Big Idea

The Big Idea: John Barnes

It’s a lot, to contemplate the end of civilization as we know it. John Barnes knows this for truth, as he’s been ending the world over the three books of the “Daybreak” series, of which The Last President is the latest. But the end of civilization isn’t just an event — it’s a process. Barnes explains below.


I’m not a linear guy, as I often explain, and as both my fans and detractors frequently remark. I like books to be everything and the kitchen sink and a bag of chips with a moonwalking bear, Thomas Edison, a levitating lawnmower, and a roller derby on Saturn’s rings thrown in. Big sprawls of chaos are what I like to read and what I like to write, and I make no apologies for it, because they’d be exactly the sort of lame apologies our esteemed host warns us about.

Readers of my blog know I like to set up seven slightly related ideas and riff on them till it adds up to something, so here are seven big ideas/speculations/musings that have had a good, fun run (well, I had fun anyway) in the Daybreak Trilogy, and that are prominent somewhere or somehow in The Last President.

1. Rome didn’t fall, it slid. The disastrous end of a civilization takes time: time during which people fall in love or out of it, make babies or create new identities, grow up or refuse to, hope that the old order will return or come to realize it won’t. From the Daybreak Event that begins Directive 51 to the end of The Last President is about two years. Out of almost eight billion people alive on October 27, 2024, around 250 million are still moving around in the fall of 2026. That’s a pretty fast slide, but it still happens a day at a time, and individual people still try to stay alive, and make it, or don’t, and find new things to do with their lives.

2. The constitutional thriller. This is a nearly extinct genre but I used to love them, and long ago such books as Advise and Consent, Seven Days in May, and The President’s Plane is Missing hit bestseller lists. I would guess that readers outside the US are barely aware of the genre (since the American obsession with our constitution seems to puzzle the world). A constitutional thriller is about the maneuvers and infighting when one of the many contradictions or little-used provisions of the Constitution suddenly manifests itself. I saw a way that the contradiction between Article II (powers of the executive) and Amendment 25 (succession to the presidency) could lead to a whirlwind of one president after another (four of them in four months) eventually ending up with two (or more) legitimate but unelected claimants to the office (and rival governments formed around them).

3. The title. I mean, The Last President. Someday someone will be the last person to hold the office. Possibly next year when Yellowstone goes off so savagely that the few survivors from North America are scattered over the earth as refugees. Probably not nearly as long as it will take changes in the sun to move Earth out of the habitable zone. But just as there was a last Roman Emperor and a last Caliph and a last Inca Emperor, the day will come when there was a POTUS yesterday, there isn’t a POTUS today, and there will never be a POTUS again.

4. Maybe self-replicating nanotech will go down the same pathway as nukes. It took a wartime emergency and an astonishing amount of effort and money to make a nuclear reaction do anything useful, and the first use was as a weapon. Only years afterward did we have reactors that could propel ships and make electricity. The technical challenges were simpler and the purpose more urgent for war than they were for peaceful applications. It seems to me that self-replicating nanotech has much the same technical and cost profile: getting nanobots to work together to synthesize an object, and at the same time to make more of themselves, looks very hard to me. But nanos that destroy things by reproducing around them? Comparatively duck soup. In the real world I don’t think weaponized self-replicating nanos will bring on the apocalypse (though I would not rule it out) but for a trilogy, it was more than seven billion high-piled corpses worth of fun.

5. The Cunning of History. That book, by Richard L. Rubenstein, contains some of the most sobering ideas I’ve ever encountered. Calmly and clearly, he points out that most people alive today are beneficiaries of something absolutely hideous in the past. His particular example was that the Holocaust made the postwar world much less complicated for most of the leadership of the Allies, so that they had a strong incentive to denounce it after the war when it was publicly confirmed, but not do very much to stop it while it was happening during the war. He connects this to many more cases along the way. In the long tale of the world most of us are the recipients of stolen goods and the fruits of murder, just by happening to be alive after they happened, and atrocities cannot be undone later.

And so, Richard L. Rubenstein says, like it or not, if we know our own history, because we usually can’t reject its bloody gifts, we become complicit in it, even in things that no human being wished at the time. The children born just after the Black Death didn’t ask to get a richer world with more to go around and more open opportunities via the death of half the people in the older generations, but that is what they got, and that is how they got it. Similarly, my Daybreak disaster kills billions; but the millions born just after it are, in many cases, much better off than they could have been before.

6. Shadow civilizations. In Latin, a fortified house or compound was a villa, and in Old German it was a burg; in Latin a town was an oppidum and a city was an urbs. There are practically no settled places in Europe with any form of “oppidum” or “urbs” in their names, but countless ones ending in -burg or -vill(e), and the standard explanation is that the towns and cities were deathtraps and the fortified homes were safe havens. Well, the doompreppers (hey, there’s a band name) have been building various kinds of quiet refuges since the 1970s, and accelerated their activity since Obama was elected; some of them are rich. And as for the Tribes that were waiting to surge into existence after Daybreak, it’s kind of interesting how many Masons there were among the founding American revolutionaries, and the real story behind the Jacobin Club will probably never be known, and I’m told that some Irish, Algerian, and Indian families treasure wedding licenses issued by revolutionary governments well before the revolution. If something will someday replace the American government, it may be present in embryo on the street where you live.

7. Diesel is the coolest punk. For the pure pleasure of sitting in a chair and imagining wild adventures that I would absolutely hate (because I’d get killed) in real life, nothing beats the between-the-wars pulp adventure tradition, when you could have real cowboys, intrepid reporters, fierce war lords, jaded PI’s, gallant aviators, secret weapons, remote fortresses, crazy inventors, cunning spies … eahh, I’m literary-homesick again. So I created a world that could have all of those, because without radar, radio, satellites, computers, etc., the world is a big place with a wild diversity of romantic occupations again. Not that I want to live there, but it’s where I want to go play.

And then a bonus: the way I like to do things.



The Last President: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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


The Hugo, At Home

Winning a Hugo is great but getting it home if you’re not a local can be a pain — they’re not well-sized for carry-on, and good luck convincing TSA that the rocket is not a bomb. Shipping was in order. LoneStarCon 3 offered to ship my Hugo to me, but I am an anxious sort , so I splurged and paid for overnight shipping (which meant it would arrive Wednesday, because Monday was a national holiday). Well, it’s arrived!

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I’ve noted before that this particular Hugo has an amazing base, created by Vincent Villafranca. But I don’t want you just to take my word for it, so here’s a gallery of images to capture the details on the base. Click on the pictures to bring up a larger image. Enjoy!


Peter F. Hamilton Has a Charity Auction For You. Yes, YOU.

Peter F. Hamilton, of course, the writer of awesome epic science fiction like Pandora’s Star and The Great North Road. He’s helping a friend out with a charity auction, and I think you’re going to like what you see. Here he is to give you the details.


My thanks to John for letting me borrow a few paragraphs in Whatever.

I’m here to announce a global charity auction for a signed proof copy of The Queen of Dreams; volume one in the Books of The Realms trilogy, and my first children’s book (age 7+).   This event is starting on September the 1st; it runs for 10 days, and is open to everyone no matter where you live.  The book is published by Doubleday in the UK on 1st January 2014.

As to why I’m doing this: my friend Kate Cadman is aiming to run in the London Marathon next year for the National Deaf Children’s Society.  But to get a guaranteed charity place in the marathon you first have to raise £2,000.  That’s where the money from this auction will be going.  If you’re interested in why Kate’s running, she tells you here:-

I’m sure everyone’s used to author-signed proofs, so in order to make this a little different, it will also be signed by the four main characters as well as myself.  But wait –this is a work of fiction, how can the characters sign it?  Well, two of these characters, Felix and Sophie, are my children, and the other two, Taggie and Jemima, are their school friends.  This is going to be the only proof copy signed by all of them, so it will be unique.

As to what the book is about, here is the cover blurb…

Taggie and Jemima are summer holidaying on their Dad’s farm.  They know just what to expect –a tumbledown old cottage, sunshine and strawberry picking.  But then Jemima sees a white squirrel wearing glasses…  And that’s before their Dad is captured and whisked away to a faerie world that’s fallen to Darkness.   But why would anybody want to kidnap their boring old Dad, especially the dreaded King of Night?  Could it be their family isn’t quite as ordinary as they believed?

As Taggie and Jemima venture into the fantastic Realms that exist beyond our world, they discover magical powers they never knew they had.   Powers they’re going to need during the desperate race to save their Dad.  But Kings are not defeated easily, and the sisters are going to need all the friends they can find on their quest, no matter what kind of folk they are, or where in history they belong…

If you’d like to make a bid then the link to click is:

Thanks for your interest.

Peter F. Hamilton


Me and the Missus, 9/1/13

Yes. I’ve been very lucky in my life, in more than one way. Don’t think I don’t know it.

Photo by Alan Wagner-Krankel.


Aside From That, Mr. Scalzi, How Was the Rest of Worldcon?

Seanan McGuire about to dispense Hugo justice on my skull, while Kate Baker looks on. From’s album of pictures. Click the photo to go to it.

It was pretty good, I have to say. I’m going to admit that for various reasons I didn’t walk into Worldcon this year in the best of moods, so LoneStarCon had a high hill to climb in order to get me in a happy space. Obviously being handed a Best Novel Hugo will do wonders to your disposition, but even before then my spiky angles were largely sanded down.

Part of that was strategic planning on my part — we got to the convention on Friday evening so I wouldn’t feel all dragged out by Monday, and I kept my programming to a minimum (I think I told the program folks that I didn’t want to be on panels because the mood I was in, I might stab someone). But the other part of that was simply being around people I like in largely relaxing circumstances. Funny how friends will make you feel good about life. I spent a lot of time in the bar or at a table at the convention itself, surrounded by conversation and the occasional hijinx, like estimating the weight of a polyploidal cinnamon roll and then having members of our group take the roll to the UPS store to get it weighed. You know, as you do. Good times.

One funny thing about Worldcon for me is, if I’m nominated for a Hugo, I usually have a night where I can’t get to sleep, because my brain will keep me up, turning over possible victory scenarios in my head. This often coincides with the night before the Hugo ceremony, which is pretty awful. This time it happened on Friday night, when I was already cranky by having a delayed flight; the Hugo calculus plus other factors meant I ended up getting three hours of sleep. This meant, however, that I was out like a light on Saturday night, so I was fresh as a daisy Hugo night. So, uh, yay, I suppose.

I did do three events, all on Sunday afternoon: A signing, which went over time by a half hour (this is not a bad thing, as long as you’re not taking up someone else’s signing space), a reading, at which I read an excerpt from the upcoming novel, and then a kaffeeklatsch. All of these went pretty well, excepting the part at my reading where I berated someone for not turning off their cell phone and then having my own go off. Yeah, that was embarrassing.

Sunday night I already discussed in the previous entry, and on Monday morning I walked my Hugo over to the convention center and let anyone who wanted to get close to it, pick it up and take pictures of it. Because, hey, they’re the reason I had it at all; figured they might want to see it up close before I took it home.

So in the end LoneStarCon did indeed get me into a happy place — and, importantly, almost certainly would have managed it even if it hadn’t have given me a Hugo. That’s a good con. Thanks, folks.


Hugo Thoughts, 2013

Me showing off my Hugo. Photo borrowed from SF Strangelove. See their whole set of Hugo Award pictures by clicking on the photo.

Now that I’m home, had a good sleep and have generally calmed myself down, some thoughts on Redshirts winning the Hugo Award for Best Novel.

* Maybe some people can be cool about winning the Best Novel Hugo, but those people are so not me. When Paul Cornell announced Redshirts as the winner, I pumped my fist like a total dork, kissed my wife, got hugged by what seemed like every person between me and the stage, and then honestly I don’t remember all that much until I was suddenly at the lectern, holding the heaviest Hugo ever (seriously, it is twelve pounds), and then setting it down and trying to remember that now I had to give an acceptance speech. Which I had not written out because I figured if I won I would remember who to thank and what I wanted to say. In retrospect, this was not my smartest idea.

Nevertheless, I remembered to thank the right people: My fellow nominees, my publisher, editor, art director and cover designer, my audio publisher and narrator, my wife and family and friends. At least that’s how I remember it; I assume the video will be up at some point for me to check. Then I went backstage, quickly tweeted and blogged about it (because I am a dork, remember), and then — because that was the last award of the night — went back out into the dispersing audience to find my wife so I could kiss on her some more. Then it was photos and parties and lots of congratulations and being happy and not being able to get to sleep because in the immortal words of Neil Gaiman, fuck I won a Hugo. And the Best Novel Hugo at that.

So, yeah. Totally failed at being all cool about winning this award. But I am strangely okay with that. It’s a hell of a thing. I don’t mind losing my mind a little bit over it.

(Also, let me take a moment to say, holy crap, what a gorgeous creature this year’s Hugo award is. Its base, all bronze, was made by Vincent Villafranca, who also made the Bradbury Award for SFWA. Yes, it’s heavy, and it is also amazing. I can’t believe I get to have something this cool in my house.)

* When I won this Hugo, I was happy, excited, grateful and dazed — all of which are emotions that I’m pretty sure most people would expect in this sort of situation — and I also felt relieved, which I don’t think most people would expect. Trust me, it was there. Going into this Hugo Award ceremony, I was 0-for-6 in Hugo fiction category nominations. I’ve lost Best Novel three times, and Short Story, Novella and Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form one time each. Which is a whole lot of not quite grabbing the brass ring.

Make no mistake that I was (and am!) delighted to have won the Fan Writer and Best Related Book Hugos. Both are important to me for a whole number of reasons. At the end of the day, however,  I make my living writing fiction. Winning a Hugo for fiction is significant for me. After hitting my head on that ceiling six times previously, finally breaking through is a relief.

* I’m also delighted that this particular book of mine won the Hugo. One, I’m proud of it on the level of craft — there’s a lot of layering going on there, storywise, and the structure of the work, with the narratively separate but thematically cohesive codas counterpointing the main story in the novel, is not the usual thing. It’s fun to fiddle with the form of the novel and see how it responds, and how readers respond to it. Plus, it’s a comedy, in both the classic and contemporary senses of the term, and not a lot of comedies have won a Best Novel Hugo. It’s Redshirts and To Say Nothing of the Dog as far as I can see. So yes, very pleased.

* A couple bits of trivia for you: One, earlier in the ceremony, I was given the physical award for the Seiun, the Japanese award I won earlier in the year (for The Android’s Dream). This may make me the first person to be given two Best Novel trophies in a single Hugo ceremony. Two, I am the second person to have won both the Novel and Fan Writer Hugos. The first: Frederik Pohl. This is, for obvious reasons, now a bittersweet thing.

* Part of the “fun” of winning the Hugo for Best Novel is that after your book wins, people try to explain why it won, because for some reason the answer of “this is the book that largest number of people who voted for the Hugo Awards thought should win the award” is existentially unsatisfying.

To make it easy on people, I will tell you why the book won. It is because one or more of the following, in what I expect is decreasing order of likelihood:

1. Of the books nominated, it’s the one the people voting liked the most — or, more accurately, because it’s a preferential ballot, it’s the one the voters liked well enough, all things considered, to allow it to survive several elimination rounds to come out the overall winner.

2. It’s a career award, i.e., the voters liked my stuff overall and thought I should have a Hugo as a sign of appreciation, even if this is not their favorite of my works. This is the “Al Pacino” gambit — he won his Oscar for Scent of a Woman, which no one in their right mind considers his best work.

3. The voters like me as a person and thought that I might like a Hugo, so here, they said, have one.

4. The voters accidentally voted for me rather than another nominee and didn’t check the ballot before submitting it.

5. The voters are hate-voting against another nominee and I am the almost-incidental benefactor.

6. A cabal of convention runners, publishers, booksellers and the Rand Corporation met in an underground lair outside of San Antonio and decided that for their mutual interests, Redshirts should win the Hugo, and then fixed the results to reflect that choice.

Mix and match!

* Likewise, as is also tradition whenever a new winner of a Best Novel Hugo is announced, there are people who are heralding Redshirts as evidence that the Hugo voting process is corrupt/confused/irrelevant/a sign of the impending apocalypse. I don’t take this personally because a) I am well aware that not everyone is going to like everything I write, and that this goes double for Redshirts, which seems to have the greatest range of responses to it of any book I’ve written, b) someone would complain no matter what and who won, because the Internet is vasty and noisy, and for some people, something they don’t like winning an award is clearly evidence of systematic problems and/or conspiracy, rather than simply a popular vote of a particular group of voters not reflecting their own personal preferences.

My response to this is, as always: That’s fine. And in a larger sense, a vote no one complains about correlates very highly with a vote no one cares about. I’m happy to see people care about the Hugos, even if it’s to be annoyed with my book as a winner. With that said, the fact is this year I won the award, now it’s mine, and I’m not giving it back. So they’ll just have to deal.

(Now, there are people who are angry I won because they don’t like me personally. To them I say: Ha! Ha! Ha! Sucks to be you, dude.)

* I don’t pretend that Redshirts is a better book than 2312, Blackout, Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance or Throne of the Crescent Moon, or that I am a better writer than Kim Stanley Robinson, Seanan McGuire, Lois McMaster Bujold or Saladin Ahmed. I am instead honored to be considered a peer of these writers and to have my work considered along theirs. I am also profoundly appreciative that this time, and for their own reasons, my book was selected by Hugo voters to represent 2012 in science fiction and fantasy. It means a lot to me, more than, ironically, I can express in words. “Thank you,” is closest, and not enough.

Big Idea

The Big Idea: Gwenda Bond

The path to creation is not always a smooth and drama-free one, especially when deities are involved. Just ask Gwenda Bond about this, and how this idea manifested in her latest novel, The Woken Gods — and how she finally found the right road to her novel’s true form.


The Big Idea for The Woken Gods sounds deceptively simple: all the gods of ancient mythology, all of them, woke up five years earlier, rising from the ground around the globe.

In the book, as a result, the world has changed, both in large ways and in small, extremely localized ones. Most gods stay where they woke, and aren’t particularly concerned with humanity’s affairs. When the Awakening happened, everyone thought it was the end times, but then the mysterious Society of the Sun came forward, and demonstrated that the gods weren’t untouchable. During the long sleep, the Society collected relics infused with divine magic, and it uses them to mount a defense for humans. The Afterlife and the Heavens are sealed off by relics, and the Egyptian god Sekhmet is executed with one, cut down on the Mall in D.C. to prove that gods, now, can die. And, as long as the doors are closed, never come back.

This is the treaty that makes a new world. Seven tricksters agree to serve as divine representatives, ambassadors to deal with the Society, and, with its world headquarters in the Library of Congress, that means Washington, D.C., is now one of the most transformed places there is.

It’s also where my protagonist Kyra Locke lives. Kyra is just a girl in a rebellious phase, a girl whose family was torn apart five years ago, and who now sneaks out with her friends and argues with her dad. A girl who is going to have to negotiate with gods, and who discovers she doesn’t know much about who she is at all.

There are lots of elements in this mix that I have a lifelong love for — mythology mashed up against the modern, a powerful society that may or may not be good, oracles and prophecies, family secrets, friends that stick by each other, complicated politics,a weird urban landscape. I knew from the get-go that I wanted the book to be an urban fantasy set in D.C. and that I wanted the world to have already undergone a huge change.

Perhaps it’ll come as no surprise, given all this, when I tell you this was not a book that came together easily. Each draft was vastly different than the last. Finally, I put the third major overhaul aside, thinking I would just have to give up on telling this story. But then…my first book sold, and I needed to propose a second book for my contract. Despite the faceplant after faceplant, there was something that still called me back to it. I wasn’t ready to admit defeat.

I asked some of the smartest people I know to gather around a table at a retreat and asked them to help me reboot the world… Then, after a little back and forth, the publisher accepted the pitch, and I wrote a whole new draft. I turned it in.

This is the part where you’re expecting me to tell you this time, this time, it finally came together. And it had started to come together, but it still wasn’t working. I knew everything about the world, but I was still hovering outside my main character, above her, watching Kyra, but not feeling her. When I went back to edit that draft, the problem was clear to me.

And I was running out of time, because this book was due, this book was on a schedule.

These are the moments of which writerly despair is made. But then I thought over all those drafts, I talked to those same friends, and I realized something. The one commonality — in all those third-person drafts filled with lovingly explicated worldbuilding — was my main character, Kyra Locke. She was the constant. This was her story. This was a big world, but the story was hers, my just-a-rebellious girl’s and she could hold her own against the gods if she had to.

With the growth in YA, it’s gotten much easier to find big stories of political intrigue with young characters — including young women — at their center. But maybe that also makes it easier to forget, there still aren’t nearly enough of them. It’s still not the way we’re conditioned to imagine those stories.

And so, that big change I needed to make, that final change, was to rewrite the book from Kyra’s point of view. I bring in a few other voices of her friends, but mostly, it’s all Kyra.

That’s when I finally got to the draft I wanted. Sure, I had to lose some grace notes that explained underpinnings of this bit of worldbuilding or that, I lost some jokes and darlings, but ultimately, what was necessary to support this story, her story, stayed and fit. And I hope that Kyra’s story feels like the beginning, like a window into a big world, and that her eyes feel like the right way to see it.

Because without her, there was no story. There was only a broken world in need of saving. And a writer in despair.

In The Woken Gods, families who are longtime members of the Society have reliquaries, in which they also maintain some sort of Hunter’s Map that serves as a historical record of significant events and the collection of important relics. For many of them, this is an actual map, hand-drawn and hung along a wall. If I picture my life as a writer as a map, for most books I’ve written — sold or (thankfully, in other cases) trunked — it would be no trouble at all for me to mark the spot when the spark of an idea turned into a book, trace the line of it growing into a story. But for this one, it would be almost impossible. It would be a twisty confused road through a dangerous city…

Until that final decision.


The Woken Gods: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Indiebound | Powells

Visit the book’s page. Visit the author’s site. Follow her on Twitter.


Hey, I Won the Best Novel Hugo.

More details after I am done celebrating.


Update, 2:30am, 9/2/13:

I’m going to bed. Tomorrow (actually, today) is a travel day, so there may not be any substantive update. Don’t worry, if I don’t post anything Monday there will be a full report on Tuesday. In the meantime: Wheeee!


Having a Great Time at Worldcon

Wish you were here.

Photo by Crystal Huff.

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