As we bid adieu to January of 2020, let’s send it off with this hefty stack of new books and ARCs that have arrived at the Scalzi Compound. What here would you like to greet February with? Tell us all in the comments!
She’s got a baby and she’s a got a cat, and she’s clearly pleased about both. Hope your day found you in a happy place as well.
Over the holidays, I saw that people were doing a thing where they left out snacks for the folks delivering their various gifts and packages, on the principle that a) ’twas the season and b) delivery people were working long hours and deserved some appreciation. I thought this was a nice idea, and joined in on the “snacks for holiday delivery folks” bandwagon.
After the holidays passed, most people’s delivery frequency goes down, but as it turns out mine doesn’t — because I am getting books and other things sent to me on a constant basis, delivery people show up on my doorstep daily. So I decided that I’m going to make the “snacks for delivery folks” thing a permanent feature; the photo above is today’s refresh of the snack basket. We’ll also have it for people who show up to do work at the house and so on; basically, if you’re doing us a service, please feel free to have some Funyuns or cheese crackers or mini Moon Pies, and maybe a bottle of water, too.
It’s not a big thing, but I think it’s a thing worth doing. Any opportunity to show appreciation for the things people do for you is worth taking. This doesn’t cost me much — I figure it sets me back maybe $20 a month — and I know the delivery folks like it. Thus the world becomes a marginally nicer place. Not a bad return on the investment.
I’ve not been writing on politics nearly as much as I have in previous times, in part because in this age of obvious corruption and complicity, I find it difficult and wearying, without the motivating prod of actually being paid for it, to write anything that I haven’t already said in broad and unambiguous terms.
That being said, I understand it’s useful from time to time to keep people up to date on these matters so they don’t have to go rummaging through the archives to find my thoughts. And thus: Brief statements on current political thoughts. In no particular order:
1. The president is the worst president of my lifetime, who is ignorant, bigoted, incurious, corrupt, has almost certainly engaged in criminal conduct before and after he was in office, is either a complicit or unwitting tool for the Russian government and its goals, never should have been in a position to become president, and now that he is president, should be removed from the office, whether through a Senate trial or simply by losing the popular (again) and electoral vote later this year.
2. Per the previous, the president amply deserved to be impeached by the House of Representatives, and amply deserves to be removed from the office he holds by the Senate. That he will not be removed, and that the vote for removal will not be anywhere near to close, is proof that the current iteration of the Republican party is complicit in the president’s criminality and has become little better than a criminal enterprise in itself.
3. Among the current Democratic candidates for president, I currently favor Elizabeth Warren and if I were a Democrat, would likely vote for her in the Ohio primary. With that said, all of the current Democratic candidates for president are substantially better than the current president (even Tulsi Gabbard, who I find deeply problematic but has no chance of being president, so I’m not going to worry much about her), so no matter which of them makes it through the primary process, I will be voting for them in November. Given the realities of our binary political system, anyone who says they oppose Trump but is not willing to vote for whoever it is that is on the Democratic side of the ballot in November is a complicit tool of Trump and the Republicans.
4. Foreign and domestic interests are currently doing as much as possible to suppress the vote of non-Trump supporters, online and offline. Register to vote, check that your registration is current if you did register, and be aware that all those highly clickable and repostable memes are designed to make you angry, confused, susceptible to misinformation and a vector for spreading misinformation to others. You should be smarter than that, and you should frustrate the people who do not want you to cast your ballot in November.
Aaaaand that should cover it for now, I think? Mind you, I might still write more about politics here if the mood strikes me, because that’s how this site works. But if I don’t, this is my current state of thinking. It’s not complicated! But in times like this, where one of the two major parties of the country is so wholly engaged in criminality and complicity, I think that’s fine.
The Warhol portrait is in fact very impressive close up. But it was equally impressive how people seemed to unconsciously place themselves in a tableau around it.
I’m back from Chicago, where I hung about with many impressive people talking about many impressive things. This was good for my brain, but now I am also very tired. I may be mush tomorrow. You have been warned.
Friday again, and time for another eclectic stack of new book and ARCs that have come to the Scalzi Compound. What here is speaking to you as we head into the weekend? Tell us in the comments?
I’ll be in Chicago over the next few days to hang out with friends and do a little business so updates here may be sporadic. Please accept this cat as compensation for my likely mostly absence through Monday. It’s a fair trade.
For The Will and the Wilds, author Charlie N. Holmberg asks: When is a kiss not a quite a kiss — or perhaps more accurately, not only a kiss? The answer: when certain, special, creatures are involved.
CHARLIE N. HOLMBERG:
Once, almost exactly three years ago, Charlie had a weird dream.
In this dream she was in her old house in Midvale, and author Elana Johnson was her mother.
She met this strange man who had a unicorn horn jutting out of his forehead. He was invisible to everyone else but her. Then he lost his horn and needed to get it back. However, the only way to regain the horn was, essentially, to take a maiden’s virginity.
And no, my book isn’t about that. But it is about this strange creature I dreamed up one night who wouldn’t leave my thoughts.
When I relate this dream to others, it doesn’t sound like anything special, yet it really stood out to me. I couldn’t pull my mind from it. So I opened a notebook and started writing down ideas. The first and foremost was this phallic-demon-unicorn-man. Then I brainstormed the place he was from: the monster realm, or “The Deep,” in his words. (Yes, I was watching Disney’s Moana at the time. How did you know?)
I’m a sucker for the enchanted forest trope, and I’d never written an enchanted forest story, so that became my setting. But the forest itself wasn’t magical; the beings within it were. It’s riddled with demons—“mystings”—that hail from another world. A harsh world. A soulless world. It’s no wonder they want to come to the mortal plane. And it’s no wonder humans want to stay far away from them.
I’m branded as a clean author. I couldn’t have demons running around stealing maidenhoods for their phallic headwear. So I turned The Will and the Wilds toward the next best thing: kissing. I love kissing books. I love writing them, I love reading them, and this is the kissingest book of them all.
To get Maekallus to the enchanted forest, I needed someone to summon him. Herein walks Enna, the plain outcast of the local village, wannabe scholar for things of the bizarre. She’s in trouble, and she needs Maekallus’s help. A bargain is struck that binds them together. But this story needs to take up roughly three-hundred pages, so of course Maekallus fails to keep up his end. Of course he’s bound to the mortal realm and can’t go back home. Of course the mortal realm would start eating him alive, and because of their bargain, Enna is subject to the consumption, too.
What about the kissing? Glad you asked!
Maekallus is a trickster and a demon. He doesn’t eat mortal foods to survive; he eats souls. And what better way to eat a soul than through a kiss? And so, as the mortal realm slowly converts his body into a puddle of rank tar, he tricks Enna into kissing him. Into giving him her soul.
But he only gets a piece. Why? Well, that’s a spoiler. Yet if Enna wants to survive, she has to keep Maekallus alive, and that means feeding him a piece of her soul every few days, all while trying to figure out how to break the curse holding him to the mortal realm, and her to him.
As a hot bonus, the more soul Maekallus gets, the more human he becomes, and he starts to feel for the first time.
And that, my fellow kissing-book-lovers, is the big idea behind The Will and the Wilds.
Over on Twitter this morning I was watching people discuss the pros and cons of various writing tools, which reminds me that it’s been a while since I’ve discussed which tools I use to work, and do work-adjacent things, these days. So in case anyone is interested, here is my list of current tools and programs here in 2020. Several of them are the same as they were the last time I did a piece like this, but a few are new and I may have some additional thoughts on the old stuff.
Please note that this is a “this is what I use” piece, not a “this is what you should use” piece, or, alternately, a “this is what I use and if you use something else, you suck” piece. Everyone has their own process and life, and for that process and life will find tools and programs that work for them. These are mine.
Desktop: I have a 2018 Corsair One, which sports specs that were top of the line roughly two years ago in terms of CPU, GPU, RAM and storage. This means that it’s still more than capable for the things I use it for, which are, in no particular order: writing, photo and multimedia editing and processing, consuming and generating social media, and playing video games. It’s complemented by an Asus 27-inch 4k monitor, a 10TB archive drive, a Razer mechanical keyboard and a Logitech MX Vertical mouse that lets my hand rest in a position that does not actively encourage RSI. This is my primary workhorse computer, as were its predecessor desktops — nearly all my novels and novellas primarily get done at my desk, as well as most other work I do when I’m at home.
Laptops: I currently use two, and their use depends on what I need. If I’ll need to use full-powered Microsoft or Adobe programs while I’m traveling (which is the case when I’m writing/editing, or am traveling with my dSLR camera or need to do other multimedia stuff), I have a 2019 Dell XPS 13, with an i7 processor, lots of RAM, 4k screen and so on. If I don’t need those things, I have a 2017 Google Pixelbook, again fully specced. Of the two laptops, the Pixelbook is my favorite — I think in general it may be my favorite laptop ever and close to the platonic ideal of a laptop — and 90% of the time it’s sufficient when I travel. But for that other 10%, there’s the Dell.
Phone: I have a 2019 Pixel 4 with 6GB RAM and 128GB storage space, both of which are more than sufficient for how I use the phone. This is my third Pixel phone, which I buy for two reasons: One, the phenomenal camera tech, and two, because as Google’s own phone, it gets all the Android OS updates first and most consistently, and Google also debuts all their innovations here first, some of which (call screening and audio transcription) are pretty close to revelatory. Also, did I mention the camera? The knock on the Pixel 4 is the battery is relatively small, but for how I live and work (i.e., never that far away from a charging station), it’s not really a problem, and I have a credit card-sized external battery that I take with me to sooth my range anxiety. So far I rarely have to use it.
Microsoft Word: Microsoft Word is the industry standard for documents and editing, so as a professional writer it makes sense to use it — and also, for how I write long-form (novels and novellas), it’s the most congenial program for me. I typically write novels and novellas into a single large document, because that’s how my brain works and because that’s how it will eventually be sent in (and then returned to me for copyediting), and Word is really good at handling large documents. Also, I’ve been using some iteration of Word for close to three decades now, so by this time I’m very familiar with how it works, and familiarity is a thing. Finally, on my 27-inch monitor, I can set Word up to display multiple pages of a document at once, and I find it super-helpful for my writing and editing processes to see a document three pages across.
I have Word through a subscription to Office 365, which I am a little ambivalent about — I rarely use the other aspects of Office, and I’m not a huge fan of now subscribing to a program I used to own outright. But in the real world, I like Word being constantly current and updated, and I like the fact that it now saves seamlessly into Microsoft’s cloud service (I also save to a local document at the end of each work session). And on those rare occasions when I do need Excel or Powerpoint, I have them, which is nice. I’m not in love with Word’s online and Android app iterations, since they either lack or make very hard to use some basic formatting stuff that I absolutely do need to use, and are generally laggy and suck. I use those iterations only when I have no other choice (this is one reason I have the XPS 13), and only for documents where I already have the formatting baked in and I need to make only minor changes.
Google Docs: Google Docs is my go-to word processing program for shorter pieces: Short stories up to 20,000 words or so, and most non-fiction work that isn’t going into the blog. The basic formatting tools are similar to what I get on Word, and some minor but occasionally useful stuff it actually does better (for example, voice entry, which I use rarely but appreciate it working well when I do). Its integration with Google Drive is stellar, and its offline saving is much improved from where it started as well. I literally never worry about losing a document when I use Google Docs.
The knock against Google Docs is simply that it doesn’t handle large documents well, and really never has — my experience has been that once you get over 20,000 words, the programs hangs and stutters and basically wants to know why you’re making its life miserable. I’ve been using Google Docs in its various iterations for a dozen years now, and it’s never handled large documents well, and at this point I’ve just accepted that it never will. This is why I will probably never abandon Word (and also because Docs doesn’t let me do that “multiple pages on my monitor” thing, which again I find super helpful for longer documents). But again, for casual writing and short pieces? I prefer it over Word.
WordPress: What I use to write on the blog (hello!), and for that sort of writing, it’s very easy to use, with a mostly consistent UI and feel. I wouldn’t use it as a primary word processor (I tried it once, when I was writing The Human Division, and… yeah, not great), but WordPress is the gold standard for producing blog writing. I’m very comfortable with it and its capabilities; writing in it doesn’t feel cramped in the way that other blog/social media UI does. I friggin’ hate writing anything more than a couple of sentences on Facebook, for example; its interface actively encourages writing poorly and in an ill-considered manner. Ugh. So, yes, WordPress: Great for writing online when your want your writing to show that you think, rather than merely react.
Adobe Reader: This is what I use to check page proofs (i.e., the documents that show my manuscripts once they’ve been laid out and formatted into book form), or have forms I need to fill out, or occasionally contracts to sign. I also occasionally get books sent to me in pdf format to read (mostly for blurbing) and this is what I’ll use to look at them. I don’t think Reader is great; the UI is a little fiddly and unhelpful. But it’s the industry standard, so, meh, whaddya gonna do.
Fade In: I don’t often write in screenplay format, but when I do? This is what I use, because it’s simple to use and is more esthetically pleasing to me than Final Draft, which is the industry standard program (it’s cheaper, too). That said, inasmuch as Final Draft is the industry standard, I have that around, too, for when I need it.
Nikon d750: This is the camera I use when I want to take formal portraits or get real detail, either up close or from a distance. I have a couple of different lenses but tend to stick with the Nikkor 28mm-300mm lens (f/3.5 – 5.0) I have because it pretty much does everything. I also tend to keep everything in auto, because the camera is actually smart about lighting and shutter speed, and because, inasmuch as I shoot in RAW format and then work on the photos in Photoshop, I mostly tweak lighting and other things there. I also tend to shoot with available light rather than flash. The d750 is a more than capable machine, but I suspect mine is coming to the end of its natural life, since I’m experiencing a few physical glitches and hangups recently. I already have my eye on what I’ll get to replace it. No, I won’t tell you. I’ll let it be a surprise. Until then, however, I can say I have gotten real value out of the d750. It’s been a very good camera for me.
Pixel 4: The Pixel line of phones have been lauded for their photo-taking abilities, and in my experience, justly so. For casual shooting, they do some things as well as substantially more expensive, dedicated cameras, and other things they do even better than that (see: night sight and the new and genuinely spectacular “astrophotography” mode). Other phone manufacturers have caught up to Google so you can have the technical argument that the Pixel line no longer has the best in-phone camera, but what that really means is that now, after years of meh photos from your phone, you now have a choice of several excellent shooters, including the Pixels. We all win, basically.
With that said there are limitations. The Google “computational photography” techniques are great but it does mean that there’s a very specific Pixel “look” to the photos, which some people like or don’t, but is something you have to work with. The zoom on the 4 is better than on previous Pixels, but it still gets impressionistic fast. The Pixel can shoot in RAW format, but setting that up and taking those out of the phone takes effort, so you’ll probably stay with the jpeg format and all the lossiness that entails (lossiness that is compounded when you archive to Google Photos, unless you splash out extra cash). Selfies and closeup shots will still make you look like you have a big(ger) nose, because of the camera’s focal length.
Some people will tell you that these days you can’t tell the difference between pictures out of a phone and pictures from a dSLR or other high-end dedicated camera. Since I use both, I’m here to tell you that’s not true at all; you very much can when the higher-end camera is being used well. What is true is that your chances of getting a very good to great shot out of a phone camera (and in my case, the Pixel) is much better now than it ever was before. That’s a great state of affairs.
Photoshop: I unapologetically “photoshop” my images before I post them, which means I use the program to tweak lighting and contrast, and to remove cat hair, gouges on the walls, the occasional light switch or contrail, and, yes, to alter faces a bit when I use the wrong focal length and give someone an enormous schnozz, or alternately flatten out their head to such an extent that they look like the moon in a Georges Méliès film. Mostly I tend to go for a natural look, but occasionally I… won’t. You’ll see that mostly in overly-dramatic sunset photos or the pictures of me where I make myself look like a ghoul or something.
Lots of enthusiast-to-pro-level photographers prefer Lightroom to Photoshop, because it lets you batch edit and organize photos more efficiently than Photoshop does. I prefer to use Photoshop because I rarely batch edit and I already have a system for organizing my photos, and anyway, in my experience Photoshop allows one finer-grained control over photo editing than Lightroom does. Basically, Lightroom does things I don’t need, and the things I do need, Photoshop does better.
I use a number of plug-ins with Photoshop to clean up photos. Most notably I use a plug-in called Portrait Pro (currently in iteration 19), which true to its name tunes up face pictures. You can do highly unrealistic things with it — I’ve used it to de-age pictures of people a couple of decades — but I mostly use it to tweak lighting and even out skin tones. I use Snap Art 4 when I want to make a picture look like an oil painting or a pastel, and I use Exposure X5 and the Nik Collection (and Camerabag 3, a stand alone program), when I want to give a picture a specific look and feel, particularly in black and white.
I use Photoshop as part of the overall Adobe “Creative Cloud” suite of programs, and I pay for the full-freight subscription (which is about $60 a month) because I use other programs in the suite. But if you’re only interested in the photo stuff there is a Photoshop/Lightroom bundle that’s substantially cheaper.
Photoshop Express: If I take pictures on the Pixel and want to edit them substantially but don’t feel like porting them over to the desktop, I’ll work on this app, which is available for Android. It’s perfectly fine for editing that’s more complicated than just fixing contrast but less complicated than editing out cat hairs. If I’m just fixing contrast or other relatively simple things, I’ll use the built-in editing tool for Google Photos, which is fine for that. I’ll occasionally use Snapseed for its effects library, but Photoshop Express or Google Photos usually has me covered. Speaking of Google Photos:
Google Photos: Google offers online storage for photos so one does not clutter up one’s phone — but if you use the free tier, it will compress the photos before storing them, which makes them smaller but more lossy (i.e., details are lost). You can pay more to store the photos without compression if you like. I use the free tier and I have to say that for most photos the compression isn’t really noticeable at all… until you put them into a photo editor and start to play with them, at which point the compression artifacts can become really noticable the more you tweak the photo. The way I deal with that is that I port the photos I know I want to tweak to my desktop before I clear them out of my phone and store them. It’s a good compromise for me.
Flickr: Most of the photos that come from the dSLR I archive on a hard drive (more than one, actually), but the ones I’ve edited and want to show off in public I put up on Flickr. It’s also where I store most of the photos I use on the site. Flickr’s changed ownership a couple of times since I started using them, so I have some small concern that one day they’ll just up and disappear, but I have those photos archived to a hard drive in any event. I do like Flickr and can recommend the service.
OTHER SOFTWARE AND STUFF:
Adobe Audition: I use this when I do my occasional audio recordings. I have a number of digital audio workstation programs I’ve bought over the years with the ambition to use them to make music, but I haven’t made much headway with them yet, so I will refrain from noting them here for now. I note Audition because I do use it, and because it’s (relatively) simple to record voice into and then edit that voice recording. I have used it for music and it’s done fine how I’ve used it, but I suspect I’m using it very clumsily. With that said, Audition does everything I ask it to do, and it comes as part of the Creative Cloud suite, so, you know. Use what you have.
(When I record using Audition, I am usually using a Blue Yeti USB microphone I’ve had for a couple of years now. It’s really solid and is overall a very good general-use microphone.)
Adobe Premiere Rush: This is Abode’s “kiddie-level” video production and editing software, which means it’s perfect for me and what I typically need to do on those rare occasions I decide to make a video. It’s functional and (again, relatively) simple to use, and I’m relieved I don’t have to learn how to use Premiere Pro.
Freedom: This program keeps me from accessing social media on my desktop from 8am until noon, which is the time of day that I’m generally most creative and therefore should be writing in novels and such and not yelling at people on Twitter. As I’ve noted elsewhere, I hate that I’m the sort of person who has to use blocking software to keep from getting distracted, but I am, so here we are.
DJ Pro: From time to time I DJ dances, and this is program I use to do it. I use it on the XPS 13, because the Windows program is stable, and the Android version, when I use it on the Pixelbook, is not so much. I like it because it’s flexible and (on the Windows version) allows me to mix between four different songs, and also because it integrates with Spotify, which means that I am able to pull up just about any song I want (or that someone requests) when I DJ. It’s nice to have that option.
Steam: When I give myself a break and want to play a video game, this is the service I use to do that. Recently Epic has been making waves by getting some studios to make their PC games exclusive to their store for a period of time. That’s fine, but I like having all my games in one place, so this just means I won’t get those games until they’re on Steam.
Spotify: I actually subscribe to several music services (Spotify, Google/YouTube Music, Amazon Prime Music HD) for reasons that make absolute perfect sense to me and me only. I like and use all of them, but the one I use the most is Spotify, partly because it’s the most widely used (useful when I make playlists), and also because it’s the service that’s best integrated into other things — like the DJ Pro program above.
Fitbit: I own a Fitbit Versa 2 smartwatch (and a Versa before that) and I use the Fitbit app and site to count my calories and chart my exercise. I’ve found the service and the smartwatch very useful, and can recommend both. Fitbit was recently bought by Google, which has caused some consternation, but I’m not too personally put out by it because of the next bit:
Google generally: I joke, although it’s not really a joke, that these days you have to decide which company you want to give your privacy to: Amazon, Apple, Google, Microsoft or Facebook. Of those five, I think I get the best value proposition out of Google, which provides me a lot of hardware and services I find very useful, and whose intrusion into my privacy is, if not minimal, at least as close to subtle as these services get. So I tend to default to Google services and apps rather than use the apps and services of these other tech giants.
But not always. I use Audible for audiobooks (and not only because they’re my audio publisher), and I have a couple of Amazon Echos, including the new Echo Studio, which is a very nice audio speaker, and like most humans at this point have and use Amazon Prime quite a lot. I own an iPad so I connect with Apple there. I use Windows and have Office 365, as noted, so Microsoft gets me there. Facebook I connect with the least, which is probably for the best, because I think it’s being run by someone who is increasingly malign to the interests of most humans everywhere. But I still check into the service because my mom is there.
Password manager: As I interface with technology so much — and because interfacing with technology means being vulnerable to people who think it’s fun to mess with you — I use a password manager and two-factor authorization on everything, and especially on things that are public-facing and/or have access to financial information of mine. Now all my passwords are ridiculously long strings of random ascii characters that I could not hope to remember myself, and have to be verified with an authenticator in any event. You should use these yourself. Also, on the same wavelength, I use a VPN regularly, which makes it somewhat more difficult for bad folks to mess with me. It’s okay to be a little paranoid about this stuff, folks.
Coke Zero: My stimulant of choice while I work. I think most of you already knew that.
There. More information than you needed to know! But also a good snapshot on what I use to get things done here in 2020.
He’s been contemplating the meaning of existence for a while now. I don’t think he’s gotten particularly far with it, but to be fair, I don’t know that anyone else has really done all that much better than he has. So there’s that.
I’m back home, after a few days in suburban Detroit for the ConFusion convention, where I signed books, did a reading and DJed a dance. I especially like doing that last part. A lovely weekend despite the cold and snow. I did not spend that much time contemplating the meaning of existence, however, so Zeus is ahead of me on that one. Good for him.
This looks like a very fine time to show off this week’s stack of new books and ARCs that have come to the Scalzi Compound! What here is getting your blood pumping? Tell us all in the comments, please!
When you have a big idea for a story, the question then often becomes — what practical things do I need to do to make this big idea work for the story? For The Vanished Birds, author Simon Jimenez had his big idea, and now in the Big Idea piece, he explains how he made it work, in the context of his novel.
I wrote no encyclopedia and I drew no map before I began writing The Vanished Birds. I laid the track as the train chugged forward and hoped I wouldn’t be outpaced and run over. Of course I was. I wince now as I think back on all the soft resets and double-backs and total rethinks and rewrites I had to do. I’d blame this all on the fact that it was my first book and I didn’t know what I was doing, but that wouldn’t be the truth. This is how I tend to go about all things. Without a plan and screaming in freefall.
The Big Idea of The Vanished Birds came into being as I wrote that first chapter. It’s something of a short story, a completed loop that tells the story of an entire life, structured in a way similar to other time-travel or future tense long-distance relationships, where the pairing has two unequal perceptions of time. The Time Traveler’s Wife. Any Moffat-written Doctor Who episode. Two people in a, well, call it long-distance fling. One is planet-bound and he experiences time as we do, and the other is perpetually traveling between the stars for work, and because of this, she has a very different experience of time.
For her, or for that matter any traveler engaging in long-distance spaceflight in this fiction, time is squeezed short. Her months are his years. She ends up rock-skipping across his entire life, meeting once every fifteen years.
He gets older, she does not.
As I wrote the contours of their decades-long relationship, all I knew—all I needed to know to tell this short story about this farmer’s life and his relationship to the spacefaring woman—was that interstellar travel had a cost of time. This formed the emotional spine that I wanted the rest of the novel to be built on, as it spoke to all the fascinations and fears I was preoccupied with at the time (and still am). The romance and loneliness of travel, and the delusion of leaving it all behind. The anxieties of unequal love. Ageing and obsolescence. I wanted the world-building to reflect some aspect of these preoccupations, the rules of the “game” serving to heighten these dramas, all of it borne of necessity.
The two lovers meet once every fifteen years not because that’s the way the tech works and how the math shook out refer to the wiki page please, but because fifteen years felt like a good rising increment when dramatizing the man’s entire life. You get the big spikes of youth and adolescence and the middle passages. And since I didn’t want her to get markedly older during this relationship (both to juxtapose the increasing difference of their age, and to keep in mind that in the scope of the larger narrative of the novel, this is for her just a brief dalliance), her round-trip journeys couldn’t be more than a few months, her time. This proportion of spent time doesn’t align with any real-world laws—as far as I’m aware at least—which meant I had to push toward the fantastical to justify this reality.
And so I began to whittle out the shape of a Big Idea: Pocket Space, the extra-dimensional arena by which interstellar travel is possible.
Space flight and unequal time. There were hundreds of tried and true options I could draw from considering all the fiction that had come before me. Spool an engine and fold space like a napkin. Fly down the frictionless blue-light highways of hyperspace, with no cost of resource or time. Or be adherent to the laws of spacetime as we understand it today and take your cues from reality. The latter half of Dan Simmons’ Hyperion Cantos runs right through the wall of FTL in a particularly memorable way. Travelers are vaporized by the speed of the jump as they move from one point in the galaxy to another, blood and viscera sloshing in their pods, dead as dead can be, until they are slowly, painfully, resurrected. Death then but a necessary evil, to get to where they need to be. I think you can go two ways about it: be stridently authentic or make it all as easy as winking with both eyes. And the further the story takes place from the present day, the more allowance is afforded the improbability of your space magicks or technobabble.
There’s no wrong answer here; it all depends on what kind of story you are telling. If you’re writing a light adventure narrative that takes place across many varied ecosystems in Star Wars-esque style, you probably don’t need to go too in depth about the hyperdrive that flicks the ship across the galaxy. But if your story is directly concerned with the mode of travel people engage in in the future, then that mode of travel will need to have a certain amount of friction and personal/societal cost in order to be relevant to the characters’ arcs and to actually investigate the topic at hand. After all, the believability of a world is directly proportional to the cost of living in that world, for we are justly wary of utopias.
I took a bit from many different sources. My initial plan was to have every journey through Pocket Space adhere to the first ratio I set up, of her months to his years. But as I tunneled further into the book and discovered the other stories I wanted to tell, I realized two things: that A) I needed Pocket Space to be somewhat elastic in its ruleset to allow for different stories about time, and B) I needed Pocket Space to be somewhat fleshed out, and not an afterthought, since it was starting to have greater and greater prominence in the story. There was also the question of coherency and what the reader was understanding about this future-tense travel; not just cursory understanding, but real, gut feeling understanding of the cost of it, the difference between being told how heavy a rock is, and actually holding it in your hands.
I needed the concept to be concrete. For it to have texture and variability and immediate parse-ability when it came to the emotional needs of the story, so people weren’t confused who was where and when and how. To make it more intuitive to the reader I drew comparisons between the Pocket and our oceans. I’m certainly not the first to make links to the ocean and some aspect of outer space, and for good reason. It felt like the most apt link to make, considering the tone and direction the story was taking, of journeying through a frontier space amidst a corporate legacy of expansionism. Gradually the Pocket more and more resembled the old-fashioned maps that charted shipping routes and known currents. Currents, all with their own speeds, their own ratios for time-loss, their own beguiling names. And since there were currents, there were now favored shipping and travel routes. This in turn suggested ideas of galactic control. What systems lay along the quickest currents and what trade routes and what resources were waiting for extraction. The rest followed from there.
That all sounds very tidy, like the ideas had flowed easily along a single current, but the truth is I actually can’t remember where any of it really came from. Everything I wrote here is just self-justifying reasoning developed with the benefit of hindsight. At a certain point it becomes hard to know the origin of any one idea, or the reason why the thing is the thing and not some other thing. The act of writing a self-referential feedback loop of drafting, observation, and re-drafting, the Big Idea born from a thousand small and impossible to remember decisions. I settled on the name Pocket Space because it is simple and easy to remember and, more importantly, the name immediately suggested to me what it was; it didn’t hide its definition behind some impossible to remember made-up term. And I liked the slight contradiction of the smallness of the pocket and the bigness of space; that the mind can’t quite wrangle it.
This is the fun part, the inventing. The part that feels like play. You write of a ship unfolding out of the Pocket, exiting the strong current that it had for months been riding and the action suggests something tactile and strange. Maybe a black substance like tar dripping off the sails of the ship at port. And you wonder what that substance is and its properties, which in turn propagates other ideas about the world. You start asking yourself who the first person was to sail this black ocean and where those uncharted currents finally brought them. What unexpected end. If they were satisfied by this journey, regardless of how they did it, and how long it took. And maybe one day you’ll realize why you do not write with a plan. How the work has always been about you.
At first blush, the ability to do anything sounds like a great idea. But there are reasons that it wouldn’t be… especially when you’re writing a novel. Parker Peevyhouse explains why, and how reining it all in made a difference for Strange Exit.
When you live in a simulation, anything is possible. But what makes for a good story is limitations.
In early drafts of my new novel, Strange Exit, characters could manipulate their surroundings at will—more so as they came to realize that they were inside in a simulation. Objects would fly, doors would slam. On the surface, it was exciting. But it cut a lot of the tension. If characters can do anything, then what’s to stop them from overcoming any obstacle they meet?
My editor encouraged me to develop more specific rules for my simulation. At first, I struggled to find inspiration. A set of arbitrary rules didn’t seem interesting to me. I thought about some of my favorite movies, like The Matrix and Inception, and realized that the rules in each of those movies (and there are so many rules in Inception!) arose specifically from the way those simulations were designed to be used. More importantly, those rules begged to be manipulated, even while they couldn’t be broken.
In Strange Exit, the sim is supposed to help people adjust to life after nuclear winter. Instead, people keep using it to recreate buildings and neighborhoods that they feel safe in—places to hide from more nuclear attacks or just from anxiety over what they’ve lost in the war. I decided that my first rule would be that characters could only manipulate environments that they had personally created within the sim. So when our main character, Lake, enters a pocket of the sim someone else has created, she’s at a disadvantage. They can make walls grow around her, or firestorms chase her away, and she can’t match that power. They can make every rack in their convenience store sell only Spicy Hot Cheetos and she has to compromise her snacking integrity or go hungry.
Another rule I introduced: when a person leaves the simulation, any pockets they’ve created vanish and anyone who’s inside those pockets wakes from the sim. So every time Lake manages to convince someone to leave the sim, she shrinks the unwieldy program and takes some of the pressure off the failing system. And when Lake finds a partner, Taren, and teaches him this rule, he finds a way to manipulate it further: he creates a pocket in the sim and convinces people to step inside so that when he leaves the sim, they all leave too. Their pockets close, the sim shrinks, and pressure lifts from the life support systems that are on the brink of failing.
Settling on these rules gave me a new vision for the story. I decided to focus on Lake’s training Taren to wake the “sleepers” and clear the sim. Even as Lake teaches Taren her methods, he finds his own way to shrink the sim. The rules of the sim force the characters to be clever and innovative. But more than that, the rules force them to make choices that put them at odds with each other. Soon, their methods diverge so much that they no longer see eye to eye. Taren starts making risky choices that put people in danger, and Lake focuses on efforts that they have too little time to explore. Finally, the two are pitted against each other, more enemies than friends.
Without a clear set of rules for the simulation, the tension between Lake and Taren wouldn’t exist. As the story stands now, their differing visions are what give the story meaning. The sim makes many things possible—odd happenings, and deep explorations of anxieties around nuclear warfare. But the rules that limit the sim force the characters to make difficult choices that reveal the core of who they are and what they believe. It’s the same with any story set in a simulation: we marvel at how characters break the laws of physics, but we care most about how they respond to rules they can’t break—only bend.
Hugo Award–winner Scalzi knocks it out of the park with the tightly plotted, deeply satisfying conclusion to his Interdependency Sequence space opera trilogy… Balancing existing character dynamics and surprising—but well-earned—reveals with interstellar politics and pressing ethical questions of sustainability and power, Scalzi sends his series out with a bang.
So, yeah. Reviews don’t get much nicer than that. The full review is here and has no real spoilers (so long as you’ve read the first two books in the series), and obviously I’m pretty happy with it. It’s always nice when one of the big trade magazines for the industry comes out with a rave for one’s work. Between this and being announced as the Literary Guest of Honor for Dragon Con, it’s been a pretty nifty week for me, I have to say.
(This is where I drop a little plug for you pre-ordering The Last Emperox via Subterranean Press, because I’ll be signing and (if you like) personalizing those copies. Get ’em!)
When it came to writing novels, Rod Duncan discovered that it helped for him to get out of his own head, and to take a chance on a character outside of his own personal experience. That character has since taken him places, including to his newest novel, The Fugitive and the Vanishing Man.
My first four attempts at novel writing were driven by male protagonists. They earned me a drawer full of polite rejection letters from publishers and literary agents. It was a female protagonist that finally won me the long-sought book deal.
The commissioning editor later told me that she’d been sceptical. Could a male author really manage a first-person female voice? But some small observation early in the book convinced her. From there to the end of the manuscript she turned the pages with confidence, seeing each thought or action of the protagonist not as proof of gender identity, but as evidence of an individual character.
In the Alien screenplay, Ripley was an individual who could have been man or woman. It was only with the casting of Sigourney Weaver that she became female. Why should that surprise us? Unless we believe that each character is required to represent an entire gender.
Films have casting directors, costume designers, make-up artists, actors. But with novels, the readers get to do all those jobs. This is where the magic comes in. Through the creative act of reading, we translate words on a page to pictures in our minds. Much of the impression we get of a character’s gender will be unconsciously constructed. Write a good character and, if your audience believes they are male or female, that’s exactly what they will see.
There are surely differences between men and women. But how much of the difference derives from the asymmetric experiences imposed by society? How much is genetically defined? And what portion of the genetic difference resides in secondary sexual characteristics as opposed to the workings of the brain? In whatever way we answer those questions, the moment we say ‘A woman would never do that’ we are making a sexist assumption. There is at least as much variation of character within the genders as between them.
Some years after my first publishing contract was over, I found myself writing a short story from a male perspective. A private investigator walked a gas-lit street in an alternate history, approaching a dangerous rendezvous. But later, our handsome protagonist needed to disappear. I was taken aback when he removed a disguise and revealed himself to be a woman.
I’d wonder later whether this unconscious reverting to a female voice was in some way an exploration of a more female side of my own personality. Conversely, I might be more comfortable writing female characters because they are more obviously not me. Thus they emerge with more interesting personalities.
Either way, the detective, whose name I discovered was Elizabeth, had a distinctive voice, and was insistent on using it to tell me her story, which grew into a novel, The Bullet-Catcher’s Daughter, and then into a trilogy, the Fall of the Gas-Lit Empire.
To my surprise, people started telling me that they had fallen in love with Elizabeth. She was strong without being a superhero, they said. And she was apparently so truly feminine that one reviewer questioned whether the author could really be a man. As before, I believe the gender people perceived was largely their own construction.
There are a few tricks, of course – the smoke and mirrors that all writers employ. The places the eye of the description comes to rest. The saying enough, but not too much. Leaving room for the audience. I believe the reason Elizabeth seems female to some female readers, is because they are doing the heavy lifting, creatively speaking.
Not that Elizabeth feels comfortable in the role that the fictional society of my alternate history allows her. She must pass as male to do many of the things she wants to do. But adopting either role, she finds herself modifying the shape of her body. Which distortion is more unnatural, she asks: the binding cloth that flattens her breasts or the corset that thins her waist?
Elizabeth’s second trilogy began with The Queen of All Crows. In this series of adventures, she encounters societies where the role of men and women are very different. It forces her to think about her own relationship with gender. Neither of the available roles has allowed her to be fully at peace with herself.
Reviewers have explored various interpretations of Elizabeth. To some she is a woman reacting to the oppression of a patriarchal society. To others she is obviously non-binary. But within her society, this discourse does not exist. These terms would be unfamiliar to her. Is gender a social construction? How deep do the privileges run for those assigned male at birth? Elizabeth has never been confronted with such questions. She approaches the issue from experience and observation rather than ideology.
Even when dressed as a man, she does not doubt her womanhood – though both presentations feel to her like disguises. Perhaps her discomfort comes from the rigidity of those two roles. Or perhaps she would experience a dysphoria in any society, however the genders were understood. Either way, these are not questions she is at first equipped to ask.
The title of this trilogy, The Map of Unknown Things, hints at the nature of Elizabeth’s inner quest. She is exploring a landscape that has yet to be pinned down with the names of ideologies or social movements. But in whatever way we understand Elizabeth’s relationship to gender, it is clear that she finds herself out of step with the world.
The Fugitive and the Vanishing Man is the final book in the trilogy. The tides of history are carrying the world towards war. Elizabeth finds herself working behind the scenes to prevent the disaster. In the wilds of the Oregon territory, she meets someone assigned male at birth but who identifies as neither male nor female. The encounter is like a mirror for Elizabeth, enabling her to understand something of her own nature. She will never be the woman that society demands. Nor can she properly fulfil its ideal of the masculine role. But perhaps she will at last find a way to understand herself.
Spoiler: It’s me. I will be going. As its literary guest of honor.
Ladies and gentlemen, let’s give a warm Agrabah welcome…. Wait. Wrong script.
— Dragon Con wants 🍗 (@DragonCon) January 14, 2020
I’m very excited and I’m looking forward to seeing folks there in September! More details to come, promise.
Two choices: Left or right. This or that.
Choose one or the other. There’s no in-between. No other choices.
From the time we are small we learn that we have choices: yes, or no. Good, or bad. The idea that there are only two choices has become pervasive in our media, our politics, our relationships, and it’s divided us deeply here in the U.S.
When I began writing my Worldbreaker Saga back in 2012, which begins with the novel The Mirror Empire, I too was obsessed with this idea of two choices: the light and the dark. I was writing fantasy, after all! While my protagonists might be morally messy early on, I always knew I was headed for a showdown where they had two choices: good or evil. Genocidal or self-sacrificing.
But it was a false choice.
And it literally took me years to realize this.
At some level I must have understood I was setting up a false choice as I finished the second volume, Empire Ascendant, and began the grueling process of tying everything up in the third and final book, The Broken Heavens. Emotionally, I was rebelling against my own embrace of these false choices, because no matter how many times I tried to get myself to write the ending I had in mind at the beginning of the series, it just never felt… right.
It took writing 90,000 words of… something for my agent to finally call me out. “Frankly, this isn’t very good,” she said. “Let’s take this out of the schedule and have you work on something else.”
I was incredibly angry with her, at first. Angry because she had identified in the writing the fact that I was deeply unhappy with the choices I had waiting for my protagonists, and I had absolutely no idea how to fix it.
Fixing issues this big, things that are so deeply ingrained in you that you have trouble thinking outside of the false paradigm, can take time.
I needed the time.
After the US election, I took a fresh look at the book and wondered if my work was contributing to this narrative of two choices; this idea that all we ever got to choose from were a range of bad alternatives forced on us by powers far larger than ourselves. How was that inspiring? Impactful? Hopeful?
The idea that we only have two choices is a very western, and honestly fairly recent, phenomenon. It’s a fallacy promoted by media for clicks, by political parties for votes, by foreign and domestic forces who want to ensure we remain angry and divided and nihilistic.
The truth is we have an infinite number of choices. Tradition, politicians, friends, family, social mores, will tell you it’s not true, but that’s because thinking outside of those choices is dangerous to the status quo. It upends assumptions about the way the world could and should be.
And in this series, I absolutely wanted to upend the world.
It took a lot of angry writing on my part. Long, long email back-and-forths with my agent, until she suggested I start thinking in another way. What if I stopped focusing on breaking things apart, and instead focused on bringing things together?
And there it was.
It all clicked.
While the rest of the book writing process was not smooth – I still did a tremendous amount of revision of the first third of the book, even after turning it over to my editor – the ending finally worked. It was true to the world, the characters, the lore, the journey, from The Mirror Empire through Empire Ascendant and now, here, at the end: The Broken Heavens.
I am immensely proud of finishing this book. More so, I am proud that I took the time and didn’t do the lazy, expected thing with how I finished it up.
A fellow writer, Tobias Buckell, once paraphrased some advice from Tim Powers, which went something like this:
No one will remember if a good book was late. And a good book will only be late once. But a bad book? A bad book is bad forever.
I took the time to make The Broken Heavens a good, satisfying story. And it’s made all the difference.
Apropos of nothing in particular, I have some thoughts about my (hopefully not imminent) death, and the people who will decide to write things about me immediately thereafter. Consider this piece a bit of advance planning.
1. When I die, some people will be moved to write touching pieces about me, talking about all the kind and fine things that I did for people, and for my community, and for them in particular, and that will be their way of dealing with the fact I’m dead, and that this is how they’ll want to remember me, or will want to be seen remembering me. This is fine by me; I like it when people remember the good things I’ve done, and I like the idea that a moment I’ve shared with someone or a thing I did resonated with them enough that it’s something they’d want to share at my passing. That’s lovely.
2. Other people will feel the urge to try to write a balanced assessment of my life and influence, noting the kind things I did but, to a greater or lesser degree, not skimping on my unkindnesses or my lapses in judgment or empathy. This is also fine by me, because I’m not a perfect person, and while I try on balance to be the sort of person people remember well, I have my bad days (and weeks, and months, and possibly years). In any event it’s impossible to be on the side of angels for every moment in one’s life, or even on the side of every human you meet. If someone decides to try to measure me in full right after I’ve kicked the bucket, well, that’s ambitious, but I’m not going to blame them for trying. They might even succeed!
3. Still other people will decide it is time for an accounting of all my misdeeds, fuck ups and trespasses, perhaps because they are sick of seeing all the treacly remembrances of category one, or the “measured” assessments of category two are a little too artificially measured for their taste, and someone needs to speak truth to power, even if that power is newly dead. Alternately, it’s entirely possible that unintentionally or otherwise, I was a completely awful person to someone (or they believe I was a completely awful person in general), and they feel compelled to share that out loud.
And you know what? This is also fine. I have been an awful person from time to time, and awful to specific people. Sometimes that’s because I’m just me, and I’m occasionally cranky or clueless or stupid, like anyone else. We don’t always know to correct our mistakes, and sometimes we learn it’s too late to do so. But then there are the times when I did go after someone, because they needed a stabbing in the eye and I just happened to have a pointy stick in my hand. I regret that some people who I did not mean to rub the wrong way will think poorly of me when I die. If possible, I would have liked to make amends to them. There are other people, however, that I will be delighted to have antagonized, yea even onto death, because they were terrible people and they got what they deserved from me. I’ll see those motherfuckers in Hell.
4. In any event, I will be dead, so it’s safe to say that I personally won’t care one way or another what people say about me, good, bad or otherwise. I don’t believe in an afterlife, and if there is one despite my expectations, the last goddamn thing I will want to do with it is scroll down social media to see what people are saying about me. People who write about me after my death are doing it for themselves, and that’s fine — it’s one way of processing my death and what I meant to them, positive, negative or some combination thereof, while I was alive. I will not be healed or injured by anything anyone has to say about me when I’m dead, because, again, I’ll be dead. I’ll be beyond worrying about reputation or standing or my influence on current or future generations.
5. That said, from this side of the veil, I can say that I expect the whole range of remembrances when I kick off. Everyone’s interaction with me is different and personal, and to the extent people are moved to speak of me at all, they should speak their truth about me, even if that particular truth is not flattering to me, or not what some people would consider appropriate during a period where people who knew and cared for me are in mourning. I feel fairly confident that the people who will mourn me will be able to handle the occasional less than perfectly kind social media declaration about me, or my life and its work.
6. While I am not currently the boss of you and will be even less so after I am dead, nevertheless here is a small request: If, right after I am gone, you see someone post a remembrance of me that you disagree with, for whatever reason, just… let it go. Don’t respond in the comments, don’t write an outraged rebuttal, and certainly don’t decide to gather up all your excitable little friends to gang up on whoever is saying mean things about me because my honor must be defended (or my honor must be torn down, or whatever). One, why? Let me repeat: I will be dead. I literally won’t care. Two, being shitty to other people in the service of my memory just means you’re being shitty and using me as an excuse, and, yeah, just don’t. Be shitty on your own time.
Three, and again: Everyone will have had a different experience of me, and their experience of me will also be informed by who they were when they met me. As long as they are speaking the truth of their experience of me, I’m fine with it. As far as I’m concerned, they should be able to have their say, without taking a ration of crap for it from anyone else.
When all the remembrances of every one who feels compelled to write about me directly after my death are added up, the composite of me it represents will still be incomplete — but I suspect it will be an interesting one to read. And while I’ll be dead then and won’t care, right now I can say I’ll be sad to miss it. All of it.
You know what? I genuinely can’t generate any enthusiasm for thinking about the Oscar slate at all this year, so, yeah, I’m gonna take a pass and maybe come back to it in 2021. I feel pretty good about this decision, honestly.
We’ll be announcing my tour dates for The Last Emperox soon, but in the meantime I understand that not everyone can get out to see me when I’m on tour, either because I’m not coming to a town they are near, or because they are pinned by a large automobile and literally can’t move (or something like that).
In either of these cases (and some others as well), there is an alternative: You can order a copy of The Last Emperox from Subterranean Press, and just before I go on tour I will go up to their warehouse and sign (and if requested, personalize) those copies of the book, so you can have a copy that I myself have scribbled in, delivered right to your door.
In all seriousness this is a pretty great way to get a signed copy of the book if you’re not going to be able to see me on tour. And also, SubPress usually feeds me when I go up to sign the books, so I get a free lunch out of it, too. Everybody wins!
(Also, if you’re actually, like, pinned under a car, please take care of that first before you send in the order. I want you to be able to enjoy the book later. See? I do care.)