Oh, look, new books and ARCs at the Scalzi Compound. That so rarely happens! So, anything here that tickles your fancy? Tell us all in the comments!
Oh, look, new books and ARCs at the Scalzi Compound. That so rarely happens! So, anything here that tickles your fancy? Tell us all in the comments!
To wit, the lawncare people come to aerate and fertilize the yard. It’s a nice, sunny day, too! Let’s hope it sticks.
It’s an adage that writers use everything for their writing. In the case of Fire Dance, the follow-up to Ilana C. Meyer’s fantastic debut Last Song Before Night, a trip to Spain laid the floor for her novel to dance upon.
ILANA C. MYER:
The heart of a story doesn’t always come first.
This one began with a visit to Andalusia, though I didn’t know it at the time. All I knew, watching torchlit Flamenco singers in a courtyard one night, was that I would use it. And had a similar thought on a garden tour in Cordoba, winding through hedge mazes. The palace in Seville with its stonework and grand spaces—I’d use it all. Writers can be obsessive in that way.
In Last Song Before Night I had written about magic based on the art of poetry and music, drawing on the lore of the Celtic poets and the troubadours. A second book could expand on this theme while incorporating another art—the art of dance, inspired by the rich tradition of Flamenco.
And what would the magic in a place like Al Andalus be? For this, I looked to historical sources and medieval Arab cosmology for clues. I decided on magic that would be centered on astronomy, with a structure and clear-cut rules. It would employ equipment such as an observatory, charts, astrolabes. Almanacs which foretell the positioning of stars through the year would be forbidden to the common people, so no one can idly get their hands on such power. Because their magic was never lost—unlike the poet’s enchantments in Last Song—centuries of development have resulted in a refined, sophisticated system in close alliance with the court.
Into this setting I would send Lin Amaristoth, in her new role of Court Poet, to investigate a series of mysterious raids.
The story moves back and forth, between the Academy of poets on its wind-torn Isle, and the exquisite court inspired by Al Andalus. Between lonely enchantments and political intrigue. I envisioned the structure of this book as a dance, back and forth between two worlds. Until those worlds collide.
But sometimes we can have all the elements we need for a book, and still search for its heart. Sometimes the characters must have their say before we know what the book is about. Until then, what you have is not a book, but trappings. I wrote several beginnings to the book, several thousands of words, in the course of that search. With the help of those draft beginnings, I came to realize what I had been missing.
This book is, above everything else, Lin’s story. Beyond war and political intrigue and even magic, Fire Dance is about Lin’s transformation. Being in power means making choices. It also means being tested, sometimes in unbearable ways.
In Last Song, Lin is a survivor. Trauma and depression are her constant companions, each day about staying alive. Finding meaning in the world is her primary motivation. In Fire Dance events have compelled her to move beyond this mindset: she has responsibilities that affect the lives of thousands of people. She doesn’t have time for herself. But she also knows an enchantment is stealing away her life—in a year she’ll be dead. The tension between desire and responsibility have replaced simple survival. The trauma of her past remains, but now there is also rage at the future. Because there is no future. She has been compressed in a sliver of time.
Pure transience—what is dance, if not that?
Once I found the heart of Fire Dance, the elements I had gathered coalesced, took shape in a narrative. The heart of the character, and the heart of the book, had turned out to be one and the same.
The author copies for Head On have arrived at the Scalzi Compound and they look groovy. In just a week they hit the stores. Wheee! Also, a reminder that if you want signed copies, Barnes & Noble have a bunch available for pre-order. Or you can get me to sign one for you when you come see me on tour (you can also pre-order from the stores hosting my tour and I’ll sign/personalize when I get there).
I’m very excited that soon you’ll all get to read this. Soon, I say!
I’m going to make the prediction that you’re going to want to read author Charles Soule’s Big Idea post on The Oracle Year, in which he talks about the future and how each of us makes predictions, every single day of our lives, and what that means for his novel. Am I correct in my prediction? There’s only one way to find out.
What is that, really? It’s not now, and it’s not the past, and that is the sum total of what we know about it.
Everything else is just a guess, a projection based on past events, a calculation of probability. Let’s think about this in terms of a glass of water. (Bear with me – I’m going somewhere with this.)
No, water’s boring. Let’s say… a delectable cocktail (for me, that’s a Manhattan, but YMMV), or a frosty beer on a hot summer’s day, or an ice-filled fountain soda at the movies, or, yes, even a glass of water. You obtain that beverage, and you lift it to take that first sip, and you are certain that what you’re about to drink will be that Manhattan, beer, soda or water.
But why? Primarily because you’ve put together a string of prior events that suggest that it will be what you think it is. You’ve poured the glass of water out of your tap, say. But the city’s water could have been replaced with rubbing alcohol by a nefarious ne’er-do-well, or cosmic rays could have altered the soda from cola to root beer (totally, 100% possible, by the way (I assume)), or your bartender could be trying to poison you, or magic is real and your beer was transformed into something else. We can’t know for sure. Honestly, though, the odds of any of that stuff happening are slim at best, so unlikely that they become pretty much impossible. So, we predict that the drink will be what we think it is, and we go ahead and chug-a-lug without doing an exhausting analysis of the container’s contents.
Just like that drink, every single action we take, every choice we make, is a prediction of the future. We run the odds based on all available information and prior experience that Action A will result in Consequence A (or a range of likely consequences), and we will still be living in a world where the rules of physics apply as they always have, or even bigger, that the world still exists and we are still alive in it.
But hey, there are no guarantees. Anything could happen at any moment. For all we know, an undetected meteor will hit before you finish reading this…
Why am I talking about all of this? Well, I wrote a novel, The Oracle Year, which is concerned almost entirely with the future. It’s about a man in New York City who obtains a hundred and eight specific predictions of future events, large and small, due to occur over about a year’s span of time. He then decides if and how he’ll release the information to humanity, and we see how that changes him, flips the world on its axis, and so on. It’s a twisty-turny thriller, exciting and (hopefully), pretty unpredictable.
In the course of writing The Oracle Year, I had to think extensively about the future and our relationship to it. I’d go so far as to say the future is almost all we ever think about. It’s in the small things, like that automatic, subconscious analysis we do when we’re taking a drink of something, but also the big stuff: wondering about what we’ll do this weekend, who we’ll marry, our career, what our kids will grow up to be, when and how we’ll die.
We make decisions based on our analysis of the future – lots of them. We constantly predict what will happen next on timelines short and long. We have to. It’s the only way to operate, to live.
We’re all prophets, in other words, predicting the arc of our lives moment to moment.
I feel like that’s a given, a premise hard to dispute (although this is, of course, the Internet, which means it’s not impossible to dispute.) Now, here’s the second part of the equation, though – the result on the right side of the equal sign that I came up with after thinking about all of this for, oh, a few years while writing my book.
We’re all, on a very fundamental level, optimists.
After all, if we weren’t, we’d never do anything at all. We’d never drink that drink, because there’s a possibility it’s been magicked into poison. We’d never go to work, we’d never eat food, we’d never ask someone out… because why bother unless the world will continue to exist and we’ll still be alive to see it? We make choices because we assume we’ll get to see at least some not-tiny portion of the future, and human society will exist in a recognizable form therein.
That’s optimism, right? That’s deciding in favor of structure and continuity rather than entropy. Every day, with literally every choice and action we make, we are predicting a future that includes us, and is worth maintaining and building.
How about that, huh? Even in chaotic times (and I think it’s hard to argue that we’re in one of those at the moment), basically every person on Earth is predicting that they’ll still be around tomorrow with every single thing they do.
We’re all prophets, and we’re all optimists.
That, I think, is a pretty Big Idea.
As one does. This photo was taken at the Subterranean Press warehouse last week, while I was signing and personalizing pre-orders of Head On. Why did they have a clown nose? Maybe because they’re a fun-loving lot! Or maybe because they have a basement clown abattoir filled with body parts. Maybe both! Anyway, here you go. I think it doesn’t look half bad on me.
Also thank you to everyone for their kind words and messages, regarding my trip to the hospital on Friday. I’m happy to say I’m feeling generally much improved, which I suspect is down to the Pepto Bismol. Fear not, I’m still scheduling a doctor’s appointment for this week. Better safe than sorry. I also kept my weekend pretty basic and restful. The most strenuous thing I did was mock some dimwits on Twitter, which honestly wasn’t strenuous at all. I won’t go into detail about the mocking here (check my Twitter timeline for it, if you’re curious, it won’t be hard to find), except to say that the last couple of days left me with the firm belief that the concept of free speech, both as a constitutional right and a general ideal, sadly continues to be out of the grasp of many of those who choose to bleat about it online. And that’s a shame.
But enough about me. How was your weekend?
Spoiler: I’m fine.
For the last few days I’ve been having a bit of a low grade pain in my chest that wasn’t really going away. I mentioned it to Krissy last night, who informed me I’d be calling to schedule a doctor’s appointment this morning, and this morning, when I indeed called to schedule my appointment and ran down my symptoms to them, they said, “You know what, maybe just go ahead and get yourself to the ER.” Which was not precisely encouraging, I have to say.
Nevertheless, off I went to the ER, to get pricked and prodded and EKG’d and x-rayed and so on and so forth. And the good news is: I’m fine, my heart is fine, everything appears to be largely groovy and there’s nothing even remotely life-threatening going on with me. The less good news is they have no idea why I’ve been having chest pains, so I still have to schedule a doctor’s appointment on Monday and get a stress test and possibly other stuff. It’s probably an alien growing in my chest cavity, which means that if you come visit me on tour and sit in the front row, I can’t guarantee you won’t get wet. Bring a tarp.
Bearing in mind that I was in a hospital ER room with needles in my arm and wearing a hospital gown because of a weird pain in my chest, the experience was oddly mellow and, if not precisely enjoyable, not horrible either. I mostly was just plopped on the hospital bed reading Twitter or napping, and every once in a while someone would come in to check that I hadn’t expired while I waited on the doctor. Honestly I’ve had worse afternoons.
In any event, I’m home now and everything is fine. I’m not dead! And on the way home, I picked up some Pepto-Bismol. Seems to be working. Let’s see how it goes.
Our current age is unusual, in that we are the only species of human on earth. For most of our history, we have shared our planet with some interesting evolutionary cousins. I love the thought of how that might have felt – to be walking in a forest, and encounter something that was shaped roughly like you, but also deeply, profoundly alien. What would they have been like, had they survived to an historic age? What kind of society might they have created? And how would that have changed our own identity? My debut novel, The Wolf¸ starts from the Big Idea that more than one species of human survived the Ice Age, and went on to set up their own society.
This idea first came to me as a child, when I realised that every animal of comparable weight seems to be stronger, faster and toothier than we are. That got me wondering about a race of humans who were the wild equals of the deer, the lynx and the wolverine. What would they have looked like? How would they have behaved? So the Anakim – the main alternate race of people in the book – were born. Developing them has probably been the most enjoyable part of writing The Wolf.
It was many years later, during my studies in anthropology, that I discovered why we seem so physically hopeless. When we started farming, we domesticated ourselves just as efficiently as we did cows, sheep and crops. In the blink of an eye (anthropologically speaking), we grew drastically shorter. Our jaws retreated, our brains shrank, our bones became much less dense, and our faces grew charmingly fragile and expressive. We are a domesticated version of Homo sapiens, physically akin to our ancient ancestors as a dog is to a wolf.
That idea fascinated me, and the Anakim are partly inspired by how human beings once were, thousands of years ago. They are taller, more rugged, and more robust. But how could the Anakim have built a complex society, and yet retained their wildness? There seemed to be two options. Either, they did not develop agriculture, and so were never subject to the selective pressures which caused our domestication. Or, they had a social structure which counteracted the effects of agriculture and sedentism, and rewarded high levels of physical robusticity and aggression. I couldn’t choose between these ideas. So I took them both.
In one of my wilder flights of imagination, I thought that maybe that aggressive social structure would have unforeseen consequences. For good measure, I therefore gave the Anakim plates of rust-coloured bone armour beneath their skin. The idea is that their society is so ancient, and so war-like, that they have evolved innate defences to spears, bows and arrows. The rust-coloured bone is due to its high iron content, which was also inspired by nature. There are several species of shrew which have blood red teeth because they’re so full of iron for added strength.
However, physical differences are easy. Much more challenging, and more interesting too, is how the Anakim might have been cognitively. It is difficult to know where to start with this, as your brain is shaping your thought-patterns, even as you try and abstract yourself from them. For inspiration, I turned to the ancient cousins about whom we know most: Neanderthals.
One of the prevailing theories for a while has been that Neanderthals had limited ability to understand symbolism. I think this is wrong, but it’s an idea with interesting consequences. If symbols meant much less to the Anakim, it would change their art (if they had art at all) and perhaps make them physically incapable of developing reading and writing. And what would the result of that be? They’d need a formal means of memorising information. That’s where the idea for the Academy – a sisterhood of historians who commit to memory all Anakim history – came from. They’d need it to maintain a powerful sense of identity, and store all the knowledge that would enable them to progress as a society.
Another interesting idea came from the fact that Neanderthals lived in very small home-ranges, which we know from the isotope signatures in their teeth. They tended to travel very little, while modern humans of the same period were dying hundreds of miles from where they were born. We seem to be something of a pioneer species, with a mindset adapted to long-distance locomotion, which makes sense anecdotally. How many people do you know who don’t enjoy travelling? But I suspect the Neanderthals didn’t. And that got me wondering again about how a species who did not enjoy travelling would have thought about their home-range. Presumably they’d have been unusually attached to it. There might be a new dynamic there, where your home becomes as important as your family. And how would you feel when you then travelled far away from it? Like homesickness, but multiplied tenfold.
The Neanderthals and ancient humans gave me some interesting starting points for physical and mental differences. After a while, other facets of Anakim cognition and society started falling into place. In the same way that characters begin to take on a will of their own, and the story changes because you realise that you’re asking a character to do something that they never would, I developed a strong sense of what the Anakim would and would not do. They would be very austere. And obsessed with wilderness, which was in some way holy to them. Without writing, memory would become very powerful to them. And maybe that would be connected in some way to the land in which they lived.
And eventually, though I’d intended to make them as otherworldly as possible, I started slightly falling in love with these people. They haven’t got everything right, but it seemed to me that by and large, they have a much better sense of perspective than we do. They don’t care about money. Most of them don’t care about status. They only want to be fulfilled, and recognise that is best achieved through self-discipline, rather than self-indulgence. The fact that their symbolic understanding, and ability to read and write is poor, made them kindred spirits. As a dyspraxic, a hopeless artist and someone who didn’t learn to read until very late, I imagined myself fitting right in on that front.
Almost last of all came the name for these people, which I ended up finding in the Bible. It mentioned several giant races: the Rephaim, the Nephilim and the Anakim. I’ve always wondered whether Biblical stories have their origin in cultural legends. Perhaps the story of Noah and the flood is based on some kind of cultural memory of the catastrophic rise in sea-levels after the Ice Age. I wondered the same about these giant races. Maybe (just maybe) those are based on some distant cultural memory of the Neanderthals, or Denisovans – a prehistoric species of man like us, but somehow other. I liked that idea, and the nod it gave to the Neanderthals. The Anakim they became.
With the Anakim society constructed, there was one big question left. How would they react, when they encountered other humans, and vice versa? In The Wolf, I like to think I am not so much making stuff up, as trying to explore the underlying principles of our own world. So what evidence is there for what happened in the past when two human species encountered one another? It seems that interbreeding was pretty common. Modern humans carry DNA from Neanderthals, Denisovans, and probably one more unidentified group of humans. But though interesting, that doesn’t tell us too much. Hybrid children did exist, but under what circumstances they were conceived will likely never be known. There seem to have been more problems with the male offspring than the female offspring though (something else I borrowed for the book). The fact that Neanderthals and Denisovans are both extinct doesn’t tell us much, either. We could have outcompeted them, rather than massacred them. Or their demise might have been more related to a rapidly fluctuating climate, than our arrival.
I had to turn to more contemporary evidence. When modern human groups rub alongside each other, they often exhibit signals to demonstrate allegiance to their own group. The human mind seems to like clarity, and contrast, and when cultures feel threatened, they tend to respond with a renewed display of unity. So the Anakim, and their modern human neighbours might take that to extremes, not being merely different cultures, but different species altogether. They identify themselves by the fact that they are not the other. Stubbornly, the Anakim do not use personal adornment – that is something those other people do. Likewise, the modern humans detest wilderness – that is disorder, inherent to the Anakim. Unfortunately, putting these species together in the same land, the only outcome I could foresee was conflict. But maybe the result would also be greater unity between races of modern human. With this great external threat, perhaps we would focus more on our similarities, rather than our subtle differences.
Developing the Anakim was fun, but it also put a lot into perspective. We are a creature like any other, and there were once many more like us. They were not worse at being human than we are. They may very well have been our cognitive equals (even our superiors). They were just different, and as a species, we too came very close to extinction. We survived more through luck than skill, something we might do well to remember.
No comment. NO COMMENT I SAID.
Anyone who knows me knows that I spend I lot of time urging people — particularly writers — to get their financial houses in order. John Schwartz is a writer — a reporter in fact — and the way he got motivated to get his financial ducks in a row was to give himself a writing assignment, which became the book This Is the Year I Put My Financial Life in Order. Hey, whatever works!
In writing This Is the Year I Put my Financial Life in Order, I was working through a puzzle: Most of the people who could benefit from a book on personal finance would never read one. I knew this because I was one of those people.
Money scares me. I don’t mean I’m scared of not having money—that’s a fear most people have. And I don’t hate money, or think it’s inherently dirty. It’s not even that I can’t understand money. As a newspaper reporter for the New York Times, I’ve tackled plenty of difficult topics, including space travel, climate change and the hurricane protection for New Orleans. I write about investing for the NYT business section in a quarterly humor column. Give me an assignment and I’ll learn what I need to learn to get the job done.
And I’m not particularly cowardly: I’ve flown (briefly) in a jetpack, gone cattle herding from a helicopter and stood inside a suit of armor while a Tesla coil zapped me with a million volts of electricity.
So it’s none of that. No, it’s just that I’ve always hated thinking about my own money. I got a 401(k) early on, but I could barely bring myself to open the envelopes to see whether the accounts had grown or shrunk. I was already in my mid fifties, but had put off thinking about whether I had enough money to support me and my wife in retirement. I didn’t know whether I had enough insurance. I didn’t even have a will.
It was time. It was past time.
So I forced myself to confront these demons the best way I know how: I wrangled myself an assignment. I got paid to figure out where I stand for retirement. I dove in, did the research and wrote the story, confessing my qualms in the process.
If my inbox was to be believed, there are many, many people out there who share my sluggish fretfulness, who are a little money phobic. Procrastinators. The financially squeamish. A colleague called it “frighteningly familiar.”
And then there was Brian, a neighbor, a great guy in his 30s with a couple of kids. He told me his father sent him a three-by-five index card, his usual epistolary medium, lauding the piece. “Take it to heart,” he wrote. “Before you know it, you are looking at your ability to keep paying for things during the 2nd half of your life.” Brian told me in an email, “I have to say, this is one of the longer written notes I have received from my father in the past several years, or maybe ever.”
There are plenty of personal finance books out there. But if you’ve ever checked the shelf, you know that most of them suck. They overpromise—you’ll get rich!–when what most of us want is security. They claim that they hold arcane secrets, when the principles of providing for retirement are actually pretty straightforward. And they bark orders like some kind of drill instructor, when what we really want is a well-informed friend.
That led me to pitch the book, another assignment to get me to do what I hadn’t been able to do on my own. I spent a year (okay, a little more than a year) figuring out my finances, learning what I should have known about investing and taking care of my unfinished business. And yes, I finally got that will.
This Is the Year I Put my Financial Life in Order goes on sale this week. I have tried to write about the process of learning all of this stuff in a way that readers can follow my example and begin to get their financial lives in order, too. And to ease their fretting. It tells of my own financial misadventures as well as our scarier moments, like buying a New York apartment at the top of the market and then being unable to sell it, and the tenant who refused to leave. Yeah, that guy almost put us into bankruptcy. There’s the offer from my old super to kill the tenant. (Hey, it’s New York.) And there’s the bankruptcy lawyer who Jeanne still calls “the angel,” who talked me out of filing for bankruptcy. For a while, times were so tight that my regular lunch in the cafeteria at work was French fries with gravy, a filling meal that cost me less than two bucks.
We’re more comfortable now. And we’ve learned some lessons along the way. Maybe readers will learn from our mistakes. I hope, at least, they’ll be entertained by them. After all, who doesn’t enjoy the sweet tang of schadenfreude?
My brain is a bit scrambled today, so in lieu of subjecting you to unintelligible babble, here, have this pretty nifty song by the new band The Summer Kills, which features my pal Matthew Ryan on vocals. It’s called “Collide,” and if you like Achtung Baby/Zooropa-era U2, this will be your new jam:
If you enjoyed this song, their upcoming album Last Night We Became Swans is available for pre-order at Bandcamp. I’ve heard the whole thing and it’s terrific, and very much of a piece with this lead single. Well worth getting.
First, hey, look: Here’s the UK cover to The Consuming Fire!
Bella Pagan, my Tor UK editor, writes about it here, and specifically does a shoutout to cover designer Lisa Brewster for her work. Which pleases me: Always give credit where credit is due, I say.
Also today, a piece I wrote on writing Lock In and Head On protagonist Chris Shane is up on the Tor/Forge blog, specifically about what it’s like to write a character when you’ve decided that you don’t know their gender, and how the universe of Lock In/Head On has an impact on how its characters think about gender, politically and otherwise. Go check it out.
It’s not like we needed more snow at the moment, it being April and all, harumph, harumph, but at least it’s pretty.