Longtime Scalzi obsessives will remember that Agent is actually the first novel I wrote, back in 1997, when I wrote it as a “practice novel” to see if I could actually write to novel length. Since then it’s had lots of adventures as it moved toward print, and I continue to be amazed that it just keeps coming — for a practice novel, it’s had an amazingly long and successful life. It does help that it’s actually a pretty fun story.
Since the story is now 11 years old, but is supposed to take place in contemporary time (i.e., now), for this edition of the book I’ve gone in and made some updates to the text to make sure it reflects the world of 2008 accurately. The changes are subtle but they’re definitely there. As such, this version of Agent to the Stars could accurately be called “the author’s definitive version.” Which is to say if you get this one, you’re getting the story as I prefer it to be read (if you got the other version — hey, it’s a collector’s item. Everybody wins).
If you haven’t read this one yet, I hope you’ll check it out. It’s tons of fun and I had a blast writing it. I think you’ll have a blast reading it too.
Here’s a small and possibly irrelevant piece of personal trivia about Dead Reign, the third book by T.A. Pratt featuring sorcerer and all around badass Marla Mason: One of my best friends from Ben Lomond Elementary School in Covina, California was named Marla Mason. So when Blood Engines, the first book in the series, came out, it was difficult for me to imagine the book’s Marla Mason as anyone but my friend Marla, all grown up. Which was sort of a kick, if you know what I mean. I am assured by T.A. Pratt that the name is merely coincidental.
Fortunately for the rest of you, imagining a childhood friend as the heroine of these books is not required for their enjoyment: Mason is enough of a character in herself to stand quite well enough on her own. And that’s a good thing, because in Dead Reign she has to stand up to a very serious opponent: Death himself. Man, it’s always something. Here’s T.A. Pratt to explain why and how Mason has gotten herself into this predicament.
I didn’t think I’d ever write a series, but here I am, about to see publication of Dead Reign, the third book following a continuing cast of characters — though I like to think each book stands alone just fine. I can’t seem to stop myself; I’m having too much fun. The headliner for each book is Marla Mason, chief sorcerer of the imaginary east coast city of Felport, a woman whose job description falls somewhere between mob boss and superhero. (She keeps the city from being destroyed by malevolent supernatural entities. In exchange, she gets a nice cut of the city’s legal and illegal revenue.)
One of the perqs of Marla’s job is use of the dagger of office, a knife passed down from chief sorcerer to chief sorcerer over the decades, with a blade capable of cutting through anything, material or immaterial, from reinforced concrete to ghosts. One relatively uneventful summer day, Marla is visited by a young man who claims to be the god of Death, ruler of the underworld… and he says the dagger of office once belonged to him. Turns out the dagger used to be Death’s terrible sword, the blade from the grim reaper’s scythe, a nasty weapon capable of stealing life and carving up anything — even abstract concepts like time and hope. Death lost the weapon long ago (in a bet, naturally), and now he wants it back.
Most people would probably do what the god of Death asks, but Marla is more stubborn than prudent, and she refuses to give up the dagger. Death responds by banishing Marla from Felport and taking control of the city for himself, promising to let her back in once she agrees to his demands. Death’s not exactly experienced with governing living humans, but he has help from a couple of associates, including an elderly necromancer with the Cotard Delusion (that is, he thinks he’s *dead*), and the revivified mummy of presidential assassin, actor, and all-around bastard of a guy, John Wilkes Booth.
Having been beaten up and ousted from her home by a bona-fide god, a reasonable person might choose to cut her losses and make a deal. Marla, however, takes a different path. “If the god of Death is in my city,” she reasons, “that means the underworld is currently undefended.”
So she decides to invade and conquer Hell. (Not quite singlehandedly. She has her new personal assistant, a valet in the mode of Jeeves, who happens to be crushingly agoraphobic.) She figures if she takes over the underworld, she can trade Death his domain in exchange for hers.
My original plan was to have Marla enter a sort of patchwork underworld incorporating elements of the afterlife from various cultures, from the bureaucratic hell of Chinese mythology to the fields of Elysium to the Inferno of Dante. I got to thinking, though, about the way people create their OWN hells in life, and decided it would be more powerful to force my very flawed heroine to explore an underworld created from her own guilt, regret, and bad decisions… and inhabited by the not-insignificant number of dead people she’s personally killed.
(If that sounds a little weighty, rest assured that the underworld also contains steampunk cyborg dragons, guys with knives for fingers, and a guano-stained city full of undead pigeons.)
You can read more about Marla at MarlaMason.net, which includes a Marla Mason short story, “Pale Dog.” She’s recently started sharing glimpses of her life on Twitter. Visit T.A. Pratt’s LiveJournal here.
After having spent a lovely weekend in Canada. Such a nice place. With nice people! Yes, I know this is the standard report on the place. But it’s true.
However, still not home — I’m in Cleveland for a Library Journal event. But our housesitter has not told us the cats have shredded the place yet (or shredded the housesitter), so I guess we’re good for one more day.
I want to take a moment to thank those of you who read the Whatever who donated toward Chad’s goal — not just because it’ll be fun to see him dance like a monkey, but because in doing so you’ve also helped a lot of kid learn about science by donating needed supplies to teachers and schools. Well done you, all the way around.
And Chad, if you’re reading this: Make that dance good, my friend.
The room is called the “teen dream” room; it’s designed to approximate the dream room of a 14-year-old girl circa 1983 or so. The pictures on the wall include teenage Rob Lowe, C. Thomas Howell, Matt Dillon, Kristy MacNicholl… and unicorns. Athena thinks it’s just about the best thing ever. I have a slight headache.
I’m likely to be posting on a lighter schedule through Tuesday, on account I have things to do and places to be. It’s entirely possible I may even skip a day. Or two! I just want to warn you ahead of time so you don’t worry that I’ve been consumed by bears or something. The consumed-by-bear scenario is, in fact, fairly unlikely. You never know, of course. But I feel confident about that one.
However, if it will keep you amused, by all means think of scenarios in which my being consumed by bears approaches certainty. I have faith in your hypothesizing abilities.
METAtropolis is one of the best anthologies I’ve read in a long time. The worldbuilding was fantastic… all of stories all examine the ecology and economics of the future, which seems eerily prescient considering the current “economic apocalypse” the U.S. is currently going through (a term actually mentioned in one of the stories).
Where the anthology succeeds best is its vivid and believable depiction of one possible future. You probably wouldn’t want to live in any of the cities depicted in METAtropolis, but you’ll surely have a blast going for a visit.
Now, disclosures: As you all know, I blog for Tor.com myself (although not so much in the last couple of weeks as I’ve been migrating this site and catching up on work). Also, Tor Books is my publisher and also publishes the other co-writers of Metatropolis. That said, Metatropolis is not a Tor project (it was released by Audible.com), and I’ve read enough JJS to know he’d take a plank to something if he felt it needed a planking, and the Tor.com would let him use its space to do it. So while I’m naturally biased on the subject, I think it’s a fair review.
Also, Audible.com had put up a ginchy Flash-based site for the project, with lots of bells and whistles, including audio excerpts and screensavers. Head over and waste some time there.
Just a reminder to various and sundry that I am going to be the Guest of Honor at this year’s LosCon, the Los Angeles regional science fiction convention, which takes place November 28 – 30, which is the weekend following Thanksgiving. I am hugely honored and excited, because as you all know I grew up in the LA area, so this is going to be a fun way of having a homecoming. I’m also excited for another reason, and to understand why, I’ll recount to you the conversation I had with the LosCon folks about being the Guest of Honor:
LosCon Folks: So, we’d like you to be the Guest of Honor for LosCon 35.
You think I’m joking about this, but I’m totally not. If I haven’t gained 60 pounds over that weekend via cheeseburger overload, I’ll have failed. And you know how I dislike failure.
In any event, I can assure you that aside from the spectacle of my constant burger consumption, this is going to be a really excellent convention –the other Guests of Honor are Gary A. Lippincott and Michael Siladi — and it’ll also be my last public appearance for 2008. So if you miss it, then you December is likely to be a long, sad, depressing slog toward the darkness, for which the holiday season, far from being a respite, will only compound the raven black of your depression. Not to oversell the appearance, or anything. But seriously, we’re going to have an almost absurd amount of fun, and you should be there. Because you k now how much you like fun.
I’m interviewed over at SciFi.comon the subject of Metatropolis, and talk a little about how it all came together and how today’s reality influenced the fiction the five of us put together. It’ll be the best interview about Metatropolis given by me you’ll read today!
The End of the World As We Know It: It’s coming! With big sharp nasty teeth! It’ll do you a treat, mate! Well yes, you say, but which end of the world? Because there are so many on the way — including some that are based on actual science, which is to say, they could happen without the intervention of a supernatural being.
Dr. Phil Plait, aka “The Bad Astronomer” (because he’s made a career out of debunking bad assumptions about astronomy) entertainingly lays out some of these for you in his brand-new book Death From the Skies!, detailing scenarios like death by solar flares, black holes and — yes — even alien attack, laying out the real science behind the horrible, awful, terrible endgame scenarios for the entire planet. It’s probably the most fun you can have learning about The End of All Things.
But what possessed Plait to start thinking about the end of it all in the first place? Here he is to tell you.
So a few years ago I was talking with my agent over ideas for my next book. We had batted around a few thoughts, mostly things that would be really fun for me to write and for the reader to read, and trying to condense these ideas down into the fabled “elevator pitch” (something you could sell to a publisher/TV exec in the length of time of an elevator ride).
I came up with cosmic catastrophes. I had studied supernovae for my thesis — phenomenally cool and violent events — and was at the time working on a space mission that detected gamma-ray bursts, explosions so violent that they make the sweatiest Fundamentalist vision of Armageddon look like a pleasant breakfast at IHOP.
As I thought more about it, I realized I had (wait for it… wait for it…) A Big Idea. Why not write about them all? Everything that could wipe out life on Earth? Asteroid impacts. Massive solar flares. Wandering black holes, colliding galaxies, ramming an interstellar dust cloud. Hell, maybe even alien invasions!
Why not? Books had been written on these before, of course, but never all of them in one place, and not with an eye towards our modern understanding of them. And who doesn’t love an epic disaster movie?
Writing it turned out to be interesting for me. My first book, Bad Astronomy, was about astronomical misconceptions. I had written about many of them on my website, so the amount of research I had to do for the book wasn’t so bad. I had already done most of the heavy lifting in that case.
But this new one was different. I knew something about asteroid impacts, but a little bit of research showed me I was woefully unprepared to write about solar flares!
Don’t even get me started on evaporating black holes.
But it’s not what you know – as they say, whoever they are – it’s who you know. Or whom. Whatever. Happily, I have lots of astronomy-based friends, and started making an irritant of myself to them.
“How does the magnetic field tangling under the Sun’s surface make a flare and not a coronal mass ejection?”
“What happens, exactly, if you try to smash an asteroid with another asteroid?”
“So the meson flux from the gamma-ray pulse is bad, but how deep into the crust does it penetrate?”
I discovered that this book was requiring questions that were getting a little weird. Worse, I realized that even stuff I thought I knew, I didn’t know well enough to describe in detail. In one humiliating moment, I had to call a friend, an expert on gamma-ray bursts and a fairly high NASA muckety-muck, and admit to him I didn’t understand exactly how the formation of a black hole drives two titanic and incredibly destructive beams of matter and energy away from it.
He said that’s OK, no one really does.
I felt better.
In the end, I relied heavily on the advice of my stable of experts, and probably still got some things wrong. I’m pretty sure I made some small errors in the solar flare chapter (man, that stuff is tough!), but hopefully they’re minimal. As a science writer, that’s really the best you can hope for.
One chapter I really enjoyed writing was on alien invasions. I actually had to talk my agent into letting me write it (though my editor was interested to see what I could come up with, and gave me a shot). Stretching the topic just a bit, I wrote about viruses and bacteria from space – and discovered I had no clue why some bacteria make us sick. Do *you* know why? *Honestly*? It’s because they exude toxins that affect us. Bacterial warfare is really chemical warfare! And I learned that writing an astronomy book. Go figure.
And after many years of bull sessions with friends and lying awake at night wondering why aliens have never contacted us – and they haven’t; no apologies to the UFO people – I finally got my shot to write about aliens sending out interstellar probes loaded with von Neumann machines. These metal bugs are designed to eat planets, replicate, and send out more probes. You can wipe out all life in a galaxy in a few million years, and never have to leave the comfort of your couch! It’s a xenophobic alien’s paradise.
Fun for the scifi fan in me, too.
And all the time I was writing the book, I was mindful of the seriousness of it. People might freak out; I’ve had emails from people who were terrified after I’d written about supernovae, magnetar pulses, and wandering planets. So I made sure I did two things: even while describing devastating events I made parts of it light-hearted, and I made damn sure to explain the likelihood – or really the unlikelihood – of getting nailed by these things. You’re more likely to die on an amusement park ride than by an asteroid impact. The odds of a black hole passing through the solar system and gobbling down the Earth are so low that it’s a good bet it won’t happen for thousands of times the age of the Universe.
And the Sun won’t expand into a red giant for 6 billion years. Sure, it’ll happen. But it won’t happen to you.
So I had a lot of fun researching Death from the Skies!, writing it, and even reading it to myself while looking for grammar errors in the proofs. I don’t know if the behind-the-scenes stories are obvious to the reader or not, but I know them (and come to think of it, you know a few now too). But I hope that some of the fun leaked through, and even though I kill the reader, time and again, over and over, all through the book, I hope it’s a good ride.
As ever, head on over, and if you have something to say on the topic, or want to share your favorite example of a mad scientist in the movies, be sure to leave a comment. We like comments. That’s how we know we’re loved.
* First, because he’s been absent from the site for a while, here’s a picture of Lopsided Cat for y’all. Lopsided Cat gets underplayed as the third member of our cat troika, on account of he’s not as worldwide famous as Ghlaghghee or full of as much kittenish exuberence as Zeus, and also because he spends most of his time outside, hunting down the field mice and rabbits and bears and what have you (I remind people that I live surrounded by agricultural fields, so all our cats, Ghlaghghee included, are working cats, charged with keeping rodentia from invading the Scalzi Compound). But while he’s the least famous of the Scalzi cats, in many ways Lopsided Cat is my favorite because I see him as close to being the Platonic ideal of a cat, i.e., a fluffy yet totally badass predator. He is “cat.” And I, for one, love him for it.
* Apparently last night a radio talk show host named Mike Malloy read my “Being Poor” piece out loud over the radio, which is interesting because the first I heard about it was after it happened; i.e., this is apparently another incidence of a radio talk show host assuming that if it’s out there on the Internet you don’t actually need get permission to use it. Now, as it happens, I’m perfectly fine with the dude reading it on air; “Being Poor” is the one piece of writing for which I always give permission to reproduce, as long as there’s attribution (which as I understand in this case there was). But, you know. I’d still would have liked to have known. I might have listened in.
* A social networking milestone: I have 1,000 friends on Facebook, as of friending someone there last night. You may assume I have a deep and beautiful relationship with each and every one of them. I also have 695 MySpace friends and 1,356 followers on Twitter. I’m assuming at least some overlap. And, of course, put them all together and I only have 3,481,300 or so friends to go before I catch up to Tia Tequila. Which puts social networking “friendship” into perspective, doesn’t it.
* Paul Boutin explains in Wired why you shouldn’t bother to start a blog, the reasons boiling down to a) all the cool kids were doing it by 2004, so you’re an entire presidential election cycle behind the times, b) you’re probably barely interesting enough to justify a Twitter feed, anyway. I’m pretty sure he didn’t write the piece with the intention of sounding like a bored hipster geek asshole, but I suppose we all do things we don’t intend. I will say Boutin’s correct that if you intended to start a blog with the intention of having it become Teh Most Popular Blog EVAR, you probably missed that particular boat. But there are lots of other reasons to blog, such as, oh, you like to write.
* As a final note, I probably shouldn’t wonder why I’ve gained a little weight recently when I’m eating chocolate and peanut butter ice cream at 10 in the morning. But I’m also having a Coke Zero! Zero calories! See. That makes it all better.
Most of you, I suspect, are well aware of my utter disinterest in anything relating to professional sports, so it may amuse you to know I am part of a fantasy football league, which I joined last season at the behest of my friend Norm, who needed another warm body to fill out his league, and to which I continue to be a part of more or less for the same reason. My team is the called the “Mediocre Walloons,” and my strategy for the team is to let the computers pick the team members, and then to do nothing from week to week, save swap the players around in case of injuries and/or bye weeks, if I can be bothered to remember, which sometimes I cannot.
The result so far? Well, at the moment I am at the top of the league, with a 6-1 record, including a game this week that I should have lost because I forgot to swap an injured quarterback and thus gained no points from that position, but which I won anyway. I am delighted by this turn of events, not because I care about the standings, but because I know other people in the league do, and I imagine it annoys them that the one guy who isn’t actually paying much attention is kicking ass. However, with a team name like “Mediocre Walloons,” you may imagine I will not be too put out if everything goes downhill from here. Indeed, I fully expect it will. But for now: Baby, I’m on top.