Sunset, With Wife and Cat

Seriously, this photo has everything (photographic-wise, anyway) you come to Whatever for!

I’m traveling tomorrow and will be in Los Angeles through Monday, taking meetings and also taking part in the Nebula Weekend, where among other things I will be participating in the mass autographing on Saturday afternoon, which is totally open to the public. If you ever wanted to get your entire science fiction collection signed, this is when and where.

Tim Conway Gone

Comedian Tim Conway passed away today, and I posted a thought on Facebook which I’ll share here as well:

“It occurs to me that one day every celebrity I ever loved growing up will be gone, and it will feel a little bit like being orphaned.”

I will add that at age 50, their ranks are already somewhat depleted.

Farewell, Tim Conway.

 

The Big Idea: W.M. Akers

In novels, detectives follow the “big cases” — but what about the other cases, which need solving? W.M. Akers considers them, and the person who would chase those down, in Westside.

W.M. AKERS:

You will probably never solve a murder mystery. You will probably never personally investigate arson, a hit-and-run, a kidnapping, a bomb threat, insurance fraud, an assassination, or any of the other thrilling crimes that preoccupy most fictional detectives. You are a real person, and though the mysteries of your life are never a matter of life and death, they often feel that way.

That’s what tiny mysteries are all about.

I created Gilda Carr, the hero of Westside, because I wanted to give tiny mysteries their due.

Gilda lives in a twisted version of 1921 Manhattan, in which forces unknown have caused the disappearance of thousands of citizens living west of Broadway. Blocked off from the rest of the city by a massive fence, Gilda’s Westside is overgrown, empty, and bizarre. It is a neighborhood teeming with huge questions, and she has decided to answer none of them.

Her reluctance is a correction to the excesses of her father, a former cop whose obsessive chasing of the city’s largest mysteries ended his career and broke his spirit. To avoid his fate, Gilda chases bits of lost clothing and meaningless personal effects, solving the niggling questions that keep us up at night, no matter how pointless we know they are.

A detective preoccupied with tiny mysteries is something that first came to me after I lost a book. It was, appropriately enough, a book about writing mysteries—a rather good collection of essays edited by Sue Grafton that I checked out from the Brooklyn Library, read a few words of, and lost almost immediately.

It took me some time to realize it was gone. I didn’t see it for a week or two and thought nothing of it. In an apartment like ours, which crams six bookshelves into three rooms and features countless piles of half-read books and unwanted papers, objects tend to wander away and come back of their own accord. When the loan came due, I launched a half-hearted search. On finding that the book wasn’t anywhere within arm’s reach, I renewed the loan and spent another couple of weeks not wondering where it had gone.

This went on for over a year.

Every time the loan came due, I combed the apartment in search of Writing Mysteries, checking over the same six shelves, the same two desks, the same piles of junk, and finding, again, that it was nowhere at all. I kept renewing it—if no one places a hold on a book, you can renew it endlessly—feeling so guilty about my deception that an automated email from the Brooklyn Public Library was enough to make me feel ill. As the year wore on, my searches grew more frantic, until I found myself rooting through kitchen cabinets, looking under furniture, and going through old suitcases in search of a book I’d barely read.

Finally, paranoia took over. Heeding Sherlock Holmes, I decided that the improbable must be the truth: I hadn’t lost the book. The library had. Although I had no memory of doing so, I suddenly and desperately believed that I must have returned the book at some point, only to be thwarted by some filing error that marked it still checked out.

I took this theory to one of the endlessly patient librarians at the Central Branch. They politely explained that what I’d imagined was impossible, and told me that I would have to pay an $84 fine to make up for the loss of the book. I decided $84 was worth it to be rid of the stress, apologized to the librarian, and ponied up, happy that, at last, I could forget the mystery.

And then my brother-in-law threw a bottle of detergent into our storage closet.

My wife and I came home from a trip and found the entire apartment polluted by a horrible chemical smell that my brother-in-law claimed he hadn’t noticed. The source was the far reaches of the closet, where he had celebrated the completion of his laundry by hurling an entire handle of detergent, which had leaked all over the wall, the floor, and everything else in its path, destroying several cubic feet of the unwanted junk that filled our closet to the brim.

As we threw out three trash bags of stuff we should have gotten rid of years before, I felt the same relief that I had when I paid off the library fine for the missing Mysteries. When you have been carrying around something useless and awful for a long time, it is beautiful to simply chuck it. And with that happy thought, I reached the bottom of the pile of newly-minted trash, and saw Sue Grafton’s name.

These are the kinds of mysteries I created Gilda Carr to solve: the kinds of questions, like, “Where the hell did I leave that book?!” that are totally unimportant and yet have the power to get under our skin. She lets the other detectives take the big cases. It’s the tiny ones, she thinks, that matter most of all.

I have absolutely no idea how that book ended up in the back of our closet, piled under so much junk that the detergent couldn’t reach it. But I kept the book—it cost me $84, after all—and put it on a high shelf as a reminder to be more careful with books borrowed from the library.

At least, I think I put it there. I haven’t seen it in a while.

—-

Westside: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

Krissy and Athena, Mother’s Day 2019

My two favorite people on the planet, but of course you know that already.

Happy Mother’s Day to you, if you are, or have ever had, a mother.

Smudge is Here to Announce the Results of the Birthday Pledge Drive

Smudge in the yard, walking toward the camera.

Two days ago I encouraged people to donate to RIP Medical Debt, a non-profit that wipes out medical debt here in the US, and in return I would (if pledge goals were met) write a short story and do an audio version of the story as well. This pledge drive was in commemoration of my 50th birthday, which was yesterday.

The donation window is now closed, and when I tallied everything up, plus or minus processing fees, and including employer matches to donations, you folks donated $16,600. Which is amazing. When we add in the $2,000 that Krissy and I also donated ($1k at the outset, $1k when we hit the $10k goal), the entire drive netted about $18,600. Because RIP Medical Debt buys outstanding medical debt for pennies on the dollar in order to forgive it, that means our $18.6k will erase up to $1,860,000 worth of medical debt.

Let’s say that again: One million, eight hundred sixty thousand dollars of medical debt, erased. The folks at RIP Medical Debt said to me (in a tweet) that our donations will wipe out the medical debts of hundreds of US families. And I have to say, making life easier for hundreds of families is a pretty great way to spend one’s 50th birthday. Thanks to every one of you who made this possible. You’ve given me what is genuinely one of my best birthdays ever.

So, now, on my end, here’s what I owe you:

  • A brand new short story of at least 2,000 words (and probably more);
  • An audio version of said story;
  • And because we passed $15k, some other probably goofy thing related to the story above.

Making good on my pledges will be my first priority after I finish writing The Last Emperox, which is the final book in the Interdependency trilogy, and which is scheduled to come out next April. That absolutely has to get done or else my editors will strangle me. But! The second it is done (and, uh, I get some sleep), this story is next on the agenda. Look for it, the audio and whatever the third thing is, some time in June (probably) (hopefully).

In the meantime, please enjoy the above picture of Smudge, and also, the warm satisfaction of knowing you did a very good thing for people who could use the help. Again, thank you. I couldn’t have asked for a better birthday gift than this.

50

What I look like at age 50. Surprisingly okay. This was actually taken a couple of days ago, but I look the same today, I SWEAR,

You didn’t know this because I didn’t say anything about it, but I recently had a brief mid-life crisis, which I thought was about turning 50. And because I was efficient about it, I had it last year.

What had happened was, after I was done with my book tour for The Consuming Fire in October, I spent most of November and December in a funk, seemingly for no particular reason. I was spending most of my time laying on the couch and/or being snarky on Twitter rather than writing pay copy, which is intellectual equivalent of laying on the couch. I wasn’t aware of this funk for a bit, because it’s not unusual for me to spend a couple of weeks after a tour, in which I am on all the time, in a bit of an introverted recuperative phase. But it eventually got to a point where even I realized this laying around thing had gone on too long, and maybe there was something more to it than just being “peopled out.”

My brain, being my brain, offered me a simple and attractive solution to my issue: It’s because you’re going to be 50! It said. In, like, half a year! And then you’ll officially be old! You’re finally having your midlife crisis!

Which, at first blush, seemed to make sense. After all, when you’re fifty, even if you contend that you are not in fact old, you have to accept that by no reasonable consideration are you young anymore — “Too Old To Die Young,” is the way I’ve been phrasing it to people. With the realization that you are too old to die young comes certain other realizations, not only of banal mortality (actuarially speaking I am likely now to have more years behind than ahead, although I definitely have years ahead) but of what the rest of one’s life will be like. The saying “Today is the youngest you’ll ever be” means something different when you understand that the next 20 or 30 years will bring a diminution of physical and mental strength and ability.

At best you’ll be able to manage the decline; at worst, your ability to manage that decline will be taken from you. Some things that you always wanted to do you’re likely never to do. Some paths you could have taken you can no longer turn onto. You’ve become who you are and for better or worse you’ll be living with that person for the rest of your life.

So, yes: being somewhere in the neighborhood of fifty seemed like a really good excuse for a midlife crisis that I never managed to get to before. Time — finally! — for that convertible sports car and that twenty-three year old!

Except.

The thing about midlife crises is that, in my experience, they’re not about age but unhappiness — unhappiness about some aspect or aspects of one’s life, along with a feeling of helplessness about ever being able to change that thing without (intentionally or otherwise) blowing up a large portion of your life, which you probably don’t want to do. And “midlife” is a fine time to feel that, because by that time you’ve had enough time to become unhappy, and to see those feelings of regrets and missed opportunities pile up until you can’t avoid them anymore.

So before I could officially declare I was having a midlife crisis about becoming fifty, I had to ask myself: Leaving aside the possibility of clinical depression (which is a whole different can of worms), am I actually unhappy? And if I am, what is it that I am actually unhappy about?

(And yes, it’s a telling aspect about me and my personality that I can’t just have a funk without examining the root causes of it.)

I was, in fact, unhappy.

Okay then, but about what? Career? Well, no, my career is going along great — I’m happy with the work I put out in the world, and I’ve been fortunate to have bestsellers, awards, adaptations, fans and travel and all the money I need for my life. Marriage? Again, no: I’m as in love with Krissy as I’ve ever been in our lives together, and still happily amazed I get to be with her. Kid? My kid is great and remains the perfect kid for me. Friends? I have many, and they are terrific people, and every day I feel fortunate to know people who are good and kind and talented. General quality of life? It’s very high, and more importantly I am satisfied with it on a day-to-day basis. There’s not much I would change about my life and the people in it.

Physical shape?

Ahhhhhhhh, yes. That’s it. Here we go.

I was unhappy both with the way I looked and felt physically — and, with respect to becoming 50, I was also aware that how I decided to treat my body today was going to set the bar for the next fifteen to twenty years and beyond. I was finally at the age where, as an otherwise healthy, able-bodied person, I had to decide what physical quality of life I wanted to have, essentially, for the rest of my life.

Well, my brain said, the good news is that you can fix this. You’ll hate it, but you can fix it.

This is why, the day after Christmas, I started exercising and counting my calories. And it’s worked: As I’ve noted elsewhere, my weight is down twenty pounds since December, I’m close to my weight goal, and my overall physical health is better than it was. I feel better.

And along with feeling better, that “midlife crisis” of December appears to have fizzled out entirely. I’m 50 today, and today I’m happy. Not just because it’s my birthday, but because in looking forward to the next decade and beyond, I’m excited about the potential for it. I’m happy today and if my life stayed as it is now, I would be delighted to write books, put them out there into the world, and to see and cherish friends and family. But right now there seem to be opportunities to do all that and more, in my personal life and in my career, and to keep growing and moving forward and seeing what happens next. And that’s pretty great.

And yes, all that stuff I mentioned before still applies — I’m getting older and I’ll be getting older faster as I go along. Some things I’ve idly wondered about will always have to be idle wonders. And who I am now is likely to be who I’ll be moving forward. Beyond that, life is almost never a best case scenario. In the next decade life will throw me curveballs and potholes, because that’s what life does. You never do know what’s next, until it happens. I could be consumed by the proverbial bear tomorrow.

But that’s what life does in every decade, truth to tell. In my twenties, I expected to work at a newspaper all my life. In my thirties I thought writing novels would be a side gig at best. As my forties begun I had yet met some of the people who have become some of the most important in my life. My life is not what I expected, save for the simple idea that I always knew I wanted to write (which in itself isn’t entirely true; when I was ten I wanted to be an astronomer. Writing turned out to be the backup gig). I don’t know what my fifties have in store for me either, except that so much of it will be something I can’t expect today.

What is important is how you approach moving forward. And today, on my birthday, turning fifty isn’t a crisis for me, midlife or otherwise. I feel good physically and mentally. I’m happy with my life today. I’m looking forward to all the rest of it.

It’s a good place to be when one is starting a whole new personal decade. Let’s see where things go from here.

My Birthday Challenge: Donate to Wipe Out Medical Debt, Get a Brand New Story

(tl;drDonate to RIP Medical Debt, which forgives medical debt, then come here and tell me in the comments how much you donated. If the amount donated reaches $5k, I write brand new short story.)

RIP Medical Debt is a non-profit organization that buys up the medical debt of people who can ill afford it and then forgives it — wipes it off their slate forever. And because RIP buys that medical debt for pennies on the dollar, every dollar they spend to buy that debt wipes out up to $100 of medical debt someone else owes.

The way the US does health services is bluntly awful and needs to be reformed drastically. But until that happens, forgiving the medical debt of people who can’t service it themselves seems like a decent thing to do — and if every dollar that goes to that wipes out a multiple of that debt, so much the better.

I have a birthday tomorrow, and to celebrate that, Krissy and I today donated $1,000 to RIP Medical Debt, which will wipe out up to $100k worth of medical debt. Whose medical debt? We don’t know. It’ll be a surprise to them as much as to us. But whoever they are, they will have that much less to worry about financially, and their lives will be that much better. And that’s worth celebrating.

If you feel like being in a giving mood for my birthday, I encourage you to also donate to RIP Medical Debt — and in fact, I want to make it a challenge. Here’s the challenge: Go donate whatever amount to RIP Medical today (May 9) and tomorrow (May 10), then come here and share in the comments to this post how much you donated. If the total amount donated reaches $5,000, I will write a brand new short story which I will publish here*. If the total amount reaches $10,000, I will a) do an audio version of the short story, b) donate an additional $1,000. If it gets above that, well… I don’t know what I’ll do but I’ll figure out something.

Any bit you donate — no donation too small (or too large!) — will go to the tally. We’ll be on the honor system here (I’m not going to demand you post a receipt), so be honest about the amount, please. The point is to help people get out from under medical debt; the short story is just a nice bonus. Also, in the US, the donation is tax-deductible, so that’s pretty great too.

What I’m saying is: For my birthday, give the gift of medical debt relief, and get a gift of a short story I’ve written because you did something good for someone who needed it. That’s the deal. Hopefully it’s a deal you can get behind.

Once more: The link to donate to RIP Medical Debt. And thank you.

(* Story to be written after I complete my currently-being-written novel The Last Emperox, so probably in June. Story to be at least 2,000 words, but probably not more than 10,000, although who knows. Audio version likely to be me reading here at my desk, but I have audio software so I can edit it to sound good.)

The Big Idea: Wendy Nikel

If you’re a time traveler, keeping the time stream clear of possible contradictions is not your only problem. Author Wendy Nikel knows another one, and it’s at the heart of The Cassandra Complex.

WENDY NIKEL:

In my previous Big Idea entry, I talked about The Grandmother Paradox and how the title of that second book in my Place in Time novella series just seemed to fit perfectly from the very beginning. When it came time to write the third book, though, (which follows 18 years after the events of the second book but can be read as a standalone) The Cassandra Complex wasn’t the first title I had in mind.

When looking at where the characters in the first two books had been and how I’d used the different aspects of time travel to shape their stories to this point, I had a couple “big ideas” in mind.

First, I knew that based on how book two ended, I had to send my new protagonist back in time from her home in the 22nd century to live in the early 20th century in order to keep the timeline straight. I also knew that both protagonists from the previous books had been striving to preserve the established timeline, so for this one, I wanted to do something different. The main character of this book is younger and less experienced in time travel than the previous ones, and it shows. She’s got her own ideas about what the past should look like and isn’t likely to listen to anyone else’s advice – especially that of her parents or older brother. Thus, instead of keeping her head down and keeping the timeline intact, this latest time traveler in the series sets out to make some important changes.

The working title I used for this manuscript was The Compossibility Theory. Compossibility refers to whether two things can exist or happen together, and I’d initially set out to discover whether my main character could change the past without changing so much that she’d cease to exist. Depending on which theory of time travel you subscribe to, this had the potential to create an alternate universe or could cause a reality-destroying paradox. But as I started plotting and writing and putting together her adventures in the past, my protagonist ran into a problem that I wasn’t entirely expecting – a problem which changed the story’s trajectory and, eventually, the title as well.

No one believed her.

And who could blame them? Any time traveler is going to have a hard time convincing people that they’re from the future, and in the year 1914, an 18-year-old girl wasn’t likely to be taken seriously about anything – much less the existence of time travel and warnings about the future. Thus, I had a new problem for my main character to solve – one that lands her in quite a bit of trouble.

That left only the problem of the title. The Compossibility Theory didn’t fit so well anymore now that my Big Idea had taken me in a different direction than I’d anticipated. So I turned to the past for my inspiration.

In Greek mythology, Cassandra was a Trojan princess. She was given the gift of prophecy by her admirer, Apollo, but then when she refused his advances, he cursed her so that no one would ever believe any of her prophecies – including ones regarding the destruction of Troy. Today, a “Cassandra complex” refers to when someone’s valid warnings or concerns are dismissed, which is exactly the sort of struggle my main character is up against. One quick name change, and I had the perfect title to a story all about a time traveler trying to make her voice heard.

____

The Cassandra Complex: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | iTunes/Apple Books | World Weaver Press

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

Spice, Mid-Yawn

So majestic. Truly a magnificent specimen of the common house tiger.

The Big Idea: Seanan McGuire

How long did it take Seanan McGuire to write her latest novel, Middlegame? It depends on how you look at it. There’s the typing of it… and then there’s everything else.

SEANAN McGUIRE:

This is the book that took me ten years of writing basically constantly before I could call myself good enough to write it.

That doesn’t mean it’s necessarily the best thing I’ve ever written, or that it’s going to be anyone’s new favorite, although of course, I hope both those things are true. It just means that from a sheer craft standpoint, it took me a very long time to get all the skills necessary to write what is essentially an alchemical superhero story about family, connection, and time travel. Juggling the various timelines this story required a level of precision that I had to work my way up to. I’m still a little stunned that I was able to manage it. And as the reviews have come in, even the ones that didn’t like the book have been forced to admit that I managed my timelines well, which is really all I had any right to hope for.

The big idea for this book started with a song, called “The Doctrine of Ethos,” written by Dr. Mary Crowell and recorded on her album, Courting My Muse. The very first line, “The Doctrine of Ethos says music’s a force, a microcosm of creation at its source…” seemed to contain an entire world of story. So I started prodding it with a stick.

Since the Doctrine of Ethos comes from Greek philosophy, wedding it with alchemy seemed like the most natural thing in the world, and I very quickly came to the conclusion that our big conflict was between people who wanted to control the Doctrine and the Doctrine itself, which didn’t want to be controlled. But how to make that sympathetic? Easy. Turn the central force of creation into a person. To keep it from being too powerful to be challenged, make it two people, and then make their lives a living hell.

Easy-peezy, pudding and pie. Roger and Dodger were born. Their rhyming names are a function of the sympathetic magic that drives the novel; they’re very different people, for all that they’re biologically identical twins created by the same act of horrific alchemy, but their names mean that they can always be yanked back together. Their names, and their natures. Drawing on more Greek philosophy, namely Aristophanes’ speech in Plato’s Symposium, they are very much two halves of the same person, one of the Children of the Moon. They can’t be whole without one another.  But their love is absolutely filial. They’re brother and sister, and they come as a complete package.

(One of the things I had to get good enough to do was write this book without making it easy for anyone to read it and ship my protagonists together. Roger and Dodger are twins. Roger doesn’t like redheads, in part because his sister is one, and Dodger doesn’t like anyone who isn’t secretly a book of calculus problems.)

As the two halves of the Doctrine, Roger and Dodger represent lyrics (Words) and musical structure (Mathematics). They have absolute control over their domains, or they will, once they come firmly enough into their birthrights and assume the full weight of the Doctrine, embodying it completely and giving up any chance they might ever have had of being ordinary people. Not that there was much of a chance of that. In many ways, this book is a superhero origin story about two people coming fully into themselves, and doing it without laser eyes or being able to fly (although they’d appreciate it if they could).

It’s also a book about alchemy. I needed the people who created our protagonists to be grounded in the world around them, which is a lot to ask when you’re talking about alchemical science, and so I read a lot of books on American alchemical thought, and the idea the sometimes alchemists would hide their secrets “in plain sight” to make sure they wouldn’t be forgotten, but also so the alchemists could feel smarter than everyone else, since they knew everything. Asphodel Deborah Baker was born.

A contemporary of Baum, Baker wrote a series of books about a place called the Up-and-Under which were, secretly, an encoded series of alchemical primers. She never achieved Oz-levels of success, but she did quite well, and her books remain in print to this day. Pieces of the first in the series are interspersed throughout Middlegame, and of course I wrote the whole thing. Having a children’s book at the heart of my changeling cosmology seemed only fitting.

When I finally decided that I was ready to write Middlegame, I told my agent about it, and she asked me to write her a pitch. I wrote four pages. She told me it didn’t make any sense, and that she wouldn’t be able to sell it without more detail. I took this as an invitation to go home and write the whole book.  It took me around six weeks to pull out a finished draft. Ten years and six weeks is a reasonable amount of time for a 150,000 word book, right?

I’ve had people get mad at me for punching down at myself when I said that it took me a while to get good enough to do this, but I think the delicacy of the craft speaks for itself.

The Doctrine sings, the astrolabe turns, and now I just need to get good enough to write the sequel.

—-

Middlegame: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

Work-Related Semi-Hiatus Through the End of May

Hey! I have a book (The Last Emperox) that’s due reeeeeeeeal soon, so to avoid the world pulling focus on that, for the next few weeks (i.e., probably through the end of the month, possibly shorter, hopefully not longer) I’m going to be doing a semi-hiatus from social media and the Internet generally.

What does “semi-hiatus” mean? Basically:

  • Pulling back on Twitter, Facebook and blogging pretty significantly
  • Avoiding news and the outside world generally pretty much entirely
  • Answering non-business email only briefly (and sometimes not at all)

I’m calling this a “semi-hiatus” rather than a full hiatus mostly because a) here at Whatever I have Big Ideas scheduled this month, and I also want to note my 50th birthday, which is coming up on Friday, so those posts are definitely coming; b) generally I may have things to announce this month and I don’t want to have to preface them by saying “hey, breaking my hiatus to let you know…”; c) sometimes I will be all done with work for the day and will want to give myself permission to check in with friends online, or, you know, maybe post cat or sunset pictures, or other such frivolous/fun things, that won’t tax my by-then-almost-certainly-deflated brain.

Please note: my intention to largely avoid the outside world means that, barring genuinely world-shaking events, I am unlikely to be posting about politics/social issues, here or on Twitter or elsewhere, to any great extent until the book is done. Depending on who you are, this will either be a bug or a feature. But please know that, for me, any brain cycles spent being annoyed/outraged/upset at current events are brain cycles I’m not using to finish the book. This is how I’m built, and I have deadlines, so I have to prioritize my work. The good news (heh) is that there’s a whole bunch of other people out there to take up the slack while I’m away.

Please also note that when I come back I’ll likely do the annual Reader Request Week, so Whatever, at least, will get back up to speed pretty rapidly.

Regarding email: If you’re emailing me about something that can wait until the beginning of June, it’s probably best to wait until then. With regard to Big Idea queries, go ahead and send them but be aware I’ll likely not have a quick turnaround on responding to those this month.

And in the meantime, don’t worry: I’m fine, the cats are fine, everyone at the Scalzi Compound is fine. I’m just busy writing a book so you can have it to read and enjoy next April.

There it is! And now, a cat picture as a reward for your attention. Enjoy.

A Goal Mostly Hit

Back in October I groused about my weight and how it was making me feel physically, and proposed that I should lose twenty pounds by my birthday, which is, as it happens, this Friday. Today I’m happy to announce that indeed, I have lost twenty pounds from my top weight! So that’s good.

The slightly less great news is that it’s twenty pounds off from a top weight that I reached in December, which was nearly five pounds more than what I was in October, because, you know, holidays. So I’m still five pounds off from my ultimate weight goal of 170 pounds, and it seems unlikely I’ll drop five pounds by Friday, save by dysentery, which I am not inclined to contract.

I propose to solve this dilemma by a) celebrating hitting the goal of losing twenty pounds anyway (yay!), and b) setting a new target date to hit 170 pounds, which will be June 17, which as it happens is my anniversary date with Krissy. That’s about five weeks away, and as I’ve been losing roughly a pound a week — which seemed both a sensible and achievable goal in a general sense — getting to 170 by then seems doable. See you in June, target weight.

I have to say that dropping this weight has done me good aside from the simple physical side of it — although that side of it is not insubstantial. When I started in December I was winded after walking a mile on the treadmill, and now I can run two miles on the same treadmill without feeling like I want to die, and beyond that I’m feeling other physical benefits in terms of endurance and health. But there’s also a psychological benefit as well, which comes down to the ability to look in the mirror and see someone there who matches my own self-image of who I am.

As I’ve noted before, I’m not a proponent of the idea that “thin” is necessarily the body ideal for everyone, either for their physical or mental well-being. But I also know that for me personally, the weight gain was not positive, as much for what it represented in terms of what I was doing to my own body as for itself. Making it a goal to get myself back to what I see as “myself,” and having that be an act of my own will, has been a good thing for my mental health, I think.

When I hit 170 my plan is to pause there and try to maintain at that point for a bit, and see how I feel. I’ve weighed less than that before (in my 30s I was around 160 – 165), but I think at that point I’ll have to see what works for a 50-year-old version of me, not the version that has been around for over a decade. I suspect regardless I’m stuck with exercising regularly now, which is a thing I don’t love for itself, even if I like what it does for me. But, again: 50, as of Friday. I need to be exercising regardless.

So: Hooray! 20 pounds down! Five more to go! A reminder we are all works in progress, and the good news being sometimes that progress is a positive.

The Big Idea: Rudy Rucker

In this Big Idea for Million Mile Road Trip, author Rudy Rucker describes how he wrote himself into a bit of a corner — and what it was that helped him get out of it. His path is not recommended for others, but it makes for some very fine reading here.

RUDY RUCKER:

I always wanted to write an SF novel about a motley group of characters taking a long journey to visit a lot of planets, some of the travelers human, and some of them alien. To make it more fun, I wanted them to be riding in a car.

Why a car? Well, we already have plenty of SF novels about tourists in spaceliners, emigrants in generation starships, and troops in the space navy. In a car, there’s no captain, and you can ride with the windows open, and you stop wherever you like.

Real-life road trips end before you want them to. You run into a coastline. The road stops. I wanted a road trip that goes on and on, with ever new adventures, and with opportunities to reach terrain never tread upon before. But how to do that in a car?

I peeled Earth like a grape, snipped out the oceans, shaped the flattened skin into a disk, and put a mountain range around it. Then I laid down a bunch more of these planetary rinds, arranging them like hexagonal tiles on a very wide-ranging floor. All set for a Million Mile Road Trip.

How did I decide on a million miles? Well, the edited-down Earth disk has a diameter of about ten thousand miles. And if we’re generous and say our roadtrip will run across about a hundred similar planet-like disks—then we’ve got a million miles. 100 × 10,000 is 1,000,000. Nice and tidy.

By the time I was two-thirds done with my novel I realized I’d only traveled through six worlds. I needed to pick up the pace. The acceleration part was easy. I introduced an invented-on-the-spot SF technology that I called stratocasting (for the Fender guitar). The hard part was actually imagining a whole lot of worlds. I figured describing thirty of them would be enough, and the rest could be a blur. But I was having trouble getting thirty unique worlds together.

At this point, in January 2016, real life intervened. I had to go into the hospital for an especially traumatic hip operation.

After the operation, I woke, soaked in sweat, in a state of delirium at half-past midnight. My bed seemed like the edge of an alleyway, and I was like a wet rag of clothing lying there, a wadded shirt. A nothing. Pathetic. Lost. Undone.

I was unable to remember who I was, or where, or what my significance was, or what ordeal I was undergoing, or what I was supposed to do. A wet crooked rag in an alleyway. Eventually I found the ringer-button to call a nurse. She was sympathetic.

And then, on the table by my bed, I spotted the paper scrap with my marked-up draft of the “Stratocast” chapter for Million Mile Road Trip. Ah, yes. I told the nurse I was a writer, and that the scrap was from a science fiction novel I was working on, and  that I would now try to recover my personality by thinking about my book. She approved.

I had all the time in the world, anonymous in the middle of a hospital night. I set to work, typing till 3 am. I was happy to be writing in such an extreme situation. I ran my characters across twenty or thirty planet-sized basins in a single chapter. A surreal mural in my mind.

That hospital experience reminds me of a sentence in a short story, “Miss Mouse and the Fourth Dimension,” written by Robert Sheckley, the SF-writer-hero of my youth, and later my mentor. He was a wise, hip guy, and deeply funny to boot. Here’s Sheckley’s line: “A genuine writer is a person who will descend voluntarily into the flaming pits of hell for all eternity, as long as they’re allowed to record their impressions and send them back to Earth for publication.”

I always think a lot about what I’m writing. I’m a perfectionist. On the days when I can’t get anywhere on my current novel, I work on my notes for it, thinking about my world and about the invented logical explanation behind it. It’s a dialectical process. The thesis is the fantastic vision, the antithesis is the pseudoscientific explanation, the synthesis is ramifying linkage between the two, and the process is the the act of shuttling back and forth, repeatedly adding to the vision and the theory.

Of course, Million Mile Road Trip is no ponderous work of phenomenology. It’s light and playful. The heroes are three high-school kids with bad attitudes. And the aliens they encounter are, to say the least, flaky.

Another element that influenced my composition is the style of Thomas Pynchon. I wanted to write a novel in the present tense like he does. Often readers don’t consciously notice what tense a novel is written in—like, is it past or present? But for writers it’s a fraught decision. I found that using the present tense gives a chatty feel, like someone recounting a tale. Another Pynchon move is to rotate the point of view from chapter to chapter. And he writes very close-up to the current point-of-view character, producing an effect like a real-time stream of consciousness.

Regarding locale, I like to fold my real surroundings into my SF novels—it’s what I call transrealism. SF that’s set in the real world.

This time around, my transreal world includes flying saucers—and they’re not boring machines, no, they’re live beings made of meat. The aliens don’t ride in flying saucers, dude, they are flying saucers. (I don’t understand why more people don’t realize this!) Be that as it may, you can’t really have flying saucers in a novel without a full-on Attack of the Flying Saucers. And what better setting for such a scene than—the annual graduation at our local Los Gatos High School! I’ve been to quite a few graduations there.

It’s all here. Check it out.

—-

Million Mile Road Trip: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powells

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

 

A View Through the Backyard Maple

It’s a very relaxing view. 

No reason for this other than I thought it might be nice to a have a bit of tree and sky in our lives today.

The Big Idea: Lewis Shiner

For the novel Outside the Gates of Eden, acclaimed author Lewis Shiner goes back in time, just a bit, to uncover the what it is people of his generational cohort have brought into the present moment.

LEWIS SHINER:

As I got close to finishing my seventh novel, Dark Tangos, it was time to think about what might be next. I’d just read Anna Karenina for the first time, and it had amped up my literary ambitions. What would Tolstoy write about, I wondered, if he were alive right now? Or, to put it another way, what was the most important conflict of my generation?

The answer came so quickly it was like it had been lying in wait: the death of 1960s idealism and the rise of the culture of greed.

***

I’d never written a book by starting with a high concept. My previous novels were inspired by historical incidents or particular obsessions of mine, and they usually announced themselves with dialog playing out in my head. Specifics first, generalities later. In this case the idea had such a grip on me that the specifics came tumbling along after it–the main characters, the first scenes, various milestones along the course of what I immediately knew was going to be at least a thousand-page manuscript.

What I didn’t know was why. What happened to our Revolution? To all our revolutions? How did the rich come to own the moral high ground along with all the banks and houses? I hoped the answers would come with the writing.

And if Outside the Gates of Eden does answer those questions, it’s in a novelistic way. Which is to say, I don’t expect readers to extract simple answers and match them to numbered questions printed in the back. Instead I hope that the experience of (re)living those years in the controlled environment of a novel will leave them feeling like maybe they understand something in a visceral way that they didn’t understand before.

What I can offer here are a few core issues that emerged during the writing, compass points that I consulted whenever I found myself asking, “Where am I going with this, again?”

***

The first thing I figured out about the 1960s was that they fell into the last sweet spot on a graph with two intersecting lines. The first was the rising line of white, middle-class affluence. In practical terms, this meant that for the first time ever, most kids didn’t have to go to work at 16. Instead, millions of them could go to college and ask questions about why things had to be the way they’d always been.

The other line was the descending line of finite resources. Just as those millions of college students were revving up to change the world, the Club of Rome think tank issued a report called The Limits to Growth (1972), which was followed immediately by the 1973 oil crisis, which made it obvious to every automobile owner in the US that there was no longer enough to go around.

Suddenly a lot of people who’d been saying “Love thy neighbor” were saying “Me first.”

Also in 1973, Nixon finally kept his 1968 campaign promise to end the war in Vietnam. The war had been the number-one unifying issue for the counterculture since the mid-sixties. When the troops started coming home, no other cause was universal enough to take its place.

There was more. School busing alienated the working class, both white and black. Stagflation hit everyone in the wallet, and economists couldn’t explain it or fix it. Even as charismatic figures continued to arise on the right–most prominently Ronald Reagan–the left was devastated by the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy.

The public attacks on the movement and its leaders were bad enough. Even worse was the FBI’s COINTELPRO, which infiltrated every radical organization from the Students for a Democratic Society to the Black Panthers to the American Indian Movement, disrupting meetings, pushing for increasingly violent and bizarre agendas, creating and widening the fracture lines within the groups.

The lack of leadership was crippling. It’s a sad truth that for every ten protestors at a rally, nine were there mainly in hopes of getting high or getting laid. Keeping the actual idealists motivated and active required a major effort, one the establishment undermined in every way they could.

Television proved their most potent weapon. Over the years, the constant mocking images of flower children and shaggy radicals made sincerity laughable and started us on the path to where we are now, where irony is the dominant cultural mode and “hippie” is just another Halloween costume for sale at Target.

And yet. Despite the odds, despite the defeats, images of the sixties endure. The words “Woodstock Nation” and “Peace and Love” still carry power down through the generations. With Donald Trump acting out the worst of crony capitalism on the daily news feed, more and more people are realizing that community, charity, and conscience really are our only hope for the future. And that is the biggest idea of Outside the Gates of Eden.

—-

Outside the Gates of Eden: Subterranean Press|Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound

Read an excerpt (scroll down). Visit the author’s site. Follow him on Twitter.

Nerds! On a Boat!

In the New York Times today, a story by reporter John Schwartz about the JoCo Cruise, which is the “nerd cruise” I and roughly two thousand other people go on every year, hosted by musician Jonathan Coulton. It does a pretty good job of figuring out what’s pretty great about the cruise, namely, its ability to turn “oh, shit” moments — like the They Might Be Giants concert slot at a land-based concert being rained out by a sudden downpour — into something magical and even more memorable. You don’t get that on just any cruise. Check it out.

Review: Avengers: Endgame

(Note: No specific plot spoilers in the review, but I’m going to allow people to post spoilers in the comments, so if you’re one of the three people in the world who haven’t seen the film yet, you might want to skip the comments until you do.)

Avengers: Endgame is a once-in-a-lifetime cinematic experience, and I mean that in two very specific ways. First, it’s a film that (generally) effectively, (mostly) competently and (sometimes) ingeniously serves as a capstone to a series of films spanning twenty-two installments, which is a species of cinematic beast that’s never really been managed before and seems unlikely ever to be pulled off again; Second, that having seen it, I don’t feel like I ever need to see it again in this lifetime.

I feel the second, because Endgame is the first. Endgame has an immense amount of ground to cover: It has to follow the cliffhanger of Infinity War, try to wrap up plot threads left dangling from every Marvel film since the original Iron Man in 2008, leave a bunch of plot threads that can be taken up in the upcoming “Phase Four” of the Marvel film universe (and the various TV series that are coming to Disney’s long-expected streaming service), and adequately shuffle off the stage the several major stars whose long-term Marvel contracts are up. With all that as its remit, it’s a miracle that Endgame is watchable at all, much less actually entertaining in the moment. That it is means that major props are due to Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, the screenwriters, and to the Russo Brothers, who, with this and Infinity War, and the two Captain America films they’ve directed, make an argument for being the pre-eminent cinematic field marshals of our time.

With that said, “watchable” and “entertaining in the moment” are not precisely the same thing to me as “fun” and “enjoyable.” Watching Endgame to me felt like being on a forced march through a checklist of plot points and character moments, and after a (very short) time I began to be rather conscious of all the scenes that existed not to be an organic moment of story but to be fanservice for a particular character (or set of characters), or to make sure some barely-remembered loose end was tucked in. By the third act and its climactic and overstuffed battle scene, it stopped being clever and started being exhausting. I felt like a kid on vacation being dragged to all the sights on a tour, with no time to really enjoy any of them because look, we’re on a schedule here.

“But that’s why you see it a second time!” Well, and to quote Thor here:

I should be clear that I don’t think I missed any significant moments in the film — I got them, because the design of the film was such that I was meant to get them, and Disney (and its attendant cinematic technicians) make it their business to make sure they are gotten. Endgame’s charms are all on the surface, and they are all very brief. The thing that makes me want to rewatch a movie, in most cases, is the ability to linger: With the characters, with the world, with the entire milieu that the film creates.

And that’s the thing about Endgame — there’s just no lingering. Not with the characters, not with the world, not with any part of it. It’s not meant for lingering; it has no time for it. We have a timetable, and it has to be made. Now, it does make want to rewatch other Marvel films, where I do get those character and world moments: Thor: Ragnarok. Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Guardians of the Galaxy. Spider-Man: Homecoming. Iron Man 3 (yes, Iron Man 3. Fight me). But Endgame? Meh, not so much.

Mind you, my opinion that Endgame merits only a single watch is being amply refuted by the large number of folks who have gone back to watch the film twice or three times or more. Good for them. I’m glad and not in the least surprised that they have been entertained; as I noted, moment to moment, the film is entertaining, and savvy enough as popular entertainment to give their characters, especially the ones whose actors are at the end of their contracts, moments you can cheer and cry for them. This is Disney, folks. They know popular entertainment.

The point I’m trying to make is that stringing individually entertaining moments together does not in itself a substantive cinematic experience make. Endgame isn’t a sumptuous meal; it’s a bunch of tasty canapes fed to you on a conveyor belt, with no time to savor one before the next one comes along. I like canapes! And I enjoyed Endgame, which is in its very specific way a marvel, pun entirely intended. But I’m not sure I need to have this cinematic canape conveyor belt experience more than once in my life.

Happy Birthday(ish), Smudge

We’re pretty sure that when Smudge scampered his way into the Scalzi household last year, he was around eight weeks old. Which means that he was very likely born today a year ago, give or take a few days on other side. That’s close enough when it comes to cats, so I’m just going to go ahead and say May 4th is officially Smudge’s birthday, that he is now a whole year old, and thus has graduated from being a kitten into being a cat.

Therefore: Happy birthday, Smudge. You’re a pain in the ass, and also adorable, and we’re happy that when I tried to get someone from the Internet to claim you, on the basis we already had three cats and didn’t need any more, the whole Internet rose up and said, “nah, bro, that’s your cat now.” Here’s to many more years of your adorable pain-in-the-ass-ness.

New Books and ARCs, 5/3/19

I was traveling for two weeks, so it’s no surprise that we have a double load of new books and ARCs here at the Scalzi Compound this week. Which of these books is especially appealing to you today? Let me know in the comments!

New Books and ARCs, 5/1/19

First of May, First of May, outdoor reading starts today! Anything in this stack you would take with you for a little outside book enjoyment? Share in the comments, please!