Reader Request Week 2016 #5: Pronouns

Bebe asks:

My younger child, a sophomore in college, has asked me to use “they” “them” as their preferred pronouns. I live in a very liberal and gender-choice aware New England college town, and I still find this difficult to consistently comply with. Sometimes my English major brain rebels at using plurals for a single person, sometimes I just don’t want to have that conversation with a stranger, especially one who has already stated views that suggest they have no sympathy for the preferences and realities of others. Sometimes I’m just tired and it’s hard to keep it all straight. So, what do you think of gender neutral pronouns? Can you suggest something…better than they, them? Am I being disrespectful of my child by failing to consistently respect and comply with their request? And how would you, or an older, female, Southern version of you respond to the boor who immediately brings up Caitlyn Jenner and insists on calling “him” “Bruce”? And, since you love writing questions, have I used too many “””‘s in this question?

Small things first: The number of quotation marks seems fine to me, and as far as “they” “them” and “their” are concerned, not only is there a long history of their being used as singular pronouns, it’s something that’s rapidly becoming standard usage. When you feel weird about using them for singular usage, just remember a lot of commonly-accepted grammar rules were invented fairly recently as a way for the status-anxious to feel better about how they used the English language. And, you know, that’s just stupid. Good grammar is that which makes the language clear, not that which makes it clear someone else isn’t following arbitrary rules.

As for how I feel about gender-neutral pronouns: I’m for ’em, and specifically I like “they,” “them” and “their.” One, I already know the words, which means that they’re easier for me to incorporate into my daily usage than other gender-neutral pronouns which have been more recently invented or drafted into service; two, I’ve already used “they” “them” and “their” as gender-neutral singular (and plural!) pronouns for years; they’re already part of my personal style guide.

I prefer them, in fact, to “he or she,” both because it’s a less awkward construction and because I know more people now who neither identify as “he” nor “she.” Inasmuch as “he or she” is meant to be an inclusive construction, when you know people who identify as neither (or both, or either on a sliding scale contingent on factors, or whatever), then you realize it’s not actually as inclusive as it’s meant to be. In which case: Hey! “They” offers a really easy solution.

When someone asks you to refer to them by a particular set of pronouns and you’re reluctant to comply, are you being disrespectful? Yup! Self-identity is important, and refusing to accept someone else’s identity for your own reasons will be taken to mean that you dislike or disagree with their choices about who they are. And this is your right, but it means you’re saying that your choices in this regard are more important than the choices of the person who has to live with their own identity every single moment of their lives.

Which is a hell of a thing to say. Are you sure you want to say that? And how would you feel if someone made that choice about you? I identify as male (and cis-gender), and my pronouns are of the “he” set. If someone consistently and purposefully used a set I didn’t identify with, I’d want to know why. And here’s the thing: generally speaking, when someone does misgender me, they’re doing it specifically to be disrespectful. I have assholes out there who use the “she” set of pronouns when referring to me because in their minds, it’s a terrible insult to call a man a woman, and this is a sign of their contempt.

Now, as it happens, I’m not insulted by the “she” set of pronouns being used for me, because I don’t believe being a woman is an inferior state of being. It’s not correct, but it’s not an insult. But my point of view on the matter doesn’t change the fact that the misgendering is intended to be disrespectful and an insult. Likewise, the boor calling Caitlyn Jenner “Bruce” and “him” is almost certainly being disrespectful. Bless their heart.

So, yes: Not using someone’s preferred set of pronouns is disrespectful.

With that said, let me share a personal story here. In the reasonably recent past, a friend of mine who went by one set of pronouns let it be known that from that point forward, they would like to be known by another set. When I read that, I wrote to them that I would be happy to comply, and also, because I had been using a different set of pronouns for them literally all the time I had known them before, it’s possible that from time to time, and despite my intent, I might fuck up and use the previous set. If I did, first, sorry about that and I would try better, and second, please call it out if they saw me do it, because I didn’t want them to think it was intentional, and I wanted them to know it was all right to correct me and to expect an apology. Thus I let them know I respected who they are, that I was also fallible, and that when I failed them, I wanted to do better going forward.

People aren’t perfect. We’ll all screw up from time to time and fail the people we know, the people we like, and the people we love. It’s okay to acknowledge that will happen even as we work to accommodate the people we know, like and love. I do find in my experience that if you acknowledge that you might mess up but will consciously work to improve when you do, you end up messing up less over time, and when you do, people are generally more willing to be understanding.

So: Use people’s preferred pronouns. If you unintentionally screw up, correct yourself, apologize if you feel you should, and try to do better from there on out.

Let me also note that the pronoun thing is one of the best current examples of both the culture and individuals being on a journey, and that even people who mean well, or who want to do what’s best, can still be behind the curve. I’m not where I am with pronouns — and all the aspects of gender and identity that the pronoun issue is semaphore for — because one day I woke up and decided I was going to be cheerfully progressive on the issue. In fact, it wasn’t all that long ago that I would have argued about what the “real” identity of someone was, and whether it was bounded by their genetics, and whether just because you wanted to use one set of pronouns, that other people should then be obliged to accept your request, and so on.

What’s changed over time with me? Well, some of it is simply knowledge — knowing more people who are trans and genderfluid, and learning more about science and culture, which over time convinced me that a binary understanding of gender is woefully incomplete, and that maybe my own stances should reflect that.

But as much as that — and even more than that — was the question of who I was, and who I wanted to be in respect to others. Simply put, a strong person, a person who is good and kind and righteous, does not need to demand that other people have to shoehorn their self-identity to someone else’s expectation. A strong person, a person who is good and kind and righteous, says to the other person “tell me who you are” and accepts the fact of what they’re told.

Which is not to say I am a strong or good or kind or righteous person. As noted above, I’m as fallible as the next person, imperfect and otherwise still trundling on the karmic wheel of suffering. But I know who I want to be, and who I want to be is not someone who freaks out other people’s gender identity (or their sexuality, or their cultural identity and so on). So I work on not doing those things.

Am I perfect about this? Nope: See above story about me acknowledging that I would probably screw up a friend’s gender identity. And likewise, people who want to do better can just be starting on this particular path, and will screw up, and fumble and otherwise be imperfect. That’s okay, just as it’s okay for people to get exasperated and frustrated and angry when their identity is imperfectly understood or accepted, even by the people who hope to be good people. I would get exasperated and frustrated and angry too, if I were in their shoes. I wouldn’t feel at all shy about saying so, either.

In any event: Yes, when someone tells you what their pronouns are, use them, won’t you? It doesn’t seem too much to ask. It requires nothing from you but practice. In return you acknowledge who they are as human beings. And with that simple recognition of their identity, you, too, acknowledge who you are as a human being. That matters, too.

(There’s still time to ask questions for 2016’s Reader Request Week — get your requests in here.)

Quick Tuesday Night Recap, 3/23/16

Because apparently now I’ve made it a thing to write something about the Tuesday night primaries on Wednesday.

1. Hey, hey, Bernie Sanders fans! You had a good night last night, with Sanders thumping Clinton in Utah and Idaho by roughly 80/20 in both states and overall winning more pledged delegates than Hillary Clinton for the first time in a long time (62 to Clinton’s 55). That’s good stuff, and makes the argument that Sanders should stay in it for the long haul.

But is it enough? Fivethirtyeight’s delegate tracker suggested that in order for Sanders to be on track to win the nomination, he needed to win 74 delegates last night; he fell a dozen short of that, even with the comically lopsided caucus wins in Utah and Idaho. Clinton, on the other hand, needed to win 57 to hit her target; she got 55. Which is to say, apparently by fivethirtyeight’s calculus, both Clinton and Sanders failed to hit their marks last night — and Sanders failed more.

(Those are CNN’s current numbers, I should note. Associated Press’ numbers are better for Sanders: 67 to 51. Which means Sanders was seven delegates off his target, while Clinton was six off of hers. Smaller margin, same result.)

This doesn’t mean Sanders is overall in a worse position than he was yesterday, since two big wins can give him momentum in future contests. But it’s a reminder that Sanders at this point not only has to win, and win big, but he has to keep Clinton from hitting her numbers, or at least make sure she misses her numbers by wider margins than he does. He’s got a complicated job, he does.

Personally, I’m interested in seeing how the Washington state caucuses go this Saturday; I think they’ll give some indication on whether Clinton’s going to put this away fairly easy (even if Sanders stays in until June) or whether she’s going to have to scrape out the win one delegate at a time, 2008 Obama-style (or, you know, lose, which could happen, as unlikely as I think that is at this point).

2. Neither Sanders nor Clinton hit their Fivethirtyeight delegate numbers last night, but they can take heart in knowing that on the other side of the fence, neither Donald Trump nor Ted Cruz got close to their numbers either (and Kasich got a big fat goose egg, so there’s that). Trump, who won Arizona, was off his delegate number by a dozen; Cruz, who slammed Trump in Utah, was off by three times that number.

But then it’s pretty clear the plan now is not for Cruz to get enough delegates to win the nomination outright; it’s to deny Trump enough delegates to do the same. And it worked last night, but the question now is whether it’ll keep working. Utah is filled with LDS church members who for various reasons dislike Trump as a candidate, which made it easier for Cruz to rack up a lopsided victory over Trump (and Kasich, who actually looks to have finished ahead of Trump in Utah).

But Cruz can’t count on that same advantage in Wisconsin, the next GOP state to go to the polls, which is winner-take-all and where Trump holds the lead; he can’t count on it in New York, which is after that, where the most recent poll has Trump up over Cruz by a ridiculous 52 points. There’s not much on the map that looks friendly to Cruz until May, if you ask me, and most of the contests until May are winner-take-all or winner-take-most (Kasich is likely an also-ran in these contests too). Cruz can’t win, but it’s not clear he can make Trump lose, either.

(And then there’s the problem for the GOP that even if Cruz beats Trump, he’s still friggin’ Ted Cruz, who has even less of a chance in the general than Trump.)

Let me put it this way: My political crystal ball is notoriously cloudy, but even so, at this point I would give Bernie Sanders a better chance of winning the Democratic nomination than Trump not getting the GOP nomination outright. Both could happen; both seem to me unlikely.

3. Oh, and Jeb Bush has endorsed Ted Cruz. Yeah, that’ll help.

The Big Idea: Alan Smale

The Roman Empire in the New World? That’s the idea of Sidewise Award winner Alan Smale’s The Clash of Eagles trilogy, of which Eagle in Exile is the second book. But in imagining an alternate history, how does one give honor to actual history, and avoid the easy traps of historical fiction? Smale offers up his thoughts.


I was still a recent import to the U.S. when the hoopla surrounding the Columbus quincentenary started up. My own one-man version of the British Invasion was going rather well at the time; what I’d originally thought would be an educational three-year stint in the New World was being overwritten by the strong urge to stick around. Nearly a quarter century later I’m still here, and I’m now an American myself.

From my outsider perspective it was gratifying to see how quickly the simplistic and myth-based story of Columbus I was used to got replaced with a more factual, thoughtful, and nuanced reconsideration of his voyages and impact. I was just beginning to get published as a writer of short fiction at the time, but even then ideas were swirling around my brain. Yet it took another decade and a half, much more writing experience, plus the unanticipated kick-start of reading Charles Mann’s 1491, for my conscious and unconscious minds to get their acts together.

In Clash of Eagles, the Roman Empire never fell. Now it’s the early thirteenth century and a legion under general Gaius Marcellinus is marching west from the Chesapeake Bay towards the great Mississippian city of Cahokia, a thriving community of some 20,000 people. (Cahokia really existed, of course. The Mississippians were mound-builders, and even today it’s fun to stand on top of what we now call Monks Mound, a giant earthwork 100 feet high and 1000 feet across at the base, look out over the surrounding more gently-mounded landscape, and imagine how glorious Cahokia must have been in its heyday…)

And that was the Big Idea behind Clash of Eagles: Ancient Rome invades North America when the Mississippian Culture is at its height. Subtext: Invoke a different European invasion of the North American continent, in a different way and at a different time but with fairly similar motives – plunder and personal glory – and explore what happens.

Hold up a mirror to the world we know. Attempt a new perspective on the culture clash between invaders who have “discovered” this great new world of Nova Hesperia, and the people who have been living there all along.

Of course, along the way desperate battles, pathos, and hardship ensue.

As the second volume, Eagle in Exile, begins, Gaius Marcellinus is living in a Cahokia that’s suffered considerable death and destruction due to its Mourning War with the Iroqua of the northeast. Marcellinus has done his level best to help his new Cahokian friends, with – let’s put it kindly – mixed results. And then there’s a coup. Marcellinus and a small band of his Cahokian friends are expelled from Cahokia and have to survive as stateless wanderers on the Mississippi. But, but: in the meantime, the Emperor of Rome has hardly forgotten about Nova Hesperia. More legions are coming, and Cahokia is not ready for them. Unless Marcellinus and his new friends can turn things around, they’re hosed. And there may be an enemy even greater than Imperial Rome on the Hesperian horizon.

This kind of story has antecedents. All stories do. The theme of the helpful and notionally more ‘advanced’ outsider entering and influencing a foreign culture has been explored from A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court and Lest Darkness Fall to Dances with Wolves and Avatar. Which was kind of the point. I wanted to dig into a new version of the “discovery” of the North American continent. But I also wanted to turn the Avatar cliché on its ear, because I’ve never believed it. I’m generally unsatisfied with protagonists who adapt into new and radically different cultures with such speed and ease that they’re indiscriminately slaying members of their old culture by the end of the book (or movie). Perhaps there are exceptions, and even noble ones, but by and large honorable human beings just don’t behave that way.

Marcellinus is an honorable man. He’s hardly blind to Rome’s flaws, but he will live and die a Roman. He tries to convince himself — sometimes on tenuous grounds — that his actions are in Rome’s interests as well as Cahokia’s.

More crucially, Marcellinus has sworn an oath to never take up arms against Rome. This puts him in a bit of a bind. He is no longer a mere soldier. He has made new friends, new family, a new community and new allegiances, and he can hardly abandon Cahokia and the other North American peoples to their fate when his inside knowledge of Rome might be able to help them.

He can’t fight Rome, and yet he can’t not help Cahokia. Really, what’s a guy supposed to do?

So, the Big Idea of Eagle in Exile: wild adventure in an ancient North America, while in the process standing that comfy Dances with Wolves trope on its ear. With a secondary theme or minor or, hey, side order of: what does an honorable man do in an impossible situation?

With the easy answers ruled out, Marcellinus has to get creative. And after all, it’s not like everyone is just going to do what he says. Cahokia’s chiefs and elders have their own ideas, their own friends and enemies and concerns, and they don’t line up neatly with Marcellinus’s. Marcellinus is quite good at war, but he’ll have to develop a range of other skills to negotiate a treacherous landscape like this. He’ll have to learn fast, think on his feet, and try not to get killed or – given his less than stellar record so far – try not to get anyone else killed either.

I have to say, I’m glad my arrival in North America was calmer than Marcellinus’s. I might not have made it quite as far as I have.


Eagle in Exile: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

First Light on the New Camera

I’ve been wanting to step up to a full frame DSLR for a while now, so this week I went ahead and ordered the Nikon D750 (for you Nikon geeks out there, I thought about getting the D810 instead but the D750 has nearly the same set of features for a lot less money, minus some extra resolution I would likely not take advantage of anyway). Right out of the box I decided to snap a few photos. Unfortunately I didn’t switch it over from JPEG to RAW before getting the first few pictures, but even so, what came out of the camera was pretty enough. Here are a couple of shots from this very first set.

So far, so good.

In case you’re wondering what will become of the D5100, it’s now the property of Athena, who has shown interest in and talent for photography. I’m sure she will put it to good use.

Reader Request Week 2016 #4: Autonomous Cars

jlightfield asks:

Autonomous cars, do they change how you will work in 10 years?

Do they change how I work? No, because I work from home, on a computer, which means I don’t have to go anywhere else to work. A car is generally not involved in my workflow at all.

Which is not to say I can’t wait for autonomous/self-driving cars. Are you kidding? These things will be the best thing ever for me. Why? Let me count the ways:

1. There are two types of people: Those who enjoy driving, and those who enjoy being at places where driving has to happen to get to them. I am in the latter group. Driving, as an activity, doesn’t interest me in the slightest. I drive because I have to go somewhere, not because I enjoy driving to get somewhere. That being the case, a self-driving car takes the part of driving I like the least — the actual driving — and gives it to the car to do.

2. Which means I will have more time to do the things I like to do, i.e., loiter on the Internet, listen to music, maybe do a little writing, talk to other passengers in the car. This will make the drive-time more enjoyable.

3. I get road ragey when I’m driving but not when I’m a passenger, so self-driving cars would make the transportation experience a hell of a lot less anger-inducing for me.

4. Other people on the road are idiots, so self-driving cars being used generally would vastly reduce the number of stupid people behind a wheel that I would have to deal with.

5. I’m getting older, and eventually I’ll get old enough that no matter what I’m likely to be a danger to others on the road. Self-driving cars will still allow me autonomy without endangering others when I drive.

6. Also, come on, let’s face it, I’m already not the world’s greatest driver. The nation’s roads are likely to be marginally safer even now if I’m not the one behind the wheel.

7. Nap while the car drives to my destination? Don’t mind if I do!

8. I don’t drink alcohol, but for those friends of mine who do, the idea that they could get home safely without endangering themselves or others is a nice thought.

And so on.

Now, I do realize that there are legitimate privacy and security concerns that will need to be addressed before full automation comes to cars — we don’t want our cars broadcasting where we’re going to all of the world, and it would do no good to have cars that are crackable so someone can hijack them with us in them. There are also practical issues like who is liable in a crash involving an automated car, whether or not a human always needs to be alert to take over driving, and other such things. All excellent points to consider.

But even so: self-driving cars where is mine I want mine now now now now. It’s fair to say I want a self-driving car more than I want, like, colonies on the moon. Colonies on the moon are nice, but a self-driving car is going to be great for my life now.

Although, again, won’t change how I work at all. Sorry.

(There’s still time to ask questions for 2016’s Reader Request Week — get your requests in here.)

Reader Request Week #3: How, and If, I Will Be Remembered

Steve asks:

Have you ever wondered how you will be remembered by the “science fiction community”? How future critics will use you in comparison to future authors……about the legacy you have left behind you when you have gone……if you will be lost among the hundreds of authors, as many from the 50’s have been…..? No offense……but even great authors have no books reprinted….etc etc…..

Well, one, after I’m dead I don’t think I’ll be worried about how I’m remembered, by the science fiction community or anyone else, because I’ll be dead, which I suspect means I’ll be beyond caring about anything. This is a strangely comforting thought: So long, universe! It’s your problem now! So there’s that.

Prior to my incipient oblivion, which is to say for the next 40 to 50 years, I don’t worry too much about not being remembered. One, presumably I will continue to produce work for the next 25 or 30 years at least — writing is a career where one can have some longevity — so I’m likely to continue to be in the stream of commerce and notability in my field. Two, I have enough status in the field thanks to existing work, sales and awards that my inevitable decline into irrelevance might be managed as a gentle descending glidepath rather than a precipitous cliff fall.

Three, you know what, if until I die I have friends and family and people I care about and who care about me, even if I were forgotten by the science fiction public while I were alive, I would probably be fine. I had a nice run in there, and there are worse things than to be forgotten.

In any event, the question is not whether I or my work will be forgotten, but when. Why? Because nearly every writer is forgotten, as is their work, given enough time. A couple get cosmically lucky in terms of their cultural legacies — Shakespeare is the go-to example in English — But between 1616 (Shakespeare’s death) and today, 400 years later, hundreds of thousands of published authors in English alone (if not millions) have slipped out of history. Their work may exist, in libraries or rare volumes or in archives like Project Gutenberg, but no one reads them, save the occasional academic desperate for a serviceable thesis. When you know that the vast majority of those who write, and the vast majority of what is written, tumble down history’s hole, you have a pretty good idea of what your eventual fate will be.

You don’t even have to be dead for it to happen. The large majority of my published work prior to 2005 is “out of print” — either officially out of print in terms of publication, or accessible only through specialized archives, digital or otherwise. I have a publishing history that goes back to 1991 (or 1987 if you want to throw in my college newspaper), which includes thousands of film and music reviews, hundreds of columns, dozens of newspaper and magazine features and several books, all published before 2005. Unless you already have a physical copy of any of these, you are unlikely to see any of them, ever. For that matter, the first four years of this blog — 1998 through 2002 — are not on the current iteration of the site; they’re accessible through the Internet Archive, but there’s no real indication anyone visits that. Other things I’ve written on other sites on the Internet are likewise inaccessible, though closed sites, reorganized sites, link rot and other such things.

Again: The majority of everything I’ve ever written — things that had audiences of hundreds of thousands of people when they were printed — has already effectively vanished from history, when I’m 46 years old and still actively writing. Is this a horrifying tragedy? Well, no, not really. I mean, if you really want to find my Fresno Bee review of, say, the long-forgotten 1993 Wesley Snipes thriller Boiling Point, then knock yourself out. But I guarantee you that if you do find it, you will not marvel at its genius. The review doesn’t necessarily deserve to be forgotten, but it doesn’t make a very good argument to be remembered, either. A lot of my “lost” writing is like that.

But in time even my good writing is likely to slip out of the public consciousness, even in specialized fields like science fiction. Look, new science fiction readers have heard of Asimov and Clarke and Heinlein — the chances they’ve read them, or at least read anything more than their one or two “greatest hits,” is increasingly slim, and will get slimmer the more time passes. This may outrage some folks who think you can’t truly appreciate the genre unless you take a survey class in it, but the average reader doesn’t care about that. They’re not going to go all the way back to Jules Verne or even Larry Niven just to have sufficient historical perspective in the genre to read the latest book by James S.A. Corey, or Ann Leckie or by me. 40 years from now, new readers aren’t going to read our stuff as a prerequisite to read whatever is new and exciting in the genre then.

And that’s fine. I’ve frequently said that I’m not interested in writing for the ages, since I won’t be there and the ages will take care of themselves in any event. I’m writing for people now, who will enjoy the work now, and also and not entirely coincidentally, pay me for my work now, so I don’t have to do anything else for a living. Will it last? You got me. I suspect I’ll still be remembered fifty years now because people who are reading me now will still be alive then. A hundred years from now I may be remembered for one book. If I’m remembered two hundred years from now, I’d be impressed as hell with myself, if I weren’t already dead for probably 150 years.

(Incidentally, the book of mine that already exists that I suspect I’d be best remembered for in 100 years? Redshirts. It’s not my “obituary book,” the book that’ll show up in the opening graph of stories about my death; that will be Old Man’s War. But I suspect it’s the one that will age the best, in part because it’s specifically about its time and therefore resistant to going “out of date” in terms of technology and prediction (particularly of social mores) the way science fiction can do; in part because it functions as both story and metastory, commentary and metacommentary, which means it’ll be interesting to teach, and being taught is important for the longevity of a work; and in part because it’s funny and easy to read. Will I be right? Well, on the slim chance anyone’s reading this in 2116: You tell me. Or tell my corpse; again, I’m probably long dead.)

None of this isn’t to say I wouldn’t be happy, in an existential sense, to have my work, and therefore me, remembered 100 or 200 years (or more!) into the future. I’m not going to live forever and any personal immortality I will earn will be through what I write. I think it might be nice for any future descendants of mine to brag to their friends that the book they’ve been assigned in class is from their great-great-great-grandfather (or granduncle, or whatever). I think it’d be fun to have people argue about whether I still have relevant things to say or should be considered “of my time.” It’d be nice to be remembered for being a writer, hopefully positively, when I’m gone.

I’m just not staying up nights worrying if it will happen. If it does, great. If not, I’m having a hell of a lot of fun now, and enjoying the small serving of notability I get today, for doing what I do. It won’t last; it never does. On this side of the grave or the other, I’ll likely to be forgotten, and no matter what the sun will eat the earth five billion years from now anyway and eventually the entire universe will proton decay out of existence, so, you know. Be ready for that.

In the meantime, I’m going to enjoy what I have today, with the people I have with me now. Seems the best thing to do.

(There’s still time to ask questions for 2016’s Reader Request Week — get your requests in here.)

The Big Idea: Susan Jane Bigelow

The real world can sometimes get you down. But if you’re a writer, at least, you can use that as an opportunity to imagine another world. At a low point, Susan Jane Bigelow did just that — and her novel Broken was the result. Here she is to tell you about it.


Hope is a fragile thing, especially when times are bad. It’s easy to get lost in cynicism, to dwell on the awfulness of people and governments and systems, and resign ourselves to whatever fate is in store for us. After all, if we don’t get our hopes up, they can’t be dashed… and sometimes, hope feels so far away that it’s hard even to imagine we could ever feel it again.

In 2004, after failing at my job as a high school teacher, getting a new job for a lot less money, and watching what felt like political disaster unfold when John Kerry lost to George W. Bush, I wrote a book about hope to make myself feel better.

That book, Broken, turned into a four-book series. And really, at its heart the Extrahuman Union series is about is trying to find that narrow thread of hope to carry us through the darkest times.

I suppose it is also about superheroes in space. That’s important too.

The world of this book is teetering on the brink of disaster. The grip of a fascist government is tightening around everyone, and there’s nothing anyone can do to stop it. Earth and the dozens of colony worlds that make up the Confederation are falling into a long, long darkness.

Only Michael Forward can see a way through. Michael is just a kid, but he’s been saddled with extrahuman powers that let him see the possible futures of everyone he looks at. He knows how bad things are going to get, but he also knows that there’s a slender path through the darkness that leads to a better future for everyone. All he has to do is find it.

For that, though, he needs the help of Silverwyng, a former member of the Extrahuman Union who started living on the streets of 22nd Century New York after she lost the ability to fly, and who now goes by the name “Broken.” Broken has no hope. Everything she loved about her life is gone, and she is nothing but a mess of fury, despair, and cynicism when Michael finally tracks her down.

This is the story of how she helps Michael Forward and the orphan baby Ian, but it’s also the story of how Broken comes back to life. It’s the story of how she remembers who she was, and starts to have faith in herself and in the idea that she could have a future.

Broken is the first chapter of her story, to be continued in the forthcoming books Sky Ranger, The Spark, and Extrahumans.

And yes, I wrote it to make myself feel better about politics. But I also wrote it because one of my fundamental beliefs is that things can and will always get better, no matter how bad it seems now. Fate is cruel and life is hard, but faith in humanity and hope for the future are worth hanging on to.

This is not an easy thing to write. There’s a fine line to walk between hopelessness and corny, and it’s very tempting to swerve to one side or the other. The first draft of this book, which was written for NaNoWriMo 2004, was a lot darker than the final product. There was a lot more death and despair. You’re lucky I cut out the part where Broken eats a dead cat. You’re welcome.

As for why I chose to use super-powered people, well… they’re cool! But they’re also symbols of hope, in a way, especially some of the better ones. Implicit in a lot of superhero narrative is the idea that no matter how bad things may get, the day will always be saved.

I still believe that it will be. And I hope that Broken succeeds in conveying that!


Broken: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Kobo

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

Reader Request Week 2016 #2: Will Humans Survive?

We’re getting cosmic for this next question, from Greg, who asks:

Earthlings have 4 billion years to figure out space colonization before the sun goes red dwarf and consumes the earth Galactus style. They also have 4 billion years before the Andromeda galaxy collides with the Milky Way galaxy, which will likely require massive technology to survive.  Can we pull it off? Can we even survive that long?

Well, before we begin, let me make a few corrections here.


Actually, the sun will not turn into a red dwarf, it will turn into a red giant, which has a very real chance of expanding out to the size of Earth’s orbit, swallowing it up in the process. That’s likely to happen closer to five billion years from now, not four billion years from now. Not that it will matter because a mere billion years from now the sun is going to be brighter and hotter than it is now, which will likely turn Earth into something like Venus is today, i.e., a hellish world where greenhouse gases have run amok, so that’s probably the deadline we’re working within.

Also, the Andromeda Galaxy colliding with the Milky Way Galaxy? While it is likely to happen in 4 billion years or so, it’s unlikely any of the stars in either galaxy will collide with each other — the distances between stars is just too great. It’s possible (although unlikely) the Solar System might be ejected into deep space because of the gravitational effects of two galaxies merging, but the solar system itself should be fine. Mind you, by that time the Earth would be uninhabitable anyway because of the sun heating up, but the galactic smash-up will be neither here nor there to that.


So: The now amended question is: Will humans figure out space colonization before the Earth is rendered uninhabitable by the sun, which barring anything else will almost certainly happen a billion or so years from now, and will we survive that long in any event?

The answers: Maybe, and probably not.

Last part first: Humans, which is to say the species Homo sapiens, is about two hundred thousand years old, which is actually not that old as species go. We evolved out of previous species of the genus Homo; probably Homo heidelbergensis, which went extinct around the time we showed up (probably coincidence, I’m sure). Before heidelbergensis was Homo erectus, from which it was likely descended, and which has also gone extinct. And so on and so forth.

Here’s the thing about species: Generally, they don’t last very long (geologically speaking). Over time, most species are likely to do two things: Evolve into another species, and/or go extinct. To be clear, sooner or later, every species goes extinct (see the ticking timebomb of the sun, above); only some evolve into something else. But it is very rare, generally speaking, for a species to last more than a few million years.

Why? Because the Earth is an unstable place, given enough time — temperatures go up, then they go down. The amount of gases in the atmosphere fluctuates significantly. Ice ages happen. Global warming occurs. Every now and again an asteroid drops in to really screw everything up. Die offs of the majority of all the extant species on the planet have happened several times (and some folks are warning that we’re in the early stages of a new one, thanks to human activity messing with the planet). When the ecologies change, the niches that species developed to take advantage of change too. This is rarely a good thing for the species in question.

Current humans have existed for a mere 200,000 years, in a genus (Homo) whose oldest member existed only 2.5 million years ago — barely even yesterday in geologic time. It would be optimistic in the extreme to suggest that Homo sapiens, as it exists today, will still be with us a billion years from now — 400 times as far into the future as our entire genus extends into the past. Given the assiduousness with which we’re currently reworking the ecology of the planet (unintentionally or otherwise), we’re probably making it more difficult for the species to last another 10,000 years, much less a billion.

But we’re smart! I hear you say. Sure, that’s true, but does it then follow that a) we’re smart enough not to basically kill ourselves by wrecking the planet, b) that our intelligence means that evolution is done with us. The answers here, if you ask me (and you did) are: We’ll see, and probably not. In the latter case, there’s an argument to be made that our intelligence will increase speciation, as humans intentionally do to our species what natural selection did unintentionally before, and do it on a much shorter timescale, in order to adapt to the world that is currently rapidly changing under our feet, in no small part because of our own activities.

So, no. Human beings, meaning Homo sapiens, will almost certainly not be here a billion years from now. We’re probably not even going to be here 100 million years from now, or 10 million years from now, or, hell, even a million years from now. The question is whether our evolutionary descendants will be around, a new branch (or branches) of the genus Homo. My guess is: A million years from now, yes, and we may even recognize them as human. Ten million years from now, maybe, but we could probably only vaguely see them as being descended from us. A hundred million years from now, if our descendants are still around, there would be no family resemblance at all. A billion years from now, well. Remember that your direct ancestors from a billion years back were single-celled eukaryotes who had just figured out this great new thing called “sex.” That’s how far back in time we’ll be from any of our descendants then.

Now, as to the other question, will we have figured out space colonization by a billion years from now, sure. Look, if we really decided that space colonization was something we wanted, we could have a couple million people in space in the next hundred years, easy. The issue to my mind isn’t really technology — I suspect we have the tech to make roughly serviceable colonies in space (and on the moon and on Mars) right now, and we could scale up from there in the next hundred years, no problem. The issue is whether we want to make the effort, and swallow the frankly ridiculous set up and maintenance costs, of permanent space colonization. Barring a Seveneves-like catastrophic event, we probably won’t, because why would we? We’ve got a nice planet down here, even if we’re currently mucking it up a bit, with lots of raw materials and space to work with. It’s easier to try to work with what we have down here, at the bottom of a gravity well, then send people up there and try to make that work.

I mean, yes, sure, eventually the sun will eat the planet, and it will swaddle it with greenhouse gases long before then. But again, the operative phrase here is “geologic time.” These events are going to happen so far out in the future that the human mind — the Homo sapiens mind — literally cannot process how far out in the future it will be. I mean, shit. We think waiting two days for something to arrive to our house via Amazon Prime shipping is forever. To make a mind constructed like that consider the unfathomable expanse of a billion years is folly.

Rather than worry too much about a billion years from now, or five billion years from now, I’d rather have us think about the next hundred years, and what we’re going to do with them. Make no mistake, when we talk about the fact we’re “wrecking the Earth” what we mean is that we’re wrecking it for us. As soon as we’re gone, there’s no other species taxing the planet to the same extent we are. What life remains — and life will remain — will speciate out to take advantage of how the planet is then, and will fill the niches, and over time the planet will change again, and speciation will happen to take advantages of those changes, too. The Earth doesn’t need us, and it won’t miss us when we’re gone. It’ll just… go on. It will do that if we die off, or if we take to the stars. But honestly, the first of these is far more likely than the second.

I’d like for humans to be here in a hundred years, and in a thousand. After that, we can worry about the next million years, and then the next ten million, and so on, until we get to the billion year mark and a much hotter sun. We’ve got a lot of time between now and then, however. First things first.

(There’s still time to ask questions for 2016’s Reader Request Week — get your requests in here.)

Reader Request Week 2016 #1: Living Where I Do

Welcome to Reader Request Week here on Whatever, where you suggest the topics I then write about. And let’s start off with this one, from Kilroy, who asks:

Urban v. Suburban living: Why I live on a big ass property in the middle of nowhere with awful internet when I could be living it up in a nice house in a big city with all the benefits of modern society and be around more people with the same political and social ideals that I do.

(Note that the “I” here is meant to be me, John Scalzi, not him, Kilroy.)

I’ve noted several times on Whatever how it is I came to live in Ohio, so there’s no point in going into great detail about it again at the moment (the short version: My wife’s family is from here and she wanted to be closer to them as our daughter grew up). I think the question is really about why I, a generally liberal, cosmopolitan sort of fellow, who has the means to move somewhere more in line with my politics and lifestyle, chooses instead to continue to live in a small, rural, conservative town in a small, rural, conservative county, in the Midwest, which is generally less cosmopolitan (and liberal) than the coasts.

Fair question, and here’s why:

To begin: we’ve paid off my mortgage. We’re not in a rush to get another one. I mean, we could afford a new one, I suppose, in a larger city than this, but why? To have the same home lifestyle experience we have where we live, we would have to spend a truckload of money we no longer have to spend here in order to replicate it. Why would we do that?

Well, possibly, to have a richer cultural and social experience than I do. Okay, sure, but let’s qualify that. I lived in the Washington DC area for several years, which meant that at my fingertips I had a whole range of cultural and social activities — and I took advantage of them and saw concerts and events and went out to eat at restaurants and such. And it was great! But we did those cultural events maybe a couple of times a month at most, and went out with friends maybe once a week. The rest of the time we stayed at home and watched movies or read or played video games or whatever.

Fast forward to today, and you know what? Living where we live, Krissy and I go to cultural events fairly regularly, and go out with friends maybe once or twice a week. The rest of the time we stay at home and watch movies or read or play video games or whatever. Which is to say we are who we are, regardless of whether we live in a large metropolitan area or in rural Ohio.

Bear also in mind what “rural Ohio” means. I live in small town of 1,800 and see Amish clopping down my road in their buggies on a daily basis. But this small town of 1,800 in rural Ohio is 45 minutes from Dayton, 90 minutes from Cincinnati or Columbus and two hours from Indianapolis. If I want to see a musical, or look at art, or go to a concert, or go get Ethiopian food, or any other number of things, it’s pretty doable, and the time commitment to and from is not actually all that much greater than it would be on the subway or the freeway. As I frequently say, I live in the middle of nowhere, but it’s the middle of nowhere, Ohio, as opposed to the middle of nowhere, Nebraska. I can go from nowhere to somewhere pretty fast.

The other thing here is that aside from this, I do travel a frankly enormous amount. In the next two months I’ll be in Los Angeles, Detroit, Chicago and Madison, Wisconsin for sure, and there may be other trips I’ll be taking as well. During each of those trips I will see friends, eat well, and go see (or participate in!) cultural events. Because of my travel commitments, I sometimes see friends who live thousands of miles away more often in a year than I will see some of the people who live in my hometown. It also means that when I do get home from travel, what I want to do is not see anyone other than my family and pets for a while. Which means, in point of fact, that living out in the middle of nowhere is perfect for my mental equilibrium.

Now, Kilroy points out another possible advantage to living elsewhere, which is that there would be more of a chance of people having the same mostly liberal-ish politics as I do, as opposed to living where I do, which is a county that went 72% for Romney in the last presidential election, and chose Trump over Kasich in the recently completed GOP primary, 43% to 40%. Even if I moved down the road to Dayton, I would find people whose politics and social stances are much more congenial to my own.

And maybe I would, but two things here. One, there’s the math question of whether I’m willing to pay tens of thousands of dollars a year in a mortgage (or hundreds of thousands of dollars to buy a house outright) simply for the benefit of voting near people who vote like me. That math doesn’t check out, especially because for things like state-wide and Senate and presidential elections, it doesn’t matter how my county votes, it matters how the people in my state vote overall. It’s true my US Representative and my state reps are likely to be Republicans (they all are at the moment), but, eh. That’s life sometimes.

The other thing is that just because people don’t vote like I do doesn’t make them horrible humans; conversely there are horrible humans I know of who share my politics. My next door neighbor and I pretty much cancel each other out when it comes to who we vote for every single election, and he’s as fine a neighbor as I’ve ever had and I would be hard-pressed to find one better. I’m pretty sure he likes me just fine too.

This should not be a surprising fact of life. A civilized society is one where you can disagree politically with your neighbor — sometimes bitterly — and still feel comfortable feeding his cats while he’s away and being glad he enjoys shoveling the snow off your driveway. Meanwhile I can think of at least a couple of people who vote like me up and down the line who I won’t willingly be in the same room with if I can avoid it. Our politics are not the whole of who we are as a person. It’s been politically advantageous for a while now for some folks to suggest we are only who we vote for, and that you can tell everything about us by who we want as president (or senator, or representative, etc). It’s not true, for most people, anyway.

I like my neighbors; I think most of my neighbors like me. I like the little town I live in; I think my little town likes that I live here. I like looking up at the night sky and seeing the Milky Way. I like that I can open my door and just let my pets out, and that every once a while a neighbor dog will come up to the house and ask if my dog can come out and play. I like it that my neighbor’s chickens walk up and down my yard like they own the place. I like it that if there’s a car in my driveway my neighbors don’t recognize, they’ll text just to make sure we know about it. I like that I can take sunset pictures from my deck that make other people jealous. I like the idea that I’ve been writing science fiction in a town where a traffic jam is three cars behind an Amish buggy.

That said, it’s true the Internet here sucks. I’ve had the same speed Internet for the last ten years. It’s possible that will continue to be the case for the next ten years. Dear CenturyLink: You suck.

But honestly, for me and for my family, that’s the major drawback to living where we do. And if the major drawback in your domestic life is slow Internet, well. You’re doing okay, no matter where you live.

(There’s still time to ask questions for 2016’s Reader Request Week — get your requests in here.)

The Final Snows of Winter

It’s not much and it won’t stay very long (the temperatures will be in the 40s today), but here they are. I can say with confidence that these are the final snows of winter because the Vernal equinox here in the northern hemisphere arrives tomorrow at about 4:30am UTC, or actually 11:30pm tonight where I live. So, yeah, this is pretty much it. Winter is leaving.

Not that it was much of a winter in general; I can say with some confidence that in fifteen years of living in Ohio, this is one that racked up the least amount of snow and cold. We had only a couple of days genuinely frigid weather, as opposed to the couple of years before this when we had the polar vortex squatting over us. Once again, as a native southern Californian, I’m all for this. More mild winters for Ohio, please. Given that overall warming of the planet anecdotally seems to mean either very mild or deeply frigid winters for us, if I have a choice, I’ll pick the former, thanks.

Anyway: So long, winter — and given the 10 day forecast for the area, so long to snow. Now we get a month of clouds and drizzle. I can live with that.

New Books and ARCs, 3/18/16

And here we are, with another just lovely stack of books and ARCs that have come to the Scalzi Compound. What looks good to you? What would like to take home to your very own bookshelf? Tell me in the comments!

Meanwhile, in the Ohio Senate

Here’s a nice thing that came in the mail the other day (to my mother-in-law’s house, oddly, but whatever): A commendation from the Ohio Senate! It’s for winning the 2016 Governor’s Award for the Artis in Ohio, and also, apparently, just for being a creative sort of dude who lives in Ohio. Well, okay! I’ll take it, with appropriate thanks and appreciation. This is kind of neat.

Interestingly, this is the second commendation I’ve received from the Ohio Senate; the first was in 2006, when I won the Campbell and was nominated for the Hugo for Old Man’s War. It was neat then, too. Does this predict a third commendation in 2026? Perhaps! (No.)

Regardless, it’s nice when your state appreciates you. I like Ohio, too.

Notes on Awards and Slates, 3/18/16

They are:

1. As a reminder, I’ve withdrawn my work published in 2015 from award consideration, a fact I’ve mentioned here more than once, and which is well-known in science fiction and fantasy circles. I have no interest in that work being nominated, or suggested for nomination, for awards. To the extent that I am able, in the event my 2015 work is a nominee or finalist for awards, I will decline nominations or withdraw from consideration. This year, please nominate other people and works for awards instead.

2. As this is and has been my stated and well-known wish for the last several months, you may assume any presence of my 2015 work on any slate (or “recommendation list,” nod, nod, wink, wink) designed to produce award nominations is unsolicited and unwelcome and contrary to my expressed wishes, and my work has been placed on that slate without my knowledge, approval or consent.

3. Likewise, as it has also been my long-held position that I would never voluntarily participate in an award nomination slate, you may assume that my presence on any such slate is not voluntary, particularly, again, this year, and that again my appearance on it is without my knowledge, approval or consent.

4. If I or my work has been placed on an awards slate without my desire, knowledge or consent, it’s worth asking what other work may have been placed on such a slate, also without the desire, knowledge or consent of the author. You might also consider what sort of person would add an author and their work to an award nomination slate without their consent, and why those doing so would choose to do such a thing.

5. Some explanations as to why one might place someone or their work on an awards nomination slate without their expressed consent could include but are not limited to:
a) Desire to bring the legitimacy of quality to an otherwise dubious assemblage of potential nominees;
b) A transparent attempt to hide an overall political agenda by bringing in outside work, and/or to use that outside work as camouflage (i.e., slate, minus unwilling draftees to slate, equals actual slate);
c) The hope that by nominating good, outside work, other more dubious work will also get nominated as people vote the entire slate;
d) Latching on to the good reputation of the outsiders and their work for the publicity value, to draw attention to other more dubious work;
e) Being an asshole to people you don’t like, because you’re an asshole.

6. But it’s also entirely possible that those crafting award nomination slates are merely innocent enthusiasts of my work, wishing in all good will to promote a thing of mine that they love. That’s a lovely sentiment, and I appreciate the thought. However, inasmuch as I have a long-stated opposition to myself or my work being on slates designed to produce award nominations (or “recommendation lists” nod, nod, wink, wink, that are designed to achieve the same result), I would then simply and with due appreciation request they withdraw my work from their slate. This would be the case any year, but particularly this year, when I’ve already noted publicly, more than once, that I’ve withdrawn my 2015 work from award consideration.

Note well that in a perfect world I should be able to have my work dropped from a slate for any reason, or no reason, particularly from a slate I did not ask to be part of, and to which my work was added without my desire, knowledge or consent. That would seem to be the polite and respectful thing to do on the part of the slate makers. And not just me, of course; any person who’d prefer they or their work not appear on a slate (or even a particular slate) should have their wishes respected.

7. If those who have made an award nomination slate, who did not seek the approval of those they have placed on it to be on it, will not then remove those who ask to be removed, at once and without delay, it is reasonable to ask why they will not, and what purposes their refusal serves. See point “5” for some possible explanations. I would particularly note sub-point “e.”

8. In sum:
I’m not seeking award consideration this year;
I would not willingly participate on an award nomination slate;
If I’m on such a slate it’s without my consent;
Those who have put me or my work on such a slate should remove me from it;
If they won’t remove me, or anyone who asks to be removed, they’re likely assholes;
And maybe you should factor that in when thinking about them and their motives.

That about sums it up.

Reader Request Week 2016: Get Your Requests In!

Next week is the only one in the reasonably near future where I know I’m going to be home all week long and I won’t have a deadline of some sort looming over my head, so — hey! Let’s do another Reader Request Week!

For those of you just catching up, Reader Request Week is something I do annually, where you suggest topics for me to write about, and I pick from the requests. What topics can you request? Well, anything: politics, social stuff, personal questions, silly things, things you wish I’d talk about but never do, and so on. Whatever topic you want to request, go ahead and request it. I’ll sort through the requests and start posting my responses, starting Monday, March 21.

While any topic is up for request, I do have a couple of suggestions for you, when you’re making your topic selections.

1. Quality, not quantity. Don’t just splotz out a list of very general topics you think I should cover; I’ll likely ignore it. I’m much more likely to respond to a request that is thought-out, specific and requests something interesting. Give it some thought, is what I’m saying.

2. Writing questions are given a lower priority. Because I write about writing all the time, don’t I? That said, if you ask a really interesting question or make a particularly intriguing request involving writing, I will consider it. Just know the bar is higher here.

3. Don’t request topics I’ve recently written about. I’ve included the last five years of Reader Request topics below so you can see which ones are probably not going to be answered again. That said, if you want to ask a follow-up to any of the topics below, that’s perfectly acceptable as a topic. Also, for those of you wondering how to make a request, each of the posts features the request in it, so you can see what’s worked before.

How do you submit requests? The simplest way to do it (and the way I prefer, incidentally) is to put them in the comment thread attached to this entry. But if you have a reason not to want to have your request out in public, the other option is to send me e-mail (put “Reader Request Week” in the subject head so I don’t have to hunt for it).

Please don’t send requests via Twitter/Facebook/Google+, since I don’t always see those. I credit those whose topics I write on, but feel free to use a pseudonym if you’re asking something you’d prefer not to have attached to your real name.

I really enjoy Reader Request Week, because it often lets me write about things that I wouldn’t think to write about — it stretches my mind, which is fun for me, and hopefully leads to interesting posts for you too. So, please: Make a request! Let me know what you want to know about, here, from me.

And now, the topics from the last five Reader Request Weeks (you can click through to see the actual posts):

From 2011:

Reader Request #1: Children and Faith
Reader Request #2: The End of Whatever

Reader Request #3: Middle Ages Me

Reader Request #4: Old Man’s War and the Best SF/F Novel of the Decade

Reader Request #5: Taking Compliments

Reader Request #6: Sociopathic Corporations

Reader Request #7: Unruly Fans

Reader Request #8: Short Bits ’11

Reader Request #9: Writery Bits ’11

From 2012:

Reader Request Week 2012 #1: Snark and Insult
Reader Request Week 2012 #2: Would I Lie to You?
Reader Request Week 2012 #3: Why I’m Glad I’m Male
Reader Request Week 2012 #4: Future Doorknobs or Lack Thereof
Reader Request Week 2012 #5: Them Crazies What Live in the Woods
Reader Request Week 2012 #6: The Cool Kids Hanging Out
Reader Request Week 2012 #7: My Complete Lack of Shame
Reader Request Week 2012 #8: Short Bits
Reader Request Week 2012 #9: Writery Short Bits

From 2013:

Reader Request Week 2013 #1: Further Thoughts on Fame and Success
Reader Request Week 2013 #2: Regrets
Reader Request Week 2013 #3: Guilty Pleasures
Reader Request Week 2013 #4: College Education (And Costs Therein)
Reader Request Week 2013 #5: How to Be a Good Fan
Reader Request Week 2013 #6: Intuition
Reader Request Week 2013 #7: Books and My Kid
Reader Request Week 2013 #8: Whatever Topics and Comments
Reader Request Week 2013 #9: Women and Geekdom
Reader Request Week 2013 #10: Short Bits

From 2014:

Reader Request Week 2014 #1: Travel and Me
Reader Request Week 2014 #2: Writerly Self-Doubt, Out Loud
Reader Request Week 2014 #3: How I Stay Happy
Reader Request Week 2014 #4: How I See You, Dear Reader
Reader Request Week 2014 #5: Hitting the Lottery
Reader Request Week 2014 #6: Enjoying Problematic Things
Reader Request Week 2014 #7: Editorial Independence
Reader Request Week 2014 #8: What Writing Lurks In the Shadows?
Reader Request Week 2014 #9: Short Writery Bits
Reader Request Week 2014 #10: Short Bits

From 2015: 

Reader Request Week 2015 #1: Free Speech Or Not
Reader Request Week 2015 #2: Ego Searching Redux
Reader Request Week 2015 #3: Raising Strong Women
Reader Request Week 2015 #4: Bullies and Me
Reader Request Week 2015 #5: A Boy Named John
Reader Request Week 2015 #6: Me and Republicans
Reader Request Week 2015 #7: My Dream Retirement
Reader Request Week 2015 #8: On Being an Egotistical Jackass
Reader Request Week 2015 #9: Writing Related Short Bits
Reader Request Week 2015 #10: Short Bits

So: What do you want to know this time around?

The Big Idea: Sonia Orin Lyris

If you think about it, there are practical issues to seeing the future. This fact was not lost on Sonia Orin Lyris, and in today’s Big Idea, she delves into some of those issues and what they mean for the characters in her novel The Seer.


In the opening scene of The Seer, I attempted to transcend one of my favorite cliches: in the darkest hours of the night, in a blustering storm, comes an urgent pounding on a weather-beaten door.

I wanted to start by addressing something that has been nagging at me for years: high fantasy’s tendency to not include women and babies and young children. Do we think them too fragile and vulnerable to be a part of the main action? Is that the problem?

Hmm, I thought. We’ll see about that.

Inside the shack is a mother, an infant child, and a young girl. The man at the door has wealth and power and weapons. He wants answers.

When I pick up a book, I want to travel somewhere. I want to sink into the author’s world and see through the eyes of the people who live there. As an author, it is my job to make that journey come alive. For myself and for my reader. So I make it as real as I can.

In our real world, women have sex, get pregnant, and have babies. Food must be procured. Diapers must be changed. When they choose, the powerful — unless restrained — take advantage of the weak.

Let’s go there, I thought.

I discovered that the young girl inside the shack, named Amarta, sees into the future. I looked around the wretched, poor hovel in which they lived, and I had all kinds of questions.

If she can see the future, why isn’t she rich? What does her family think of her? How does it feel to glimpse what will come?

Who is she?

I wrote The Seer to find out.

It was quickly clear to me that, given how useful a genuine seer would be to those in power, one of the major challenges Amarta would face would be pursuit and capture. I was intrigued by all the ways that might play out.

To make the story plausible, Amarta’s ability had to make sense in all the circumstances in which she found herself. Her ability would have to change as she changed, to mature as she did. Not only the content of what she was foreseeing, but how she understood herself in the context of her culture, family, and purpose.

So many questions arose for me. How does her foresight work? Does knowing the future change it? What can she do with this ability?

Can it be stopped?

Then I slammed into the hardest problem that a precognitive character brings to a story: if she can see into the future, what kind of story conflict is realistically possible? That is, why wouldn’t she simply foresee the problems and avoid them, like any sensible precognitive person?

That was when I started muttering, “What have I gotten myself into?”

There were more challenges yet. I came to realize I had stepped into a very large pile of metaphysics; if someone can see the future, this implies significant truths about the nature of reality, truths that ripple out across this created world. The genre doesn’t matter — I could be writing high fantasy or science fiction or mainstream — or poetry — and I would still have to make decisions about causality and determinism, and how information affects the physical. All those decisions expand out into the world, story, and characters.

And again, I found myself staring at the question: why didn’t she just see this coming?

The answer turned out to be both simpler and more complicated than I expected.

I have a passion for creating characters who are smart and insightful. Far smarter than me, if I can manage it, and more capable, too. This meant that any question I had about Amarta’s precognitive ability, someone else in the story would also be having. Similarly, any test or strategy I could devise to understand or track her, someone else would also be devising.

This, it turned out, was part of the answer; everyone concerned with Amarta was asking the same questions I was.

That was when it all started to come together for me, when I realized that the questions themselves were central to the story, and that the story would answer them in its own good time. As those around Amarta came to understand her better, they would react. They would have new questions. They would change. Nothing would be static.

And Amarta was not standing still either.

So, then: why couldn’t she simply avoid the problems that faced her?

Well, sometimes she could. Sometimes not.

She’s not a machine, you see; she has desires and passions, fears and dreams. How does a character with foresight, immersed in the consequences of what happens around her by virtue of her ability to foresee it, figure out what she wants in the first place?

If you can see the future, what choices are left to you?

If you can see the future, do you even want to see it?

In the end, I realized that the questions surrounding Amarta’s choices were universal questions: what do we want, and what are we willing to do to get it?

The answer also lay in an old adage: the map is not the territory. Regardless of what we understand, in our past, our present, or our future, we always understand through the lens of what we want, the way we see ourselves in our world, and the coalescing experiences of our lives. The best map in the world will not prevent us from getting lost, because it is, after all, only a map, and the territory is never its equal.

At one point in the book, someone asks Amarta this: “Are you ever surprised?”

“All the time,” she replies.

Yeah. Me, too.


The SeerAmazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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


The Voice of the People

I mocked this a bit on Twitter already, but I want to mock it some more here, and also, make a somewhat more serious point. This, found on Facebook, is in reference to my post yesterday about voting for Kasich in the Ohio primary (poster anonymized to avoid the appearance of me maliciously pointing people toward some random schmuck):

So, a few points here.

1. Democrat: Nope.

2. Socialist: Bwa ha ha ha hah ha! No.

3. Disdain for uneducated and “unwashed” whites: Folks, we all know I was the first person in my immediate family to graduate from high school (not to mention college), yes? And that I’m white? When you describe the uneducated and “unwashed,” you’re describing my family and where I come from. I can be called many things, but “self-hating” isn’t one of them. It’s certainly true that I am neither uneducated nor “unwashed” now, but you never do forget your past. At least I don’t.

4. Self-designated elite: You know, generally speaking, the “self-designated elite” is better described as Republicans than Democrats (or independents), especially if one is speaking economically. Demographically speaking (white, bachelor’s degree, heterosexually married, well-off), it’s certainly true that someone like me is more likely to be a Republican than a Democrat. I don’t know that I would call folks in my general demographic “elite”; they’re just white, college-educated, heterosexually married and well-off.

Be that as it may, given that someone like me is generally more likely to be an “establishment Republican” than not, and Kasich is pretty well what passes for an establishment Republican these days, then someone like me voting for Kasich is actually fairly unexceptional.

5. Ohio law allows me (or anyone else) to ask for a ballot from either party when I vote in the primary, so I’m confused as to how my asking for the GOP ballot would “take away the voice of the people.” When I asked for the Democratic ballot in the primary eight years ago, was I taking away from the voice of the people then as well? Or is it different when it’s the GOP ballot? If so, how so? And if in both cases the State of Ohio allowed me to ask for either, and the State of Ohio’s government is elected by the people, then is not the ability to ask for either ballot also the will of the people?

6. Who the fuck died and put this petty little ignorant shitbird in charge of determining who “the people” are? Even if I were a Democrat and a socialist who self-designated myself as the elite and hated uneducated and unwashed white people, I would still be “the people.” This petty little ignorant shitbird is also “the people,” as personally depressing as I may find that fact. On election day, if he wanted to vote and had a flat tire, I would drive this asshole to the polling station myself so that he could pull the proverbial lever and possibly cancel out my vote.

Why? Because this petty little ignorant shitbird should vote, and so should I, and so should you, provided you are legally able to. We are all “the people” and the people — as many as possible — should decide who leads them, and who should not.

Now, this petty little ignorant shitbird may stamp his feet and whine that I didn’t vote the way he wanted, waaaaaaaaaaaaah, but one, fuck this dude, I’ll vote how I want, and two, sometimes we don’t get our way and that’s life. I’ve voted in seven presidential elections to date; I didn’t get what I wanted in three of them. In the entire time I’ve lived in the OH-8 congressional district I’ve never voted for a winner for the House of Representatives; it’s unlikely I ever will, in point of fact. Should I mewl like a petulant child about that fact, querulously complaining that the “voice of the people” has somehow been blocked because I didn’t get what I want? No, I should probably suck it up and move on.

Why did John Kasich win in Ohio? Because the voice of the people spoke, and what it said was “We want John Kasich (oh, and also Hillary Clinton, kthxbye).” What comprised the voice of the people? In the case of the Ohio GOP primary, lots of folks, including me, presumably him and 1,952,683 others. That’s a lot of voices in “the voice of the people.”

I get this dude is sad that the voice of the people didn’t tell him what he wanted to hear. No one likes to hear the word “no.” But it doesn’t mean the voice of the people was wrong in what it said, or not actually the voice of the people. How wonderful for us.

Clinton and Sanders and Trump and Kasich and Also a Bit About Cruz and Rubio

Well, that was an interesting Tuesday night in American politics, wasn’t it? A few thoughts about it.

1. First, sympathy for Sanders supporters out there, who after last week’s emotionally satisfying win in Michigan — even if Clinton ended the night with a net gain of delegates thanks to Mississippi — had to deal with their candidate going 0-5 in state results last night. To be fair, there’s still a small possibility that Sanders might pull ahead in Missouri once absentee votes are tallied in, but after the other results of the evening, winning by the thinnest possible margin in a single state is the political equivalent of “playing for pride.”

However and more importantly, Clinton yet again expanded her pledged delegate lead. Leaving out Missouri for the moment, Clinton netted more than 100 delegates over Sanders in the other four states voting last night. Given the closeness of the Missouri race, and the proportional nature of delegate allocation in Democratic primaries, it doesn’t matter if Sanders eventually squeaks out a win there — Clinton still ends the night with a triple-digit delegate gain.

2. I had someone on Twitter last night say, yes, well, but Florida is a closed primary state where Clinton was favored; okay, but she also took Ohio by 13 points, and that’s an effectively open primary (technically “semi-open”). I do see some Sanders supporters pinning hopes of victories based on whether a particular state has caucuses or open primaries, which is fine, but it’s a bit of fetish thinking. There are four types of primaries and caucuses: Open, closed, semi-open and semi-closed. Leaving out semi-closed caucuses (only one state has that and hasn’t voted yet) Clinton has won contests in every format but open caucuses; Sanders has won contests in every format but closed primaries. I’m not sure Sanders can rely on voting format to save him.

Even if he did, a) the next set of contests features a closed primary (Arizona) with the largest delegate count of the evening, and Sanders hasn’t won any of those yet, and there are nine more of those including New York and Pennsylvania, b) there are only two more open caucus contests left (that being the format Clinton hasn’t won in yet). So, uh, yeah. That math doesn’t look great for Sanders.

Ultimately Sanders’ problem isn’t format, it’s that he doesn’t win enough contests (nine to Clinton’s nineteen), doesn’t win enough big states (he’s won only one contest with more than a hundred delegates; Clinton’s won six), and the one big contest he won, he won by a slim margin (49.8% to 48.2%) meaning he netted only a few pledged delegates over Clinton (four). Meanwhile Clinton’s pledged delegate net in the large state contests she’s won is 218 over Sanders.

3. But Sanders can still take it! Well, as a matter of pure mathematics, sure. As a practical matter involving real voters in real states and territories going to actual polling stations or caucuses, it’s pretty much over at this point. It’s not to say that Sanders can’t or won’t win more states; I suspect he will. But the question is will he ever catch up in the pledged delegate count, and the answer is, that’s going to be a hard row for him to hoe. Someone on Twitter last night suggested that they said the same thing about Obama in 2008, and look where he is now. But on March 16, 2008, one, Obama was ahead of Clinton in the pledged delegate count, not the other way around, and two, as a matter of percentages, Obama and Clinton were substantially closer than Clinton and Sanders are now — Clinton had 92% of the pledged delegates Obama had then; Sanders has 72% of the pledged delegates Clinton has now.

And while we’re considering this, bear in mind we’re only talking about pledged candidates here, not superdelegates. With superdelegates, Clinton is already two thirds of the way to the magic number of 2,383 delegates needed for the nomination. Adding in Sanders’ superdelegates, he’s 35% of the way there. Superdelegates can change their mind between now and the election, but if I were a Sanders supporter I wouldn’t be holding my breath. Again, it’s not impossible for Sanders to win the nomination, but at this point it’s gone from “unlikely” to “really goddamned difficult.”

If my Twitter feed is any indication, I suspect a number of Sanders supporters have begun the grieving process — the disbelief that Sanders lost Ohio (it was supposed to be like Michigan!), the glumness of looking at the Florida result, the glimmer of hope in Missouri, extinguished as Clinton ground out a .2% victory. As I noted before, I have sympathy for Sanders supporters. It was not a good night for them. Clinton supporters, on the other hand, have to be feeling pretty good.

4. On the other side of things, oh, hey, look, John Kasich won Ohio! Which is nice, and deprived Trump of its 66 delegates, which means for the first time since early February, Trump is below his Fivethirtyeight delegate tracker number, that being the number of delegates he needs to clinch the GOP nomination ahead of the convention. He was at 104% of that number going into the evening; now he’s at 96% of that number. As someone who voted for Kasich basically to achieve this very goal, I feel I had a vote well cast (note well, this number may not include his Missouri delegates).

Not, mind you, that I think Kasich can win the nomination; some folks have suggested that he would have to win 110% of the currently available GOP delegates from here on out to do so, and, well. That would be a stretch, wouldn’t it. Nor do I think Cruz will get it either; Fivethirtyeight has him at 54% of his delegate goal. At this point, and despite Cruz’s self-lathering nonsense suggesting he could win the nomination outright, Cruz and Kasich are in the race to keep Trump from hitting his delegate number, forcing a contested convention.

At which Trump is already hinting there will be riots if he isn’t given the nomination! One, bless his heart. Two, he’s not wrong, especially if Trump is close to the number of delegates he needs going in. The sort of folks willing to cold-cock protesters at rallies aren’t folks who will be willing to let some back-room bureaucrats snatch their man’s rightful nomination out of his famously not-short fingers. It’s of course keeping with Trump’s personal idiom to give a speech last night about the party needing to come together, and then this morning strongly hint that his people are going to wreck shit if they don’t get their way. Congratulations, GOP! Your frontrunner is a classy dude.

5. That said, let me go out on a limb and suggest Trump is going to hit his number. Why? Because Ohio was a semi-open primary, which meant people like me, who don’t normally vote in the GOP primary, were able to cross the line and do so, and it appears that a lot did — there were 1.6 times as many voters in the Ohio GOP primary last night than in the Democratic primary, at least some of which were folks like me voting against Trump. Which is nice, but there’s only two more open primaries on the GOP docket (Indiana and Wisconsin) and one open caucus (American Samoa). The rest of the contests are closed or semi-closed, limiting the number of people willing to save the GOP from itself. From here on out it’s up to GOP voters to do it.

And will they? Unclear. There have been four closed primaries so far, and they’ve split half for Trump and half for Ted Cruz (who, to be clear, is not exactly an optimal alternative). The closed caucuses have also split between Trump and Cruz (and Minnesota and DC for Rubio). As most of the upcoming contests are winner-take-all, Trump wouldn’t have to share most of his delegates when he wins, so if he wins, even by a tiny margin, he still leaps ahead.

Trump is going to win more, and it seems likely to me that Cruz and Kasich, the other guys in the race, will probably eat each others’ lunch to Trump’s benefit. One of them should probably drop out if at this point they really aim to stop Trump. Kasich is the obvious one to drop, since he has no chance to win the nomination outright, and because Cruz won’t, no matter what; he’d rather push an entire troop of Girl Scouts under a bus than give up his run. Also there’s the matter of who are Kasich’s supporters at this point. He presumably would pick up whoever was still voting for poor Marco Rubio. Those three people won’t help him.

On the other hand, Cruz is an overripe pustule of hateful need who deserves to be dropkicked into historical oblivion, and the rest of the GOP primary schedule doesn’t really match his political strengths, so maybe he should drop and let Kasich roll as the sane alternative to Trump. But again, Cruz has no intention of leaving the race until the race leaves him. So onward Trump will likely go, to the nomination.

6. And what about Marco Rubio, who exited the race last night? Honestly, I can’t be bothered to think of him any further. He was always underready, and the fact that the GOP ever seriously considered him as their answer to Obama is a reminder that the GOP neither understands Obama nor understands anyone who isn’t white as paste. Look! A young ethnic person! The kids love that! Surely we shall win the White House now! Meanwhile, Rubio’s politics were those of a conservative 73-year-old white dude shaking his cane in the yard at the kids riding their bikes in the road (Cruz’s politics are the same, except the 73-year-old is also praying for God to send a bear to rip the children to shreds). Dear GOP: Voters do pay attention to policies and positions, not just packaging. Which is why (among other things) an old white man is more popular with under-30 Democratic voters than his opponent.

But now Rubio is gone, and good riddance. He’ll soon be gone from the Senate as well, and where he goes from here I have a complete lack of interest, so long as it is in the private sector and I never have to deal with him again. I’m sad for the GOP that he was their Great Establishment Hope for ’16, and that what we have left is Kasich, who has no chance, Cruz, who should have “well, actually” in blinking neon over his head, and of course Trump, the walking embodiment of political nihilism and sub-standard cuts of beef. The GOP deserves no better than this, but our nation certainly does.

The Big Idea: Lavie Tidhar

World Fantasy Award-winning author Lavie Tidar came up with a awful, terrible, no-good idea for a novel — and then wrote it anyway, resulting in A Man Lies Dreaming, which then went on to garner starred reviews in the trades, award nominations and wins, and the sort of glowing praise writers dream of. What’s this awful, terrible, no-good idea, and why did Tidhar decide to write it anyway? The answers await you below.


The idea is simple: what if a disgraced Adolf Hitler was working as a lowly private eye in 1939’s London?

But I should backtrack.

Ideas are easy. Bad ideas are easier still. And as far as ideas go, this must be one of the worst. This was certainly the reaction of my agent, when I mentioned it to him – a slightly shocked expression followed by genuine laughter. That’s the thing I like about my agent – he gets it, even when it sounds (as my work often does to him) ridiculous.

“Write it!” he said. “No one will buy it, but you should write it!”

So let me backtrack a bit more. . .

Around 2011, I was living back in London. It was a cold winter. My novel Osama, which had been rejected by more publishers than I could count, was finally coming out from a small publisher in the UK. My Bookman Histories trilogy was finished and delivered, and I was out of contract, out of cash, and I didn’t have a coat. A lot of this, I suspect, would feed into the book later. . .

I was figuring out what to write next. At the time, I was trying to work on a difficult book which would eventually become The Violent Century. It was an act of faith, since no one was lining up to buy it, but it felt worthwhile, and so I struggled on. I don’t actually know why some books are so hard to write, while others feel natural, easy. But I remember the moment when A Man Lies Dreaming came. It was around one o’clock at night. I was reading one of Philip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther novels. They’re excellent crime thrillers about a private detective in Nazi Germany, sometimes difficult to read but generally brilliant. In the novel (I forget which one), Kerr makes a throwaway mention to the idea that Adolf Hitler could have himself become a private eye. A light pinged in my head.

It was the very ridiculousness of the idea that I liked. It was the sort of idea that is so offensive, so tasteless, that I would be terribly offended if anyone ever did it…

Which is why it appealed to me, I think. I thought, if anyone might actually get away with something like this, it could be me. I don’t mean this in a hubristic sense. But the Holocaust features large in my life. My family died in Auschwitz. My mother was born in a refugee camp in Germany, after the war. If anyone could do this – and I didn’t know if I could! – then it just might be me.

I remember being very excited about it. Then I tried to forget all about it.

Of course I didn’t want to write it. It was a ridiculous idea, an unsellable idea, and moreover it would require me to walk down a pretty dark path to reach it. So I put it away.

I worked on The Violent Century. In the meantime, to my surprise, Osama had picked up a few award nominations. It ended up winning a World Fantasy Award a year later, just a week after I’d finally finished the manuscript of The Violent Century – which quickly sold to Hodder & Stoughton in the UK.

All of this was pretty unexpected.

I tried not to work on “the Hitler book”. Occasionally the subject would come up, and people would laugh, and shake their heads. I tried to work on the next novel, but nothing worked. Meanwhile, on the sly, I was acquiring books. Hitler’s childhood. Hitler and women. Mein Kampf (my God, is there a book more unreadable than Mein Kampf?). Then the manga version of Mein Kampf. . . Hitler became a constant presence – Hitler the abused child, Hitler the starving artist in Vienna, living in an attic with his friend Gustl, Hitler the young soldier suffering post-traumatic stress disorder. . . Hitler, in fact, before he became Hitler.

Hitler was not a monster. None of us are. He was a person who had become monstrous by his actions, and I felt it was imperative for me to understand Hitler, to get into his head.

Let me say this: it’s not a particularly pleasant way of spending a year of your life, living with Adolf Hitler.

I didn’t want to write the book, but nothing else was working, and Hitler was everywhere, staring at me from the shadows, a fedora over his head: a bitter, unknown, raging Hitler, a man who history had passed by, a loser now eking a meagre living on the mean streets of London.

So I gave in.

It was late one night. The entire first draft was written at night, between midnight and 3am, very quickly and intensely. I remember that night, sitting at the computer, itching to get rid of him. I thought, I’ll only write the first line. It’s been stuck in my head for a long time, so long that it’s become a mantra. It was a line in Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep, in fact, whose casual anti-Semitism had arrested me for years.

No one would have to know, I figured. I’d just write it and then… move on.

So I wrote: She had the face of an intelligent Jewess.

And I couldn’t stop.

It’s been bottled up for so long that it all came out. My hero, “Wolf”, sitting in his office above the Jew baker’s shop. Outside the prostitutes are gathering in Berwick Street. The night is full of eyes, watching. And a glamorous Jewish woman, Isabella Rubinstein, comes waltzing into Wolf’s office with the offer of a job, to find her missing sister…

I couldn’t stop. I’m not sure I spoke to anyone much during this time. Hitler’s picture stared at me from the desk. The story unfolded, a dark comedy, a detective noir novel, an alternate history… take your pick. And all this while, grounding this lurid tale of shund, or pulp, was its possible narrator – Shomer, a Jewish pulp writer trapped in Auschwitz, the dreaming man of the title – a man seeking an impossible escape.

A Man Lies Dreaming, it seems to me, is several things. It is an argument about escape, about the power or futility of fantasy. It’s an argument began in Osama, continued in The Violent Century, and concluded here. Is escape possible – for any of us?

It is also, I think, a dark comedy. Humour underlines the horror, and humour has been an important part of survival, even during the worst times of the Holocaust. I loved writing Wolf – his impotent rage, his increasing hysteria, his endless rants. There is nothing funnier, after all, than a Hitler without power. “Do you not know who I am?” Wolf rages, at some point – and of course, by then, no one does.

At the same time, A Man Lies Dreaming is grounded in the contemporary. It is written at a time when Europe’s anti-immigrant rhetoric terrifyingly echoes the 1930s. Wolf’s London does not welcome immigrants, and Oswald Mosley’s Blackshirts are marching in the streets, chanting slogans that eerily echo today’s. . .

. . . in the event, I did manage to get A Man Lies Dreaming published. It wasn’t particularly easy, but my editor at Hodder was incredibly supportive, and the book came out in late 2014, was nominated for a British Fantasy Award, and won me my first literary fiction prize, the £5k Jerwood Fiction Uncovered. It’s just come out in Italy, where they seem to like it. . . and it’s out now in the US from Melville House. The bad joke that was “Hitler: P.I.” had turned into the book I am most proud of having written – even if it’s damaged me in the process.


A Man Lies Dreaming: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s 

Visit the author’s site. Follow him on Twitter.

Hell Yes I’m Voting for Kasich Today

Today is primary day in Ohio, and on the GOP side of things this election is a “winner take all” sort of affair — whoever gets the most votes in the GOP primary gets to take all 66 of Ohio’s GOP delegates to the Republican National Convention, which this year, as it happens, will be in Cleveland.

As a voter, I’m registered as an independent, i.e., not of either party, so on most primary election days when I go to pick up my ballot, I usually get to vote only on some local non-partisan stuff. However, if one so chooses, Ohio allows one to ask for a party ballot. Eight years ago, if memory serves, I asked for one for the Democrats. This year, I’ll be asking for the Republican ballot, because this year I want to vote for Ohio Governor John Kasich in the GOP primary.

More specifically, not only do I wish to vote for Kasich in the GOP primary, I also specifically wish to vote against Donald Trump. My vote will be only one of hundreds of thousands (or perhaps millions, depending on the turnout), but this year, I think voting for Kasich, and against Trump, is the very best use of my vote today.

Why? Well, you know. Because Trump is an active danger to the body politic, a fatuous demagogue who is far better at inciting racist anger for laughs than articulating any policy position beyond a two-sentence bluster at the stump. There’s no doubt that the Republican Party went out of its way in the last several election cycles to bring about someone like Trump as a successful candidate, and because of it there’s no doubt that it deserves Trump and everything he brings with him. But the rest of us don’t, and Trump is already doing damage outside of the party.

To put it another way: The GOP has been a sloppy drunk for years, and this year it’s sprawled on the couch, shitting its own pants and moaning horribly. And whether or not everyone else thinks that this is what the GOP deserves, from a moral point of view you have to take its keys and keep it from getting on the road and possibly killing others as it swerves through traffic.

John Kasich, as I’ve noted before, is not a person with whom I have much in common, in terms of positions. He’s much more conservative than I like, is terrible for the rights of women and workers, and would generally exasperate me as president. I don’t want him in the job. But for all of that, Kasich is not a horrible person, inciting other people to be as awful as they can possibly be. He has respect for the idea of constitutional government and its checks and balances, and genuinely seems to believe — within the limited scope of conservatism these days — that government can do some good. No one is punching anyone at a Kasich rally, nor is he offering to pay the legal fees of the assaulter. No one is throwing out Nazi salutes. No one is spewing racial epithets.

If Trump were not the GOP front runner at the moment, this would be another year where I would take the non-partisan ballot. I’m sanguine about the Democratic side of the race; I’d be fine with either Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders in the general so I don’t feel the need to weigh in on that. Let the Democrats sort that out. Generally speaking in most years I feel the same about the GOP side: Not my circus, not my monkeys. If this were just Kasich and Cruz and Rubio at this point, I’d make popcorn and enjoy the show.

It’s not. Trump is, I feel, a legitimate danger, both in who he is as a presidential candidate — an inchoate, grasping, insecure, angry and ignorant blowhard — and in his encouragement of the worst aspects of America that have dredged themselves out of the muck and attached themselves to his mess of a campaign. Not everyone who supports Trump is a horribly racist piece of shit, to be sure. Trump himself didn’t make the conditions of legitimate economic anxiety that he’s tapped into for his campaign. But people who are horribly racist pieces of shit have found support and encouragement from Trump, and revel in the legitimacy he’s offering.

So here’s the question: When you have the opportunity to vote against someone who you see as both the worst major party candidate in your lifetime and an actual danger to your country, on many levels, do you take it? My answer: You’re goddamned right you do. It’s more than just an electoral choice. It’s a moral imperative. And as a bonus, I’ll vote for a person whose presence in the general election will not fill me with disgust. I’ll take that.

Will this stop Trump? Certainly my single vote won’t, although if Kasich wins Ohio, it becomes that much harder for Trump to win an outright majority of GOP delegates, and if he doesn’t do that, then the GOP national convention is likely to be interesting as hell. Nor am I under the illusion that, save some truly fantastic legerdemain at the convention, Kasich will be the eventual GOP nominee. I do suspect when all is said and done, Trump will either be the GOP nominee, or the electoral calisthenics required to deny him the slot will tear the GOP right in half.

But if he is the GOP nominee, it won’t be because I slept on my chance to say “Hell, no” to him. The best case scenario is the that I only have to vote against him once. But if necessary I’ll be delighted to vote against him twice (the worst case scenario would be voting against him three times). I’m hoping for just once, suspect twice. But either way, voting against him is a thing I’ll be doing.

Does this mean I think everyone in Ohio should be voting in the GOP primary, against Trump (and for Kasich)? No, I think people anywhere, not just in Ohio, should vote their conscience. My moral calculus isn’t the same as everyone else’s, or possibly anyone else’s. I would be happy if at the end of the evening Trump was fourth in Ohio, and pretty much everywhere else; it would mean a great number of voters agreed with me that the man was an electoral nightmare and should be stopped. I’m not exactly holding my breath.

But again, this isn’t about what others do. It’s about what I do, with my vote. And my vote today is for Kasich, against Trump.

The Big Idea: Adrian Selby

Writers write in the first person all the time, but what does it mean to do so when you’re trying to develop a world? It’s a question that mattered for Adrian Selby for his fantasy novel Snakewood. Today, he explains why.


“My name’s Gant and I’m sorry for my poor writing.”

So begins chapter one of my debut epic fantasy Snakewood.

As I planned out the book I fretted a great deal over how to immerse readers in the lands, cities and lives of the world of Sarun, in which the story is set. I recalled how vividly I daydreamed myself into Middle-earth as a teenager, following paths and roads hinted at in the texts but never walked. Tolkien’s were the first of many books I would admire over the years that followed for their ability to transport me utterly to an unfamiliar, magical place.

These are the books that made me miss my bus stop and left me dazed as I walked into the office, trying to tear my brain away from Thomas Cromwell’s poignant, tender caress of his daughter’s angel wings (Wolf Hall) or the faerie-soaked fields of Edgewood (Little, Big) and back to those essential first steps of a new day – kettle, teabags, email.

So when I started writing Snakewood, I thought, what do I need to do to deliver that level of immersion?

Of course, I needed to build a vivid world, and a magic system that integrated with that world, defined it and its many cultures. The wider reality of life being lived needed to crowd the edges of the story, but no further. I wanted also, like every writer, to make it so that the reader feels the scuff of boot, the scratch of stubble or the smell of a mortal wound.

The obvious answer to the latter was to go first person; put the reader behind the characters’ eyes, seeing what they see. There’s a marvelous directness to first person – a mainline into their feelings and thoughts – bringing the reader down from the sky of the omniscient narrator into the streets and fields.

But it was after reading James Joyce, Irvine Welsh, and especially Peter Carey’s True History Of The Kelly Gang that I realized the subliminal tension present in any first person narrative: the author is, necessarily, speaking for the character. It’s pure ventriloquism. No character’s internal monologue picks out the world and the speech of others so as to create just this story, using just these details, to engross, challenge and entertain. The authors I mentioned above, like so many others, have experimented with that act of ventriloquism – Joyce with stream of consciousness in Ulysses, Welsh with the strong, literal vernacular of Trainspotting. Carey played with the words and grammar so as to make it seem as though he wasn’t there at all, that this was Ned Kelly’s own hand. To wit:

“… a man might be a bank clerk or an overseer he might never have been lagged for nothing but still he knew in his heart what it were to be forced to wear the white hood in prison he knew what it were to be lashed for looking a warder in the eye and even a posh fellow like the Moth had breathed that air so the knowledge of unfairness were deep in his bone and marrow.”

More than ever before or since, I felt as though the author had disappeared. Ned Kelly was speaking, unable to express his feelings eloquently or write them down properly. The lack of eloquence was perfect, and at one point in the book, hugely moving. I loved it.

If Snakewood is a ‘found footage’ collection of narratives to be written ‘in their own words’, then Gant, as a poorly educated mercenary soldier, should struggle to express himself too. Gant’s narrative is central to the novel, for he is its emotional anchor, its principal ‘good guy’ and the great joy and challenge of writing it.

Every writer should be terrified of what they’re about to do when they start a book. I was terrified at the thought of writing a limited third person narrative with consistent, but not perfectly consistent, grammatical flaws on top of all the other things I needed to get right. It was the most challenging part of my attempt to disappear as an author; hoping that Gant, and the other narrators, would come through more purely. I wanted the characters of Snakewood to immerse you in their story and their world. Not mine.


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

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