Reviews: Wolfenstein II and Stranger Things 2

Last week two bits of entertainment I’d been looking forward to finally unlocked for my enjoyment: the video game Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus and Stranger Things 2, the second season of the well-regarded Netflix series. What did I think of both? Well, let me tell you.

Wolfenstein II: I enjoyed the heck out of this. The game takes place in an alternate reality where the Nazis won WWII (they nuked New York!) and have occupied the US. Your job is to take back the country, mostly by shooting the ever-living crap out of every Nazi you meet. Obviously, this is a game that has some resonance in today’s political era, in which homegrown WannaNazis are stomping around in their polo shirts and khakis (some of these tender racist flowers complained about the content of the game recently, to which the gamemakers said, essentially, “Ha ha ha fuck you, you little shitheads,” which is a sentiment I can get behind).

Although the game takes place in the US, you don’t actually kill American Nazis, merely Nazis in America; they all spit German at you as you shoot them. Which is fine! Nazis of any sort make for good killing, if you ask me. There’s a special joy in mowing them down by the dozen, untroubled by pesky ethical issues. They’re Nazis, they deserve to meet large-caliber ordnance. And they do — this is not a game that’s stingy about throwing Nazis at you to be dispatched. I played the game on medium difficulty and found it was nicely playable at that level; challenging to get through but with enough ammo, armor and health that I could survive without having to save every ten seconds.

The game comes with a storyline involving hero BJ Blaskowitz and his band of freedom fighters joining up with the American resistance and visiting places like (nuked) NYC, Roswell, New Mexico and a New Orleans that’s been turned into a ghetto for America’s undesirables (Jews, blacks, gay folks etc). The storyline is pretty good, and has interesting moments, but can be bleak and has a couple of missteps, including a memorably gratuitous topless scene with one of the women characters, also involving very large guns. That said, I generally enjoyed the storyline, which featured more humor in it than I remember earlier installments having.

But really you’re here to kill Nazis. And you will! In the US and on Venus! (Why Venus? I think the answer is, why not on Venus, and also, there’s something sublime about battling Space Nazis on Venus. That’s a B-movie title right there.) If you’re hankerin’ to slaughter goddamned fascists, this is the game for you.

A final note of gratitude for this game: It’s all about the single-player experience, which is something I really appreciate these days. I don’t really care to do multiplayer games that often, and I prefer generally to pay for my game once rather than through in-game transactions. I don’t want to be on a team and I don’t give a crap about jaunty hats or alternate armor. I just wanna shoot things in peace and at my own pace. Kudos to the Wolfenstein II team for giving me exactly what I’m happy to pay money for in a video game experience.

Stranger Things 2: It’s a pretty good ride, and with that said, I’m reminded of a line in Die Hard 2, when, after a whole movie of plane crashes and guns blazing and terrorists grimly being evil, Holly McClane looks over to John McClane and asks “Why does this keep happening to us?!?” The answer is, of course: Because that’s what the audience wants. The audience wants the thing they got before, only more of it this time.

And there’s definitely more to ST2: Stakes are higher, the danger more dangerous, and poor Will Byers (who if this series had actually been filmed in the 80s would have almost certainly have been played by Wil Wheaton) gets slapped around by the Upside Down even more than he was in the first season. There are more subplots (justice for Barb! Eleven looks for home! New kids with their own drama! Steve and Nancy and Jonathan!) which take more time to deal with and don’t necessarily resolve in any particularly satisfying way, instead leaving loose ends to be picked up in Stranger Things 3, which will almost certainly happen.

Also, more than once, someone has to act stupidly in order to advance the story, which the shows tries to wink at by having the characters note that, gosh, they sure did something stupid there, didn’t they? Which doesn’t really solve the problem, but at least lets you know the show acknowledges your awareness that someone’s being dumb for plot purposes.

(Oh, and, hey, Duffer brothers: Naming one of your characters “Bob Newby” is a little on the nose, guys.)

None of this really bothered me that much, however, because the story does keep clicking on and ramping up, and the characters, so engaging in season one, continue to be so here and are often even more so. The kids still feel like real kids, the adults are occasionally clueless in particularly adult ways, and the bad guys are slightly more dimensional than they were before. I was sucked in and watched one episode after another just like I was intended to, and with the exception of an interlude episode which felt more like a soft-launch pilot episode of another series entirely, they all connected seamlessly.

Which is to say the story-telling technician in me could see all the tricks season two of this series was laying out and using, and the “shut up and just give me a fun ride” audience member in me didn’t care, because generally speaking, all the tricks worked like they were supposed to. So well done, everyone: ST2 was really enjoyable and I’m in for season three when it inevitably shows up and tortures Will Byers again.

That poor kid. He should just move out of Hawkins. Really, they all should.

My Halloween Self-Portrait, 2017

Pretty sexy, I have to say. Definitely right-swipeable on Tinder.

Hope you’re having a very fine Halloween.

The Big Idea: Myke Cole

Is Siege Line the end? For author Myke Cole, no. He will have more books coming. But for a particular trilogy of books, and a phase of Cole’s career, the book represents a final stage. Not with a whimper, though — with a bang, and one that required more of the author than he initially expected.

MYKE COLE:

Apocalypse fiction loves a good wasteland.

Most of us have heard of Ragnarok, the Viking idea of a “Twilight of the Gods” in old Norse mythology, where the world is swept away and the final battle between good and evil is fought. Ragnarok is hardly a unique idea in mythology and religion. Zoroastrianism, one of the oldest recorded faiths, likewise has the world scoured with lava and a final battle between the wicked and the righteous. Christianity has the Book of Revelation, which talks of the final fight between Christ and Antichrist, and Islam has given us the apocalyptic vision of the 12th Imam, who comes to herald the end time, and the final scouring of the wicked from the earth. Buddhism, Hinduism, Rastafarianism. They all have their apocalypse visions, and nearly all have the same central elements: The world scoured, laid waste, heralding the final battle between good and evil.

My favorite visual summary of this idea is in the last of a quartet of paintings by the 19th century American landscape painter Thomas Cole – The Voyage of Life. The paintings depict a soul’s journey through life from birth to death. The final painting, Old Age, shows an old man on his way to heaven. What stands out most is the landscape he leaves behind. At the end, all is stripped bare. Nothing grows, nothing moves, nothing lives. The apocalypse of all these myth-systems echoes in the oils – at the end, there is only wasteland.

We love wastelands for our final showdowns in fiction. By stripping away all distractions, they help focus the narrative on the final conflict at hand. The warring characters come into stark relief, unhindered by background. It’s the literary equivalent of wearing a drab gray suit to a job interview. Undistracted by your clothes, the hope is that the interviewer will focus on your job skills.

But here’s the thing about real wastelands. They’re far from empty.

Deserts teem with life. The “hostile” environment of the arctic features around 3,000 different species of flowering plants alone, and around 130 species of mammal. And this doesn’t even count the human cultures that have flourished in these harsh regions without the benefit of advanced technology. The Bedouin and the Hopi, the Inuit and the Ainu.

When you really dig deep, the truth is that “wasteland” is really two words: “Waste,” which is a term of judgment used by those of us living in temperate zones with the benefit of climate control, and “Land,” with all the species, and human cultural diversity that implies. So, while wastelands may be a useful backdrop for final showdowns in fiction, they’re far from empty, and the “Twilight of the Gods” is likely to have significant fallout for the folks living in the warzone where the ultimate battle is playing out.

And that’s the big idea behind Siege Line.

Siege Line is the 3rd book in my Reawakening prequel trilogy. The Reawakening is the prequel to my military fantasy Shadow Ops trilogy. The six books together represent the first arc of my writing career, staking out my own subgenre, fleshing out my narrative, and seeing it to its conclusion. And like all good myth-systems, mine ends with an apocalypse, a final showdown between the wicked and the righteous, set against the backdrop of the wasteland so popular for these kinds of things. What can I say? I want to go out with a bang.

I chose the harsh subarctic-polar landscape of Canada’s Northwest Territories, and the tiny hamlet of Fort Resolution, nestled on the south shore of the Great Slave Lake. It’s barren by the standards of my comfortable Brooklyn neighborhood, but like all real-life wastelands, it has a vibrant and complex community and ecology, and people living there who go back generations, far earlier than the founding of either America or Canada, and who are fiercely proud of their culture and legacy.

This was the coolest discovery in writing this book, the background I picked refused to be background. The supporting cast swarmed the pages, demanding their voices be heard. With every hour of research I did, the culture and society of Canada’s “NWT” colonized my mind, changing first my perspective, and finally my narrative.

By the time the smoke cleared, my protagonist had been upstaged by the Sherriff of Fort Resolution, an Afghanistan vet and proud Dene woman, Wilma “Mankiller” Plante. Mankiller was unimpressed by my ignorance of her culture and land. If I was going to tell a story in her town, I was going to tell it her way.

It was a pretty sublime experience. Every writer dreams of these moments, when a character is so real, so fully fleshed out, that they literally take over the narrative, leaving the writer as a mere copyist, taking dictation and relaying what they see. Mankiller came alive, and Fort Resolution, the whole Slavey region, came alive with her.

George R. R. Martin has famously divided writers into “gardeners” (pantsers) who just sit down and write, and “architects” (plotters), who meticulously outline and plan before laying down a single word of prose. I have always prided myself on being an UBER-architect. I usually write more than 100 pages of outline before I begin work on a book. Having a book take a left turn when you’re an uber-architect can be frustrating.

But Mankiller wasn’t going to let it lie, and to be honest I’m glad she didn’t.

Can’t wait for you all to meet her, and to step into her world. It’s cold, sure, but there’s a lot more life there than some warmer places I’ve been.

—-

Siege Line: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

ZOMG DUDES INDICTMENTS

Of Paul Manafort and Rich Gates. Those of you who had them first in the indictment pool, come claim your prizes.

I’m not a legal expert and I don’t know anything else about these but what I read in the news, but I do expect two things:

1. These are just the beginning;

2. If you thought Trump was angry and unhinged before, well. Just you wait.

Also “Conspiracy Against the United States” is a hell of an impressive-sounding thing to be charged with, even if it probably mostly just means you’re trying to hide money from the IRS.

Anyway: Happy Monday! I suspect it’s gonna be a hell of a week.

New Books and ARCs 10/27/17 + a Mildly Annoyed Twitter Thread

Thread first, followed by the new books/ARCs in the last tweet.

Scalzi and Munro in Fresno

During our recent California sojurn, Krissy and I stopped in Fresno for a day. Why? Because, in fact, that’s where I lived when we met (I worked for the Fresno Bee newspaper), and we still have friends in the area, and we wanted to see them. One of the friends we saw was Donald Munro, who was a fellow journalist at the Bee, and who now runs the Munro Review, a site focused on the Fresno and Central California arts scene.

Most of what Donald and I did was catch up on things — it was the first time I’d been back to Fresno in about a decade — but I also did an interview with him for the Munro Review, talking about Fresno, writing and other stuff (including how I proposed to Krissy). It’s a fun interview, and you can read it here. Also, of course, if you’re interesting in the Central California arts scene, please check out the rest of the Munro Review, and put it into your daily reads. Donald’s great at what he does.

RIP, Stephen “Stepto” Toulouse

The last time I chatted with my friend Stephen Toulouse, he was cheerfully trolling me on Twitter about the AC/DC song “Thunderstruck,” which he enjoyed rather more than I did, followed by a quick DM to let me know he was just having fun, which of course I knew. I was having fun with him too.

I’m so happy my final words with him were of friendship, and fun, and silliness, and of kindness to each other.

Farewell, Stepto, my dear friend.

 

Chromebooks and Photoediting

As most of you know I’m fond of Chromebooks, but they do have limitations — it helps to have a constant internet connection while using them, and for a long time everything had to be done in the browser. This was okay for email and word processing, but less great for things like photoediting. Recently, however, recent editions of Chromebooks (and ChromeOS, the operating system) have started being able to use Android apps, including various photoediting programs like Photoshop Express and Snapseed.

When I traveled to California recently I took one of my Chromebooks (the Asus 302ca) and then checked to see how well it handled some light photoediting of pictures I took with my Nikon d750. It turns out it did pretty well; both Photoshop Express and Snapseed have the ability to handle RAW photo files, which means you can have substantially better control over images than you just get through .jpg files. It’s not optimal — none of the photoediting suites in Android are as fully featured as you will have get on the desktop — but it’s still easily workable on a picture-by-picture basis and the gap is beginning to close some. If you have an Adobe CC subscription, Adobe just released a version of Lightroom that lets you photoedit equally on your phone or on the desktop, which means late-edition Chromebook users can access that as well.

If you’re doing a lot of photowork, you’ll still need a desktop or PC/Mac laptop. But, if all you need is a bit of light photoediting/curating, Chromebooks are now an option. Which I think is pretty neat.

New Books and ARCs, 10/26/17

Lots of very fine books and ARCs came to the Scalzi Compound when I was in California, and here’s the first stack of them. What here looks good to you? Tell us all in the comments!

Google Home Mini First Impressions

I had a Google Home Mini sent to the house while I was away and it was here for me when I came home. I was curious to try it out; I have a full-sized Google Home, which I like, but possibly not enough to spend $130 for another. I wanted to see if the $50 Mini would serve my purposes.

It turns out it does. I mostly use Google Home (and the Amazon Echo, which I also have) mostly to play music and to answer questions I’m too lazy to type into a search bar, and the Google Home Mini does that as well as the Google Home. The reviews of the Mini that I saw warned that the speaker in the Mini is not that impressive, and I suppose from a technical perspective that might be the case. But it’s plenty loud when it needs to be and is more than sufficient for listening to music at my desk or responding to my queries. It doesn’t have a lot of bass, but otherwise, it’s perfectly fine.

Functionally you can raise and lower music volume by touching either side of it, and you can keep the thing from listening to you by switching the microphone off in the back, and that’s it for functionality — there was the ability activate it or pause music by touching the top, but apparently in some Minis a bug caused it to endlessly listen (and send that data to Google), so Google disabled that function permanently. Since you can get it to pause music and/or respond to queries by saying “Hey, Google,” and that’s kind of why you get one of these things in the first place, I don’t think this is a huge loss.

Size-wise, the thing is the size of a hamburger bun or a donut and relatively unobtrusive. Mine is “Charcoal Gray” (effectively black) but there are other colors as well. I have mine placed next to my first-gen Amazon Echo on my desk, which makes for an amusing visual contrast: A squat, fabric-covered puck next to a tall metallic cylinder. I’ve found having both on the desk is actually kind of useful, since I can have one play music while I use the other one to answer questions. They both have different hailing phrases so they don’t get confused about to whom I am speaking (don’t, however, place your Mini on top of your Echo; doing so confuses the Echo’s microphones).

Now that I have Amazon and Google smart speakers, you might ask if I have thoughts to which company does a better job at the virtual assistant thing and which I would recommend over the other. My answer is that at this point it’s kind of a wash generally and a lot of it will depend on what you use the thing for, which electronic ecosystem you’re invested in and, bluntly, who you want to have all of your electronic information. I would give the edge to Amazon if you’ve got Kindles and Fires and a Prime subscription and want to buy things frictionlessly, and the edge to Google if you’re already neck deep into Gmail and Android and Chrome dongles and computers. I do find Google Assistant slightly smarter than Alexa, but both are plenty smart enough for most things and the distance between the two only shows on very picky queries. Google’s aesthetic is friendlier, but Amazon’s is hipper. Honestly, flip a coin. You’ll probably be fine either way.

That said, if you are well into the Google system and like these smart speakers and aren’t excessively paranoid about giving a massive multinational corporation a listening post in your home 24/7 (they say they’re not listening unless you tell them to listen, and I believe them, but they surely could listen all they wanted, that’s just a software update), the Mini does the trick and is pretty cheap at $50. I’m enjoying mine so far.

22 Years and Some-Odd Months

I posted this picture and the following bit on Facebook because that’s where most of my high school friends are online, but I’m posting it here as well. It’s true in both places.

One final picture from the Webb Schools Alumni Weekend, if I may: A picture of me with Krissy, standing in the same spot, 22 years and some-odd months apart. Krissy and I got married at the Vivian Webb Chapel and she wanted to recreate a particular photo from our wedding album. I think we did a pretty good job of it, considering we were doing it from memory.

22 years have passed and there’s not a moment of it I would change. Being married to Krissy has been the great joy and privilege of my life, and not a day goes by that I don’t think about how much better my life is because she is in it. Those of you who spent time with her at Alumni weekend, some of you for the first time, understand what I mean. I was amused and delighted how quickly she became Your Favorite Scalzi — a thing which I approve of, because I feel that way too. She just makes everything better.

I am blessed with my marriage, blessed with my friends and blessed with a wonderful life made better because of both. We recreated the photo but every day we create and commit to our love, just as each of us, in small and sometimes large ways, create and commit to friendships, building them to last the long years. This reunion reminded me how much I am bettered by these constant acts of creation I get to have with each of you. Thank you, all of you, for that.

And especially thank you, Krissy. I love you more, 22 years and some-odd months on, than I loved you that day we stood in front of friends and family and vowed to be married. And on that day, I loved you more than I had loved anything in the whole of my life.

Lots and Lots of Photos From My High School Reunion

Krissy and my pal Clay Pierce ’86.

Last weekend I was on the campus of my high school for my 30th reunion with other members of the class of 1987 (as well as all the other classes ending in a “7” or “2” and indeed any other alumni that choose to show up). It was a delightful time — I went to a small private boarding school (this one), so I knew everyone in my class and everyone knew me and we mostly liked each other and our affection has maintained and in some cases increased over the years.

Me being me, I also took hundreds of pictures and selected about 100 of them for four albums documenting the day. Would you like to see them, even though you (probably) didn’t go to my high school? Sure you would! Here they are on Flickr:

’87 Portraits: Saturday Afternoon — Classmates touring the campus and at the alumni lunch.

’87 Portraits: Awards and Evening — Classmates showing up for two of our own winning school alumni awards, and then pictures from the alumni dinner.

Webb Portraits: Spouses, staff and other classes — folks who did not graduate in ’87 but are pretty cool anyway.

Webb Scenery — Pictures from around campus.

Enjoy!

And for those of you too lazy to click, a quick selection of photos:

The Big Idea: Gregory Manchess

Every writer has their own process to develop a novel. But for writer/illustrator Gregory Manchess, the process for creating his visual-rich novel Above the Timberline was something rare, arresting, and inspiring.

GREGORY MANCHESS:

I found my own private portal into a future world through a painting called, “Above The Timberline.”

I created the painting on-camera for a documentary about how I work as a freelance illustrator. I know the power of a strong image, how it inspires, how it drives a narrative. That images tell fast what words can only catch up to.

Creating work that makes people curious is probably the most compelling thing to offer them. A picture is it’s own reference, and makes ‘a thousand words’ superfluous. Paintings don’t tell. They show. They build curiosity because we come to them with half the story already. Through our experiences.

A quick visual read, “Above The Timberline” is a man-against-the-elements kind of image, with a slight twist. His pack animals are polar bears. Why is he out there and how does he manage these man-hunting killers? What is he looking for? Even more, ‘what was I trying to get across,’ ‘who is this guy,’ etc. These are the questions put to me after I completed the image in late 2009.

I’d written things my entire life. Children’s stories, articles on the illustration business, poetry, philosophical thoughts about painting, and outlines for film ideas. Could I build a book that combined imagery with words to tell a visual story? Why not write a few thousand words across a hundred paintings?

I hadn’t set out to do this with Above The Timberline, but now I challenged myself to write the story-behind-the-story already inherent in the painting. A story that describes without description. Explains without explanation. Tells without telling.

I wasn’t after a graphic novel. Word balloons clutter the simple clarity a good image can depict. I don’t need to know what a character is accurately thinking because no one thinks accurately. I don’t need countless panels to depict time like film sequences. I wanted a simple, clear, direct passage of storytelling that pulls the reader along with curiosity and payoff.

I’d read books that inspired me to build words and images together: Dutch Treat, Gnomes, a Japanese story from the 1600’s with panel pictures and words. Then James Gurney’s fascinating Dinotopia came along. Turns out he’d been looking at many of the same books and feeling the desire to tell his own stories, too. He got his chance when he painted a compelling image that opened a world for him.

I knew an ex book-buyer, Joe Monti, who became a literary agent and I told him about my idea. He was intrigued, and challenged me further. How much story could I tell in how many paintings over what length. And of course, ‘how are you going to get this done?’ I had no idea. But I looked to my experience in illustration for clues.

Illustration has incredibly short deadlines, with fast turn-around times for advertising or editorial assignments. An illustrator trains to work under pressure on multiple assignments with multiple clients at the same time. To not only hit those deadlines, but be effective, maybe even award-winning, each time. It’s a skill developed over years. And I had 35+ years at it.

To accomplish the feat, I started with very small, postage-sized thumbnail sketches. These gave me story scenes that I wrote. The scenes gave me more image ideas, which gave me more scenes, and so on. I finally sat down and wrote a 300-page novel. Then I did something inconceivable for a writer.

I stripped it of all description. The images would carry that load, thereby paring it down to about 10,000 words. I worked those ideas into sketches. Sketches came and went, sequences appeared and drifted away. Images revised words, and words revised images.

The process wan’t a linear sequence, so my story swung to past events and current events with ease. I knew the reader would be able to go wherever I took them because we all drift backwards and forwards in time. Our thoughts make sense to us even if they’re scattered and random. The brain keeps them all arranged in an overall through-line, based on understanding, not logic.

I worked to maintain one overriding theorem: give every page visual impact, but with words to express what a painting cannot say, and images to show what words cannot easily convey.

Six years of writing and sketching, planning, revising and designing, and the book idea was sold. Eleven months and 122 paintings later, Above The Timberline was complete.

I had found my portal, like opening a wardrobe door, and stepping into a world of snow. It was brutally cold, and oddly comforting. The warmest place I’d known in years.

—-

Above the Timberline: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

See a preview. Visit the author’s site. Follow him on Facebook.

Back From California

As you know if you follow me here or on other social media, I’ve lately been in the great state of California. What was I doing there? Well, in no particular order, going to and being a photographer for my niece’s wedding, seeing family and friends, having business meetings and going to my 30th(!) high school reunion. Not all at once, mind you. Mostly one after the other.

It was both an enjoyable and productive trip, but now I’m home and glad to be here and seeing my pets and sleeping in my own bed. I’ve also got about two weeks of mail to sift through. One thing I did open up immediately, however: The box from Tor that contained my author copies of the Old Man’s War mini-hardcover. Folks, it looks great, inside and out. I’m super pleased with this edition and would recommend it highly even if I wasn’t the author. If you’ve been looking for a print edition, this is the one to get.

In any event: I’m back in Ohio! And it’s nice to be home.

The Dispatcher eBook 99 Cents on Amazon Today Only (10/19/17)

The headline says it all: The Dispatcher is an Amazon Deal of the Day, so you can get it for under a buck on the Kindle. What a deal! But it’s only for the day (October 19, 2017), and it’s for the US and Canada. I’m not sure if the price applies on other retailers today, so you’d have to check it out for yourself. Regardless, if you’ve not picked up this novella yet, today is a good day to do so. Enjoy!

Quick Check-In

Hello fellow humans! I am not dead. I am slowly making my way down the length of California toward my high school reunion.

Life is good. I hope also that your life is good.

Tell the class about your day in the comments.

Yours,

JS

Old Man’s War Now Out in Mini Hardcover

Today Tor Books is releasing Old Man’s War in a spiffy new “mini”-format hardcover edition: All the benefits of a hardcover book, miniaturized for your convenience! It’s available at your favorite bookstores in the US and Canada, and it’s no coincidence that it’s being released just prior to the holiday season. Stocking stuffer, my friends, and/or a nice little gift for, like, day four of Hanukkah. But you don’t need to wait for the holidays to get it. You can get it today. For yourself! And pick up several copies for friends! Distribute them like Pez! It’s the Covandu version of OMW, if you will, and if you get that joke, thank you for being a fan.

I’m delighted at this new mini hardcover of OMW because, among other things, the original hardcover run of the book, almost thirteen(!) years ago now, is actually pretty small: about 3,700 for the first printing, and about 7,700 overall. OMW really took off in the trade paperback edition a year after the initial release. As a result, the hardcovers have always been hard to find — great news for collectors, to be sure. Not so great for anyone else.

So, dear everyone else: This edition is for you. Enjoy!

The Big Idea: Elizabeth Bonesteel

Hey, you know how irritated you get when your internet access goes down? Elizabeth Bonesteel gets you. And so does her latest novel, Breach of Containment. She’s here to explain — provided your connection doesn’t suddenly go out…

ELIZABETH BONESTEEL:

We live in the woods, and that means, among other things, we have the crappiest internet service in the state*.

(*This almost certainly isn’t true. I’ve heard rumors there are towns in the western part of the state that still rely on dialup. I keep hoping that’s an ugly rumor spread by Verizon to keep us all compliant and grateful.)

People in town rely on a mish-mash of solutions. Ours is a T1 line. It’s slow (1.5 Mb up/down), and when it drops it drops for days. There’s nothing quite like the sensation of seeing Netflix give up the ghost, and then pulling up your web browser to see that progress bar just…stall.

It amazes me how much I’ve come to depend on the net—not just for news and cat videos, but for a sense of connection to the rest of the world. When the line goes down, it’s so easy to imagine there’s nothing out there at all anymore—that the silence will go on forever, and we’ll sit here alone in the woods, never discovering what’s happened to the rest of the world.

Within my lifetime, society has become dependent on instant communication.

Breach Of Containment is set roughly a thousand years in the future, where we’ve colonized a (still pretty damn small) part of the galaxy. Despite the distances, everything is elaborately connected. In addition to a network of government and military communications channels, all monitored and encrypted, there are entirely unregulated data streams over which both reliable and unreliable information fly unfettered. Most of my characters live aboard Galileo, a military starship, and they’re never disconnected from the officers giving orders. Neither are they ever free of consequences when they get creative about interpreting those orders (which happens far more often than it should).

At one point, as I was assembling this book, I thought: what if all that gets cut off? What if I dump them in the soup, and sever their access to intelligence, orders, even news of their families?

Structurally, that idea both simplified and complicated the plot. Breach Of Containment is, in many ways, your traditional are-we-preventing-or-starting-a-war adventure story. Galileo is working in an atmosphere of uncertainty and deceit at this point: some of their orders are legit, some are distractions designed to keep them out of the way of internal government intrigue, and they don’t always know which are which. When the communication channels back to Earth are lost, it suddenly stops mattering which commanding officer is trustworthy and which is a seditious traitor. Losing communications meant my characters didn’t need to waste time figuring out whether or not a bunch of tangential folks we don’t care about are on the right side or not.

But severing communications also let me play with people’s heads, and it’s no secret I love the messy character stuff. I’ve got three principals at this point, and Breach Of Containment begins with all of them stretched thin. Elena, formerly Galileo’s chief of engineering, has been out of the Corps for a year, and is feeling rootless and without purpose. Greg, Galileo’s captain, has been dutifully following orders, but is feeling less and less like his years of service have resulted in making any substantive difference for real people. Jessica, Greg’s now-seasoned second-in-command, sees most clearly the tightrope they’re walking between following potentially erroneous orders and dealing with a massive conspiracy that is almost certainly beyond their ability to stop.

Basically, I made sure everybody was tense and cranky, and then I cut their T1 line.

On top of that, I put them on a timer. There’s an armada headed toward Earth, and the big question is whether they’re intending to help, or to invade the vulnerable planet while nobody can warn them. And the only sources of information my happy crew has got? A retired Admiral who’s a gray-hat at best, a rival government’s starship and her relentlessly cheerful captain, and a nervous emissary who’s delivered a cryptic message that she seems convinced makes perfect sense. (Oh, and a talking box. I always forget the talking box.)

When you have no news and you can’t Google, how do you make your decisions?

Here in the real world, I didn’t have a smartphone until last December. (I’m not a Luddite. I’m just cheap.) Since then, the T1 outages have been far less unnerving. It’s comforting to be able to check Twitter and verify the outage isn’t part of some apocalyptic event. Sometimes I’ll even waste some data on a cat video. But every time, in that few seconds before my Twitter feed comes up, I feel that disorienting sense of being unmoored from the rest of the world. It’s not a great state of mind in which to make important decisions…but it’s not a bad catalyst for a plot.

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Breach of Containment: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

Sacramento Photos

I’m in Sacramento, California. Here are some pictures from where I am.

Hope your day is fabulous, wherever you are.

Naming a Thing

A couple weeks on, a brief follow-up to this piece, in which I noted how much 2017 was messing with my word count.

It turns out it was really useful for me to write that piece. Not necessarily because I’ve increased my writing speed since then — I’m still slogging away at a slower pace than I’ve done in previous years — but because, basically, in naming my problem I’ve lifted a fair amount of the psychic weight of it from my shoulders. I’m not kicking myself for writing slower right now, and as a result, the writing is easier. Which ironically means the writing is more regular, and because of that, there’s at least slightly more of it. Who knew.

I’d also like to acknowledge the folks who wrote me or linked in to the piece, saying, more or less “Yes I have been feeling the same thing I’m glad somebody finally said it.” One, you’re welcome and I’m glad the piece accomplished at least part of its intended effect of letting folks know they weren’t alone in their creative miasma at the moment. Two, your chiming in also helped me, because as much as I strongly suspected I wasn’t the only one in the spot I was in, getting actual confirmation of it was heartening. I was right! Alas! But the knowledge meant a bit of fellowship, and that made the burden a little easier to bear. Which made the little readjustments I’m making now easier to do. Thanks, folks.

(Mind you, I had some of my usual suspects out there pointing at me at going ha ha Scalzi has writer’s block, because they’re sad little dudes like that. While I could push my glasses up on my nose and say well, actually I was never blocked I was just writing slower, which you would know if you could read, in point of fact they read perfectly well, they just have a pathological need to see me as a failure. And to be honest, that cheers me up a little too. I like enraging these sad little dudes so much just by existing that they have to create voodoo doll versions of me to stab stab stab stab. They want to be enraged, and it literally requires no effort from me to oblige them. Keep at it, sad little dudes! It’s good for you to stay busy.)

And now, back to it.