The Big Idea: R.W.W. Greene

For his Big Idea on the novel The Light Years, author R.W.W. Greene considers what things make the cut, when civilization itself is on the line.

R.W.W. GREENE:

Moving always sucks. But especially when it’s unexpected. Even someone with Chrisjen Avasarala-level planning skills, when faced with an eviction or a sudden breakup, is going to lose a thing or thirty by the time she unpacks the boxes, bags, and bales in the new digs. Somehow, she’ll end up with both copies of Tom Petty’s Wildflowers, no can opener, a single black shoe, two years of Yankee-Swap gifts, and the bad phone charger. It can be a new home, but it’s never the same home, and it’s going to take a while to get comfortable.

That’s the big idea I kept in the crosshairs while I wrote The Light Years, which is springing from the presses at Angry Robot Books this month. In the book, which is set a mere thousand years from now, Earth has burned to a cinder and humanity is no longer living there. Generation ships, hibernation pods, and a little faster-than-light-travel for the well-to-do have given the species a fresh start, and after several hundred years in survival mode, things are settling into the new normal. There’s finally time for a few luxuries. They can begin unpacking the box marked “The Humanities.”

Naturally, time and travel left big gaping holes in all the packing boxes, and even with the best intentions, there was no escaping Earth without leaving a lot behind. There was data loss at every point in the exodus.

After all, the statue Winged Victory of Samothrace was so very, very heavy. It was carefully scanned, of course, along with The Mona Lisa and Starry, Starry Night. The Google Books servers were uploaded to the ship-based computers, along with as much of the Library of Congress as could be digitized and everything on Spotify and iTunes. All the shows on the streaming services came along, all the memes on Twitter, all the approved YouTube videos, even the ones being made right… now. I mean, now.

Now.

Is it still a work of art if the original no longer exists? That’s something the Earth refugees will no doubt want to debate later, after they’ve built the infrastructure of a new civilization. People with the means will debate it, I mean. Philosophy and classical studies will be luxuries for quite some time, I’m afraid.

The richer countries were better represented on the What-To-Bring-To-The-New-World Committees, which could explain the loss of so much non-Western art and culture. There was a representative sampling collected, but with only a generation or so to plan, sacrifices had to be made. And was it such a loss? If no one had made a parody or dorm-room poster of it by 2050 or so, how relevant could it be?

Hey, you know how after a breakup you tend to go through Facebook and Instagram to get rid of the pictures of your ex? There was a similar move to tidy up history and culture for posterity. No one remembers which version of Huckleberry Finn made the cut, and there are numerous books and films mentioned in the archives that were judged unworthy for inclusion. (However,  the director’s cuts of Bloodsport, Home Alone 2, and Zoolander were carefully curated so that future audiences could enjoy them.) In a different political climate, different decisions might have been made, but that’s democracy for you.

Many of the recorded histories reflected poorly on the countries working so hard and spending so much money on the fleet of colony ships, so the rougher parts got sanded smooth or trimmed away. There was little political will to bring the mistakes of the past into the new future.

Science and tech? They brought everything relevant, of course. Every theory. Every paper. Every debunked anti-vaccination and Intelligent Design study. All those adverts about crystals and CBD oil. It was far easier just to bring everything then to engage in politically divisive debates over facts and merit, and the really important bits were locked away under patent and copyright and statutes of secrecy.

What else was there to pack? Pictures and videos of beautiful places. A recording of the mating calls of loons. The sound of a busy street in Manhattan. Genetic samples (but there was no way to get samples of everything) and seeds. A few, small personal items.

More data was lost in transit. Most of the Earth’s citizenry traveled frozen or in massive generation ships, but representatives and build teams from the greater nations had faster means. They got to the new worlds first to make them ready and, as was their due, claim the best spots. They set the rules, created the social system, and decided what was cool long before the other refugees arrived. Family recipes were modified for available resources, and soon no one remembered what a real meal from the Old Country tasted like.

Remember how the old iPod shuffle algorithm was only pseudo-random? That’s also how the bowdlerized, gerrymandered version of the Sum Total of Human Knowledge contained in the colony ships’ computers worked. Stuff that people wanted to find got stored at the top, search-engine-optimized and nicely cross-referenced with keywords. Other stuff was never seen again, like that song from that album that never shows up on your playlist. It’s still there in the depths, where even the nerdiest of the data-spiders never go. (Somehow, though, “Friends” made it into the zeitgeist again. Go figure.)

And, thus, a new civilization (and book) was made from what we carried from the old.

Most anyone who has taken a creative-writing class has been asked to consider the following prompt: Assuming friends, family, and pets are safe, what is the one thing your protagonist would grab whilst fleeing his or her burning house? A rational character would, of course, grab the perfect, narratively-useful, archetype-defining thing for its creator to use. However, rational behavior is a lot to expect out of someone in panicked flight, and I expect most civilizations, most lives–real or imagined–are made and remade from those off shoes, duplicate CDs, unfilled needs, and broken pieces.

—-

The Light Years: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

Meanwhile, In Range of Motion News

The picture above is not exactly the sexiest photo I’ve ever taken, but it’s notable in that it represents the furthest up I’ve been able to raise my left arm for several months. That’s because at the moment I have a physical condition known as adhesive capsulitis (more commonly known as “frozen shoulder”), which restricts my arm mobility quite a bit. As physical conditions go, it’s more annoying than anything else; it’s not great not being able to lift your arm past a certain level, but given my life and profession, it’s not the end of the world.

Still, it does come with pain and there are certain things that are more difficult to do, including commonplace activities like putting one’s carry-on into an overhead bin. It can and does eventually go away on its own, but that takes a couple of years, so today I went for a consult with an orthopedic surgeon to see if there’s anything that could be done to shorten up that progression.

The doctor’s answer: A shot of (I think) steroids into my shoulder, to reduce inflammation and pain and to help loosen things up. It’s done the last of these to some extent — again, this is as far up as I’ve gotten my arm in a long time. The fact the shot featured two different types of novocaine so I’m not feeling a ton of pain when I’m hauling my arm up probably helps a bit, too. I’ll be scheduling physical therapy as well and will be going back in about six weeks to see how things are.

In the meantime: Wheee! Go, arm, go!

The Big Idea: Valentine Wheeler

In No Parking, author Valentine Wheeler imagines a town undergoing change, and what it means for the people who live there. And it all started… with lunch.

VALENTINE WHEELER:

I started writing No Parking because of a chicken wrap.

No, seriously. A new restaurant came to town, and they make a killer shawarma. I was eating a chicken shawarma wrap, and I was listening to a customer complain about our full parking lot, and inspiration struck.

Set in a small town southwest of Boston and southeast of Worcester, not quite making the metro area for either, the town of Swanley is struggling to figure out just what community means and who it’s for. Is it the descendants of the settlers that built the town, the commuters looking for an affordable house in exchange for a longer train ride to work, immigrants seeking a fresh start in a quiet place, the kids who grew up wanting to leave and still somehow stuck around? Ultimately, how can all these groups work together to make a place they all can be proud of and want to live?

I’ve lived in Massachusetts for nearly fifteen years, and every town I’ve lived in I’ve tried to be a part of the community by joining groups, volunteering, being a poll worker, and meeting my neighbors. I’ve always been someone who jumps in with both feet in a new place, for better or for worse; I love town politics and neighborhood associations and anywhere where people who live in close proximity are forced to come even closer together and work out their issues in front of all their neighbors. It’s like a locked-room bottle episode, but the tension’s sometimes wound even tighter.

I see this every day at the Post Office. I work in a small town southeast of Boston, not too far from where the town of Swanley would be. I see so many ways the community rubs up against itself every day in line (and in the certified letters people send each other… honestly, you don’t spend six years working for the post office if you’re not at least a little bit nosy). But I also see the way it can be beautiful. I see condolence cards and wedding invitations, Bar Mitzvah invitations going out to hundreds around the world and postcards crossing back and forth across a mile of town. I’ve watched all the little old houses get knocked down, and huge new ones put up–and seen the fights over the affordable housing and senior living communities when those go up instead.

Watching a town fight itself from a working class town to a tech-startup-filled suburb of the upper middle class has been fascinating, especially since many of the million dollar houses are now owned by the kids of the carpenters and train conductors and beat cops who lived there decades ago. When a town changes, people change with it–some of them, anyway. The question remains, though, of whether it’s the same town at all at the end of it.

Swanley is a town in transition, too, and the key conflict of the novel ultimately breaks down to that question. Who is a community for, and who gets to determine what that community means? Marianne Windmere, the main character of No Parking, has watched her town grow and change over sixty years, and she’s not sure if she’s ever fit in. But sometimes we don’t realize what we have until it’s threatened. Marianne doesn’t know if she loves Swanley. But she’s willing to find out. Because it’s the place that loves her, that knows her, and it’s where the people she loves are all tied together in their own ways. It’s home.

And where does her queer community fit in in a small town? This question, at least, I can answer. Because queer people find each other. These characters–bi, ace, trans, pan, gay, and lesbian characters all find their place in No Parking’s Swanley–and their relationships are woven deeply into the heart of Swanley and the heart of No Parking. We build our own community inside the larger one, and in a healthy community, that building continues outward and upward to fight for other marginalized groups just as hard as they fight for their own.

No Parking has, at its heart, a queer love story, but that’s merely the core of a series of interconnected love stories: a woman falling back in love with her town, the platonic love left behind after the romance has cooled and the relationship ended, and the love of the family you don’t realize you’re building.

—-

No Parking: Amazon|Barnes and Noble|Kobo

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

Today’s Quote That I Actually Texted Someone Which I Am Now Providing You Without Context

“Oh, posh, what could possibly go wrong eating an entire jar of emulsified oil?”

The Big Idea: Jim Ottaviani

Sometimes storytellers miss out on telling a story. But as Jim Ottaviani and Maris Wicks learned with Astronauts: Women on the Final Frontier, that just means that some stories, you get to come back to.

JIM OTTAVIANI:

Astronauts started on the cutting room floor of another book. More than ten years ago I wrote a graphic novel about the 1960s space race. In the course of doing research for that book (T-Minus), I came across the story of thirteen women pilots who took — and passed — the rigorous physical tests NASA gave the first astronaut candidates that made you shudder and cringe when you watched The Right Stuff.

We all know what didn’t happen next, and I know a good story when I stumble over it, but with only 124 pages to get readers from the dawn of rocketry to landing on the Moon I couldn’t fit that story into that first book.

This happens all the time, and I’ve learned over the years to not just wipe a tear of regret from the corner of my eye and move on. I set the story aside, knowing I would come back to it. And here we are!

But I don’t think having more than a dozen main characters works well outside of sprawling, multi-volume fantasy or science fiction epics, and besides, the Mercury 13 are only the beginning of this chapter of the Space Age. So when I came back to it I needed to find a focal character, and I decided that it should be somebody that wasn’t famous.

Not that Sally Ride’s story isn’t great. It is. So is Valentina Tereshkova’s. (Not to mention the bit where Star Trek’s Nichelle Nichols, who appears in the book as well, plays a key role in NASA’s astronaut recruitment.) But the more I thought about it, the more I realized how much more fun it is to discover someone new, and that the story itself would work better for me — and you, I hope! — if I made the famous people supporting characters.

Because that’s how real life is for most of us.

How to find her, though? Well, the great thing about NASA is they document everything, so I got to spend weeks pretending to work while really I was just having a ball reading oral histories of women astronauts, looking for someone who both witnessed and made history. And hey, if I ran across a person who sounded like they’d be fun to meet, that’d be a bonus. I did, and her name is Mary Cleave.

She’s been to space! She’s been the boss of NASA’s science directorate, deciding which robots go to space! She has a great sense of humor, which comes through even when interviewed by a deadpan and serious historian! So I started learning more, and working up the nerve to contact her directly. I eventually got her on the phone to pitch her the idea of doing a comic book about her, her colleagues, and doing in science in space.

Over the years people have asked me about that “comics about science” thing a lot, but there’s one group that never questions the idea. That’s people like Mary — the scientists and engineers themselves. They think and communicate visually, so they get it. What a lot of them don’t get (Stephen Hawking was an exception) is why I’d want to write about them in the first place, and why it takes me weeks to draft the initial letter asking them if they’d be interested. Mary was the same: When Maris and I went to visit she couldn’t figure out why everyone’s so impressed by meeting astronauts, or why we thought it was weird to have one offer to pick you up at the airport. “We’re just regular people!”

Well. Sorry, but I don’t buy that. Astronauts are competent and accomplished to a degree you and I can barely even imagine. But still, there’s something to what she said, since the famous and not-so-famous astronauts I’ve been lucky enough to meet are indeed people you can just talk to. Hang out with. Maybe even join at a pub where George Washington and Ben Franklin talked and hung out and had beers, and have some yourselves.

I didn’t have a beer during our first visit with Mary (I was driving) but next time? Heck yeah. And in the meantime Maris and I got to make a book with an astronaut, and maybe help make Mary Cleave a little more famous.

—-

Astronauts: Amazon |Powell’s | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound | Books-a-Million

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

People Doing Terrible Things to Books, But (Possibly) Not Being Terrible Themselves

Late last month writer Alex Christofi posted a tweet about how he would physically cut long books in half to make them more “portable,” thus revealing himself as history’s worst monster, and also, starting up an internet conversation about how people treat their books. This has lead Slate to reprint an essay by Anne Fadiman about how people love their books — either in a “courtly” fashion (i.e., treating them respect and sometimes reverence) or in a “carnal” fashion (i.e., they’re physical objects meant to be used, so use them, up to and including dog earing them, cracking their spines or even slicing them in half). I’ve never come across this essay before, but I had a complex response to it when I read it, so I want to talk about it a little bit.

The first thing I should note is that I am heavily — heavily — in the camp that treats books carefully, if not actually “reverently.” I think books are practical things, meant to be used; if I buy one for myself, it’s because I’m going to open it up and read it, and I’m not going to worry too much if while reading it I ding a corner or fox a cover or whatever. At the same time, if I’ve purchased a book, I intend to keep it, and I’m going to treat it well, to the point that I suspect that for many people who look at the books I’ve had for years, they might suspect that I haven’t opened them up at all. I have. I’m just… careful.

You might think this is because I’m a writer myself, but that isn’t it, not exactly. It’s more to do with being a reader, and my own personal background. I grew up poor and had a lot of books that came to me secondhand and in various states of repair, so I learned early on that if I didn’t want a book to fall apart on me, I had to be careful with it. Likewise, most of my books were paperbacks, whose durability was easily compromised if one was not careful. The books that weren’t mine were usually library books, which I also treated carefully lest I incur the wrath of a librarian. Finally — look, they’re books. Books did amazing things and told you cool stuff. They deserved not to be treated like crap. All of this went into the pot with regard to how I formed my physical relationship with books.

This is why, if you ever see a paperback I own, it looks, if not pristine, at least very well kept. None of my paperbacks have broken spines (unless they came to me already broken) or dogeared pages, and very few have creased covers. College textbooks I’ve kept are unmarked with notes; I would have dorm mates ask to borrow my books, convinced they would chock full of useful highlights and margin notes, and were confused and I suspect in a couple of cases actually offended when neither of those were on the pages. My hardcovers are likewise generally mar-and-mark free. Again, if I drop or bump a book while I’m reading it and it gets a crease or smudge on it, I’m not going to freak out; it’s a book and it’s meant to be used and things like that happen. But there’s a difference between wear and tear happening because you’re using a material object as intended, and wear and tear happening because you’re going out of your way to damage the object.

Which brings us back to Fadiman’s essay, where she talks about people tearing, marking, and even physically destroying books as they consume the words inside them, not because they are (to their mind) disrespecting the book, but rather they are using the book as they see it ought to be used, and their relationship to the book and its permanence is different. If you consider a paperback as cheap and eminently disposable, for example, what does it matter if you rip out the chapters as you go along? It’s just a paperback book. If you want to re-read the book later, you can just get another cheap paperback copy. Likewise dogearing, highlighting, cracking spines and all the other things people do to their books — far less dramatic than physically tearing the book apart, but still.

And… I guess? I should be very clear that you should treat your own books as you will, and I will absolutely not judge you for it: At signings people come up to me with worn books and apologize for them even as they ask me to sign them, and I tell them, sincerely, that I am never offended by a well-loved book. It’s not disrespectful to read a book so much it falls apart; pretty much the opposite, really. But I literally don’t think I could get one of my own books to that particular state of repair. I don’t know that I have it in me to let a book get to that point — much less intentionally and with forethought take a book and slice it in half, just to make it easier to carry around. I just cannot even imagine doing that. To be any more alien to my own mindset, you’d probably have to be from Mars.

(And if you do terrible things to books that are not your own… well. Many years ago, a friend noted I had two unmarred paperback copies of the novelization of the movie Stargate, and after mocking me for having them at all (I had gotten one of them as part of the press pack for the movie junket; I have no idea where the other had come from) he took one of them and cracked its spine. And yes, it was a duplicate, and yes, it wasn’t the greatest novel ever written, and yes, this person is an otherwise kind and decent person who lives a good life and is kind to pets and children. Nevertheless it is forever a black mark in the annals of their life and I will judge them for it until the heat death of the universe, so there.)

I don’t have any great insights to offer here other than to note that Fadiman’s distinction between courtly and carnal book lovers has caused me to consider that people who mangle their books might not love those books (or the ideas in them) any less than I do, which is an idea that makes me intensely uncomfortable because you just don’t do that to books damn it. But I guess some people do. I don’t understand it. I can’t endorse it. The best I can do is almost unwillingly begrudge that she may — may — have a point. And I hate it.

Smudge Had a Rough Night

I told him not to stay up for the Iowa results, but would he listen? Noooooo.

(I sent this picture to Krissy this morning and she immediately called to see if he was okay. He’s fine. I just caught him in an awkward moment.)

The Big Idea: Juliette Wade

The paths we walk in our lives are not necessarily straight and narrow, and in writing her new novel, author Juliette Wade found she needed another metaphor entirely to explain her character’s movements. In this Big Idea, Wade explains on why the metaphor she landed on was Mazes of Power.

JULIETTE WADE:

This is the story of a very old, and very big idea. When I first had it, I was thirteen years old, and the idea was so big that I couldn’t even wrap my mind around it. It was the idea for a world of cavern cities, where families were restricted in their professions, and about conflicts of power… but until I’d turned this idea over hundreds of times, over years, it always seemed out of my grasp. I learned about anthropology, and added a new social awareness to my idea, and realized it was for a work of sociological science fiction. I studied linguistics, and added that, too. I tried to write a story about it, knew it was wrong, and learned more, and wrote it again. I concentrated hard on learning how language and the world around us reflect our concepts of our social selves, and wrote it again.

Until it stopped being wrong, and became the world of Varin.

Varin has a caste system. This caste system has seven levels. It’s easy to think of such a system as a set of boxes, and to think that nobles go in one box, soldiers and police in another, servants in another, then artisans, laborers, merchants, and undercaste. But there came a point when I realized these were not boxes. In a real social system, all kinds of people are born into categories where they don’t necessarily fit. While they may be taught who they are, what their values are, and what they are supposed to be like, often, they struggle. People at every level will make bargains between their personal truths and the demands of society. They will use what power they can wrest from the world around them to achieve their ends. They will make the choices that become available to them.

Societal categories like these are not boxes. They are mazes.

What are the key properties of a maze? A maze is complex. It offers paths, but the pattern of these paths is difficult to see while you are moving through it. It appears to offer you choices, but at the same time, limits the choices you can productively make if you wish to achieve a particular goal.

There are three mazes in Mazes of Power.

The first maze is the competition for Heir to the Throne of Varin. Twelve boys enter, one from each of the Great Families of the Grobal nobility. Each travels a path through public events, interviews, deals, trials, and assassination attempts, trying to reach the center where only one may stand.

The second maze is the tangle of servants’ hallways that run behind the walls of the Eminence’s Residence. Imbati-caste servants, who must not hurry in the public halls where nobles might see them, are allowed to run there. They know the fastest ways from place to place, and they use speakers to listen in on the talk in public rooms, to know when to appear when they are needed, or to learn secrets no one realizes they possess.

The third maze is the society itself. Every person in Varin is born into a path they cannot see, and cannot choose. Some of those paths run through public places, and others through hidden places. Within these paths, the people of Varin make choices, as we make choices, but the choices they make are limited by the larger structure of the society around them. Expectations are set and reinforced, and there are consequences for breaking them. No person, no setting, no interaction exists outside this system. Nothing is untouched.

If you are a Varini, this structure limits you, but it also protects you, because it tells you who you should expect to see in the street, in the marketplace, or at the radiograph office. It tells you what you should say to a person with a green lower lip who wears a gray coat, or to a woman in rust-red, or to a man with a black tattoo on his forehead. It keeps you safe and holds you up, but it also restricts you and presses you down.

Varin was designed to be unlike our world in a great many ways, and to break our Earthly expectations, but it should feel very familiar.

After all, we all walk within mazes of power.

—-

Mazes of Power: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt (click on the “excerpt” button). Visit the author’s site. Follow her on Twitter.

Late Night Texts at the Scalzi Compound

Daughter: Did you hear that noise? Me: It's the cats. Smudge is being an asshole. Daughter: Oh, okay, cool.

Look, I know you people adore Smudge, but as a still-young male cat, he’s got a lot of “asshole” in him that he hasn’t completely got out of his system yet. And the time he likes to burn through some of that is roughly between the hours of 2 am and 5 am. Which means from time to time it sounds like the house is being ransacked, when it’s just him having his evening constitutional and/or annoying one of the other cats in the house. It’s a known issue and time will sort it out. In the meantime, however, there are occasional text exchanges like this one, from one side of the house to the other. This is what you get for having cats, basically.