Dublin is pretty at night, with the moon peeking through the clouds.
Dublin is pretty at night, with the moon peeking through the clouds.
Sophia McDougall’s Romanitas series was written a number of years ago, but only this month is being released in the US for the first time. Today, McDougall recounts the where, when and why this alternate history series was created… and what it’s like looking back on that creation today.
It was early autumn, but it still felt like summer. My teeth were sticky from ice-cream. Boys were flying kites in the bright blue sky. It was the end of my first grown-up holiday, a week with my best friend in a greasy hotel on the Costa Brava.
There was just time freshen up before the bus to the airport. A TV was on in the hotel lobby and as we hurried through on the way to the bathroom, I heard something about the conservative leadership election. I brushed my teeth hastily and headed back. I wanted to know how it turned out.
Then my brain processed that what I’d actually heard was that the election results would be delayed … as a mark of respect …
And the lobby was unusually crowded, and everyone was staring at that TV…
I joined them.
And we all watched the twin towers fall, for the first of hundreds upon hundreds of times.
Like millions of others, I felt history shifting, splitting in two.
When I got home – also like millions of others – I picked up the habit of watching the same horrific footage over and over, as though it might somehow play out differently. Or as though, in the smoke, it might be possible to pick out the answers we were so desperate for.
What did it mean? Would it happen again? Would there be a war? Could we stop it?
What would happen next?
But now, as you read this, you have what not even the most powerful men on the planet had at the time: you know what happened next.
Perhaps you remember how that suspense felt then. You know how it still feels now:
Who gets to survive this? What can we do? Is it even worth trying?
When the books are written, the answers will be known. If the characters try to grab hold of any of history’s levers and pull, readers will know in advance if they succeed or fail. Exceptional writers can narrow this distance from historical figures – Hilary Mantel almost makes me forget that I already know the fate of Anne Boleyn, almost convinces me that this time things might be different.
Or you can use the distance to ramp up the suspense. Characters can run around shouting “this ship is unsinkable!”
But the fact that the past is now unchangeable makes it easy to forget that it was never inevitable. Things could always have been different. History, as it is lived, always can be different.
Two years after that last afternoon in Spain, I started writing the Romanitas trilogy.
Later still, when people asked why I wrote alternate history, I said, “Because it’s more like history than history.”
I didn’t mean to write a novel then. I was a poet. The thing about poems? They’re short. I was twenty-three and confident to the point of cocky, but I still knew I was nowhere near ready to write novels.
I assumed that in a few years, I’d write literary fiction. That was what I’d studied. That was the obvious next step. I overlooked the fact that I spent at least as much time saturating in Philip Pullman and Star Wars and Buffy the Vampire Slayer as I did contemplating Sylvia Plath.
But one afternoon, I found myself daydreaming about the big epic fantasy trilogy I’d like to write – you know, for fun! – after the serious, proper books that would somehow materialise first.
A cast of thousands. Supernatural stuff. Characters who still had the chance to change a world whose history wasn’t known yet. Oh, and I always loved stories about people on the run!
And yet … would these books have to be set in a “magical world”? Wasn’t there a way to write epic fantasy, or at any rate something like epic fantasy, in this one?
And what would people be running away from?
Well, the Roman Empire was epic and scary and suffused with the supernatural. And it was a world I knew pretty well. I’d read their letters and poems and histories. I knew something about how they thought.
But everyone would already know what happened. There would be such immovable limits to what could happen. As if it had always been inevitable.
Unless … it was an alternative world. Recognisable, but different. A Roman Empire that hadn’t fallen. A modern Roman Empire.
Obviously I wasn’t going to write this novel yet, but immediately a lot of it arrived in my head.
Rome would be huge and inescapable and sometimes as seductive as it was horrific.
Romans with cars. And television. But also guns. And an arms race between Rome and … maybe Japan? And a wall across North America. And also slavery.
That’s what the characters would be running away from! A teenage brother and sister, and she’d save him from being crucified … and she’d hate Rome with everything she was – but could she ever really outrun it?
At the other end of the scale, there’d be the heir to the imperial throne … soaking in privilege, but in danger too. There’d be people willing to kill to prevent the changes he’d make to the Empire …
Well, I thought, that all sounded cool. But yikes! Definitely too demanding for a first novel! Maybe in ten years’ time, I’d be ready to have a crack at it.
Twenty minutes later I thought, “Oh well, I’ll just start.”
It’s only now – seventeen years since I started writing Romanitas and eleven years since I finished it – that the trilogy is finally reaching the US and Canada. Revisiting them now is strange – after all this time, you might think I’d be able to encounter them almost as a new reader myself, without knowledge what happens next. But I can’t. I remember everything. The parts I’d do differently now, the parts that feel more relevant than I’d like (that fucking wall isn’t the half of it) and the parts I lived so intensely that it feels as though I never really stopped writing them. For so long, they were the centre of my life, and they continue to shape so much of it. I definitely didn’t see that coming.
Both the lion and the unicorn look shocked that the gull has invaded their tableau. The gull, obviously, could not care less what they think.
(From the Customs House here in Dublin)
In fantasy worlds, we’re used to the idea of “secondary worlds” — worlds not unlike our own, branched off in specific ways — and in Shrouded Loyalties, author Reese Hogan branches off from an unusual place indeed.
To try to figure out the big idea behind Shrouded Loyalties—and the wording here is something I had to constantly remind myself of as I thought about this blog post; not all the big ideas coming together, but the big idea that started it all—I’d have to boil the book down to the very first elements that were present, before it blossomed and grew into something beyond what I imagined.
Only three things from my very first draft survived until the final book: 1) the setting—I always knew I wanted a World War II-inspired secondary world; 2) people being hunted for magic tattoos—these grew into the marks two of my characters receive in the second chapter; and 3) the idea of a soldier returning home from war to discover that her little brother is an enemy collaborator.
It was this last idea that really defined how the book grew. Originally, Blackwood was a soldier in the army, rather than a sailor on a submarine, but I needed her to be farther from home to give her brother, Andrew, the space to distance himself from her emotionally. I needed to give the enemy a reason to want Andrew on their side, so his and Blackwood’s parents became scientists who’d left valuable research behind after dying in a freak accident. I needed to give Blackwood a secret big enough that the enemy getting ahold of it could mean the downfall of her own country, and I needed to give Andrew the motivation and means to take that secret and give it to the very people she hated.
Finally, from a draft of the book that only shared Blackwood’s side of the story, I gave Andrew a point of view, so the reader could understand why he makes the decisions he does—and maybe even sympathize with those decisions. So, before I ever had a pair of spies targeting the Blackwood siblings or an alternate world filled with monsters, I had Blackwood and her brother, two very very different people who could barely hold a conversation, pitted against one another in the most personal way possible.
The result brought me into territory I hadn’t expected, in terms of grief and depression and self-loathing, and I found myself growing increasingly convinced that this was the story my heart had been leading me to all along—the temptations that can seduce us in our darkest hours, and the powerful toll mental health issues can have on relationships and communication. I am no stranger to these feelings, but I don’t often see them explored in the SFF genre, and I realized as I wrote Blackwood and Andrew’s relationship that this was my chance to make these issues accessible in a new way. That’s why Shrouded Loyalties, a novel about alternate realms and spies and monsters, is at its heart a story of two people who never learned to communicate.
But I didn’t know any of this when I started writing it. In the beginning, my big idea was as simple as a teenage brother lured to the wrong side of the tracks, and the guilt of the big sister who knew deep down that she should have been there to protect him. I didn’t know if the relationship would be fixable. I didn’t know how far Andrew would go in his collaboration. All I knew was that there’s nothing more devastating than a sibling relationship gone this badly wrong, and that it was something I was dying to explore.
Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.
(Actually it’s just the entrance to the tasting rooms at the Guinness Storehouse tour, but it looks pretty sinister, no?)
I had a big idea. I was going to write about the murder of Shira Banki in Pride in Jerusalem in 2015, and how it affected writing The Heart of the Circle. It was supposed to be a very inspirational post, about what I think being an ally means, why literature is important and how it can change people’s point of view, with a call for action at the end. It would have worked lovely with the book’s main theme about social awareness, joining forces against extremists and highlighting marginalized population. But my country is in flames as I’m writing this, and that post is as far away from me as possible.
Selomon Teka, an 18 year old boy was killed a few days ago. The cause for his death changes according to whom you prefer to listen to. Either he was a trouble-maker who started a fight and threatened a police officer who tried to calm spirits, and got shot because of it, or he was innocent, just had a fight with his friend, and the police officer meddled for no reason, shooting him point-blank, killing him.
The only things that remains constant in both the police’s version and the family and friends’ version is that he is dead. And that the boy was Ethiopian. Which means his skin was dark.
When I write, I do so to deal with the real-world, when reality becomes too unbearable for me. I put all of my confusion and pain into my writing, and things feel better after that. I wrote about prostitution when I started working in a free STD clinic in south Tel Aviv and got to know the sex workers that came to me. I wrote about trying to cheat death after a close friend died suddenly. I started writing about LGBTQ rights after that same friend, a few years earlier, explained to me what it means to be gay in our so-called free country.
We talked a lot, and from those conversations Reed and Lee were born. The world in which my characters lived was way better in the first draft, but then Shira Banki was murdered in 2015, and I realized what my story was really about. The Big Idea behind The Heart of The Circle isn’t that big – it is simply the notion that we should treat people with respect.
Now, you see, that’s what I was going to write about. But the world clearly had different plans. Selomon Teka’s death started demonstrations all over Israel, and some of them were violent. People were blocking roads, throwing rocks, fighting with police officers, and burning tires. When I say my country is in flames, I mean it in the most literal way.
The stories that surfaced since Selomon Teka’s murder exposed an ugly, brutal, segregated Israel, which I thought had disappeared into the eighties, after huge waves of immigration from Ethiopia. People are now speaking of police harassment, unjustified body searches and arrests, and I don’t know what to do. I have no words. Because what can I say? “Don’t judge a person by the color of their skin”? From what I’m seeing on my Facebook and Twitter feeds, not everyone agrees with that idea, one which I didn’t think was that ‘big’ in the first place.
Shira Banki shouldn’t have died. Selomon Teka shouldn’t have died. I’m not naïve. I’m a doctor and I know people die; I know our world is unjust. But I still don’t understand why an 18 year old boy is dead because of his skin color, and why a 16 year old girl is dead because she marched for equal rights.
People die in my country every day. We have many problems here and a lot of injustice. And in weeks like the last one we just had, I continue to wish more people understood those most basic human concepts: respect, acceptance, kindness.
Maybe it is a big idea after all.
It’s lovely so far. There are flowers everywhere. We’ve seen the Book of Kells and Christchurch Cathedral and had dinner with friends and been to pubs. It’s a whole thing and we’re here for it. Hope your week is going well, too. More updates when I can remember to do them.
No matter what, there are always lawyers. But what happens when there lawyers… but not much law? It’s an idea — dare we say, a big idea — that Christopher Brown considers in his novel, Rule of Capture.
Who are the lawyers you call when you get in trouble in dystopia?
This question came to me one hot summer day several years ago when I was working on my last novel, Tropic of Kansas. I was diligently slogging my way through the middle of the book—you know, the part where you get totally stuck in the weeds, lost without a compass, tearing your hair out and nothing to help you except for every book you’ve ever read and all the things the world around you has to teach if you open your eyes. The characters I was writing that day were a pair of young fugitives, on the run through the ecologically devastated heartland of an authoritarian mirror America, chased by Carhartt militias and autonomous drones. And then one of them got sick, and had to turn himself in. What do you do when your buddy gets locked up in a dystopian prison camp? Especially when you’ve already had one jail break, which is all any single novel can handle.
I took my own break, ran an errand, and then stopped for a coffee by the side of the highway. As I walked back to the car, I noticed the giant billboard looming over me with the image of a larger than life dude sporting leather jacket and tie, wild long hair, a cunning smile, and a very Austin tagline: THE LAWYER WHO ROCKS.
And I immediately thought, what kind of cases would that kind of lawyer handle in my dystopian USA? Being one myself, I know lawyers can make a living helping navigate any legal system you throw at them. And even in the most repressive societies, the ones that lock people up and disappear them without due process, there are lawyers who fight to extract some kernel of justice—and extract some fees along the way.
By the end of the day, there was a billboard inside my novel. Donny Kimoe, “the lawyer even the law is afraid of.” And conveniently for my cell phone-avoiding character, there was a pay phone nearby, and a last quarter in his pocket.
Donny’s onstage scenes got cut, but his billboard survived. And after I finished Tropic of Kansas, I kept thinking about the character, and about that idea, of the lawyers of dystopia. And the more I thought about it, the more potential I saw. Science fiction is full of laws, from Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics to the Prime Directive, but almost entirely devoid of lawyers. In contrast, most legal thrillers are not actually about the law, but just the facts—figuring out who committed the crime and meting out punishment. If you set a legal thriller in a science fiction, the “literature of ideas,” you could have the best of both worlds—a gripping courtroom drama whose outcome rides not just on the lawyer proving the facts, but on the lawyer figuring out how to work an unjust system.
I pitched the idea to my editor—“think Better Call Saul meets Nineteen Eighty-Four”—and he liked it so much he wanted two.
Rule of Capture, out today from Harper Voyager, is the result. The story of Donny Kimoe, a burned out trial lawyer defending political dissidents hauled in front of the special emergency court of an America drifting into totalitarianism. Busy trying to save one client from the death penalty after he’s framed for aiding an attack on the President, Donny gets assigned the unwinnable case of Xelina Rocafuerte, a young journalist and eco-activist who witnessed the assassination of a grassroots political leader and is being prosecuted as a terrorist to silence her. To get her off, Donny has to extract justice from a system in which due process has been suspended. That means breaking the rules, and risking the same fate as his clients.
Donny practices law in a world where the clients are mostly guilty. It’s the laws they violate that are unjust. In otherwords, it’s a lot like the real world, but uses the tools of dystopian fiction to tell truths more conventionally realist legal thrillers cannot. Crafting an imaginary legal system is as challenging a form of worldbuilding as it sounds. But to get started, I didn’t have to go much farther than the nearest law library, where, it turns out, you can find real-world precedents for just about any dystopian legal premise you can imagine—usually codified in laws that are still on the books.
I found an entire section of dusty how-to books on the administration of military rule over the civilian population, mostly from the time before World War Two when martial law was frequently invoked to suppress labor struggles. The suspension of habeas corpus so popular in the South American dictatorships of the 1970s is a power the founders wrote right into our Constitution—one Lincoln invoked during the Civil War. And for my Kafkaesque emergency court, I drew from the trial transcripts of the tribunals still going on at Guantánamo Bay. To paraphrase the Gomi-no-Sensei, the dystopia is already here, it’s just not evenly distributed.
Once the research was done, I learned that writing lawyer stories is harder than it looks from the outside. Behind the often clichéd courtroom scenes (“Objection!”) and procedural narrative structure, they require you to tell your story in a very different way—the way evidence is presented to a court, which is very different than the usual “show, don’t tell.” Lawyers are a peculiar species of trickster, and they don’t allow too much interiority for fear of giving up their sneaky strategy. But once you figure these rules out, the format reveals tremendous promise. Especially when you mix it up with the things you’ve learned from turning the world upside down in science fiction.
Done right, it might even help prevent us from needing lawyers like Donny in real life.
No car parks (as they call them here), but a lovely view of the River Liffey. Oh, also, we have a balcony.
We’re in a few days before the Worldcon starts. Ironically, this weekend at the Dublin convention center there’s a comic con, so it already feels vaguely familiar around here.
I’m gonna take a nap now.
Here’s your last look of Ohio (at least from me) for a week, because we’re off to Ireland for the Worldcon in Dublin. We have a whole day of airports ahead of us. Think kind thoughts for our travel, if you would.
I’m in Dublin all next week, so this week you get a super-sized edition of the new books and ARCs stack. It’s a very fine one, too. Which of these are calling to you? Tell us all in the comments!
A nice combination of clouds and orange, I have to say.
“Whatever happens, don’t go to the police.”
Twenty years ago I lived in a totalitarian state. Still, I was an American, and was treated with general respect. We Americans brought a decent amount of money into the country. My acquaintance who warned me away from the police brought in more than a decent amount.
Someone had broken into his house in a gated community and stolen some electronics. He made a report, and the police returned his belongings a few days later. They had caught the thief, they said, and executed him. The thief’s family had been required to pay for the execution.
The emotions coming out of this moment would become a core part of The Heartwood Crown. The horror of someone losing their life over a VCR. The recognition of how messy it is to seek justice. Do we consider issues like this thief’s poverty? Why is justice harsher if he steals from the rich and influential? Wasn’t another injustice created by killing this man? What does that mean for his family, his friends, his community? What is the role of government and the police force here? And, years later, realizing that this sort of thing happens here in the United States, too… that too often terrible costs are paid for small crimes.
The Heartwood Crown is the second book in a trilogy. I already had the big idea for the series overall: There’s a fantasy world called the Sunlit Lands that’s only open to teenagers. What’s more, to cross from our world into the Sunlit Lands they have to be teens who have experienced tragedy or true injustice in their personal lives.
And I already had the main characters, carrying over from the first book, The Crescent Stone:
Madeline Oliver is a privileged American with a terminal illness.
Shula Bishara is a Syrian war orphan.
Jason Wu lied to his parents, and his sister died as a result.
Darius Walker had a loved one stolen away by the magical people of the Sunlit Lands.
The big idea I was lacking was a theme. I knew that I wanted to explore issues of injustice, generational wrongs, revenge, mercy, and forgiveness, but I was having a hard time narrowing all that down.
I had plenty of in-universe ways to explore those themes. Madeline discovers her terminal illness was the result of magical interference in her life. There are people in the Sunlit Lands called the Scim who have been in generations of poverty because of another people group, the Elenil. Shula is dealing with the loss of her parents and siblings. And all these teenagers had the passion and desire to fix the world, they were looking for solutions.
The intersection of injustice and the question “what do we do about it?” finally brought my big idea into focus: exploring the myth of redemptive violence.
My whole life I’ve been taught that violence is the solution to injustice. Entire genres of movies taught me that if someone threatened my loved ones, I should hunt the bad guys down and kill them. The government taught me that if there’s an evil regime somewhere in the world, we should go to war. When I was a child, some people in my religious tradition even taught me that a loving God required not just death but violence in response to evil actions. “It’s only through violence that we can have peace,” they would say. It sounds like a George Orwell quote, but that’s the message of redemptive violence. It’s what leads us to places where criminals are executed for stealing a VCR or selling loose cigarettes.
Fantasy novels often embrace this idea. We have to kill the evil king, fire bomb the city with dragons, build our undead army, or find the magic spear that can slaughter our enemies. It’s not that other tools don’t exist, but if there’s injustice we reach instinctively for the sword.
So now that I had the big idea, I had to flesh it out. Darius already had a magic sword and a thirst for revenge, so I sent him off for the traditional quest: build an army, then find and kill the evil king.
Meanwhile, Madeline’s perspective changes as she confronts her own mortality. She doesn’t want to kill anyone – her own impending death is more than she can bear — she just wants to fix the world. Does she have the moral imagination to find a solution? Is power and violence required to change the world?
Shula is wrestling with the violent deaths of her own family… and how could anything other than a violent response be sufficient?
And Jason is dealing with the very real question that haunts many of us: How can he forgive himself?
This led, of course, to flying cats and swamp monsters and necromancers and a kitten-sized unicorn named Delightful Glitter Lady. There are unbreakable oaths and dirigibles and enchanted shackles and – yes – revenge. Secrets. Sacrifice. It’s still a fantasy novel, after all!
Ursula K. LeGuin said, “Imagination is the instrument of ethics. There are metaphors besides battle, many choices besides war, and most ways of doing good do not, in fact, involve killing anybody. Fantasy is good at thinking about those other ways.”
Twenty years ago a man was executed for stealing from an acquaintance of mine. Today there are spaces where our culture keeps pushing us, over and over, toward violence. The Big Idea for The Heartwood Crown is that maybe, just maybe we can expand our moral imagination to find new solutions to the problems that plague us. As Jason often says in the book, we have to learn to change our story. That was a little frustrating as the author since he would never do what I wanted (he refuses to fight warriors, confront dragons, or accept the consequences of magic), but it’s good advice for us in real life.
Athena finalized her next semester’s class schedule today, and one of her classes is on digital photography. This got me talking about how the camera and the eye don’t really see the same thing at all, and then taking pictures of her with my 28mm – 300mm lens at different focal lengths so she could see how much it changed the apparent shape of her face (very generally, if you’re doing portraiture, the higher your focal length is in millimeters, the flatter and wider someone’s face is going to look). Then we also talked about how I used photo software to work with pictures after I took them, and how what you do in Photoshop (and other programs and plugins) can change the photo.
The photo above, for example, was shot with a 28mm focal length, then tweaked in software to fix facial distortion, lighting and skin tone evenness, and then turned monochromatic, with grain and a border added. The idea was not to turn the photo into some obvious and unrealistic Facetune slider-fest (although sometimes that’s fun to do), but to at least initially bring what comes out of the camera closer to what the human eye sees, and then find a visual presentation that compliments the subject. Mind you, this is what photographers have done pretty much since the advent of photography; the only difference is that digital tools make it quicker and easier (and cheaper!) to do, without the need to devote space in one’s home for a darkroom and its attendant poisonous chemicals.
I don’t think it will come as a surprise to people that when I post pictures of Athena and Krissy, I run them through Photoshop to clean them up and to make them more visually interesting. I am occasionally asked whether either my daughter or wife ever take a bad photo; the answer is yes, of course, it’s just I never show you any of those. I show you my bad photos. That should be enough for anyone. Anyway, I’ve from time to time had people tell me that they thought I probably prettied up pictures of Krissy but then they met her in real life and realized that no, she actually does look like that, which I find gratifying. As I noted before, I want the pictures I take to accurately reflect life.
It was fun to talk photography with Athena because it’s a hobby of mine, and it’s fun to explain your hobby to others, and also because Athena is already a pretty decent photographer herself, so talking about something she already has an eye for I think will make her eye even better in the long run. I suspect she’ll do just fine in her class this next semester.
There’s the old adage that history is written by the winners — but history, and who gets to tell it, is more complicated than that. As Dee Garretson will tell you, as she talks about her new novel, Paradox Hunt.
My son used to believe I had eyes in the back of my head, to the point where he would comb through my hair looking for them. At those times I would tell him I could make the eyes disappear whenever I wanted to and he fell for that as well. It wasn’t something he wanted to believe, unlike Santa Claus, the tooth fairy and the Easter bunny, all who rewarded his beliefs with good things. He believed me because I was a person in authority. I feel a tiny bit bad about it now, but then it made my life easier so he wouldn’t pinch his sister in the backseat when I was driving.
We also had a kid in our neighborhood with an amazing imagination who convinced the other kids they could get rabies from touching a tree that a rabid animal had climbed. While that kid didn’t have any authority, he could tell stories and sound absolutely convincing so they believed him. I really hope the boy grew up to be a writer instead of a politician.
It’s easy to shape the beliefs of a few young children, but people with power and reach can manipulate the beliefs not just of the young and gullible but of the educated as well. I’ve thought about this for a long time. I studied history in college and I’ve wanted to write a story with this theme ever since I read an article in the Chicago Tribune about how the Chinese government didn’t broadcast the 1969 moon landing and decided their people didn’t need to know it happened. It happens in the U.S. as well-we hear about far too many textbooks that try to lessen the impact of slavery or promote a revisionist history of the Civil War.
So the big idea for Paradox Hunt arose from all of this: How do you know the history you are taught is true?
Paradox Hunt is about two young people from two different cultures, and each culture has manipulated the accounts of their histories to keep the powerful in their societies in control.
The galaxy is on the brink of chaos and Earth has grown repressive over the centuries, touting democratic principles while ruling with an iron fist. Sixteen-year-old Quinn Neen has discovered the truth behind the façade and he is determined not to be part of the elite who let the horrors continue.
I wanted to take this story beyond just having the characters fight against authority. Both Quinn and Mira, the main characters, benefit from this power structure. Their families are in charge. What does it take to move beyond your own self interest to do what’s right? It’s easy to search for truth and rail against power if you don’t have it, but if you benefit from it, it’s so much more difficult.
I wrote this story as a future where Earth is in control of much of the galaxy, because it’s easy to imagine that given humans’ propensity to colonize what they want, it’s a likely way in which the future may play out. I wrote it as young adult fiction, not because I want to go back to being a teenager (!), but because much like writers trying to get published for the first time, young adults have that mix of naivety and bravado to keep going even when it seems like everyone around you is trying to slap you down.
Save the galaxy? Sure, we can try that. Why not? Who says we can’t?
I like to write about people who are optimistic enough to believe they can make a difference. We all need those stories in this day and age. Oh, and just for fun, I’ve included a diva parrot, because why can’t there be parrots on space ships?
I saw it on my walk yesterday. It’s lovely. Have a good Monday, if you can.
Lois Oglesby, 27.
Jordan Cofer, 22.
Saeed Saleh, 38.
Derrick Fudge, 57.
Logan Turner, 30.
Nicholas Cumer, 25.
Thomas McNichols, 25.
Beatrice Warren-Curtis, 36.
Monica Brickhouse, 39.
For those who need it, here’s my piece from three years ago on “thoughts and prayers.”
An author who actively dislikes me and what I write laments on Twitter that in his opinion the era of Heinlein and hard SF has been replaced by — Me! Oh, and JK Rowling and movies and black women who do math.
Leaving aside whether that particular assertion is accurate (and even if it is, whether my placement on this list is motivated more by animus against me than my actual importance, because in terms of the cultural impact of the things listed, I am a very distant fourth behind Potter/JK Rowling, Hidden Figures and the entire medium of film), some thoughts on this:
1. I like the idea that someone who dislikes who I am and what I do nevertheless has to begrudgingly admit that I represent a principal mode of commercial science fiction right now. Yes, yes, he hates it, and me. Oh, well.
2. It wasn’t that long ago that I was considered “the next Heinlein” — seriously, the Publishers Weekly review for Old Man’s War said it “reads like an original work by the late grand master,” and since then I’ve been more or less continuing a “golden age of SF” vibe in my work, updated for the current era (note that this updating is the part fellows like him whine about). So there’s no small irony in complaining that the Era of Heinlein has been superseded by the Era of Scalzi.
3. Imagine claiming to enjoy hard SF, and yet somehow being disapproving of the popularity of Hidden Figures, in which three women employ their understanding of for-the-time-cutting-edge math, physics and technology to allow humans conquer space. It’s literally everything hard SF aspires to be.
4. Anyone lamenting that film is a now major mode of popular science fiction knows nothing about either film or science fiction, and the popular marriage of the two which goes back at least to 1902 and Georges Méliès, i.e., long before the age of Heinlein and “hard SF.”
5. Grousing on the rise of Potter and Rowling is like a music snob griping about the rise of the Beatles. It’s a once-in-a-generation cultural event, and you might as well complain about the tide coming in, and going back out again.
This fellow may at least take comfort in the idea that my era will one day pass — indeed, might be already passing as we speak! Unfortunately for him, what comes after me (as in, is here right now) in science fiction is NK Jemisin, and Mary Robinette Kowal, and Yoon Ha Lee and so many more astounding talents like them. All of whom I strongly suspect this particular fellow will find some reason for objection. “Some reason.”
The problem isn’t really that the “Age of Heinlein” is passing in science fiction. The creative mode that Heinlein wrote in still exists and will continue to exist, inasmuch as I and many other people write in it, and do just fine, creatively and financially, with it. The same with Niven (who is as it happens still alive and still creating) and his mode, and all the other folks working in the hard and golden age-style SF modes. It and they are still there and doing well. The “problem” is that a certain sort of person who claims science fiction for his own is no longer centered in the genre, and the genre no longer listens to his demand to be centered in it, and is doing just fine without him being centered there.
At least this fellow has the sense to admit it’s happened. It has. The genre isn’t going back.
For the first weekend of August, a nice collection of new books and ARCs for you to consider. What here is calling to you? Share in the comments!
Hey, did you know you’re on the internet right now? It’s true! And as it happens, the internet has been doing things to the way language is used for almost as long as there has been an internet. And now, author Gretchen McCulloch is here to tell you a little bit about that, why she felt that it was interesting enough to capture in her book, titled, naturally enough, Because Internet, and how, in some ways, a book is an ideal repository of information about an electronic medium.
In 2014, I started writing a book about internet language. Every so often, while I was working on it, I would look at myself and think, surely this is a fool’s errand. How could I possibly sum up the entirety of the living, breathing language of the internet within a couple hundred static pages?
That wasn’t my only problem. I also had to figure out who I was writing this book for. Imaging the audience is a crucial part of writing for me — it inspires my jokes and metaphors and cultural references, even though I know it’s never completely true. When I write for somewhere like The Toast or Wired, the audience is already very clear in my imagination, a joyful companion while I write. But I could imagine these audiences because I was already reading these news sites — writing for them is adding my voice to an existing chorus. A book doesn’t have an audience when it doesn’t exist yet.
The big idea that solved both of these problems together was deciding that I was writing to the reader of the future. If it was going to be several years before anyone read the words I started drafting in 2014, why not acknowledge how weird that was and cast my sights even further forward? If any book about the internet was inevitably going to be out of date sooner or later, why not write it with an eye to the reader of, say, 2049 or 2099, just as much as towards the reader of 2019?
Writing towards the future provided useful practical guidance. One thing I had to figure out was exactly which bits of the internet needed additional context. When I was writing towards the reader of the present, I’d worried about seeming condescending by explaining what Snapchat or Usenet was (for two, ahem, very different audiences). But when I thought of myself as writing towards the future, I realized that I was grateful to writers of the past for their vivid explanations of now-dead technologies, and felt less self-conscious about necessary asides.
Another practical thing that I did for the benefit of future readers was to safeguard against link rot, a problem I faced constantly when trying to access urls from old articles. I archived all of the links mentioned in the book via the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine, and made a donation to help them stay in operation, which I then made a note of in the acknowledgements section. This allows readers of the future to know what to do with any urls that stop working, acknowledges the important work that the Internet Archive does, and encourages other authors to do likewise.
Writing for the future also let me write a book that wouldn’t sound dated quite so quickly. I grew tired of reading “now” or “current” or “modern” and flipping to the copyright page, so I became conscientious about using absolute time references like particular years and decades. I noticed the amusing datedness of words like “Web site” and “E-mail” in earlier books about technology. Linguistic conservatism caters to the reader of the past, but the reader of the past doesn’t exist anymore — someone in 1999 can’t bend time and read a book published in 2019. The reader of the future does exist — someone in 2039 can very well pick up a book published in 2019. Why should I not, in my turn, aim to avoid things that are likely to seem hilariously out of date to a reader a few decades hence? (I’ll give you a clue: one of them is uppercase “internet.”)
But those were largely cosmetic changes. Writing towards the future also changed the structure of the whole book. Rather than worry about whether I was chronicling a complete list of all of the possible functions for emoji or punctuation, all of the possible memes or social media platforms, I went for a longer timeline of where each of these things came from — all caps has precursors in Victorian letters, irony punctuation has proposals back to 1575, people doodled in postcards before emoji came on the scene, and so on. I started aiming for a bigger picture of how each of these things fit into communication, one that could still be true even if we replace all of the specific sites and tools we’re using.
I found out that, paradoxically, a book can be bigger than the internet. The very constraints of a book — its linearity, its lack of updates — are also its greatest strengths. I can be far more confident that each reader will have a roughly similar experience of a book, rather than spidering off in all directions as with hypertext. When I work on an article or the podcast, I have to assume that each individual post or episode might be the first time someone has even heard of linguistics. There’s no designated reading order for the internet. But with a book, I have the luxury of being able to take people through a sequence of chapters, letting ideas build on top of each other, developing a fuller argument. It’s a smaller space, but it can support bigger ideas.
In the end, I wrote a book about the internet by not trying to compete with the internet on its home turf. If you want to look up the latest memes and slang, there’s always websites like Know Your Meme and Urban Dictionary and Emojipedia. But if you want something that tries to take a step back and see the internet as if we’re already living in the future, well, may I interest you in a book?