It keeps you safe and holds you up, but it also restricts you and presses you down.
Varin was designed to be unlike our world in a great many ways, and to break our Earthly expectations, but it should feel very familiar.
After all, we all walk within mazes of power.
Look, I know you people adore Smudge, but as a still-young male cat, he’s got a lot of “asshole” in him that he hasn’t completely got out of his system yet. And the time he likes to burn through some of that is roughly between the hours of 2 am and 5 am. Which means from time to time it sounds like the house is being ransacked, when it’s just him having his evening constitutional and/or annoying one of the other cats in the house. It’s a known issue and time will sort it out. In the meantime, however, there are occasional text exchanges like this one, from one side of the house to the other. This is what you get for having cats, basically.
As we bid adieu to January of 2020, let’s send it off with this hefty stack of new books and ARCs that have arrived at the Scalzi Compound. What here would you like to greet February with? Tell us all in the comments!
She’s got a baby and she’s a got a cat, and she’s clearly pleased about both. Hope your day found you in a happy place as well.
Over the holidays, I saw that people were doing a thing where they left out snacks for the folks delivering their various gifts and packages, on the principle that a) ’twas the season and b) delivery people were working long hours and deserved some appreciation. I thought this was a nice idea, and joined in on the “snacks for holiday delivery folks” bandwagon.
After the holidays passed, most people’s delivery frequency goes down, but as it turns out mine doesn’t — because I am getting books and other things sent to me on a constant basis, delivery people show up on my doorstep daily. So I decided that I’m going to make the “snacks for delivery folks” thing a permanent feature; the photo above is today’s refresh of the snack basket. We’ll also have it for people who show up to do work at the house and so on; basically, if you’re doing us a service, please feel free to have some Funyuns or cheese crackers or mini Moon Pies, and maybe a bottle of water, too.
It’s not a big thing, but I think it’s a thing worth doing. Any opportunity to show appreciation for the things people do for you is worth taking. This doesn’t cost me much — I figure it sets me back maybe $20 a month — and I know the delivery folks like it. Thus the world becomes a marginally nicer place. Not a bad return on the investment.
I’ve not been writing on politics nearly as much as I have in previous times, in part because in this age of obvious corruption and complicity, I find it difficult and wearying, without the motivating prod of actually being paid for it, to write anything that I haven’t already said in broad and unambiguous terms.
That being said, I understand it’s useful from time to time to keep people up to date on these matters so they don’t have to go rummaging through the archives to find my thoughts. And thus: Brief statements on current political thoughts. In no particular order:
1. The president is the worst president of my lifetime, who is ignorant, bigoted, incurious, corrupt, has almost certainly engaged in criminal conduct before and after he was in office, is either a complicit or unwitting tool for the Russian government and its goals, never should have been in a position to become president, and now that he is president, should be removed from the office, whether through a Senate trial or simply by losing the popular (again) and electoral vote later this year.
2. Per the previous, the president amply deserved to be impeached by the House of Representatives, and amply deserves to be removed from the office he holds by the Senate. That he will not be removed, and that the vote for removal will not be anywhere near to close, is proof that the current iteration of the Republican party is complicit in the president’s criminality and has become little better than a criminal enterprise in itself.
3. Among the current Democratic candidates for president, I currently favor Elizabeth Warren and if I were a Democrat, would likely vote for her in the Ohio primary. With that said, all of the current Democratic candidates for president are substantially better than the current president (even Tulsi Gabbard, who I find deeply problematic but has no chance of being president, so I’m not going to worry much about her), so no matter which of them makes it through the primary process, I will be voting for them in November. Given the realities of our binary political system, anyone who says they oppose Trump but is not willing to vote for whoever it is that is on the Democratic side of the ballot in November is a complicit tool of Trump and the Republicans.
4. Foreign and domestic interests are currently doing as much as possible to suppress the vote of non-Trump supporters, online and offline. Register to vote, check that your registration is current if you did register, and be aware that all those highly clickable and repostable memes are designed to make you angry, confused, susceptible to misinformation and a vector for spreading misinformation to others. You should be smarter than that, and you should frustrate the people who do not want you to cast your ballot in November.
Aaaaand that should cover it for now, I think? Mind you, I might still write more about politics here if the mood strikes me, because that’s how this site works. But if I don’t, this is my current state of thinking. It’s not complicated! But in times like this, where one of the two major parties of the country is so wholly engaged in criminality and complicity, I think that’s fine.