Still Life With Cat and Books

Because what is life without cats and books? Catless and bookless, that’s what.

Attention Portuguese Speakers

If you or someone you love speaks Portuguese and/or lives in a Portuguese speaking country, you will be pleased to know that the Portuguese language version of Old Man’s War will be available as of next Tuesday, or so I am led to understand. I believe the above is its exploderrific cover art.

More travel today. Catch you in the evening.

Saturday Reading Material

I’m out and about again today, so no more from me today here. I know, it’s so unfair. But to keep you occupied all day long, allow me to point you in the direction of “Bone Shop,” a short novel by T.A. Pratt, (who in his other incarnation is the Hugo Award-winning author Tim Pratt) featuring his magic-wielding heroine Marla Mason in an early adventure, which is to say it’s a prequel story, which means you do not need to have read previous works in the series. It’s fun, fast and it’s free to read — but if you like it, T.A. Pratt is accepting donations for the work. So if you read it and like it, which I expect you might, think of sending some love (and a few bucks) in the direction of the author.

Having thus pointed you in the direction of a full day of reading pleasure, I now tip my hat in your direction and bid you adieu for the day.

Away With Me!

Events of the day conspire to keep me from conversing with you via transmission of electrical particles through this system known as “Teh IntarWeebs”! And what events are these? And do they involve tapioca pudding, a polka version of the hit song “Head Like a Hole,” and between two and six stoats and/or ferrets? I cannot say! What I can say is I’m likely to be out for most if not all of the day. Try to get along without me for as long as you possibly can. And when you can’t, well, maybe I’ll put something on my Twitter feed. Maybe. I make no promises. Stoat handling is hard work.


My Tech Life

I am occasionally asked to give recommendations for tech/software, based on my own usage. I don’t know that I would necessarily follow my own example in terms of tech usage if I were not me, but for everyone who is curious, here’s the hard-and-software I currently use, and the short form reasons why.

Primary Computer: PC from iBuyPower, featuring Intel i7 3.066 GHz quad core processor, dual ATI 4890 graphics cards in Crossfire mode, Creative X-Fi sound card, 6GB onboard memory, and 3.5 TB total storage, with Dell 24″ monitor. I’ve got a fairly tricked out system, for a number of reasons: One, I do a lot of multimedia stuff, including most obviously photo image manipulation; two, I play media-intensive computer video games; three, because I totally wanted a tricked-out system, so there. It’s not entirely overkill for the more mundane writing things I do either, and in particular having a large monitor is really useful. But the primary computer is probably the most high-end bit of tech I have.

Operating System: Windows 7 Home Premium (64 Bit). Because (among other things) most computer games run on Windows but not necessarily on Mac OS or on Linux. Win7 is also nicely composed and easy to use, so there’s a bonus there, too. On my last computer I had an Ubuntu dual-boot, and Ubuntu was fine, but I didn’t actually use it much, so I haven’t installed it on the new primary computer.

Browser: Firefox 3.5.4. That’s currently, but I generally update to the latest stable version when it becomes available. Because I like it and the extent to which is it customizable, and because I’m very used to it — I’ve used Firefox and most of its antecedents almost exclusively for as long as they’ve been about. For backup and for specialized purposes I use Chrome, which I like just fine. I use Opera sparingly and IE almost not at all, except to check how Web sites look and/or for the occasional times when some Web site designer is too stupid to check that his site code works for browsers other than IE.

Mail: GMail. Up until April 2007, I used some variation of the Eudora e-mail client, but when I went on my book tour for The Last Colony I started using GMail because that way I could get my mail whether or not I was on my own computer (a smart decision, it turns out, since my then-laptop crapped out on me mid-tour). I never bothered to go back to a dedicated e-mail client because GMail’s spam blocking skills are excellent, and the thing they do of grouping e-mails into “conversations” was really useful. Basically, it’s just about the best e-mail handling service. When on occasion GMail goes down, I access my mail from my host provider’s e-mail app, which it runs off its servers, but those instances are few and far between. This isn’t to say GMail is perfect, it’s just better for me than anything else out there.

Word Processing: Microsoft Word 2007. I like the way it works and I like its aesthetics, the latter of which may seem trivial, but on the other hand you probably don’t spend as much time looking at your word processing application as I do. On the occasions that I need a backup to Word, I usually use OpenOffice (currently on its 3.x iteration). I use Google Docs for certain specific tasks but I’ve found over time it’s not as featured as I need to be to use it on a regular basis. Note to Google: When you can’t be bothered to add indenting to your word processor, you’re signaling that you’re not actually serious. I buy Word as part of the larger Office suite, so on the rare occasions I need spreadsheets or to access Powerpoint, I’m good to go, with OpenOffice again being backup.

Blogging Software: WordPress. I started out with Movable Type back in 2003, which I liked very much, but eventually it became evident that MT was not playing nice with my host provider (or more accurately, my host provider was not playing nice with MT), and switched over to WordPress. WP turns out to be an excellent choice too, as it’s got enough features and widgets to let one customize one’s site to one’s desire. Disclosure: now hosts this blog, so I’m not an impartial commenter on the software. But on the other hand I wouldn’t be hosted on if I didn’t like the software.

Photo Editing: Photoshop CS4. I’ve been using Photoshop since the early 90s, so I’m comfortable with it and its interface, and that it’s the industry standard is nice too. For quick editing or specific specialized filters, I’ll use Picnic, which is bundled into my Flickr Pro account, but generally I’ll just pop open Photoshop.

Photo Management: Flickr. Simple, friendly interface and the Pro account is cheap at $25 a year. At this point most of the pictures on Whatever are housed there and linked to; if Flickr ever goes under, Whatever’s pictures will require lots of re-sourcing. But I’m optimistic Flickr will be about for a bit (also, lazy). For photo management on the actual computer, I simply use Win7’s photo viewer.

Audio Recording/Editing: Sony Acid Pro. I’m one iteration behind on the software, so I need to upgrade, but again I’m used to it (I’ve been using it since the early part of the century) and it’s got a nice set of features. My backup is Audacity, which is free, which is nice, but which I don’t typically seem to have good luck using. I used Adobe Soundbooth briefly and I liked it very much for voice recording but have been too cheap to pull the trigger to buy it.

Music Management: Rhapsody. Which is to say that at this point I end up not actually accessing the music I have stored on my hard drive, but just stream it off Rhapsody instead. Which is not to say I don’t buy music (or store it on the computer), as I like to support the musicians whose work I like; when I do that I tend to buy it off Amazon. I tend to avoid iTunes, except to manage my iPods. For casual “radio,” I’ll use Rhapsody’s channels or Pandora. I use the Windows Media Player when I play something housed on the computer; the Win7 version is much improved.

Video Game Management: Steam. By and large I’ve stopped buying video games on physical media and instead download them via Steam, which has a nice management and game-matching interface, and a nice selection of games at good prices. I also keep a GameTap subscription for casual gaming and for games I’d like to play but don’t want to buy.

IM Client: Digsby. Accesses a number of IM services and isn’t ugly/crammed with ads.

Twitter Client: TweetDeck. Lots of functions and easier to use the the Twitter Web interface.

Personal Music/Video Player: iPod Nano (3rd generation). It’s small and holds 1,200 songs, and that pretty much works for me. And personally I prefer the 3rd gen’s square look, although I know that puts me in the minority. The only thing I don’t like about it is that it doesn’t play my “rented” music from Rhapsody, but it’s not like I don’t already own more music than I can fit onto the nano as it is. I also own an Archos 605 player, with substantially more onboard memory and a great screen (800×480 or some such) for movies. But it’s bulky and not as convenient to carry about.

Cell Phone: BlackBerry Storm: Which is much maligned but which I like perfectly well, especially with the most recent software update. That said, when the contract is up next October I’m not necessarily going to upgrade within the Storm/BlackBerry family. I like my phone fine but it hasn’t won me over as a consumer.

I think that’s everything, but if you have additional questions regarding my tech usage, drop ’em in the comments.


I’m doing an interview about communities online. Which means I’M TOTALLY TALKING ABOUT YOU.

The Big Idea: Jeff VanderMeer

Jeff VanderMeer returns to his weird, fantastical city of Ambergris in his new novel Finch, but as he explains in this Big Idea, there’s more going on in this stand-alone tale than just the rich vein of fantasy he’s previously explored in this world. Finch has more on its agenda, and the idea that more is merrier when it comes to genres. Is he right? Let’s see if he convinces you below.


Sometimes a Big Idea is about combining several different big ideas in such a way that they create what you hope is A REALLY BIG-ASS IDEA. If you do it right, these ideas create what you might remember from high school science classes as a chemical rather than physical reaction. You can’t separate out the parts, and readers don’t even notice those parts. All they notice is character and story.

In my novel Finch, a reluctant detective named John Finch and his partner Wyte must attempt to solve a difficult double murder. If Finch doesn’t, there will be a severe beat-down from his boss and if he does solve it, another faction will probably put a bullet through his head.

Fairly standard set-up, right? But layered onto that core situation are a number of major complications. The novel isn’t set in our world—it’s set in my fantastical city of Ambergris. Finch is basically a conscript. Finch’s boss, Heretic, isn’t human—he’s a gray cap, an intelligent species that has risen from the underground sections of the city and used advanced fungi-based technologies to subject Ambergris to a brutal Occupation. The people who might kill Finch if he solves the case are rebel factions fighting the Occupation. His partner Wyte is literally disintegrating into spores due to a fungal disease. The two bodies, found in an empty apartment, appear to have fallen from a great height. One of them is a gray cap missing its legs.

To make things worse, Ambergris is now the equivalent of a failed state. Although the gray caps run things, even basic necessities like electricity are inconsistent at best. The gray caps use human traitors called Partials as their security services, and to gather intel through spore cameras that supplement their vision. However, so much information is constantly coming in that the gray caps can’t process it all. This gap is what gives many people a chance to survive.

But that gap and others like it mean that Finch’s life is complicated by the presence of other forces that have slipped into the city. In a word, spies. Infiltrating from foreign countries, most are attempting to acquire gray cap technology to gain an advantage against other countries. These spies often come into conflict with the rebels. The rebels, meanwhile, are composed of two rival factions engaged in a civil war that ended only because of the need to band together to fight the gray caps. Not only do they have their own intelligence services but the simmering resentments of the old conflict sometimes puts them at cross-purposes despite their joint objective.

So…maybe it’s time to start counting. Just how many genres are we dealing with here?

(1) Noir. The set-up, the lone, reluctant detective, his friends who may or may not be in on the up-and-up, the number of beat-downs in crappy alleys, all reflect a strong noir influence. (Indeed, the British Commonwealth rights to Finch just sold to Atlantic’s new Corvus imprint, the backbone of which is mysteries and thrillers.)

(2) Thriller. Given the number of times John Finch gets embroiled in gun battles or chase scenes, I think it’s fair to add this designation, which also speaks to the novel’s pacing and the idea that a good thriller provides a test of the main character’s resolve, of their ability to persevere despite almost insurmountable obstacles.

(3) Political Thriller. With scenes involving illegal interrogation, prison camps, and other repression, you might even think about tacking on the word “political” to “thriller”, a very specific subgenre of the normal thriller. You might even start thinking about words like “Baghdad” or “extraordinary rendition.” This is entirely intentional, as is the rebel tactic of using suicide bombers. Fantasy gives me the distance to include the political so that hardwired into the story rather than a didactic statement.

(4) Spy Novel. Finch is faced with a mystery, but when the proliferating list of suspects includes a retired spymaster named Ethan Bliss, an operative from the country of Stockton named Stark, and a friend whose allegiances are uncertain, we’re suddenly in John Le Carre territory. Le Carre’s brilliant fiction is all about the individual attempting to survive in a world of hostile institutions; his spies are as often in conflict with their employers as with the enemy. He’s also exceptional at combining action and introspection, lessons that served me well in writing Finch. (Yes, there’s also the James Bond spy model, but James Bond wouldn’t last five minutes in Ambergris.)

(5) New Weird Fantasy.
Okay, you may be saying, but Ambergris is still identified as a New Weird setting. Yep, and that still comes into play. Ambergris is a secondary-world decaying, fungus-shrouded major, centuries-old metropolis. That setting shapes all of the characters, all of the other elements—in sense, it’s the broth in this cross-genre soup. It’s what makes it possible for all of the other elements to work in harmony.

So that’s my Big Idea: the ultimate cross-genre mash-up in which one character finds the pressure turned up to “11” and the only way out is to navigate a landscape scarred by civil war, occupation, infiltration, insurgencies, counter-insurgencies, betrayals, and, oh yeah, surreal fungal technologies. John Finch is an honest man with militia training, clear-headed and quietly brave, but even he may find it difficult to make it out alive.


Finch: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Powell’s

Read an excerpt of the novel (pdf link), and visit the book site. Listen to the novel soundtrack. Follow VanderMeer on Twitter.

Wanted: Directors

This week over at AMC, I’ve put together a list of the 10 film directors who haven’t directed a science fiction movie, but should. It has names on it which you probably expect (such as Spike Jonze, above) and also at least a couple I’m almost certain you don’t, unless you live inside my head. And if you do, why don’t you dust in there for once? The place is a mess. As always, feel free to leave comments over on the AMC site. Because I know you’ll have them.

Nine Months ≠ One Year

Lots of “Obama at one year” articles out, which is a little funny because the man hasn actually been president for only nine months. Yes, was elected a year ago. But then there was that whole three-month “not actually president yet” thing. Which means the one-year evaluations are a little premature. By, er, three months. Approximately.

And you ask, how do I feel about the president at nine months (or, if one absolutely must, one year)? I feel fine about him. As this bit from Esquire notes, the idea that the man has been a do-nothing president is a little goofy; he’s done a lot in a little amount of time, much of which I generally approve, although some of which I do not. And while there are some things that I wish he would get to more quickly, I also recognize he’s got a lot to deal with, and that his priorities as regards which to focus on first are not mine. And as we are nine months into his administration, I’m willing to give him a bit more time to get to them before I write him off as entirely useless on those things.

The other part of the equation here is that Obama’s general style suits me just fine. He’s deliberate and calm and doesn’t lose his mind, and even when he or his people are engaging in political knifework, they handle it with bland equanimity, which makes his/their opponents subsequent fits more embarassing by contrast. I like this. It’s like a variation of Kipling’s poem: “If you can keep your head while making those who oppose you lose theirs…”

Now, I understand this style doesn’t play well for some other folks, who would rather see the man get angry or at least worked up from time to time. But, you know. It’s not like he’s changed his style. This is who he was when he was running for president. I’m a little confused why people seem to think he should have gotten a personality transplant when he stepped into the Oval Office. If the man all of a sudden got angry all the time, I’d want a cat scan to see if he had a tumor.

So, overall, the man gets a solid B+ from me for his nine months in office. If they held a snap presidential election tomorrow, I’d vote for him again, and at this point he’s my default choice for the election which occurs about three years from now. Mind you, a lot can happen between now and then, because it’s three years from now. But by that time, I’ll have more information about whether he deserves my vote a second time. More than I have at nine months in office, in any event.

Various & Sundry, 11/4/09

Things and stuff:

* First: Look! Birdy!

After I snapped this shot I switched lenses so I could get a better shot with the telephoto lens, but by then this bird had flown. Bummer. Still, pretty bird.

* Subterranean Press wishes to inform all of you that the signed, limited edition of The Last Colony has shipped to everyone who preordered  it. And if you did preorder it: Thanks, man. Also, there are still a few copies of the limited available, should you want to pick it up. The previous limiteds in the series sold out, however, so move on it if you want it.

The note at SubPress also notes that they’ll soon be working on the limited edition of Zoe’s Tale, which I am especially excited about.

* My pal Alethea Kontis wants you to nominate a favorite bookstore for an award. Here are the details:

The Women’s National Book Association wants to know about bookstores in the United States that excel at inspiring interest in reading, as well as creatively bringing books and young people together.  They will present the annual WNBA Pannell Award to two bookstores–one a general bookstore and one a children’s speciality bookstore–at the 2010 BookExpo America.  Each recipient will receive a check for $1,000 and a framed piece of original art by a noted children’s book illustrator. Nominated stores have the option of making their submissions to the Pannell jury electronically or by sending hard copy materials by mail.

To nominate your favorite bookstore (even your own!) that works within the community to instill the love of reading in young people, please provide the following:

1)  Name of store
2)  Address and phone number of the store
3)  Contact person at the store, including email address (most important!)
4)  A brief reason (just a sentence or two) of why you believe the store is deserving of this award
5)  Your name and affiliation to the nominated store.

Please send your nomination to  Deadline for nominations is Jan. 15, 2010.

The Pannell Award was established in 1981 by WNBA, a century-old national organization of women and men who work to promote reading and to support the role of women in the book community.

This year’s winners, incidentally, were Joseph-Beth Booksellers in Cincinnati and Mrs. Nelson’s Toy and Book Shop in LaVerne, CA. I used to to live in LaVerne, you know.

* Hey folks, a gentle reminder: just because you sent me an e-mail doesn’t mean I always see it immediately. I get several dozen legit (i.e., non-spam) e-mails a day, so sometimes e-mail just falls off my radar. This is why I encourage you to resend after about a week if you’ve not heard from me and wanted to. However, when you resend, try not to be snitty about the fact I haven’t responded. Because that just encourages me not to respond, on purpose this time.

* Listening to the full album of Raditude, the new one from Weezer, from which I borrowed yesterday’s video. Verdict: Weezertastic, but I do sort of casually wonder what happens to Rivers Cuomo when he gets to the other side of 40, and his whimsical 20-something schtick starts getting a little creepy. His problem, I suppose, not mine.

Election Day ’09

Interesting is the word for it. Somewhat disappointing for me, although not as you might think because Democrats lost (or did not win) governorships, but because here in Ohio, that damned casino thing finally passed after four tries. I have a moral loathing of gambling as an industry, so as you might imagine the thought of casinos coming to Ohio bugs the crap out of me. At least it failed in my own county; the majority of Darke Countians voted against it. Go, Darke County.

I’m also sad it appears that bigotry won the day in Maine, as regards the same-sex marriage vote there; it’s depressing when people vote to deny other people the same rights they have — not that Ohio, which bans recognition of same-sex marriages, has anything to crow about in this regard. I’m sanguine that this sort of thing is a rear-guard action, and that sooner than later same-sex couples will be able to marry in more states than not, but then again, I can afford to be sanguine, because I can be (and am) married to the person I choose. No one’s telling me that I’m a second-class citizen.

As for the New Jersey and Virginia: Well, I think the New Jersey vote is what you get when you have an unpopular incumbent; Corzine got what was coming to him, it looks like. As for Virginia, it’s not terribly surprising they might vote in a Republican. The governorship there trades off between Democrats and Republicans pretty evenly: Since 1970, the commonwealth has had five Republican and five Democratic governors, not counting McDonnell, who won the election last night but is not yet seated. Whether either of these wins has national implications I’ll leave to others to decide, but I think they probably have more to do with what’s going on in those states.

The interesting “national implication” race for me was the one in the 23rd Congressional District of New York, in which outside political forces (including Sarah Palin, Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh) decided the woman the local GOP chose to run for the vacant seat there was not conservative enough for their tastes, so they backed the candidate of the Conservative Party (which is a third party in NY) and essentially drove the Republican candidate out of the race. Her response was to throw her support to the Democratic candidate, Bill Owens, who won, becoming the first Democratic representative in that district (or so I am told) since the mid-19th Century.

What does this tell us about the state of politics? Well, I think, one, national party leaders, elected and otherwise, probably ought to listen to the local folks about who is a good fit; if they had, this seat would probably be in GOP hands still. Two, it appears local voters don’t take kindly to outside interference. Three, stabbing one’s allies in the back has negative repercussions. Four, listening to people whose personal fortunes are not tied to legislative victory is not necessarily a smart thing for a political party to do.

For all that, I suspect Owens ought not become too comfortable in the seat, since he’ll have to run for it again a year from now, and the district will still be what it is: largely GOP territory. But for the moment, his victory is a big fat middle finger in the eyeball of the national conservative movement. That this middle finger was jammed in there by a disgruntled GOPer is rich, creamy irony of the sort I expect Palin, Beck, Limbaugh et al to steadfastly pretend didn’t actually happen from this day forward.

That’s what I’ve got for you the day after election day, 2009.

Testing An Embedding Thing — With Weezer!

Let’s see if this works:

Vodpod videos no longer available.

Also, Sara Bareilles is talented and cute, but I question her choice of legwear, which appears to be a skort. Grownups should not wear skorts. I HAVE SPOKEN.

The Big Idea: Steven R. Boyett

I’ve made no secret that when I was a teenager, one of my favorite novels was Ariel, by Steven Boyett. Why? Because here was adventure-packed novel with great dialogue, an epic quest and a love story (of sorts) at the end of the world (or at least the end of the world as we knew it). At fifteen, this was the novel I knew I wanted to write one day — and if not this novel, one that felt like it. And to top it all off, Boyett wrote the thing when he was in his late teens. There was hope for me yet.

Fast forward, oh, 25 years, and into this last summer, when two cool things happened to me: I got to actually meet Steve — indeed, I basically dragged him out to dinner at Worldcon — and I discovered that after all this time, a sequel to Ariel would be coming out: Elegy Beach. I squeed like the 14-year-old I once was.

And I am happy to say Elegy Beach did not disappoint me. The good thing about it was it was as interesting and exciting to read now as I remember Ariel being when I first picked it up. The great thing about it, to me, was that it wasn’t just a sequel — not a simple revisit to the world of Ariel, but tonally and in the construction of its story, a progression from that book. It’s (relatively) easy for a writer to go back to the scene of his or her most famous book and grind out a crowd-pleasing followup; it’s rather harder to move on from that book, in the same universe, and make your readers feel the weight of the change — even when still giving them a compelling read. Elegy Beach does that, and makes the world Steve’s created in both books that much more complete.

Now that I’ve gushed enough, it’s time to bring Steve onto the stage to talk about Elegy Beach, and visiting the world he made years ago with Ariel… and bringing it up to date, not just with our time, but with him.


Elegy Beach would not exist at all without a Big Idea that grabbed me hard enough to make me write the novel in the first place. For decades I insisted I would never write a sequel to Ariel, and I meant it. In some odd way I still do.

Premise-wise the big idea that grabbed me was the notion of magic as a kind of software. Or more accurately an operating system to which the machinery of the universe now responded. I called it spellware and I ran with the notion, though not as far as I’d originally intended. My underlying rationale was the viewpoint that in what for purposes of conversation we’ll call the real world the universe’s OS is commonly regarded as Newtonian physics. Yet current cosmogony tends to think that this OS is randomly formulated. That in the microinstants immediately preceding the Big Bang the pressure and heat were so incalculably intense that laws of any kind could not exist, that the possible laws of any universe were in constant flux. Then biff bam boom it all goes off, and immediately things cooled enough to lock a set of laws in place. The spinning jackpot pictures stuck. Entropy was our friend this once. As Carl Sagan pointed out, the speed of light could have been slower. Time could have moved differently. Mass and gravitation could have had a different relationship.

From our perspective these different laws would violate our own. They would be magic.

Adding to the fun are the uncertainties and apparent violations at the quantum level. What once was the province of university courses in existentialist philosophy is now spelled out on palimpsest chalkboards by leading physicists. The role of intent in shaping the world. The influence of observation. Measurement as determinator.

So I approached spellcasting as a kind of hacking, really. And surmised right off the bat that castings could be broken into basic units that could be rearranged in any number of ways. In code. In language. And macros could be created that would record castings to let them play out later. Spells could be password-encoded. Copied. Hacked.

Let me quickly say that I know that all of this is bullshit. That I was simply looking for a science fictional explanation for a fantasy idea. And that no matter how thoroughly I worked out the explanations and implications of the notion it must inevitably tilt hard at the windmill of the real. But it was a lot more fun than deciding that the happy little elves raise magic beans because the glowing mushroom in the great king’s basement gives them special powers. Or whatever it is that fantasy writers do.

For a long time this was just a five-finger exercise. A couple pages’ worth of notes I jotted down. Then I realized that the notion fit perfectly into the premise I had created with my novel Ariel when I began writing it in 1979. The idea that a Change occurs in which technology stops working and another set of laws, let’s call them magic, takes its place. In fact spellware explained it.

Oh god no I will not write a sequel to a novel I wrote when I was nineteen.  And sat down to write.


Anyone who has written anything more complicated than a recipe knows that the thing you write can often have a different notion about itself from yours. It surfaces on the page like a black spot on an X-ray. And anyone who tries to deny or argue with it is just asking for trouble.

I’ve learned at least that much.

So I got out of the way and let the writer part of me write the novel. And as it formed I realized that the big idea of spellware wasn’t this book’s Big Idea at all. It was just an idea.

People who don’t create a lot tend to hoard their ideas like some kind of gold. They send you emails and say Let me tell you my Idea. But anyone who lives in the place where ideas are made (or at least within hearing distance of it), be they writers or mechanics, will tell you that ideas are cheap as sausages and most of them aren’t very good. I have storage boxes full of them. Lots of writers do. Bookstores are chock full of them too. Science fiction and fantasy tend to be about their ideas, to the extent that it’s perfectly possible to write a work of fiction in the field fueled by little more than an idea.

I’m not saying that’s right or wrong. But for me it ain’t enough. I need theme. Resonance. Lamination. Characters. Landscape is a character, sure, but not the main one. It has to be about more than its premise or events. It’s the difference between Moby Dick and Jaws. Novels about celestial aberrations or colossal engineering feats to me are simply tour guides populated by figures who elucidate them. I need the foreground and background to not trade places.

Elegy Beach takes place about twenty-seven years after the Change depicted in Ariel. Now a new generation not only has no memory of that world, it can’t imagine why the Pre-Changers are always going on about some great loss that’s had no impact on them whatsoever. They aren’t ignorant, they’re truly alien.  They’ve grown up on a different world.

As I swam deeper into the growing stack of pages that was Elegy Beach I realized that it was about the devastating necessity of the outgoing generation to be supplanted by the incoming one. To regard one another with faint suspicion and even derision. For the old to pass the torch and realize what an act of faith it is to think it will remain alight. For the young to regard the torch itself as a kind of Trojan horse, a gift whose purpose is in part to subjugate the recipient to the memory of the giver. I wanted to delineate the contribution, sanctimony, iconoclasm, and entitlement of Baby Boomers. I wanted to explore what I loved and disliked about this newer generation of information-saturated serial collaborators. And I wanted to set them against each other. The only way a generation can prevent itself from being buried by its inheritors is to build some static, fascist system that may be powerful but does not evolve and certainly does not accommodate fundamental change.

That was Elegy Beach’s big idea. It’s about other things, too — for one thing, as Ariel was my bildungsroman so Elegy Beach is my midlife-crisis novel (surely there’s a nice big German word for that too). It’s even about my own relationship to my first novel, and it offers the idea that one way to escape a storied past is to befriend it. It perpetuates my firm believe that the object of any quest exacts its weight from the seeker’s heart and soul, as any Grail knight worth his salt found out.

Love is a quest.

This essay is more abstract than I’d intended; I think I must save my concreteness for my fiction. But talking about fiction seems necessarily less concrete to me; fiction itself is an abstraction. What I set out to tell you is that Elegy Beach is a big fun book full of interesting characters who have breathtaking adventures and harrowing escapes in a faraway land that only superficially resembles our own, a land that fans of dragons and unicorns and special-effects-laden wizard battles will have a grand good time exploring. For all these things are true. But in a world that ably demonstrates that it can commodify almost anything, the only reason I can see to employ these worn-smooth tropes is to subvert them. To use them to talk about why such tropes exist at all. This seems to be an approach I’ve had in almost everything I’ve written (including, apparently, this essay).

I confess I’ve mostly found it difficult to just sit back and have fun for fun’s sake. Most fun things are fundamentally useless (not that fun itself isn’t useful, I feel obliged to add). And despite virtually all of the above I’m basically a silly person who thinks it’s fu to make stuff up. But even so for me to want to make (or read, or watch, or attend) a thing I have to feel that it’s about something more than its events or premise.  Else what’s the Big Idea?


Elegy Beach: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Powell’s

Read or listen to excerpts from Elegy Beach, at the Elegy Beach site. There is also a site for Ariel. Visit the author’s blog. The author is also an acclaimed DJ; listen to his latest mixes.

Booklist Review of The God Engines

It’s out, and while it like the Publishers Weekly review is a bit spoilerish of a plot point I want you to be surprised by and so I won’t quote it at length (I have accepted that most reviews will reveal this plot point, as it comes early in the novella), nevertheless here’s a nice bit from it:

[Scalzi’s] writing has never been crisper, and his ideas carry a freshness and energy most other fantasy authors will envy.

Neat. I’m very happy with the reviews so far, especially as this is my first attempt at fantasy. That said, I’m not expecting a clean run of positive reviews, because TGE is so different in tone and content from my science fiction work that I do expect a fair amount of “WTF?” out of it. Which is fine; “The Sagan Diary” was also different, and got lots of polarized opinions. I’m very proud of it, as I am of TGE. I am looking forward to people reading this novella and finding out what they think.

Finally, as a bit of a treat, if you go to the Subterranean Press order page for TGE, you can see two previews of the fabulous black and white interior art by Vincent Chong. It’s well worth the click.

One Of Those Questions I Wish SF Geeks Would Simply Get Over

It’s the one where SF geeks wring their hands over mainstream acceptance of their favorite genre. Please, please, please: Stop.


1. When the goddamned President of the United States makes Vulcan salutes and is photographed quite unselfconsciously whipping a lightsaber about on the White House lawn, you have won.

2. The POTUS being a geek aside, a genre that features hit television shows, movies with $150 million budgets and half a billion dollar worldwide grosses, endless videogame iterations and even — yes — bestselling books has mainstream acceptance, for Christ’s sake, and saying otherwise makes one look stupid. When science fiction types mew and barf about “mainstream acceptance,” they’re not usually not mewling and barfing about acceptance from the actual mainstream, but from other literature geeks, whom they feel have excluded them from their sekkrit lit geek clubs. These two things are not the same.

3. And as for these other lit geeks, come, now: We give a shit? Really? Because speaking as an actual science fiction writer, I don’t.  Honestly, like I care that some other type of nerd doesn’t feel what I or others in my genre write is geeky enough in their preferred direction to count. When their general or specific disapprobation has a material effect on my ability to write or read as I please, you all let me know. Short of this: So what.

Every time I see the question of “mainstream acceptance” pop up, it reminds me that SF geeks, despite the many manifest signs and indications that we are living in a world they have spawned from their mighty intellectual loins, are yet still emotionally trapped in the high school cafeteria and the social dynamics thereof. SF geeks, I say to unto you: What’s the point of remaking the world in your image if you’ve not the wit to enjoy it? You’ve taken over huge tracts of the cultural map, and you get your underwear bunched up over the lit geeks? That’s a little OCD, don’t you think?

Please, red-shift yourself just a single step on the neurosis spectrum, learn not to care, and remember this phrase when someone declares your favorite reading/viewing/game-playing material not quite respectable enough: Oh, well. Nothing will annoy them more than the knowledge you can’t be bothered to worry about what they think.

And the next time the question of science fiction and “mainstream acceptance” comes up, remember this answer: Who gives a shit? Because, really. Who does. Like what you like, already.

Sickness Update, 11/2/09

How close we got to going to the wedding yesterday: here you see the clothes we were going to wear, all laid out. But then it became apparent that traveling anywhere was not going to be so great for us, nor possibly for the folks around us when we got to the wedding. It was more than mildly depressing.

The good news is that both of us are feeling a bit better, which leads us to suspect that it was not flu but possibly something we ate being slightly botulicious and knocking us on our ass for the day. Then again, Athena had been under the weather a couple of days ago, so it still might have been something infectious, perhaps with just a touch of food poisoning to tip us over the edge. In any event, neither Krissy nor I am at 100%. But at least we’re not at the “stand up and feel the need to sit down again” stage anymore. Lots and lots and lots of sleep yesterday helped, too.

For a really excellent picture of the wedding we missed, well: Look here. It was gorgeous, the bride was gorgeous, and the groom wasn’t bad looking either. Very sad not to have been there. But again, I don’t think the wedding party would have appreciated a possible gift of infectious disease, especially as bride and groom were on their way off to a honeymoon. We will see them elsewhere and share our happiness (and not our viruses) with them then. I assume our gift will still make it, however; Amazon will see to that.

Anyway, thanks to everyone who wished us to feel better. We’re getting there.


Just to Mix Things Up Around Here

Here’s a sunrise picture, taken roughly ten minutes ago.

Thus concludes my annual “hey I’m actually awake for a sunrise for once, why not take a picture of it” picture. Thank you for your patience and participation.

Yes, It’s Coincidence

I’m getting rather a lot of e-mails and other comments sent to me about Avatar, mostly because James Cameron has his main character’s consciousness zapped into a new, differently-colored genetically-engineered body, much like I have happen with John Perry in Old Man’s War. This has led people to ask if I’m somehow involved with Avatar and/or if James Cameron stole my idea and/or if I plan to sue that lousy James Cameron for stealing my idea. So, in no, particular order:

1. Yes, I’m aware of the consciousness-swapping thing in Avatar. No need to keep pointing it out to me.

2. No, James Cameron didn’t steal the consciousness-swapping idea from me. He’s been working on Avatar for something close to fifteen years now, i.e., long before I thought to write Old Man’s War (in 2001, in case you’re wondering). For the record, I didn’t steal the idea from him, either. The consciousness-swap idea has been around science fiction for a while now, you know.

3. As Cameron didn’t steal the consciousness-swap idea from me, quite obviously I won’t be suing him, haranguing him for stealing my idea or otherwise suggesting Cameron took anything at all from Old Man’s War. As far as I can tell from the trailers, any similarities between Avatar and Old Man’s War (or the ideas therein) are entirely coincidental.

4. And since a couple people asked, no, this single similarity between our two stories does not make it less likely an OMW movie will be made; indeed, if Avatar does smash-hit box office, that will be lovely for the chance that my book might someday hit the big screen, since it means military space action stories will suddenly be hot in Hollywood, and no one will give a crap if the movie based on my novel has a consciousness-swap scene in it too.

In other words: Relax, everyone. It’s a coincidence.

Change In Plan

Sick. Wife also sick. Skipping wedding so as not to make bride and groom and attendees sick. Worst November 1st ever.

As you were.