Reader Request Week 2020: Get Your Questions In!

This upcoming week I have almost nothing scheduled, either in the real world or online, which honestly is a first for me in a real long time. I could just take a break, but where’s the fun in that? So: It’s time for the annual Reader Request Week, in which you pick the topics I write about for the next week here at Whatever. Always wanted to ask me a question? Want to see me opine on a topic of your choosing? See me dance like a monkey just because you can? This is the time and place for it!

(“Didn’t you just do a Reader Request Week?” I did one in November, yes, which is generally far later than I usually do them; I usually schedule them for March or April. So this is an attempt to get things back on the more usual schedule. Anyway, the last six months have been the equivalent of a decade, am I right? So I’m actually behind!)

You can ask any question on any topic — politics, social topics, personal queries, silly nonsense, it’s all up for grabs. Post your question in the comment thread, and I will go through the thread and pick the topics I’ll respond to, starting on Monday, May 11, and going through the entire week.

While any topic is up for request, I do have a couple of suggestions for you, when you’re making your topic selections.

1. Quality, not quantity. Rather than thinking of a bunch of general topic for me to address, which isn’t very interesting to me, and which is also like hogging the buffet, pick one very specific topic that you’re actually interested about — something you’ve thought about, and taken time to craft a question that will be interesting to me. I’m much more likely to pick that than look through a menu of very general topics.

2. Writing questions are given a lower priority. Me writing about writing is not unusual here, so for this week, writing topics are a secondary concern. But if you really want to ask a question about writing, go ahead, just remember that point one above will apply more to your question than most. It’ll have to be a pretty good question to stand out.

3. Don’t request topics I’ve recently written about. I’ve included the last five years of Reader Request topics below so you can see which ones are probably not going to be answered again. That said, if you want to ask a follow-up to any of the topics below, that’s perfectly acceptable as a topic. Also, for those of you wondering how to make a request, each of the posts features the request in it, so you can see what’s worked before.

How do you submit requests? The simplest way to do it (and the way I prefer, incidentally) is to put them in the comment thread attached to this entry. But if you have a reason not to want to have your request out in public, the other option is to send me e-mail (put “Reader Request Week” in the subject head so I don’t have to hunt for it).

Please don’t send requests via Twitter or Facebook, since I don’t always see those. I credit those whose topics I write on, but feel free to use a pseudonym if you’re asking something you’d prefer not to have attached to your real name.

Here are topics from the last few years:

From 2015: 

Reader Request Week 2015 #1: Free Speech Or Not
Reader Request Week 2015 #2: Ego Searching Redux
Reader Request Week 2015 #3: Raising Strong Women
Reader Request Week 2015 #4: Bullies and Me
Reader Request Week 2015 #5: A Boy Named John
Reader Request Week 2015 #6: Me and Republicans
Reader Request Week 2015 #7: My Dream Retirement
Reader Request Week 2015 #8: On Being an Egotistical Jackass
Reader Request Week 2015 #9: Writing Related Short Bits
Reader Request Week 2015 #10: Short Bits

From 2016:

Reader Request Week 2016 #1: Living Where I Do
Reader Request Week 2016 #2: Will Humans Survive?
Reader Request Week 2016 #3: How, and If, I Will Be Remembered
Reader Request Week 2016 #4: Autonomous Cars
Reader Request Week 2016 #5: Pronouns
Reader Request Week 2016 #6: Why I Don’t Drink or Use Drugs
Reader Request Week 2016 #7: Writers and Ego
Reader Request Week 2016 #8: STEM and STEAM
Reader Request Week 2016 #9: Short Bits on Writing
Reader Request Week 2016 #10: Small Bits

From 2017:

Reader Request Week 2017 #1: Punching Nazis
Reader Request Week 2017 #2: Those Darn Millennials
Reader Request Week 2017 #3: Utopias
Reader Request Week 2017 #4: Haters and How I Deal With Them
Reader Request Week 2017 #5: Remembering Dreams
Reader Request Week 2017 #6: Reading as Performance
Reader Request Week 2017 #7: Parents, Their Age, and Their Kids
Reader Request Week 2017 #8: The Path to Publication
Reader Request Week 2017 #9: Writery Short Bits
Reader Request Week 2017 #10: Short Bits

From 2018:

Reader Request Week 2018 #1: Incels and Other Misogynists
Reader Request Week 2018 #2: Our Pets and How We Treat Them
Reader Request Week 2018 #3: The Reputational Reset, or Not
Reader Request Week 2018 #4: Far-Left(?) Scalzi
Reader Request Week 2018 #5: Who’s Cool and Who’s Not
Reader Request Week 2018 #6: The Fall(?!?!?!) of Heinlein
Reader Request Week 2018 #7: Mortality
Reader Request Week 2018 #8: Public Speaking
Reader Request Week 2018 #9: Writing Short Bits
Reader Request Week 2018 #10: Short Bits

From 2019:

Reader Request Week 2019 #1: Strange Experiences
Reader Request Week 2019 #2: The War Between the Generations
Reader Request Week 2019 #3: Blogging With Extreme Confidence
Reader Request Week 2019 #4: The Things You Outgrow
Reader Request Week 2019 #5: Civility
Reader Request Week 2019 #6: Being Entertained as an Artist
Reader Request Week 2019 #7: How My Wife Can Stand Me
Reader Request Week 2019 #8: 13-Year-Old Me
Reader Request Week 2019 #9: Writing Short Bits
Reader Request Week 2019 #10: Short Bits

Got it? Good. Then: Ask me what you really want to know! I might even tell you!

Spring Photos, May 7, 2020

Just playing with the new camera some more. 

The Big Idea: Laura Lam

Start with cinematic dreams and stellar ambitions, and what do you get from there? For Laura Lam, you get Goldilocks, her new novel. She’s here to tell you how it all came together.


I love astronaut films.

Gravity. Interstellar. The Martian. Armageddon. Ad Astra. The Mars TV show on Netflix that’s OK, not a film, and also half a documentary. Sunshine. Moon. Some are more scientifically plausible than others. They have tone and pacing ranging from cerebral and contemplative to high octane and a little silly.

I love the stakes of space, the vastness and unknown of it all. It keeps secrets, even as scientists are getting better at peering into its depths.  It reminds me that humans and the Earth are just a tiny speck in the grand scope of things.

Yet a lot of astronaut films arise from those initial machismo beginnings of the Mercury 7 and those who have The Right Stuff. And I love watching the space cowboy archetype. But in a lot of them, the female characters are relegated to people back on the surface, either as human computers, or comms people, or the astronaut’s wife (as happened to Liv Tyler twice in two different films). We’ve started seeing more women in space—Anne Hathaway in Interstellar, Jessica Chastain and Kate Mara in The Martian—but the only one that seems to star a woman is Gravity, with Sandra Bullock. That’s maybe my favourite astronaut film, but she’s also alone for the bulk of it.

I really wanted to see an astronaut film with a cast of women front and centre. Working together, relying on each other, and of course, starting to learn that they were all keeping secrets. So I started writing Goldilocks. Though as a book, not a screenplay, since I have no pull in Hollywood.

There’s so much fascinating space history, past and present, about people who weren’t the default picture of an astronaut that I hadn’t learned about until relatively recently. The Mercury 13, who took the same tests as the Mercury 7 and performed better but weren’t allowed to go into space anyway. The African American human computers highlighted in Hidden Figures. Margaret Hamilton, with that amazing phot of her standing next to the pile of code she wrote for Apollo 11 that’s taller than she is. Mae Jemison, who was the first African American astronaut in space AND was a character on an episode in Star Trek: Next Gen, which is so damn cool. We just had the first all-female space walk 6 months ago after the first one was cancelled because they didn’t have two space suits of the right size, and we still haven’t had a woman on the moon. There have been no openly trans and/or nonbinary astronauts yet as far as I am aware (although trans man Sam Long has been campaigning for it). We only found out Sally Ride was gay after she passed (or at least I did). I want more films and books about people like them. One of the Mercury 13, Wally Funk, is in her 80s and still trying to get into space through Virgin. Send Wally Funk to space!

The Mercury 13 in particular helped me coalesce the purpose behind Goldilocks. I imagined a future where bigotry kept rising, particularly of the sexist variety, since things like the Heartbeat Bills and the discourse around women running for politics were fresh in my mind. I tend to pitch the book as The Martian or Interstellar meets the Handmaid’s Tale, which works well enough as a shorthand starting point. Most books have a series of ‘what if?’ questions behind them that echo that underlying Big Idea, so mine would be:

What if Earth was dying and there was a potential lush and verdant Planet B, called Cavendish? What if the best people for the mission to go there were women, and a woman had even financed the bulk of building the spaceship, but at the last minute they were thrown off the mission to be replaced by men? What if they decided ‘screw that’ and stole the spaceship to save humanity anyway? Then what if after they left, things started really going to hell in a handbasket back on Earth? And what if everyone on board had secrets that, if unleashed, could fracture the trust they need to complete the mission?

I did a lot of research. I tried to keep the science reasonably accurate, with a few big extrapolations of our tech potential in the near future (warp drive, a gravity ring, etc). I do not have a scientific background, so I figured if I could describe things in a way that made sense to me, it would make sense to most other laypeople. I did a lot of solo research, but also ended up speaking to a critical care doctor who is a visiting research scientist for the Cardiovascular and Vision lab at NASA, the former head of life sciences for the Johnston Space Center in Houston, two astrophysicists, a professor of space law, an evolutionary biologist who runs a lab looking at algae in the context of climate change, and several experts in infectious diseases and vaccines, which made going into 2020 armed with that knowledge more than a little alarming.

So I wove in a love of science, my fears for the future of this planet, my favourite bits of astronaut films, and interpersonal dynamics of a group of women with ultimately very different ideas of what it means to save the future of humanity. It will probably never be translated to the big screen (though I guess you never know, I can dream), but damn if it wasn’t a hell of a lot of fun to imagine what it would be like to go into space and to have the right stuff.


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

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