Talking About Writing Income, or Not

A question in email:

On Twitter, you’ve linked to Jim Hines and Kameron Hurley when they’ve talked about their writing income, and you used to talk about your own writing income in detail. Do you ever plan to do that again?

Probably not.

For context for those of you who have come in late, for a number of years I talked about what I make as a writer, and how I made it, in part because I think it’s useful to have writers talk about what they make and to share information. It demystifies the process and keeps publishers and editors asking for writing from underbidding. The more we all know, the better off we’ll all be (in the long run, he said, hopefully).

As time has gone on, I’ve talked about my writing income less. One significant reason is that I have become an outlier, financially speaking, and sharing that particular bit of information has less overall utility for most folks. Jim and Kameron, among others, are in the thick of it more than I am and I think have more relevant things to say to most jobbing/aspiring fiction writers about writing income than I do, which is why I point to them and recommend people read their thoughts on the topic.

(Also, and I want to be very clear about this because the risk of being seen as condescending here is oh so very high, I don’t want to suggest a great separation between Jim and Kameron and indeed most working novelists and myself in terms of quality of work. We’re all within hailing distance of each other, skillwise, and who you think is better is mostly a matter of personal taste. I’m a financial outlier for a number of reasons, and one of them, a big one, as I frequently remind people, is luck. I have been very lucky in my career.)

Another significant reason I talk less about it publicly is because Krissy prefers I don’t. I’m inclined to respect the wishes of my spouse, who I live with, and love, and who is effectively the chief financial officer of our homey little domestic corporation. I have this general rule that any time I want to discuss online something that affects Krissy or Athena directly, I check in with them to see if they’re okay with me talking about it. Why? Because it’s their life, too. I literally just now checked in with Krissy on whether she was comfortable with me talking about my current writing income, and she was “yeaaaah, no.” Which means I won’t.

The closest I’ll come to talking about my current income level here on the site is to note a) I’m in the 1%, b) this discussion in 2015, when I got my long Tor contract, and I noted in relatively non-specific terms what I’d been making leading up to the contract. Without going into it further, I will say my income since then has not gone down. It does fluctuate year to year, but possibly less than you might imagine, since we’ve designed things to keep income flowing to us on what passes for the regular basis for a writer. This (relatively) consistent flow of income is at least as important as the dollar amount, to be honest about it. It makes budgeting and tax planning a little more predicable than it might otherwise be.

That said, there’s certainly a chance for things to substantially change one way or another. If several of my books flop, in the long term that’s going to be stone on my income level. If the movie/TV stuff actually happens in a significant way, that’s going to be a rocket. Who knows? I don’t! Other than trying to keep writing good books that people hopefully want to read, there’s a lot that’s out of my hands. What we’ve done is to set things up so that if problems do happen (and they might), we see them far enough out to prepare. And if things go great? Great! We’re prepared for that too.

But essentially that’s where I am with talking raw income numbers at this point. If you were hoping for something more here, I’m not sorry to disappoint you, but I do hope you’ll understand. And as noted, with Jim and Kameron and others on the case, there are more useful discussions about writer income than I could do, based off my own numbers. As a community, we’re not lacking in disclosure. And I’ll talk about other things regarding writing and careers, never fear.

The Big Idea: David Mack

What makes a hero? It’s a question that author David Mack had to confront in his novel The Midnight Front. It’s also a question he gives some thought to here in his Big Idea essay.

DAVID MACK:

Heroes are the ones who step up to take the hit for the rest of us.

I know it’s not a new idea in fiction or myth, not by a long shot. But it remains one of the most powerful and effective elements in storytelling. One of the most universal characteristics of characters who are considered to be inspiring or heroic is a willingness to sacrifice themselves for others.

There are lots of ways for characters to be heroic; not all courage involves physical peril. It can take just as much bravery to charge into gunfire as it does to oppose public opinion armed with nothing more than one’s principles. Some might argue the latter action is the more difficult; to die is the pain of but a moment, but to become a pariah, to risk being cast out of one’s community in the name of what’s right and fair — that’s a pain that can last a lifetime.

Ideas such as these guided my thinking as I developed the story for my new epic fantasy novel The Midnight Front. My main character Cade starts out as an ordinary man, one who has no aspirations to heroism. To motivate him into joining the Allies’ top-secret magickal warfare program, I resorted to a well-worn trope: Nazi sorcerers murder his parents as collateral damage in an attack that is meant to slay Cade at the start of World War II.

What I soon realized, however, was that while revenge can be an understandable and even a relatable motivation for a main character, it is not a heroic one. At its heart, revenge is a selfish motive, one driven by a desire to repay pain with pain, loss with loss. Characters who live for revenge often tell themselves that they are seeking justice, but the truth is that most of them care only about their own pain or wounded egos, and on some level they hope that inflicting retribution upon the ones who wronged them will somehow exorcise their suffering.

But that’s not really how it works, no matter what Hollywood might like us to believe. I love a good revenge story as much as anyone, but even the best vengeance-driven characters tend to wind up as antiheroes: Parker in Richard Stark’s The Hunter (or Porter in Payback, my favorite filmed adaptation of Stark’s novel); William Munny in Unforgiven; Wilson in The Limey. Except for the pulpy goodness of Payback, these stories came to tragic conclusions.

There are notable exceptions, of course. Inigo Montoya in The Princess Bride is one, and both Alejandro Murrietta and Don Diego de la Vega in The Mask of Zorro — but in all three of those latter examples, our revenge-driven heroes learn before the end that they must fight for something more noble than assuaging their own pain. Montoya risks his life to save Westley; Alejandro puts the rescue of innocent lives ahead of his vengeance; and de la Vega knows that his true legacy lies not in his revenge, but in training a new Zorro to be a hero for the people.

Consequently, while I was willing to let revenge start Cade on his path in The Midnight Front, I knew that it wouldn’t be enough to make a hero of him. Because true heroism requires sacrifice.

My supporting characters teach that lesson to Cade by showing him what courage looks like. But it’s only after a taste of revenge leaves him feeling hollow that he realizes it is an empty raison d’etre. So it is that when Cade finds himself on a landing craft heading for Normandy on D-day, he understands at last that his parents don’t need and wouldn’t want to be avenged; they would want their son to honor them, by following a nobler path, a more difficult path. A hero’s path.

This is an old lesson that we watch heroes learn over and over again. In those moments when characters embrace their best selves during their darkest hours, we cannot help but be stirred:

  • when Tony Stark risks his life to stop the Chitauri invasion in The Avengers;
  • when the crew of Rogue One lay down their lives, one by one, to steal the Death Star plans for the Rebellion;
  • when Steve Rogers nose-dives the Hydra superbomber to save millions of lives at the end of Captain America: The First Avenger;
  • when Diana dares to charge alone across No Man’s Land in Wonder Woman;
  • when the reprogrammed Terminator tells John Connor to lower him into the molten steel to protect the future at the end of Terminator 2: Judgment Day;
  • when Spock goes into the reactor room at the end of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan;

…and, last but definitely not least,

  • when The Iron Giant flies toward his fateful rendezvous with a nuclear missile and defines his self-image with his final word: “Superman.”

These are the moments that define the heroes we love. The ones in which they’re asked to give their last full measures of courage and devotion, and they do so without hesitation or protest. In the end, this is what The Midnight Front is all about: teaching one man to take the fall — not for fame, fortune, or romantic love, but for one simple reason: because it’s the right thing to do.

—-

The Midnight Front: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Indiebound | Powell’s

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

Meet Keith Johnson

A picture of Keith Johnson, teacher, and his 1980 sixth grade class.

Over on Twitter, some foolish person posted the following question, which I will replicate here with all grammatical confabulation intact, because it’s necessary for context:

As a straight male, how would u feel about your child having a homosexual school teacher?! Who their around 8hours a day !

This was my response:

As a straight male, the best teacher I ever had was a gay man. Among many other things, he taught me the difference between “there,” “their” and “they’re.” His name was Keith Johnson. I would have been absolutely delighted for my daughter to have known him. I sang at his funeral.

This tweet, boosted by folks like Neil Gaiman, JK Rowling and Nick Offerman, has now been seen by over three million people. So now I would like to tell you a little bit about Keith Johnson, the best teacher I ever had.

To begin, in 1980, when he was my sixth grade teacher, I had no idea he was gay. It was 1980, when bluntly it wasn’t safe for a teacher to be out (he may have been out to colleagues but I wasn’t aware of it if he was). Also I was eleven years old, and in that time and place, I wouldn’t really have known what it meant to be gay. Not that I hadn’t heard the word or ones like it, which we flung around as slurs — “that’s gay,” “don’t be a fag,” and the game we rather obliviously called “smear the queer,” in which someone caught a ball and then everyone else in the game tried to drive them into the ground. But I didn’t have a very good idea of why those were slurs, nor how those slurs would have been applied to Keith.

No, in that time and place, Keith was simply “Mr. Johnson” — not Keith Johnson, mind you, as the idea of calling a teacher by their first name elicited the sort of holy terror that convinced you that if you were to do so you would promptly burst into retributive flame. “Mr. Johnson” would do. It wasn’t until years later that I could even say “Keith” without feeling I stepped over some still-glowing, forbidden line.

Keith’s reputation preceded him. At Ben Lomond elementary’s “MGM” (“mentally gifted minors”) program, the upper grades went through Mrs. Fox, Mrs. Swirsky and Mr. Johnson, for fourth, fifth and sixth grades. Even in fourth grade you heard about what a hardass Mr. Johnson was, how he didn’t suffer fools, and how if you got out of line, you were in for it. He was legendary in a way that elementary school teachers could be: Here was this fearsome leonine visage, and he was coming for you. Well, not coming for you exactly, but one day you would be in his class, and then you would feel his wrath. Sure, you get away with some things in Mrs. Swirsky’s class. But if you tried that in Mr. Johnson’s class? Principal’s office. Or worse.

Which, when you was finally ended up in Keith’s class, turned out to be only about 30% true. Certainly, Keith wanted you to pay attention, and if you weren’t, he had a boomy baritone voice which would snap you back into line. And if the entire class was lazy or inattentive, then Keith had a phrase that let us know we disappointed him on a fundamental level. “Boy, I’m telling you, some people,” he would say, loudly and with a slathering of reproach, and then would detail what some people would do, and it was clear that some people were foolish and silly and would eventually lead lives of regret and disappointment, and the genesis of those regretful lives would be now, in this moment, when we weren’t getting our history projects done in a timely way. And it would work, because obviously we didn’t want regretful, disappointing lives, but also because we didn’t want to disappoint Keith.

Because here was the thing about Keith. Fundamentally, he wasn’t frightening, or mean, or an indiscriminate hardass on eleven year old kids. He was in fact kind and attentive, and more to the point, he saw each of his students in the way teachers are supposed to, and the way the best of teachers do, seemingly by reflex. He saw us, and saw our quirks and flaws, where we needed encouragement and also what kind of encouragement we would need. He saw us as individuals and as a group, and while he always had the same educational goals year in and year out, it became clear he would get us to those goals in ways that we could get there.

Being seen by one’s teacher, as it turned out, was especially important to me in the sixth grade. My mother was having a bad divorce that left me, my mother and my sister briefly homeless and then shuttling around between houses for the rest of the year. There was little stability, emotionally or physically, in my home life, and it would have been easy — and understandable — for me to fall down a hole and not come out of it for a long time. I didn’t because as it happened a number of people stepped up to help save me. One of those was Keith, who in seeing me saw some of the possible paths of my future, and gently but with just the right amount of push, set me on those paths.

I’ll give you two examples. The first happened when Keith asked me to write a letter. Every year Keith had his class perform a play (my year it would be “Oliver!” in which I would play the Artful Dodger; I can still sing most of the songs from that play by heart). To pay for it, he would have the class run a small business selling doo-dads to other students and parents. We would do the whole nine yards, including registering the business with the city and issuing stock (and at the end of the year, paying off the stock with dividends, if any), and by naming officers of the corporation.

Among the things Keith had us do was publicity, and one day while explaining the concept of publicity to us, he said one of the things he wanted us to do was contact a local TV station and try to get them to do a segment on us for the five o’clock news — and as he was saying this, he turned to me directly, pointed at me, and said “and I want you to write the letter.” Why me? He told me later and privately it was because I wrote differently than everyone else in class and he thought I could make the argument in a way that would interest the news crew. Keith was the first person aside from my mother to see that writing was a thing I did — and the first person to say to me that it was a thing I could do well, in a way that set me apart. It would be a few years until I decided for myself to become a writer, but I never forgot that Keith saw it first in me.

(Also, he was right: I wrote the letter with his editorial guidance, sent it in to Channel 7 News, and then a couple of months later they called and wanted to do a segment on us. We did an extra run of doo-dads so they could see us in production, and then sold those for a nice profit. And that’s how we paid dividends on our stock that year.)

Another example I’ve detailed elsewhere, when Keith gave me a copy of Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles, said to me I would enjoy it, and said to me it was one of his favorite books. For me, this wasn’t just a teacher suggesting a book, it was my teacher sharing a confidence that was for me alone. And again he was right — The Martian Chronicles is in many ways foundational to my understanding of a field that I would eventually come to write in. I can’t say I became a science fiction writer because Keith gave me Bradbury’s book. But I can say I believe he understood me well enough to believe that it was the right book at the right time for me. And it was.

When I left Keith’s class to middle school, I would still drop by after class to chat with him and catch up; he always seemed pleased that I would come to say hello. I wasn’t the only former student who would do that — others told me they did it as well — but perhaps I was the most persistent, keeping in touch through high school and then college and then in the early parts of my professional career. Somewhere in there I directly asked him if he were gay, because by that time, several years on, some rumors had begun to circulate among his former students. Keith by this time had retired from teaching and told me it was true, named his partner and seemed perfectly at peace with it, and with me knowing.

By this time Keith was also sick. He was one of the many gay men who contracted HIV in the early days, before it was well understood and before there was a good treatment regimen for the virus. It developed into AIDS and he died of it, as did hundreds of thousands of gay and other Americans (and as do thousands still do, even today). I went to his memorial service, as did a few other of his former students, and at his funeral, with the permission of his family and partner, I sang a song I wrote for him.

Keith Johnson was a teacher and I can’t claim that I was more special to him than the hundreds of other students who passed through his classroom over the couple of decades he taught. But I think that’s the point of him being one of the best teachers I’ve known: His skills and talents as a teacher were for everyone, and were there for every student who came through his class. I don’t think I’m alone in saying he was the best teacher I’ve had, and I’ve had some magnificent ones over the years. But he stands alone.

To go back to the original question of how I as a straight male would feel about a homosexual teacher with my child eight hours a day, the answer is: A homosexual teacher was my best teacher, was the right teacher for me at a critical time, and saw me when I could have been lost. It’s even possible that in his way Keith Johnson saved me at a time when I most needed saving, simply by being the teacher he was with each of his students. I would have loved to have been able to introduce my daughter, born after he died, to Keith, my teacher and my friend. And I would want my daughter, and for every child, to have a teacher like Keith — one who saw her, one who taught her, and one who helped make her more herself, as Keith did with me. How could one not wish that for one’s child?

And now you know a little more about Keith Johnson, at least from my perspective. He was my best teacher. His memory is a blessing.

Moon Through the Trees, 1/28/18

It’s not quite the Super Blue Blood Moon, or whatever they’ll be calling it when it gets full in a few days. But it’s still pretty cool. And a nice capper on a good weekend.

Kristine, 1/27/18

Kristine Blauser Scalzi, 1/27/18

I think I’ve noted that the Pixel 2 phone takes pretty decent photos. Here’s an example. Mind you, it helps to have a good subject.

New Books and ARCs, 1/26/18

Some lovely tomes in this week’s stack of new books and ARCs. Tell us which ones beckon to you in the comments!

Producer’s Guild of America Anti-Sexual Harassment Guidelines (and Me)

An email just showed up asking if I’d seen to the new Producer’s Guild of America anti-sexual harassment guidelines, and whether I’d endorse having them implemented on any film/TV production I’d work on, or which was based on my work.

For reference, here are those guidelines.

My thoughts: The guidelines seem reasonable and to the extent I will have any say in these things, I’d endorse them for any production I work on or which is adapting my work. I don’t think it’s onerous from an implementation point of view, and bluntly I don’t think it’s too much to ask for that any production of my work be as harassment-free as possible. So, yes, I’ll bring this to the attention of my current production partners (particularly those who are in the PGA), and any future ones. Given who I’ve chosen to partner with, I don’t expect much in the way of push-back.

Also, you know. Apparently Wonder Woman 2 is going to be the first production to adopt these guidelines. If it’s good enough for Wonder Woman, it’s good enough for me.

Art and Entertainment and Commerciality

Chad, who is an architect, sent me this question today, which I am answering publicly with his permission:

I read a repost on Tor.com this morning regarding Ursula K Le Guin (rest in peace) where she made several interesting comments regarding “the production of a market commodity and the practice of an art.” This is something that I constantly wrestle with in the work we do as well and, given that you have been outspoken about writing commercially successful (to make money even!) and accessible books, I wanted to get your take, if you are willing:

How do you balance the commercial viability of your work and stay true to yourself or your “art”? Do you see your work as “entertainment”, “art” or both?

I’ve answered this to some extent before, but it’s worth checking in again on this for those of you who don’t want to hunt through the archives.

To answer the first question, with regard to the work I do with Tor, and especially since I signed that long contract with them which pays me a significant amount of money that I know Tor hopes to get back through book sales, I recognize that the work that I publish with them is meant to be explicitly commercial — that is to say, meant to sell lots and lots of books. It’s a cornerstone of what I write for them.

The good news for me is that generally speaking this is not a huge imposition, or really an imposition at all. I like writing commercially appealing science fiction, and not just because (relatively speaking) it pays better than writing something aggressively abstruse and/or not commercially focused. Again generally speaking, the storytelling that appeals to me most frequently as a reader is of a commercially accessible sort. When I started writing my own fiction, it made sense that it would be a mode that I would follow into.

I don’t think writing commercially accessible work is particularly restrictive in terms of the topics one can address in the work; “commercially accessible” is a mode, not a limit. Nor do I think it limits what one can do in terms of artistry. I think you can make a strong argument that staying within the bounds of which is “commercially accessible” in any era means that you prioritize some elements over others and that the amount you can “stretch the envelope” is less (or perhaps better stated that you can stretch it in fewer simultaneous directions) than if you feel free to disregard a commercial imperative — that the art goes to where the audience already is more than it challenges the audience to follow. But I don’t think it makes it any less art, or that commercially accessible art can’t move and affect people with the same intensity as art that has less overt commercial intent.

And let’s also make sure to note that this isn’t a binary thing; art isn’t either “commercially accessible” or “obscure and difficult.” It’s not just a spectrum, either; it’s a multidimensional plot with several axes, and a lot depends on your intent, your expected audience and your aim.

(Also, of course, art meant to be commercial can fail at being commercial, and art that doesn’t give a shit about its commercial prospects can be wildly commercially successful. Ultimately no one knows anything — you just do a lot of guessing. If you’re smart, you pay attention to the market you’re playing in and your guesses are at least informed. But the ground can shift under your feet faster than you can respond, especially when there are months and sometimes even years between you turning something in and it being published. To Le Guin’s point, this is why a smart commercial publisher shouldn’t just go with “safe” work — you have to take chances not just to lead a market, but sometimes to make a market.)

I like writing commercially accessible work, but what about those times when I want to do something creative that I expect not to be commercial, or that I can’t even guess as to its commercial prospects, or that I have no intent for it to be commercial? Usually I just do it anyway, because I enjoy doing it and I feel fine from time to time just doing stuff  and not worrying if it’s something anyone else will dig. For me, my photography and music stuff easily fits here, but there’s occasional writing I do that doesn’t fit with everything else, too. Sometimes I’ll sell it (for example, The God Engines), sometimes I put it up here on Whatever, and sometimes (rather infrequently, but even so) I just keep it for myself. Maybe you’ll see that stuff later, or after I’m dead, or never. And that’s fine. You won’t miss what you never see.

As for whether I see my work as “art” or “entertainment” or both, the answer is “both,” with the understanding that I don’t find “entertainment” a belittling term nor do I find “art” an ennobling one. Art is a creative act; entertainment is an amusing one. Lots of things overlap. There’s bad art and life-changing entertainment; there’s great art and entertainment that fails. There’s lots inbetween in both cases. I aim to make good art and good entertainment, generally speaking, and usually at the same time. Whether I succeed will be a matter of taste. But at the very least, most of the time I like what I make, and I’m my own first audience. So that’s a start.

The Big Idea: Brooke Bolander

The Cover to Brook Bolander's The Only Harmless Great Thing

I taught Brooke Bolander at the 2011 Clarion Writing Workshop, and while I would dearly like to claim credit for her development into an amazing writer, in fact the talent was always there. It comes to a fruition in the novella The Only Harmless Great Thing; here is Bolander to explain how radium and elephants and fable have all come together in this remarkable story.

BROOKE BOLANDER:

So, here’s a thing to think about the next time you get an itch in your getalong to ask a writer where they get their ideas from. Cool ideas for stories? They’re frickin’ everywhere. They live in science journals and history books. They’re written on sidewalks and subway cars and the faces of people waiting at crosswalks. Every single human being you push past on your way to grab a cup of coffee has a past that is a chain of potentially fascinating stories. We live in an age of unfettered, recklessly spewing information. The Internet is a cool idea fire hose that never, ever shuts off.

All of this is a very rambly, long-winded and onion-on-my-belt way of saying that the seed for The Only Harmless Great Thing came from a random comment on Twitter.

Mystical. How on earth do we do it?

Twitter is a lot of things. It’s a terrible distraction. Sometimes it’s just terrible, full stop. It’s also a great place to gather ideas, because when you throw that many disparate minds together and let them chatter like coked parakeets, you’re gonna come up with some wild stuff. It was 2013, so things were not, shall we say, quite as fraught as they’ve become in recent years. There was a lot more shooting the shit and a lot less dodging it as it was flung at our heads via government-issued trebuchet.

Another writer friend of mine, the talented and lovely Helena Bell, posted a poll asking what she should write about next. There were several choices, but the two I remember (for reasons that will soon become evident) were elephants and radium poisoning. I think painting might have been a choice as well, but again, this was in 2013. Recollections of the intervening years in my head look like they were drawn in crayon by Susie, Age 4. I’m pretty sure I rode a velociraptor to my job down at the Unicorn Fart factory back then.

“Why not combine both?” I said. And then, as ominous Foley board thunder crashed: “Wait, shit. Why don’t I combine both?”

Because in the moment it took to type that sentence fragment, my brain had just smashed two clown cars together to create a compressed, bloody, honking rainbow cube of a story idea. Figuring out which floppy shoe went to what polka-dotted limb would take a hell of a lot longer, but there it sat, composed of two terrible pieces of American history my subconscious had immediately (and disturbingly quickly) dredged up from the depths.

The story of elephants in the good ol’ US of A is, like the histories of many things in the good ol’ US of A, really, really depressing. The first, Old Bet, arrived from Calcutta in 1796 and toured with a circus for 21 years before being shot to death in 1816 by a farmer who thought charging townsfolk fees to gawk at an animal was ’sinful’. That pretty much set the tenor for the next couple hundred years of American/elephantine relations. Elephants were tortured, abused, and made to perform tricks and tasks until the stress broke their incredibly sensitive minds, at which point a rampage often ensued, humans died, and the elephant was shot to death, poisoned, or, on one horrifically memorable occasion, lynched. With the advent of electricity came a new and novel way to snuff the rebels out. A killer elephant in Georgia named Daisy was almost the first, but she was spared only to be shot to death by local police after breaking free to finish what she had started, namely Killing All Humans.

Which brings us to Topsy, who you may know about if only because of that one episode of Bob’s Burgers. Like Old Bet and Daisy before her, Topsy was a circus elephant driven to viciousness by cruel handlers and years of abuse. Her one confirmed kill involved a man burning the tip of her trunk with a lit cigar stub. Her owners sold her to the proprietors of Coney Island’s Luna Park, where she helped haul lumber and building materials for awhile until a handful of incidents involving a drunken trainer convinced management she was too much of a liability to keep. Her execution by electrocution in 1903 was recorded by a film crew from the Edison Manufacturing Movie Company and distributed under the title Electrocuting an Elephant. Contrary to popular legend, Thomas Edison appears to have had little to do with Topsy’s death; he was a notorious asshole for a lot of reasons you can read about elsewhere, but this time he was more or less blameless. Topsy wasn’t a victim of the Current Wars, which had more or less petered out some thirteen years earlier. She was simply the latest and most visible victim in a long and cruel system that had been exploiting her kind for centuries.

But the Edison name and the eerily silent footage of her slowly toppling, smoke billowing from her hide, would be enough to keep Topsy in the public memory for years to come.

So much for the elephant part of the equation. My brain has an encyclopedic knowledge of sad animal stories from history. One of my previous short stories involved Laika, so this wasn’t exactly a new development. An upcoming work involves Benjamin, the last thylacine, and it will hopefully complete the triptych so I can go off and write about happy people drinking steaming mugs of hot chocolate under big fluffy duvets for a change.

The radium craze and the horrific story of the Radium Girls was something I already knew about, but I’m a history major, I know about a lot of things I’m later shocked to learn aren’t common public knowledge. In this case, the fact that more people don’t know that an entire factory of women were more or less poisoned to death by their employers within the lifetime of their grandparents makes me want to burn everything down with cleansing fire. Since arson charges are tricky and prison blows, I decided to write a book about it instead.

After the Curies discovered radium in 1898, it didn’t take long for the element to become a wonder additive applied to everything from soaps and chocolate to condoms. It was radioactive—nobody was quite sure what that meant yet, but it sounded pretty cool in marketing slogans—and when mixed with certain other phosphorescent dyes it made a paint that glowed a faint green in the dark. The advent of World War I and the dark, dirty business of trench warfare meant there was a suddenly a ready market for wrist watches with glowing dials that could be easily read at night. Factories were opened to keep up with demand, and girls were hired to paint them. It was, by the standards of the early 20th century, a clean, desirable job: You were working with an element that was said to be great for your health, it paid fairly well, and the paint was fun to work with. The girls would paint their teeth with it. Their skin glittered and glowed faintly from free-floating paint particulate in the air; they nicknamed them the ‘Shining Girls’ because of this. So long as you kept up your quota of dials painted each day, you were just fine. The fastest girls quickly learned how to ‘tip’ the paint brushes with their lips, bringing the bristles to a fine point. It meant swallowing a lot of paint, but again, for the past thirty years radium had been marketed as a cure for cancer, herpes, indigestion, and pretty much anything else that might conceivably make a quick buck.

Behind the scenes, the scientists manufacturing the paint wore heavy protective gear and were warned about the potential dangers of working with the stuff. The girls on the factory floor weren’t so lucky. The ones with worries were soothed, shushed, and reassured of their safety. Why? Because it was cheaper and more efficient to simply not tell them about the potential side effects, and ‘cheaper and quicker’ has always given capitalists a boner roughly the size of Scrooge McDuck’s money bin. What they didn’t know wouldn’t slow the worker’s productivity. Why bother stirring the pot?

Until the girls at last began to sicken and die.

Even that didn’t put the brakes on management, at first. They blamed it on other things. They implied that the girls were contracting syphilis, in the time-honored and ever-ready tradition of the Whores Had It Coming. When a state safety inspector wrote a scathing report about the dangerous conditions at one of the factories, a massive cover-up ensued (it took a woman to eventually blow the lid off). Meanwhile, girls were still falling ill in rapidly growing numbers. Lawsuits came later, and trials, but the wheels of justice move glacially. By the time all was said and done and settlements paid, years had passed. Most of the Radium Girls were already dead.

The factories shuttered. Memories faded. The world moved swiftly on.

Acts of injustice done
Between the setting and the rising sun
In history lie like bones, each one.

Sixteen years separated the death of Topsy and the employment of the first Radium Girls at a factory in Orange, New Jersey, making their stories more or less of a similar vintage. A little girl could have hypothetically been at Coney Island on that fateful January day as a toddler and grown up to wield a brush at U.S. Radium. All of them died for profit, to save their bosses an extra dollar and to make some in the bargain. Animals and women were considered expendable.

The more I thought about this, the angrier I got. The angrier I got, the more I felt that these stories somehow needed to be told together. From an offhand comment on Twitter, something vicious was simmering.

It took another three years for the story to take a shape I was satisfied with, and by that time other things had been rolled up in my story Katamari: the history of uranium, the ongoing project to leave a marker for future generations warning of buried nuclear waste, the history of Coney Island itself. 2016 blew through like a shit hurricane and left me with even more to stew over. I thought a lot about history, how it’s perceived and how it truly is and who gets to tell the narratives that become the memories that become culture. I thought about it as a living, breathing thing that shimmies and shakes and causes ripples that often belie those carefully crafted narratives. I mulled over poison in the ground and in the marrow; how often we forget, the terrible lies we tell ourselves and are told for comfort’s sake. I thought about the ways in which capitalism exploits us, and what we have to gain when we come together in solidarity to fight. And I thought about women—women’s stories, women’s friendships, women’s anger.

I finally sat down and wrote the book very late in 2016. It took me two weeks. It involves an alternate timeline (maybe even an alternate universe) where elephants have been recognized as sentient beings. Of course, that hasn’t stopped their exploitation, because when has it ever? They can speak with sign language, but are not listened to. They can express themselves, but are still more or less slaves of man.

In the aftermath of the Radium Girls incident, circus elephants are bought on the cheap and put to use painting watch dials, being big enough to take a lot of radium before they die and expendable enough that nobody really cares. One of the elephants is Topsy. A factory girl, slowly dying of jaw cancer, is kept on to teach her animal replacement the ropes of the job that has sentenced her to a miserable lingering death. From mutual exploitation they strike up a kind of understanding. Things go from there. Terrible choices are made—choices that will have massive ramifications in an alternate present and a far-flung future.

Also there are wooly mammoth folk tales of the Furmother and an post-apocalyptic elephantine Greek chorus, because this is a deeply weird little puzzle box of a book. I can’t promise that you’ll like it, or that it’ll be your thing. It’s probably not an airport read. The language can be fiddly (I dig fiddly) and there are three different timelines & numerous POVs to spool up in your brainmeats. There’s every chance it might seem as tangly as Christmas lights upon first read.

But it’s short, and it’s angry, and it’s the book I needed to write, turns out, although I didn’t know that back in 2013 when Twitter initially lobbed those acorns at my head. We can only tell the stories we’re capable of telling and hope against hope they reach the people who need them the most. My dearest wish is that The Only Harmless Great Thing finds its people, and that maybe one of you will be one of them.

—-

The Only Harmless Great Thing: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

John Picacio Offering Worldcon Memberships to Mexicanx Fans and Creators

Here he is, explaining it in a series of six tweets. If you’re eligible, feel free to apply.

Please note that when John says “Post a reply here” he means to his Twitter account or email, not to my Web site here or to me. He’s handling all the work. Here’s where you can find his email. And of course feel free to share.

RIP, Ursula K. Le Guin

I’ve written a remembrance of Ursula K. Le Guin; it’s up at the Los Angeles Times.

As I wrote there:

“The speaking of her name and of her words goes on, and will go on, today and tomorrow and for a very long time now. As it should. She was the mother of so many of us, and you should take time to mourn your mother.”

First Pass Oscar Predictions, 2018

Every year, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences persists in nominating films and people for their “Oscars” award, which you may have heard of, and I, in a vestige of my time as a professional film critic, go through the “Big Six” categories and try to guess who and what are going to win, usually getting five out of six (but not always the same five out of six) categories correct. The nominations for this year’s Academy Awards came out today, so let’s do this thing again, shall we?

A caveat: In the last few years it’s become harder to make accurate predictions, in part because as the Academy itself has become younger and more diverse (not a lot more younger and diverse, yet, but still), its voting has become somewhat more adventurous. Also, a passing generation means that some things that might have been a shoe-in for a Best Picture win have to work harder to stay in the mix (yes, I’m looking at you, “Dunkirk”). This is a good thing for the Award of Record of the film industry, but makes accurate guessing of winners harder. Don’t pity me, I’ll be fine.

Now, let’s do this thing.

Best Picture:

“Call Me by Your Name”
“Darkest Hour”
“Dunkirk”
“Get Out”
“Lady Bird”
“Phantom Thread”
“The Post”
“The Shape of Water”
“Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”

The general rule of thumb is that the films without Best Director nods are shoved out of the boat first. It’s not always accurate — see “Argo” a few years back — but it’s generally a safe bet. Which means in this case, we should say goodbye to “The Post,” “Darkest Hour,” “Call Me By Your Name” and “Three Billboards.” With that said, I think “Three Billboards” is still likely in the mix because it’s got a significant number of other high profile nods (Best Actress, Best Supporting Actor, Best Original Screenplay) and a few other nods as well. “Post,” “Hour” and “Name,” however, are probably already out of the running, although if Trump does something genuinely awful with the press during the voting period, I mean more than usual, I can see “Post” getting a surge.

In the old days I think “Dunkirk” would be a slam dunk for Best Picture — it’s war and nobility and all that stuff — but I don’t think WWII is as resonant as it used to be. “Phantom Thread” like most Paul Thomas Anderson movies is handsome and intelligent and I think people admire it more than love it, so I don’t see the award going that direction. “The Shape of Water” got the most Oscar nominations and that’s not chicken feed, but it’s a fantasy film with significant horror elements, and fantasy has only won Best Picture once with “The Return of the King,” which won because it was a capstone of a trilogy that is the arguably the best popular trilogy of films in cinema. I think it would be delightful if “Water” won but I suspect it won’t. I think it’s likely to be the “Color Purple” of 2018: Nominated for lots, winning little, and people wondering why at the end of it.

The three finalists in my mind are “Three Billboards,” “Lady Bird” and “Get Out,” and of the three I think “Get Out” is the likely (but historically unusual) winner — likely because it really was the right film at the right time, i.e., a time when racists are literally on the march again, and one is in the White House, and unusual because it’s a horror film and only one horror film (“The Silence of the Lambs”) has won before. But aside from it being a good film, I think the Academy will like the idea of shoving a middle finger way up in the air at racism (and, yes, indirectly at Trump). I think it’s possible either “Three Billboards” or “Lady Bird” could sneak by but I suspect not (it’s more difficult to “split the vote” in the Best Picture category because it uses preferential balloting). I think it’s “Get Out”‘s year, and rightly so.

Will Win: Get Out
Should Win: Get Out

Best Director:

“Dunkirk,” Christopher Nolan
“Get Out,” Jordan Peele
“Lady Bird,” Greta Gerwig
“Phantom Thread,” Paul Thomas Anderson
“The Shape of Water,” Guillermo del Toro

For a very long time, the Best Director and Best Picture Oscars were generally well-linked, but in the last several years there’s been a tendency to split them up, and I strongly suspect that will happen again this year, in part because if “Get Out” wins, Jordan Peele will get an Oscar as a producer anyway, and because this year the Academy has two multiply-nominated directors it would probably like to throw a bone to, not only for this year’s films but as a career award.

So: Peele I think will not get the award here, for reasons mentioned above. Next out is Greta Gerwig — it’s great that she’s here (you can still count the number of women nominated for Best Director on one hand), but I think being here is her award for the moment. Next out, I suspect, is del Toro, as part of my blanket suspicion that “Water” is going to miss out on pretty much everything (I’d like to be wrong!).

This leaves us with Nolan and Anderson, both of whom have been multiply nominated before, and make the sort of films that makes the film industry feel good about itself, in terms of pushing out “classic, intelligent” movies. Of the two I would give the edge to Anderson, who has been nominated as director before (Nolan’s previous nominations were producer and screenplay nods), and overall has more nominations. I don’t think you can argue that the man is not deserving of the award, either overall or in reference to this particular film. And again the Academy seems to like to split up Director and Picture these days. So Anderson is my frontrunner for now.

Will Win: Anderson
Should Win: del Toro

Best Actor:

Timothée Chalamet, “Call Me by Your Name”
Daniel Day-Lewis, “Phantom Thread”
Daniel Kaluuya, “Get Out”
Gary Oldman, “Darkest Hour”
Denzel Washington, “Roman J. Israel, Esq.”

Oddly enough, Denzel Washington is out first for me — not because I don’t love him as an actor (I think he’s arguably the best actor of his generation) but because his film is not otherwise nominated for anything, and he already has two Oscars. So this is kind of like when the Academy nominates Meryl Streep in one or the other of the Actress categories: A nice safe choice to fill out the ballot.

Next out for me is Chalamet, who I suspect is just happy to be here and rightfully so, and then Kaluuya, whose performance (in a horror film!) might ultimately be too subtle for the people who prefer flashy performances with ACTING in them.

Which leads us to Day-Lewis and Oldman, both of whom are actors acting with actory intensity. Day-Lewis has three Oscars already so he doesn’t really need another, but then again he’s said this is last film role, so maybe the Academy will want to see him off in Oscarly fashion, which, well, fine. But with that said I think it’s going to be Oldman’s year. He’s been Hollywood’s utility infielder for a long time now, slotting in to that place where Michael Caine and Gene Hackman used to be, and representing august historical personages in crisis is an Academy Award sweet spot (note Day’s last win, for “Lincoln”). I think Oldman’s beatable in the category, but he is the man to beat.

Will Win: Oldman
Should Win: Kaluuya

Best Actress:

Sally Hawkins, “The Shape of Water”
Frances McDormand, “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”
Margot Robbie, “I, Tonya”
Saoirse Ronan, “Lady Bird”
Meryl Streep, “The Post”

For my money the most competitive category this year in terms of quality. Streep is, well, Streep — this is her 21st acting nomination (she’s won three times), and this time she’s not just filler on the ballot, as she has been before (I’m looking at you, nominations for “Florence Foster Jenkins” and “Into the Woods”). But I still don’t think it’s her year. Likewise Sally Hawkins, who in fact I would love to see win — such a great performance, without words. I won’t toss her completely out of contention; if Holly Hunter could win an Oscar without speaking, Hawkins can’t be dismissed entirely. But I think she has an uphill climb.

Margot Robbie is my next out. Her performance as Tonya Harding is the patented “gorgeous actress who can actually act has to uglify herself to make people realize she can in fact act” maneuver, which is a thing we should probably have more of a conversation about than we typically do, but it often works and still might here. But I think the competition this year does not make the votes fall in her favor.

It comes down to McDormand and Ronan for me. Both of them won Golden Globes this year and both of them have given widely praised performances, and both are previously multiply nominated for Oscars, with McDormand having won one for Fargo. I think it’s a real coin toss here, and I change my mind about who has the edge roughly once a minute. This very second, I give the slight edge to McDormand, but ask me again in a minute and I’m not sure I can guarantee I’ll say the same thing. As noted: The most competitive category this year, in my opinion.

Will Win: McDormand
Should Win: Hawkins

Best Supporting Actor:

Willem Dafoe, “The Florida Project”
Woody Harrelson, “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”
Richard Jenkins, “The Shape of Water”
Christopher Plummer, “All the Money in the World”
Sam Rockwell, “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”

I think Harrelson and Rockwell have a pretty good chance of splitting the “Three Billboards” vote, although I suspect Rockwell has a better chance here than Harrelson. Jenkins does a lovely job in “Water” but I don’t know that it’s enough to catch up to who I see as the two front runners. Plummer has momentum for literally coming into a film at the last minute and still socking his performance out of the park, but he’s won this category before and I don’t know if it’s important for voters to award him again, even for being Not Kevin Spacey. For me that leaves Willem Dafoe, who basically stands in for “The Florida Project” which is otherwise off the ballot, and for whom this will be seen as a career award, and thus a pretty easy vote.

Will Win: Dafoe
Should Win: Dafoe

Best Supporting Actress:

Mary J. Blige, “Mudbound”
Allison Janney, “I, Tonya”
Lesley Manville, “Phantom Thread”
Laurie Metcalf, “Lady Bird”
Octavia Spencer, “The Shape of Water”

Octavia Spencer already has an Oscar in this category and the category is hotly competitive this year; I don’t see her winning. Likewise I wonder to what extent a possible bias against Netflix (which doesn’t really release its films into theaters, unlike, say Amazon) will impact Mary J. Blige; I guess we’ll see (Disclosure: I sold film rights to Old Man’s War to Netflix). I don’t see Lesley Manville moving the needle (no pun intended) in the category, either.

So that leaves Allison Janney and Laurie Metcalf, both playing mothers (albeit of different sorts), and while the fan of both actresses in me is screaming don’t make me choose give it to both which by the way could totally happen (Katharine Hepburn and Barbra Streisand tied for Best Actress one year), I suspect Janney may have the slightest of edges because the mother she’s performing is kind of a monster, and monsters are fun to perform and watch. But seriously, Academy: Work a tie in this category. Everybody will be happy!

Will Win: Allison Janney
Should Win: Either Janney or Metcalf

Other categories:

I suspect James Ivory may have an in for his Adapted Screenplay for “Call Me By Your Name”; he’s been multiply nominated as a director over the years, never winning, and this would be a lovely career recognition award. After Best Actress, I think Original Screenplay is the most competitive category, and the one where Guillermo del Toro has his best chance of winning something on Oscar night (screenplay Oscars are often the “consolation” Oscar for people nominated for director). That said, I’ll be cheering for Emily V. Gordon & Kumail Nanjiani in the category because we’re Twitter friends, and also their screenplay is wonderful. I see no future where Coco doesn’t win Best Animated Film.

I’ll likely check in again closer to Oscar night and offer some tweaks to these predictions, but for right now: This is it.

Thoughts of your own about this year’s nominees, or just want to detail how I’m wrong about everything (in terms of my Oscar predictions)? That’s what the comments are for.

The Big Idea: S. Craig Zahler

S. Craig Zahler writes and directs films most of the time, but the story of Hug Chickenpenny was one that called out for written rather than cinematic form. But Zahler found there was a theme that ran through his book writing efforts that ran through all his other efforts as well. He’s here to tell you what it is.

S. CRAIG ZAHLER:

Perseverance is possibly the single most consistent quality that the protagonists have in all of my different pieces, whether science fiction, horror, crime, western, or just, let’s say, this gothic fairy tale that is Hug Chickenpenny.

I originally created this character probably about 20 years ago. At that time, I was reading a lot of Charles Dickens. Also, I was a big fan of David Lynch—and still am—and so I think those sensibilities are there. But, typically, my inspiration isn’t so much that I see something and want to emulate it, it’s more that I think of something I haven’t seen—perhaps in a genre that I have seen—and think of a new way to bring it to life.

So, in the case of Hug Chickenpenny: The Pangegyric of an Anomalous Child, I was interested in doing something that had a Dickensian scope—and it’s an orphan tale, so it bears that relationship—but, at the same time, I knew that I wanted the titular character to be different from any I’d read about, and for the world to be comparably unique. And so it really comes from a place of me wanting to read a story and write a story that I hadn’t quite seen before. But certainly Charles Dickens, David Lynch, and the incredible books by Mervyn Peake– The Gormenghast Trilogy– are all things that influenced what Hug Chickenpenny became.

So, certainly that’s there: Perseverance. Seeing how someone deals with trying situations and how they overcome them as things get harder and harder, whether it is Arthur with the broken leg in Bone Tomahawk still continuing to make the journey towards his wife, or the terrible prison situation that Bradley finds himself in in Brawl in Cell Block 99.

Hug Chickenpenny starts off in a situation worse than either of these people, and how his character develops through it– as well as the effects of his early relationships with George Dodgett and Dr. Hannersby and the other characters– says a lot about who he innately is. So perseverance is there throughout. I am on day 13 of a 28 day work streak, where every day is 14 to 16 hours. Just, in the last five days, I wrote eight soul songs with my songwriting partner that are going to go into a new movie.

And then, after working until 8 in the morning on Sunday through Monday, I came into the editing room, worked until 5 in the morning last night, and I’ll be here just as late tonight. So it’s something I do: I push hard towards the things that I want. I have a lot of drive, and that’s a common trait for the lead characters in pieces I do. Not all of them, but I’d probably say the most common trait is: they persevere.

—-

Hug Chickenpenny: The Pangegyric of an Anomalous Child: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Visit the author’s site.

First Impressions: Google Pixelbook

A picture of a Google Pixelbook

I have come into possession of a Google Pixelbook, the company’s latest high-end Chromebook (don’t worry, I didn’t kill anybody for it, so far) and have been playing with it for most of the day that wasn’t given over to going to the dentist. I’ve played with it enough that I have some definite opinions about the thing, which I will share with you now. Spoiler: This is, so far, a delightful machine.

1. The very first thing I noticed about the Pixelbook is that it is ridiculously thin and light. It’s easily the lightest computer I think I’ve ever had, excepting possibly the original Asus Chromebook Flip (which had a substantially smaller screen and overall form factor). It’s thinner than my third-generation iPad with a Logitech keyboard/cover attached to it (I just checked). Overall, the form factor will probably make it an ideal travel companion.

2. The second thing I noticed is that the Pixelbook is also probably the sharpest-looking computer I’ve owned. Google has its own “glass and metal” aesthetic now, which originated on the Pixel phones but has transferred over to this computer quite handily. This aesthetic is distinct from, say, the Apple aesthetic, and from the general mass of PC laptops, and is simple and clean and functional. I like it. That said, the Pixelbook is already smudged from me being a human on it, particularly the outside glass surface.

3. The keyboard part of the Pixelbook is very nice. The keyboard itself is full-sized and backlit (a must for me these days) and typing on it is pleasant if necessarily shallow given the thinness of the computer. It feels good and clicky and has enough travel for me. The trackpad is glass and responsive; the handrest areas are apparently covered in silicon, which feels pretty good.

As with all Chromebooks, the All Caps key has been replaced with a search key that goes (of course) directly to a Google search. I use this key on Chromebooks about as much as I use the All Caps key on other laptops and keyboards, which is to say, not at all. The keyboard also has a Google Assistant key, which brings up Google’s AI pal, Google Assistant (more on that in a moment). You can also call up Google Assistant by saying “OK Google,” although beware if you have more than one Google device within earshot that activates to that phrase. At the moment I’m in a room that has three such devices. It gets messy (Google, let us train our devices to use phrases specific to them, please).

4. The screen is 12.3 inches diagonally, 4:3 ratio and 2400×1600 pixels, which means it’s nice and sharp. I’ve seen some reviews complain about the size of the bezels surrounding the screen but honestly they’re fine. The screen can get crazy bright if you jack it up all the way. My only complaint about the screen is that it’s highly reflective, so if you’re in an area with a lot of glass and light, well, it’s probably a good thing the screen can get crazy bright.

The screen also folds back all the way to turn the Pixelbook into a 12-inch tablet, and since the Pixelbooks are fully able to run Android apps, the tablet experience is pretty solid. I used the Texture app to read magazines on the screen in portrait mode; it worked like a charm and I was able to see the articles in the magazine’s original layout with the type clear and readable. This will be a very good computer for comics and graphic novels, I suspect.

5. Accessories: 2 USB-C outlets and you can charge from either, but no other slots save for a headphone jack, so be ready to live the dongle life (which to be honest I’ve already been doing for a while and don’t find to be much of an imposition; your mileage may vary). The speakers are perfectly serviceable. I haven’t used the webcam and am not really likely to all that much, but it’s 720p if you’re curious, which, meh, that’s fine.

The standout accessory for the Pixelbook is the Pixelbook Pen, which you can use to draw, take notes, and to activate Google Assistant, if you like. I haven’t played with mine all that much yet, but it works perfectly well and I suspect very strongly that I’m going to lose it in no time at all. Note that the Pen is a separate purchase. If you like using styluses with your computers, you might find it useful. If you don’t (and I don’t, usually), I don’t think it’s a critical purchase.

6. I noted above that the Pixelbook runs Android apps, and I ran several (the aforementioned Texture; Photoshop Express and Snapseed; DJay2 and Microsoft’s Word app for Android) to see how they did. The answer: They ran really well, which is not all that much of a surprise considering this laptop has a very fast processor and about four times the RAM of most top-end smartphones.

This Android compatibility is, I think, the thing that (finally) makes a solid argument for a Chromebook being enough laptop for most people. For most folks, who don’t need an exhaustive feature set for writing or photo editing (or other creative processes), mobile apps will do the job well enough, and the Android ecosystem of apps is both wide and deep at this point. When I travel I’ve found that Chromebooks are more than sufficient for nearly everything I need on the road; I can even do substantial photo editing now with Android apps on a Chromebook. Pretty much the only thing I wouldn’t do on a Chromebook is check the copy editing of a novel, where the copy editor has electronically appended comments — I’m pretty sure it’s possible to do it, but I don’t think it would be a particularly good experience, and I’m not in a rush to confirm that.

I’m enough of a power user across a number of categories that I’ll probably never give up a Windows desktop box (in fact, I recently picked up a new one). But I don’t really use laptops for power use anyway, and again, I suspect that 95% of people would find the Chrome OS/Android combo more than sufficient for 95% of the things they use a computer for, in no small part because I find it sufficient for most things I do. And the Pixelbook genuinely is the current top-of-the-line experience for Chromebooks.

7. A brief moment to talk about the Google Assistant integration into the Pixelbook, as I’ve experienced it so far. It’s fine but it doesn’t feel particularly essential, because search can already be handled a number of ways (use the search key; type a query into the URL field; actually open up Google) and GA is not currently differentiated enough from Google’s general search to make it that much more useful. GA can also do things like brighten or darken your screen or raise or lower the speaker volume or even open up apps for you, but again it’s not as if you can’t do these things yourself, and quickly (I’ve noted a pretty serious lag between me asking GA to do something and it doing it, but I’m not going to blame Google for that. I have notoriously terrible and slow Internet here, so it might just be taking forever for the response to get to Google’s servers, and then to come back. That’s not on Google).

Google Assistant isn’t hurting the Pixelbook in any way, and it’s entirely possible others will find it more useful than I have so far. It’s also possible over time I’ll find it more useful than I do now. But right now, Google Assistant feels like a solution in search of a problem.

8. I’m going to come out and say I really, really like the Pixelbook. It’s beautiful and beautifully engineered, nicely powerful, everything that’s good about it is excellent, and the things that I question the utility of don’t get in the way of it being close to perfect for me and for how I use laptops. Would I recommend one to you? Sure, if you like Chrome OS and Android, and are content with the Google technological ecosystem.

The caveat is that Pixelbooks aren’t cheap, ranging from $1000 to about $1600, and you can get very serviceable Chromebooks for substantially less. I own an Asus 302CA, for example, which does much of what the Pixelbook does (including flipping the screen around, running Android apps, and having a backlit keyboard) for $500. You’re paying extra on the Pixelbook for faster processors, more memory, a higher resolution screen and the Google Pixel aesthetic (oh, and for Pixelbook Pen capability). You’ll have to decide for yourself if these things are worth it.

Personally, I vote for yes. This is easily the best Chromebook out there, and at first blush at least, it’s the nicest laptop I’ve owned, a title long held by my late, lamented (and stolen!) Mac Air. We’ll see if it holds up in the long run, but for right now: Hey, the Pixelbook is pretty great.

Confusion in Black and White

Every January I attend the Confusion Convention in Michigan, and this January was no exception. One again I had a delightful time with many people I like and admire. And I also got pictures, as I often do. I’ll be posting a more complete set at some point in the near(ish) future, but until them, here are some I took, in glorious black and white. Enjoy.

Charlie Jane Anders, David Anthony Durham, Kate Elliott
Charlie Jane Anders, David Anthony Durham, Kate Elliott
Meg Frank
Meg Frank
Andrea Phillips
Andrea Phillips
Luke Daniels
Luke Daniels 
Annalee Newitz
Annalee Newitz
Jim Butcher
Jim Butcher
Kristine Scalzi
Kristine Scalzi

Regarding a Recent SFWA Action

The Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, of which I was previously the president, has issued a statement about an action it undertook, regarding an application for membership. That statement is here.

As a former president, it has been my general policy not to offer up public opinions about the actions of the current SFWA board, either positive or negative, and that is a policy I plan to continue regarding this particular decision.

Tangentially and as a general note, not pertaining to any specific individual and applicable, metaphorically and/or literally, to many situations in life:

If you publicly announce that you’re going to go to someone’s house, shit yourself and then smear the results on the furniture, you should not be surprised when you’re not allowed on the property.

It’s Been That Kind of Day, So Please Accept This Picture of a Cat Who Is, Frankly, All Over Your Brand of Nonsense

I feel you, Spice. I truly do.

The Big Idea: Jason Franks

In his Big Idea piece for Faerie Apocalypse, author Jason Franks notes he didn’t want this fantasy novel to have a map — and as it turns out, in many ways, in the writing of the book, he found himself in uncharted territory as well.

JASON FRANKS:

A young man travels to Faerie Land looking for a woman based solely on her appearance or other genetic attributes. She has a magical heritage, or royal blood. Of course, she is also beautiful.  In the old days (most of these stories are set in a past era) this was, I guess, considered romantic. By today’s standards it’s creepy at best. What kind of a person does this? This was the Big Idea behind my new book, Faerie Apocalypse.

Initially, I thought it was a short story. I figured out what my protagonist really wanted and I sat down to write it… but once I had begun, I realized that the project was a lot more involved than I had anticipated.

I wanted the engage the sense of whimsy and wonder that makes fairyland stories such a delight for children, and to use that to bring out the darker impulses that makes these stories compelling for adults. I wanted to turn the tropes of the genre against each other.

I needed some distance from the characters in order to maintain sleight of hand and so I made the hard decision not to give most of them names. There’s a story-based reason for this (“Rumplestiltskin!”) but that made it difficult to show enough point-of-view to be engaging. This had knock-on effects that caused me to re-examine the way I write at a nuts-and-bolts level.

My usual prose style is pretty lean (one of my workshop buddies complains that it’s ‘skeletal’), and it didn’t work under these constraints. For this piece I needed something lush, but I didn’t want to let the style get in the way of storytelling. Cormac McCarthy’s work* gave me a good starting point, but mainly I solved this problem through hard graft. I worked it draft after draft, scene after scene, paragraph after paragraph, sentence after sentence, until I thought it was right.

As I built out the story I discovered new scenarios and characters. The story grew to encompass other characters with their own missions: a magician, looking for power; an urchin looking for his father; a wage-slave looking for meaning; a faerie queen who grows tired of being the object of someone else’s quest. It was tough to braid all of these stories together, but as I wrote the book I found connections I had neither planned nor expected.  I was halfway through the first draft before I figured out what was really happening to the Realms under my protagonists’ trampling feet. (Hint: it’s in the title.)

It helped that I knew what I didn’t want the story to be. I didn’t want it to be old-timey. I didn’t want period characters—I wanted mortals originating in contemporary settings (1980s to 2020s). I didn’t want a Faerie Land that is just some adjacent reality—I wanted one that has a reflexive relationship with our own, built from our dreams and our stories. I didn’t want the Faerie Folk to be a bunch of gamebook-classifiable races—I wanted them to be as complex and diverse and perverse as humans. Their immortal lives, bound in storybook rules, make them both more and less than we are.

I also knew going in that I didn’t want a map. The geography and climate in this Faerie Land is mutable and will bend itself to accommodate the stories that play across it—or to the will of those who are powerful enough to influence it directly.

The book is quite short, but I wrote probably 50% again as much material as you see in this final version. The final shape of it is dense and non-linear and twisted. I think it’s a fast read, but a challenging one. I hope you’ll find it as rewarding—and unsettling—to read as it was for me to write.

* Fear not—the book is fully punctuated. Overly punctuated, if I’m honest. I hope you like em dashes and semicolons.

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Faerie Apocalypse: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|iBooks|Kobo

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

A Thought, Not Random But Possibly Not All That Consequential

Which is:

I went and got my teeth cleaned by the dentist today, and when I was done I got a jelly donut and snarfed it right down, at least partially, I think, as oppositional behavior.

Is it just me who does these sorts of (very) minor rebellions? I mean, I’m 48 now. I kinda thought I’d be over that sort of thing at this age.

Your thoughts in the comments, please.

Sunset, 1/14/18

Big yellowy sunset with glowing clouds.

Because sunsets are nice, and this was a nice sunset.

Hope your weekend was lovely.