Webtoon Recommendation Time: Freaking Romance

Hello everyone and welcome to another edition of Webtoon Recommendation Time! The time where I bring you the best webtoons around (in my opinion) and tell you to read them. Or, rather, try to give you reasons why you should read them.

cover art featuring Zylith and Zelan

Athena ScalziFor this round of recommendations, we have Freaking Romance, a romance/drama webtoon with some supernatural stuff thrown in! The last one I wrote about is taking a break after ending its second season, so I decided to start this one and let me tell you, I was hooked. Obsessed right from the beginning. It just draws you in and doesn’t let you go for the next 70 some episodes. The suspense, the anticipation, it’s a page turner for sure. Except it doesn’t exactly have pages.

The main character, Zylith, moves into a new apartment, only to find out it’s haunted by a ghost! A very handsome one, at that. But, that doesn’t seem to be quite right, he’s not exactly a ghost… and he turns out to be someone from another dimension. With their limited interactions through a tear in the space time continuum, is it possible to fall in love?

cover art featuring Zelan and Zylith

I absolutely adore romance webtoons, they’re for sure my favorite kind. And this one has the added element of parallel universes, which is super cool concept I’ve always liked.

This webcomic is humorous, relatable, adorable, fun, and all around just really interesting. Watching Zylith combat toxic, abusive relationships while forging new, loving ones is inspiring, and makes you admire Zylith for her strength. Besides being a strong, independent character, she’s also hilarious, creative, cute as a button, and a truly lovable main character.

The other characters are just as lovable, each having totally unique personalities that are fun to watch interact with each other. And there’s a cat! Named Mr. Purrfect! How could you not love a comic with a cat who has a pun for a name?

This is another webcomic where it’s evident the artist’s style changes a bit over time, but again, I’m all here for it! I absolutely adore the character designs so watching the artist improve on the appearance of the characters throughout the episodes is really awesome. Like I said, Zylith is adorable, meanwhile Verose is hot as heck, and Zelan is literal perfection. Honestly for me to try out a webcomic all you have to do is make your characters hot and I’ll give it a shot. Same goes for watching an anime.

But, for me to recommend one, it actually has to be good, of course. And let me tell you, you will not be disappointed if you give this one a chance. This is one of my favorites of all time, definitely top three! I implore you to start today, and let me know what you think in the comments! Check it out here, and make sure to go to the beginning!

Have a great day and enjoy this bonus picture of Zelan because he’s so freaking cute.

Zelan looking cute

-AMS

The Big Idea: Marshall Ryan Maresca

In Marshall Ryan Maresca’s newest novel, People of the City, seven heroes come together for an Avengers-style ultimate team up. Who are these heroes, and how does their chemistry make it all work? Read on.

MARSHALL RYAN MARESCA:

Five years ago, when my debut novel The Thorn of Dentonhill was released, it was the first step in a larger, far more ambitious plan. A plan that was, frankly, more than a little crazy. But like all crazy plans, once it took root in my brain, I couldn’t let it go.

“There was an idea.  The idea was to bring together a group of remarkable people to see if they could become something more.”  

You’ve heard this idea before, of course.  Regardless of how you phrase it— though the Nick Fury phrasing does resonate with me— it’s an idea we keep coming back to, largely because as long as we’ve had characters that occupy the same world, we want them to meet.  

We love a team-up.

Let’s back up a bit.

Many years ago, I started outlining a vision for an epic fantasy.  Because, of course, I was thinking in terms of the grand epic.  A large cast of characters, with a different skills and backgrounds, who come together for a goal of the common good.  But, regardless of why they come together, the key element is they come together.  

That’s where that first vision kept unravelling.  

When I started to work out who each of these champions were, they each wanted their own journeys, and those were not coming together quickly or neatly.

Then the obvious answer jumped out at me: let it unravel.  Instead of trying to force the plot threads to weave together from the beginning, I realized I could explore each one of them on their own. I could make each one its own series.

From that seed, I cultivated the concepts and casts of characters that grew into the four series set in Maradaine, starting each with The Thorn of Dentonhill, A Murder of Mages, The Holver Alley Crew and The Way Of The Shield, respectively.  Four fantasy series, blending the genre with superhero narratives, police procedurals, heist stories and political thrillers.  With each of those series, I put my champions in place.  And, hopefully, got readers to fall in love with them.

Because, for any Big Hero Team Up to work, you need to love the characters involved.  You need to be invested in not just them and their stories, but the very idea of how cool it’s gonna be when they meet.  You want to build up to that moment where they’re all finally going to be in the same place and think, it’s happening!

So, who are these heroes?

First, from The Thorn of Dentonhill and following novels, we have Veranix Calbert, aka The Thorn.  He’s a magic student at the University of Maradaine, and also a vigilante fighting his personal war against the drug cartel led by Willem Fenmere.  When he thinks he can help someone, he’s going to jump into a situation with his whole heart and no plan.

Next, from A Murder of Mages, there are Inspectors Satrine Rainey and Minox Welling.  Satrine is a former street-rat, former spy and a working mother, who found her way into the constabulary after her husband was attacked and left for dead.  Minox is an untrained, uncircled mage from a large constabulary family, who uses his knowledge and skills to serve as an inspector, even though it means being hated and ostracized by circled mages.  They’re both serious, professional, and dedicated to having each other’s backs.

Third, coming from The Holver Alley Crew: Asti and Verci Rynax.  Asti was a spy in Druth Intelligence, but on one mission he was betrayed, captured and psychically tortured, leaving him with a shattered, damaged mind, and even though he returned home for a quiet life, the quiet life was not there for him.  His brother, Verci, a former thief and trapmaster, was about to open a gadget and tinkerer shop. The two of them were going to lead a simple, straight life on the right side of the law.  But then a fire destroyed everything. They are fiercely loyal to each other and the people in their run-down neighborhood, ready to do whatever they can to keep it safe, no matter what it might take.

Finally, from Way of the Shield, there is Dayne Heldrin, the pacifist member of the Tarian Order, trained in defensive fighting arts and passionate advocate for the civics that govern the city and nation.  Dayne’s closest ally is his friend and mentee, Jerinne Fendall, an initiate in the Order who makes up in energy what she lacks in training.  Dayne believes that violence should only be the last option, but will always fight to save every life he can. Jerinne is finding her own path, trying to face down her fear of failure, and pushing herself to meet the ideals she has set for herself.

But how can you bring together a rooftop-skulking magic vigilante, a pair of law enforcement officers, a team of thieving brothers and two members of an ancient warrior order?  How can you bring the plots of four different series together into one novel?  What kind of mad cat-and-chainsaw juggling act is that?

Throughout all four series, I’ve been seeding corruption and conspiracies, mentions of missing children, and a mysterious group called the Brotherhood. As more stories of child abductions reach our heroes, they’re each drawn in deeper, and have to confront each other, as well as the unholy threat to the city itself.

You’re probably saying, “Marshall, it sounds like I need to read eleven books before I even pick up this one.”  Strictly speaking, no: I make sure you are up to speed with what you need to know, if you want to jump right in here.  But, hey, I’m not going to tell you to not read all my books.  Frankly, I really want you to.

If for no other reason, so that moment where they come together in this book is all the more earned, all the more sweeter for you.  

—-

People of the City: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

 

How To Make a Halloween-Themed Dance Party Playlist — The Scalzi Way!

On Halloween I’m DJing a dance party for SFWA as part of their online Halloween festivities; it’s a two-hour slot so naturally I made a playlist that’s four hours long, with five dozen tracks. And you may ask yourself, “Well, Scalzi, how do you make a Halloween-themed dance party playlist?” I’m glad you asked! Here’s how I do it.

1. Have more music than you will use. I have two hours to program a dance; I will not need four hours of dance music. But I will probably need four hours worth of options — if certain sorts of music are working for the crowd but not others, it’s good not to be stuck with music that’s not working, and to have the option to do more of what is working.

Which brings me to the next point:

2. Have a real mix of styles/eras/genres/etc. The playlist has goth, R&B, psychobilly, EDM, rap, pop and even some metal, because, again, you never know, and you want it all at your fingertips. Likewise, the music on hand dates from the early 70s up until this year, because I expect a range of people showing up and I don’t want anyone left out for more than a song or two.

Also, because this is a dance:

3. Songs have to be songs you can dance to OR AT LEAST emote dramatically to for a few minutes. Whenever I DJ a dance someone will invariably come up and ask me to play a song that I know will absolutely kill the momentum on the dance floor. It’s not a song anyone can dance to, it’s just a song they like. And I tell them “no,” because, get this, I’m DJing a dance. Which means that I’m going to play songs people can dance to, and not play songs people can’t or won’t dance to.

(I also have a rule that anyone who requests a song has to be on the dance floor the entire time the song is playing. This often stops the “I know it’s not really a dance song but –” requests before they get too far, because the type of person who requests songs you can’t dance to often isn’t there to dance.)

When one is putting together a themed dance mix, the rule has to be: It doesn’t matter how “on theme” the song is, if you can’t dance to it, it can fuck off right into the sun. Because, again: It’s a dance. The only exceptions are songs that, if not strictly dance songs, are “dramatically emote with your all friends on the dance floor” songs, which often work just as well, especially if (as is often the case with me) your dance crowd is filled with nerds who are the next closest thing to theater kids in terms of having a total lack of shame on the dance floor.

As a (non-Halloween-themed) example, “Under Pressure” by Queen and David Bowie is not a dance song, but it goes over hugely at a dance because everyone can hang on each other and pretend they are Freddie Mercury and/or David Bowie for four minutes, and who doesn’t love that. Hard rock and heavy metal songs often work the same way (although they have to be really well-known, like AC/DC, Metallica, Van Halen and Def Leppard). I have Jonathan Coulton’s “Re: Your Brains” on my Halloween playlist — you can’t dance to it, but you sure can shuffle like a zombie to it. That will be fine, as long as you program a massively danceable song on either side of it.

4. Songs should be theme-ish. Now, what qualifies as a “Halloween” song? For the purposes of my playlist, here are the criteria:

a) It is explicitly Halloween-themed;
b) It has Halloween-ish themes, like zombies or vampires or mad scientists or ghosts or heaven and/or hell;
c) It concerns itself (or has a title that concerns itself) with spooky, scary, unsettling themes, very often but not limited to death and the consideration thereof;
d) The band/musician is themselves goth/emo/metal/otherwise spooky and/or lending themselves to themes that fit will with Halloween;
e) The song’s instrumentation is dark/spooky/all about that minor key vibe.

I give myself fairly wide latitude here and some songs are really only vaguely related to the theme, but at the end of the day I think they generally work in creating the mood of “dark and danceable,” which is what you want for a Halloween dance (although not all the songs are dark, but the ones that aren’t dark are themed and danceable, at least).

With that said:

5. Don’t put songs on the playlist just because they are theme-ish. For example, I did not put “Monster Mash” on the playlist, because one, I don’t like that song very much, and two, I don’t think anyone really does, it’s just one of those songs people think they should play because it’s Halloween and there’s, like, a law that you have to play it. You don’t have to! And I won’t! If you’re coming to the dance I’m DJing and want to hear it, play it for yourself just before you come into the room where the dance is happening!

This is not to say I don’t have some de rigueur songs on the playlist — I have “Thriller” and “Time Warp” and, yes, “Ghostbusters.” But the thing is, people actually like those songs. Fine! I’m not a huuuuuge fan of the song “Ghostbusters,” but I’m also not a snob about it, so if the vibe goes that direction, sure, I’ll put it on. I want the kids to have fun. Which is the point:

6. It’s supposed to be fun. I DJ mostly for nerds and the nerd-adjacent, which means the music that works best are big hits and accessible beats — nothing too niche or too obscure, or at least, if I do go niche and obscure for a song, I lead them right back to big hits and beats right after. I have my own tastes and I’m confident about what works on a dance floor and what doesn’t. But I’m not the “DJ-as-performance” sort of DJ, although there’s nothing wrong with that and people like it. I’m the “I’m playing you songs you can dance to, one after the other” type of DJ. It works for me, and so far at least people seem to like it. I like that they like it. I like DJing. I’m looking forward to DJing on Halloween, too.

(Oh, and if you’re wondering what’s on the playlist, I’ll publish it after the SFWA party. Until then, know the three songs featured in the entry are on the playlist.)

— JS

I Have a Confession

After years of debating whether or not to come forward with this, I have finally decided to let it be known. This is a truth about myself that I am ashamed for my family to know, as well as all of you. But I shan’t keep this dark secret any longer.

I don’t like bacon.

tons of bacon

Athena ScalziIt is the worst breakfast meat. Anything that comes with bacon on it, like a burger or a sandwich, is better off sans bacon. Anything bacon flavored or bacon scented is just gross. Especially things like potato chips or other snacks foods.

For starters, bacon is dangerous and painful to cook. I have been splattered many a time by the grease, and it scares me to cook it. Secondly, it doesn’t keep well! If you have leftover bacon, what are you supposed to do with it? Heat it back up the next day in the microwave? No way. Also, another point about the grease, there’s so much of it and you can’t pour it down the drain or into the trash so you just have to pour it in a cup and let it solidify? Bizarre.

Not only do I not like bacon, I really am not a fan of anything the ol pig has to offer, except ham. Sausage, pork chops, bacon, all of it is a no-go for me. Ham can stay, though. I will admit, I like candied bacon, but that’s only because I like anything if there’s enough sugar on it. Same goes for chocolate covered bacon; it’s mostly just chocolate so I don’t complain much there.

One thing I do like, however, that is akin to bacon is really tender pork belly in ramen.

bowl of ramen with pork belly in it

(image taken from Mike’s Mighty Good Craft Ramen)

So, I guess I’m kind of hit or miss when it comes to meat from a pig. I’m kind of the same way with poultry; very picky and not easily impressed with things like chicken breast.

Obviously, the best use for bacon is taping it to a cat.

Let me know if you’re a bacon fan, like my dad, or a hater like me in the comments! And have a great day!

-AMS

October Is Almost Over So Make Some Seasonal Treats While You Still Can!

Athena ScalziIt may very well be pumpkin spice season, but let’s not forget it’s also apple cider season! Fewer things in life delight like a warm mug of apple cider. Well, that is, if it’s my cider you’re drinking. And it could be yours too! I’m here today to share with you a recipe for apple cider so good, you’ll never be able to drink store bought again. If you’re not ready for that level of awesomeness, do not scroll any further.

I actually got this recipe online somewhere, and I can’t remember where because it was sophomore year of high school and I have terrible memory. But I do remember that the original recipe was for “apple pie moonshine” that was basically just apple juice and vodka. So all I did was leave out the alcohol and voila! A perfect cider recipe.

the ingredients required for the apple cider

Pictured here is everything you need! As you can see, the secret ingredient to my cider is store-bought apple cider. All I do is add some sugar and spice and it turns out way better than it originally was! So, the recipe is as follows:

2 quarts apple cider

2 quarts apple juice

1 cup brown sugar

1 cup white sugar

2-4 cinnamon sticks

6-8 whole cloves

For the apple cider, I just grab whatever brand is at the store, it doesn’t really matter. As for the juice, again you can use any brand, I just prefer Mott’s. And for the brown sugar you can use light or dark, whatever you have on hand is fine!

So, combine the cider and juice in a big pot and heat it up, do not boil! You just want to get it warm enough so that when you add the sugars, they dissolve. After adding the sugars, reduce to a simmer and add the cinnamon and cloves, then put a lid on it and let it all come together for about an hour. Then remove the cinnamon sticks and cloves and it’s ready to be enjoyed!

I made this cider for my teachers sophomore year, and then I made it again my sophomore year of college for my dormmates, and I’m making it again this year for my family. It’s really simple and I’ve gotten a ton of positive feedback on it, so I really recommend this recipe.

If you try it out, please let me know what you think in the comments! And have a great day!

-AMS

Foliage Photo Album + Quick Thoughts on Photoshop 2021

A very vibrant fall leaf.

First off: Hey, you like fall foliage? I happen to have a lot of it around my house, and I’ve collected some photos of this year’s foliage in a Flickr album. My plan is to add to it, not only this year but also in subsequent years, so it’s just becomes this amazing album of autumnal splendor. Get in on the ground floor!

Second off, a new version of Photoshop has arrived and as someone with a Creative Cloud membership, I downloaded it and have been playing with it. It comes with some nifty-but-not-always-useful new features, including Sky Replacement, “Neural Filters” and more substantive color grading features.

And how are they?

Well, the one I’m most impressed with is the “Replace Sky” feature, because it does both a very good job of replacing the sky without a whole lot of obvious artifacts where the sky meets the foreground, and with then color grading the photo as a whole to match the sky, uh, atmospherics. Photoshop has presets for skies or you can upload your own, and they don’t even have to be real skies — I uploaded a photo of one of my cats and was treated to a seamless photo of a Godzilla-sized Spice peeping over the roof of my house.

The feature is impressive and also one that I don’t think it’s likely I will use a whole lot of, one, because the skies around my house are generally impressive enough, and two because it feels a little on the wrong side of the “totally ‘shopped” line. More accurately I might use it for amusement purposes (see: Catzilla), but if I were to use it otherwise I would probably feel obliged to disclose. I’m not exactly a sky purist — I fiddle around with levels for my skies and am not above ‘shopping out a contrail or two — but I do generally feel like the sky you see has some relation to the sky I shot.

(On the other hand, I can see someone doing portrait photography where the focus was a person swapping out a notably crappy sky for something nicer, because why not. I’m not judging, unless you take a stock sky are and all “look at this perfect sky that just happened to exist where I am” or something.)

The Photoshop “neural filters” are a real mixed bag. I showed off some of what they can do the other day with the “Fake Young Scalzis” entry, and my thought was the “de-aging” filter was fun to play with but not especially useful in the real world — it would have to be a lot more fine-grained in its controls for that (Adobe is aware of this — it’s listed as being in “beta”). Other features are even less fine-tuned, including the ones that are meant to change expressions but mostly just make the face you’re playing with look creepy as hell.

The most successful of the neural filters is the one that offers “skin smoothing,” which is best understood as virtual foundation makeup, and which, when used appropriately, does a very decent job in de-blotching skin, which I think is an entirely acceptable use. Go too far and then suddenly you’re in the Uncanny Valley, which is not great. A little goes a long way. But it is nicely done. This is one of the neural filters that is not in beta.

Finally this year Photoshop offers better color grading options for RAW photos, similar to the color grading you might find with video programs. It’s cool but it’s not something I’ve personally found a use for yet. I figure I will with time.

My overall impression of a lot of these new Photoshop features is that they are fun but not actually essential, with the one thing I can see being essential-ish (the color grading) something I personally don’t have much call for. I’m not sure any of them will make my pictures better, more than they give me something else to play with when I’m processing my photos. This is not a complaint, and anyway since I have the subscription these aren’t upgrades I paid an additional fee for. So why not. They do no harm to the Photoshop program or the way I work with pictures, so ultimately I feel vaguely positive about these features. It’s nice to have new toys.

— JS

Political (Dis)Engagement

Here’s a piece I’m thinking about today, in the New York Times: The Real Divide in America Is Between Political Junkies and Everyone Else.

The opening grafs from the article:

The common view of American politics today is of a clamorous divide between Democrats and Republicans, an unyielding, inevitable clash of harsh partisan polarization.

But that focus obscures another, enormous gulf — the gap between those who follow politics closely and those who don’t. Call it the “attention divide.”

What we found is that most Americans — upward of 80 percent to 85 percent — follow politics casually or not at all. Just 15 percent to 20 percent follow it closely (the people we call “deeply involved”): the group of people who monitor everything from covfefe to the politics of “Cuties.”

What the article describes is… fairly accurate in my experience? My own circle of friends is pretty political in general — either being political is part of their identity, or their identity is political, or both — but outside of my circle of friends are family, acquaintances and neighbors who largely don’t engage with politics with the same attentiveness or fervor. When you are a politically-oriented person, it’s easy to forget that many if most people don’t engage with politics with the same intensity.

I’ll be the first to note that this doesn’t make sense to me — I am of the opinion that politics is only slightly less important than breathing — but then again I was and am a professional opinion-haver. I think you all will recall that I was a newspaper columnist back in the day, and in that column I was writing about current events, including politics. And of course for the last twenty-two years I’ve been writing about it here and elsewhere, too. I have to acknowledge that both professionally and personally, it’s possible I’m an outlier.

And you might be, too! If you are a politically-oriented person, it’s not really that much of a surprise that your immediate circle of friends might be politically-oriented as well. It’s not that much of a surprise because whatever one’s enthusiasms, it makes sense that the people you like spending time with might have similar enthusiasms. Did you know: I write science fiction novels? Do you know what it is that quite a lot of my friends and acquaintances read (and write)? Science fiction novels! And yet, immediately outside of that circle of friends, the number of people who read and write science fiction novels drops off precipitately, into the realm of people who read science fiction novels seldom, or, indeed, at all.

Politics is more important than science fiction, though, you might say, and I wouldn’t disagree with that. But just because something is important doesn’t mean people give it importance. Cishet white folks most of all can make that choice, but I don’t think it’s something that only cishet white people do; I know friends of various marginalized communities who have expressed frustration at others in those communities who are not as politically engaged. Some people don’t care, or think it’s important, or, at the very least, don’t think it’s something they need to think about all the time.

Does this mean that they won’t be responsible voters every couple of years? I think the knee-jerk reaction of everyone who prioritizes politics is to say that they won’t be responsible voters — this is where cranky people say things like “I would rather they don’t vote at all!” — but I think that’s uncharitable. I think it’s possible for someone who doesn’t live and breathe politics to take some time prior to voting to catch up on the big stuff and vote responsibly. And if they don’t… well, as I said in a previous entry, I don’t think political parties really see that as much of a problem. They’re just as happy with someone who will go in and reflexively vote a straight line party ticket as they are with someone who sweats their choices in every race, and maybe even more so, since the person who is really thinking about it might make a non-party-line vote.

I should be clear that how one votes matters, and once again, I think voting for Trump this year is an intrinsically bigoted and dangerous act, not to be excused by “well, I’m not really that political.” One can act politically even when one doesn’t engage with the field of politics. But I do think that those of us who live and breathe politics do well to remember that it’s not an all-encompassing thing for a whole lot of people. They’re not ignorant, or dimwitted, or apathetic. They have a different set of priorities regarding how they want to apportion their brain cycles. One can agree or disagree with those choices, but it doesn’t change the fact those choices are being made.

— JS

The Big Idea: Elizabeth Bear

Things work… until they don’t. And when they don’t, what then? Elizabeth Bear has thoughts on this, and how they relate to her latest novel, Machine.

ELIZABETH BEAR:

Hello, everybody! Thanks for this moment of your time. I’m here to tell you about The Big Idea (or at least one or two of the big ideas) behind my new book, Machine. 

Machine is a space opera about Dr. Brookllyn Jens, a rescue and trauma specialist whose vocation involves jumping out of one perfectly good space ship to reach another, usually significantly less perfectly good one—and then locating any people inside the second ship and getting them to safety as quickly as she can. 

(There’s also a poop joke near the beginning that I put in just for John.)

It takes place in the same setting as Ancestral Night (2019) and when I wrote the Big Idea post for that book, I focused pretty heavily on ideas for new systems of government and maintaining social order and justice. Machine contains some of that as well (as you might expect) but in writing this book, I was much more concerned with what happens to us—as people, as societies—when the systems we have come to rely on and trust betray us. When they break, or when somebody breaks them.

Dr. Jens is a character who is close to my heart. She’s crusty and hypercompetent and has the dark sense of humor you might expect from a first responder or a trauma doc, if you’ve known many of either. (I used to work in a hospital and I am married to a former firefighter, so I’m… familiar with the breed.) She also deals with chronic pain and requires adaptive technology to do her job, and as somebody with chronic pain issues of my own I found that aspect of her character pretty emotional to write. 

She’s dedicated to her calling and devoted to her job, and she’s even more devoted to the institution for which she works. Core General, the biggest hospital in the galaxy, owes a huge debt to the works of James White, an Irish SF writer and pacifist whose Sector General stories were formative for me. 

Jens’ loyalty to the ideals of the hospital and its service to sentient-kind is her most basic motivation. That sense of duty leads her to make choices that have a real adverse effect on her family and on her own emotional life, and she’s so driven she has a hard time seeing that effect. So what happens to somebody like that when they realize that not only is the thing they have been most devoted to broken… but they were among the causes of it getting broken?

And what happens when that break reveals even deeper ruptures and betrayals that go back to the very beginning? 

What do they do then?

—-

Machine: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Bookshop

Read an excerpt. Visit Elizabeth Bear: Instagram|Twitter|Website

The Big Idea: Alexander Dan Vilhjálmsson

If you’ve ever tried to learn another language, or grew up bilingual (or tri or quad), you know that there are some words in each language that just simply can’t be translated. Author Alexander Dan Vilhjálmsson experiences this dilemma in the translation of his novel, Shadows of the Short Days. Read on to see how this Icelandic author keeps each word meaning exactly what it’s supposed to.

ALEXANDER DAN VILHJÁLMSSON:

I never intended to translate my own book. The way it happened felt almost as if by accident. 

I self-published a fantasy novel called Hrímland in 2014. I was exhausted after the process, but soon after I decided to try out translating it. Gollancz had opened their submissions for a limited time, and I used that for motivation.

It was just supposed to be an experiment to see how on earth I would manage to translate this work. I never imagined it would go anywhere. That book ended up becoming Shadows of the Short Days.

See, I knew this was the kind of book where I couldn’t just hand it off to a translator and get a good result without massive interference from myself. I wanted to find out how I could do it, and perhaps in doing so learn something new about how I wrote in English.

Writing fantasy fiction naturally lends itself to a lot of worldbuilding – and that worldbuilding is done through language. In Icelandic, I had pillaged my country’s archaic vocabulary when coming up with fantastical terms in universe, also looking up old kenningar, poetical words and phrases. I turned these words into species, warrior-castes, sorcerer names. Icelandic also lends itself well to making up new words – a language with a lot of compound nouns is fun that way. So, when I looked how I would tackle the translation, I had to decide what to keep and what to translate into English.

When is something too precious to worldbuilding lost in translation? When is something a bit too untranslatable, too culturally important, or just too damn cool to be turned into English?

A whole lot, according to the glossary at the end of the book.

I decided to approach the text like I was writing it anew. I suppose this is what all translators do, but being the writer meant that I could rest assured that authorial approval was on my side. I thought about the English novels I’d read and how they approached which words to make up – and which they kept in English.

First off was, of course, the magic. The world of Hrímland has two types of magic: seiður and galdur. These words are derived from Norse mythology, and Icelandic folklore by extent. In universe, they are vastly different methods of magic. Seiður draws upon a magical resource found in the world, called seiðmagn (made-up word there), and channels that through the user to reshape the world. Galdur is a spoken-word type of magic – incantations and convoluted rituals – drawing upon an incomprehensible, otherworldly force. Galdur is derived from gala, which means to sing, or sometimes howl. I wanted all of this to be there, to be felt. These words have a heavy cultural connotation to them, but technically they could be translated. Galdur could be magic, and seiður sorcery, for example.

It might be easier on the reader to translate these words, but I felt that something important would be lost in doing so. A sense of identity, of a living world. Magic and sorcery are very generic words, and I wanted this world to feel specific.

Using this as a starting point, I went on to leave several words untranslated that still had a counterpart in English. Every time I asked myself: would I make up a word for this if I was writing a fantasy novel in English? Or: Is this an important aspect of the culture depicted in the book? When the answer was yes, I let the word stand in Icelandic. So it was that marbendlar remained untranslated, despite being piscine merfolk, the náskárar were not called Corvians or ravenfolk, and hrævareldar stood as-is, despite being a will-o’-the-wisp.

Some of these things might be familiar to an English reader, so why not translate them? To an Icelandic reader, a part of what makes the book fun is seeing something familiar rendered unfamiliar. Sometimes it’s a landmark in Reykjavík transformed into a thaumaturgical power plant, or a figure from folklore twisted into a dark reflection of what they were historically. These things would be unfamiliar to most English readers, having a different cultural background, but I still wanted them to experience this feeling of the familiar made unfamiliar – the uncanny.

This approach worked fine until I had to translate a náskári speaking to a human.

In the Icelandic text, the ravenfolk speak a very strange type of Icelandic (or, well, Hrímlandic). Their corvine vocal cords can mimic human languages effectively, but they care little for the ways of land-bound species. They much prefer to speak in the rough caws of their native skramsl (which is an archaic word for a raven crowing). They speak a faux type of Old Icelandic, like something you see when reading the Sagas of the Icelanders. The Sagas took place in the 9th to 11th centuries during the settlement of Iceland, written a few centuries later. In universe, the náskárar learned the human tongue then, and have since not bothered with updating it much.

So how do you translate someone speaking fake Old Icelandic in English?

What the hell was I thinking?

I considered several options. Perhaps they should speak in old-fashioned English, or I could use translations of the Sagas as a reference point. None of it felt weird enough. The more words turned to English, the more they lost their archaic and strange way of speaking. It was a big part of what made them unique from other peoples.

This is where it becomes convenient being the author as well as the translator. I did something a bit strange. I rewrote their dialogue and kept a lot of Icelandic words in there. Like, a lot. They almost speak Icelandic half of the time, although it’s the same kind of strange, faux Old Icelandic. The fusion feels like something from another world, a different time, and the English reader gets a real sense that these bastards really are speaking the old tongue. This was a big part of why I wanted to do the translation myself. I knew I wanted to do something unorthodox with them, as with so many other parts of the world.

Even if it’s just mundane things like not translating landi as moonshine.

I’m just thankful that genre readers are real used to strange words.

—-

Shadows of the Short Days: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

Fake Young Scalzis

Artificially de-aged versions of John and Krissy.

A new edition of Photoshop dropped today and one of it’s new feature sets is “neural filters” which can, among other things, make one’s face look younger or older. So for fun I took pictures of me and Krissy from the last month and ran them at the “-25” age setting, which may or may not correspond to minus 25 years.

The result: Well, Krissy certainly recognizably looks like her, and looks not unlike what she looked like when she was younger. I, on the other hand, look like (as my friend Monica put it) the creepy android version of me. I definitely did not look like that when I was in my mid 20s. Also that forehead, oy.

I’ll give the Photoshop age filter a “C” for now; it’s a fun toy, but don’t necessarily expect to apply it to your face and come up with, well, you. I mean, unless you’re Krissy and you don’t age like normal humans, anyway.

Also, I ran the clock the other direction, so here’s me at “+25” age. Apparently at some point in the future I become Bill Murray:

Fake old me.

So I have that going for me, which is nice.

— JS

How Jack Skellington Is the World’s Most Lovable Problematic Skeleton

A picture of Jack Skellington with the words,

Athena ScalziIt’s that time of year again when The Nightmare Before Christmas is finally socially acceptable to watch, and thankfully it will remain in season until Christmas, because it is a wonderful film that doubles as both a Halloween and a Christmas movie. Though if you’re anything like me, you watch it far more often than just around the holidays.

You may remember I did a post about The Nightmare Before Christmas back in 2018. However, that post was only to express my adoration of the movie and tell you all it was my favorite. So, with the knowledge that it’s my favorite, let’s explore why my favorite character in my favorite movie of all time is actually kind of dick. And of course, spoiler warning (but it’s been almost thirty years since it came out, do you really need a spoiler warning after like, ten?).

Jack Skellington at the Halloween Town town hall.

Let’s talk about the fact that throughout the movie, it’s made very clear that Sally loves ol’ Bone Daddy. And she loves his presentation to the town over Christmas! That is, right until he swings back into Pumpkin King mode and describes Santa Claus, or Sandy Claws, as the monstrous ruler of Christmas Land. You can see the admiration and wonder on her face be replaced by a disturbed look.

So when the town starts getting ready for Christmas, Sally has some concerns, and tries to talk to Jack about them, but the boney biatch doesn’t listen. She tries to warn him of her vision, but he’s too obsessed over giving her a task to make his suit. He dismisses her worries about his “grand” ideas and then talks over her the entire time, until he basically says “okay I’ve given you your task now leave and get to it” without taking the time to hear her out. He never asks, “why do you think this?” or “what makes you feel this way?” He’s just so adamant about what he wants that he doesn’t give her the time of day.

I’m not sure about etiquette in Halloween Town, but Jack literally had three children kidnap someone. Verbatim, just straight up snatch and throw him into a trash bag. That’s pretty messed up! Spooky skeleton or not, you can’t just nab someone (even the music for that scene is called Nabbed). But, Jack feels literally no remorse about it, and you can tell by the way he steals Santa’s hat right off his head before the kids shove him back into the bag after presenting him to Jack.

It’s only after he ruins Christmas, gets blown out of the sky, and saves Santa and Sally that you can tell he feels bad. Jack apologetically hands Santa’s hat back to him; Santa yanks that hat out of Jack’s hands, then reprimands him for not listening to Sally.

(Also why do the kids just get off scot-free even though if they hadn’t given Santa to Oogie Boogie none of that would’ve been an issue? Jack specifically said to “leave that no good Oogie Boogie out of this!” But whatever, this isn’t about the kids, and their song about kidnapping Santa was fantastic, so I’ll let it slide.)

Jack Skellington in Christmas Town.

So, obviously, the big glaring problem with Jack and what makes him such a dick is that he tried to take over an entire other holiday, simply because he was bored and discontented with his life, and he felt he could, and even should, as seen in the quote from the song “Jack’s Obsession,” “And why should they have all the fun? It should belong to anyone. Not anyone, in fact, but me!”

It started out with a child-like wonder, and then grew into an admiration and love of everything Christmas Land had to offer. He loved the colors, the gifts, the decorations, the tree, everything about it. And then he tried to take it, and do it all himself, and just erase Santa out of the picture entirely and make Christmas his. And that’s what we call appropriation.

Being the ruler of one holiday wasn’t enough for ol’ Jack, the selfish skeleton wanted another one, but still wanted to keep his, too. That’s like the worst part, it wasn’t even a trade, he didn’t offer Santa Halloween, he just took Christmas and kept his own holiday on top of that. That’s a dick move.

Of course, by the end, Jack realizes his mistake and feels bad, and defeats Oogie Boogie and apologizes to Sally and everything, so he’s not a total dick. He was just misguided. At least that’s what I tell myself so I can still love Jack and The Nightmare Before Christmas as a whole.

Jack Skellington and Sally at the end of the movie.

Let me know in the comments if you think Jack was a total ass (and that Sally deserved better), or if Jack is just a lovable scamp, or somewhere in the middle. And have a great day!

-AMS

The Big Idea: James S. Murray

Have you ever felt the crippling anxiety of being lost? How about the feeling of being watched? Or both at the same time? Author James S. Murray (writing with Darren Wearmouth) explores this fear in his Big Idea for his new novel, Don’t Move.

JAMES S. MURRAY:

I’ve only been lost in the woods once. It happened recently, in the fall of last year.

My wife Melyssa and I had just moved from an apartment in the city to a quiet house in Princeton, NJ. As a lifelong New Yorker, I felt like I’d teleported to another dimension, surrounded by a natural setting that seemed light years away from the chaotic hustle and bustle of the city.

We suddenly had this big new backyard with grass and songbirds and trees: the kind of things city dwellers only dream about. Most appreciative was our fluffy 1-year old puppy Penny, who despite only being 10 pounds, made herself at home in this new wild kingdom.

After the move, Melyssa and I were eager to explore the trails and hiking paths in the area, many of which are steeped in history. Miles of trails important to the Revolutionary War zigzag around the back roads of Princeton. We were determined to hike them all.

One cool October evening, Melyssa was finishing up some work in the house, so I decided to pack up the puppy and take her for a walk along one of the older trails. Just the two of us. I parked the car near a trailhead by the Princeton Battleground, a spot where George Washington and his soldiers made a valiant stand against British forces in the late 18th century. 

It was serene. The sun had just dipped below the tree line, casting long sideways shadows across the forest floor. Penny and I walked for a while, and though I like to consider myself good with directions, I knew how easy it could be to get lost. One wrong turn and the whole forest could transform into a maze.

Eventually, we got deep enough into the trail where I figured there wouldn’t be other people or dogs around, so I let Penny off the leash so she could sprint and get some of her energy out. We must’ve only been about a mile from our car, but night was beginning to fall. The shadows along the ground were beginning to creep up and turn the tree silhouettes from the brown color of bark to black. Penny was just about out of breath. I figured a couple more minutes of walking and then we’d turn back.

But then I heard a noise.

I stopped dead in my tracks. Something rustled a few yards in front of us on the trail.

My mind raced. A bear? A murderer? The vengeful ghost of a fallen soldier?

It was a squirrel. Penny saw it before I did and within an instant, her instincts took over. She howled with ferocity as her little legs darted off the path in front of me, weaving in and out of the low brush. The squirrel took to the tree tops, shaking the canopy of leaves as it tried to outrun the barking fur ball chasing it from below. It all happened so fast.

And then, in an instant, I was alone.

At this point, the sun had sunk below the horizon. October nights get dark quickly, so it wasn’t long until the buzzing of insects filled the air. All of sudden, the trees felt like they were closing in around me. I pulled out a flashlight and trekked forward in the direction where Penny had run off. I called out her name while trying to avoid tripping on any of the rocks or vines that dotted the overgrown brush.

My imagination started running wild. The massive oak trees and pines that lined the path were hundreds of years old. It made me wonder. What other ancient creatures could be dwelling in these woods? Watching me at this very moment? The thought chilled me to the bone.

Just as the fear was setting in, a familiar jingling sound carried through the air. It was the bell on Penny’s collar. I focused my flashlight on the noise and spotted her thirty yards behind me. She was circling the base of a tree, trying with all her might to will the squirrel down from its perch. I breathed a massive sigh of relief and scooped her up into my arms.

The walk back to the car turned into more of a jog, and eventually, into a run. I was ready to get out of there. Whatever creatures I had imagined in my mind, it felt like all of them were after me. And considering I was armed with only a flashlight and a Shih Tzu puppy, I didn’t stand much of a chance.

Each night, when the sun goes down, the woods transform from a place of relaxation into a place of the unknown. I think that’s what makes it so scary as a setting. We just don’t know what’s out there.

So what happens when a church group from the Bronx ends up stranded in an untouched canyon inhabited by a prehistoric arachnid with an unquenchable thirst for blood? 

Don’t Move is all about that idea of survival. Megan Forrester has just lost her family in a horrific tragedy that haunts her every waking moment. She sets out on a camping trip that was meant to be a turning point for her. But just like in my experience, her venture into the outdoors takes a turn for the worse when she realizes that she’s up against a creature that has survived for thousands of years by defying evolution at every turn.

And that’s the big idea. When life has seemingly taken everything from you, how do you go on? How do you pull out the will to survive when it seems fate is trying to take you down? Some of us use sheer grit and determination. And some of us use Penny.

—-

Don’t Move: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Bookshop

Read an excerpt. Follow the author on Twitter.

A Bit of Disclosure, Re: Sneak Previews and Special Events

A picture from a Lovecraft Country special event, with a very tall, spacey-looking creature, who recited poetry.

In the last couple of months, I’ve — quite mysteriously! — been added to a number of PR lists inviting me to virtual sneak previews of upcoming shows and other related media events. The way it works is you’re invited to an online “red carpet” event, with either sneak previews of the show/movie or some ancillary-but-related event: The picture above, for example, is of a spoken-word performance by Jurnee Smollett in a VR space, associated with her show Lovecraft Country. With the invite often comes swag of some sort, sometimes something as goofy as package of space-related candies, and sometimes as expensive as a virtual reality rig. If one accepts the invite to screening/event, the PR company will ask that in return one notes that one is participating in said event on social media, often by using a particular hashtag, so they can track who is talking about the event, etc.

So that’s the basic deal. PR companies are doing this at this point because they can’t do the traditional red carpet events but they still want to get the word out, and with regard to me, I expect that they see me as someone reasonably well-connected into science fiction/fantasy circles, so getting me to talk about their shows/movies on social media is a useful thing.

I’ve been invited to more of these sort of events than I’ve accepted, but occasionally something will pique my interest to attend — for example, a trio of Lovecraft County-themed VR events (because I was a fan of the book, and now, the TV series), and just today I accepted an invite for a screening of Moonbase 8, an upcoming comedy series starring John C. Reilly and Fred Armisen, because I thought it looked funny. In keeping with the Whatever disclosure policy, I feel it’s ethical to note that I’m getting these invites, that sometimes I accept them, and that sometimes they’ll send along swag when I accept the invite.

Also, while generally speaking I’ll be happy to note that I’ve attended/participated in one of these events (up to including hashtag use), as a matter of principle I won’t falsely say I enjoyed a screening or event if in fact I did not enjoy it. If I say something positive about the event, it will be because I genuinely enjoyed the experience. I’m not bought off by a box of candy (or by a VR rig). This is reminiscent of when I was a professional film critic and would attend junkets to see movies early, and they would give us swag bags and t-shirts and do various events for us. I remember specifically being taken to a really cool event for Super Mario Brothers. It did not entice me to speak well of that mess of a film.

In any event, that’s the deal. If I chat up these events, I’ll happily disclose their nature as something I was invited to, so you’ll be aware of it and can tweak your expectations accordingly. It does no harm to pull back that little bit of the curtain, I think, and quite a lot of good, in terms of credibility.

— JS

And Now, Some General Thoughts About the Election

A picture of foliage which also says

John ScalziAnd to do it, I’m bringing back the “talking to myself” format. Hello, me!

Hello, you! Who, uhhhh, is also me. 

Indeed. So, what are your questions for me about this year’s election?

Well, since you’ve already detailed how you think Trump will do in your own county, any thoughts on how you think he’ll do otherwise?

Sure. I think he’s gonna lose.

You’re sure about that?

Nope! I was almost certain he was going to lose in 2016, and look where we are now. So I have a healthy respect for my being wrong. That said, I feel pretty confident he’s going to lose.

And why is that?

Because this year isn’t 2016, and we are no longer under the illusion a dangerously incompetent and racist con man can’t win. He totally can! And did already, thanks to the intricacies of the electoral college and some good ol’ fashioned foreign interference in our elections. I mean, no one, not even Trump himself, thought he’d win it — and he didn’t want to win it. When he won, it totally fucked up his plans to add a wing to his media empire. But he did win, and now we all know better.

So I think people who have disliked having Trump as president these last four years are taking the election more seriously. They’re voting early, they’re voting down ballot to get rid of his enablers when they can, and they’re aware of the consequences if he stays in office for an additional term. Lots of people, myself included, are not voting for Biden and Democrats as much as they are voting against Trump and the GOP. Which I think is fine — whatever gets people to the polling stations.

But more than that, it seems pretty clear from the polls that Trump is way behind, two weeks from the actual election date.

He was behind in the 2016 polls, too, you know.

I do know. But as others have noted, and in more detail than I will go into here, the 2016 polls were not as wrong as people thought they were in the aftermath. The national polls had Clinton up by a couple of percentage points and a few million votes — and in fact she got more actual votes from actual humans than Trump, by about three million. The polls were not horribly wrong; they were, however, somewhat optimistically read. I don’t think anyone’s being optimistic about poll numbers this year, and they have a rather healthier respect for things like margins of error.

With that said, at this point Biden is polling far better than Clinton was, not only nationally but in “battleground” states, and a few other places besides. I mean, fuck me, Biden is within two points of Trump in Texas, and only .2% ahead in Ohio, which means at the moment it’s a statistical tie here. Trump’s significantly behind in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania polls, and behind but within the margin of error in Florida. He loses any of those states on election night, he’s probably toast. Biden can lose one or two of them and he can probably still win.

Two weeks is still a long time and lots of things can happen (hey, remember the Comey bombshell?) but the point is that Biden is in a much stronger position than Clinton was all the way around, and Trump is both a known (bad) quantity, and is currently not doing anything to help himself in the home stretch. There’s a reason all those Republicans are suddenly trying to put some distance between themselves and the president.

Yeah, hey, what’s up with that, anyway?

Look, no one can see the road ahead better than a boot-licker; they’re kind of at that level. The more sitting Republicans you see peeling off from Trump, the more you know they already think it’s over, because Trump, how to put this, is not forgiving of sudden yet inevitable betrayal. If he does win, there will be retribution. No one in the modern GOP is exactly a profile in political courage, so their abandonment is telling.

Are you worried about election day hijinks at the polls? 

I am but less so than I was before.

Why is that?

Because so many Democratic and/or anti-Trump voters have decided to vote early — it’s possible the majority of Biden voters will have their votes in before election day — that if the GOP or Trump tries to fuck with day-of voting, the only people they’re going to hurt is themselves. Trump is a bit of a Bond villain, in that he loves to monologue and the longer he talks the more he reveals his secret plans. Trump made it clear early that he wants to sabotage the electoral process and that he’s not planning to accept results he doesn’t like, and, oh, hey, if actual fucking Nazis want to patrol polling places, well, that’s fine with him. So, yeah, a lot of people seem to have taken that as a hint to get their votes in early. I sure did.

Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s still likely there will be at least some day-of issues. There will be long lines, I do think at least some homegrown fascists will be about waving their semi-automatics, and there’s a real possibility that at least a couple of states will have their electoral systems hacked because the GOP is bound and determined to make the actual process of democracy in the US as vulnerable as possible. But again, if most people voting against Trump have gotten their votes in by then, then fucking with polling places mostly hurts Trump.

This is a long way of saying: Hey, get your vote in early, okay? In person if you can (the mail is going to be… unreliable), but if you are voting by mail, don’t screw around, put it back into the mail the same day you get it.

Admit it: you’re not gonna be that upset if Trump voters can’t vote.

Well, no, actually I am.

Scoff! Scoff!

Stop that. Look, here’s the thing: Either you believe that every adult US citizen has the right to vote, or you don’t. And if you do believe that every adult US citizen has the right to vote, then you accept it’s entirely possible that, in a fair election, the majority of voters might not vote the way you want them to. If Trump wins the election fair and square, then, a) oh fuck, but also b) then he’s won the election and that’s how it goes.

Now, the thing is, as it stands today and right now, only one of the two major parties in the US is generally for every adult US citizen voting, and it’s not the Republicans. The GOP has clearly gone out of its way to make it as difficult as possible for many adult US citizens to vote, correlating its largest efforts in areas that are Democratic leaning and/or substantially non-white districts. Anyone who argues otherwise is tendentious and supporting the cause of racism and disenfranchisement. And, you know. Fuck them right in the ear for that.

There would be irony if, in attempting to destroy confidence in the 2020 election, Trump ends up screwing himself and the GOP, and I admit I am not made of such stolid moral timber that if that happens I won’t chortle a bit. But, again: Either you believe that every adult US citizen has the right to vote, or you don’t. If you don’t, we’re not allies, even if we’re voting in the same direction. You’re not substantially different, ethically speaking, than the modern GOP.

What do you think is gonna happen down ballot?

I think it’s more likely than not the Democrats are going to win the Senate and keep the House. And while I would be delighted to have Mitch McConnell lose his seat to Amy McGrath, that seems not particularly likely, so I will settle for him no longer being majority leader, and being treated with the same care and consideration as he treated the Democrats.

GWAAAARGH WHAT ABOUT HUNTER BIDEN AND HIS LAPTOP —

Man, shut the hell up, what’s wrong with you?

Sorry, I was trying to get into the head of a Trump supporter for a minute there.

I mean, I appreciate the effort, and also, when the NY Post reporter who was made to type out that bullshit refused to have his name put on it, that tells you something. Or tells me something, as a former journalist. No one, including the people who are desperately trying to get it into the mainstream news as an “October Surprise,” think it’s anything other than Russian-generated disinformation fed to a useful tool. I do think it’s interesting how frustrated the right is that no one seems to be falling for the obvious bullshit this time around, however.

What’s your thought if Biden wins and Trump doesn’t concede?

So what?

What do you mean?

I mean, so what? Show me where in the Constitution of the United States it says that no presidential election is valid unless the loser concedes. My expectation — and again, I’ve been wrong before — is that Biden is going to win by a fairly substantial amount, both in the popular and in the electoral vote. If and when that happens, I think the collapse of GOP support for Trump, which is already happening, will intensify as everyone asks themselves if Trump is actually worth a civil war. Call me optimistic, but I like to think most GOPers would prefer not to have that, especially when the alternative is bland, safe, chummy Joe Biden.

Aside from that, Trump doesn’t actually control the elections, the states do. There’s been talk about some states ignoring the election results and having their GOP-led legislatures assign their electoral votes to Trump no matter what, but — again, I may be overly optimistic — I don’t really see that happening, especially if Biden is way up in the results.

The moral to this story is that it will be really helpful if Biden’s margin is too big to fuck with, so please remember to vote, early if you can.

If Biden wins, then the electors will meet in December, the results will be certified in January and Trump will be out the door on January 20 at 12:01pm regardless of whether he accepts the result or not. So, you know, fuck him if he doesn’t concede. He doesn’t have to. He’ll be just as gone.

Even if he loses, he’ll still have nearly three months to go as president. 

Yup, and it would be foolish not to expect some malice between election day and January 20, 2021, because Donald Trump is a horrible shitpile of a human, and also, if he wants Putin to give him asylum, he’s got to wreck as much shit as he can on the way out. I do imagine Biden’s team is already factoring that into the transition period and will hit the ground running on January 20th.

Do you really think he’ll go to Russia?

No. I think he’ll pardon himself as he walks out the White House door on January 20 and announce a new media network by 3pm. But I do think he’s well aware of to whom he owes money, and he’ll be happy to have as much of that forgiven by doing favors with the time he has left to him. Good news, such as it is: He can’t pardon himself from state crimes, and I expect New York State is going to have a nice packet of summons and subpoenas waiting for him at 12:01pm, January 20. I mean, maybe they’ll give him a day at Mar-a-Lago first. I wouldn’t count on it, though.

This idea does not displease you.

Nope. I’d be happy for the rest of the man’s natural life to be one criminal case after another. He deserves no less!

Any last comments?

Yes! Hey, folks, did I mention you should vote? And vote early if you can? In person would be best! But however you do it, get it done as soon as possible. It’s going to matter. Thanks.

— JS

Reporting in From Trump Country, 2020

A picture of a Trump/Pence sign, with the notation by me: Same sign. Different year.

John ScalziFour years ago (almost exactly), I wrote about Darke County, the place in Ohio where I live, and how I expected it would vote in the 2016 presidential election. Darke County is a small rural county, and like most small rural counties in the United States, it skews pretty seriously conservative and Republican. As part of the 8th District of Ohio, it hasn’t sent a Democrat to the House of Representatives since 1932, and it hasn’t voted for a Democrat for president since 1964. It’s as reliably Republican as you can get, and in 2016 I predicted that Donald Trump would take the county with about 70% of the vote, a number I picked out of the air based on the share of the vote previous Republican candidates for president garnered in the county while I was living in it.

Well, I was wrong about that. Trump won the county with 78.53 percent of the vote — not just outstripping my own prediction by eight and a half points, but winning the county by the largest percentage of any presidential candidate going back at least to 1856, that being the presidential election where Wikipedia stops breaking down the Ohio presidential votes by county. He also did so by a substantial margin over the next highest percentage-getter (that would be Mitt Romney, with 71.72%).

Regardless of whether I like it or not — and I don’t — Trump was a historic candidate for Darke County, and one whose selection cannot merely and entirely be explained away by reflexive Republican lever-pulling. My county chose Donald Trump, specifically. The vast and unambiguous majority of the voters here wanted what he was selling. And, well. They got it, all right.

Now it’s 2020, and you may ask: How does Darke County feel about Trump four years on?

The answer, at least as far as I can see: Pretty much the same, actually, and those who are in the tank for him are even more obviously in the tank for him than they were four years ago. Four years ago in Bradford, the town where I live, there were Trump street signs, like the one in the picture above. Here in 2020, there are multiple signs per yard, and banners, and flags, not just with Trump’s name on them, but of him standing on a moving tank whilst screaming eagles fly alongside him, and no, those flags are not being flown ironically, they really mean it. There are occasional Biden signs, mostly of modest size, but anecdotally they are outnumbered by Trump signs by at least twenty to one. The 2020 Darke County Trump tank is deep and perhaps a bit frantic. If Trump is hoping for “shy voters” to suddenly spring up to take him to victory, he’s not going to get them here. Darke County Trump supporters may be many things, but shy does not appear to be one of them.

Whether the ostentatiousness of Trump’s supporters here will translate to the same number of votes as he got in 2016, or if it’s just whistling in the dark(e) by people who can read the news as well as anyone else and can see the looming electoral massacre, I can’t say. I can say it would not surprise me at all for Trump to once again get 79% of the Darke County vote, give or take a few percentage points. I will be surprised if he gets less than 75% of the vote. If he somehow slides below 70%, I’ll be in shock, and Biden will almost certainly have had a landslide victory, which will include taking Ohio as a whole.

And you may ask, well, how can this possibly be? Did Darke County not experience the same previous four years as all the rest of the country? Does its citizens not see how historically awful Trump is? What are they thinking? How can this be explained away?

Well, and in no particular order, here are some of the reasons why I think Trump is still going to take Darke County, Ohio (note well: My explanations will mostly not be the reasons offered by actual Trump voters):

1. In fact, Darke County didn’t experience the same four years as some other places. Darke is, again, a small rural county in Ohio. It’s 98.5% white, and conservative in a Republican state. Trump’s awfulness is mitigated here by the county’s whiteness, Trump’s general lack of antagonism for Ohio as a whole, and by the fact that although agriculture has been disrupted by his administration’s dimwitted policies, Trump and the GOP are perfectly fine with welfare for farmers and the agricultural sector. The pandemic has not bitten down as hard here as it has in other places, both in the state and in the US in general. Don’t get me wrong, Darke County has not escaped the general rain of shit from the last four years. But it’s fair to say it’s been a lighter steady patter of raindrops at the periphery of a much larger storm.

2. Trump is offering up conservative policies and judges. He’s doing a whole bunch of other really shitty things, because he’s a corrupt and bigoted grifter, but also, you can’t deny that he’s danced with them whut brung him, and given doctrinaire social and economic conservatives pretty much everything they’ve wanted over the last four years. And guess what? If he wins the election, they get another four years of that! There are a whole lot of people for whom that’s enough — or at least, there are enough who want what they can only get with a Trump win (Biden’s not gonna stuff any more poorly vetted, stridently doctrinaire conservative judges on the bench) that they’re willing to put up with graft and corruption that they don’t think is going to affect them, anyway.

3. A whole bunch of the voters are being fed shit from social media and questionable news sources and either they don’t know it or they don’t care. It’s not an exaggeration to say that the epistemic capture in the US of (not only, but in particular) poor and working class whites by conservatives, billionaires and propagandists is one of the great social engineering success stories of the last half century. This includes an informational ecosystem that’s easy to get into and hard to get out of because it simultaneously stimulates fear and anger responses, degrades one’s own ability to reason, and breeds mistrust in outside sources and political points of view. In other words: cult conditioning.

Now, it would unfair nonsense to suggest the people of a county that hasn’t gone for a Democrat since LBJ would not be reliably voting for whomever the GOP candidate was every four years. But it’s not unfair nonsense to say that convincing a historically large percentage of these folks to vote for someone who four years ago was clearly not competent to be president, and in 2020 has a nearly four-year record of venal graft and malice, is the fruit of a decades-long effort to get into their heads and make them resistant to actual facts that are right in front of them. It’s not coincidence that QAnon is metastasizing through conservative and GOP circles at breathtaking speed; having a millions-strong corps of voters willing to lap up even that level of rank bullshit is in fact the goal.

(“But her emails!” Well, yes, and that’s to my point exactly — the decades-long demonization of Hillary Clinton far out of proportion to any actual misdeed or misstep she might have ever made is a perfect case study of how this epistemic capture has worked, and helped to make her a weak enough candidate that a walking loaf of unearned privilege like Trump could edge her out of the presidency.)

Related and slightly more charitably:

4. Not everyone actually follows or cares about politics. These are low-information voters but it doesn’t mean they’re stupid; it just means on a day-to-day basis they’re worried about what life is dishing out directly in front of them. The US is really good at filling up all your hours with work and family and errands and Dancing With the Stars and/or The Bachelor, especially if you are poor or working class and you’re on an economic precipice anyway. Politics is a luxury item in the United States, and again, we work really hard to make it so. So when it comes down to voting, often it’s just easier to pick a team to root for, and probably the one that all your friends and family are rooting for and the one you see and hear talked about on radio, TV and social media.

I understand that most of the people who are reading this aren’t that sort of person and possibly cannot fathom how someone could be this sort of person. But if you’ll allow me a moment of cynicism here, let me suggest that these sorts of voters are some of a political party’s favorite. Nothing like someone unthinkingly punching in a party line vote, no matter if you are Republican or Democrat. The parties rely on that sort of “this is my team” thinking. And here in Darke County, that team is the Republicans.

5. Some of the people voting for Trump are just shitty bigots. As I (and others) have said before, not everyone who votes for Trump is a shitty bigot, but all the shitty bigots are voting for Trump. I’m not going to pretend my home county doesn’t have its fair share of shitty bigots. They’re everywhere! Darke County is not different.

6. Rather more of the people voting for Trump are not shitty bigots in their daily lives, but don’t have to deal with the fallout of shitty bigotry, so, meh. Hey, you know what’s really hard to make white straight cis people understand? The dynamics of systemic bigotry! It will not be news for many of you reading this that the US is really good at convincing people that so long as they aren’t actively a shitty bigot every waking moment of their lives, that they don’t have to be concerned with, or engaged on, issues of systemic bigotry — and indeed (see point 3 above) there’s a whole apparatus designed to make them feel like when other people want them to engage on those systemic issues, it’s them who are being attacked when they’re good people, okay?

And they are perfectly good lovely people on a day to day basis, who also aren’t wrapping their heads around what a vote for Trump means to so many other people and in a larger context… or they are, and have decided it’s not really all that bad.

I’m not here to excuse voting for a shitty bigot. What I said four years ago about it still stands, and here in 2020, you can’t say you don’t know who Trump is as a president, even if you are a low-information voter. My friends, no one who has the mental capacity to fill out a ballot is that low-information at this point. Voting for Trump in 2020 is an explicitly racist, sexist, homophobic and transphobic act, among the many other terrible things that it is.

Also, it’s something that at least 70% of my neighbors, and possibly as many as 80% of them, are planning to do in a couple of weeks, if they have not already done so.

I’ve had a lot of folks ask me (and some others judge me) about that and ask me what it’s like. The answer I have for that is, well, I don’t know, what’s it like for you? Very few of us, I suspect, and especially the straight white cis folks, are completely without a Trump voter somewhere in our social orbit, just as very few Trump voters are completely without a Biden voter in their midst — I mean, for at least some of those Trump voters, that person is me. 63 million Americans voted for Trump in 2016; it’s not unreasonable to predict he’ll pull close to that number in this election as well (I’m hoping for much less, mind you). And some of those voters might be, and statistically speaking are likely to be, your family members, or friends, or neighbors or co-workers or classmates.

For me: the ones that are active, shitty bigots I am happy to leave by the side of the road, and have, when it’s come to that. As for the rest, well, you know, look: I am not innocent in my life of having benefited from and even having leveraged to my advantage the biases of the system. I’m still working to be a better person on that score. I recognize that I’ll be working on myself, and to make the world and my country fairer and more just for everyone, until I die, and that I will leave the work undone when I go. We are all in process.

Including, potentially, people who voted for Trump. There are some people who voted for Trump in 2016 who are actively casting a vote against him in 2020 because they realize now the danger he represents. There are going to be some people who will need to have him lose (knock on wood) this year and have all his presidential protections stripped away before they recognize all the graft and corruption and malign incompetence he brought into the White House, and how it damaged the country. Part of me is gonna want to yell at them because Jesus Christ it was all right there how could you not see it, but another part of me is going to take a breath and remember we are all on the metaphorical road to Damascus, and some people take longer to have the scales fall from their eyes. When they do, work can begin.

Biblical allusions aside, I’m not, shall we say, expecting miracles. I’m also not expecting Darke County to go blue in 2024. But I think it’s okay to hope for some change, and to work for it as well. We’ll see how it goes.

In the meantime, please vote, folks. It matters.