I’m catching up on quite a few new books and ARCs that arrived at the Scalzi Compound while I was on tour. Here’s the first batch for this week, and there are some gems. See anything you like? Tell us in the comments!
I’m catching up on quite a few new books and ARCs that arrived at the Scalzi Compound while I was on tour. Here’s the first batch for this week, and there are some gems. See anything you like? Tell us in the comments!
When Stephanie Burgis found what she thought was a magical site, she discovered she wasn’t alone in that opinion — and thus, the fantasy anthology The Underwater Ballroom Society, edited by Burgis and Tiffany Trent. Where was this place and what was the attraction? Both editors are here to explain.
TIFFANT TRENT & STEPHANIE BURGIS:
There are some places in the world that were simply meant for magic.
Have you ever walked into a new place – or seen a striking, evocative photo – and thought: There really ought to be a story set here?
When I saw photos of the “underwater ballroom” at Witley Park, I let out a physical gasp of wonder. It was such an incredible concept. It was practically designed for fantasy fiction! I was desperate to read magical stories in that kind of underwater setting.
Because I was on Twitter at the time (as I often am), I said just that, quite idly. Of course I didn’t intend to do anything about it myself. I didn’t have the time to write a new novel, or even a novella, no matter how amazing that setting might be. I had contracts to fulfill! I had serious professional commitments!
…and, as it turned out, I had a lot of passionate friends who shared the same immediate, intuitive certainty that there had to be magic in a setting like that!
Tiffany Trent tweeted back to me within seconds: “Have been saving files and photos on this to write something about it for years…”
And when I replied, ” (Actually, you know what would be fun? An anthology of novelettes by different authors all using that concept!)” – more and more friends started raising their hands, all drawn by the sheer joy of the idea.
Everyone could see the potential. It was irresistible! How could a story with an underwater ballroom not be fun? How could it not be even better with magic or some other kind of speculative fiction concept?
Of course, we all had Serious, Grown-Up Authorial Commitments elsewhere…but sometimes, you just have to play in an underwater ballroom for a month or two regardless. Sometimes you just can’t resist diving in.
…Because some places were simply meant for magic.
As I say in the introduction to the anthology, it’s great to ask “what if?” but the next step is to say, “yes, we can.” I would never have dreamed if someone had asked me a year ago that the underwater ballroom I’d secretly been hoping to write about for years would end up as an anthology I co-edited with one of my dearest writer friends, filled to the brim with fabulous stories from writers I admire.
When writers jumped at the opportunity and Steph and I turned to one another and said, “Let’s do this thing,” every story that came in seemed like a small miracle. Each one of them is scintillating in its own way. The ballroom is a smuggler’s hiding spot. It’s the scene of a rock-and-roll showdown. It’s where a fury remembers herself. It’s the setpiece for a heist. Sometimes the ballroom shatters at the end. Sometimes the ballroom is filled with feasts and dancing. Sometimes the ballroom remains perilously empty, waiting for magic that never comes. Sometimes it’s a refuge against the dark.
And what has been most wonderful about this, beyond watching our writers build beautiful fantasies on the scaffold of an underwater ballroom, is the feedback we’ve gotten from all of our readers so far. Every advance reader has found something to love in this anthology. The word “fun” keeps getting repeated in every new review, and it’s exactly what we’d hoped for. In times like these, bringing readers such happiness, giving them escape and delight even if only for a few minutes, means the world.
This anthology has inspired a sea change, if you’ll forgive the pun. It’s reminded me why we do this work that we do. For all that writing can feel maddening and thankless, there are times when stories can bring magic, especially when seen through the shimmering glass of an underwater dome.
I liked Avengers: Infinity War and in many ways it’s a technical cinematic (excuse the pun) marvel — it’s not an easy job to integrate this many storylines, characters and stars into a single movie and both give them all enough space to do their thing, and still keep the film hurtling inevitably toward a climax. In this regard, this film’s cinematic predecessors aren’t so much other superhero films as the Cecil De Mille-style biblical epics, the kind where big name stars were dropped in for even the smallest roles, and part of the experience was watching, say, Vincent Price vamp about as a ridiculously incongruent ancient Egyptian. This is that, except that the gods are played by Australians and Brits, and the plague in this case is Josh Brolin, underneath some impressive CGI.
But as impressively well put together as it is — and it is; after this, Civil War and The Winter Soldier, I’m perfectly willing to say that the Russo brothers are possibly the most adept action directors we have working in film right now — and as enjoyable and exciting as the film is in the moment (which, bluntly, is its remit as a superhero film: to keep you munching your popcorn delightedly as events transpire onscreen), the film suffers and for me is ultimately unsatisfying. Not for anything the film itself does or doesn’t do; again, this is an extraordinarily competent film, and enjoyable on every level, and a more than satisfactory funnel into which to pour the entire official Marvel universe to date. It suffers not because of what it does, but because of what I know.
And what do I know?
(and here is where I put the spoiler warning, so if you haven’t seen the film, go no further)
(although honestly since the film made $250 million domestically and $630 million worldwide in its first weekend, there doesn’t seem like there’s anyone who hasn’t seen this film by this point)
(even so, once again: spoiler warning)
(okay, that’s enough parenthetical grafs for right now)
What I know is that there’s no friggin’ way Spider-Man and Black Panther, to name just two, go out like punks.
This isn’t a question of story, this is a question of economics. Black Panther grossed $688 million in the US and $1.3 billion worldwide; even if a Black Panther 2 made half that (and it seems unlikely it would make just half that), it would still be one of the top five grossing films of its year. If you think Disney, of all companies, is going to leave that sort of money on the table, you are officially super high. Likewise, if you think Marvel is going to let Spider-Man, still their biggest and most well-known superhero, despite years of fumbling at the hands of Sony, lie fallow after they’ve just now reintegrated him into the official Marvel universe (and his most recent film did $880 million business worldwide), then, again, you are supremely buzzed, my friend.
Additionally, I’m well aware that on the Marvel schedule, there is another Avengers film, originally called Infinity War Part 2. It’s not called that anymore, but it’s not because Infinity War was meant to be its own stand-alone film in the Marvel continuity, or because the next Avengers film isn’t going to be Infinity War, Part 2; they just want to give it a cooler title. This was always going to be a film that was going to end on a cliff-hanger.
Knowing what I know about Marvel and Disney’s business, here’s what I felt when Black Panther turned into dust at the end of Infinity War, not for anything he did, but simply because he was part of the unlucky half of the thinking universe that fell under Thanos’ curse:
lol, yeah, okay there, Marvel.
Likewise with Spider-Man; likewise with two-thirds of the Guardians of the Galaxy, and so on.
Again, to be clear: This is not the fault of Avengers: Infinity War. It hit its marks and hit them well, and the internal logic of the film holds up. Viewed from the inside of the film, the filmmakers didn’t shy away from what was necessary — they killed a shitload of characters, not only to illustrate the stakes, but to make the point of what Thanos’ scheme means to everyone in the universe. It does just about everything right within its own framework. I could quibble at points here and there, but not with the overall film.
But Infinity War doesn’t exist only within its own framework; it exists as part of an overall business plan for Marvel and Disney. And, leaving aside the simple fact that comic book universes aren’t exactly a sterling model of finality in even the best of times, Marvel and Disney aren’t going to deprive themselves of consistent money-makers. Not just in the cinema but in merchandising, licensing and all other sorts of ancillary revenue streams.
And that, simply, lowers the stakes. People who were congratulating the Marvel universe for going all Game of Thrones on their characters misapprehend this fact about the films’ corporate masters. When George RR Martin kills someone, they (mostly) stay dead; there’s real risk there. In the case of Marvel, and of Infinity War, meh. They’ll be back. Most likely, they’ll all be back (yes, even Loki. As if they would waste that fan favorite).
So, while I very much enjoyed Infinity War, and would highly recommend it on its own merits, in a fundamental way I left the theater unengaged with it. It’s because I knew, more than in any other film in the Marvel universe to date, that its stakes were false. I mean, I could be wrong. I would be delighted to be wrong. But I know Disney, and I know Marvel, and I know their release schedule, and I know basic economics. And I know if you’re one of the largest entertainment companies on the planet, you don’t wipe out that sort of value, just for the sake of a single film, and one splash of box office income. It’s just not smart.
And thus the irony here that the real Infinity War spoiler for me was not a list of who lived and who died in the film, but a release schedule, and a company philosophy.
I decided this year it might be fun and useful to have an intern here at Whatever, and after a highly selective application and interview process, I have selected who I think is the right person to help me out during their summer break from college. Everyone, meet Whatever’s first ever summer intern:
“Nepotism!” I hear some of you cry, and well, a) you’re entirely correct, and b) nevertheless she’s entirely qualified. She’s well familiar with Whatever, having been a close observer of it literally her entire life. She’s also very adept with blogs and social media, having run her own blog in the past and having a popular Twitter account in her own right, as well as assisting me in the running of the Scamperbeasts Twitter account. Also, she comes with good references and writing samples. Basically, an ideal person to kick off an internship position here at Whatever.
What will Athena be doing as the Whatever intern? She’ll be assisting me with Big Idea posts, putting up posts under her own byline, and helping me develop some new features around here. She’ll also be helping to moderate and manage the site at large. In return I’ll be teaching her how to work her way around the software and applications I use to manage and post on the site, be editing her work, and working to help her develop her writing and other related skills on and off the site.
(Also, before anyone asks, and consistent with my philosophy about internships, this is, in fact, a paid internship. No free labor just because she’s my kid. That would make me a jerk.)
I’m excited about this — it’s something Athena and I have talked about formally doing for a while now, so the fact she’s going to be a presence on Whatever this summer is pretty cool. We’ll be working out her exact starting date soon, but expect her to start posting late May/early June. This should be fun.
And there’s a very nice sunset to welcome me home.
There is one more event, at the Troy-Miami County Public Library, on Monday at 6:30, but it’s one I can drive to from my house. So for all the people who came to see me in all the places I had to fly and train to and from, thank you! Nearly every single one of you were fabulous.
And now I’m gonna sleep for a couple of days.
Honestly it’d be better if that stupid dome wasn’t in the way, blocking my view of everything.
Tonight: I’m at Politics and Prose at the Wharf, at 7pm. Please come! I understand we may be having the event near a wharf, but I can’t say for certain. Please come with life preservers, or alternately, just bring yourself and everyone you know.
Tomorrow: Home! And a few days of sleep. But then on Monday at 6:30, I’ll be having my final event of the tour at the Troy-Miami County Library, in Troy, Ohio. Which I can drive to! In my own car, even! Yay!
Actually more out the window, since I slipped the cell phone out the sill to get the street view. Hello, Manhattan!
Tonight: 7pm! The Strand! Come see me! Don’t let me be alone!
Tomorrow: I’m down in DC at the the Politics and Prose Wharf store. Also 7pm. Come see me in our nation’s capital! Bring everyone you know!
Luck is a thing that often happens (provided, of course, everything else falls into place). It happens enough that it caused Bryan Camp to consider its fundamental nature for The City of Lost Fortunes — in no small part because of the luck he’s had in his own life, and what it’s meant to him.
In the handful of days before Hurricane Katrina made landfall, when it was still a relatively weak storm in the lower half of the Gulf that was supposedly headed for Texas, I spent my time—when I wasn’t in class or working my usual shifts at a restaurant—packing up everything I owned and loading it into my truck. If you’re not familiar with hurricane evacuations, this isn’t normal preparedness.
Because there’s a “cone of uncertainty” about where a storm might actually go, you often spend a week watching satellite imagery and projected paths before it’s clear that any given storm will actually threaten your home. Usually, you’ve only got a day, maybe two, between making the decision to leave (if you’ve got the means) and needing to be on the road. Since you might be within that cone of uncertainty as many as four or five times in a given hurricane season, people don’t tend to pack up their whole lives every time. Most people here keep a single box of all their “absolutely must not lose this,” paperwork to bring with them, along with valuables, pets, a few changes of clothing, and maybe a few precious pictures taken off the wall.
I don’t imagine a single person evacuates without realizing they’ve left something behind that they wished they hadn’t forgotten. But I had every single possession I owned carefully boxed and labeled, ready to go a full day before the storm even started to strengthen. I didn’t have some prescient warning about the danger the storm posed, nor am I an overly cautious person by nature who does this for every storm. In truth, I was barely aware of Katrina until it started to get suddenly, scarily strong.
So why, then, did I pack up everything I owned? Because I was broke. That weekend, I just so happened to be moving out of the house I shared with a few friends and back in with my folks to save rent money.
Blind, dumb luck, in other words.
My life has been full of those kinds of moments. Missing an author’s reading and, instead, lucking into a date with the woman I would one day marry. Switching jobs right before a round of layoffs. A font size mishap forcing me to submit one story instead of another. Lucky break after lucky break that starts to look like destiny, like this is the trajectory my life is “supposed” to be on.
Because they’re two sides of the same coin, aren’t they? A flat tire is bad luck, but a flat tire that avoids a car accident is all part of the plan. I thought about this relationship a lot after the storm and in the years that followed, as I wrote and rewrote this novel about the life and death of a Fortune god. Yes, it’s a murder mystery, and yes, it’s about loss and recovery and finding oneself in the wake of tragedy, but the question at the core of this book is whether we live in a chaotic world of blind luck, or whether all that seeming randomness comes together as part of some grand design, if it all happens for a reason.
The easy answer, of course, is that it’s impossible to know for sure. The deeper, harder to swallow conclusion that I came to, though, is that luck or destiny or fortune or whatever you want to call it, is both real, and is a non-renewable resource. It’s not just wealth and it’s not just privilege, though those things are certainly tied up in all this. For many, it’s both of those and even more besides. The simple, maddening, unfair truth of life is that it’s just straight up easier for some people.
In that little anecdote about my pre-Katrina stroke of good fortune, for example, I was able to pack up all my possessions on my own without it impacting my work or my studies because, in part, I am able-bodied. I had the support of my middle-class family to fall back on when rent became burdensome. We had the means to evacuate, which many here did not and still do not, and the means to return once the storm passed, while some life-long residents of New Orleans will never come home. I was, and am, lucky.
When the good things in your life look like luck to you, it’s relatively easy to spread that good fortune around. But one doesn’t need to look very hard at this world to find examples of those who see their excess of fortune as predestined. They turn a blind eye to all the ways the machinery of the world is greased in their favor, and look only to the results. “Look,” they say, “at all the blessings the universe has bestowed on me. Surely this is mine because I deserve it.”
Trickster stories are my favorite fables and myths, not because they depict figures really worth emulating, but because Tricksters perform a very specific, necessary task in the wider world: they upset the balance. They trip up the mighty and, as the once overly-fortunate tumble down from that lofty perch, steal a little of that good luck for themselves and others (usually for themselves, but hey, nobody’s perfect).
And so I look at this world of ours, with a very few people hoarding so much of the easy living that it makes life just that much harder for the rest of us, and I long for Trickster. Someone who can show the ones who believe that destiny has granted them dominion over the Earth that, no, mostly they’re just lucky.
Because I’ve had a little taste of what good fortune is really like, and I’m here to tell you folks, it really is better to be lucky than good.
Inspiring, no? I’m in a hotel where the window looks out to the interior, and also to a wall. But you know what? The room’s nice enough, and that’s fine.
Tonight: I am at the St. Louis County Library! Everything starts at 7pm! Come on down, Missouri! I want to see all of you.
Tomorrow: I am in New York City, at the venerable Strand Bookstore, also at 7pm. It will be my first time ever doing an event there. I am very excited about that.
In today’s Big Idea, Nebula Award-winning author Jack McDevitt looks at the concept of alien invasions and how they might not be what we expect — and how our interaction with alien civilizations might be different than we might imagine — and how it all fits in with his latest novel, The Long Sunset.
Recently Michael Hippke, an astronomer at the Sonnenberg Observatory in Germany, collaborated with John Learning of the University of Hawaii to produce a study stipulating that our terrestrial civilization might be in danger of an alien attack. This was a variant, however, from the standard notion of giant warships arriving to unleash a direct World War II-style assault. The nature of the threat now is described as electronic contamination. It might constitute nothing more than an e-mail arriving in your mailbox and offering you a large cash prize. Or immortality. ‘Simply open the attachment.’
Actually that sounds like a good title for a modern version of Damon Knight’s classic “To Serve Man.” Open the attachment and download a virus that allows the interstellar hacker to take over the entire electronic grid. Seated quietly inside his bedroom on Aldebaran III, it may simply play games with us, or shut us down completely.
Scientists have been signing statements in substantial numbers urging us to cut back as much as possible on the radio signals which, they say, are alerting high-tech nearby civilizations, if they’re actually there, about our presence. Leading the charge in recent years has been Stephen Hawking. Recently, he had been at the forefront of the Breakthrough Listen Project, which has been scanning nearby systems in an effort to locate aliens. But as determined as he was to find out whether there was life in the neighborhood, he had no interest in reaching out to anyone who showed up on the scopes. It would simply be too dangerous.
Some will argue that there are no nearby high-tech civilizations, otherwise how do you explain the unrelenting silence? One answer to that might be it’s because they’ve been bombing one another out of existence. Or that they understand the danger and keep their transmitters shut down.
How much more intense, one wonders, would the resistance be if we had an FTL drive, and the capability to visit other star systems? That we were actually doing it while scientists and politicians complained that we could not be sure who or what might be following us home. That is the reality in which star pilot Priscilla Hutchins lives.
But there is good news: Although a substantial number of living worlds have been visited, hitech civilizations are almost nonexistent. There had been a few, but they are long gone. Nevertheless, the discovery of collapsed worlds does not make anyone feel safer. The countries that have participated in the space program are backing away, and reports have gotten out that interstellar flight is about to be shut down.
While the struggle goes on, a new super telescope is brought online, and we pick up a transmission, from thousands of light-years away, an incredible signal: a mixture of music and images of a waterfall.
We think we know the system it derived from, and an effort is quickly put together to launch the Barry Eiferman.
Priscilla has had a good career as a pilot, and she is quickly tabbed to lead the mission. They are trying to launch from the terrestrial space station when the shutdown order arrives. The Eiferman proceeds anyway, thereby guaranteeing the animosity of several political leaders, including the U.S. president.
Nothing proceeds as expected, and they encounter several surprises. Among them is an ocean world, with friendly creatures living on islands. The occupants are pleased to have visitors, showing none of the fears that have taken over the climate at home. They have electricity, radios, cars, and steamships. Priscilla and her team enjoy their time on the planet. There is obviously no connection with the waterfall transmission.
They have a temple with a globe perched atop its steeple. After Priscilla’s team has gotten some command of the language, they ask about the globe. The being who operates the temple stares down at the globe and spreads his hands over it. “It’s a dangerous world,” he says. “We are all in it together.”
But Priscilla and her team have been keeping something from their hosts: The ocean world is on the verge of being destroyed. Is there a way to help? Should we even tell them? “No,” says Priscilla. “Not unless we can talk the people at home into getting behind an all-out effort.”
It was hard to see how that could happen.
Overlooking Pershing Square. Nifty. And if you don’t think the photo has the required amount of parking garage , know that there’s a parking lot directly under the square. It’s there, all right. It’s just subtle.
No events today or tomorrow but I will be at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books on Sunday, where at 10:30 I will be in conversation with a fellow named Wil Wheaton. I looked him up on Wikipedia. He seems nice. I think I’ll try to engage him on the subject of burritos. If you are in or near Los Angeles on the day, you should totally be there. I will also be signing books! And possibly stealing golf carts.
It’s a very vertical view today, because I’m downtown in a major American city. I like it!
Tonight: 7pm in the Har Mar Barnes & Noble! Be there! Or don’t be, I guess. Although we’ll miss you and spend all our time talking about how much our life is incomplete without you.
(Note: We won’t actually do that)
In today’s Big Idea, author Jerry Gordon tackles truth, pandemics, religious cults and the possible end of world. You know, as you do. Here’s how it all comes together for his novel Breaking the World.
In 1993, David Koresh and the Branch Davidians predicted the end of the world. What if they were right? That’s the question lurking behind Breaking the World, my apocalyptic thriller set during the largest and longest standoff in law enforcement history.
Twenty-five years ago, over one hundred ATF agents in full body armor stormed the Branch Davidian church in Waco, Texas. Military helicopters circled overhead as both sides traded gunfire. When the smoke cleared, four agents and six church members were dead. A fifty-one-day standoff followed the botched raid, dominating the news.
At the insistence of the FBI, reporters were kept a mile and a half away from the site of the actual stalemate. This forced the press to depend on the FBI’s daily briefings for all their information about the standoff. Officials portrayed the church as a military-style compound. They branded the Christian congregation, an offshoot of the Seventh-day Adventists, a cult. And David Koresh, the pastor of the church, became a madman with a messiah complex.
This all took place in a time before the Internet and cell phones. Controlling the crime scene meant controlling the flow of information. In the middle of the standoff, desperate church members unfurled a banner fashioned from a white bed sheet. The message, which hung from a third story window, had been spray painted in letters big enough for the news media’s telephoto lenses. It read: WE WANT PRESS.
The Branch Davidians never got their audience with the press. The standoff ended in a tragedy so profound it sparked multiple investigations. Congressional hearings questioned the justification for the raid, autopsies conflicted with official accounts, and enough evidence was lost or destroyed to spark calls for a special prosecutor to look into obstruction of justice charges against agents of the ATF and FBI.
Twenty-five years later, the myth of Waco still eclipses reality.
I’m old enough to remember watching the fifty-one-day standoff play out on CNN. My step-father worked for the FBI as a field agent, so it should come as no surprise that I took the official account at face value. It wasn’t until years later, when I tried to write David Koresh into a short story as a religious boogeyman, that I started to question the myths of Waco. The more I researched Koresh and the Branch Davidians, the more I found reality far different from the official story I had been told.
That’s not to say I found the Branch Davidians without fault. David Koresh and his congregation bore significant responsibility for the tragedy of Waco, but they had been held accountable in a way the ATF and FBI had not. Long after I wrote and sold the short story, I continued to seek out obscure interviews, devour documentaries, and sift through congressional testimony. My questions about the standoff multiplied until they demanded to be answered in a novel.
The story needed to be told from an impartial point of view. I wanted characters that could question, as I do, both the actions of the church and law enforcement–characters in conflict with all sides of the struggle. Luckily, the nurses and lawyers and retired police officers that lived and worshipped at the Branch Davidian church brought something with them genetically designed to question everything: teenagers.
I decided to tell the story from the perspective of three atheist teens, a trinity of nonbelievers dragged to the Christian commune by their born-again parents. Trapped together, these teens would struggle to survive the historic conflict between David Koresh, an erratic FBI, and a pandemic that seems to confirm the worst of the church’s apocalyptic prophecies.
I stumbled onto the big idea for Breaking the World by asking a simple question with profound real and fictional implications. What if David Koresh and the Branch Davidians were right? Not just right about the raid or the injustice of their treatment. What if they were right about the end of the world?
Twenty-five years later, it’s time to find out.
My hotel room is overlooking a lovely patio area, which unfortunately is not in use because it is currently 34 degrees outside (although the weather app assures me it feel like 26 degrees). April, I gotta say, you’re kind of sucking right about now. But my room is nice and warm, at least.
Tonight: I am at Prairie Lights! Which is a lovely place to have a book event, I have to say. Everything starts at 7. Please come. Please bring along all your friends and relations as well. We can keep warm together.
(Hmmmm, that sounded bad. Forget I said that. But still please come, and bring everyone.)
Tomorrow: I am going to be in the Twin Cities at the Barnes & Noble in Har Mar! I do not know what “Har Mar” means. Is it a hipster shortened version of something else? Someone will have to let me know. Nevertheless, there I will be, and at 7pm! Once again, please come and please bring along every single person you’ve ever met in your life. It will be fun, I promise.
The only real problem with having a book release in April is that it increases the likelihood that I won’t be on hand to celebrate my wife’s birthday, which is today. And as it happens today I will be in Iowa City rather than home. Be that as it may, I want to take a moment to wish happy birthday to the person without whom my life would be far less bright and wonderful. There is not a day that goes by that I literally do not take a moment to reflect on how much better my world is with her in it, and on this day above all, I think it’s a good thing to acknowledge all the ways I am improved by her presence and her wisdom and her love. She’s pretty great.
Happy birthday, Krissy. I love you!
To start off my travels, I am on a high floor overlooking a church. However, the brick building at the right of a picture is a parking garage, so I think we’re in good shape in terms of the “where is the parking lot” aspect of my travel pictures.
Tonight: I am at the Literati Bookstore here in Ann Arbor, and everything starts at 7pm. If you’re in the area, come be the guinea pigs for the rest of the tour, and hear everything first!
Tomorrow: I will be in Iowa City, at the famed Prairie Lights bookstore, also at 7pm. If you live in or near Iowa City, come on down, and bring everyone you know!
Etc: I got an email from a reader who noted that Head On is my 13th novel (which is true, uuuh, I think) and wondered how a book release day is different now than it was when Old Man’s War, my first published novel, was released back in 2005, and if it’s still exciting 13 years on.
Well, some of the things that are different:
* Old Man’s War came out on January 1st, so Head On isn’t competing with a major holiday where most people stay at home watching football and/or nursing hangovers. So that’s a positive!
* I was at home for the Old Man’s War’s release, not only because it was New Years but because I wouldn’t do a book tour for a release until The Last Colony in 2007. I’ve toured with every new novel since Fuzzy Nation in 2011, which means that for the last seven years, I’m usually somewhere else when the book comes out; like, for example, Ann Arbor, where I am today. This is not a complaint, incidentally. I like touring my books and it’s a thing not every author gets to do. But it is different from when I started out — now when a book comes out, I’m on the road.
* I’m a lot less stressed about the book release, in terms of sales. When Old Man’s War came out I was constantly checking Amazon rankings and wondering how the sales were and so on. These days and for the last several books, I don’t really check online sales rankings. One, because I know that they’re not exactly indicative of actual unit sales, and two, because as I go along and I understand the dynamics of my own sales profile, there’s less reason for me to sweat my opening numbers. In terms of sales, I’m generally a marathoner, not a sprinter, a fact that’s useful for backlist and royalties. Knowing that makes me less anxious about my opening numbers. Don’t get me wrong, I like it when I’m up near the top of sales numbers; that’s always nice. But I’m not constantly pinging my Amazon rankings.
* Likewise I worry less over reviews. I like it when they’re positive — who doesn’t? — but I don’t worry too much when they’re, shall we say, less than glowing. Part of that is simply having been a pro critic myself and remembering how the sausage gets made, and another part is simply always having had something of a thick skin. But the other part — the part I grew into, shall we say — is realizing that with very rare exceptions, an occasional bad review doesn’t hurt a book. The example I give for this is Redshirts, which got two of my worst trade reviews ever from Publishers Weekly and Kirkus, but then went into the bestseller lists and won several awards including the Best Novel Hugo. Perhaps more accurately, if every review of a book is a negative one? There might be a problem. But the occasional pan that comes as part of a whole range of reviews? I don’t lose sleep over them, and they don’t bother me (or cause me to want to respond) as they might have when I was new out of the gate.
* What hasn’t changed is, simply, my fundamental excitement that something that started off in my brain is now out there in the world. And some people like it! And talk and think about it! And want more of it! I mean, how can that ever get old? It can’t. Well, I guess it could, but I’m glad it hasn’t for me. I still have what I think is the coolest job in the world. I felt that way in 2005, and I feel that way now.
The day has arrived! Head On, the stand-alone sequel to Lock In, is now officially out in North America! (UK, you will have to wait two more days.) “Stand-alone sequel” means that although the book follows the characters and universe of Lock In, it’s been written so that it can be enjoyed even if you haven’t read that book. The book has been getting some of the best reviews of my career:
“Scalzi expands his complex future with master strokes, balancing buddy-cop wryness with thought-provoking social and political commentary.” — Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“[Scalzi’s] prose flows like a river… his characters are beautifully crafted; and his future world is impeccably designed, at the same time wildly imaginative and wholly plausible.” — Booklist (starred review)
“Very clever, wonderfully satisfying fun.” — Kirkus Reviews
And, well. That doesn’t suck.
How can you get this book?
Audio: Available through Audible.com and in two(!) flavors: One narrated by Wil Wheaton, and the other by Amber Benson. They are both fantastic versions, you can’t go wrong with either (or both!).
“What if I want a signed copy?” I hear you ask? Well, there are several ways: One, Barnes & Noble has quite a few signed copies available. Two, Jay & Mary’s Book Center, my local bookstore, has a couple dozen signed copies on hand. Three, come see me on my book tour or order the book from one of the bookstores where I will be appearing; even if you’re not there in person I will sign and personalize your book for you.
Speaking of the book tour: Yes! I am on tour! Staring tonight in Ann Arbor, and then heading to Iowa City, Minneapolis, Los Angeles (for the LA Times Festival of Books), St. Louis, New York, Washington DC, and then back home to Troy, Ohio. At every stop aside from Los Angeles, I’ll be brand new work; in LA, I’ll be having an hourlong discussion with Wil Wheaton. I hope you’ll come see me on tour; it’s going to be fun.
Speaking of fun! Those of you who follow my works know that I frequently commission songs to tie into the release of my books. For Fuzzy Nation, I had Paul and Storm write one. For Redshirts, Jonathan Coulton. And for Lock In, former The Academy Is… and current solo artist William Beckett provided a fantastic song. For Head On, which is a stand-alone sequel to Lock In, I asked William to come back for another song. And because Head On features a massively popular new sport called “Hilketa,” I asked him for a song that would be at home in an arena, blasting out as fans are cheering and the players are coming out onto the field.
Did he deliver? Why, yes. Yes he did:
Yeah, I’m pretty darn happy.
I hope you enjoy Head On. I had a blast thinking it up and putting it down into words. I hope you’ll have as much fun reading it.
See you on tour!
So, remember when it was Back to School time, and you’d go shopping for new clothes for the year? Yes, well, I still do that, except Back to School is now Going on Book Tour. The new book tour starts tomorrow, so I went out and got all these shirts.
The rule of the shirts is simple: They have to be easy to pack (because they’re all going into the same roller bag), they have to look reasonably nice, for a very casual definition of “nice,” and they have to fit. The last one has been a bit of a problem recently as I have put on a bit of weight in the last year, boooooo. Working to bring that down is a goal I’m currently working on, with a small bit of success so far, which is nice. But that doesn’t change the fact that at the moment, some of my older shirts do not exactly offer me a flattering silhouette.
So: New shirts! Hooray! For certain values of “hooray” that correspond to “You let yourself go a smidge, middle-aged dude!”
The only possible fly in this “short sleeves in festive designs” ointment is that most of the stops on the tour are in places that still have snow on the ground, because this April has been goofy, weatherwise — I mean, it was nearly 80 degrees outside two days ago and right now I’m looking out the window at a snow flurry. Ann Arbor looks to have snow when I’m there, Iowa City will be in the low 40s, and then I’m going to Minnesota. When I’m in LA, it should be sunny and in the 70s. Thank you, California. The rest of the time, well. I’m traveling with a jacket, too.
In any event, I enjoy new clothes shopping in conjunction with a tour. It’s part of what makes a book release day feel “really real.” The other parts being, of course, the book coming out, and actually going out on tour to see all y’all. Not long now. Tomorrow, in fact.
This is a very lucky Friday the 13th, I have to say, because it brings us all this very fine stack of new books and ARCs. What in this stack bewitches you? Tell us all in the comments.
Disclosure: I liked Catherynne Valente’s new book Space Opera so much I gave it a blurb. And as you read the Big Idea below about the book came to be, you might understand why the book appealed so much to me.
CATHERYNNE M. VALENTE:
Sometimes you plan a book. Carefully. Meticulously. You hone it, prune it, and shepherd it through the publication progress with all the gentleness you’d give to a particularly shy child.
And sometimes a book comes to you. And the book says: I’m happening. Deal with it. I’m happening right now. Just…hold on to something.
Space Opera, you may not be surprised to learn, was the second kind of book.
It’s a ridiculous book. I’m not even going to pretend it isn’t. I never had any intention of writing it. I was quite happily busy with other projects.
The trouble, in the end, always comes down to love. When I love something too much, it inevitably gets me into trouble.
In this case, what I loved was Eurovision.
I have spent a long time already in the trenches, explaining Eurovision to Americans. And now, I suspect, I’ll be doing it for the rest of my life. Here’s the short version: the Eurovision Song Contest is a combination of The Voice, Miss Universe, and WWI. Every year, countries in Europe, and these days, several that are decidedly not in Europe, send a pop singer or group to compete in a musical extravaganza for which the costumes are unspeakably glittery, the special effects tend toward gouts of flame, and the prize is really very little but the right to host the contest next year, and if one is lucky, a middling summer hit.
Viewers can vote from home alongside a panel of judges, but the key element is that you can’t vote for your own country, so Eurovision ends up being a glam rock snapshot of the current European political situation in any given year, as alliances come together. The whole point of it in the first place was to unify Europe again after WWII. It’s a bright mirrorball of pop art, but it’s got darkness at its heart.
I love Eurovision. I genuinely believe it’s one of the best things humanity has ever accomplished, and no that’s not a joke. When else has our species ever looked around and thought: we’ve just annihilated each other for a decade. The whole continent is a smoking ruin.You wanna…sing it out?
So two years ago, I was livetweeting it, as you do when you just get so excited at the mere thought of an event that has a bigger global audience than the Super Bowl but no one in your own country knows or cares about it. And one of my Twitter followers joked that hey, I love this weird, bright, dumb, showy thing so much, I should write an SFF version of it.
Do not dare me to do things on Twitter when I am in the middle of a Eurovision drinking contest. I simply cannot be held responsible for my actions in such a situation. Especially when an editor slides into my DMs and offers to buy that book right now.
My agent refers to it as the fastest deal in publishing. It was done and I was committed before I could catch a breath. As I was signing the contract, my fiance asked: “Does it really just say ‘Eurovision in space’? Do you actually have any idea how you’re gonna pull that off?”
“Yes, it does,” I said. “And no, I don’t.”
And I didn’t. Part of me was terrified. How the hell do you even begin to write that? I mean, you can’t play it straight. It’s too absurd. It’s obviously a comedy. Ah, but if you try to write science fiction comedy, the ghost of Douglas Adams appears and asks you with a stern expression if that’s really necessary. And even if it was a comedy, the core of Eurovision is that political darkness and artistic light. You can’t play it totally camp, either. And given the politics all around me, I wasn’t sure I was actually up to singing it out just this minute. What had I agreed to?
But the deadline approached. And I sat down at a blank screen. I laughed nervously.
And then I stopped trying to worry about whether I could do this thing at all and wrote some shit about Enrico Fermi and I was off, and off at breakneck speed.
And that’s how Decibel Jones came to be.
Fast forward just a bit into our future, and Earth finally gets the alien invasion we always dreamed of. It didn’t go exactly as planned. It’s not about gunships and stern admirals and grim battles. There don’t seem to be any admirals at all. But there’s a whole teeming galaxy out there, and they’re extremely suspicious of us. They tore themselves to pieces a centruy ago during the Sentience Wars, and are thus very careful about newly-discovered species. They simply can’t afford any more monsters out there. And humans do have such monstrous habits. We’re a borderline case—we may be sentient, but given our behavior on our own planet recently and historically, we may simply be a particularly unpleasant invasive species.
Fortunately, they’ve got a way to sort this out. Mankind must compete in the Metagalactic Grand Prix, a contest of song and dance in which every sentient civilization performs its most staggering acts of punk rock beauty. All humanity has to do is not come in last, and we’ll be welcomed into the greater interstellar society with open arms.
If not, we’ll be quasi-painlessly exterminated, and Earth is welcome to try again in another million years with dolphins or something, no questions asked.
The trouble is, humans really are rubbish at music, comparatively. It’s embarrassing, honestly. They drew up a list of musicians they thought might have an outside chance at appealing to the finer sensibilities of non-primate cultures, but unfortunately, the Keshet, a race of time traveling red pandas in charge of intelligence gathering, fudged their landing a bit and everyone on the list is tragically dead. Except for one. Decibel Jones and the Absolute Zeroes, an early 2020s British glam-trash rock trio headed by a multi-ethnic genderfluid former glitter messiah who only ever managed one hit album when they were at the top of their game. But these days they’re aging into their 40s, a heap of bitterness, a lot of cheap wine and divorces, and particularly humiliating birthday party performances.
And now, they’re going to have to save the planet.
Space Opera is a headlong dive into a wormhole of music and idiocy and human failings and inhuman intelligences and a whole mess of awful costuming choices. It’s a comedy with a molten core of hardcore XXX feelings. And it’s got blue space flamingoes in it.
It’s as unlike what I usually write as it’s possible to get, and I’m so proud of it. I tried so hard with this book, you guys. I tried so hard to make it good enough for you. To pour my bitter, glittery, aging into my 40s on wine and divorces, dumb, hopeful, innocent, needy heart into a wormhole so it can fall out into your living rooms. To make you feel for a page the way Eurovision and Hitchhiker’s Guide and David Bowie and Prince and life on this stupid, terrible, gorgeous planet makes me feel. Even if it’s just one page.
Even if it’s just one paragraph.
So go on. Give my little tune a listen. Put the record on. Side one, track one. 3…2…1…