Anything in this pile that catches your eye? Let me know in the comments.
Anything in this pile that catches your eye? Let me know in the comments.
UPDATE: The dual appearances are, sadly, cancelled BUT we will both be doing separate appearances on May 15. Details here.
If you didn’t catch me and Joe Hill chatting about books last night, one, catch it here, and two, you missed our big mutual announcement: Joe and I are doing two bookstore events in San Francisco, on the same night, May 15. One will be at The Booksmith, at 6pm, and the second will be at Borderlands Books, at 8:30pm (note times are tentative at this point). How did this craziness happen? Well, Joe’s going on tour for NOS4A2, his latest novel, and I’m going on tour for The Human Division, my latest. We discovered that our respective tours converged at a single point: San Francisco. Knowing that we have many fans in common (and some fans who aren’t in common but probably could be), we decided to join forces (also, hey, we’re friends and we wanted to see each other, too). And thus two separate events became two combined events! Everybody wins! We will have stories, Q&A, and all your favorite Rush and Nickelback songs, performed on the ukulele. That last one is an inside joke, by the way. No ukulele version of “Tom Sawyer” is actually planned. (Someone remember to bring a uke for me.) No, no! I’m kidding! (Seriously. A uke.) Speaking of serious, I do have an actual serious request from me to you: As we’re combining the events, we’re doing the two events slightly early and slightly late from the usual reading times. While they haven’t said anything about it to me, I imagine this might make The Booksmith and Borderlands Books slightly nervous. You know what would make them feel really excellent about this crazy plan, and make both me and Joe really happy? It’s this: If you’re going to come to either event — and you should — pre-order the book(s) from the store you’ll be going to. If you’re an early bird, order the books from The Booksmith. If you’re going to come out late, put in your order with Borderlands. That way you won’t have to worry about whether you’ll be able to find the books when you come to see us, because there will be copies with your names on them (and soon after, our signatures). Point is, I want to make sure both The Booksmith and Borderlands see as much benefit from Joe and me doing our thing together as you guys will. And you will. I’m not gonna lie: This is going to be a hell of a lot of fun, people. Come see us. And tell all your friends.
Stephen T asks:
Have the sorts of topics you write about on Whatever changed over the years since you first started your blog? And related, have you seen a change over the years in the comments you receive and has your approach to commenters changed (especially trolls)?
Sure, the topics have changed a bit. One reason for that is a function of how the purpose of Whatever has changed from when it started. Originally I wrote Whatever as a quasi newspaper column, because I had been a newspaper columnist in the past, wanted to be again, and wanted to stay sharp in the format. These days I write Whatever for itself and don’t really worry about whether I’ll be a newspaper columnist ever again — and if I ever am it seems far more likely the columns would be more like Whatever than anything else. There is some irony here.
Another reason is that some topics run their course, either because of events — I don’t write about George W. Bush that much anymore because the man’s no longer president, and therefore I don’t have to think about him much on a day to day basis — or because I’ve just said all I needed or wanted to say on the topic and I can’t be bothered with it anymore. As an example of that, a decade ago I wrote several pieces on the subject of the Confederate States of America and the Confederate flag, and whether both were inherently racist (spoiler: yes), and for about a year that subject bounced around Whatever. But after a while I didn’t really have anything new to say on the topic, and it became less topical as a conversation, and I let it drop. Ironically, Brad Paisley’s “Accidental Racist” song has briefly revived the topic, but my interest in commenting about it is not great; frankly, I got burned out on the subject.
Two other factors that make a difference in what goes up here: Time and Twitter. Time, because professionally I am busier than I used to be so I don’t do as many genuinely “random” posts here; Twitter because that’s where a lot of smaller, off-the-top-of-my-head bits go these days. I don’t think either of these things make the overall quality of Whatever better or worse; they’re just changes that have happened.
That said, I do occasionally remind myself the topic of the blog really is “whatever” — that it doesn’t just have to be about writing and pictures of cats and whatever cultural/political thing I’m obsessing on at the moment. The title of the blog reminds me to occasionally look up from my ruts, be they old or new.
In terms of the comments I receive: No, in general they’ve been pretty consistent. I installed commenting ability here five years after the site went up (in fact, ten years ago almost exactly) so it already had a core of regular readers who were invested in the site and felt inclined to add to its value, not detract, when they commented. Some of them comment here still. That base of good commenters behaving well together set the standard for the site, and it’s largely continued to this day.
There are occasional flare-ups of stupidity when someone gets a bug in their ass; I think we’re all aware of the recent spate of dumb and/or trollish comments inspired by the fellow with a mancrush, a bad case of professional envy, and the need to make himself look important to his coterie of excitable boys by punching upward at me. This spate will pass in time. Additionally, when a piece here gets wider circulation there’s often an influx of new commenters, which is generally good but also means a few trolls swinging by to see if this is the sort of place where they’ll thrive. It’s not. The policy on trolls has been consistent for years: Mallet.
But generally I don’t have to moderate nearly as much as people think I have to. That’s down to the commenters being mostly smart, civil and invested in the site. It’s been that way from the earliest days of commenting.
Here’s a joke I sometimes tell when people ask me about the inspiration behind Hammer of Witches: “I was getting tired of medieval European fantasies, so I wrote a book about wizards in 15th century Europe.”
It’s not really a joke, though. I mean it. Let me explain.
Nowadays many authors subvert the tropes of traditional fantasy quest stories, mainly by making them meaner and bloodier. (As if the problem with Lord of the Rings was that it wasn’t violent enough!) But these subversions tend to avoid grappling with one of the biggest problems with quest fantasies: They’re friggin’ colonialist.
Consider the basic outline of the Hero’s Journey. A young peasant boy (he’s almost definitely a boy—also white, able-bodied, and straight) of unclear parentage leaves his home to answer a call to adventure. He quickly learns he has special talents because of his noble, or even divine, blood. He quests through dungeons, sea voyages, cities, and towns, which our omniscient narrator describes with guidebook precision. These stops provide the hero with villains to slay, victims to save, women to love (or be tempted by), and mentors who supply hints, prophecies, and magical gifts. Be they villain, bystander, love interest, or sage, these secondary characters have one purpose: to help the hero come of age and complete his quest. When the trials are overcome, our boy-hero takes his rightful place as a man, a warrior, a leader, a husband, a messiah, and, often, a king.
It’s a great story—one of my faves, and I say this without irony. And if the Gospels are any indication, Christians love this story as much as I do. The whole thing has a real New Testament vibe to it.
Hammer of Witches asks the question, “What would happen if you took that standard quest story and set it in the real world in 1492?” The answer is, things get real interesting real fast, because Christopher Columbus was a big fan of this story, too. In his letters and diaries he characterizes himself as a poor but brilliant man of mysterious origins who sets out on a holy quest to a foreign land. There, he is helped by the angelic Taíno people, who feed him and give him gifts to help him on his travels. But gasp! Some of the Taíno have revealed themselves to be aggressive non-believers who want to hinder our hero in his quest! Columbus reluctantly but bravely strikes down these foes and takes his rightful place as king—or, at least, governor.
Suddenly our favorite quest story doesn’t look so innocuous, does it? When the map in the front of the book is of Earth Earth instead of Middle Earth, the quest story reveals itself to be a justification for conquest. That’s why these stories tend to have omniscient narrators. For the justification to work, readers must hear only one side of the story, and no one must ever question the teller of the tale. Columbus would agree. He would never let the Taíno share their perspective. To him, that would be like asking if we should get Arwen’s point of view, or the orcs’. It doesn’t make sense, because, in his view, the Taíno are mere side characters in his own legend.
Hammer of Witches approaches the quest story from a different angle. Here the narrator isn’t an omniscient god but a semi-unreliable teenager who spends most of the book unclear on who’s the hero and who’s the villain (or if these terms are even useful). He’s surrounded by stories of Muslim, Jewish, Christian, Taíno, and Classical origins, which continually undermine his perspective. In this fantasy, characters’ powers don’t come from their pure, noble blood but from their ability to uncover and control the meanings of stories. Every time our narrator thinks he has a handle on these stories, some other character butts in to explain why he’s got it all wrong.
Call it postmodern, postcolonial, multicultural. You could even use the term “Talmudic.” It views history as less of a straight line leading to apotheosis but a series of arguments that are constantly in flux. That’s why the joke I made wasn’t really a joke. When you take the familiar medieval European fantasy story and actually set it in medieval Europe, the story doesn’t look so familiar at all.