I thought a cat picture would spice up an otherwise fairly pedestrian announcement.
In any event: If you’ve not yet heard back from me re: an August Big Idea slot, they’re all filled up. Sorry.
On to September!
I thought a cat picture would spice up an otherwise fairly pedestrian announcement.
In any event: If you’ve not yet heard back from me re: an August Big Idea slot, they’re all filled up. Sorry.
On to September!
Once again I have lost control of my office in terms of clutter, and once again Krissy has kicked me out of the office so she can
set a flame thrower to it go through and declutter for me because my own personal definition of “declutter” is “shove things toward walls and then add more stuff.” I’m currently downstairs in the front room on one of the laptops; upstairs there is thumping as things get shoved into boxes.
I’m presenting this humorously, because it is kind of funny, but I should also note how genuinely grateful I am that Krissy is willing to do this stuff for me on occasion, because I am legitimately terrible at it. And in point of fact over time the clutter in my office has a detrimental effect on my ability to work. I feel cramped and crabby. This is no good when, for example, I am on a book deadline. That I can go to Krissy and say “Heeeeeeeelp meeeeeeeee” and then she goes in and does is one reason you all get books on a reasonable schedule.
So all hail Krissy, Slayer of Unmanageable Offices. For this among so many other reasons, I would not be where I am without her.
For your delight, this last weekend of July: A stack of new books and ARCs. Is there anything here that would make it to your own “must read” stack? Tell us in the comments!
Some various thoughts on where things are today:
1. Hooray for senators Murkowski and Collins and McCain, and also every single Democratic senator for knocking back this bullshit that was so egregious that they literally had to take the vote in the middle of the night because it couldn’t stand up to scrutiny in the light of day. The fact that 49 GOP senators voted for a bill that they knew was trash is depressing, but, horseshoes and handgrenades.
And yes, I know that there’s a good chance that some of them voted “yes” because they were confident that an 80-year-old man with cancer not long for his job would give them cover against frothy primary voters back home, but there’s only so far that sort of thing goes. Rob Portman, the Republican senator from Ohio, isn’t up for re-election until 2022. “Primary cover” isn’t a thing he needs at the moment.
(His excuse: He wanted it to go into committee with the House GOP. Uh-huh. This would be the same House GOP that passed a bill so awful that the Senate wouldn’t touch it. This is the group they were hoping to punt to, in order to come up with something better. Yeah, okay.)
2. I’m especially pleased that this is an only-barely-metaphorical kick in the nuts to Mitch McConnell, who basically flouted every lawmaking convention the Senate has in order to present a series of top-down, heartless “let’s repeal Obamacare because fuck that dude” bills, only to have them stuffed back in his face with every vote. In his rush to eradicate the major policy achievement of a black man, McConnell did appear to forget that the ACA does, in fact, help millions of Americans, including Republicans, have insurance, and helps the rest of us with that whole “no more of that pre-existing conditions or payment caps bullshit” thing it has going. McConnell didn’t give a shit about his constituents, or Americans in general with this. He just wanted the win, to have a win and to kick at a man who isn’t in politics anymore. He got what he deserved with this monumental and serial defeat.
(“But how is what McConnell did any different than how the ACA was passed in the first place?” Well, for starters, there’s a difference between an entire political party actively deciding not to participate in the crafting of legislation, as is what basically happened with the ACA, and the senate GOP deciding not to involve the Democrats, or indeed, most of the members of its own caucus, as happened with the Senate repeal bills. There’s more, but let’s move on, shall we.)
3. And no, I don’t expect this to be the end of it. On a practical level, the GOP wanted to gut the ACA because it would make it easier to get its upcoming budget deal done. On the impractical level, Trump loathes Obama and anything to do with him, not only because Trump’s a bigot but because every day he’s in office makes it clearer how much better a president Obama was than he is. McConnell also hates Obama for being Obama, and Paul Ryan just wants to destroy the social net for the old and sick because he’s an awful inhuman bucket of turds. They’re going to find their way back to the ACA even if the vast majority of Americans want them to leave it alone or — heck! — maybe even make it work better. They can’t leave it alone. They are constitutionally unable to. I’m happy this round of nonsense has been beaten back, but I’m not under the illusion they won’t try again. They will try again.
4. All of this nonsense does again bring to the fore a thing we already knew about the current GOP, which is that it isn’t for anything, other than shoving as much of America’s wealth as it can into the hands of the very rich. For the last eight years, its major policy theme was “whatever Obama wants, we’re against,” and now that it is in power, its major policy theme is “Whatever Obama did, we’ll repeal.” The problem they’re running into, as this dundersplat of a vote shows us, is that Obama’s policies did actually make people’s lives better, and also that sooner or later “not that” has to be replaced by something.
There was no there to the GOP’s proposals — nothing that would do what Trump and they promised, which was to make health care better. There wasn’t a single proposal the GOP offered that didn’t involve millions of people losing insurance, Medicaid being slashed and costs climbing for everyone else, and all but the “skinny repeal” basically were stalking horses for wealth transfer and setting the social net on fire. It’s not in the least surprising that at the end of the day, the excuses the Senate GOP gave for fronting these atrocious bills were “Look, we said we were going to repeal it” and “We know we’re going to pass a horrible shit bill but maybe the House GOP will save us from ourselves.”
I’m not going to say that there’s nothing in the GOP and/or Trump administration’s policy portfolio that isn’t explicitly about making the rich richer or just rolling back Obama policies without regard to the sensibility of those policies, but I have to admit right off the top of my head I can’t think of all that many, and even the ones that I theoretically would be before (infrastructure, rural broadband) I simply don’t trust Trump or the GOP to do without basically devolving them into a crony feed.
5. On a personal note, here’s a true fact, which is that the last week has been shit for my productivity because I’ve been waiting for the Senate to basically take health care away from a whole bunch of my friends, who as creative people buy their insurance policies on the individual market and who would (depending on which version of this bullshit passed) been priced out of insurance, would have had to deal with pre-existing conditions or policy caps coming up again, or would have found it impossible to find an insurer. And not only creative people, I will add. I live in an area where a number of my neighbors are farmers or independent contractors (truck drivers, etc). They would go onto the repeal trash pile as well. It’s hard to focus on writing when your friends are talking about how losing their insurance, or, having pre-existing conditions or caps reintroduced, might kill them.
“Oh, well, that’s melodramatic.” Fuck you, it’s not. Not having the “right” job (i.e., a job with a company large enough to have a decent-sized risk pool), or losing a job, should not come with the increased risk of death or incapacitation or bankruptcy due to medical needs our fucked-up system has decided to price out of range of normal humans’ ability to pay. The only reason I wouldn’t be in the same boat as my other creative, self-employed friends had the ACA cratered is my wife’s 9-to-5, benefits-paying job — and even then ditching the ACA would have still had an impact on us due to caps and pre-existing conditions.
6. Here’s something that is possibly melodramatic, also involving me: If any of these bullshit senate health care bills had passed, it might have made a difference regarding whether you’d get my next book on time. Not just because I’d be worrying about health care for all my pals (and my family, to a lesser but real extent). It would also be because Mitch McConnell would have learned that creating bills in a back room, filling them with completely punitive bullshit and not showing them to anyone yet still expecting his caucus to vote straight-line for them is a thing that works. I mean, shit. It came within one vote of working this time; had McCain not decided to do his maverick shtick one more time for shits and giggles, McConnell would right this moment be planning to do up his tax bill entirely in a back room with him and maybe five or six special friends. We already have an executive branch with an alignment of “chaotic authoritarian”; the last thing we need is a functionally authoritarian branch of government to go with the incompetent authoritarian branch we already have.
I’m less than 100% inclined to give McCain too much credit for his downvote — he could have nipped all this shit in the bud earlier in the week, and in any event his modus operandi to date has been “talk like a maverick, vote the party line,” and I think there was more than a whiff of personal aggrandizement going on. Depending on his cancer treatment, McCain may not ever come back to the Senate, and McCain wanted a dramatic moment for the movie of his life, when Tom Cruise finally wins the Oscar on the strength of his portrayal of McCain’s “thumbs down” moment. But to the extent that he excoriated McConnell’s bullshit process to produce these bills and then voted down the bills produced by this bullshit process, good on him. That may have been even more important in the long run than the particular vote, and the particular vote was extraordinarily important.
If McConnell’s authoritarian gambit had worked, he would have known he could continue to get away with it for everything — and he would have kept at it. And that’s not something I could have just tuned out. I’ve been having a hard enough time concentrating as it is. It’s hard to write about the future when the present is on fire. If I can get a nice stretch of time where I’m not worrying about a non-trivial percentage of the people I know freaking out about whether lack of insurance is going to kill them or a family member, I can focus on, you know. Actual work.
Yes, in fact, that’s the secret to getting work out of me: A functioning, democratic government that isn’t actively trying to screw over a whole bunch of people I know and care about. Who knew?
Congratulations! Your book was a success! Now do that trick a second time! In discussing Killing is My Business, author Adam Christopher talks about doing the thing that you did so well all over again — but different this time.
You know how it goes, the difficult second album: a band spends years meticulously crafting a collection of songs, polishing them through endless live sets until they shine, and these songs form their incandescent debut album.
Then they need to produce the follow-up and essentially come up with an entirely new repertoire on demand. That second album can be a difficult one indeed.
Now, I didn’t spend years crafting the Ray Electromatic Mysteries – Made to Kill, the first full-length novel after the Tor.com novelette Brisk Money, came out in 2015 and was something like my seventh published novel – but somehow the series has a certain kind of weight, just like that debut album of your favourite band. I think it’s because that original big idea was very big indeed – I was writing Raymond Chandler’s lost science fiction epics, a series about a robot assassin working in Chandler’s near-future Hollywood of 1965. That idea sprang from Chandler’s own letter to his agent in 1953, in which he complained about sci-fi, saying “people pay brisk money for this crap?” Clearly, this was a front, the famed hardboiled author conducting a fishing expedition, seeing if his agent would bite.
Sixty years later, I wrote a story named for Chandler’s letter – Brisk Money. The idea was everything – a whole world was open to me, enough not just for a novelette but for a trilogy of hardboiled novels and another in-between novella, Standard Hollywood Depravity – the title, again, taken from Chandler’s letters.
So far, so good. Made to Kill was a blast to write.
And then came book two.
I wouldn’t call it a sophomore slump. Far from it. The three novels were pitched together, right from the start, so I knew what I was doing and where the books were going. But there was one thing in back of my mind while I was working on what became the second novel, Killing Is My Business.
What would Raymond Chandler do?
That mantra, in essence, became the big idea of the book.
The concept of the Ray Electromatic Mysteries is simple: the robot revolution came and went in the 1950s, and Ray is the last robot left in the world, designed to be a private eye working in Hollywood. The only snag to this is that his supercomputer boss, Ada, was programmed to make a profit – and she quickly figured out you could make more money by killing people than finding them. A little tinkering with Ray’s CPU and Ada turns him into an accomplished hit-robot.
Simple enough, and, importantly, an open-ended concept. You could write a hundred stories about a hitman.
Which was actually the problem – because while I could easily write endless hardboiled, noir-ish stories set in Chandler’s seedy LA underbelly, a world full of wiseguys and dames and crooked cops and the mob, that’s nothing that hasn’t been seen before a thousand times. Hell, that’s basically Chandler’s oeuvre and people have been calling him a genius or a hack for the last seventy-plus years.
No, what I had to do was to write science fiction. There was no point in Ray being a robot if that wasn’t vital to the story. Ray had to be the central player in the trilogy – he’s unique, literally, and that has to drive the story arc that stretches across all three books.
So: what would Raymond Chandler do?
More specifically, what would Raymond Chandler do… with a robot?
In Killing Is My Business, Ray’s unique character is used to rather unsubtle effect when he uses his virtually indestructible chassis to protect a mob boss from a drive-by shooting, literally placing himself between the crime lord and his would-be executioners. This is something that only Ray could do. It’s a key scene, the first piece of the story that I had thought of.
And it was also a scene that I knew had to happen – if Ray is a robot then being a robot is the story. With that thought foremost in mind, I could write book two and I could make sure the series as a whole is more than just a set of pastiche crime novels, it was something original.
Now, if he only Ray Electromatic knew what I torment I had in store for him in book three…
Leaving aside everything else that is wrong and immoral about this proposed ban, at the moment there are something like 11,000 trans people currently serving openly in the US services and reserves. They are there legally, and it is currently their right to serve openly. Trump’s ban, at first glance, appears to take away their right to serve their country, and takes away their jobs, their incomes, their benefits for themselves and their families — for no other reason than something which yesterday was not illegal nor an impediment to serving their country with passion and distinction.
Make no mistake: Trump is affirmatively and explicitly taking away a right from American citizens, a right they already had and enjoyed. This is a big right: The right to serve in one’s military openly, without fear of punishment for who you are.
If Trump will take away one right from Americans, he’s not going to have a problem taking away other rights as well. Why would he? Trump is the living embodiment of “If you give a mouse a cookie” — if he gets away with one thing, he’ll go ahead and try to get away with something else. He’s already trying, of course.
I don’t think it will come as a surprise to anyone that I support the right of transgender people to serve openly in the military, a thing they already have done, any more than it will come as a surprise that I support the rights of transgender people generally. But as important as it is for me to explicitly say I support transgender rights, I think it’s also worth asking people who oppose these rights, or other rights enjoyed by people not exactly like them, whether they are comfortable taking away fundamental rights these American citizens already have — and if so, what leads them to believe that their own rights, rights they already enjoy, are not also placed in jeopardy by that precedent.
If the answer boils down to “well, that will never happen to me,” as it inevitably will, it’s worth examining why they think they will forever be immune. The answer will be instructive for everyone.
And also, they’re wrong. If you can take away an existing right of an American simply because of who they are, then you can take away a right of any American simply because of who they are — or what they are, or where their ancestors came from, or what they believe, and so on.
I said on Twitter this morning, “Today, as has almost every day in this administration, offers each us of a chance to understand the dimensions our own moral character.” And so it does. And so it will, every day, I expect, until it is done.
Coke announced today that it’s rebranding Coke Zero to “Coke Zero Sugar”:
Coca-Cola Zero Sugar is the new and improved Coke Zero. We’ve made the great taste of Coke Zero even better by optimizing the unique blend of flavors that gave Coke Zero its real Coca-Cola taste. Coca-Cola Zero Sugar is our best-tasting zero-sugar Coca-Cola yet, and it will be available across America in August.
Basically, it’s the same new formula it’s been introducing in foreign markets as “Coke No Sugar” but Coke is keeping the “Zero” branding here because it’s been successful and they don’t want to confuse us poor Americans any more than we already are in these trying times. Or something.
As I noted previously (see the second link, there), I am perfectly fine with Coke attempting this revamp — by all reviews I’ve seen the “Zero Sugar” version tastes more like standard Coke than Coke Zero, and since “actually tasting like regular Coke” is why I drink Coke Zero in the first place (Diet Coke shares its flavor profile with the late, unlamented New Coke), I’ll willing to give this new version a shot. If it turns out I hate it, well. I guess then that August 2017 will be a fine time for me to drastically cut down my soda drinking. I suspect I’ll probably continue calling the new stuff “Coke Zero” rather than “Coke Zero Sugar,” because it’s two fewer syllables and I’m all about efficiency.
So in effect, I think that this is less like Coke Zero dying than it is Coke Zero regenerating, timelord-like, into its next iteration. And I suspect I will remain its constant companion.
Monsters are monsters, but do they always have to be so… monstrous? Vivian Shaw considers the fundamental nature of these terrible creatures in Strange Practice, and how she came to look at them from another angle entirely.
What’s my big idea?
The facile answer is, of course, sensible monsters. An idea which doesn’t seem to have found a great deal of traction thus far in any genre, classic or contemporary, and so offers a wide-open opportunity to play with readers’ expectations — but the real underlying answer goes back a lot further than that. It has to do with the contrast between ordinary and extraordinary, and what that means in terms of storytelling.
I’ve been writing novellas and novels of varying quality since I was about ten or eleven, but I did National Novel Writing Month for the first time in 2004, right after spending a lot of time on urbex websites, and the big idea behind that first NaNo was how many characters from classic vampire lit can I get into one story while exploring the weird and wonderful subterranean world of London? The answer turned out to be between five and eight. That first draft featured not only Lord Ruthven and Sir Francis Varney, but also Dracula and Carmilla (only spelling herself Mircalla, because vampires and spelling are such a thing). On the human side I had Greta, descended from Van Helsing, and August Cranswell, descended from the family that put paid to the vampire of Croglin Grange.
I decided to put vampires in the NaNo novel because I’ve always been fond of them — even as a kid I loved reading the classics, even if I had to stop every now and then to look up the words. The way in which the Western vampire mythos evolved from age to age, gathering often-contradictory detail with each well-known story added to its canon, fascinated me. But in all the stories, all the retellings, I couldn’t get away from the fact that most of the vampires did really stupid things. Their behavior was practically designed to attract the attention of the pitchfork-and-flaming-torch brigade, and just for once I wanted to read about vampires who just got on with it — vampires who were monsters, yes, but also people. Vampires who didn’t have to have geographically unplaceable accents and go swanning around in evening dress all the time for no reason. Vampires who didn’t need to be hypersexualized edgelords in leather trousers, or spend all their time moping about their cursed eternal fate, woe. Vampires who’d rather write nasty letters to the Times than tear throats out (unless the latter was really necessary), and who used their powers to watch over the city and stop other monsters ruining everything. Vampires who were sensible.
And because I wanted to read it, I had to write it first.
That book was called The Underglow, and it sat around on various hard drives for a decade while I borrowed characters from it and played with them, letting them evolve into much more nuanced and interesting individuals. In 2014 I dusted the book off again, looked at it properly, and determined it would need to be stripped to the skeleton and rewritten almost from scratch.
And this time the big idea wasn’t about cramming in as many recognizable characters as I could shoehorn into a plot, nor was it limited to vampires alone. This time it was about the individuals themselves — a more diverse cast, given more opportunity to shine — and what it actually meant to them to be what they were, extraordinary creatures in an ordinary world. I didn’t just have sensible vampires. I had sensible were-creatures, and mummies, and ghouls, banshees, bogeymen, a whole spectrum of monsters to play with, a richer world to explore.
It was this second iteration of the book that would end up becoming a series starring Greta as the central character, set in this peculiarly overlapping supernatural-adjacent world. With my editor’s help, I continued to refine the text into something that explored that particular aspect of storytelling: both the contrast between the ancient monsters and the modern day, and the fascinating difficulties encountered by people who necessarily spent their time in the liminal space of that boundary between natural and supernatural. What their experience would be, as creatures who had to coexist either covertly or overtly with ordinary humans, keeping their natures as quiet as possible — and what it might be like as a human to witness that experience, and to take on the responsibility of offering care across species boundaries. What kind of person would you have to be, to do a job like that?
Without really intending to, all those years ago in the throes of NaNo, I’d done myself an extraordinary favor in inventing the character of Greta Helsing. In the previous version, Greta was much less important a character; in this one, I could take much more advantage of her highly specialized role to portray those monsters as her patients, people she cared for, whatever sort of creature they might be, and what that meant to her. As a human physician to the supernatural, she necessarily encounters an enormous variety of complaints, and so I get to write about so many fascinating problems seen both from the human and the clinical standpoint. It gives me endless pleasure to apply scientific protocol to the realms of the unreal — there’s the contrast thing again, ordinary and extraordinary balancing each other — and I love writing about listserv arguments over the relative merits of different embalming fluids in zombie tissue stabilization, or the practice of creating perfect bone replacements for mummies via 3-D printing from a laser scan.
So it’s contrast, and it’s the experience of that contrast, of being a stranger in a strange land, that really drives the book (and, in fact, the series). The concept of found family echoes throughout, as well — it’s a natural consequence of the transposition of individual and environment, and one of my favorites.
But if, in the end, all you take away from Strange Practice is sensible monsters…I’m gonna be well-pleased with the work of my hands.
It’s pretty. My luck in excellent covers continues.
And you’ll get the book in April!
Teleportation: A great idea, but with some practical… problems. It’s a physics thing. In this Big Idea for The Punch Escrow, author Tal M. Klein wonders, what if you could solve those problems, not with physics, but with another branch of human intellectual endeavor entirely?
TAL M. KLEIN:
F#*%ing transporters, how do they work?
It was the Ides of March of 2012. I had just started a new job and was chatting with a co-worker about lens flare. Specifically, I was ranting about J.J. Abrams’ penchant for gratuitous lens flare, using the Star Trek reboot as an example, when all of a sudden the conversation was interrupted by our CEO.
“It’s bullshit!” he shouted.
(He wasn’t talking about the lens flare.)
Our CEO wielded a PhD in Computer Science and was using it to fight with Star Trek, or more specifically its transporters. He went on to monologue about Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, explaining that the position and the velocity of an object couldn’t both be measured exactly, at the same time, even in theory, and in the highly improbable likelihood that somehow someone did manage to circumvent the uncertainty principle, they’d still have to contend with the no-cloning theorem, which stated that it was impossible to create an identical copy of any unknown quantum state.
Here is what I heard: “Teleportation is impossible because physics.”
Now let’s be clear, I’m not a scientist. What I am is a product man. I build and market technology products for a living. Having bet my career on startups, my brain senses opportunity where others see impossibility. In fact, whenever anyone tells me I can’t do something, my mind automatically appends a “yet” to the end of their statement.
My favorite author growing up was Larry Niven. This fact is germane here because the first thing that came to mind during the CEO’s aforementioned monologue was a Niven essay entitled Exercise in Speculation: The Theory and Practice of Teleportation, part of a collection called All The Myriad Ways. Niven’s spiel on teleportation explored the pros and cons of the myriad ways (see what I did there) we might achieve commercialized human teleportation. The science was interesting, but what I remembered latching on to as a kid was his take on the anthropological impact of teleportation.
Niven’s itch was akin to what angered my CEO: If we discount for Star Trek’s technobabble and defer to actual physics, then every time Scotty teleported Captain Kirk he was actually killing him in one place and “printing him out” somewhere else.
This destructive teleportation variant of the twin maker trope has been explored almost ad nauseum. Though there are several good stories and movies that address the existential problems teleportation could introduce should it ever become a viable transportation mechanism, none have adequately presented a marketable solution to that problem — at least none that might pass muster with an anthropologist.
How come nobody ever discussed how society might come to adopt teleportation in the first place, I wondered. Science fiction seemed to lack a scientifically plausible teleportation mechanism that could be deemed safe enough to commercialize in the near future.
So, I decided to solve the teleportation problem — with marketing!
In my day job as a chief marketing officer, when I’m asked to play out this kind of go-to-market strategy problem, I use a game theory methodology known as Wardley mapping; an augmentation of value chain mapping. The “product” came in the form of the Punch Escrow. It’s the MacGuffin that makes teleportation safe and thus both scientifically and anthropologically plausible. The value of mapping in predicting the future is based in pragmatism. If we can assess what components of tech will become commoditized in society, we can envision innovations that build on those commodities in alignment with basic needs, making their commercialization more plausible.
Consulting with a real life quantum physicist, I used the Wardley mapping approach to understand the teleportation problem and then solve for it: When someone teleports, the Punch Escrow is a chamber in which the they are held — in escrow — until they safely arrive at their final destination. That way if anything goes wrong during teleportation, the “conductor” could just cancel the trip and the traveler would safely walk out at the point of origin as if nothing happened.
But how does one market this scenario given the very obvious twin maker issue?
A capitalist society will always want to get from point A to point B faster and on-demand. I don’t think anyone would argue that safe teleportation is a highly desirable mode of transport. The Punch Escrow makes it possible, and International Transport (the company behind commercial teleportation in the 22nd century) effectively brands it as “safe.” To wit, critics of early steam locomotives avowed that the human body was not meant to move faster than fifty miles an hour. Intelligent people with impeccable credentials worried that female passengers’ uteruses might be ejected from their bodies as trains accelerated! Others suspected that a human body might simply melt at such speeds. You know what? It didn’t matter. People wanted to get from point A to point B faster, train tycoons marketed to that desire with implied underpinnings of safety, and trains took off.
Just as locomotives didn’t transform our world into a dystopia, it stands to reason teleportation won’t either. Yes, people die in train accidents (not because their organs fly out of their orifices, I should add), but the benefit is anthropologically perceived as greater than the risk. Same goes with commercial flight. Of course you’ve heard the axiom, “If God had meant man to fly…” — that didn’t seem to stop droves of us from squeezing into small flying metal tubes in the sky. Today, we face similar fears with autonomous vehicles, but I’m certain that the marketers will calm our nerves. I believe within a generation the notion of manual driving will seem as esoteric a means of getting around as a horse and carriage. Maybe the same will be said of teleportation a century from now?
It begins thusly:
The new bed:
Which you may think looks quite a lot like the old bed, and you wouldn’t be wrong, in the sense that we did not swap out the headboard or bed frame. But those of you who are sharply observant and/or are creepy creepers might note the mattress is taller than it used to be. That’s because instead of a box spring underneath we now have a frame that raises and lowers the head and foot of the mattress when desired. That’s right, no longer do we have to sit up in bed on our own! Our bed can do it for us! Surely we live in miraculous times.
It was time to get a new mattress in any event. The last time we purchased one for this bed was 11 years ago, and it had gotten to the point where the “memory foam” had lost its memory entirely and both Krissy and I were getting backaches out of it. Once at the store and finding a mattress we liked, we decided to splurge a bit and get the motorized frame. If nothing else it will make everything weird for the cats. Which is its own benefit. Also, if it turns out that elevating the head of the mattress makes it easier to type, I may finally go full Grandpa Joe and never leave the bed at all. Note to self: Check Amazon for bedpans.
(Additional note to self: Really, don’t.)
And I got some saucy tweets out of it! Which, you know. Is its own reward.
First: Which Beatles song was I thinking of? If you want to hear me sing it, here it is:
If you’d rather hear the Beatles sing it (which, to be fair, is probably the better choice) it’s here:
And for those of you who don’t wish to hear either version (or can’t, for whatever reason): It’s “I’ve Just Seen a Face.”
There were three of you who correctly picked the tune I was thinking of, and of the three, my random number generator (“Alexa, pick a number between one and three”) picked “one” and so the winner is Maudie, who was the first to suggest it. Congratulations, Maudie!
Remember that the signed limited hardcover of Don’t Live For Your Obituary is now available for pre-order from Subterranean Press. There will also be an eBook edition, but it’s not available for pre-order yet.
Thank you to everyone who entered! This was a fun one.
As part of my continuing effort to justify the Adobe Creative Cloud subscription I have, I’ve been playing with my Audition audio software and learning how to use it. Today I learned how to make a multitrack file! Go me. I also played with the various filters in the software to distort and shape sounds.
All of which is to say I recorded a song today and it is very very noisy indeed. It’s “Here Comes the Rain Again,” which is my favorite song from the Eurythmics. Here it is (and no, it’s not actually nine minutes long, I don’t know why the media player says that. It’s, like, five):
Yes, that’s me singing. No, Annie Lennox doesn’t have a thing to worry about.
In case you’re curious, every noise on that track either comes out of me, or out of an acoustic tenor guitar. Audio filters are fun! Let’s just say I let my Thurston out to play, and if you get that reference, congratulations, you’re old too.
No, I’m not giving up my day job. Relax. But I do enjoy playing with sounds. This is fun for me.
In any event: Enjoy the noise.
Because sometimes it’s fun to play with Photoshop’s sliders and see what you come up with. This is what happens (in part) when you push the “dehaze” slider all the way to the right. The real sunset didn’t look like this (it looked like this), but I think it might be cool to live on a planet where the sunset did look like that, every once in a while.
Enjoy the weekend, folks.
As we ease on into another summer weekend, here are the new books and ARCs that have come to the Scalzi Compound this week. What do you like here? Share your feelings in the comments!
Here’s Sugar curling up with a good book, in this case the ARC of Don’t Live For Your Obituary, my upcoming collection of essays about writing and the writing life, which comes out in December from Subterranean Press. And you can win it! Here’s how:
Tell me in the comments which Beatles song I am thinking of right now.
The person who correctly guesses which Beatles song I am thinking of wins. In the case where more than one person correctly guesses, I will number the correct guesses in order of appearance and then use a random number generator to select the winner among them.
“Beatles song” in this case means a song recorded by the Beatles, and includes both original songs by the band, and the cover songs they recorded. Solo work does not count. Here’s a list of songs recorded by the Beatles, if you need it. The song I’m thinking of is on it.
Guess only one song. Posts with more than one guess will have only the first song considered. Posts not related to guessing a song will be deleted. Also, only one post per person — additional posts will be deleted.
This contest is open to everyone everywhere in the world, and runs until the comments here automatically shut off (which will be around 3:50pm Eastern time, Sunday, July 23rd). When you post a comment, leave a legit email address in the “email” field so I can contact you. I’ll also announce the winner here on Monday, July 24. I’ll mail the ARC to you, signed (and personalized, if so requested).
Kitten not included.
Also remember you can pre-order the hardcover edition of Obit from Subterranean Press. This is a signed, limited edition — there are only 1,000 being made — and they’ve already had a healthy number of pre-orders. So don’t wait if you want one.
Now: Guess which Beatles song I am thinking of! And good luck!
So, on July 21, 1997, which was a Monday, I posted the following on the alt.society.generation-x newsgroup:
Thought y’all might like to know. I’m happy, pleased, tired.
96,098 words, cranked out in a little under three months, working
mostly on weekends, grinding out 5,000 words at a sitting.
Learned two things:
a) I *can* carry a story over such a long stretch;
b) like most things on the planet, thinking about doing it is a lot
worse than simply sitting down and doing it. The writing wasn’t hard
to do, you just need to plant ass in seat and go from there.
I did find it helped not to make my first novel a gut-wrenching
personal story, if you know what I mean. Instead I just tried to write
the sort of science fiction story I would like to read. It was fun.
Now I go in to tinker and fine tune. Will soon have it ready for beta
testing. Be afraid. Be very afraid.
That novel? Agent to the Stars. Which means that today is the 20th anniversary of me being a novelist. Being a published novelist would have to wait — I date that to January 1, 2005, the official publication date of Old Man’s War — but in terms of having written a full, complete (and as it eventually turned out, publishable) novel: Today’s the day.
I’ve recounted the story of Agent before but it’s fun to tell, because I think it’s a nice antidote to the “I just had to share the story I’d been dreaming of my whole life” angle first novels often take. The gist of the story was that my 10-year high school reunion was on the horizon, and having been “the writer dude” in my class, I knew I would be asked if I had ever gotten around to writing a novel, and I wanted to be able to say “yes.” Also, I was then in my late 20s and it was time to find out whether I could actually write one or not.
Having decided I was going to write one, I decided to make it easy for myself, mostly by not trying to do all things at once. The goal was simply: Write a novel-length story. The story itself was going to be pretty simple and not personally consequential; it wasn’t going to be a thinly-disguised roman a clef, or something with a serious and/or personal theme. It would involve Hollywood in some way, because I had spent years as a film critic and knew that world well enough to write about it. And as for genre, I was most familiar with mystery/crime fiction and science fiction/fantasy, so I flipped a coin to decide which to do. It come up heads, so science fiction it was, and the story I had for that was: Aliens come and decide to get Hollywood representation.
(I don’t remember the story I was thinking for the mystery version. I’m sure death was involved. And for those about to say “well, you didn’t have to stick with science fiction for your second book,” that’s technically correct, but once I’d written one science fiction novel, I knew I could write science fiction. It was easier to stick with what I knew. And anyway I write murder mysteries now — Lock In and the upcoming Head On. They also happen to be science fiction.)
I remember the writing of Agent being pretty easy, in no small part, I’m sure, because of everything noted above — it wasn’t meant to be weighty or serious or even good, merely novel-length. When I finished it, I do remember thinking something along the lines of “Huh. That wasn’t so bad. Maybe I should have done this earlier.” In the fullness of time, I’ve realized that I probably couldn’t have done it any earlier, I wasn’t focused enough and it helped me to have some sort of external motivation, in this case, my high school reunion.
Once finished, I asked two friends and co-workers at America Online to read the book: Regan Avery and Stephen Bennett, both of whom I knew loved science fiction, and both of whom I knew I could trust to tell me if what I’d written was crap. They both gave it a thumbs up. Then I showed it to Krissy, my wife, who was apprehensive about reading it, since if she hated it she would have to tell me, and would still have to be married to me afterward. When she finished it, the first thing she said to me about it was “Thank Christ it’s good.” Domestic felicity lived for another day.
And then, having written it… I did nothing with it for two years. Because, again, it wasn’t written for any other reason than to see if I could write a novel. It was practice. People other than Regan and Stephen and Krissy finally saw it in 1999 when I decided that the then brand-new Scalzi.com site could use some content, so I put it up here as a “shareware” novel, meaning that if people liked it they could send me a dollar for it through the mail. And people did! Which was nice.
It was finally physically published in 2005, when Bill Schafer of Subterranean Press published a limited hardcover edition. I was jazzed about that, since I wanted a version of the book I could put on my shelf. The cover was done by Penny Arcade’s Mike Krahulik, who among other things knew of the book because I was one of Penny Arcade’s very first advertisers way back in the day, advertising the Web version of the book (those guys have done okay since then). Then came the Tor paperback edition, and the various foreign editions, and the audiobook, and here we are today.
When I wrote the novel, of course, I had no idea that writing it was the first step toward where I am now. I was working at America Online — and enjoying it! It was a cool place to be in the 90s! — and to the extent I thought I would be writing novels at all, I thought that they would be sideline to my overall writing career, rather than (as it turned out) the main thrust of it. This should be your first indication that science fiction writers in fact cannot predict the future with any accuracy.
I’m very fond of Agent, and think it reads pretty well. I’m also aware that it’s first effort, and also because it was written to be in present time in the 90s, just about out of time in terms of feeling at all contemporary (there are fewer and fewer Holocaust survivors remaining, to pick just one obvious example in the book). At this point I suggest people consider it as part of an alternate history which branched off from our timeline in 1998 or thereabouts. Occasionally it gets talked about for being picked for TV/film. If that ever happens, expect some extensive plot revisions. Otherwise, it is what it is.
One thing I do like about Agent is that I still have people tell me that it’s their favorite of mine. I like that because I think it’s nice to know that even this very early effort, done simply for the purpose of finding out if I could write a novel, does what I think a novel should: Entertains people and makes them glad they spent their time with it.
I’m also happy it’s the novel that told me I could do this thing, this novel-writing thing, and that I listened to it. The last couple of decades have turned out pretty well for me. I’m excited to see where things go from here.
When biographer and historian Nat Segaloff sat down to interview science fiction Grand Master Harlan Ellison for his new book A Lit Fuse, he knew that he was in for a challenge. What surprised him about the process was how much it wasn’t just about Ellison, but also about him.
How do you write something new about someone everybody thinks they already know? A writer who is famous for putting so much of his life into his stories that his fans feel that even his most bizarre work is autobiographical? That was the unspoken challenge in late 2013 when I agreed to write Harlan Ellison’s biography, an adventure that is just now seeing daylight with the publican of A Lit Fuse: The Provocative Life of Harlan Ellison.
I wrote the book because Harlan wouldn’t. He came close in 2008 when he announced he would write Working Without a Net for “a major publisher,” but he never did. Maybe he figured he’d said enough in his 1700 short stories, essays, and articles he’s published over the last 60 years. It wasn’t as if he was afraid of the truth; he always said he never lies about himself because that way nobody can hold anything against him. That was my challenge.
When we shook hands and I became his biographer, I also became the only person he ever gave permission to quote from his work and take a tour of his life. What I really wanted to do, though, was to explore his mind. What I didn’t expect was that, as I examined his creative process, I would also bare my own.
When you sit down with someone for a conversation, it’s fun; when you sit down with someone for an interview, it’s serious. Harlan has been interviewed countless times and he has always been in control. This time, I was. I had to get him to say stuff that was new, and I had to go beyond where others had stopped.
A Harlan Ellison interview is a performance. He will be quotable, precise, vague, and outrageous. He takes no prisoners. He will run and fetch a comic book, figurine, photograph, or book to illustrate a point, all of which breaks the mood. My job was to get him to sit still and not be “Harlan Ellison” but simply Harlan.
Harlan is one of the few speculative fiction writers (along with Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asimov, and a handful of others) who became public figures. Part of this stemmed from the quality of his work but much of it was created by his being, as I kept finding in the clippings, ““fractious,” “famously litigious,” and “argumentative.” Indeed, most of the stories I found during my research could be divided into two categories: “What a wild man Harlan is” and “I alone escaped to tell thee.”
Balderdash. What I discovered was a man who takes his craft seriously and fiercely defends others who labor in the field of words. An attack on them was an attack on him, and an attack on him was not to be deflected but returned in kind. “I don’t mind if you think I’m stupid,” he told one antagonist, “it’s just that I resent it when you talk to me as if I’m stupid.”
Even though I had final cut, I ran whole sections past him to get his reaction. He never flinched. In fact, he challenged me to go deeper. It was almost as if – and don’t take this the wrong way – I was Clarice Starling and he was Hannibal Lecter — the more I asked of Harlan, the more I had to give of myself. Both of us put our blood in the book even though I am the author.
The bill for Athena’s fall semester at Miami University arrived a couple of days ago, and we paid it, and I have some various thoughts about that I want to share.
When I went to college, 30 years ago now, I couldn’t pay for it. I did what the majority of people did then and do now — I cobbled together various sorts of funding from multiple sources. A scholarship here, a Pell grant there, a work study job and loans — and still it wasn’t quite enough when one of my funding sources fumbled the ball pretty badly and I had to ask my grandfather for help (which to be clear, he was happy to provide, with the only provision being that I would write him a letter a month, a request very much in my wheelhouse). I graduated with a fair amount of student debt, rather more than the average amount back in 1991, which was around $8,200. I think I was around 30 when we paid it off.
I don’t regret my college debt — I’m of the opinion that my education was worth what I paid for it and then some — but at the time I didn’t really like having the anxiety of wondering how it was all going to be paid for, and my education being contingent on outside financial forces, over which I had no control. I was lucky I was able to find ways to cover it all. I was also lucky that I got a good job right out of college (in 1991, during a recession), and was always financially solvent afterward. That college debt never became a drag or a worry, as it easily could have been, and which it did become for a number of my friends.
I don’t think scrambling for money or paying down college debt added anything beneficial to my life, however. As much as certain people might make a fetish of having to struggle in one way or another for one’s education, and that struggle having a value in itself, I’m not especially convinced that the current American manner of “struggle” — pricing college education at excessive rates and then requiring students and family to take on significant amounts of debt, effectively transferring decades of capital from the poor, working and middle classes to banks and their (generally wealthy) shareholders — is really such a great way to do that, especially since wages in general have stagnated over the last 40 years, the same period of time in which college tuition costs have skyrocketed, consistently above the rate of inflation. Worrying about college funding and paying off college debt isn’t character-building in any real sense. It’s opportunity cost, time wasted that might be productively spent doing something else educationally or financially beneficial.
So: I don’t regret my college debt, but I don’t think it was something that added value, either, to my education or my life. All things being equal, I suspect I would have been better off not having to worry whether I had enough funding for college any particular quarter, or being able to take the monthly post-collegiate debt payment and use it for something else, including investment. Not just me, of course; I don’t think anyone, students or parents (or colleges, for that matter), benefits from the current patchwork method of college funding, or the decade-long (or longer) hangover of college debt service.
We always assumed Athena would go to college; very early on we began saving and investing with the specific goal of funding her education. Along the way we caught the break of my writing career taking off, which meant the account intended for her education plumped out substantially. By the time it was the moment for Athena to decide where to go to college, we were in the fortunate position of being able to pay for it — all of it — wherever it was she decided to go. So, to go back to the initial paragraph, when that first Miami University bill came up, we were able to cut that check and send it off. No muss, no fuss. We’ll be able to do the same for the other college bills over the next four years.
Which is great for us! And not bad for Athena, who will end her college experience debt-free in a world where the average US student with college debt in 2016 was in the hole for $37,000, with that number only likely to go up from here. But let’s also look at everything that had to happen in order for us to get to that point: We saved early, which was smart of us, but we also had the wherewithal to save, which meant we got lucky that Krissy and I both had work, that in her case her gig included health insurance for all of us and that in my case I was in constant demand as a freelance writer, which, I assure you, is not always the case. We got lucky that the books took off as they did; the odds on that were not great. We were lucky that no one of us got seriously or chronically ill, or that other family crises depleted savings. Athena is an only child; that’s not necessarily lucky, but it definitely was a factor when it came to paying for college. We only have to do this once.
All of which is to say that Athena will be getting out of college debt-free partly because we planned early but mostly because of factors that we had only some control over, and over which she had almost none. She didn’t choose her parents or her circumstances; she got what she got. And in this case, she got lucky.
That’s fine for her. But it’s not a very useful strategy for paying for college. “Get lucky picking your parents” should not be the determining factor for whether you leave college debt-free, leave with tens of thousands of dollars of debt, or can’t afford to go to college at all. Every single one of those circumstances can have a substantial effect on how the rest of one’s economic life will go — and how the economic life of how one’s children will go. There’s a reason why in the United States, home of the “American Dream,” it’s actually pretty difficult to move up the social ladder. Yes, I did it, but I also don’t pretend I didn’t get lucky — a lot — or that my path is easily repeatable. Take it from someone who is living the American Dream: It stays only a dream for most of those dreaming of it.
I’m proud that we can pay for our daughter’s college education. I’m also well aware how many things had to break our way to be at this point, which just as easily could have gone another way. It would be better to live in a world where luck, one way or another, is not a salient, determinative factor for whether one can afford college, or whether one can graduate from college without debt. In fact, that world does exist; just not here in the US. College tuition in most developed countries is substantially less than it is here, including being basically free in places like Germany and France. We could do that here, for state schools at least, if we decided we wanted to.
But we don’t. I know we have our reasons. I just don’t think those reasons are very good.
The first time I came out as bisexual to a partner, it was a mess. What was a passably tolerable relationship became a wasteland of conspiratorial winks, elbow nudges, and endless attempts to convince me to have a threesome with someone, anyone, just pick an attractive person of the same gender.
Thing is, I don’t blame him.
Bisexual representation in media is a fraught topic. More often than not, bisexual people are characterized as wild, promiscuous individuals with thrilling sex lives, perpetually ready to jump into bed with whomever they find attractive. (Not necessarily untrue or even wrong, but that’s a conversation for another space.) Consequently, we end up with people like my ex, who begin quivering with lascivious curiosity the moment they so much as hear the hum of that first syllable.
But we are getting better at it. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend has one of my favorite bisexual characters of all times: Darryl Whitefeather, a middle-aged divorcee who comes out mid-season and proceeds to have a stunningly healthy relationship with his new boyfriend. (That show has its problems, but I will forever love the writers for making sure the queer couple is the happy one.) And genre writing is even further ahead in that department. Take Kai Ashante Wilson’s work, for example, which remarks on polyamorous queer relationships without even the barest breath of hesitation. After all, in a world of dragons and technical-minded gods, what is there to fear about a man who loves a man and also a woman?
With Bearly a Lady, I’m hoping to build on that canon. Zelda McCartney is a complicated character, for all that she might sometimes appear like an airhead. She’s been out for a long time; this isn’t a self-discovery story. Instead, the book, which goes into some dark places between the lines, interrogates the idea of expectations, labels, and toxic relationships.
And that is because she is a werebear in a human world, a woman endlessly bombarded by external forces, all looking to chip at her self-esteem for the sake of a quick buck or someone else’s emotional fulfillment. It’s no surprise that Zelda has only half an idea as to which box she belongs. Honestly, a lot of people don’t figure that out. Especially those raised outside of liberal communities.
I’d know. For the longest time, that was me.
(Except for the werebear part.)
So, that’s one of the Big Ideas behind Bearly a Lady. I wanted my main character to be full of internal conflict, certain in her identity but uncertain of the words that one might use to define oneself. A mess of paradoxes and imperfections glued together by bad sitcoms and ice-cream. I’m hoping that, one day, Bearly a Lady might be part of some bisexual teenager’s library, another piece in the puzzle as they figure out who they are. Maybe, Zelda will be an example of who they hope not to be. Maybe, they’ll see a bit of themselves in her. Who knows? That’s not up to me.
Bearly a Lady might be a queer paranormal rom-com with werebears, vampires, and billionaire fairies galore, but it’s also a look into the life of a queer woman who doesn’t always get it straight.