It’s our last stack of new books and ARCs for the month of September, and it’s a very fine one, I have to say. What here looks good to you? Tell me in the comments!
It’s our last stack of new books and ARCs for the month of September, and it’s a very fine one, I have to say. What here looks good to you? Tell me in the comments!
Here’s a press release I received today from Worldcon 75, next year’s Worldcon in Helsinki, Finland:
The 75th World Science Fiction Convention, (“Worldcon”) taking place in Helsinki in August 2017, announced today that a special Hugo category for “Best Series” will be included in the 2017 Hugo Awards.
The Hugo Awards are the leading awards for excellence in the field of science fiction and fantasy, and have been presented at Worldcons since 1953. They are voted on by members of each year’s Worldcon.
Fans voted in August 2016 to trial a new Hugo award for “Best Series”, which could be added in 2018. Each Worldcon Committee has the authority to introduce a special category Hugo award, and Worldcon 75 has decided to test “Best Series” in 2017. This follows the precedent of the 2009 Worldcon, which trialled “Best Graphic Story” before it became a regular Hugo the following year. Fans at Worldcon 75 will be able to decide whether to ratify the “Best Series” for future years and suggest revisions to the award definition at the World Science Fiction Society Business Meeting held in Helsinki during the convention.
Nicholas Whyte, Worldcon 75 Hugo administrator, said, “The proposed Hugo for “Best Series” is a big change, the first time that a new category may be added to the written fiction Hugo categories in fifty years. There is clearly a great deal of interest in how this new award will work, and what might be nominated.”
An eligible work for this special award is a multi-volume science fiction or fantasy story, unified by elements such as plot, characters, setting, and presentation, which has appeared in at least three volumes consisting of a total of at least 240,000 words by the close of the calendar year 2016, at least one volume of which was published in 2016.
My first thought, because I have an ego, is that this is a Hugo I won’t be eligible for, as I have no novels out this year, and therefore no eligible series. Unless, I guess, I quickly whomp up an Old Man’s War novella and make it available as a single volume before the end of the year — would that work?
Which is my other, really more relevant, question: What constitutes a “volume” in this case? I assume (for no particular reason) that a volume has to be released in itself and not as part of a larger publication, such as a magazine or anthology, but would a individually-released short story (or novelette, or novella) count toward a series credit? What about a graphic novel, set in the universe and part of the continuity? How about a song whose lyrics are written by a series author, set in the series universe? As long as all the previous criteria are met — at least three volumes, at least 240,000 words — where is the boundary line for a new volume?
Also, here’s another thought: Does this new volume have to be written by the author of the previous installments? If I hire someone to whomp up a new story in the Old Man’s War universe, and that story meets the criteria for a “volume,” whatever that might be, would it make the whole series eligible? And if so, who would accept the Hugo if it won? Me, or the new writer, or both? Or the editor of the series? Or the publisher? Or — and here’s a fun possible criterion — to the owner of the copyright?
(Combining both above: Would an anthology of short stories set in the universe constitute a new volume? And if so, to whom would the Hugo go?)
This isn’t to suggest I think a Hugo for series is a bad idea at all. But I do think it’s possible that unless the definition for “volume” is concretely defined, you might see a rush of shorter works tying into a series dropping into the stream of commerce between now and December 31. Electronic publishing makes that possible (let’s hope it’s a windfall for copy editors). After the hijinks of the last few years, let’s not pretend there aren’t people out there who will be happy to game the system if they can.
This “Best Series” Hugo is a trial run, to see how things work, and to see if it’s a good idea to continue such a Hugo. My own personal thought on a Best Series Hugo, if it were to continue, would be that I would wanted it handled as such:
Why would I do it this way? Because series are (generally speaking) a multi-year endeavor and should be considered as such and because the number of eligible series in any given year is substantially smaller than the number of eligible works in any other Hugo category for fiction; because I think if you don’t define “volume” as a substantial work then the category runs the risk of being gamed; and because I think while editing is important to individual novels, it’s especially important to series.
If I had to pick just one of those criteria to pass on to an official Hugo definition, it would be the “one-time win” one. The Hugos aren’t the Emmys. If a series has gotten “Best Series” once, I think it’s okay for the category to be closed to that series further.
I’ll also note that “Best Series” here is clearly appears to be geared toward novels, so my own fantasy criteria for the category weights toward additional work of at least novella length. That said, I think you could make a perfectly good and valid argument that a “series” could be a bunch of short stories all set in the same universe, or anthologies set in the same universe, or graphic novels in the same universe, etc, as long as they meet the “three volumes/240,000 words” criteria. I’m not going to make that argument, but I think you could make that argument.
Finally, I’ll also note that if the Series Hugo does pick up traction and becomes an annual award, then what’s really likely to happen from a practical point of view is that the Hugos will be awarding a second “Best Novel” award, which just happens to be going to series novels. That’s fine but maybe there should be thought given to that fact — perhaps by an additional rule that says if a Best Novel finalist is in a series up for Best Series in the same year, if the novel and series both win their categories then the author gets to go home with whichever of the two awards they received the most number of votes for, with the other award going to the next work in line. Otherwise I suspect you’re going to see a lot of Best Novel and Best Series awards carried off by the same authors, because the votes will be highly correlated — someone who votes for a book in a series for Best Novel is also likely to think highly of the series in general.
Tell me your thoughts on a Best Series Hugo, and your thoughts on my thoughts.
Last week I showed all y’all the living room all torn up, as we were getting rid of an unused fireplace and replacing it with shelves and electronic heater. Well, now (most of) the shelves are in, so I thought I’d give you all a status update picture. This is not the final state of the living room, I should note — there are more things to be added onto the shelves and also things to be put on walls, plus a few fiddly bits to be added to the shelves (including a shelf below the TV, where the cable boxes, etc will be added). But it already looks better than it did. The dogs seems to like it, at least.
When Norton Award-winning author Fran Wilde sat down to write Cloudbound, she wasn’t intending to write something whose politics had parallel with the world outside of her book. But sometimes, as she explains today, the world catches up with you.
What happens when you write a book about the political twists of a secondary world, then real-world politics go pear-shaped?
At the outset of Cloudbound, the companion novel to Updraft, my main character, Nat, wants to be a leader. He wants this for a number of reasons: security for himself and his family, the fact that he’s had to help save his city from bad leaders, and a desire to serve his community.
These aren’t bad reasons at all.
Problem is, Nat has only a little idea how to lead, and he’s getting some questionable advice. Worse, he’s confusing the tasks of leading and the trappings of leadership with actual leadership.
He gets over this, with some help.
At the time I wrote Cloudbound, world politics had been on a slow simmer of win-or-lose teamsmanship for some time. As Cloudbound comes to publication, numerous places around the world are seeing a resurgence of say-anything-to-win high-stakes mongering, and, worse, demagoguery, sometimes on the part of people who wish very deeply to serve their cities and countries.
Because of the time it takes to publish a book, I watched Cloudbound’s release date converge with some of the real world events and I wondered… If it’s getting stranger than fiction out there, what does that mean for Cloudbound?
One of the big ideas for Cloudbound was leadership, plain and simple. Different ways to lead, how to move forward, how to lead by example. The book is also, then, necessarily about politics and rhetoric, networks and people-hacking. Nat’s not exceedingly good at these either, at first. And he’s got blind spots — because his political mentor has blind spots.
Leadership is one of those strange words that can mean — often simultaneously — the act of leading and the position of a leader. One meaning is active and in motion, the other has the mental tonnage of the big seat at the head of the table, and accompanying burdens of power.
For Nat and his friends to navigate the ‘after’ of Updraft, they need to learn how they are comfortable leading, often in the face of tremendous pushback from their community. Expectations are solidifying around them even as they are still learning what their expectations are for themselves. And Nat, holding power for the first time, stands on the boundary of learning and doing.
It’s heady space. And a pretty big risk, both for him and the story, because he’s not doing the learning in a vacuum. The city’s under threat from internal forces as well, and Nat’s under pressure to find something important that’s gone missing. How he does this is, in part, tied to how he discovers the hidden history of the city. But doing so brings him into direct conflict with some big bads.
The big bads in the real world right now seem to be getting bigger. Maybe a few kids up in the Bone Universe sky learning about leadership isn’t such a bad idea.
History has never been inevitable.
There’s this apocryphal story that Francis Bacon, one of the trailblazers of Western scientific thinking, died in the 1600s of pneumonia after trying investigate the application of snow to preserve flesh, namely that of a dead goose on the side of the road in a snowstorm. I’ve always thought this story was particularly charming, an example of a kind of ferocity of focus that results in amazing scientific and creative discoveries but also losing oneself in the strange corners of video game landscapes.
Here’s the Big Idea. What IF Bacon hadn’t died? What IF he had discovered a way to harness a kind of internal mojo, bend the laws of chemistry, and then convert the solid snow to gaseous vapor, forestalling the pneumonia and discovering in the process that the arcane science of alchemy could be used for all sorts of cool applications and moreover, was REAL?
There would have been ripples.
This new arcane science might have thrust technology forward. Humans using this alchemical magic to perform actual miracles might have had a profound impact on the religious Great Awakening of the 1730s and 40s. They might have also created clocklock pistols and astonishing sources of energy and terrifying gearbeasts and cool-as-hell alchemical automatons.
The world of A Riddle in Ruby is one that attempts to weave the pluck and gumption of the early 1700s American Colonies with the anything-is-possible spirit of the beginning of the industrial revolution. Well, with awesome magic. One of the core Big Ideas of the Ruby series is to propose this:
Just because history says things happened one way doesn’t necessarily mean that they had to.
What IF tall tales of the ferocious ball-tailed cats of the western forests were true? What IF there were powerful secret societies that primed the pump of revolution? What IF an audacious, ferocious, precocious kid carried a secret that could change the face of the world?
I tried to weave this question into the characters of A Riddle in Ruby, as well. Ruby Teach is an apprentice thief and daughter of a fake pirate, but her life is not the sum of her chosen discipline or where she comes from. The choices she makes—to try to rescue her father, to preserve her friends, to carve the path of her life—have profound and lasting effects on the world around her.
The thing I love about the intersection of alternate history and kids’ books is that it offers us the possibility that the shape of the world we live in wasn’t inevitable. That the choices that people and societies made in the past have brought them to where they are now. More importantly, that the choices we make do matter, and that what you choose to do now, as a ten year-old on the playground or as a forty year-old at the ballot box (just saying), could have a profound impact on the shape of our world in years to come.
Book 2 of the A Riddle in Ruby series, The Changer’s Key, comes out today. Choose wisely.
Over on Facebook, a person who claims to have met and interacted with me (and he may have! I meet and interact with a lot of people) suggests that he wouldn’t want to associate with me because, among other things, there’s a difference between how I present myself online and how I present myself offline, which this fellow takes to mean that I say things here, that I wouldn’t say there. Which means, apparently, that I’m false/dissembling/a coward and so on.
This is interesting to me! I have thoughts on this! I am going to share them with you now!
One: Of course, and I think obviously, people who don’t want to associate with me should not associate with me. Whatever reason you have for not wanting to associate with me — including having no reason at all! — is perfectly acceptable. It’s your life, and life is too short to associate with people with whom you have no desire to spend time, even if that person is me. Maybe I’ll be sad about that, if you are someone I like or admire or thought I might one day like to get to know. But I’ll just have to be sad about that. If you don’t want to associate with me, I celebrate your choice. Go! Be associative with others who are not me.
Two: Also of course I am quite happy to say in the offline world the things that I say when I am online — in point of fact I do that all the time, because frequently, in both public and private conversation, people want to talk to me about things I’ve said online. Why? Well, for one thing, that’s how a lot of people know me, either through this blog or through my various social media presences. So naturally that’s going to be an entryway for actual conversation, or, when I’m doing a public event, a way for people to get me to further expound on a subject. I’m frequently saying offline what I’ve said online. It’s actually quite common.
Three: But what I suspect this fellow means is that I wouldn’t say negative things I might say about someone online to their face offline. For example, upon meeting, say, Ted Cruz, I wouldn’t, to his face, call him “a jowly gobbet of tubercular phlegm,” or “a necrotic self-regarding blight on the face of American politics,” which are things I’ve called him here. And here’s the truth of it: If, in fact, circumstances required that I had to meet Senator Cruz, and I couldn’t get out of it by saying “I’d prefer not to meet him” or alternately by faking a massive head injury, when the moment came that I was required to speak with him, I would say, “Hello, Senator,” and try to keep it to that. But if Cruz then said to me, “Hey, aren’t you the fellow who called me ‘an odious fistula that walks the earth in a human skin?’ I would say, ‘Why, yes, Senator Cruz. Indeed, I called you just that thing.'”
But I wouldn’t lead with it, because, you know. I’m not that kind of asshole. Unless I am specifically and affirmatively going to meet someone with the intent of telling them how much I dislike or oppose them — which is very rare, because there’s usually something better to do — I’m happy to be courteous and civil with the people that I disagree with or have arguments with, online or off. Why not? It’ll let everyone get through the day without being pissed off (more). And, here’s the thing — if someone I’ve had arguments with online shows civility and courtesy to me offline, in the world, good for them. Rather than chalk it up to cowardice or hypocrisy, I’m going to give them credit for understanding that context has a bearing on discourse. It doesn’t mean I forget the things they’ve said about me, or the things I might have said about them. It does mean we both understand that going after each other with hammers in one medium does not necessitate all hammers, all the time. You get credit in my book if you understand that.
(“But Scalzi,” you might say. “Aren’t you the one that says that the person who is an asshole online and polite offline is still an asshole?” Yes! Yes, I did. That goes for me as well — if your opinion of my online presentation is “what an asshole,” then no matter what you think of my offline public presentation, it’s perfectly valid for you to continue to have “asshole” as part of the foundation of your opinion of me. I’m okay with you thinking I’m an asshole. But in public, in the real world, I do try to be a decently socialized asshole.)
Be that as it may, if you’re determined to have me say to your face what I wrote about you online, then yes, in fact, I will absolutely say it to you, to your face. Why wouldn’t I? I wouldn’t have written it if I didn’t mean it — or at least, didn’t mean it at the time. It’s possible that over time I might have changed my opinion, and if that’s the case, I’d say that too. And if in time I decided that what I said was wrong, I would apologize, to you, to your face! (Yes, I’ve done that before.) But if I wrote something about you, and it still stood, and you asked me to repeat it to you, to your face, then, yup, that’ll happen.
Four: I should note that for my own self I don’t go out asking the people who say horrible things about me online to repeat them to my face. First, why would I willingly want to spend any time with people who say horrible things about me? I’m 47, man. More years behind than ahead. I endeavor to spend that time with people who actually like me. Second, in the cases where I am in the same space as they are for whatever reason, I generally try not to be the one determined to drop a turd in the punch bowl. Third, I don’t automatically assume that just because someone appears entirely jerky to me online, they will be the same way offline, because, again, most people understand context and are socialized, and who knows? Maybe we’ll get along otherwise. It’s happened before! Fourth, running around being an exposed nerve all the time is tiring. And fifth, generally speaking, people are entitled to their opinion of me, even if it’s not a nice one.
Five: This person who says he won’t associate with me rather proudly asserts his presentation is the same online or off. He seems to think this is a virtue, which is his right. I think it suggests an unsophisticated understanding of how people present themselves in the world, online and off, and how we tune ourselves for different contexts and different purposes. My online presentation, as I’ve noted numerous times, is a version of me tuned for performance — I’m usually telling you what I think, in a hopefully entertaining way. It’s me, but it’s me in a way designed for a specific declamatory purpose. If I used the same version of me in one-on-one conversation, it’d be fucking awful. The version of me for that context is tuned very differently — again, still me, but in a context that’s not all about me.
I have different modes: One for when I’m doing public events, one for when I’m at home with family, one for conversation with friends, one for meeting strangers one on one, one for when I’m collaborating with people on work, and so on. I don’t think this is a particular revelation for anyone, in no small part because I talk about it as a thing I do, but also because pretty much everyone does it; everyone presents differently in different circumstances. I suspect this fellow who maintains he’s the same online and offline is wrong about that, but if he’s not, then he’s a rare individual who perhaps should be studied by sociologists.
The larger point here is that it’s not (necessarily) insincere or bad if your presentation in one medium varies from your presentation in another. Certainly one can have a presentation of self that is false or hypocritical, or have such a wide variance between one presentation and the other that it gives the appearance of either (or both). But there’s a ways to go before you get to that point. I don’t tend to think my presentation in any circumstance is false, although I admit ego and self-interest keeps me from being a perfect observer of me (and sometimes I will willingly lie to people if I think it’s in my interest to do so. Hello, I’m a human and that means I’m complicated). But generally speaking, however I tune me ends up being me. I think this fellow who apparently doesn’t tune himself to circumstances may be making life unduly harder on himself.
Six: There certainly are people I wouldn’t associate with willingly but generally speaking I don’t make a public spectacle out of it. I just… don’t meet them. It’s a big world and one can do a pretty good job of avoiding people if one likes. One can even be at the same convention or in the same building or even at the same party and still do a good job of not spending time with people if one wants. Likewise, I have a (very) small list of people who, if they went out of their way to get into my face, I would tell them to fuck right off. The list is small because a) most people, like me, tend to avoid people they don’t want to associate with, b) my life is good and part of the reason it’s good is that generally I don’t let the assholes get to me. But it’s also small because, again, most people are reasonably socialized and can be polite to each other, even if they’re otherwise at odds. Civility! It can happen.
Seven: To sum up: I totally will in fact say to your face what I say online, but I’m also happy not to unless you decide to make a thing out of it. I suspect most people are that way, and that’s not a bad thing. Also, go ahead and avoid me if you must, I’m cool with that.
It’s been a busy week for new books and ARCs here at the Scalzi Compound — he’s another stack of fabulous titles from excellent authors. Which ones will you be adding to your own “To Be Read” list? Tell me us in the comments!
What happens when you stop doing what people expect of you, and start doing what you expect of yourself? Miriam Libicki knows, and she’s here to tell you in this Big Idea about her new book, Toward a Hot Jew.
Toward a Hot Jew is a collection of drawn essays, originally made as self-published zines over the course of ten years. “Drawn Essays” is my own term for a kind of nonfiction comic, where words and images are combined to make a point, but not always with panels, speech balloons, or direct transitions. As the title suggests, these essays look at culture, identity, and racial and gender roles through an American-Israeli-Canadian and very Jewy sensibility. Why did I make this book?
Like a lot of people, I discovered who I wanted to be by experiencing who I never wanted to be. And I started developing my true artistic voice by being immersed in the art I never wanted to make.
My first few months at art school, I thought I had reached the Promised Land. The kids in my painting class would hang out in the studios all night, layering glaze over glaze, bringing twice-life-size canvases to class worthy of renaissance masters (if renaissance masters ever painted themselves being eaten by dogs). I wanted to be a vessel for whatever these creatures could teach me.
My intro painting professor was even more awe-inspiring. She made tiny oil paintings on wood of impressionistically-rendered hurricanes, wildfires, and other natural disasters. I could stare at these paintings for hours. Then she invited us to the opening of her solo show in a downtown gallery. This was it! The Art World!
Half an hour into the opening, I wanted off The Art World forever. My professor had put up an artist’s statement at the entrance, which was nearly as big as all the paintings combined. It was about taking disasters and turning them into kitsch, how the paintings were an implication of our consumerist tendencies, a commentary on how humanity makes our own terror cute. Which was bullshit. Her paintings weren’t cute, and they certainly weren’t kitsch. They were BEAUTIFUL. She did convey the terror, and she clearly got pleasure out of how lovely her tiny paintings were. But apparently The Art World wouldn’t let her say so. She had to be cynically dismissive of her own skill, in favour of the grand anticapitalist statement.
If I had to choose between the art and the artist’s statement, I chose the art. And if low, commercial art was the place where I could sell my art to people without an adjacent statement permitting them to like it (I could put my actual thoughts in text, right in the artwork), I’d take the low road.
I started to let figures from my comix-fan sketchbooks into my paintings. I got comments during critiques like “narrative” and “decorative”, which were not compliments. In third year, I incorporated the memoir comic I was developing into a big tapestry-like graphite drawing, and got the worst crit of my life.
Classmates said they couldn’t even think about the figures because they had big feet and floating hair. Sticking up for me, a girl said, “the crazy thing is, Miriam can paint amazing realistic portraits.” I was flattered, but confused when people started discussing my art going “in two different directions,” with the implication that the comic stuff was the dumb side, unworthy of someone who could paint a skin tone. The question I was left with was, “You seem like such a smart girl. Why do you draw comics?”
I was attracted to comics because I’d always read them. Comics were accessible and egalitarian. I like the idea that the “original” of a comic book is the mass-printed copy, not some fetishized Mona Lisa under glass. I mused in my journal that night, “maybe if I were more skilled I could stick it out, and make everyone love comics in painted form. But maybe that’s not my job? After all, I keep claiming I like comics for their accessibility, and if cartoony pathos is just not accessible to my classmates, maybe I should take a different angle.”
I did take a different angle that semester. I took the people out of my star drawing, and turned it into a monumental triptych in oils. People liked that a lot better. But I just couldn’t stop comicking. Although I could learn from classical and conceptual art, being acceptable to my peers was not where my heart was at.
In senior year, I spent months making a drawn essay about the Israeli soldier as sex object. It was kind of my way to deal with how I still romanticized Israel, after having gone there, served in the army, had a terrible time, and moved to Canada. Dreading crit, I wrote in my journal, “It’s another one of these projects I seem to like to do, that are ambitious, very close to my heart and…… have an element of combativeness.”
That piece ended up being the title essay of my book, the one I’m supposed to be telling you about. I camouflaged its comicky nature. Though the essay comprised twelve pages, divisible by four like a proper zine, I didn’t bind it. I blew up the drawings at Kinko’s to 4×5 feet, and hung them around the classroom. Not a comic, an installation!
After my final senior crit, I wrote: “It was generally well received. Everyone thought the drawings were very beautiful. I know Canadians shy away from anything socially uncomfortable, and that was part of the reason I really wanted to make the drawings so attractive, to force people to read things they probably wouldn’t otherwise.”
That was, looking back, the final insight that allowed me to make this book, zine by zine, through marriage and kids and more school, over the next ten years. I don’t have to fit in in The Art World. I don’t have to fit in to The Comics Industry, either. I can make what I want, and if the subject is strange, accessibility can be achieved through proceeding with enough beauty, or humour, or pathos that any viewer can find something to hold onto. That’s my hope anyway.
Toward a Hot Jew is available via the Fantagraphics Web site.
Welcome to autumn, folks.*
* This welcome good only in the northern hemisphere.
Less than two weeks now until October 4, which is the day my audiobook novella The Dispatcher is released into the world, so today is a very fine day to reveal the audiobook cover. And here it is!
Pretty cool, yes? Who is that dude in the overcoat? Why is he looking at concrete? Does he just really like concrete? Who knows the answers? Well, I do, since I wrote the thing. And very soon now, you will have the answers as well. That is, if you download the audio to listen to. Did I mention that it’s narrated by Zachary Quinto? Well, it is, and just after it was recorded I got a note from the producer that said, essentially, ZOMG IT IS SOOO GOOD. Which I think is a positive response.
Oh, and also, this is where I remind you that until November 2, you can download The Dispatcher entirely for free (and you can pre-order now, so it will be ready for you on October 4). Why are we just giving this story away? Because we like you. Yes, you. And don’t you deserve a free audiobook from me, read by Zachary Quinto, from Audible, every once in a while? Sure you do.
(Also, you know. If you try this and like it, maybe you’ll check out some other audiobooks too, which is what Audible is all about. Heck, and maybe even some of those other audiobooks will be from me. So we do have a tiny bit of self-interest in there, too. Hope you don’t mind.)
I say this every time I talk about The Dispatcher, and it continues to be true: I’m really excited for you folks to listen to this story. I think it’s a really cool story, and the thought of Quinto reading it to you all just makes me squee like the nerd I am. I think you will, too. It’s going to be great.
Not long now!
In our living room we have a gas fireplace that is frankly dreadfully bad at all the things you might want a fireplace for, so after several years of having not used it at all, we decided it was time to finally just pull the thing out and replace it with an electric unit that would be more efficient and aesthetically pleasing. This would necessitate tearing up the wall to get it out, and redoing the carpet (because it would otherwise have bare spots where the fireplace used to be. So as long as we were going to have to do that anyway, we decided that now is the time to redo the whole damn room.
So: Here it is, the first day of the renovation, with (most of) the former carpet torn out and a big ol’ hole in the wall where they’re going to haul out the fireplace. After which we’ll patch up the wall and put up shelving and a wall mount for the TV and we’ll have a nice, cozy kinda-home theater setup. It’ll be great! When it’s done. Right now, well. It looks like my house is torn up. And it’s confusing the hell out of the cats. I guess we all make sacrifices. I will say I’m happy I woke up ridiculously early and hit my word quota for the day before the contractors arrived, because they are not the silent type.
In any event: This is what the next few days will be like around the Scalzi Compound. Whee!
J. LINCOLN FENN:
It’s a strange thing to write a story intended to creep people out, but it’s a stranger thing when your novel creeps you out, and the fine line between art imitating life seems to disappear altogether.
Dead Souls is a “Deal with the Devil” story, a trope that began in the 6th century with an unhappy cleric called Theophilus who sold his soul when someone got a promotion he sorely desired (jealous much?). It was a story that, zombie-like, would not die, and went on to inspire Christopher Marlowe’s The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Faust, Benét’s famous short story The Devil and Daniel Webster, heck, even the movie Tenacious D in The Pick of Destiny.
What intrigued me about such a well-worn tale was the way in which it paralleled a Buddhist idea called ‘klesha’, which is the way in which a negative thought can lead to negative actions, actions that then unravel your life in unexpected, and irrecoverable ways. The devil can’t just take a soul ad hoc—the protagonist has to create the opening through which the devil can enter.
In Theophilus’ case, it’s pure jealousy. In Dead Souls, Fiona Dunn suffers from anxiety and jealousy, a toxic klesha that makes her suspect her boyfriend is cheating on her, that leads her to a bar to drink her woes away, and settles her on a stool next to a man who claims to be the devil incarnate, Scratch. As an atheist and a career marketer who knows the many ways of manipulating human psyches, of course she doesn’t take him seriously. At least he’s a sympathetic listener. So when he offers her a trade—her soul in exchange for the power to be invisible so she can see what her boyfriend is really up to—I mean what the heck, why not? That Scratch also requires a favor (to be determined later) hardly seems to matter.
Of course it does.
She suffers the hangover of a lifetime when she wakes up the next day and finds that it is, unbelievably, all true, but at least she’s not alone—there’s a support group of fellow ‘dead souls’ who have also sold their souls on a whim, and they meet weekly in a bar converted from an old church. It’s an opportunity to commiserate, and speculate about which violent news items might actually be favors that the devil has called in. Drone strike that killed a family? Murder/suicide of a father and his three children? All possibilities, unnerving reminders that one day they’ll also have to give the devil his due.
After I submitted the manuscript, I watched the news footage following the November 15th Paris attacks that killed 128 people, and learned that a Frenchman whose wife had perished called the terrorists ‘dead souls’ on Facebook. The word choice gave me a shiver. Then came the 2016 shooting in an Orlando nightclub, which was similar to a favor that Scratch had called in. It began to feel like I had struck something a little too close, like that famous Nietzsche quote, “If you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you.”
Then I got a note from my agent saying that, having finished the book weeks ago, she still found herself unable to do [CAN’T TELL YOU, SPOILER] without feeling creeped out.
What the hell did I write?
It’s not that I think I literally conjured the devil—hypothetically if he did exist, there wouldn’t be much need for him to muck about with humanity since we’re quite capable of violence on our own. But it did make me examine my own kleshas, the doors in which hell, especially the kind we create, could enter. I found a smattering of anxiety, and jealousy, and much more than a smattering of fear.
Where did it come from? How much of it was created by a marketer like Fiona, and fostered by the advertising, and the algorithms, and the constant stream of ‘curated’ stories so we will buy, and vote, and see what someone else wants us to? And how often do we exchange a bit of our soul in the form of data, a trade that doesn’t seem like a trade at all because where that data goes, and what it’s used for, is never revealed? A deal that could come back to haunt us one day in unexpected, and potentially unpleasant, ways.
Maybe Shakespeare got it right when he wrote, “Hell is empty, and all the devils are here.” Maybe we should all be a little more creeped out than we are.
I went to Hawaii for a vacation and to be a guest at HawaiiCon, and when I came back these new books and ARCs were waiting to me. What looks good to you? Tell me in the comments!
Also, hello. I am back home. My cats missed me.
Thank you for a fabulous time. Back now to the real world.
It’s a little breezy this morning.
Otherwise it’s been lovely here on the big island. Today the the last full day I’ll be in Hawaii; tomorrow it’s back on a plane and flying against the time zones, so won’t be arriving in Ohio until Tuesday. Will be sad to leave but glad to see family and pets.
Aaaand that’s all I have for you today. See you all again in a couple of days.
I’m posting this relatively late because I’m in Hawaii (where in fact it’s not that late at all): Today is the 18th anniversary of the first Whatever entry, back in the now far-gone year of 1998. My blog is now a legal adult in the United States and can vote (and if it could vote, would definitely not be voting for Donald Trump this year). As I often am on this date, I’m amazed that I have kept on doing the blog; eighteen years is a long time to be doing anything, much less writing more or less daily in a public fashion.
It’s an interesting time to be doing a blog, still, because I think it’s safe to declare the Age of Blogging well and truly over, inasmuch as personal blogging as been superseded in nearly every way by social media, including Twitter (my favorite), Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat and so on and so forth. I’m not planning on mourning blogs in general — as a phenomenon they had their moment and it was a relatively good one — but it is interesting to watch the blog tide recede, with just a few die-hards left to do them old-school, like I do.
Again, as I note every year, at the moment I have no plan to stop writing here, although this year in particular I have been writing less here as I have been wrestling with a pair of books for Tor, including the upcoming novel The Collapsing Empire. The books have been giving me fits and have been taking much longer than I expected (on the other hand, I’m having a hell of a lot of fun with TCE in particular, so the wrestling is worth it), and the result here has been relatively fewer posts, and a larger ratio of cat pics and sunsets. I think that’s okay. When I have been writing longform here this year, it’s been good; as good as it has ever been.
Which is why I keep at it. As much as I love Twitter (and tolerate Facebook), at the end of the day I want to say what I want to say, at whatever length I want to say it. The blog was, is and is likely to continue to be the best way to do that. I’m happy I’ve kept it up. I’m going to be keeping up for a while longer.
Today also marks another milestone in the history of Whatever: 10 years ago today I posted the infamous Bacon Cat post, in which I taped bacon to my cat and the Internet went entirely nuts for it. Today the Bacon Cat incident seems almost quaint, and would be good for a momentary trending hashtag at best,. But ten years ago apparently no one had thought to combine cats and bacon on the Internet before, and I was the beneficiary of this brave new combination, and my cat Ghlaghghee was, briefly, the most famous cat online.
Not that she cared; she was a cat. But I had fun with it. It was a moment in time, and I’m glad it was there, and glad the now-departed Ghlaghghee still shows up whenever people Google the terms “bacon” and “cat” together. Internet fame: Both temporary and forever.
Looks like it’s going to be another pretty decent day in paradise.
Hope you’re all doing fine. I’ve got a chapter to write, and then, you know. Hawaiian things to do.
I’m in Hawaii! Which is good. I still have daily word count to hit, however, which is while bad is not great. On the other hand, this is where I get to do my daily words while I’m here, which is pretty great.
Back to it for me.
Hey, I’m mostly gonna be out this next week. I might pop in briefly on the 13th (on account it’ll be the 18th anniversary of Whatever), but otherwise don’t expect too much; I’m planning to be mostly offline. I expect you’ll be fine without me.
See you later!
Some very fine books and authors in this week’s stack of books and ARCs. See something here that is begging for your reading attention? Tell us about it in the comments!