A quick note for people wanting to request book blurbs from me, or to invite me to be a GoH for a convention in 2015:
I unfortunately have no more time to read for blurbing through the end of the year (on account of a book to finish plus many other commitments). Also, my 2015 convention calendar is full up and I can’t accept any more GoH invites for next year. Thank you for thinking of me, however.
Also, with regard to blurbs, this is a good time to remind people of my blurb policy, specifically the part where it says that I will turn down direct blurb requests from authors. They must be routed through an editor, publicist or publisher. I’m totally serious about this, folks.
So, recently, I created a word, “shitcanoe,” to describe people who are, well, not good people. As far as I can tell its appearance on Whatever is the first time it’s ever been used as a general noun, although a quick check of Google has a couple of prior references as a gamer handle (strangely not surprising) and an Urban Dictionary definition of “shit canoe” — two words, there — as a chili hot dog, which, you know, ew. So, go me, I’ve invented another word.
But of course, aside from the vivid metaphorical usage of the word, people in the comments wanted to know, if a shitcanoe were a literal thing, what would be: A canoe made of shit, a canoe filled with shit, or a canoe used to traverse a body of shit? Well, I say, let’s put it to a vote!
Aside from anything else, I am just glad there is now, in this world, a book with the title The Penguin Book of Witches, because, really, how cool is that. But editor Katherine Howe has made sure that there is more to the book than just a great title — it’s a book with a point. What’s the point? Howe is here to tell you.
I think we can all agree that witches are a problem.
Okay, you’re right. Maybe they’re not a problem anymore. Perhaps you think witches are awesome. Perhaps you know a witch or two yourself. Perhaps you are a witch yourself? But if witches today wear their pointy hats with impunity and walk amongst us twirling their wands and trailing cats in their wake in broad daylight, it’s safe to say that it wasn’t always so. Until quite recently, witchcraft was a serious problem indeed. Serious enough that it was against the law. Serious enough that it was punishable by death.
I’ve written about witches for a while, usually in novels like The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane and Conversion, which came out this past summer. And the fascinating problem with witches is that while we can all agree on what a witch looks like, it’s trickier to figure out where she, as a cultural idea, came from. How do we know what witches do? What makes witches so threatening? Why were we so scared of witches that for hundreds of years, we were willing to hang them by the neck until death?
Generally speaking, a “witch” in the early modern period (so around 1400 to around 1700, depending on who you ask) was a person—most often a woman—who was thought to have traded her soul to the Devil in exchange for certain special privileges. She might have the ability to make cattle fall sick, or maybe she could predict when someone was going to die. She might be able to fly through the night seated on a broomstick, or she might have a special imp “familiar”—like a pet—who would go and do her bidding. Maybe she could even send out her spirit from her body and wreak havoc on her neighbors, or she could make her spirit assume the form of her familiar, stalking about in the night in the shape of a cat. She was threatening, on the one hand, because of this special, volatile power she might wield against the people around her. Even more than that, she was threatening because she was an example of an individual person claiming power that belonged more rightfully with God (or, practically speaking, with the power structures of the church or the king. Kings hate it when you try to have more power than they do).
Some early modern skeptics, like Reginald Scot, wondered if we were missing something in this whole “witch” situation. If witches were so powerful, they asked, why was it that most people tried as witches were actually pretty wretched and miserable? They were usually poor, often destitute, sometimes unstable or argumentative. On average, the typical accused and executed witch was a woman at middle age—from her 40s to her 60s—who was on the outs with her society in one way or another, usually economically, but maybe personality-wise as well. She was a pain. She was irritating. She made people uncomfortable. She was always begging for something. She was a problem, and she needed to be gotten rid of.
The first person accused as a witch during the Salem episode was a classic example of this. Tituba Indian was a slave in the household of Samuel Parris, the minister in Salem Village. She had come to Salem with him after being enslaved on his failed plantation in Barbados. Tituba was accused by Betty, Samuel’s daughter, of trading her soul to the Devil and using the special powers he granted her to send Betty into “fits.” Tituba confessed, though some historians think that Parris beat the confession out of her, and went on to pass the blame to other women in the community who were vulnerable in similar ways: Sarah Good, who was destitute and begged from door to door, and Sarah Osburn, who had married her handyman and stopped going to church. The idea of “witchcraft” in the colonial period had a lot to do with regulating women, forcing them to comply with cultural ideas of how they were supposed to behave.
The pointy-hat image of witchcraft has dominated popular culture for such a long time that it can be difficult to tell where the idea of witchcraft originally came from. That’s where The Penguin Book of Witches comes in. The Penguin Book of Witches wants to bring history back into the picture. It’s a collection of primary sources—that is, actual historical documents—about witchcraft in early modern England and English North America, from the 1500s until the 1700s. It includes not only theological arguments, like Reginald Scot (the skeptic) and King James I (who wrote a whole book on demonology), but also trial transcripts of real-life women accused and executed as witches. Reading these trial transcripts is like watching an episode of Law and Order, made all the more chilling by the fact that everything in these records really happened.
It’s tempting to believe that after nineteen people were hanged at Salem by the state for a crime we now believe to be imaginary, our culture suddenly awoke in a fit of reason and stopped believing in witchcraft. But that’s not what happened. Witchcraft stopped being a crime after 1735, but it continued to lurk in our cultural practices and memory long after it vanished from the books. That’s why The Penguin Book of Witches doesn’t stop with Salem, looking at the various ways that witchcraft persisted as an idea, an anxiety, and even a practice until the dawn of the nineteenth century.
While I was on book tour the fan in the air conditioner unit here at the Scalzi Compound snapped and tore up the inside of the unit, pretty much as shrapnel will do, and so it became time to replace the unit with something less fragment-prone. While we were at it, we decided to replace the furnace unit as well, because it like the air conditioner was nearly 20 years old, and it already failed on us once (several years ago, on one of the coldest nights of the year), so why wait for the next invitable failure, likely to come at a time of year where our house would turn into a literal icebox.
So: Here’s the air conditioner unit, soon to be installed. At the moment the AC dudes are down in the basement dealing with the furnace; there’s the occasionally wrenchy noise, followed by the occasional hammering noise, with the occasional “it sounds like a Terminator going after Sarah Connor in my basement but is probably just the furnace being dragged across concrete” noise, just for fun. This all will be a two day operation. Fortunately, it’ll be a lovely couple of days, with no need for either AC or heating. In other words, perfect days to live au naturel. Not so great for, say, the sort of mental concentration one needs for novels in progress, but, eh. It’s only a couple of days.
Most of you know that Subterranean Press is the place I go to publish much of my limited and “off-beat” work — they do a great job and have always done very well by me and other authors I know. SubPress is now partnering with Gumroad to sell their ebook titles more directly to readers — an alternative to Amazon and other retailers, with more of the sale price going to publishers (and authors!) than before.
To celebrate, SubPress is running a special two-day sale, in which many ebook titles are significantly reduced in price when they’re bought through Gumroad. It’s a fine way for you to stock up on some excellent SubPress titles and to get an introduction to Gumroad at the same time.
This series of tweets got a lot of play on Twitter, on my Web site and also on Tumblr, which in case you live under a social media rock, is a very popular microblogging service. But how much play in each? Here are the numbers, from stats offered by each site, from about 6:30pm ET on September 25, through September 28 at 8:20 ET, which is when I checked.
Twitter: The series of six tweets under discussion had varying viewership, but the most popular of the six, shown above, garnered 123,766 impressions on Twitter, “impressions” defined as the “number of times users saw the tweet on Twitter.”
WordPress: Noting only direct views of the relevant entry itself (i.e, leaving out “front page” views, where people read the entry by visiting the Whatever front page rather than the specific entry page), the entry was viewed 34,172 times, with an additional 6,681 views recorded via RSS, for a total of 40,853 views.
Tumblr: Tumblr user kammartinez decided to post a jpg of my entries, after which it garned 68,885 “notes” which is Tumblr’s way of noting when a Tumblr user’s entry is liked, shared, or commented on.
Combining these three numbers together (which, incidentally, is not necessarily a fantastic idea, as “impressions” are different than “views” which are different than “notes”), we get 233,504 total hits of some relevant sort or another for all or part of this series of tweets, of which only a little over a sixth come from Whatever itself.
1. Already noted I’m mixing and matching;
2. My anecdotal but long time experience tells me WordPress stats underreport (and I’ve already noted I’m underreporting views there anyway by excluding front page views);
3. Twitter’s methodology of what is an “impression” is vague — for example I don’t know if “on Twitter” means Twitter excludes tweets seen on third party clients;
4. I know people are sharing this on other social networks, including Facebook, in the same manner kammartinez shared it on Tumblr, but I have no way to track those.
So despite “233,504” looking like a very specific number, it is in fact a very rough approximation. For one thing, by the time you read this each of the component numbers will have grown by further visits and sharing. For another, experience tells me these sort of stats underrepresent rather than overrepresent, and there’s a lot of similar/relevant data missing. The point here is not to give an exact number of hits/views/impressions/notes/etc but to give a general impression of what my online footprint looks like right now.
And the general impression: My online footprint is widely distributed across several social media channels, of which only a few are under my control. I didn’t prompt or pay kammartinez to gather up my tweets and share them on Tumblr, for example; I don’t even know who kammartinez is. I’m certainly not upset that kammartinez shared the tweets; that’s the nature of tweeting, to be shared (and kammartinez did a fine job of attributing and offering context for the shared material, which is appreciated). But it does bring home the point that at this point in time my work — and there I — get around quite a lot online, in ways I can’t always expect or manage. Whatever remains a fundamental component of that (and will continue to be, for reasons I outlined in my earlier entry).
But while Whatever is my home online, it’s clear my work and I do a lot of wandering around these days. This in itself is neither good nor bad, but it is how my online stuff gets seen here in 2014.
And yes, she really did take a pineapple to Homecoming this year. Why? Mostly because she thought it would be funny to do so. My kid is so much my kid that it’s ridiculous sometimes. I love her to bits.
Also, the pineapple went over very well, with people wanting pictures with it and taking it out onto the dance floor. I imagine it danced no worse than many of the teenage boys in attendance.
Which, I will hastily note, is not me snarking. People are hierarchical, status-sensitive and in many ways fundamentally conservative creatures. We crave structure, hate disruption and are wary of outsiders and change. And some people are just plain rotten people, and those people are widely distributed. I’m not entirely sure why the atheist movement (and/or the various public examples of it) would be at all different. And given the larger society in which the atheist movement in the US exists, it’s not entirely surprising that things play out as Myers notes:
Too many atheists turn out to be just as shallow as the fervent faithful I rail against. Too many see atheism as another useless difference they can use to excuse discrimination against others they are already prejudiced against. I used to have this illusion that an atheist society would be more tolerant, that under it government and education would be secular, but the churches would still exist, if people wanted to attend them — a sort of Scandinavian ideal. But no, what I’m fast learning is that tolerance isn’t automatically a property of abandoning the false tribe of religion, but is more a reflection of the greater culture it is embedded in. Atheists can still hold a “kill the wogs” mentality while babbling about the wonders of science; people who regard women as servile appliances for their gratification don’t seem to become suddenly enlightened once the scales of faith fall from their eyes.
Shorter, reductive version: Atheists are as perfectly capable of being complete assholes as anyone else; becoming an atheist will not, in itself, keep one from being a complete asshole. This isn’t surprising; what would be surprising, in fact, is if it did. Because that would be a first, in the history of all humans and all of their congregations, regardless of how, and around what, these congregations formed.
This is why, incidentally, the phrase “we’re supposed to be better than that,” drives me crazy, when it’s used as a way to argue against a group of people laying down certain official guidelines in how to deal with each other, most recently in dealing with harassment issues. Sure, okay, you’re supposed to be better than that, but you know what? You’re not, because you’re all human. Having one thing in common, whether it be a belief or enthusiasm or hobby or political mission, does not make you immune, individually or as a class, to all the other ridiculous social baggage humans carry with them all the time. The belief that it does or should, among other things, creates within any assemblage the space for assholes to thrive and prey on other people.
I am agnostic of an atheistic sort (I don’t believe based on the scientific evidence that the universe needed a creator but as a technicality I’m aware I can neither prove nor disprove that one existed), and quite a lot of my friends are also agnostic or atheist. But they are not my friends because they are agnostic or atheist, nor are they better people because they are agnostic or atheist. They are people who are good and are atheist/agnostic. In some cases becoming atheist/agnostic helped them to become good people, by helping them to abandon ideologies that led them to treat people poorly. In other cases, they were good people, who also came to believe the universe didn’t need a god in it to exist.
Conversely, there are people who believe the same things I do, with regard to the existence of god, who I judge to be absolute shitcanoes. Sometimes they were already shitcanoes, and sometimes they have decided their atheist/agnostic beliefs allow them — or even demand them — to be absolute shitcanoes to others. They’re terrible people and I want nothing to do with them. I’m okay with calling them out for being terrible people.
You don’t get credit with me simply for believing something I believe. You get credit for how you deal with other human beings.
I think internalizing the fact that no opinion/belief/enthusiasm inoculates either you or anyone else from the baser aspects of the human condition, or the larger social milieu in which we all exist, is probably a very smart thing to do. It helps manage the disappointment when the cool new group you find yourself with is eventually revealed to be full of flawed and fallible human beings, and it helps to free you from the initial desire to rationalize shitty behavior within a group merely for the sake of identity politics. And on the rare occasions when everyone in the group is actually good and decent, it allows you to appreciate just how nice that really is.
For today’s Big Idea,Chrysler Szarlan, author of The Hawley Book of the Dead, is here to explain a bit about running, about making one’s peace with haunted forests, and why one should avoid white vans that appear in unexpected places.
The way I write, big ideas kind of explode in my head every so often, and give shape to the book or story I’m working on. Like fireworks on the 4th of July. Sometimes you have to wait for the next one, sometimes they all come one after the other, pop, pop, pop.
When I began The Hawley Book of the Dead, my first big idea was to run away. That’s the long and the short of it. I was looking for an escape from the novel I was writing at the time, which had started bleeding creepily into my own life, producing fires, floods, and crazy people chasing me with knives (for real, not only in my nightmares). My big idea was to stop that book from becoming TOO REAL AND SCARY. So I rode my horse into the New England forest, which is where I look for ideas. And the main character of The Hawley Book of the Dead, a woman searching for her missing twin daughters, began speaking to me.
Soon, I learned that she was running away, too. That was the next big idea, that my character was running as fast as I was. Running away from a killer who was stalking her. A killer who was responsible for the death of her husband. So she fled with her daughters from Las Vegas, where she had been a famous illusionist, to the place I always felt safest: to the middle of the Hawley Forest. I discovered that Hawley had been the home of her ancestors, a family of women with special powers. Yet another pop of an idea. So I went with those glimmers of story.
Now, Hawley is a real place. A town of 300 people, bisected by this huge state forest. And it is as creepy and beautiful as the town in my book. It has a cemetery smack in the middle of it. It has old cellar holes aplenty. At one time, it held a few hundred people, farmers of the rocky soil. Now it is deserted. And eerie. There are ghost cows there, roaming the wide roads. I have seen them. They made their way into my book.
So how is it that I, and my heroine, Reve, feel safe in this haunted place, where there is a tension between the otherworldly and this world? How is it that we are both comforted by that?
I found that Reve had grown up riding her horse in the forest. She’d grown up in these haunted New England woods, and had made her peace with them. Just like me. She discovered that if you make friends with the spirits around you, you need have no fear of them, and also, that they just might protect you. That’s what I felt all my years of riding and walking and skiing that forest. I felt it would protect me, because I knew it. I felt the pulse of it, I knew it like the back of my hand, every inch of trail, every crumbling rock wall. I knew its terrors and its beauties, and I appreciated them all. I still feel safer there than in my suburban house, surrounded by people.
Reve at times in the book thinks the feeling of safety might be an illusion, her sense of credulity stretched thin, especially when her daughters go missing. Are they being protected by the forest spirits, as she sometimes thinks? Or are they dead, after all, killed by her stalker? It was a fine line to walk, a fine line to try to write.
But then I remembered the white van. You see, you can drive into the Hawley Forest, as well as ride or walk. Hunting is permitted. Most times when I saw a Jeep or a pickup truck, I’d think nothing of it, just turn my horse to let it pass. But in the fall of 2008, just around the time I started the Hawley book, I began seeing a white van driving the forest. And every time I saw it, some instinct made me plunge off the trail, into the woods, coaxing my little horse down into cellar holes even, so as not to be seen. It happened three or four times, over a period of about a month. To this day, I have no idea if the driver of the white van was evil, but that’s what I FELT. And I still believe the spirits of the forest guided me, helped me, at that time. Turned me from some kind of bad intentions.
So the transmutation of experience into fiction began. My big ideas of escape, then of finding protection in the forest, were written into the warp and weft of the book. I ran from one novel, to another novel. But the second novel gave me, and my characters, the protection of the forest to fall back on.
I can’t explain it, I only know I feel it, and that Reve feels it. We believe in magic in the real world, because we’ve been saved by it. That’s our big idea. We run from peril, to the forest place. Not spooky to us. We are New Englanders, after all.
It’s called “Old Beach Road,” from Martha’s Vineyard, a somewhat obscure band from Australia. If you like Fairground Attraction, you’ll like this one (if you like early Crowded House, you might like this as well, too). I tried to set it so you can miss the annoying (and not part of the song) countdown at the beginning of the video, but if it doesn’t work, the song itself starts at ten seconds in.
Aaaaaand apparently that’s all I’ve got for you this Thursday. How are you?
Wanted to see me on tour but missed me because I was inconveniently not in your city? Fortunately, there is video of me at various stops, and you can watch me do my thing. It’s just like being there, except with no personalized book from me at the end (sorry). The readings are generally the same, but the Q&A sessions vary and are fun to watch, in my opinion. Each appearance is about an hour.
If you watch all of them, you’ll notice that there are parts of my appearances (aside from the readings) that are the same at every stop. That’s because it’s a performance — I have these things planned out so that they are as entertaining as possible, and so I don’t stumble over myself any more than I absolutely have to.
Who would you want as the first speaker to an alien civilization? National Book Award winner William Alexander proposes an intriguing candidate in his middle-grade novel Ambassador, and after reading his Big Idea piece, I can’t say I entirely disagree with him.
I love the word “ambassador.” I remember rolling it around in my eleven-year-old brain while watching Star Trek TNG. Ambassadors command reverence and respect. They defeat villains by knowing what to say and how to listen. They can end wars with words. Supposedly. Federation ambassadors seem to accomplish all of these things offstage, but on board the Enterprise they suffer tragic deaths or are otherwise incapacitated right before a commercial break. Then Picard takes over, quotes Shakespeare, and fixes things. I wondered what an ambassador might actually do if they could just live through the commercials.
“Neoteny” is another favorite word. It means “the retention of juvenile traits in adulthood.” Biologists usually use it to describe physical traits like the muppetish gills that axolotls keep when they refuse to grow up and become salamanders. But neoteny also refers to social and cognitive traits like curiosity, empathy, and the ability to learn new skills or form new social bonds.
Most social creatures ditch those childish things by adulthood. Consider sheep as a random example. Lambs frolic. They explore, play chase games, and taste whatever they can find. Meanwhile the adult sheep stand still and chew. That’s pretty much it. They’ve already learned everything and met everyone they need to know in order to survive, because they have survived, so now the curmudgeonly elders enjoy their right to masticate all day long and grumble about frolicking youth. This makes solid darwinian sense—provided you have a stable environment. But if you happen to live in rapidly changing circumstances, then the set of things you should know by the time you grow up destabilizes accordingly. Curiosity becomes a vital survival trait, even among adults.
Stay childish, everyone. Our continued existence will depend on our neoteny.
You might consider reading kidlit. Or writing some.
A few years ago, at my friend Ivan’s apartment, I paged through a coffee table book about interspecies friendships. Huge photographs documented adorable, improbable bonds between foxes and hounds, gorillas and kittens, crocodiles and parakeets, and so on. Such friendships usually form early, between juveniles.
The words “ambassador” and “neoteny” collided in my brain. Kids have not yet fixed the boundaries of their social worlds, or limited those boundaries to the worlds that they happen to be standing on. Ambassadors between planets should be kids.
I wrote those two favorite words on a scrap of paper and stuffed it in my pocket.
Fast forward to the present. The book Ambassador stars eleven-year-old Gabe Sandro Fuentes. He’s a second-generation Latino immigrant to the United States. (So am I.) He has all of the cognitive, code-switching benefits of a bilingual brain. (I don’t. My family tried very hard to assimilate, so my own command of Spanish atrophied. I miss it.) He knows how to move smoothly between worlds, languages, and cultural expectations. Curiosity, empathy, and skilled communication are his survival traits. And the word “alien” throws off many different kinds of sparks inside his head, both before and after he becomes the ambassador of our planet.
I wish I still had that little scrap of paper. I don’t. It probably went through the laundry and got compressed into a dense nugget of linty pulp. But those two words were too important to forget, and their collision gave me the concept, the protagonist, and the title of Ambassador.
And it involves the book’s protagonist, Chris Shane.
What is it?
1. It may be a spoiler for those of you who have not read the novel already, so don’t click the link below unless you’ve read the book and/or don’t car if the book is spoiled in a sense (note the information does not spoil the plot, just something about Chris).
I’ll talk more about it in the comment thread here, which will serve as the spoiler-laden discussion of the book. So obviously, don’t read any further unless you’ve read the book and/or don’t mind it being spoiled for you.
When I came back from the book tour, I was greeted with hugs and kisses, which was very nice, but also with some potentially bad news, which was that Lopsided Cat, the Scalzi Compound’s most senior cat, had gone missing for two whole days, and that when last he was seen, he was wandering toward the treeline with a limp.
This was naturally cause for concern, because Lopsided Cat is not young — he was at least a couple of years old when he came to us, and that was a dozen years ago — and also because we live in rural America, which has things like coyotes in it. As a mostly-outdoor, working cat (we have agricultural fields on three sides, and in the fall and winter the rodents that live in the fields occasionally attempt to move into the house, so all three cats guard against those incursions) there is a decent chance that one day Lopsided Cat would leave the house and just not come back. Krissy and Athena had walked the treeline and checked the basement and the hedges thoroughly, but Lopsided Cat was nowhere to be found. Krissy thought it important to let me know the current state of the cat’s whereabouts or lack thereof. We all prepared to be sad for the possible end of our excellent cat.
Which why when Lopsided Cat actually showed up later in the evening, still limping a bit but otherwise perfectly fine, he was annoyed and surprised by the sudden amount of attention his appearance garnered — lots of happy yelling and petting and being picked up and squeezed. His expression at the time clearly communicated What the hell? but he tolerated the attention, then ate some food and went to sleep in the basement, as is his custom. And then in the morning he went back out again, because, well. That’s his thing. As is, for that matter, occasionally disappearing for a couple of days.
So, crisis averted for now. It’s still entirely possible one day Lopsided Cat will wander off and then just not come back, because, again: outdoor cat in a rural area, used to his independence. But today is not that day. He’s still around, and we’re happy to have him, for as long as we do.