“Straight White Male: The Lowest Difficulty Setting,” Ten Years On

John Scalzi

Ten years ago this week I thought I would write a piece to offer a useful metaphor for straight white male privilege without using the word “privilege,” because when you use the word “privilege,” straight white men freak out, like, I said then, “vampires being fed a garlic tart.” Since I play video games, I wrote the piece using them as a metaphor. And thus “Straight White Male: The Lowest Difficulty Setting There Is” was born and posted.

And blew up: First here on Whatever, where it became the most-visited single post in the history of the site (more than 1.2 million visits to date), and then when it was posted on video gaming site Kotaku, where I suspect it was visited a multiple number of times more than it was visited here, because Kotaku has more visitors generally, and because the piece was heavily promoted and linked there. 

The piece received both praise and condemnation, in what felt like almost equal amounts (it wasn’t; it’s just the complainers were very loud, as they often are). To this day the piece is still referred and linked to, taught in schools and universities, and “living on the lowest difficulty setting” is used as a shorthand for the straight white male experience, including by people who don’t know where the phrase had come from.

(I will note here, as I often do when discussing this piece, that my own use of the metaphor was an expansion on a similar metaphor that writer Luke McKinney used in a piece on Cracked.com, when he noted that “straight male” was the lowest difficulty setting in sexuality. Always credit sources and inspirations, folks!)

In the ten years since I’ve written the piece, I’ve had a lot of time to think about it, the response to it, and whether the metaphor still applies. And so for this anniversary, here are some further thoughts on the matter.

1. First off: Was the piece successful? In retrospect, I think it largely was. One measure of its success, as noted above, is its persistence; it’s still read and talked about and taught and used. Anecdotally, I have hundreds of emails from people who used it to explain privilege to others and/or had it used to explain privilege to them, and who say that it did what it was meant to do: Get through the already-erected defenses against the word “privilege” and convey the concept in an interesting and novel manner. So: Hooray for that. It is always good to be useful.

2. That said, Upton Sinclair once wrote that “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.” In almost exactly the same manner, it is difficult to get a straight white man to acknowledge his privileges when his self-image depends on him not doing so. Which is to say there is a very large number of straight white men who absolutely do not wish to acknowledge just how thoroughly and deeply their privileges are systemically embedded into day-to-day life. A fair number of this sort of dude read the piece (or more perhaps more accurately, read the headline, since a lot of their specific complaints about the piece were in fact addressed in the piece itself) and refused to entertain the notion there might be something to it. Which is their privilege (heh), but doesn’t make them right.

But, I mean, as a straight white dude, I totally get it! I also work hard and make an effort to get by, and in my life not all the breaks have gone my way. I too have suffered disappointment and failure and exclusion and difficulty. In the context of a life where people who are not straight white men are perhaps not in your day-to-day world view, except as abstractions mediated by television or radio or web sites, one’s own struggles loom large. It’s harder to conceive of, or sympathize with, the idea that one’s own struggles and disappointments are resting atop of a pile of systemic privilege — not in the least because that implicitly seems to suggest that if you can still have troubles even with those many systemic advantages, you might be bad at this game called life.

But here’s the thing about that. One, just because you can’t or won’t see the systemic advantages you have, it doesn’t mean you don’t still have them, relative to others. Two, it’s a reflection of how immensely fucked up the system is that even with all those systemic advantages, lots of straight white men feel like they’re just treading water. Yes! It’s not just you! This game of life is difficult! Like Elden Ring with a laggy wireless mouse and a five-year-old graphics card! And yet, you are indeed still playing life on the lowest difficulty setting! 

Maybe rather than refusing to accept that other people are playing on higher difficulty settings, one should ask who the hell decided to make the game so difficult for everyone right out of the box (hint: they’re largely in the same demographic as straight white men), and how that might be changed. But of course it’s simply just easy to deny that anyone else might have a more challenging life experience than you have, systemically speaking. 

3. Speaking of “easy,” one of the problems that the piece had is that when I wrote the phrase “lowest difficulty,” lots of people translated that to “easy.” The two concepts are not the same, and the difference between the two is real and significant. Which is, mind you, why I used the phrase “lowest difficulty” and not “easy.” But if you intentionally or unintentionally equate the two, then clearly there’s an issue to be had with the piece. I do suspect a number of dudes intentionally equated the two, even when it was made clear (by me, and others) they were not the same. I can’t do much for those dudes, then or now.

4. When I wrote the piece, some folks chimed in to say that other factors deserved to be part of a “lowest difficulty setting,” with “wealth” being primary among them. At the time I said I didn’t think wealth should have been; it’s a stat in my formulation — hugely influential, but not an inherent feature of identity like being white, or straight, or male. This got a lot of pushback, in no small part because (and relating to point two above) I think a lot of straight white dudes believed that if wealth was in there, it would somehow swamp the privileges that being white and straight and male provide, and that would mean that everyone else’s difficulty setting was no more difficult than their own.

It’s ten years on now, and I continue to call bullshit on this. I’ve been rich and I’ve been poor and I’ve been in the middle, and in all of those economic states I still had and have systemic advantages that came with being white and straight and male. Yes, being wealthy does make life less difficult! But on the other hand being wealthy (and an Oscar winner) didn’t keep Forest Whitaker from being frisked in a bodega for alleged shoplifting, whereas I have never once been asked to empty my pockets at a store, even when (as a kid, and poor as hell) I was actually shoplifting. This is an anecdotal observation! Also, systemically, wealth insulates people who are not straight and white and male less than it does those who are. Which means, to me, I put it in the right place in my formulation.

5. What would I add into the inherent formulation ten years on? I would add “cis” to “straight” and “white” and “male.” One, because I understand the concept better than than I did in 2012 and how it works within the matrix of privilege, and two, in the last decade, more of the people I know and like and love have come out as being outside of standard-issue cis-ness (or were already outside of it when I met them during this period), and I’ve seen directly how the world works on and with them. 

So, yes: Were I writing that piece for the first time in 2022, I would have written “Cis Straight White Male: The Lowest Difficulty Setting There Is.” 

6. Ten years of time has not mitigated the observation about who is on the Lowest Difficulty Setting, especially here in the United States. Indeed, if anything, 2022 in the US has been about (mostly) straight white men nerfing the fuck out of everyone else in the land in order to maintain their own systemic advantages. Oh, you’re not white? Let’s pass laws to make sure an accurate picture of your historical treatment is punted out of schools and libraries, and the excuse we’ll give is that learning these things would be mean to white kids. You’re LGBTQ+? Let’s pass laws so that a teacher even mentioning you exist could get them fired. Trans? Let’s take away your rights for gender-affirming medical treatment. Have functional ovaries? We’re planning to let your rapist have more say in what happens to your body than you! Have a blessed day!

And of course hashtag not all straight white men, but on the other hand let’s not pretend we don’t know who is largely responsible for this bullshit. The Republican party of the United States is overwhelmingly straight, overwhelmingly white, and substantially male, and here in 2022 it is also an unabashedly white supremacist political party, an authoritarian party and a patriarchal party: mainstream GOP politicians talk openly about the unspeakably racist and anti-Semitic “Great Replacement Theory,” and about sending people who have abortions to prison, and are actively making it more difficult for minorities to vote. It’s largely assumed that once the conservative supermajority of the Supreme Court (very likely as of this writing) throws out Roe v. Wade, it’ll go after Obergefell (same-sex marriage) as soon as a challenge gets to them, and then possibly Griswold (contraception) and Loving (mixed-race marriage) after that. Because, after all, why stop at Roe when you can roll civil rights back to the 1950s at least?

What makes this especially and terribly ironic is that when game designers nerf characters, they’re usually doing it to bring balance to the game — to put all the characters on something closer to an even playing field. What’s happening here in 2022 isn’t about evening up the playing field. It’s to keep the playing field as uneven as possible, for as long as possible, for the benefit of a particular group of people who already has most of the advantages. 2022 is straight white men employing code injection to change the rules of the game, while it’s in process, to make it more difficult for everyone else. 

So yes, ten years on, the Lowest Difficulty Setting still applies. It’s as relevant as ever. And I’m sure, even now, a bunch of straight white men will still maintain it’s still not accurate. As they would have been in 2012, they’re entirely wrong about that. 

And what a privilege that is: To be completely wrong, and yet suffer no consequences for it. 

— JS

And We’re Back

Athena ScalziHello, everyone! Thank you all so much for the warm welcome back to the site! I am thrilled to be back (even if I don’t act that way at the staff meetings). I was excited to begin with, but all your kind comments have really made me look forward to being on the blog this summer! I truly appreciate each and every one of you.

In fact, I’d like to address a few comments in particular, starting with everyone that asked about my snack box reviews. As much as I loved Sakuraco and thoroughly enjoyed each box over the past year, I decided that one year was long enough and unsubscribed from them back in March. I found that there are only so many different types of authentic Japanese tea time snacks to be had, and I feel that I have certainly had plenty for the time being.

However, because so many people seem to like the snack boxes post (and because I myself love snacks), I have decided to try a new snack box for the summer! Which one will it be? Stay tuned and find out!

Aside from snack box reviews, I will also be doing my usual variety of entertainment and product reviews, as well as personal essays, and basically whatever else I feel like talking about. I will say I do have a few special ideas up my sleeve for this summer, but I shan’t reveal too much just yet.

I also wanted to take this time to mention that I was so excited to meet so many of y’all on the JoCo cruise back in March. Meeting you fine folks in person was really awesome, and as always I am genuinely grateful for your readership and overall kindness.

So, thanks for being here with me as I get back into the swing of things. I hope you enjoy all that is to come. I know I will!

-AMS

The Big Idea: Jeff Macfee

Life is full of choices… and not all choices will make you happy. But they might move the plot along. In today’s Big Idea for Nine Tenths, author Jeff Macfee talks about choices and protagonists and how the matters how the latter performs the former.

JEFF MACFEE:

Most of us live on the edges.

There are plenty of “big character” stories, and I love to read those. A prophesied hero at the center of the adventure. Wonder Woman. Indiana Jones. Ethan Hunt. The one human with a particular set of skills.

But I love to write about characters on the edges. The people who typically live outside the limelight. Wonder Woman’s mechanic. Indiana Jones’s barber. The barista who makes Ethan Hunt’s coffee before Ethan runs off to save the world. I’ve got more room to explore on the edges, creatively. The barrier to entry is low—I’m a guy on the edges. I work in IT, a career that rarely translates to the spotlight, at least not in any realistic sense. I can empathize with someone who doesn’t have the complete grab-bag of skills for a center-stage adventure. And how would they react if adventure came their way? They might persevere, plenty of every-day heroes do. But folks on the edges are going to make more human choices. Sometimes more selfish, impetuous choices. Every now and again, the wrong choice. And how do those wrong choices haunt them?

The “hero” of Nine Tenths is Gayle Harwood, a repoman just doing his job. Only his job happens to be repossessing the powered trinkets of augments, or super-powered individuals. His life is messy. He’s divorced, he’s got a sick kid, his business just gets by, and he’s made suspect choices. Despite personal and professional failures, he’s trying. I can relate. Failing to see your own weaknesses and shortcomings, until hit in the face with them, speaks to me quite a bit. A bit of the author leaked into this equation, for sure. Hopefully that connection, the empathy I’d have for such a person, strengthened the character and the book.

I’m not a genius, as anyone who knows me will attest. I didn’t nail the dynamics in draft one. In early drafts, Gayle made suspect choices and no one confronted him. Thankfully, I have a smart agent, some perceptive first readers, and real life to educate me. In later drafts I surrounded Gayle with friends, work acquaintances, and enemies who called him out on his mistakes. Some kindly, some not so kindly. Mak, his partner, is especially skilled at bringing Gayle down to earth. She’s got her own problems, but like any good friend, she’s too comfortable in the relationship to hold back. And, as throughout the book, there’s consequences for all involved.

Nine Tenths is the story of a man coming to grips with his choices, in messy ways. It just so happens he does that in the shadow of people who can lift cars and walk through walls. Gayle’s life ultimately reflects his choices, good and bad. My two cents—you can write protagonists who don’t always make the likable choice. The key lies not so much in doling out punishment, but in delivering consequences. Get away with a crime, make some money, but lose a friend. Make an immoral choice and profit, but sleep fitfully from then on out. For fiction at least, there’s interest when there’s cost.

I speak in definites as if that’s how fiction always works. As I mentioned above, I’m as fallible as my characters. Take the above with a grain of salt.

And if you’re going to steal Batman’s Batmobile, make sure he’s asleep first.


Nine Tenths: Amazon|Barnes&Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

Whatever News: The Return of Athena

Athena Scalzi! Picture taken today.

A housekeeping note that makes me pretty happy: Athena is coming returning to the regular rotation here at Whatever, for the summer at least. You can expect more of her particular brand of writing, with reviews of products and entertainment, personal essays and various other things she’s thinking about and wants to share. You know, whatever’s on her mind.

I’m happy about this because aside from making sure there’s new and interesting writing here, as a reader I enjoy her writing. Yes, I’m biased. Also, it’s good stuff independent of my bias. I know many of you were also wondering if she’d pop up again here; now you know. As noted, right now it’s for the summer, and after that we’ll see where things take us.

Seeing that Athena is returning on a regular basis, we’ll once again be posting our byline photos for our individual posts, just to be clear who is writing what. The exceptions to this will be Big Idea and New Books/ARCs posts, and very brief posts (one paragraph or less) where it doesn’t make sense to add those pictures in. With the super-short posts, we’ll add our initials at the bottom (and as always our actual names will populate up at top).

Welcome back, Athena! It’s good to have you back.

— JS

This Cat Represents Where My Brain Is At This Friday Afternoon

Seriously, I could so totally take a nap right now. Maybe I will!

But before I do, a reminder to people in and around Chicago that I am taking part in the American Writer’s Festival this this weekend, specifically on Sunday, where I will be interviewed by my friend and noted SF/F editor Michi Trota. We’ll talk about The Kaiju Preservation Society, writing, and other cool stuff. The festival is free, so make time in your schedule for it.

Yup, that’s it. Enjoy the rest of your Friday, folks, and the weekend as well.

— JS

The Big Idea: David Towsey

There are times when you feel not quite yourself, and David Towsey gets what you mean. In fact, in Equinox, you could say he’s written a book in which not being quite yourself — just like everybody else — is a remarkably common occurrence.

DAVID TOWSEY:

Most of us have experienced moments when we’re in two minds about something. A situation where part of you thinks it should take one direction, while another part of you suggests a different direction entirely. Sometimes this is characterised as an angel and a devil sitting on your shoulder. Your virtue and your vice, exerting a push and pull on your decision making. And this can be for the small stuff, like: should I have an extra scoop of ice cream? (One of my vices, so the answer is always yes on this one.) But big life decisions split our feelings too. Should I take a new job, even though it would mean a big move and uprooting the family? Should I spend money on a holiday, or save it? Should I tell my father/mother/sibling what I really think of them? This kind of push-pull pressure can often make us feel like we’re at war with ourselves.

That’s the feeling I wanted to explore, in the extreme, in my new novel Equinox. The book has a quasi-secondary world fantasy setting – I say ‘quasi’ because there are some very clear carryovers from our world, such as the presence of Christianity. But the big change, the ‘big idea’, if you will, is that in this world, two people live in every single body – one personality which lives during the day, and a completely different personality in control at night. And this is true for everyone. From the moment they are born until they reach their deathbed, they are sharing life with a sibling.

I imagine, having just read this world’s core concept, you’ve already got a few questions. It’s a real headscratcher, and one that gets people’s imaginations going. Let’s take, as an example, the deathbed experience I mentioned above. If I were to write a character in the world of Equinox who was terminally ill and bed-bound, that character would be facing some very chilling questions: will I die on my side of the split? Or will I just never wake up again, and instead it’s my sibling who will have to experience those final, potentially excruciatingly painful moments? Which then raises the question: which would be better?

To give an example directly from the novel, Equinox kicks off in a prison. The protagonist, Special Inspector Christophor Morden, is called to the cell of a man who has been the victim of some dark sorcery. But prisons are a bit different in this world. When Christophor arrives, he sees a stream of people walking out of the main gates, free as you like. These are night-releases: it’s only their other selves who are incarcerated during the day. Strange as it may seem, they come right back when dawn approaches. This is because the punishment for not returning is being hunted down and summarily executed and, as Christophor notes, he can’t hang just one sibling…

With all this and so much more called into question by my central premise, it’s fair to say this was the most technically challenging story I’ve ever chosen to write. Every character is in fact two characters, who have their own agendas and are all hiding things from each other and/or themselves; it was a lot to keep track of and shape into a coherent narrative. This challenge was, of course, part of the story’s allure. I enjoy the process of taking a concept that would be more manageable if it applied just to the protagonist, and choosing instead to explode it across an entire world. I did this for my Walkin’ Trilogy, with characters coming back from the dead as ‘the thinking man’s’ zombies, able to talk and feel and remember their lives. When I was first starting to write novels, I figured I was just exploring some fun ideas. But as I reflect on that process now, the draw of this world-wide approach is something I’ve come to understand is more fundamental to how I write.

For many readers, Equinox will feel reminiscent of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. But unlike Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic, when the split is spread across a huge range of people and life experiences, it didn’t make a lot of sense for me to take such a binary approach. Early readers of my draft chapters wondered if the night siblings should all be meaner, or more depressed, or something equally as totalising. I understood their point; such a decision would make the concept less challenging for a reader, especially early on in the text. And this is another thing I’ve learned during the process of writing Equinox: all the demands I make of myself as a writer transfer right onto the page for a reader. But as long as I enjoy writing the complexities of the story, I anticipate my readers will enjoy exploring that same puzzle – just from the other side of the equation.

So, folks who are up for a story-setting which raises a lot of questions – some intended, some not – and which might only provide a few key answers, will, I hope, enjoy this more demanding reading experience. But it’s OK if you’re in two minds about it. There were times when the little devil sitting on my shoulder told me to write a more straightforward story. Take an easier path, it said – that way we can finish this chapter and go get some ice cream. Tempting as that was, another part of me knew my writing energy comes from the challenge. The push-pull pressure of the strange worlds that a fantasy writer can create.

The fact I wouldn’t want it any other way is perhaps the only thing I’m not in two minds about.


Equinox: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

An Observation on Audiobooks

Over on MetaFilter, there’s a conversation thread about this opinion piece on audiobooks in Vulture, where the author has a personal preference about how audiobooks should be performed, and wishes to suggest their preference is actually the best way, which it isn’t really (as with many things in life, the answer is not clear cut, and the best way to narrate an audiobook is heavily dependent on both the text and the performer). I wrote a comment in the thread which I am transplanting here for archival purposes, and because I think it might be interesting to the readership here, many of which also listen to my books in audio.


Unless the book is read by the author — which is very often not a great idea, as authors are not professional narrators or performers — then inevitably the recording is going to be an interpretation, one, because the narrator is not the author and can’t/won’t know the precise intent behind every single sentence, and two, because the narrator is a human with their own inclinations, preferences and opinions about the text (and three, because there’s also usually an audio director/producer involved, who again is usually not the author and has their own opinions, so there’s another layer involved there). An additional factor can be the nature of the audio production process itself — narrators who get booked a lot don’t necessarily have time to read the book before the recording, which means another set of choices about how the book gets read.

As an author, I was not initially in love with audiobook versions of my books because it was an interpretation, and because the narration was not the way I heard the book in my own head — the narrative beats would sometime be different; a word would be given a different emphasis; a character who I heard one way in my head would sound different (and sometimes would feel like they had a different personality entirely).

Two things got me over this. The first was that audio increased my annual income from writing by about a third, which smoothed over quite a lot. The second thing was that I realized that audiobook narration is a performance and that, like one can appreciate the myriad of ways that actors have approached the “To Be Or Not To Be” soliloquy in Hamlet, one can equally look at the choices the narrator makes in their performance and see how they are in conversation with the text, often in ways that are a surprise to me, the author. So the necessary fact of the interpretation stopped being an annoyance and became a thing of interest.

Which is not to say that I like every narration of my work (although I do like most of them just fine). It does mean I don’t get especially annoyed if the way the book is narrated is not precisely the way it was in my head, or how I would do it if I were the one narrating my book (which I am not especially tempted to do, unless I write a memoir). Even the narrator who I think is closest to my own personal voice — Wil Wheaton, who is within a few years of my age, grew up where I did, has the same vocal tics and intonations that I do, and is an actual friend of mine and so can text me when he has a question when recording — makes choices I wouldn’t, or didn’t, with the words.

It offers a certain level of surprise to the text, which means that, oddly, the audiobook version of my novels are the ones I can appreciate most in the role of a reader — filtering the words through someone else gives them a remove that helps me appreciate the words in themselves, and not dwell on the fact of how I set them in their form, and how I was feeling the day I wrote that particular bit, or whatever.

— JS

RIP, Pixelbook

I regret to say that after four and a quarter years, my Google Pixelbook has up and stopped working. I suspect it might have something to do with the battery, but it’s difficult to tell without cracking it open to have a look, and even if I did that I would have no idea specifically what I’m looking at. What I do know is that after opening it up to do a little work on it, it refused to boot up. I plugged it in and that didn’t help; I left it to charge and still nothing. I know that making note of how it is not working will inevitably inspire some of you to try to diagnose it from your own keyboards; let me save you the diagnosis. I may take it in to a repair shop to see if it can be fixed, or, you know, I may just accept it’s dead and move on with my life. Don’t feel you need to give me advice on it.

If it is indeed well and truly dead, I am sad to see it go. It’s probably my favorite laptop computer ever, both for its form factor and its general functionality, and it was the first Chromebook I’ve had where I didn’t feel I was having to compromise the user experience for simplicity. My only real complaint about it was because of the Chrome OS security, it wouldn’t easily fire up the pop-up pages that nearly every hotel uses to allow people to access the Internet. I suppose I could have found a solution for that, but inasmuch as I have a hotspot with me at all times anyway, it was usually not a problem.

Also, don’t cry for me, as I still have a Windows laptop (a Dell XPS 13) and otherwise don’t mind looking around to see what’s new and exciting in the Chromebook world. There are a lot of very excellent Chromebooks these days, and at the moment the only hard line I have for one is that it needs to have a 3:2 screen, which I find easier to write on than a 16:9 screen (The Pixelbook Go has a 16:9 screen, for everyone about to suggest one of those to me). I’m not in a rush to replace the Pixelbook, but I do like Chromebooks enough that I will nevertheless eventually get around to it.

So: Farewell, Pixelbook, you were a pretty great little laptop. Off you go to computer Valhalla.

— JS

53

Not the birthday portrait I intended to post, but thanks to American Airlines, I’m still stuck in transit instead of at home with family and pets. It’s not actually the first time I’ve spent at least part of a birthday at an airport, but those other times were not because a plane had an engine that wouldn’t turn on. Such are the vicissitudes of life. Let’s see if I actually manage to get home today.

In the meantime, I hope you have a delightful my birthday. In lieu of gifts, donate a sum to a cause that’s important to you. I’ll be doing that later today myself, once I’m home.

— JS

View From a Hotel Window, 5/8/22: Berkeley

I’m here in town for the Bay Area Book Festival, and as always happy to be back in my original home state of California, if only for a day or two. Berkeley is lovely, and it’s a lovely day. My event, with Charlie Jane Anders and Mike Chen, will be a 2pm at the San Francisco Chronicle stage at the MLK Jr. Civic Center Park. Easy to find! Then I’ll be doing a signing nearby at 3pm.

Today is also Mother’s Day in the US, so if that’s a day you celebrate in one way or another, I hope you have a good one.

— JS

Hello From Cincinnati

I am here to be in conversation with author Holly Black tonight at the Joseph-Beth bookstore, which is great, because Holly Black is a genuine delight. And then tomorrow I am off to Berkeley, California, where I will be part of the Bay Area Book Festival, on a panel with Charlie Jane Anders and Mike Chen, both of whom are also delights. Honestly, this promises to be a delightful weekend all around, save possibly for the plane travel, but, well. That’s how one gets about.

Any plans for the weekend?

— JS

In Which I Try the Latest Coca-Cola Creations Flavor

It is the Byte Limited Edition Pixel Flavored Coca-Cola Zero Sugar, which you cannot get in the stores; you have to order it off the Coca-Cola Web site, where it comes in a specialty boxed package (which you can see in the background) featuring two cans, a sticker and a QR card for a video game, all for $15 or thereabouts. Apparently only 25,000 of the boxes will be made. Well, okay; I bought two boxes, just in case I fell so in love with whatever “pixel flavored” tastes like that I needed to have a couple extra to string it out.

And what does “pixel flavor” taste like? An energy drink, basically. It comes across like a beverage that brags about how its taurine and b-complex vitamins to give you a boost, but what it really has is an excessive amount of caffeine (note: Byte does not have an excessive amount of caffeine in it; from what I can find online it has about 34 milligrams per can, or basically what the regular Coke Zero has). And since energy drinks always reminded me a bit of cough syrup, you might think it tastes like that, too: carbonated Robitussin, if you like. Or don’t like; Krissy tried a swig and made a solid “why did I put this in my mouth” grimace.

For my part I’m not in love with it, either, although I think I have slightly more tolerance for it than Krissy does. I liked the previous “Starlight” limited edition Coke Zero, which you may recall I said tasted like a carbonated Oreo waved over a raspberry. I bought several while they were available. For this flavor I think I may have overbought at four cans; I think I’ll keep the second box sealed up and put it in the archives to sell on eBay in ten years or something.

(Weirdly, the actual Coke Zero energy drink, which is now off the market in North America, tasted rather better than this.)

So, yeah, the “Byte” pixel flavor is not a success. But I appreciate Coca-Cola for playing with the formula a bit. They’re 1 for 2 so far in these limited editions, which is good enough for me to take a chance on the next one.

— JS

The Big Idea: Liz Michalski

A dream about a well-loved fantasy world brings attention to what’s not being paid attention to… and from there, Liz Michalski tells a story in Darling Girl from a point of view long left underappreciated.

LIZ MICHALSKI:

My first draft of my book Darling Girl came from a dream, in which boys in Peter Pan-green were flying in and out of the windows of a stone turret, where a girl in Wendy-blue lay hooked to many machines. The boys were whispering, wondering to each other who would sacrifice for them now if this Wendy died. I woke up and thought, “That’s creepy, but kind of interesting,” and promptly dug out my tattered copy of the original Peter Pan.

I’d enjoyed the book as a child, enjoyed the Disney movie and those that came after even more. But on rereading it, I was struck by how beautifully J. M. Barrie described Mrs. Darling, yet how little of her there actually was in the story.

He wrote “Her romantic mind was like the tiny boxes, one within the other, that come from the puzzling East, however many you discover there is always one more.” The line felt as if he were alluding to Mrs. Darling’s rich inner life, and then promptly ignoring it.

Barrie ignored Wendy as well — as a character she never develops beyond the role of mother, and when she grows too old to be a pretend mother to Peter, he has no more use for her. By the end of the book, even Tinker Bell has disappeared and Peter has forgotten her. From there, I read about Barrie’s troubled childhood, his failed marriage, and his relationship with Sylvia Llewelyn Davies, mother of the real-life boys on whom Barrie based Peter Pan.

So what began as a dream developed into a fascination, and then a desire to write a book about Peter Pan from the perspective of the largely unexplored female characters. I finished a draft and gave it to my beta reader. A few weeks later she gave it back, told me she loved it, but that it definitely wasn’t about Peter Pan, and that I needed to figure out what I was writing about.

Hrummph, I said to myself, as well as some unkind things about people who shouldn’t be beta reading. And then I thanked her and put the manuscript away for a few weeks, and when I had some distance I opened it up and reread it.

And of course she was right.

Darling Girl isn’t really about Peter Pan at all, or about the Darling women, although all of those people figure heavily in it. It’s about motherhood, and the secret inner life most mothers maintain. Because motherhood (and fatherhood, to some degree), requires us to package up our selves to provide the level of care and attention children demand. We need to be fully present, and when we aren’t, our kids know it and drag us back into the world. So we bury those selves deep, opening up the boxes only at night when our children are sleeping, on rare weekends away, or early mornings before the household awakens. And we’re so busy we may never feel the loss.

But the twist is, those selves we hide away are often who we really are at our core. We protect them in our innermost boxes because, as much as having children can be a blessing and a privilege, it is demanding and hard, and can strip away whatever previous identities we’ve built up, sacrificing them the way the Peters of my dream sacrificed Wendy. Parenting can strip us down to our core and that last, innermost box.

But it can also create room for a rebirth.

My oldest was getting ready to leave for college when I started Darling Girl, and it was a hard, painful time. Painful, because I adored them, and because I couldn’t imagine what my role in life was if not their mother 24 hours a day. And hard, because they’d started the process of pulling away, of having their own secret life and self, one it was impossible for them to share with someone who hadn’t transitioned yet to seeing them as an adult, not a child.

I felt empty to my very core, packing them up for school for the first time.

But in the silence that filled the house after they left, something rattled. The last, innermost box was waiting for me, and inside was my secret self. Familiar, but changed, honed to something strong, sharp and durable. Something that could spread its wings in the empty space. That could hold space for others and their secret selves. Something that could grow.

I reached into the box. I pulled it out.

And I began to write.


Darling Girl: Amazon|Barnes & NobleIndiebound |Bookshop

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s website. Follow Liz on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.

Notes on the Ohio Primary Election Results

Because we had a primary election yesterday (here are a link to the results, from the Columbus Dispatch), and I have notes:

1. The big news, such as it is, is that Trump-supported JD Vance won the GOP primary for US Senate, beating Josh Mandel and Matt Dolan, who were his immediate runners-up, and a field of four other candidates. JD Vance has revealed himself to be a craven sycophantic remora enthusiastically attached to Trump’s sphincter, and is apparently happy to toss democracy aside for his own personal advancement, so you might be surprised when I tell you that his winning was only the second worst option in the GOP primary, since Josh Mandel is all those things and more, and has been at it longer than Vance, of whom it can be said that at least he is an arriviste when it comes ambitious culture war neo-fascism, whereas Mandel has been there for a while.

What would have been interesting is what would have happened had Trump not opened his yap and endorsed Vance (well, sort of; it’s pretty clear that Trump has only the vaguest idea of who he endorsed and why, even when that candidate is on the same stage). I suspect that Josh Mandel might have squeaked out the nomination, which is appalling, but well, that’s where the Ohio GOP is today.

The one mild surprise is that Matt Dolan, whose brand was “Trump ain’t all that” nearly edged out Mandel for second place. Dolan actually won three counties in Ohio, the ones Columbus and Cleveland are in, and the county next to Cleveland filled with well-off liberals and Democrats, which suggests a non-trivial number of people voting for him were, in fact, actual liberals/Democrats — Ohio allows you to choose at the polling station which primary ballot you wish to fill out (Democratic, Republican or non-partisan, the latter of which is usually for local initiatives or tax levies). Again, would have been interesting to see where he might have landed had Trump not inserted himself. But then, Trump was never not going to insert himself.

2. On the topic of “Liberals/Democrats strategically voting in the Republican primary,” it be at least some of the reason that the Democratic senatorial primary vote was only 48% of the GOP senate primary vote, with a very similar percentage for the gubernatorial primaries. It was also because there was far less drama involved; everyone expected Tim Ryan to win it, which he did, handily, with nearly 70% of the primary vote — Ryan in fact received more primary votes (nearly 356k) than Vance, the Republican primary winner (nearly 341k).

Is there something to be readily gleaned from these numbers, when it comes to the senatorial race in November? Maybe but possibly not. Ohio has more registered Democrats (947k) than Republicans (836k) and both of these numbers are easily swallowed by the number of unaffiliated voters (6.2m), and across the state only 18.8% of eligible voters turned out. Which means that our senatorial candidates were decided by roughly 4.4% of our electorate in both cases. So that’s great, and also leaves lots of room for things to happen in the general, in which possibly 36% of our electorate will vote.

I would not hazard a guess as to whether Ryan or Vance will win in November, because a lot will depend on the economy, whether Trump is actually arraigned on something (probably not, but one never knows), and whether the Supreme Court will follow that draft opinion and decide people with uteruses need fewer rights than those who don’t. But I can tell you that Ryan will run a campaign largely focused on the economic and and day-to-day issues that affect average Ohioans, and Vance will run a screaming, hate-filled campaign based on racism, identity politics and authoritarianism, because this is where we are in Ohio in 2022.

3. On the gubernatorial front, it’s Mike DeWine, the current governor, against Nan Whaley, the former mayor of Dayton, and while I expect the senatorial race to be close (indeed, closer than I would like it to be given who is running and their expected platforms), I’m pretty sure DeWine is going to win this one in a walk. DeWine is generally popular (60% approval rating) and he’s old school GOP, which means he doesn’t automatically despise science or go out of his way to punish people who don’t lick his shoes. He’s not great (he happily signed punitive antiabortion laws), but he’s not actively hateful. That’ll probably work for most Ohioans. Again, anything could happen (and I won’t be voting for DeWine, personally), but unless shit gets real bad in Ohio and it can be directly traced to what DeWine’s doing, he’s probably safe.

4. Also safe: my US representative Warren Davidson, who won his primary by 40 percentage points and who faces a Democratic opponent he’s faced twice before, beating her by an at least 2:1 margin both times. OH-8 has not gone Democratic since the Depression, and 2022 is not the year that’s going to change, no matter how bad things get for Trump sycophants in the coming months. The GOP could run a wet sock in OH-8 and it would win.

5. What didn’t get voted on yesterday: Ohio House and Senate seats, since the Ohio GOP keeps trying to gerrymander the election maps despite an actual voter-approved directive not to do so, and the Ohio Supreme Court keeps calling the Ohio GOP on their shit. We’ll have to do a second primary election now, probably in August, at a cost of several millions of dollars, and it will likely have even fewer voters than yesterday’s. Hooray for democracy!

Yes, I will be voting in that one, too. I always vote. So should you.

— JS

The Big Idea: Mark Matthews

Editor Mark Matthews has experience with the world of horror, and the terrors of addiction. In the anthology, Orphans of Bliss, both are explored, with the help of a host of authors who craft stories with both in mind. Here’s Matthews to get under the skin of the anthology.

MARK MATTHEWS:

Orphans of Bliss: Tales of Addiction Horror, the follow up to theShirley Jackson Award nominated, Lullabies for Suffering, is now out of the womb and breathing on its own. This is the third and final fix of ‘addiction horror’ anthologies, and as editor and a contributing writer, it’s been an exhausting, amazing, and cathartic experience.

What’s the Big Idea—Why addiction horror?

I’m a recovering alcoholic and addict, and spent years waking up needing a fix.

Now, as a substance abuse therapist, I’ve seen addiction on a daily basis.

Writing about addiction for me came natural. It’s perpetually part of my fiber. When I bleed on the page, it’s in the color of my blood. I didn’t set out to write horror, I set out to write, and as the addiction element was tapped from my veins, what came out was horror.

Horror felt the only fit, and horror tropes are apt analogies.

Imagine, someone just shot up heroin for the first time, and soon their body will be aching for more the way a vampire thirsts for blood. Someone right now is buying a half pint of vodka with shaky hands at the liquor store, trembling with terror. Parents live with children who seem as if possessed, and soon enough, identify their overdosed body at the hospital.

Truth is actually darker than fiction, and horror shines a revealing light onto the demons, the dark truths of addiction, in a manner no other genre can.

After writing my own addiction horror novels such as Milk-Blood and All Smoke Rises, the Big Idea was—What might other horror writers do with this topic?

And the addiction horror anthologies were born.

One requirement I had for inclusion in the anthologies is empathy and understanding for those who have lived with addiction. Last thing I wanted to do was stigmatize the condition, but rather, illuminate its impact and increase awareness. I wanted a deeper understanding of, and even compassion for, the sick and suffering addict. “Horror is not about extreme sadism, it’s about extreme empathy,” Joe Hill so aptly noted. Until you’ve had your mind and soul hijacked by addiction, it is difficult to comprehend. In the throes of a craving, the desire to obtain and use substances equals the life force for survival itself. Imagine yourself drowning and being told not to swim to the surface for air. Obsessions should be so mild.

Horror is a uniquely powerful genre to reveal larger truths about the world we live in. To hear about the nature of addiction in a story, putting the reader into the addict’s body, brain, and spirit as it morphs into something horrific, makes the larger crisis much more personal than simply citing a statistic. The stories inside these works, some of which include the supernatural, are true, even if they didn’t happen. More people will die of an opioid overdose in the time it takes to read the three anthologies, than actually die in the books.

While the works offer an unflinching portrayal of addiction and those it impacts, the goal is not to condemn those who use substances. God knows I wish I could join you, but I’m one of those who can’t. It’s impossible for me to drink or drug without leading to disaster. I’ve learned to live with the cravings, as so many in recovery have, and how to not feed the beast. It’s statement of the perseverance and power of the human spirit that people continue to fight, and recovery from addiction is something to celebrate.  

Horror as a genre is a testimony to this ferocity of the human spirit that faces our demons. We love Jamie Curtis from the Halloween franchise because, like her, we all have to constantly fight monsters, often from our childhood. And even if the battle is won, the war’s not over. Michael Myers gets up from the spot on the lawn, after that cathartic moment when you were sure he was dead, and he runs back to the darkness from whence he came. Like addiction, the monster is not conquered, but only in remission.

In all, there are 15 different writers spread out over the three analogies. A few writers are in all three, most are only in one.  Feels only right to name them, so pardon me this list, alphabetical by first name: Caroline Kepnes, Cassandra Khaw, Christa Carmen, Gabino Iglesias, Glen Krisch, Jack Ketchum,  Jessica McHugh, Johan Thorson,  John FD Taff, Josh Malerman, Kealan Patrick Burke, Max Booth III, Mercedes M Yardley, S.A Cosby, and Samantha Kolesnik.

Many stories are told from the perspective of family and loved ones who are impacted by addiction, rather than the substance user themselves. (and in fact, the addiction is not always just to substances.) Settings range from treatment centers, to deep space, to the rural woods, to dystopian landscapes. Many tales are as much speculative science fiction as horror.

This is my Big Idea and I hope these books bring people together through increased understanding and awareness, since there’s no better way to tell a dark truth than through a dark work of horror. Horror has the capacity to speak to this trauma in a unique fashion, and when readers journey through tales of trauma, it binds us together as if we’re part of a family, no longer living alone with our fears.


Orphans of Bliss: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

Spice Watches You From Above

She’s totally not judging you, though (spoiler: She absolutely is).

Also, yes, I intend to write about the draft decision from Alito, but I have a lot of thoughts about it and I will need a little bit of time to organize them into something more than venting. Soon. In the meantime, you have Twitter for my unexpurgated thoughts on the matter. I don’t imagine they will surprise any of you.

— JS

The Big Idea: Dan Koboldt

When I decided to write science fiction, one of the things I thought was, well, I won’t have to do a lot of research because I can just make things up! I was, shall we say, quickly disabused of that notion. In fantasy, it’s a very much a similar situation, as Dan Koboldt, the editor of Putting the Fact in Fantasy, is here to tell us.

DAN KOBOLDT:

As fantasy writers, we get to make things up. It’s a great gig, really. We can write a story in a secondary world with elves riding dragons to a desperate battle against the nefarious serpent warriors, and no one bats an eye. It’s fantasy. We’re expected to tell lies.

And yet.

Even fantasy stories have some grounding in the real world. Characters in fantastical worlds still need to eat, travel around, talk to each other, and fight the occasional battle. It makes sense to give them food, horses, languages, and swords to meet such needs. Writers can get into trouble because these things exist in the real world, and they have their quirks. Without a basic understanding of the topic, it’s easy to make mistakes that will throw a knowledgeable reader right out of the story.

A classic example is the most common food in epic fantasy, the bowl of stew. Countless heroes seem to encounter this hearty meal during long, cold journeys to far-off lands. It’s worth pointing out – especially for writers who may not do a lot of cooking – that making stew in a hearth or campfire takes at least two or three hours. It’s therefore a realistic food for the proprietor of an inn to serve. However, an army on the march would probably not devote three hours to food preparation, so stew would not be the most realistic meal.

We’ve all read fantasy tales with unrealistic elements. There are soldiers eating stew, horses galloping for hours at a time, and teenagers who master sword fighting in a week. In fairness, most fantasy writers are not horse-owning historians who minored in fencing. I’m certainly not. However, I am a bowhunter who spends a lot of time in the woods. And for some reason, the forests of fantasy literature are nothing like the places I know in the real world. A few years ago, I even wrote a blog post, 10 Things Writers Don’t Know About the Woods, in which I griped about some books and movies that featured woefully inaccurate woodland scenes. Soon after that, I wrote an essay contrasting medieval and modern archery, again drawing on my experience as a lifelong archer.

With those two posts I exhausted the limited expertise I could share with other fantasy writers. Yet there were so many aspects of fantasy worldbuilding about which I knew very little. So, I began inviting historians, linguists, martial artists, and other experts to my blog to discuss various topics relevant to fantasy writing. It was enormously educational for me. For example, I learned from equestrian Amy Perkins-McKenna that the joint between the upper and lower bones of a horse’s hind legs is called the hock. I found out from martial artist Eric Primm that in a knife-fight between two highly skilled opponents, everyone gets cut and they might both end up dead. And I was horrified to be told by Dr. Jen Finelli that to save someone with a stab wound in the chest, you might have to stab them in the chest a second time.

No writer can be a legitimate expert in anything. There are too many subjects you’d need to master and not nearly enough time. Nor is it necessary to have deep expertise in military strategy, economics, or political theory to write compelling stories. All you really need is advice from an expert. The purpose of my blog series (and the book that developed from it) is to provide writers with just enough information to be dangerous across a variety of fantasy-adjacent topics. This seems like a good time to mention that I’m always looking for new contributors who have relevant expertise.

Most chapters take a two-prong approach. First, the expert debunks common misconceptions that they see in books, television, and movies. For me, in the archery chapter, it concerns the amount of upper body strength required to even draw a bow that has killing power. Modern bows have a draw weight of fifty or sixty pounds (equivalent to lifting that weight with one arm). Historical weapons had even higher draw weights. Thus, I take issue when I read about a ninety-pound teenager using a longbow.

In the second part of the chapter, experts share some advice for getting the details right. Essentially, this part answers the question, how can I write about this and sound like I know what I’m doing? Most of my book’s contributors are writers themselves; they understand the need very well. They provide the basic facts and terminology to convince a discerning reader. In my discussion of archery, for example, I mention that one of the most difficult skills required for accurate shooting is judging the distance to a target. A character who gauged distance before shooting a bow would come across as realistic to me.

It’s surprising – and perhaps a little bit frightening – how competent you can make yourself appear with just a little guidance from a real-world expert. The best part about it? Once you’ve convinced discerning readers that you’re really an expert, it frees you up to tell even more lies.


Putting the Fact in Fantasy: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

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