New Books and ARCs, 10/30/15

It’s the last book and ARC roundup for October, and this stack has at least a couple of surprising and unexpected titles in it. See anything you like? Let me know in the comments!

In Which We Debate One of the Great Issues of Our Time

This is from Nerdcon:Stories, in which we debate the Very Important Topic of which is the correct way to put on foot apparel: “Sock, sock, shoe, shoe” or “Sock, shoe, sock, shoe.” Pay attention: What you learn here could save your life.

The $50 Fire Tablet: First Impressions

In its continuing bid to attempt to take over the world so no one ever will buy anything from anyone but them, Amazon a couple of weeks ago released a $50, 7-inch Fire tablet, designed, one presumes, to entice the curious, the cheap and those on limited incomes. Well, it worked on me; I was curious what a $50 tablet from Amazon would be like, so I got one. It arrived while I was away, so it wasn’t until yesterday that I pulled it out from its packaging and played with it.

My initial impressions: For $50, I don’t think you can really complain. This is by no stretch of the imagination a top-of-the-line tablet — it’s plastic-y, the power buttons are a little wobbly, the screen is a you-notice-the-pixels 1024×600 (171 ppi), and there’s only 8GB of memory on the thing — but, again, it’s fifty bucks. It’s got roughly the same basic specs as the 7-inch Samsung tablet I bought in 2012, and I thought that was pretty cheap at $250. One fifth the price in three years for these specs? Seems pretty fair.

If you accept you’re not getting the top of the line, you can also accept that what it is, is fairly decent. The screen is not great resolution but it’s an IPS screen so the colors pop. The 8GB memory on board is nothing great but it has a microSD expansion slot so you can expand the memory on board up to an additional 128GB (which will cost you the same as the tablet). In my playing with it, it’s perfectly responsive and had no problems with Web sites, email, and casual games. It’s for casual consumption of stuff.

And specifically, stuff from Amazon. The OS is Amazon’s fork of Android, so if you know Android, you won’t get lost here. That said, everything about the Fire is channeling you through Amazon. The app store is Amazon’s app store; when you turn on the tablet it advertises things on Amazon to you (you can apparently pay extra to have that turned off); the screens on the tablet are organized to help you more efficiently consume Amazon product.

I don’t think this should be huge shock. To be blunt, if you buy a branded tablet from a ruthlessly competitive retailer like Amazon, you shouldn’t be entirely surprised that you get a locked-down Amazon-only experience. But it’s also fair to point out that’s what you get, and to ask yourself if that’s actually what you want.

I went in knowing this tablet would be all-Amazon, all the time, so it wasn’t a problem (I suppose I could root the thing, but, really, why). Indeed, one reason I got the thing is that I have an Amazon Prime account and having a Fire tablet, as I understand it, allows me to access some features I might not otherwise be able to. So as a Prime user, this is the cheapest way to do that.

Would I recommend a $50 Fire tablet? Not for anyone who isn’t idly curious and/or has more than $50 to spend and/or isn’t already tied into the Amazon ecosystem. There are better options, including ones that don’t lock you into Amazon’s OS, app store and retail experience. But for $50, and for folks whole hog into Amazon? Hey, you know, it’s pretty damn not bad. So far I’m pleased with what I got in exchange for my money, which, ultimately, is the key metric.

On the Occasion of Reaching 90,000 Twitter Followers

I noticed I was less than 30 followers away from 90K Twitter followers a little bit ago, and said if we reached 90K in 20 minutes I would murder an 80s song (in retrospect I should have murdered a 90s song, but, well, whatever). I had barely tweeted that when I crossed the 90k threshold. So, fine. Here you go: Me murdering an 80s song.

I will note that live, the original singer of this song couldn’t reliably hit that high note, either. Enjoy.

The Big Idea: Ellen Kushner

If you’re a fan of Ellen Kushner’s Swordspoint, then you’re going to be very happy with Tremontaine, a prequel serialized story that takes place in the same world, fifteen years earlier. Kushner, who is spearheading the novelization with co-writers Alaya Dawn Johnson, Malinda Lo, Joel Defner, Racheline Maltese and Patty Bryant, is here to talk about the world of her stories and everything that sprung up because of that world.


I did not intend to invent the “Fantasy of Manners.” I wasn’t even sure that  Swordspoint was fantasy.  I began my first novel in my 20s, when “fantasy” still meant either elegant little antique curiosities like Lud-in-the-Mist, or great big outdoor epics involving treks through forests, snow and maybe a big cave that imitated The Lord of the Rings. My friends and I devoured them all.

But great fantasy must tell a personal truth: that’s what gives it power.  Tolkien’s Mordor was forged by his time in the trenches of  the Somme, and his Shire by his rambles in the sweet English countryside.  In the 1980s, many of us aspiring fantasy writers lived in black leather jackets and blighted cities, paying low rent in formerly gorgeous housing now crummy, run down and cheap; architectural splendor still hanging by a thread, and keep your keys stuck between your knuckles when you walk home at night, in case anyone tries to mess with you.  We desired Middle Earth and Earthsea with a great desiring – but when we tried to write our own versions, it came up false. They were our dreams, but they’d been dreamt by someone else. That wasn’t our real world.

Our world had sweaty rock clubs, and the Pre-Raphaelite art revival, a poster in every dorm room.  It had Sarah Crewe in a garret telling stories to a starving servant girl, and pre-AIDS glamorous outlaw gay men; Richard Lester’s Beatles movies and his The Three Musketeers, and it had Oscar Wilde, and Georgette Heyer’s exquisite, hilarious social comedies set in her world of Edwardian-inflected
“Regency Romance” (famously called by Cynthia Heimel “Bertie Wooster for girls!”); it had those boon companions Rocky and Bullwinkle, Napoleon Solo and Ilya Kuryakin,  Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser, Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, Butch and Sundance . . . and it had Angela Carter and Joanna Russ.

Put in a pot, heat, stir, type it up on fancy paper – and expect no one to buy your novel or understand why you’d written it.

I hedged Swordspoint ‘round with warnings that I was messing with tradition.  The fairy tale scene it opens with is a sham, concluding:

But there is no one behind the broken windows . . . No king rules them any more . . . And already this morning more than one drop of blood has been shed.

And then, just to be sure, I mocked my style before anyone else could do it, titling my book:  Swordspoint: a Melodrama of Manners.

I was afraid it really was a melodrama, see, or that it would be taken for one: that because I felt passionate about my characters and they felt passionate about everything – much as they try to hide it – and because my novel featured petty evil rather than grandeur, little human drawing room interactions instead of great outdoor battles, I had somehow gone over the edge of what was acceptable.  I was afraid the book wouldn’t sell.

And it didn’t, really. Many editors, both fantasy and mainstream, turned it down. When it was finally published by David Hartwell at Arbor House, it was a critical success; it got amazing blurbs like “it’s as if Noel Coward had written a vehicle for Errol Flynn” (Gene Wolfe), it inspired heated debate on whether a “fantasy” with no magic could be considered fantasy at all . . . Swordspoint slowly grew as an underground classic, but I doubt it ever made any publisher much money.

I wasn’t the only such writer of my generation. I just happened to be the first to publish in what soon became a little genre all its own, with books written by Steven Brust and Emma Bull, Farren Miller and Elizabeth Willey and many, many more. We didn’t agree to do this; it just happened.

In 1826, Sir Walter Scott – the huge romantic sword-swinging fantastical historical novelist of his day – wrote in his journal:

[Jane Austen] ha[s] a talent for describing the involvements and feelings and characters of ordinary life, which is to me the most wonderful I ever met with. The Big Bow-wow strain I can do myself like any now going; but the exquisite touch, which renders ordinary commonplace things and characters interesting . . . is denied to me.

We had, without meaning to, turned our backs on the Big Bow-wow, in favor of a sort of Chamber Fantasy, set not in an imagined middle-ages of armor and great halls, but in later periods, where wit and manners made or broke someone’s fate. Maybe because we’d been socialized in the 60s, we were fascinated with how that strange and alien thing, propriety, was like magic: learn its rules, and you’ll succeed in the grown-up world; break them, and you’d better be better than everyone else, or have powerful allies!

In 1991, my colleague Donald G. Keller decided to write a critical piece about us.  Instead of the term he initially used, which I disliked, I suggested he call the style “fantasy of manners”–which, when his piece came out, some wags quickly nicknamed manner-punk.

Now, of course, “Fantasy of Manners” is a recognized genre, even though people may disagree on its precise definition – which shifts with the tides of new novels and new influences, as it should.

And this is where I admit that I neither know nor care what Category my work fits into.  To me, a novel is a novel, and marketing is marketing, and the twain shall inevitably meet, and it has to be called something.  Although I yearned not to be ghettoized with my first novel, I realize now that I was insanely lucky to be published in genre.  The mainstream readers I lost because my work has Fantasy Cooties are nothing compared to the ones who devour the Riverside world and have an endless appetite for more; who still argue about what makes it fantasy (“the flavor!” someone once explained), readers who make drawings and write fanfic and even cosplay my characters.

Which is why I think the world is ready for Tremontaine – and why there are enough other authors I respect to join me in writing about my Swordspoint world.

The world of fantasy readers continues to get bigger – and less fussy about labels.  Even mainstream kids now grew up on the magic of Harry Potter – and on endless remakes of Jane Austen.  The world is a lot safer for us fantasists of manners than it was when our works were originally created.  I believe the existing fans will love Tremontaine, and will glory, as I do, in the opening up of my world to some of the sharp, funny, wise and insightful younger voices writing today. But it’s just as exciting for me to think that the groundwork has been laid, and that Fantasy of Manners has finally come into its own.


Tremontaine: Amazon|iTunes|Kobo|Serial Box

Read or listen to an excerpt. Visit Ellen Kushner’s site. Follow her on Twitter.

On My Way Home

Soon I will be on an airplane heading back to home, and when I get there, that is it for the year. Which is to say, no other public events and (for the moment at least) no other planned business travel. This makes me slightly giggly. I hardly know what to do with myself! Maybe write? Maybe. It’s an idea I will have to ponder.

In any event — off to fling myself across the country. If I don’t check in here again today, see you all here tomorrow.

The Big Idea: Lila Bowen

The author of Wake of Vultures, Lila Bowen, does whatever the hell she wants (so does Delilah S. Dawson, who is Lila Bowen when she’s not being Delilah Dawson). And what the hell does she want to do now? Tell you her big idea for her book.


Did you ever see that episode of South Park in which Eric Cartman shouted, “WHATEVA. I’M AN OUT OF CONTROL TEEN. I DO WHAT I WANT!” while wearing a tube top on the Maury Povich show? That’s basically the Big Idea behind Wake of Vultures. Not just for the characters, though. For me, too. I spent most of my life pretending to be normal, playing it safe, and afraid to offend anyone, but this book demanded noncompliance.

See, I’ve always been the do-bee. The good girl. The Valedictorian. The polite, responsible kid who’s never smoked a cigarette. I’ve always wanted to do the right thing, to please the people in charge. That goes for writing, too. But Wake of Vultures taught me that you can still write a great book while taking enormous risks, having tons of fun, and shaking your butt in the face of the status quo.

The thing about publishing is that right up until your first book sells, you have enormous freedom. But once you’re under contract and making a career out of your writing, you’re expected to adhere to certain rules. Your books are edited and marketed and sometimes neutered to appeal to readers according to the current publishing climate, and your agent and editor are invested in your continued compliance. Suddenly, there are all these guidelines you have to follow—what genres are selling well, what’s good for your brand, what the reading populace will find pleasant.

And… blech.

So when I told my agent that I wanted to write a Weird West adventure with a half black, half native, cross-dressing, bisexual heroine, she had a lot of reservations.

Westerns aren’t selling. Paranormal isn’t selling. What genre is this? Is it YA or adult? Your main character has a lot going on and can be pretty rude. This reads like an episodic monster hunt. And did she really cut off that werewolf’s dong?


Wake of Vultures is the first book that I wrote knowing it probably wouldn’t sell. It’s the book that made me decide that if I was going to flip one table, I might as well flip ALL THE TABLES. It’s the only book for which I got the tattoo BEFORE the book sold.

That tattoo inspired the book cover, by the way.

It was exceptionally freeing and exciting, writing something that was actively discouraged. It felt less like an acquiescence and more like a dare. At any juncture where I stopped to consider, “Is this too much? Is this too weird? Will people get it? Will it sell?”, I went with my gut, muttering WHATEVA; I DO WHAT I WANT. And my freedom allowed my main character, Nettie Lonesome, to take risks, too. She doesn’t follow the rules, and she doesn’t care if people like her or not. She’s here to kill what needs to die, not get a gold star for manners.

I was recently at an industry event, and a bookseller asked me what Wake was about. I gave my biggest smile and my elevator pitch: It’s Lonesome Dove meets Buffy the Vampire Slayer with a biracial, genderqueer heroine. The bookseller made a face—a face suggesting she wanted to vomit—and walked away. And I shrugged and muttered that same refrain in my head: YOU DON’T LIKE IT? WHATEVA; I DO WHAT I WANT.

I believe in this story enough to offend people and risk failure, and that’s enormously empowering. If you recognize that the world is full of heroes who don’t fit into neat, normal little boxes, you’ll dig it. If you love Westerns but wish women in that era could be more than slaves and whores, you’ll dig it. If you’ve ever had someone look at you and tell you that you don’t deserve the destiny you crave because of what you look like or how you dress or who you love, and you’ve wanted to flip a table on them and ride off into the sunset, you’ll dig it. Wake of Vultures is all about bucking the binary.

That vomit-miming bookseller didn’t pick up a copy, but plenty of other people have. It has stars from Publishers Weekly, Kirkus, and Library Journal, not to mention 4.5 stars and a Top Pick rating from RT Book Reviews. My editor and publishing team believe in it. And it’s currently being passed around the band Gangstagrass, the creative geniuses behind the Justified theme song and the playlist I listened to writing and revising.

I always tell my writing students at LitReactor that they need to learn the rules before they break them. I’m glad I finally found a story worthy of my rebellion.

My suggestion: Find something you love enough to risk breaking the rules. Do it, hard. Then shake your butt and shout WHATEVA; I DO WHAT I WANT. I tell you now: It feels damn good.


Wake of Vultures: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s site. Follow her on Twitter.


Here’s the Egregious, Mealy-Mouthed Clump of Bullshit That is the 2015 World Fantasy Convention Harassment Policy

It is thus, complete with shoddy copy editing (which I learned about via this tweet by Natalie Luhrs, and subsequently confirmed via two WFC members emailing me copies of the program they had been sent):

As a compare and contrast, here’s the New York City Comic Con policy on harassment, which for the last two years has been visibly and prominently featured on six foot-tall banners at the entrances of the Javits Center, among other places. Note well that NYCC exists in the same state as this year’s World Fantasy Convention, and is subject to the same state laws:

I am not a lawyer, but I expect that ReedPOP, the company that runs NYCC (among many other conventions around the US) has maybe a few lawyers on its staff. If NYCC is utterly and absolutely unafraid to promulgate a harassment policy even though there is a legal statute defining what harassment means in the state of New York, I expect it might have been possible for World Fantasy to have done likewise, if they chose to do so.

Now, over on the 2015 World Fantasy Convention Facebook page, there’s an argument that WFC calling something harassment that is not exactly in line with the legal statute exposes the convention to the risk of libel. One, see the NYCC policy above — either all these things are covered under the NY harassment statute, or NYCC/ReedPOP’s phalanx of lawyers determined that it’s actually okay for a private entity to state that for the purposes of their own private event, the definitions of harassment for that event are thus, and that those found violating those definitions would be tossed from the event, even if the legal standard of harassment was not met.

Two, if you’re absolutely paranoid that calling harassment harassment is libel if it does not meet a certain statutory bar? Then fucking call it something else. And indeed in its statement the WFC already does: “incorrect/uncivil behavior.” Dear World Fantasy Convention: if you cannot or will not create a harassment policy, why won’t you create an “incorrect/uncivil behavior policy?” That almost certainly will not leave you open to a libel lawsuit! And as a template, please see the NYCC policy above.

This also, incidentally, solves the appalling and utterly pathetic rationale the 2015 World Fantasy Convention gives for punting on having an actual and useful harassment policy, i.e., that the staff isn’t trained on recognizing the legal definition of harassment in the state of New York. Leaving aside the cogent point that the staff had most of a year to get up to speed on the matter, if they so chose, especially considering that they were apparently already consulting with the county district attorney and the local police on the harassment policy, if instead there’s an “incorrect/uncivil behavior” policy, the convention can define that behavior however it likes. It’s a private event which can define what it deems incorrect and/or uncivil behavior without referent to the legal statute on harassment. And it can very easily train its staff to recognize and act upon those examples of bad behavior, and it can likewise very easily communicate to convention goers what that inappropriate and uncivil behavior is.

Let’s call the World Fantasy Convention’s decision to hide behind the legal statute of harassment for what it is: Cowardly bullshit. The convention is abdicating its responsibility to provide a safe environment for convention-goers by asserting that it can’t do anything to deal with harassment unless and until it reaches a specific legal definition of harassment — which the convention doesn’t even bother to fucking cite in its material.

When your convention harassment policy boils down to “don’t bother us until you have to call the cops,” you have completely failed. The World Fantasy Convention should be embarrassed and ashamed to have let down its members this way. I’m not a member this year, but if I were, I would cancel my membership. I’d have no interest in attending a convention that decides the best course of action when it comes to the safety of its members is to punt.

(Update: Natalie Luhrs, whose tweet was the means by which I found about this, has thoughts on the matter here. She’s not happy either.)

(Update, 10/28: Via Jon Meltzer in the comments, WFC is attempting to improve its policy. Let’s see what it says when it’s finally published.)

View of a Hotel Window, 10/25/15: LA

My hotel room is on the first floor, which means that the view out of it is a little on the nose for where I am, so instead here is a view of the window itself, with some of the outside world visible from it. It’s a very nice hotel room, though, so. No parking lot.

I’m in LA for meetings and for seeing a couple of people, but no public events, so, sorry, folks. Maybe next time. I came down from the Seattle-Tacoma area, where yesterday I did a writing workshop and reading, and both went pretty well, in my opinion. No one booed and threw rotted vegetables, in any event.

Off to take a quick walk down to the local convenience store. I’m here in LA for a couple of days. Better stock up on essentials, and yes, I mean Coke Zero.

Fall From the Air

Taken as I was taking off from O’Hare to Seattle/Tacoma this morning. Just a few minutes ago, in fact. Yes, I am posting this from the middle of the sky. Right now it’s just all clouds and blue. How are you?

Remember Tacoma, I’m doing an event for you tomorrow at the Tacoma public library main branch. See you there!

New Books and ARCs, 10/22/15

I’m traveling tomorrow, so I’m getting this week’s new books and ARCs up a day early — lots of novellas in here! See something that looks interesting to you? Tell me about it in the comments.

Reminder: Writing Workshop and Reading this Saturday, October 24, at the Tacoma Public Library

The headline pretty much says it: I’m coming to the main branch of the Tacoma Public Library this Saturday for a whole day to do a writing workshop in the morning, and a reading/Q&A/signing in the afternoon. The workshop will cover some of the practical and creative aspects of being a writer in today’s world, and will include Q&A on those topics; it will be more informal than not. In the afternoon, I’ll do some reading, including new(ish) stuff, have a Q&A on my work and personal thoughts on things, and will sign books.

It’s all free and open to the public, so come on down. Here are the details. See you there!

The Big Idea: Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff

In their novel Illuminae, authors Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff decided to break stuff. What stuff? And why? They’re here to explain.


The Big Idea behind Illuminae?

Break the idea of what a book could be.

Epistolary novels aren’t a new concept. The conceit of telling a story through documents—be they journals or letters or diary entries—has been around since pistols at dawn and pantaloons were all the rage. But there hadn’t been much science fiction that played with the epistolary structure, or expanded it beyond the traditional journal/diary/email format.

And that’s where we started with Illuminae, too: A science fiction mystery, set in a refugee fleet fleeing a collapsed world, in which two unlikely heroes stranded on two different ships would communicate via text and email. Even though we were told “editors don’t buy SciFi”, we thought it was a cool enough idea to tinker with, and our Hacker Grrl and Pilot Boy were enormous fun to write. But around 30 pages and quite a few drinks into our first draft, we came up with the thought that’d break Illuminae out of the mold, and maybe break the idea of what a book could be.

What if one of the narrators was a damaged artificial intelligence, whose worsening madness would alter the documents in the novel? What if the way this AI perceived events would change the visual nature of the files, and the fundamental design of the entire book? Imagine a dogfight in space, where the chaos of battle was communicated visually as well as verbally. The effects of a computer virus unfolding typographically in front of your eyes. A book which ceased to be a simple medium for the story, where the object in the reader’s hands became part of unravelling the mystery of what went on aboard this fleet?

“That’s so pants-on-head crazy it might work,” we said. So we pulled together a 130pg sample, with Jay utilizing the design skillz he’d learned during a misspent youth in advertising agencies, selling petrol guzzling monstrosities to undersexed men and toilet paper to anyone with a bottom. And fortunately we found an editor crazy enough to not only buy our pants-on-head crazy idea, but help us push the boundaries even further.

It was vital to us that the story came first—that any design elements would be used to augment to novel, rather than be used as a crutch for shoddy storytelling. So the creation of Illuminae really came in two phases.

The first, the actual, you know writing part. Co-authoring is a strange and awesome experience—two styles and two mindsets colliding on the page. But two heads always seems to trump one, at least in terms of devising fiendish ways in which to torture protagonists. And so we put our two heroes and their AI nemesis/saviour through every kind of disaster, turn and twist we could devise. Pursuing enemy ships. Virulent plagues. Command conspiracies. Murder and mayhem and mutagens, oh my. But in between all this chaos, we also found the chance to ask a few of the Big Questions. What is it to be human? What would you sacrifice to save the ones you love? What is the meaning of life, the nature of mortality, the reason for all this? Our little SciFi mystery/romance/thriller took us places we never expected, and in the end, stopped being all that little (the final copy clocks in at 600 pages).

The second phase was design, in which no idea was considered too left field or too crazy. We were writing an insane artificial intelligence, after all. Gravity goes out aboard the fleet? We’ll just have the typography float. Want to visually explore the nature of a nuclear explosion on an atomic level? 5 hours in photoshop and half a bottle of Jack Daniels and watch the magic happen. And again, this wasn’t a new idea; Alfred J Bester’s classic The Stars My Destination incorporated experimental typography alllll the way back in 1956. But no one had done it to the scale we were pushing. Nobody had pushed it this far. We’re not kidding around when we tell you Illuminae is like no book you’ve ever read before in your life.

And in the end, did we break the idea of what a book could be?

You can always click on the links below and see. Either way, it was a lot of fun to try.


Illuminae: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Visit the book site. Visit the sites of Kaufman and Kristoff. Follow Kaufman on Twitter. Follow Kristoff on Twitter.

Get Steppin’

I needed a new bathroom scale (contrary to what I wrote on Twitter and Facebook, I did not kill the last bathroom scale with a hammer for the crime of informing me I was overweight; in fact one of its battery contacts had corroded, rendering the electronic scale useless), so I went looking for one yesterday. This being the future, the one I found that I liked was one that connected to the Internet and could talk to my phone in order to keep track of my weight-loss progress (or, uh, otherwise); it was the Fitbit-branded Aria. Since I was getting that scale, I figured I might as well also get a Fitbit band too, in order to help me keep track of the amount I actually, you know, move. And so here it is, my Fitbit band.

And on one hand, yes, I’ve become just another one of those jerks wearing a fitness band, which is sort of the electronic version of a kale smoothie. On the other hand, I currently weigh 186 pounds, which is 26 pounds over my general ideal weight, and from experience I know I do better with fitness-related things if I gameify them in some manner, which is probably some residue from a misspent youth playing video games. So, here we are, with me owning a Fitbit band and scale. We’ll see how it works.

This is also me saying, hello, I’m actively exercising and watching my weight again. I’ll start the actual “being more careful what I stuff into my face” part more assiduously in about a week, when I get back from my last trip of the year (I mean, I’m counting calories at the moment, but I tend to worry about them less when I travel). This week will be given over to figuring out how this Fitbit thing can actually help me with my goals.

To be clear, I don’t believe the mere possession of gadgets designed to help you track fitness stuff is a magical thing that either increases one’s virtue or replaces actual fitness-oriented work. Owning a Fitbit (or any such thing) is not the same as being fit. The thing will be useful only to the extent it can help me with that aim. We’ll see if it does. I hope so, otherwise I’ve just spent money stupidly. Which has been known to happen. Hopefully not this time.

Why I Don’t Drink Coffee, Featuring Maureen Johnson

The Big Idea: Catherynne M. Valente

I could write a lot about Catherynne Valente and her new novel Radiance, but instead let me just say two words:

Space whales.

Space whales, people!


Radiance doesn’t have a big idea at its heart.

It has about six. It’s a decopunk alt-history Hollywood space opera mystery thriller. With space whales.

Over-egging the pudding, you say? Too many cooks going at the soup? Gilding that lily like it’s going to the prom? I say: grab your eggs and hold onto your lilies because I am cannonballing into that soup FULL SPEED AHEAD. It is the souping hour up in here and I’ve got a rocket-powered ladle ready to go.

The year is 1944. But not our 1944. No Blitz, no rationing, no Russian front—not yet, anyway. In fact, most of Earth is looking a little empty. The Solar System, however, is bustling, buzzing, bursting with human life. Each and every one of our familiar planets is inhabitable and inhabited, from the red swamps of Venus to the frozen neon streets of Uranus to the opium fields of Pluto. New industries and intrigues are everywhere—and the Moon is where they make movies. Silent movies, mostly, for the scions of the Edison family keep an iron grip on their sound and color patents. In the world of Radiance, Space exploration began around 1870, but film still streams along in black and white silence.

By the early 20th century, the solar neighborhood has become one big boomtown. But here and there, quietly, horribly, on these faraway worlds, colonies are vanishing, leaving little behind but a few shredded houses and shattered souls.

When Severin Unck, a documentary filmmaker, travels to Venus to uncover the truth behind the destroyed settlements, she loses half her crew to death and madness and disappears off the face of the planet. Radiance is the search for Severin. Her father, her lover, her stepmother, and her studio bossestravel the length and breadth of nine worlds to find her, but the only one with any hope is the the lone survivor of the lost Venusian village, a lost little boy grown to a bitter, angry man.

And that’s not even getting into the giant space whales who lactate a substance that everyone drinks and no one understands, the Plutonian buffalo, the Uranian porn theaters, the movie studios fighting IP wars with guns and tanks, or the murders, riots, money, gossip, sex, and celluloid secrets that are part and parcel of a frontier Solar System on the brink of colossal change.

Plus, there’s a musical number.

I’m not going to lie. This book is crazypants. I threw everything I had into it. Heart and soul and probably some cartilage and eyeball fluid, too. I wanted to write a melodrama about a wild, living and breathing and squabbling Solar System. I wanted to write a horror-romance about huge, elemental aliens. I wanted to write a non-linear postmodern SF novel that was also a page-turning thriller because I secretly always wanted to write a hardboiled noir murder mystery. I wanted to write a badass adventure about film patents. I wanted to write a book about movies. About seeing and being seen. About what the camera does to us when it never leaves our side. About who has the right to speak, and who has to buy it. About the meaning of science fiction in a science fictional universe. And through it all I wanted to write about a lost girl who didn’t come home. It all hangs together, I promise! I think. I hope. Because everything really is like that. Everything really is about a thousand things at once, all the time. All the lilies, and eggs, and soups, pouring into an ocean of story the size of Neptune.

Radiance is easily the most ambitious novel I’ve ever written. And I’m a pretty ambitious girl. It’s also my first adult novel in four years—which means I got to swear again! And make people shoot each other and hop into bed together! Oh, I’m just screamingly proud of it, my bouncing baby abomination. It’s a world that came into my head fully formed—cross a story about silent filmmakers with Golden Age SF pulp-style planets with huge Lovecraftian monsters and it just appeared, all squirmy with art deco tentacles and gin and black eyeliner. I wrote a short story called The Radiant Car Thy Sparrows Drew in 2008. It took seven more years to become a good enough writer to get the rest of that world into a book. I just wasn’t good enough in 2008. I didn’t know how. It was too big for me. Here’s hoping I got big enough to do it right.

Full speed ahead.


Radiance: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s site. Follow her on Twitter.

Always and Never

Here’s a question I’ve been sitting on for a while before I answered, mostly because of travel and other commitments but also because I was waiting for a good time to answer it. It comes from Avdi Grimm, who writes:

A question for if you’re ever bored and out of anything else to blog about (hah):

I just wrote an update on our family’s ever-so-slow movement towards some semblance of economic security. It got me wondering: was there ever a point in your career where you felt like “OK, I think my family is safe now”? And if so – where/when was it?

I’ve written before about when I felt I had “made it,” which provides an answer close to this question, but not precisely on topic. That question was about my own personal feeling of security; this question is about the state of my entire family. And in thinking about it, I find the answer to it is more complicated than I would have originally assumed.

The first part of the answer is that to a great extent I always felt my family was economically “safe.” My own major personal economic crisis — when I was laid off from AOL and had to decide whether to try to find another regular job or go freelance — was in February/March of 1998, and Athena was born in December of that year (do the math there). By the time December rolled around I was doing very well as a freelancer and Krissy, who had been working part-time before I was laid off, was taken on full-time and was given full benefits, giving us a stable base on top of which my freelance income could ride. So our daughter emerged with us economically happy and comfortable.

By and large that situation has continued for us. With the exception of a couple of months right after we moved to Ohio, Krissy has never not worked and never not provided a stable base of income and benefits for the family, and I have never not done reasonably well in terms of income as a freelancer and author. We always made more than we needed to live on, which also allowed us to save and create a “cushion” in case something happened.

We’ve also been fortunate in other ways that indirectly but materially helped with our economic security. I’ve always been able to work from home. which means when Athena was very young I could be a caregiver to her while Krissy worked out of the home. Later, when I began to travel more, Krissy was able to get top-notch daycare from the local community college she took classes at for the eye-poppingly low rate of $2 an hour (the daycare was part of a child education program at the college). And of course where we live — rural Ohio — allows for a pretty good standard of living for an amount relatively low to other places in the US. It all adds up.

We were smart about things, and I also fully acknowledge we were lucky. I was and have continued to be lucky that I have been able to make a good living writing, both before I was a novelist and after that become my primary job description; not every writer I know has been fortunate as I have been. I have caught breaks in my life — which I then proceeded to exploit reasonably intelligently, to be clear, but that doesn’t change the fact that some things just plain fell in my lap. There were lots of opportunities for things to go poorly through no fault or effort of my own; they didn’t.

Likewise, we were fortunate not to have the world fall in on us at any point. Neither Krissy nor I ever got sick or required substantial care in a way that made it a focus of our lives; Athena’s been happy and healthy since she was born. Our house never burned down. We never got hit by a bus. We were never devoured by bears. We were, and are, lucky, and we used that luck to build the economic structures that will help to keep us “safe.”

So that’s the first part of the answer.

The second part of the answer is that I’m not entirely sure that I will ever feel my family is economically “safe” — that is, entirely insulated from economic pressures — because I don’t think that’s a realistic scenario. We’re by any standard pretty well off, but it’s also pretty easy for things to go to hell in a moment. I could get sick. Krissy could get sick. Athena could get sick. A member of our extended family could get sick. People could stop buying my books. The economy could crater so spectacularly that no one is spared, including me or my family. Things could otherwise go sideways in lots of different ways that I can think of off the top of my head which scare the crap out of me. And in nearly every case, the things that can strip me and my family of economic security are things over which we have little or no control over.

In that scenario, one is never “safe.” Really, almost no one is. What one has is “margin”: The amount of space, and time, and money, one has to maneuver one’s way out of a trainwreck of woe bearing down on you and the people you care about. Depending on the circumstance and scenario, the same amount of margin can be more than enough, or not nearly enough at all. If you’re not aware of that, you may not be paying attention.

Now, I realize that those last couple of paragraphs have gotten really dark, and it might seem that I’ve gone from regular friendly ol’ Scalzi to a guy who has barrels of beans and rainwater in his basement, along with a lovely assortment of ranged weapons for when the Takers come for all I hold dear, which will be soon. I assure you on a day-to-day basis I feel fine about my life, and I suspect things will generally turn out just fine for me and mine. We’ve worked hard for years to make it so. What I’m saying is that my optimism about the economic safety of my family is tempered by a worldview that recognizes that shit happens, whether you think you’ve prepared for it or not. I’m not waiting for the other shoe to fall, but if it does, I don’t want to be surprised by it. I want to be able to look at it, say “huh, that’s a hell of a big shoe somebody dropped,” and hopefully find a way to work around it.

So the answer to Avdi’s question of when I felt my family was economically safe, basically, is “always, and never.” In the moment, so far, it’s always been the case. Existentially, well, nothing’s safe, is it. I don’t think these are contradictory positions to hold. It’s not a case of looking at a glass and asking if you’d describe it as half-full or half-empty; it’s recognizing it’s both, simultaneously. It’s also saying “Cool, we have enough water today. Let’s see what happens tomorrow.”

The 1% of Problems

Today’s Thing About Rich People Appalling the Internet: “Wealth therapy tackles woes of the rich: ‘It’s really isolating to have lots of money,'” an article in the Guardian about therapists who help the rich deal with the apparent loneliness and isolation of having a shitload of money. Here’s one of the more choice quotes from the piece:

From the Bible to the Lannisters of Game of Thrones, it’s easy to argue that the rich have always been vilified, scorned and envied. But their counsellors argue things have only gotten worse since the financial crisis and the debate over income inequality that has been spurred on by movements like Occupy Wall Street and the Fight for $15 fair wage campaign.

“The Occupy Wall Street movement was a good one and had some important things to say about income inequality, but it singled out the 1% and painted them globally as something negative. It’s an -ism,” said Jamie Traeger-Muney, a wealth psychologist and founder of the Wealth Legacy Group. “I am not necessarily comparing it to what people of color have to go through, but … it really is making value judgment about a particular group of people as a whole.”

The media, she said, is partly to blame for making the rich “feel like they need to hide or feel ashamed”.

Oh, lordy, lordy, lordy.

So, point one: Rich people do indeed have problems, and while their problems are problems that most people would like to have, because those problems don’t generally involve lack of money, it doesn’t mean they are not genuine, actual problems that cause stress and unhappiness. I think money can indeed be isolating and strange, especially if you have money and those around you do not; money is inherently powerful and changes power dynamics and how people perceive you. I think rich people also probably need to be able to talk to other people without judgment about their particular and unique set of problems, just like anyone needs to. Otherwise their loneliness and alienation will get worse. It’s difficult for many people to imagine a ton of money being a curse, but if you don’t know how to deal with what money does to you and other people, sure, it can be a curse.

Point two, holy fuck does this article quote absolutely clueless people. “I am not necessarily comparing it to what people of color have to go through, but …” I mean, wow. This is the therapist-to-the-rich-people’s version of “I’m not saying it’s aliens… but it’s aliens,” especially since later in the article she directly makes a comparison by encouraging people to replace the word “rich” with “black” to see the problem with how she says people speak of the rich.

Here’s a handy pro tip for you: When describing the problems of the rich — who are, statistically speaking here in the US, a very white cohort; the 2010 Census has 96% of the 1% households being white — do not bring up in comparison, even to say that you’re not necessarily comparing them, the problems of people of color. Here’s what some of the problems of people of color are, wealth-wise:

The Great Recession, fueled by the crises in the housing and financial markets, was universally hard on the net worth of American families. But even as the economic recovery has begun to mend asset prices, not all households have benefited alike, and wealth inequality has widened along racial and ethnic lines.

The wealth of white households was 13 times the median wealth of black households in 2013, compared with eight times the wealth in 2010, according to a new Pew Research Center analysis of data from the Federal Reserve’s Survey of Consumer Finances. Likewise, the wealth of white households is now more than 10 times the wealth of Hispanic households, compared with nine times the wealth in 2010.

So, yeah. This on top of every single other thing that people of color in the US have to deal with. One of the reasons the “replace ‘rich’ with ‘black'” formulation rings hollow is because no one who is not utterly delusional believes the average experience of a black person in the US and the average experience of a rich person in the US is anything alike, either in the day-to-day experience or in the power dynamic between those expressing the opinions and those on the receiving end.

Again, I’m sympathetic to the idea that the rich have their problems; everyone does. But I suspect that Ms. Traeger-Muney, whether she wants to own up to it or not, was trying in a sad and clumsy way to appropriate the dynamic of racial inequity to describe the absolutely entirely different dynamic of rich people problems, even while denying she was doing it. If you’re not necessarily comparing them, then don’t bring it up at all — it compromises your argument and makes you part of the problem. You help neither people of color nor the 1% by this formulation.

Point three: The media is making “the rich feel like they need to hide or be ashamed”? Really? Huh. She’s seeing different media than I’m seeing, at the very least. If you’re a horrid little shitlord like Martin Shkreli, who appears so cartoonish as a human being it’s amazing that he hasn’t actually been photographed diving into a pool of money, a la Scrooge McDuck, then yes, you may feel the media is trying to make you feel ashamed. But it’s not because Shkreli is rich. It’s because he appears by all indications to be a genuinely terrible person, and he appears enabled by money (and his control of it) to be a genuinely terrible person in ways that affect innocent others.

Indeed that’s the hallmark of what rich appear to be castigated in the media: they’re doing terrible or clueless things, often to other people, and use their money to further those ends, or use the money to insulate themselves from the consequences. Even the fictional very rich noted in article are like that. People don’t dislike the Lannisters in Game of Thrones because they’re rich. They dislike them because they’re a family of sadistic schemers who will absolutely cut off your head or have you gored by boars or whatever if you get in their joyless, unhappy way. The single good thing about the Lannisters is that they’re rich; they famously always pay their debts. It’s everything else about them that’s the problem.

So, yes. If you’re very rich and you’re acting like an asshole — using your money to rise prices on parasite-treating drugs or blocking access to a public beach near your house or trying to buy an election or shutting off electricity to grandmothers during a heatwave to make money on the margins or cutting off the head of the Hand of the King even though you agreed to spare him and let him take the black — people are going to not like you very much. People tend not to like assholes. This should not be a surprise.

More generally, the rich also have the circumstance of getting manifestly richer in an era in the US and the Western world in which literally everyone else is seeing their real incomes drop, sometimes by negligible amounts (in the upper heights of the middle class) and by more noticeable amounts the further down you go. Should this make the rich anxious? Probably, because if they’re decent human beings they will recognize the increasing inequity of wealth is no good for anyone in the long run, because it’s already giving rise to systematic problems that will take generations to correct. Should they be fearful? You know what, if the heads of the rich are not already on spikes after 2008, it seems unlikely they ever will be, so I’m gonna go with “no.”

In my observation of things, neither people nor the media seem to dislike people either becoming or being rich. I can speak to this a little bit personally: after my deal was announced earlier this year, I’d say 99% of the response to it, in the media and out of it, was “cool, well done” (1% was the usual people who dislike me continuing to dislike me, and, you know: HA HA HA sucks to be them). I know people who are worth substantially more than I am; there doesn’t seem to be a reflexive dislike of them, either. If anything, the media and people in general are tuned to like and admire wealth and those who have it. It’s that particularly American version of the Protestant Work Ethic which says that in the US there are two types of people: The rich and those who aren’t rich yet. You have to work hard (no pun intended) to make people dislike you when you are rich. It’s much easier — again, speaking from experience — for people to dislike you because you are poor.

So, yeah, no: I’m not inclined to believe the media is particularly hard on the rich.

Yet again, this is not say the rich don’t have problems, including alienation, loneliness and anxiousness. I’m sure many do, and I’m also sure that for many rich people having their wealth be their initial outwardly defining characteristic is not a happy one. It’s okay to have some sympathy for the rich. But it’s also okay to recognize that the problems of the rich are their own set of problems, often unlike the problems that most people have or, honestly, will ever have. They are the 1% of problems.

A Tale of Two Tablets

I’m doing some work on a project that requires iOS, and my ipad 3 is now sufficiently out of date, processor-wise, that it makes no sense to use it for the project (and anyway, the home button stopped working, too), so I went and ordered an iPad Mini 4, which arrived about a week ago. I’ve been playing with it ever since, and now of course I have some thoughts about it and about tablets and brands and so on and so forth.

The first thing about it is that the iPad Mini confirms again for me something I already knew, which is that I prefer my tablets smaller than “full-sized,” i.e., the size of the standard iPad and other 10-inch tablets. The mini has a 7.9 inch screen and is roughly “paperback”-sized in the same way my Nexus 7 (appearing alongside it in the picture above) is. It’s easy to hold and work with one hand in the way standard-sized or larger tablets aren’t; I generally find standard-sized tablets unwieldy to hold and work on.

For me, at least, the 7-to-8 inch tablets make sense as the intermediary computing device between a smartphone and a laptop, where 10-inch tablets pretty much always just felt like hobbled laptops. I realize other people like 10-inchers just fine. I suspect they have larger hands than I do. That said, as a matter of proportion, on a smaller tablet, I think I prefer the 16:10 ratio of the Nexus 7 to the 4:3 ratio of the Mini; it’s slightly more comfortable to hold in a single hand. Again, this may be an issue of tiny hands on my part. But either way, when it comes to tablets, smaller is better.

The second thing about it is that it confirms another thing that I already knew, which is that Apple makes pretty, pretty objects that make you look cooler just for being near them. I don’t know what terrifying deal Jony Ive made with the devil, but it’s working, because in taking the Mini out of the box, I just about petted the thing and called it My Precious. You (or at least I) want to use Apple products in a sort of compulsive way that doesn’t apply to other manufacturers, and when there’s a problem, you (or at least I) feel like you’re letting the computing object down, rather than the other way around. It’s a little like dating someone who is vastly more attractive than you; you fumble about and try not to give it an excuse to leave you for (depending on your tastes) someone like Channing Tatum or Rosario Dawson.

Compare, once again, to my Nexus 7, about which I definitely do not feel the same way. I really really like my Nexus 7. It’s my pal, my buddy, my friend. It’s perfect-sized for me and super-capable. It does everything I want a tablet to do. But it doesn’t make me feel cooler, or alternately, insecure/incompetent when something on it doesn’t work the way I want it do. It’s just… my pal the Nexus 7. I put it down, it doesn’t call to me to pick it back up. I put the iPad Mini down, and, I don’t know, I feel… reproach? Emanating from the general direction of the iPad Mini? Kind of feels like it.

Yes, yes, I’m overthinking it. That’s what I do. Nevertheless, I pick up the Nexus 7 and it feels like, dude, you wanna get on the Internet? Me too! Let’s go look at things on the Internet! Come on! Whereas I pick up the Mini and it’s all you may not actually deserve me, but I’ll make you look good scrolling through Facebook. And then it does. Curse you, Jony Ives.

My iPad Mini, while lovely and supremely capable, also points out yet another thing that I already knew, which is that with the exception of a few bits here and there, it follows the Apple trend of being slightly behind the times, spec-wise. The machine runs an 1.5GHz multi-core processor with 2GB of RAM, separate GPU and a nice bright LCD screen with a ppi of 320+ — which is to say, pretty much the same specs as the Nexus 7, which was released in 2013. Spec nerds will now descend on me to point out the various difference between the chips Apple uses and the chips Asus used to make the Nexus 7, and so on and so forth, but from a practical point of view, i.e., how people use these machines, these two tablets are in the same ballpark when it comes to their guts.

Likewise, iOS 9 is a very fine operating system, but in a number of ways it lags behind Android (which itself just came out with a new iteration, although I have not played with it yet). iOS’s notification system and handling of apps is less capable than Android’s, in my opinion; likewise Siri isn’t as good at her job than Google is, when it comes to understanding my voice or understanding what information I want. Android has onscreen keyboards that have numbers and most punctuation available via long-presses; Apple’s native onscreen keyboard is still kind of terrible for actual communication. And so on.

This doesn’t mean the Nexus 7 is better than the Mini 4, or Google better than Apple; the experience of the tablet isn’t just about the guts of the machine or how the software does what it does. It does mean that Apple, for its own reasons, isn’t interested in playing the spec game, in terms of hardware or software, on anyone else’s terms but its own. I think it sees its primary competition as being previous Apple products, not current products from any other manufacturer. And if so, you know what? They’re probably right. At this point in the tech manufacturing world, most people wittingly or unwittingly chose their mobile OS allegiance three or four cellphones ago. If you go from Android to iOS, there’s enough of a difference to be exasperating; likewise the other direction (I know, Microsoft. I’m leaving you out of this particular conversation. But look, you’ve got, like, 3% of the US market. Sorry).

Also, Apple is more interested in the best experience of everything than the first experience of anything. It’s not the guy hacking through the jungle with a machete to make a path; it’s the guy coming through laying down an asphalt road and setting up a rest station with a Starbucks inside. Mind you, the “best” experience is a subjective thing; in this case it’s defined as “Whatever the design folks at Apple decide it is.” But they have a pretty good track record, and they’re willing to wait to let other people make all the mistakes, because that means they’re on someone else’s time and budget.

They’re not wrong to do it that way. I remember having a Creative MP3 player (this one, in fact), and being underwhelmed when people started losing their brains about the first generation iPod. And then I saw one in the flesh and started playing with it, and oh my God it was soooo much better. My Zen Nomad had better specs and more memory and Creative EAX sound processing, which really did make crappy low-bit MP3s sound better. But the iPod just worked, in terms of finding and playing music. It’s why Apple sold millions and millions, and Creative became a “me too” in a field they were one of the first to be in.

So, in sum: iPad Mini 4 is very pretty and capable and makes me feel like I need to stand up straighter, wear better shirts and brush my teeth more often to be worthy of it. Nexus 7 is friendly and capable and if it were a person I would probably hang out with it and trade sarcastic zingers. And there you have it, the fundamental difference between these two tablet experiences, at least as I approach them.

New Books and ARCs, 10/16/15

A double stack this week, for your pleasure (if for some reason you’re finding it hard to read the titles, here’s a bigger picture). What looks like a nifty read to you? Tell me in the comments!