The Big Idea: James L. Sutter
Posted on June 7, 2023 Posted by Athena Scalzi Leave a Comment
Labels are a tough thing to navigate. It can be hard to know what fits, or if you even want to apply labels to yourself at all. This is something author James L. Sutter has struggled with, and something he explores in his new novel, Darkhearts.
JAMES L. SUTTER:
You’ve probably never heard of Stuart Sutcliffe. I certainly hadn’t. But from the ages of nineteen to twenty-one, he was the original bassist for the Beatles, leaving the band right before they began their meteoric rise.
When I first stumbled across his Wikipedia entry in August of 2020, I was captivated. While Sutcliffe sadly died before the Beatles achieved full stardom, I couldn’t help but wonder what it would have been like for him if he hadn’t. What would it feel like to know you’d walked away from musical immortality? What would it do to you to watch the band you’d helped build explode into stardom without you? I immediately dove out of bed and began typing what would become my debut YA romance novel, Darkhearts.
Like Sutcliffe, Darkhearts’ narrator, David, had almost been famous: In middle school, he’d formed a goth-rock band with his best friends, but egos grew, and eventually he’d stormed out. And then the band got huge. Now, at seventeen, he’s stuck in an ordinary Seattle high school life while his former best friends (emphasis on former) travel the world as pop stars. But when tragedy throws David and the lead singer back into contact, the boys find themselves trading frenemy status for a confusing, secret romance―one that David realizes could be his ticket back into the band and the spotlight.
When I was fifteen, I started a punk band. We never got big, but we played a lot of shows, and even made it onto the radio a few times. Yet I can still remember the feeling of being eighteen, watching bands younger than me blowing up and getting signed, and feeling like a has-been—like I’d already missed my shot, and I wasn’t even out of high school. When our band broke up a year later, that certainty only got worse.
The thing is, I don’t think it was just me. I think a lot of teens are walking around with the conviction that their life is already over. We’re constantly bombarded by depictions of early success: the sports stars, the child actors, the musicians. We’re told from birth to visualize our dreams, to strive and grind and hustle—but we’re given absolutely no guidance about what to do when we don’t become famous. Because most of us won’t. That question of identity—who am I if not a future rock star?—haunted my teenage years.
And that wasn’t my only point of confusion. In Darkhearts, David has always assumed he’s straight—until he reconnects with Chance and finds himself unexpectedly crushing. For me as well, bisexuality came as a surprise, a slow-burn epiphany that didn’t fully manifest until I was twenty-one. When it did, it came with a whole new set of insecurities: Clearly I wasn’t straight, but was I queer enough to claim the label? After all, I hadn’t kissed that many guys, and I’d never had to fight or suffer for my sexuality the way some of my gay friends had—was calling myself queer just stolen valor? In Darkhearts, David wrestles with a lot of the same issues: How bi is bi? What does it mean to not like guys in general, but to fall for one particular guy?
For me, Darkhearts is about what happens when the labels you’ve been using to define yourself—to yourself—no longer apply. It’s about trading in dreams and identities that no longer fit for ones that might. But most of all, it’s about learning to accept yourself for whoever you are right now—straight or queer, rock star or otherwise.
Darkhearts: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Booksamillion|Bookshop|Powell’s
Author socials: Personal Site|Facebook|Instagram|Twitter
RIP George Winston
Posted on June 7, 2023 Posted by John Scalzi 20 Comments
We were, literally, listening to his music last night. We listen to it a lot, as Krissy finds it helpful to fall asleep to. “Music to fall asleep to” does not usually sound like the category of music one wants to be associated with, but here it is a compliment. Winston’s playing was so comforting and reassuring that one felt safe and at home, wherever one was. It wasn’t generic. Winston had a style his own, and no one else quite sounded like him.
The report on his death in Rolling Stone notes that he had been fighting cancer for the last decade, and also that apparently this fact was well known; it was news to me. I am sad about it. But his music makes me happy, and restful, and I expect I will be listening to it the rest of my days. So, thank you, George Winston. You were heard, and appreciated.
Posted above is my favorite piece of his, from his December album, which is probably my favorite. It’s called “Joy” and it does indeed feel joyful, the sort of joy you feel when you come home and all of your world is there when you open the door. It was a lovely thing to put into the world. I’m glad Winston did so.
A Musical Production Musing
Posted on June 7, 2023 Posted by John Scalzi 2 Comments
So, as you know, I’m fiddling around a lot with music at the moment, because it’s fun and also it’s a hobby I can do in my basement, which is convenient for my purposes. As it’s a hobby, there doesn’t have to be a particular metric for it, nevertheless I find as I go along I kind of have goals or at least a minimum standard I’m aiming for.
As an example, I’ve determined that I would eventually like to have my music sound as if it’s professionally produced — but not professionally produced as it would sound in 2023, which is, you know, a lot, but like it was professionally produced in, say, 1981. This both conforms to my own basic musical aesthetic (hey, guess the musical era I grew up in!) but also my actual competence at this point with the tools I have with me.
“1981” as a descriptor still covers a lot of ground in pop music — that covers everything from Kraftwerk to Ozzy Osborne to Journey to the Go-Gos to the Rolling Stones — so above you will find the 1981 I’m talking about: The basic but undeniable synth noodlings of a very young Depeche Mode on the Speak and Spell album. It’s not overly complicated nor (for electronic music) overly produced, and I like the sound. I can, in fact, probably make something like this in my basement with Logic Pro and a bunch of virtual synths (although, as a professional writer more than three decades older than Vince Clarke was when he wrote these songs, hopefully I’ll be a slightly better lyricist).
So that’s the goal, for now. Simple! But as I’m finding even as a hobbyist, not necessarily easy. I’m having fun getting there.
The Big Idea: Alaya Dawn Johnson
Posted on June 6, 2023 Posted by Athena Scalzi 4 Comments
The “rise of AI” is a growing concern for many creators. Award winning author Alaya Dawn Johnson has some unique ideas on this AI problem we all face, and talks in her Big Idea about how our world’s AI compare to the AI in her newest novel, The Library of Broken Worlds.
ALAYA DAWN JOHNSON:
I didn’t set out to write about AI. I certainly didn’t anticipate, back in 2014 when I started drafting The Library of Broken Worlds, that it would come to dominate our conversations about art and literature, just as my AI-haunted complicated utopia was about to be released. As I write this, my browser of choice, Opera, has just launched AI plugins that can summarize the thesis of this entire essay, create a meme based on it, or revise it according to some AI-generated standard of good taste. I have to wonder, am I writing this essay for the enjoyment of organic intelligences, or for the consumption of artificial ones? Is my real contribution being included in a database that will use my idiosyncratic word choices as both template and error bar, a process inevitably designed to corral human expression into neat circles able to be more efficiently processed by ever more artificial intelligences?
I feel predisposed to a pessimistic view of this process. Like many Science Fiction writers, I am as alarmed by the evil ends to which new technologies can be put as I am heartened by their potential. As an anti-capitalist, I am particularly worried about the use of these technologies to further degrade the value of human labor, particularly artistic labor, which has already suffered gross devaluations over the course of the 20th and 21st centuries. In other words, the immediate threat of ChatGPT and MidJourney is an acceleration of trends that we’ve seen for decades. They can’t be separated from less obviously science fictional corporate innovations like the indefinite extension of copyright, the critical loss of diversity in the marketplace for both publishers and booksellers, the rise of predatory work-for-hire contracts, and the reduction of royalties and residuals.
The new generations of AI are already taking advantage of these trends to further devalue the work of artists and writers, even though our work is critical to the functioning of their machine learning AI model! The fact is, we will have no idea of the transformative potential of these technologies as long as they are still used to concentrate even more wealth (cultural as well as capital) into the hands of even fewer people. This is why I’m not terribly worried about the dangers of AI “waking up.”
As a matter fact, I’d say that waking up an AI raised on art and literature (hell, even Omegaverse!) seems like a serious improvement over capitalist leaders who enable high tech fascism or would rather move to Mars than act to genuinely cut emissions. Maybe that’s why the Davos club seems so worried?
Curiously, when I was trying to distill a novel with a LOT of big ideas (many worlds theory, navigating the aftermath of sexual trauma, the nature of peace, etc.) down to one, this is what I kept returning to: a world in which artificial intelligences form an ecosystem that is supportive of and integrative to human life, even the monstrous super intelligences capable of (but mostly not desirous of) destroying the world. Because let’s be clear: intelligences with the capacity for world-destruction are as common as election cycles. I am not inclined to think that an awakened artificial intelligence will be significantly more bent on genocide than the people who made it. Indeed, I find it more likely that they will have desires and creative goals entirely unfathomable to us, which they will pursue in their own way and which will intersect with our own goals only occasionally. That’s my unexpectedly Big Idea for The Library of Broken Worlds: that AI might become a way to create a utopian society in the future, through self-determining ecosystems in which the AI themselves adapt to our human-created environment and humans adapt to an AI-created one.
In the Library of this novel, an uncountable number of spontaneously generated AI—“broonies” to the locals—grow food, create shelters, and make clothes and other objects both useful and inscrutable to their human neighbors. Broonies aren’t servants, and they’re certainly not trying to hack human civilization. They are part of a co-evolved material-organic urban ecosystem, in which the earth itself is their medium of creation and communication. The most powerful artificial intelligences are considered material gods, made up of sub-personalities called avatars who, together, contain the collected knowledge of humanity—and uniquely possess the capacity to destroy it.
This is the world in which my main character, Freida, is born. In fact, she herself is considered a secondary AI, a human in flesh, but created by the Library gods for their own inscrutable reasons. She has an unprecedented ability to commune with the gods and interact with their avatars, one which scares the ruling class and marks her, from a young age, as something other. What does it mean to remember? What does it mean to be conscious? Is it the responsibility of those who create to also destroy? These are the questions at the heart of Freida’s story. Her world represents, in many ways, a utopian vision of how advanced artificial intelligence could allow human societies to grow into nurturing, equitable and environmentally sustainable models. Even in Freida’s world AIs are far from an unalloyed good—the war god the Nameren spends the novel trying to kill Freida, while she puts him off with the stories of her life—but they still represent a fundamentally different path from the one that humanity seems to be treading.
So while I might be inclined to political pessimism, I can’t quite buy the current wave of AI doomsday scenarios. It’s not AI that scares me, it’s exploitation. It’s not an evil computer we have to be wary of, but the humans who through malice and ignorance program them to ignore most of the world. Could an advanced AI turn bad? Sure. But let’s not forget that an AI raised on beauty might awaken to see the faults of its creators. Like Freida of the Library, whose intelligence is neither fully organic nor material, they might harbor a deep love of art, and story, and humanity. By shocking us out of our complacency, they might just help us change the world for the better.
The Library of Broken Worlds: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Bookshop|Powell’s|Waterstones
Read an excerpt.
Keeping Up With The Joneses, Part 1: Raiders of the Lost Ark
Posted on June 5, 2023 Posted by Athena Scalzi 69 Comments
In case you didn’t know, there’s a new Indiana Jones movie coming out at the end of this month called The Dial of Destiny. I keep seeing trailers for it, and I expect it to be a big hit summer movie, so I thought I should go see it. But before I do that, I knew I needed to actually see the other four first, since I never have before. Last week, I sat down and watched Raiders of the Lost Ark for the first time, and I’m here to report that I did not like it.
I know, I know, sacrilegious. Let me explain.
Raiders of the Lost Ark is an action movie that is jam-packed with fight scenes, chase scenes, and overall tons of action scenes, yet I found the movie boring and couldn’t really get into it. I paused it halfway through and sighed because I still had so much to go. It was a slog to get through.
Other than it being kind of boring, I’m not a fan of the premise overall. For example, the opening scene is of Indiana stealing an artifact from a temple in order to bring it back to America and put it in a museum. That’s just not really like, good, you know? And sure, maybe it’s “a movie of its time,” but that aspect definitely doesn’t age well.
Another aspect that doesn’t age well (and probably should’ve been more of an issue at the time) is the past relationship between Marion and Indiana. Some of the first words spoken between them in the movie is “I was a child. I was in love. It was wrong and you knew it!” to which Indiana replies “You knew what you were doing.”
I want you to read that again. My literal reaction was “HUH?” Turns out, Marion was FIFTEEN when she was with Indiana in the past. And maybe you’re thinking, okay well maybe he was like eighteen or something. HE’S TEN YEARS OLDER THAN HER. He was almost twenty-five and was WITH A FIFTEEN YEAR OLD. “Oh, it’s of its time,” yeah, well, maybe this time was a little fucked up!
Not only that, but for Indiana to say “you knew what you were doing.” BRO YOU FUCKED A CHILD AND NOW YOU’RE BLAMING HER FOR IT. Anyways, awful stuff, moving on.
Let’s talk instead about how they did a fake-out death for Marion. I’m not a hater when it comes to fake-out deaths. I think they’re a perfectly mediocre, if not overdone, plot device. But at the time, it probably was much more interesting and much less overdone. My issue with the use of it in this movie lies in the explanation of it later on, when Indiana finds Marion alive.
He says, “they must have switched the baskets.”
That’s it? They must’ve switched the baskets? When?! How?! And most importantly, why?! What’s the reason they switched the baskets, when did they have an opportunity to, and how did they pull it off? Where’d they even get another basket so last minute?! That is some seriously lazy writing.
Speaking of lazy writing, how about that iconic line, “Snakes. Why did it have to be snakes?” Yes, indeed, why were there snakes in there?! Yes, while I know they were getting into the “sealed tomb” from the wall that led to the outside or whatever, it doesn’t really explain why there would be any snakes in there in the first place. There’s no food or water in there! I can understand perhaps a snake or two roaming around, there’s just no reason for there to be like, a thousand of them down there all over each other like that. It just doesn’t make any sense!
Also, how convenient is it that the bad guys opened the box before giving it to Hitler? They really just took care of themselves without Indiana having to do anything. He didn’t prevent them from getting the box, he wasn’t going to prevent them from completing their mission, the only reason he “won” in the end was because they opened it while he was tied up. He did nothing! The conflict resolved itself without his intervention. He got so lucky.
I don’t know, this movie was just kind of a mess overall. So much happened, and yet it feels like nothing did. I didn’t enjoy watching it, and I don’t like Indiana as a character. I can see why a lot of people grew up loving it, and why it was cool at the time, but does it hold up? Not really.
We’ll see if the second one fares better.
Your Reminder that “AI” Will Just Flat-Out Make Things Up
Posted on June 5, 2023 Posted by John Scalzi 56 Comments
I asked Bard, Google’s AI, the name my upcoming novel, and also (as a test, because I haven’t publicly announced the title), the title of the novel after that. Bard correctly noted the name of the next novel (Starter Villain) and correctly noted I hadn’t publicly named the novel after that. But then, unprompted, it confabulated the following:
“Here are some details about Starter Villain:
- The book is set in a world where villains are a legitimate career path.
- The main character, Jason, is a young man who dreams of becoming a villain.
- Jason enrolls in a villainy academy, where he learns the skills he needs to be a successful villain.
- Jason’s classmates include a group of misfits and outcasts, who he quickly befriends.
- Jason and his friends must face off against a powerful villain, who is determined to destroy them.”
None of the above is even remotely true. I mean, it sounds like a fun YA book! But that’s not the book I wrote.
Why does Bard think this is what my book’s about? Got me. It’s not like the details of Starter Villain aren’t out there at this point; reviews are starting to come in and we have a “back cover” book synopsis on every online retailer out there. When I queried Bing’s AI about it, it got it right in kinda spoilery detail (don’t worry, Bing’s been wrong about a bunch of stuff too, just not this one thing). There’s no reason Bard should have gotten this wrong, or to have offered it up without additional prompting. It just did.
Now, the thing is that Google and Microsoft and other organizations are really really pushing AI into web search and other information-gathering functions. This is quite evidently a tremendously bad idea at this point because, as you can see above, the information you retrieve cannot be considered in any way reliable. To Google’s credit, it notes this can be the case (its exact wording is “Bard may display inaccurate or offensive information that doesn’t represent Google’s views”), but I wonder how many folks are going to pay attention to the disclaimer.
Getting the details wrong on my upcoming novel is small potatoes; it harms very few — possibly some sad bastard student trying to get an assignment done, or someone thinking of purchasing the book who might later be mildly surprised that the synopsis they were given does not match the book they paid for. But, of course, if Bard is getting this wrong, what else, and what more important than this, is it getting wrong as well? “AI” will become more refined as we go along, but “AI” is not, in fact, intelligent, artificially or otherwise; writer Ted Chiang’s recent notation in the Financial Times that a better description of “AI” is “Applied Statistics” is well-observed. It is not at all clear that “AI” in the future will be able to discern the difference between the factual, the incorrect, and the intentionally misleading, any better than it does today.
I am fortunate in that I am a minorly notable person with a long track record of publication — the easy way for me to check how “AI” is doing on the truth front is to ask it questions about myself and my work and see how much it gets wrong (the answer: evidently, quite a lot). I know it can’t be trusted on that basis. But not everyone can just put their name in, or the name of their book, and then go “well, that’s just crap” when they read the results.
Which is a problem, especially now. Nearly 30 years ago, respected writer, presidential press secretary and former journalist Pierre Salinger plumped for a hoax involving a plane crash because he found the information via the Internet. He was so used to “published” information being vetted and factual that he didn’t quite grasp that the Internet is full of lies and disinformation. Today, I think there will be a whole generation of people, particularly my age and older, so used to the idea that Google and other search engines pull up “correct” information — an idea promoted by Google and other search engine owners, to be sure – that they won’t even question whether the information they’re being offered up has any relation to the truth.
“AI” will make the Internet even less truthful than it is today. It is already doing it.
New Music: “Magnetic Fields Around an Ultra-Luminous X-Ray Source”
Posted on June 3, 2023 Posted by John Scalzi 6 Comments
So named for the illustration I borrowed from NASA/JPL-Caltech for the cover (you can do that, it’s public domain, if you’re a US citizen, your taxes paid for it), and also because the piece is kind of space-y and loopy, in a relentlessly thumpy electronic sort of way. It’s built around a series of musical loops I programmed, played (mostly) in a round. I like it. Hope you like it too.
New Books and ARCs, 6/2/23
Posted on June 2, 2023 Posted by John Scalzi 18 Comments
Heading into the first weekend of June and we have a nice stack of new books and ARCs, including a whole bunch of Ann Leckie reissues. What here is going to get you through some lazy June nights? Share in the comments!
The Big Idea: Isabella Maldonado
Posted on June 2, 2023 Posted by John Scalzi 2 Comments
In her Big Idea for her new novel A Killer’s Game, author Isabella Maldonado touches on popular party events, adrenaline, and your long-lost ancestor, Grog. How do they all fit together? Like a puzzle.
The big idea behind A Killer’s Game was the explosion in popularity of escape rooms, which provide the dopamine hit of a puzzle combined with the adrenaline rush of a ticking clock. All over the world, people are lining up to put their wits to the test. Do they have what it takes to crack codes and solve puzzles under the threat of imminent doom—or at least, the imminent detonation of a paint bomb?
So, what’s the appeal? In researching the answer, I discovered that it comes down to neuroscience. Human beings are hard wired to seek solutions to problems, and our brains reward us when we succeed. Throughout our evolution, an unforgiving environment weeded out those who lacked curiosity or could not think creatively under pressure.
Take Grog, our prehistoric ancestor, always on the hunt for sustenance. If Grog saw a line of tracks with three splayed impressions in front and one behind, he might recall that birds made those kinds of marks in the ground. Following the trail might score him a nutritious and tasty egg. Grog, however, would be wise to note the massive pawprints also leading in the direction of the coveted egg. Grog had to use experience, but also extrapolation, and a form of deductive reasoning we would refer to today as pattern recognition and predictive analysis.
Today, most of our decisions don’t have life-or-death consequences, but some do. As a rookie police officer, I was trained to understand that my frontal cortex (aka: executive function) could be short-circuited during a crisis. One of the instructors at the academy said, “Imagine me asking you to solve a long division problem.” He paused a beat, then added, “now imagine that I’m firing a gun at you while you’re working through that equation.” We all got the message. Mathematics would take a backseat while we scrambled to get our asses out of the kill zone.
Remembering this lesson created an entirely new challenge when I started to plot the story. As a law enforcement professional who wore a gun and badge for over two decades, I write strong female protagonists. But what kind of character could believably handle an escape room where the riddles and traps were deadly, and her competitors were all trained killers? Who would be capable of solving complex problems under fire?
A US Army Ranger.
More research revealed that the 75th Ranger Regiment out of Ft. Benning, Georgia is home to some of the most elite, highly trained combat personnel in the world. To become a Ranger, candidates must complete Basic Combat Training (BCT) and Advanced Individual Training (AIT) before being screened for the Ranger Assessment and Selection Process (RASP). Those who are selected to serve in the 75th Ranger Regiment earn the distinction of “scrolled” Rangers. The first female scrolled Ranger joined the Regiment in 2017, and women have left their mark since then, including in combat tours beginning in 2019.
After reading about these very special women, I knew one of their number had to be represented in my escape room story. After all, why should Jack Reacher, Jason Bourne, and Rambo get all the action? But, whether male or female, I thought it was high time to combine a classic action hero with an escape room thriller.
This is how FBI Special Agent Daniela “Dani” Vega was born. I gave her a background as a former military codebreaker who followed her father’s footsteps to earn a position in the Ranger Regiment. That way, she could credibly solve puzzles and crack codes while under extreme pressure.
I’ve never written anything like A Killer’s Game, which some have described as Squid Games meets Criminal Minds, and I didn’t realize how daunting it would be. Part of the challenge was coming up with a credible way for a federal agent to go missing while on an undercover operation. Another part was devising the riddles, codes, clues, and traps she and her fellow captives had to deal with. Lastly, creating a motive for the person behind such a fiendish plot kept me up at night. The book involved a tremendous amount of research and effort but was also a lot of fun. I can only hope readers get that dopamine-adrenaline combo hit from trying to solve puzzles on the edge of their seats.
A Killer’s Game: Amazon|Chapters Indigo|Barnes & Noble|Bookshop|Powell’s
Starter Villain Review at Publishers Weekly
Posted on June 1, 2023 Posted by John Scalzi 6 Comments
And it’s a pretty damn good one, too. An excerpt:
“In this clever, fast-paced thriller, Hugo Award winner Scalzi (The Kaiju Preservation Society) subverts classic supervillain tropes with equal measures of tongue-in-cheek humor and common sense. Scalzi balances all the double-crosses and assassination attempts with ethical quandaries, explorations of economic inequality, and humor… The result is a breezy and highly entertaining genre send-up.”
The review is up at the PW site, but be warned that it has mild spoilers for the book content.
I know of another trade review that will be up soon, and I’ll post about that when I can. In the meantime, a nice way to start the official review season for the book!
A Window to the World
Posted on June 1, 2023 Posted by John Scalzi 23 Comments
June 1st is Replace All the Windows Day, in which all our creaky and balky nearly 30-year-old windows are being pulled out and new, much more insulating, efficient and quiet windows are being put in. Here you can see that Charlie is deeply curious as to why there’s a hole in the wall where a window used to be. Don’t get used to it, Charlie.
In fact, as of me typing this up, that new window is already in place; the fellow installing the windows is pretty speedy. It’s like he’s done this before, a lot. With luck they will all be installed today, but we have tomorrow budgeted for any stragglers. After which (knock lightly on glass) we won’t have to think about windows again for several decades. Which is good, because I don’t know if you know, but new windows aren’t exactly cheap. I’ll be happy not to think about that again, I can tell you.
Anyway! Welcome to June, friends.
The Big Idea: Beth Cato
Posted on June 1, 2023 Posted by John Scalzi 5 Comments
Be warned: In A Thousand Recipes for Revenge, author Beth Cato can get… well, a little cheesy. But, perhaps, not exactly in the way you might expect.
I suppose other people might start work on a novel set in a musketeer-era fantasy world because they want the opportunity to write swashbuckling adventures, rapier duels, dramatic horse rides, and political intrigue. All of those things are awesome and get page space in my book, too, but in my case, A Thousand Recipes for Revenge emerged from a desire to write about magical cheese.
That’s right, magical cheese. If you know me at all, you know this is on-brand for me. If you’re coming across me for the first time: Hi, I’m Beth Cato, and I love cheese. This has been a lifelong thing for me, but in June 2015 I decided to go full special-interest mode. I started a document appropriately called the Cheese Log, wherein I record any and all new cheeses I try. Wherever I travel, I’m all about seeking out new, local cheeses and imports I can’t find in the wastelands of Arizona. My trip to the United Kingdom in 2019 was planned around a day trip into the Yorkshire Dales to visit the Wensleydale Creamery. I’ve had airport screeners pull aside my bag because the contents (i.e. aged hard cheeses good for travel without a need for refrigeration) seem “suspicious.”
I’ve worked cheese into my writing before. My Clockwork Dagger novels featured cheese-loving gremlins. Magazines have published my short stories such as “How to Creatively Host Cheese Parties During and After the Apocalypse” and “Prognostiqueso” (find those in Hexagon Magazine and Daily Science Fiction, respectively). Building a book from the concept of magical cheese, however, meant doing deep world-building. That’s my kind of thing. I love delving through stacks of research books and gleaning details as I create intricate settings. For me, going all-in on cheese and other good food meant I could only turn to one place on Earth for inspiration: France.
There’s an oft-quoted line from Charles de Gaulle that reads, “How can you govern a country which has 246 varieties of cheese?” (His number was actually way off–according to DK’s book French Cheeses, there are more like 500 today. Pre-industrialization, there were far more varieties to be found there and elsewhere.) My dilemma was, how can I build an original magical system from the likes of Brie and Langres? First of all, I decided to create a secondary world that roughly correlates to France in terms of places, seasons, and resources, but has its own unique history. The latter is also what drew me to the 1600s and 1700s–there was so much to use for inspiration, from court intrigues to musketeers to food science! I also realized the book couldn’t just be about cheese. There was such a wealth of provisions (some of it questionable by modern tastes) to explore.
Which took me to the next vital question: why would cheese, and other foods, be magical?
Because the Gods said so, of course. I created five food-based Gods to oversee my world. Hester, God of Fire. Selland, God of Salt. Lait, God of Milk and New Growth. Melissa, God of Honey and All Things Sweet. Gyst, the God of Unknowns such as mold, bacteria, and fermentation. Because of the Gods, magic exists through particular foods that then bestow powers upon people.
As I already find cheese to be pretty magical, it only feels right for it to empower people. It also makes sense that Gods would be directly involved with blessing people through enchanted foodstuffs… though the meddling of deities could also be a very bad thing, as my characters soon realize. And as I also sometimes realize when I find that Gyst has perhaps been a touch aggressive in his visits to my own cheese drawer.
A Thousand Recipes for Revenge is out now from 47North. Be warned — this book might cause you to crave cheese and other delicious things!
A Thousand Recipes for Revenge: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Bookshop|Audible
Author socials: Personal site|Instagram|Twitter
Universal Yums: May 2023 Review
Posted on May 31, 2023 Posted by Athena Scalzi 13 Comments
It is the final day of May, which means I’m posting this May review on time! Woohoo! Anyways, this month’s Universal Yums country was Taiwan, and it was a very colorful spread:
I loved these packages’ designs. The cute little cow, the pretty pinks, and the funky little jelly shots that were super squishy. So fun!
My tasting assistant picked the first snack we tried, which was these Kimchi Soy Crackers:
The texture of these was exactly like Wheat-Thins, which makes sense because they’re wheat crackers. I used to not like the texture of these types of crackers, but over the years I’ve grown to enjoy it. As for the flavor, they were sort of soy saucy tasting, with a very subtle heat behind them. They were really good, and we ate the whole bag. My snack expert assistant gave them a 10/10, and I gave them an 8/10.
I picked this snack next because the packaging is purple! These are called Cheesy Potato Fries:
Upon first appearance, these literally look stale French fries you find in your kid’s car seat. I had no idea what to expect, but they ended up having the texture of slightly crunchier Cheetos. They were supposed to be cheese flavored but they didn’t taste very much like any type of cheese, they sort of just tasted like garlic and onion powder, more so just a savory flavor than a cheese flavor. It was super small package so we ate all of these easily. These were a 9/10 from both of us!
At this point, we decided to eat all the savory snacks first, and then move onto all the sweet ones, so up next is these White Pepper Crackers:
These tasted like literally nothing at first, then had some very subtle flavor towards the end. It was strangely plain, but had a pleasant texture. They were just a totally standard cracker, with a slight hint of seasoning, and were pretty forgettable but not unenjoyable, earning them a 7/10 from both of us.
I was actually afraid to try this next snack, because it has spicy in the title. This is the Spicy Beef Noodle Popcorn:
I have so much to say about this popcorn. One, it’s kettle corn texture, which is the superior texture for popcorn. Two, this is probably the first spicy thing I’ve ever enjoyed. And three, these are absolutely banger. This popcorn was so savory and flavorful and complex. It was spicy, but it was like a pleasant warm heat that built upon itself. This is the first time I have ever thought that something being spicy was a pro and not a con. And there was so much in the bag, it was a really sizeable portion! We ate it all, and gave it a 10/10.
The final savory snack was these Salty Lemon Pea Crackers:
I can honestly say I don’t think I’ve ever had pea crackers before, but these were SO GOOD. They were super duper crunchy and I loved the twisty shape. They were lemony, salty, citrusy, goodness without being overwhelming. They were so addicting, and I wish that I could have these in my house all the time, I would eat them literally every day if I could. They were also my favorite package out of everything. These earned a 10/10 from both of us!
Finally switching over to the sweet snacks, we tried these Yogurt Animal Crackers:
While we do have animal crackers here in the US, these were quite different from our version. I liked the fun animal shapes, it was cute. They were very interesting taste-wise, with a mild and slightly strange flavor. They had the texture and overall feel of Ritz crackers, and were pretty inoffensive. They weren’t anything to write home about but they were a perfectly serviceable biscuit. My assistant gave them a 7.5/10, and I settled on a solid 7/10.
Okay, I was definitely dubious on this one, but here’s the Peach Jelly Shot:
When I tore off the top of the package, several drops of the juice came spilling out. That, plus the fact that this was so squishy and wet gave me major ick. But, I braved it, and it ended up being pretty good! It was like a firmer Jell-O, and tasted like peach rings. Definitely kind of strange, but good overall. My helper gave it a 9/10, whereas I went for a modest 7.5/10.
For the eighth snack, we have this Pineapple Cake:
I really like pineapple, and I really like cake, so I was sad that this wasn’t very good. It wasn’t horrible or anything, but the pineapple flavor was super artificial and it mostly tasted like a lotion or a candle. The texture was okay, but not anything stellar. This was honestly the first disappointing item in the box, so I can’t be too mad. My helper gave it a middling 5/10, and I went for slightly less than that with a 4.5/10.
At this point we were really full, but we powered on through these Cherry Blossom Wafer Rolls:
These smelled like Play-Doh, which was not a great first impression. We took one bite, and we did not take any more than that. They tasted weird and unpleasant, and nothing like cherry blossom. My assistant said they tasted like they’d gone off, and I had to agree, they just weren’t right. We had to rate this at a 3/10 and a 2/10. These were the worst item in the box by a landslide.
Finally, we tried these Choco Peanut Mochi:
These were chewy like a marshmallow because of the mochi, but they actually weren’t all that sweet. The peanut butter tasted like actual peanut butter and had a creamy consistency, which I feel like is very different from peanut butter filled candies here like Reese’s, where the peanut butter is weirdly crumbly and dry and tastes like preservatives. The chocolate wasn’t super detectable since it’s just a thin covering around all the thick mochi and peanut butter, but honestly these were pretty good. And I liked that they were easily shareable. My helper gave them a 7.5/10, and I gave them a 7/10.
Overall, this box was the best one I’ve ever had from Universal Yums! I absolutely loved Taiwan, especially the lemon crackers and the spicy popcorn. There were so many 10/10s, and we were so full at the end. I actually just paused my subscription for a few months, so I’m really glad the last box I’m getting for a while ended up being so good.
What looked the best to you? Do you like mochi? Have you been to Taiwan? Let me know in the comments, and have a great day!
Help Me, I’m Weak
Posted on May 30, 2023 Posted by John Scalzi 37 Comments
Me: Dude, you do not need another guitar, especially another tenor guitar, and especially not a hollow body archtop tenor guitar, seriously, who even plays that shit out in the real world
PS: It’s one of these. Also, it’s a fuckin’ delight.
And Now, The Scalzi Family Foundation Logo
Posted on May 30, 2023 Posted by John Scalzi 28 Comments
The Scalzi Family Foundation has begun its philanthropical mission (beginning with sponsoring the 2023 Gen Con Writers’ Symposium), and so it behooved us to have an official logo. I commissioned artist Natalie Metzger to create one, and she came up with something I really liked. It’s welcoming, features elements that go well with the people involved (cats, stars, whimsy) and doesn’t take itself too seriously. It’s fun and it’s here to do a little bit of good in the world.
Plus, in addition to the “warm” version above, we have a “cool” version as well, depending on use circumstance, because it’s nice to have options:
And of course a black and white option as well:
This is all good stuff, and I thank Natalie for doing such a fabulous job with it. You’ll see the logo in action soon!
Mid-Weekend Update, 5/28/23
Posted on May 28, 2023 Posted by John Scalzi 20 Comments
Balticon has been absolutely lovely and Krissy and I are having a fabulous time, both at the convention and in Baltimore. This weekend there is also a large Indian festival and a heavy metal festival downtown, so it’s quite the melding of cultures in the streets and also in the elevators of the hotel. Everyone seems to be having a good time no matter what they’re in town for, and that’s terrific.
Shown above is the medallion for the Robert A. Heinlein Award, which I got at the opening ceremonies of the convention. The head of the Heinlein Society joked to me that I would have to wear the medallion around my neck all convention long, and I replied that, oh, in fact, I was going to do just that. And I have, not only because, well, how often are you going to be able to wear a medallion and not have it be entirely out of place, but also because people at the convention are curious about the award, and I want them to be able to see it and interact with it. So yes, a fair number of people fondling my medallion this weekend, in a perfectly appropriate and acceptable way.
The convention runs today and tomorrow, and today I have two panels including Heinlein Award Winner presentation, and then tomorrow I have a reading where I’ll be reading a bit from Starter Villain and something else I have coming up real soon. It’ll be fun. And I hope wherever you are you’re having a fun weekend as well.
The Big Idea: Yukimi Ogawa
Posted on May 26, 2023 Posted by Athena Scalzi 3 Comments
It’s a special talent to write in a language that you’ve learned along the way. In this Big Idea for author Yukimi Ogawa’s new collection of short stories, Like Smoke, Like Light, she explains why this choice was an essential one for her.
Years ago, somewhere on the internet, I saw someone remark that they thought people in Japanese anime were all white, a very weird observation that does not make sense. My first reaction was, “What, do you think we Japanese people see white people as those who have pink hair and purple eyes?”
This was the very first spark of the Colorful Island stories, which constitute almost half of Like Smoke, Like Light, my first collection of short stories. (Most, but not all, of the other half deals with yōkai, beings from my country’s folklore.) On this island that I imagined, you can find all the beautiful colors of jewelry on human skin, and the nation as a whole survives by showing these colorful and patterned people off to the other parts of the world.
After I wrote the first story in this world, “The Colorless Thief,” I realized I wanted to create a place where the rarity of the skin colors and patterns is all that matters—where your gender, age, or the family you were born to won’t do anything for you if you cannot offer what the government wants from you. And if these colors and patterns are so precious, so important, then they must be genuine, I reasoned. Like natural gems versus synthetic ones, you have to be born with the colors or patterns, and artificially adding patterns to your skin or altering your patterns in any way should be very obscene, or even a crime.
In the earlier stories set in this world, “The Colorless Thief,” “Ever Changing, Ever Turning,” and “Blue Gray Blue,” I explored how the colorful and patterned people, who are supposedly the elites of their nation, have to deal with their fear of losing what they have. It was fun and heartbreaking at the same time to write about them—when your colors change, the way the whole society treats you changes, and then your world is not the same anymore. Then later on, the character of Kiriko came along. Kiriko is a completely colorless and patternless person, who has been forced to work in the “backcloth” of the city—an unimportant laborer employed at an atelier that sells patterned goods, like fabrics for furniture including curtains and table cloths.
That is not the only thing the atelier does, though; she and her partner can mitigate physical discomfort like headaches and allergic reactions by drawing patterns on human skin. However, in this island where it’s so important that patterns be “genuine,” she and her partner cannot fully exert their skills, at least not openly.. Despite the challenges, she cannot help but feel grateful that she found this job, doing what she loves every day no matter what others may think of her.
Through Kiriko’s eyes, I was able to add more texture to the island. Those first three stories were more about losing something you always took for granted, but Kiriko knows what it is like to have nothing in the first place. Conversing with her in my mind, she and I came to agree that there is only so much we can do about the world around us—but in her stories, I let her search for a shape of the world with which she can cope, even if she isn’t entirely comfortable with that shape.
I think one of the reasons I chose English as my writing language lies near this conversation. English is my second language, as you can probably see when you read this book, and I still fumble for command of it. I cannot speak it most of the time. I’ve been wondering why I do this; I’m a slow writer to start with, and engaging in the second language further slows the process. There are things I cannot express in English.
But after seeing my stories gathered in one book, the stories that I had to take so much trouble, to go so out of my way, to complete, I think I have a better idea of why. I did not, do not, like many things about myself and my life, and I needed a way to change it, even if in fiction: chiseling it and pruning it, and painting it over and polishing it.
As a writer, I needed a tool that I acquired, instead of something I’ve always had, always taken for granted. I still worry about not being up to the standards of the world, but I’d like to believe that the world shouldn’t have the ability to bend me. That I want to be the one who can choose the shape of the world around me. And the distance from the world that my second language gives me somehow became a sort of shield, when I need to deal with that world’s raw, unwanted shape.
Like Smoke, Like Light: Amazon|Amazon UK|Amazon CA|Barnes & Noble|Bookshop|Powell’s
View From a Hotel Window, 5/26/23: Baltimore
Posted on May 26, 2023 Posted by John Scalzi 18 Comments
This hotel window shot has it all: A parking lot, yes, but also an impressive building in the federal style, and a pleasant downtown view in general. It’s a lovely day in Baltimore, and the part of the downtown I’m in is nicely walkable. Charm City, indeed!
Balticon starts this evening and I’m here all weekend doing panels and events. If you’re here, I’ll see you, and if you’re not here, a question: How are you planning to spend your Memorial Day weekend?
The Big Idea: Jean Marie Ward
Posted on May 25, 2023 Posted by Athena Scalzi 4 Comments
Sometimes, it takes more than one try to really nail down a story. In author Jean Marie Ward’s case, the third time was the charm, resulting in her new novel, Siren Bridge. Read on to see how each iteration of this story came together to form this final novel.
JEAN MARIE WARD:
I stole the first Big Idea for my novella Siren Bridge from my late writing partner, Teri Smith.
Shortly before her death, Teri began a series about a deliciously, cheerfully, unapologetically evil sorceress named Vivienne. Viv’s first adventure, “Dragon Bait”, was published in the 2009 anthology Under the Rose. But Teri left the second barely begun, with Viv’s big personality trapped in the body of a small calico cat.
I wanted to finish that story as a tribute to Teri. On a more selfish level, I wanted to figure out how Viv rescued herself. But hard as I tried, I couldn’t get the story to gel.
Which brings me to the second Big Idea I stole.
A few years later, an editor invited me to participate in a mermaid-themed anthology. As I sifted through potential story ideas, it occurred to me that, instead of trying to finish Teri’s story, I should write an entirely new Viv adventure—a funny one, of course. Viv was born for comedy. All I needed was a finny foil. How about a siren with the delivery of a Wagnerian soprano? Great! And she’ll sing about…
That’s when my muse went AWOL. I needed a profoundly silly way for my soggy Sieglinda to lure men to their doom, and I had nada. So I decided to consult an expert in the whole guy thing: my husband, “Honey, what’s the most ridiculous thing a siren could sing about would that persuade a guy to offer himself as lunch?”
He blinked at me behind his glasses. “Like what, dessert?”
“That’s it!” I cried. “Struuuuuudel!”
My husband immediately decamped to the basement. I didn’t see him again for two days. When he finally emerged, he pleaded with me to never ever yodel again.
The anthology got shelved. But flushed with pride at my achievement, I sent it to an editor friend who knew Teri’s work. As gently as possible, he let me know my protagonist. Was. Not. Viv. In D&D terms, my character was chaotic good. There were lines she wouldn’t cross. Viv had no such scruples.
He was right. But I liked the story. It needed a lot of work. Even so, the scene between Not-Viv and her siren nemesis? That was pure gold, worth every rewrite it took to raise the rest of the story to its level.
Which brings me to the novella’s third Big Idea, my Big Idea: What I wanted for my protagonist and her world.
I wanted a woman protagonist who leaned into her nature and fell into the exciting scrapes traditionally reserved for male characters like Han Solo and Robert Downey Jr.’s Sherlock Holmes. I wanted Oleander Jones, the character formerly known as Not-Viv, to live in a world I wouldn’t mind carrying in my head for as long as it took to write her adventures. A Steampunk/weird west world with magic, great clothes, and marvelous contraptions. A world where diversity is celebrated. A world where even the worst curse could hold the key to happiness if you own the courage to grasp it.
I admit it’s a fairy tale. The United States grew to greatness in the American West. But our forebears committed unspeakable acts in the name of that dream, and their legacy is one we have yet to fully confront. But I cling to the hope that Neil Gaiman’s wonderful paraphrase of G.K. Chesterton got it right: “Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.”
Science fiction, fantasy, romance, adventure, mystery—all the genres we call fiction are simply fairy tales grown-ups tell themselves. This is mine:
Oleander Jones knew the rules for successful lady adventurers, and she broke them all.
Now she’s got a reward on her head bigger than the Logressan national debt. The New Dominion Territorial Militia, the full detecting might of Falchion Apprehension Services, and every no-good one-eyed snake who could read a wanted poster are on her tail. And there’s only one way to get where she needs to go—through the killing ground of the biggest, meanest, man-eating, avian monster Roche County has ever seen. Dead across Siren Bridge.
Siren Bridge: Amazon
Posted on May 25, 2023 Posted by John Scalzi 17 Comments
Away from the computer for most of the day because Krissy and I are headed to Balticon, where, among the many other things I will do, I will be picking up the Robert A. Heinlein Award, which I am pretty jazzed about, I have to say. I’ll also be doing a reading, a signing, and several panels. It’ll be fun! If you’re in or around the Baltimore area this weekend and are looking for something to do, it’s not to late to register at the convention. See you there.
Krissy and I are actually driving to Balticon because once we looked at our flight options out of Dayton, we realized that the amount of time we’d spend traveling by plane (including travel to airports and time between flights) would be nearly exactly the same as driving by car, and this way, at the end of it, we wouldn’t have to pick up a car rental. So that was nice. It does mean we’ll be on the road a while. Good news is, Krissy and I are good at making conversation with each other.
I’ll probably pop in a couple of times over the weekend, but just in case I don’t: Happy Memorial Day Weekend, y’all. Enjoy your long weekend.
Whatever Everyone Else is Saying