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Five Things: June 16, 2020

I’ve been out running errands! Fully masked and observing social distancing! Here are five things anyway.

Date-a-versary! 27 years ago today, Krissy and I went on our first official date, at the El Presidente restaurant in Visalia, followed by dancing, which is kind of our thing. Krissy told me years later that she knew she was going to marry me after that first date — not immediately, but eventually. Time proved her correct, and I’m glad it did.

Most of you probably know by now that the very first song we ever danced to was “Friday I’m in Love” by The Cure. Here’s a fun spin on the song: a “Done in Blink-182 style” cover. Enjoy.

Adam Schlesinger Tribute Album: Speaking of covers, here’s Saving for a Custom Van, a tribute album of Schlesinger-penned tunes, from Fountains of Wayne and his Hollywood work, from folks like Ted Leo, Rachel Bloom, Kay Hanley and others. The proceeds go to MusiCares’ COVID-19 Relief Fund, which is fitting, giving that Schlesinger died from the virus. If you’re a fan of pretty perfect pop, and helping people, this a good way to do it. Here’s the Bandcamp link.

Diego, the tortoise who saved his entire species, finally retires to uninhabited island: Way to go, dude. Take a nap or something.

36 alien civilizations, or something: People have been pinging me about this because I’m a science fiction writer and they figure it’s right up my alley. It is, kinda, but I’m not that excited about it, because it’s just another example of people taking The Drake Equation out for a spin, and plugging in numbers based on, basically, educated guessing. My response to this particular guess: Sure, fine, okay, why not. Wake me up when one of them sends a radio wave our way. In the meantime, I’m not going to get all that excited.

“Toilet plumes” spreading coronavirus: Just what you needed to hear. Wear your mask, folks. Also, lower the lid after you poop, but before you flush. Do it for other people. It’s not difficult.

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Big Idea

The Big Idea: Doug Engstrom

Doug Engstrom is thinking about today’s troubles and woes, and how some of them rely on people one thing and corporations… doing another. From there it’s just a hop, skip and jump to the world of his new novel, Corporate Gunslinger.

DOUG ENGSTROM:

One of the things that’s appalled me as I’ve grown older isn’t seeing young people abandon the virtues I was taught while growing up, but rather seeing those virtues corrupted and weaponized by the people in charge for use against the rest of society, especially young people.

I’ve seen institutions cynically exploit honorable ideas like paying your debts and consistently striving for excellent work to wring more gains from the people they deal with. This use is all the more repugnant when those organizations have no intention of living up to the same standards.

Consider, for example, banks and other financial institutions shirking their obligations or offloading them on the public during the financial crisis, even as the continued viability of their businesses depended on millions of ordinary people regarding their mortgage payments as sacred commitments.

That corruption, and how people are recruited and trained to take part in it, is the Big Idea behind Corporate Gunslinger.

My protagonist, Kira Clark, believes in herself and her acting talent. Unfortunately, she becomes an orphan at nineteen, and without family to help or even advise, that belief manifests as a series of large loans to pay for an MFA and New York living expenses. She’s ultimately compelled to refinance and pledge her freedom as collateral – if she defaults, a “lifetime services contract” will allow her creditors to control every aspect of her life.

When she suffers an unexpected layoff, the final piece falls into place. Her fierce belief in her dignity and freedom make a lifetime of servitude intolerable, so she begins a frantic quest to avoid foreclosure. Help appears in the shape of an offer from TKC Insurance, an offer that includes a signing bonus large enough to square her accounts, and the promise of job that pays well enough to keep them current.

The small complication is that the job involves killing people.

Trial by combat is the final, deadly option offered to citizens shut out of the court system and dissatisfied with the dubious justice of mandatory arbitration. They can choose to face a company representative on a high-tech dueling field, armed with a single-shot pistol and supervised by the scrupulously neutral Association for Dueling.

Kira becomes one of those company representatives, given a year of intensive training that confers an advantage over most citizen opponents that is roughly equivalent to the difference between an NBA player and a basketball enthusiast who plays pickup games on weekends. However, that advantage is far from absolute. Although her chances of dying in any one duel are only one in twenty-five, her odds of surviving enough matches to fulfill the obligation incurred by taking the signing bonus are only about one in three.

So, Kira’s confidence, talent, and optimism have led her into debt, and from there, her desire to be free and lead a dignified life have transformed her into an effective and deadly tool for oppression in the hands of her employers.

Corporate Gunslinger is the story of how that happens, and how Kira reacts once she truly understands her circumstances.

—-

Corporate Gunslinger: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

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Five Things: June 15, 2020

Slow news day today, amirite? Here are five things.

26 years ago today I proposed to Krissy. Now, maybe this is not the top news story of the day for the rest of you, but for me, you know, it’s pretty significant. Also, in case it’s not evident and you’ve not heard this story before, she said yes. So that was good for me! If you’ve never actually seen my proposal to Krissy, I have it here for your perusal. It was in my newspaper column at the time. Also arguably the smartest thing I’ve ever done. And it’s hard to argue with the results!

Supreme Court gives LGBTQ+ people workplace protections on a 6-3 vote, and honestly it’s the “6-3” number there that surprises me; I could have easily envisioned a 5-4 split on this going either way, so the idea that the court codified workplace protections for queer folks with a conservative vote to spare is, well, a significant thing. And also that the opinion was written by Neil Gorsuch, who fashioned the court opinion on more or less conservative lines, “conservative” here being used in the older sense of the term and not the more recent “only pander to billionaires and people who think Jesus was a bigot like them” definition.

Aside from the fact that the decision was morally and legally correct and the right thing for the court to do (also, fuck you, Kavanaugh, Alito and Thomas), I’m happy for my queer friends today. The last week in particular has been a hard one for a lot of them. They could do with a win. This was, unambiguously, a win.

Star Wars Squadrons! Take a look at this trailer:

I’m excited for this game because waaaaaay back in the day, the X-Wing and Tie Fighter games were my favorite video games in the Star Wars game canon. The idea that we’re coming back around to that, with snazzy new graphics and smooth gameplay, gets me happy like a little kid (or, well, like a twenty-something, which was how old I was when the first batch of Star Wars space fighter games came out).

The Oscars are delayed, and that includes an extension of the eligibility window, apparently, out beyond the usual calendar year. Why? Coronavirus, silly! It’s still a thing! And will continue to be, because too many dimwits aren’t wearing their masks (seriously, wear your damn mask, people). This isn’t the first time the Oscar ceremony has been delayed by outside events, but I do think it’s the first time, or at least since the very early years, where the eligibility period extended outside of a calendar year. One wonders how this will influence the other mostly-end-of-the-year film awards here in the US — bluntly, none of them matter that much except and unless they are part of the run-up to the Oscars. I expect all the other awards to fairly quickly fall in line, in terms of shifting back and extending their eligibility period.

Ted “Not in the Face” Cruz, what a dick: Seriously, challenging Ron Perlman to wrestle Jim Jordan is very much of a junior high nerdlinger sort of thing. “I don’t want to get hit, but I want you to get hit, so go fight that guy who could stuff me into a trash can!” Or as Perlman succinctly and accurately put it:

I mean, yes, this is all ridiculous performative masculinity on display by all parties, but Cruz is just… well, sad. I mean, more than usual. And he’s usually so very sad.

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Big Idea

The Big Idea: Ryk Spoor

When thinking about epic fantasy, how epic is epic enough? And at what point might things become too epic for a single band of heroes? Author Ryk Spoor has opinions on these questions, and how they helped to inform his latest (epic!) novel, The Mask of Ares.

RYK SPOOR:

Epic fantasy has a lot of common tropes and story elements; to an extent, having many of these elements (a huge threat to a big and engaging world, a small band of heroes who will somehow be key to addressing the threat, grand-scale magic and terrifying monsters, etc.) is one of the keys to the success of the genre; this is what the audience is paying for, so to speak. What makes the different epics worth reading is what the writer personally adds to the base elements – or, often, how they either challenge or change the base elements, to produce something that is still epic fantasy and yet is somehow new at the same time.

My main fantasy world of Zarathan is in a way a distillation – and a deliberate one – of many epic fantasy tropes, with other elements added. For the three major stories I have or will tell in this setting – my prior Balanced Sword trilogy (Phoenix Rising, Phoenix in Shadow, and Phoenix Ascendant), the Godswar dualogy (The Mask of Ares and The Spear of Athena), and the in-progress Spirit Warriors trilogy (Choosing the Players, Move and Countermove, and Master of the Game), there are several key fantasy elements that I’m playing with: the size of the world relative to that of the heroes, the concept of cyclical world-affecting events, the idea of grand-scale villainous masterminds and master plans, and the injection of nonstandard elements – both overt and referential – into the fantasy setting.

The first is perhaps one of the most obvious: can you really expect one group of heroes to do all the world-saving when you have nigh-immortal adversaries planning their diabolical plots for decades, centuries, or even longer? This often has the corollary that the world map for such stories turns out to have only a small number of locations that the heroes don’t  eventually visit during their adventures.

Zarathan is too big for that, and the plans that the main villain (and associates) have set in motion will need more than one group of powerful heroes to address; and even after all three stories are told, there are large sections of Zarathan we will not have visited (and there’s an entire hemisphere or more we haven’t even seen on the map!).

At the same time, to get this concept across to the reader, it is only fair that as a writer I should provide at least a few hints to that effect. In the Balanced Sword trilogy, we in fact see the five heroes of The Spirit Warriors – Xavier and his friends – and they even provide our main characters Kyri, Tobimar, and Poplock with some vital assistance.

But there is also another set of heroes seen in that trilogy, briefly present in the first book and mentioned at intervals in the others: the main characters of Godswar, who are Kyri Vantage’s sister Urelle, her aunt Victoria, and their hired bodyguards Ingram Camp-Bel of Aegeia and Quester, an Iriistiik warrior and sole survivor of his Nest’s destruction.

Similarly, there is more than one recurring pattern that influence the characters and events in the three series. The largest is the succession of Chaoswars, world-devastating events that also cloud the memory of all things past, even to the gods themselves; Chaoswars occur about every twelve thousand years, as mentioned in The Balanced Sword. But the small country of Aegeia has an importance all out of proportion to its size because it, too, has a recurring pattern called the Cycle, in which the two gods of war – Ares, God of War and Passion, and Athena, God of War and Wisdom/Reason – play out the conflict between passion and reason with Aegiea itself as the stage. The Cycle turns out to somehow oppose the power of the Chaoswars, giving Athena and the other gods of Aegeia a greater memory and understanding of things past – and thus a greater possibility to predict and understand the future.

The Cycle of Aegeia is itself central to the events in Godswar; when our heroes realize that some impostor has somehow taken on the guise of the God of War and Passion (thus the title), they also understand that this has the potential to interfere with, or even break, the Cycle – and thus end Aegeia’s unique and precious advantage of knowledge of the past and future.

These events are tied, also, to (as I mentioned earlier) the wide-flung plans of the various malevolent forces at work on Zarathan. The worst of these is of course the King of Wolves, Virigar, the hidden-until-the-end major antagonist of the Balanced Sword, but scarcely less frightening and certainly grander in scale is Kerlamion, the Demon King of All Hells, whose main plan covers most of the continent.

But a key factor in both of these monsters’ plans is the neutralization of Aegeia, which introduces a different if equally deadly opponent for our heroes. Raiagamor, the main adversary for Godswar, inspired the Wolf King’s own personal plan to attain vastly more power than he currently has, and provides the opportunity to keep Aegeia and her gods from interfering in Kerlamion’s great plot of conquest and subjugation. Yet he is doing it for neither of those reasons, but for reasons that are ultimately personal – which, in some ways, makes him worse: he would manipulate an entire country, lead to the downfall of a pantheon of Gods, kill countless innocents… all not for power or glory but for a simple personal achievement: he wants to be acknowledged by his hidden family.

In a sense, this makes him a creepy mirror of Ingram Camp-Bel: self-exiled because he found that even his adopted parents did not consider him truly a member of the Clan, feeling as though he could never measure up to what the Clan demanded of its people… and then, suddenly, finding himself recalled with desperate haste to the side of the Clan he had rejected.

Each of the main heroes has something of this nature about them; Quester does not understand why the Queen of his Nest kept him away, prevented him from trying to defend the Nest, or why he has randomly-surfacing memories of the Queens of the past. Urelle Vantage is trying to prove herself after being rejected by Myrionar, the god that chose her sister Kyri to be its living representative; and Victoria, drawn once more into the field, wonders if an old, retired Adventurer can survive what is beginning to look like a battle between gods, not mortals.

The Mask of Ares also makes clear, I hope, the reason for another common fantasy trope: the need for what amounts to professional heroes, called Adventurers on Zarathan. While the countries described on Zarathan are often very large, they are not, in fact, countries as we understand them – huge spans of mostly civilized and certainly generally safe and controlled land. Instead, they are oases of relative safety connected by the protected Great Roads, bounding wilderness filled with the unknown and often deadly. Quester and Ingram are Guilded Adventurers (an event that is shown in the short story Adventurers), as is Victoria. Such people – invested with the trust of the peoples around them – are a vital part of maintaining the safety and security of people who may not have the opportunity to live within a fortified set of magically maintained defenses.

And they are, of course, the kind of people who throw monkeywrenches into the machinery of any adversary.

That particular metaphor also points up another of the tropes I play with: the crossover of SF and fantasy. In Phoenix Rising, magic intersects with technology in a small but obvious way when little Poplock Duckweed figures out how to make a magical battery for a handheld electronic device owned by Earth native Xavier Ross.

In The Mask of Ares, we learn that the entire Clan Camp-Bel derives from the survivors of a starship that crashed thousands of years ago in Aegeia, and who became loyal supporters of Athena and her people. Ingram Camp-Bel has a few technological devices that he brought with him when he fled, and these play an important role at points of the story. The background and resources of Clan Camp-Bel will play an even greater role in the sequel, The Spear of Athena.

One of the other and in some ways most significant purposes of Godswar is to acknowledge and salute some key influences in my life. I did a similar thing when I wrote Grand Central Arena, which was a nod to Doc Smith and other authors of the Golden and Silver Ages of SF, Princess Holy Aura which was my take on the mahou shoujo genre, and in Polychrome, which was effectively a giant thank-you letter to the spirit of L. Frank Baum, the creator of Oz.

Godswar – as indicated by its dedication – is strongly influenced by and a nod to the work of Masami Kurumada, the creator of Saint Seiya. It is not much of an exaggeration to say that Saint Seiya led to my marriage; it would be no exaggeration but simple truth to say that working on Saint Seiya fanfiction with my then-fiancee Kathleen taught me a lot about how to write. Without that, and other similar anime influences, I wouldn’t be the author I am.

Godswar is in no way a copy of Saint Seiya, but many of the concepts of the God-Warrior come from that show, and others – Shurato, Yoroiden Samurai Troopers, various other sentai shows. It is my take on that subgenre, however, just as The Balanced Sword was my take on the concept of the Paladin and representative of a god, taking some of the recognizable elements of the source and then refining and revising them to play a part in the world that is Zarathan.

Ultimately, of course, GODSWAR: The Mask of Ares  is the story of four people who find themselves drawn into a conflict vastly larger than they imagined, and how they discover whether they can somehow rise to meet that challenge. Ingram must throw off his self-doubt and eventually face secrets about himself that he does not even suspect; Quester must discover why the Nests of the Iriistiik are being destroyed, and how he represents the potential for salvation of his people; Victoria must bring forth her old skills and hard-won experience to keep herself and her friends alive; and Urelle must learn how to master the power of magic that she had only dabbled in if she is to be able to survive a confrontation with the agents of a god.

I came to care very much for these four as I wrote the story. I hope you will too!

—-

The Mask of Ares: Amazon|Ring of Fire

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

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To Talk, Or Not

Easyrihiner asks, in the comment thread from yesterday’s Five Things post:

What’s your take on authors/artists that aren’t talking about current events right now?

I don’t attach a value judgment to it. There are any number of reasons why a creative person isn’t commenting on current events. Some reasons, and in no specific order, might be:

1. Deadlines are imminently looming and they have to focus on that if they want to eat;

2. Issues in their personal lives, positive or negative, might be taking up their attention;

3. The creator in question might decide they don’t know enough to comment usefully;

4. They don’t want to comment because they realize as soon as they do they will have to respond to/manage responses from others, and that takes a lot of time and energy they may not have;

5. Their opinion might be controversial or counter to the general trend, and they decide it’s smarter to stay quiet than have the Internet drop on their head and/or be “cancelled”;

6. They are trying to process what they want to say and how they want to say it in a way that best expresses their opinion, which sometimes is not collapsible to tweet length;

7. They may simply not give a shit.

Or some combination of any or all of the above, plus a whole bunch of other reasons, too; the list above is not meant to be exhaustive.

It’s easy for people to demand creative people, especially ones of some notability, have a public position on whatever topic those people think is important. But creative people are people too, and they only have so much time and attention to devote to… well, anything: work and family and friends and community and current events. They can’t and shouldn’t be expected to comment on everything, even if you (whomever you might be) think it’s important. I’ve commented about this fact before, in my own special way. And of course what applies to me here applies to anyone else.

I think it’s accurate to say that notable people, creatives among them, are sometimes in a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” situation with regard to public commenting on social issues. I’ve gotten the “shut up and stick to writing” sort of comments when I have offered an opinion on a current event, and the “your silence equals complicity” sort of comments when I haven’t. In both cases the commenter can stick their opinion up their ass and twist it sideways; I’ll say what I want on any topic, including not saying anything at all. But in a world where people want creatives to comment and also not to, I don’t blame creatives who decide the best thing to do is to keep their head down and hope not be noticed.

People can and should comment on current events if they want to. People can and should not comment on current events if they choose not to. Creative folks are people. So.

One final note on the subject, which is that a choice by a creative person to be publicly silent on a matter is not necessarily indicative of their neutrality on the matter. A creative person (or any person) may actively have an opinion or support a cause, and choose to do so quietly, and again for any number of reasons (including not painting a target on those they are helping for abusers and trolls).

Which is another reason not to attach a value judgment to a public silence. All public silence means is that you don’t know what’s going on with that person. You may think you deserve to know, but no one else is obliged to agree with you, including the creative you may believe owes you an accounting or opinion.

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Five Things: June 12, 2020

I’ve been busy moderating comment threads today, but let’s see if there are five things in the world I want to talk about:

Tucker Carlson losing advertisers for being a blatant racist, again. Because, I mean, this isn’t exactly the first time, is it? Which does leave hanging just how many advertisers Fox News have, that they can keep shedding them for its premier program (I know, I know, some eventually crawl back. Even so). I don’t go out of my way to watch Fox News, but I see it now and again, and it does seem that it’s essentially propped up by ads for pharmaceuticals, gold investments, and, recently, Tom Selleck hawking the benefits of reverse mortgages. This suggests much about the Fox News demo, although honestly since I don’t watch CNN (or any other cable news network) all that much, I can’t really say if their ads and demo are really any different.

In any event, I don’t think Fox is too worried. If it came to it, they could fire Tucker Carlson, replace him with another preppy racist and then burn through that dude’s advertisers. Wash, rinse, repeat. It’s a nice graft, that Fox News.

Come for the inane ramblings of an incoherent bigot, stay for the easily transmittable virus! The Trump campaign wants you to know that if you come to one of its rallies, it can’t be held responsible if you catch the coronavirus. Which, on one hand, is probably going to be a standard-issue liability warning/disclaimer for any large event for the next couple of years at least, but on the other, yeeeech. Not at all the reason I would personally want to catch the covid. I also suspect that the transmission rate at a Trump rally would be higher than it might be otherwise, because of the right-wing fetish for not wearing masks because Real Americans™ Aren’t Afraid of Viruses, or whatever.  So, yeah, even if I were a Trump supporter, which I’m not, one of his rallies wouldn’t be high up on my list of things to do with my time.

Tom Hanks’ upcoming movie. Here’s the trailer.

I don’t mean to brag, he said, absolutely bragging, but it’s possible that I might have watched part of this in an editing bay sometime in February. It looked terrific then, and the trailer looks pretty great, too. It’s going to be on Apple TV, something which was a pretty big deal, because the movie was slated to go into theaters before theaters stopped being a thing people went to. It’s also possible that I got Apple TV+ just so I could watch it (I mean, they gave me a year for free after I bought Athena a new iPhone, so, you know. Why not).

Here’s an oopsie: The GOP basically cut and pasted the 2016 platform for its 2020 platform and in doing so left in criticism of the sitting president, who is, now, of course, a Republican. This will almost certainly be addressed in the near future, but it just really feels lazy and low-effort on the part of one of the two major parties of the United States. Mind you, I think it’s an acknowledgement that the official party platform isn’t something people pay much attention to, up to and including party members. But I think it would be okay to be a little less obvious about it.

Let’s end on a cat picture. Because why the heck not. You all like Smudge, and he… well. He tolerates you.

Have a great Friday, everyone, and a fabulous weekend.

 

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Generation X and Trans Lives

So, I’m going to preface this thing I’m about to write by being as clear as I can be about this, so there’s no confusion or ambiguity on this score:

Trans women are women, trans men are men, trans non-binary folks are non-binary folks, and trans rights are human rights. I’m non-squishy on this. I know, like and care for too many trans people to feel otherwise, but even if I didn’t know, like and care for any trans people, I would like to think I would say the same, because the validity of their lives should not be dependent on whether I know them.

Moreover, and fully acknowledging my outsider status on this as a straight, cis man, it seems that any attempt to carve out trans people from queer culture runs smack into the fact that arguably there wouldn’t be a modern queer movement without Marsha P. Johnson throwing that shot glass (or brick, depending on who is telling the tale) at Stonewall. Trans people — and trans people of color — were present at the birth of the gay rights struggle in the United States. It’s their story as much as anyone else’s, as far as I can see. They can’t be separated out, nor should they be.

With that as preamble:

In the last year especially, I have noticed that a not-small number of my contemporaries, some who I like, some who I love, and some whose work has meant so much to me that I find it difficult to express my admiration for it in non-gushy terms, have settled themselves on an essentialist view of who gets to call themselves a man or a woman. Usually there’s some biological component to this, but however it gets put together in their heads, at the end of it is trans people being othered, and estranged from their proper identities.

And while one does not have to be in one’s mid-40s to mid-50s to have this essentialism as part of one’s worldview, I certainly notice it the most in that group of people — in Gen-Xers, that slice of the population curve that I’m part of. There are Gen-Xers who I otherwise find myself in alignment with in terms of issues of the rights of women, with (cis) gays and lesbians and with people of color, but then have a sharp break on matter of the rights and identities of trans people.

It might be that I notice this schism because I’m a Gen-Xer, and so statistically speaking more of the people I know are of my generation. But I don’t think it’s just that. I think it’s possible that — in very general terms — every group identified as a “generation” has a group that it, for whatever reason, still sees as an “other” in some significant way, and for cis Gen-X people, it’s trans people.

It’s certainly true enough that trans jokes other cultural othering were still acceptable in the media Gen-Xers grew up with: the plot of Ace Ventura, Pet Detective, of all movies, hinged on it (as did the plot of Soapdish, pitched to a different demographic). The Crying Game relied on its protagonist being surprised at someone’s trans identity. There was the recurring gag of Chandler’s trans parent in Friends. These are the obvious examples, which is why I name them, but there are a whole bunch of other examples one can name.

This isn’t to excuse cis Gen-Xers denying trans identity as valid, nor is it to make a facile argument that Gen-X trans othering is the fault of popular culture. We can’t blame it all on Friends. There’s a lot going on in the culture, and how we have built our identities as people, that I’m not touching on here, primarily for brevity. But it is to make the point that even as Gen-X had (arguably, and depending heavily on political/social background) understood itself to be racially diverse, and (again arguably and depending on political/social background) made the cause of gay rights its own civil rights struggle, there was still a culture frontier — an other, for its cis members: Trans people.

Millennials seem to me to be far less likely to exclude trans people from their cohort, and from what I see of Generation Z to date, they simply assume gender identity is fluid to a greater or lesser degree. It’s the cis members of Generation X who, it seems, have to do the real work of digging into their own biases and assumptions about gender — and their own discomfort with trans identity — and make the effort to change a worldview that implicitly and explicitly on the outside of it.

And it is work for us — look, folks, I’m gonna be honest with you: I didn’t get to being able to say “trans rights are human rights” and actually meaning it without some real work and effort. As (just) two examples, fifteen years ago, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have seen what the big deal was with deadnaming people, and it literally wasn’t until I saw a friend on Twitter being taken to task for it that I understood that “tr***y” was an actual and genuine slur. I can’t think of a time when I was actively transphobic, but I certainly sucked in a lot of passive transphobia over the years, and I wouldn’t be surprised if somewhere along the line some of it came out of me, too.

(If somehow you find something out there where I’ve been transphobic: sorry. There’s no excuse for it. I’m not going to say I’m a better person now, but I will say that I’ve done work on myself to do better. And if I fuck up now, well, Jesus. Call me on it, please, and I’ll keep trying to be better from here on out.)

Some time ago I talked about sexism and I made the observation that if one’s understanding of what sexism is stopped in the 1970s, the 21st century was gonna be a real rough ride. Well, guess what: If your understanding of what sex and gender mean is stuck at the turn of the century, 2020 is going to come for you, and it’s not going to be nice about it (2020 isn’t nice about anything). Understanding one’s own sexism, or racism, or homophobia, or transphobia, isn’t about reaching some plateau and getting to stop. You have to keep working at it.

Which can be fucking tiring, you know? Now I get why so many people who were 20 or 30 years older than I was would tell me proudly that they marched with MLK or protested in the 60s: Because it was a way of saying “here’s my resume, I’m on the side of angels.” But the 60s were the 60s, and now is now. The fight’s not the same and sooner or later, generationally speaking, there’s always something to trip over.

I will tell you how it makes me feel seeing people in my age cohort — people I like, people I love, and people whose work I respect and admire — trip over trans rights and identity: It makes me feel old. It makes me feel like my generation has joined all the other generations who had a blind spot in their vision of who gets to be “really real” in the culture. And just as Gen-X looked at older generations and thought smugly to themselves “well, we’ll just wait for them to die off, and that problem will be solved,” now we’re the generation that younger generations will look at, shrug off, and wait to be launched into eternity.

And, yes, #NotAllGen-Xers, but you know what? Enough of us Gen-Xers to be noticable. The Gen-Xers I like, love and admire who are struggling (to charitably put it) with trans issues are all over the board. Some are rich, some are not. Some are educated, others aren’t. Some are famous, some are known only to friends and family. Some are white and some are people of color. Some, I think, might eventually get it. And some of them, well, won’t — either just because, or because eventually too much of one’s identity is tied up into their position on trans identity, and there’s no easy way back from that.

I don’t think it’s the responsibility of Millennials or Gen-Z folk to do anything about Gen-Xers who trip over trans issues or who can’t or won’t listen. Those Gen-Xers (usually) aren’t your parents; you don’t owe them that service. I don’t think it’s the responsibility of the Gen-Xers who are better about trans issues either — but I do think there might be a better chance that the former might listen to the latter better than to anyone else, when it comes time to talk about these things. Because it’s often easier to listen to friends and to members of one’s own cohort, with whom you otherwise have things in common, and some lived experience.

So I come back again to the issue of the Gen-Xers who I like, and who I love, and whose work I honor, who resist the idea that trans women are women, and that trans men are men, and that trans lives are valid as they are. They’re wrong about that, and if it turns out they will listen to me say that — and then explain why, as patiently and with as much kindness as I can provide, to the extent that I as a cis, straight man can — then I will count myself lucky to be able to tell them, and to hope that they will think about what I have to say. It’s not my responsibility, but I remember the times when friends, with patience and kindness, explained to me how and why I was wrong on something important. It helped me then. Maybe I can pay that forward.

Until that time, and again: Trans women are women. Trans men are men. Trans non-binary folks are non-binary folks. Trans rights are human rights.

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Five Things: June 11, 2020

Here’s today’s big news! In five convenient bits!

I got a haircut: Which I recognize is not big news for everyone else, but which feel significant for me, since it’s the first one I’ve gotten since the quarantine started. I went to my usual person, whose salon was recently re-opened. She was taking things seriously, since no walk-ins were allowed, the stylist stations were reconfigured to put distance between then, and she and I wore masks the entire time (at one point I held up my mask as she trimmed around my ears). So, not the way it was before, but something workable for the way things are now. I wouldn’t have protested to get a haircut, but I am glad to have had one now. I feel slightly more myself.

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff admits to a flub: Namely, he shouldn’t have been at that now-infamous Trump photo op at the church, you know, the one they gassed all those peaceful protestors to get. And quite obviously he’s correct about that; he should not have been there, and he was basically used (or allowed himself to be used) by Trump for Trump’s own purposes. At this point the military seems to have pretty much served notice to Trump that they don’t want to play a part of his intimidation games any more, although what that means as a practical matter is up in the air, as far as I can tell; Trump is, for better or worse (hint: worse), still commander-in-chief. But maybe it’s gotten through even his thick skull that he’s messed up with the generals and their forces.

COVID cases up: in lots of states, not surprisingly tied to the “opening up” of those states from the quarantine, although it’s not uniform — Ohio seems to be doing all right, although officials here still warn that it’s early days yet. Some people will tell you this surge is due to more testing, but the actual experts themselves tell us it’s not just that. So keep on wearing your masks, folks, and all that other stuff you should be doing. And if you are going to protest, do it for racial justice, not for haircuts.

Today’s “Huh, not what I was expecting, but okay” news: The country band Lady Antebellum is changing its name to “Lady A,” because it turns out “antebellum” has racist connotations that have become too much to ignore these days. Admittedly this is not “NASCAR ditching Confederate flags”-level of change (I’m still amazed about that, I have to tell you), but it’s not chicken feed, either. If one wants to be cranky about it, one may note that “Lady A” is still inextricably linked to the band’s previous name, pretty much like “KFC” is still Kentucky Fried Chicken even though it’s formally known just by the letters now. But take progress as it happens, I suppose. Wikipedia’s updated, in any event.

Meanwhile, speaking of NASCAR, this dipshit. I don’t expect he’ll be much missed.

Twitter plans to ask you if you’ve actually read the article you’re about to retweet: Which is delightful, actually, even if it will send some people in a rage as an extra step is inserted between them and their performative tweeting. Personally I do try to read everything I retweet, although I can’t pretend that I haven’t from time to time retweeted something on the basis of the headline alone, especially if I’ve read a different news story about the same event elsewhere. But as a general rule, yes, I’ve read what I’m retweeting. Seems the least one can do, weird that some people won’t even do that.

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Big Idea

The Big Idea: John P. Murphy

The creative advantages to anger: Are there any at all, ever? John P. Murphy says… perhaps! And explains how they were put to work in his novel Red Noise.

JOHN P. MURPHY:

Red Noise is about anger. I wrote it in 2017, at a time when a lot of us were angry for good reasons. Maybe it’s fitting that it’s coming out when we’re angry again for very good reasons.

We’re conditioned to be wary of anger, even afraid of it. But it’s not just an often healthy emotion, it’s a vital one. I’m not enough of a student of history to definitively state this or that without putting my foot in it, but it seems to me that a lot of progress in our world only happened after people got good and mad about injustice. I have to have faith that the anger we’re all experiencing right now rocks this country good and hard, and paves the way for real change. We owe so much to people who came before us who got angry enough to disregard their own convenience and even safety. But because many of us are so uncomfortable with anger, we don’t like to talk about it, don’t often look directly at the emotion itself and think about it. I didn’t want to either, but in writing Red Noise, I realized I had to.

My book is in the tradition of a number of movies and books going back to Dashiell Hammett’s noir classics Red Harvest and The Glass Key. Those works inspired the director Akira Kurosawa to write and direct a samurai film, Yojimbo, which was in turn remade into a Western by Sergio Leone as A Fistful of Dollars with Clint Eastwood. Then it was back to gangsters with Last Man Standing and Bruce Willis. It’s had many other iterations. The plots vary, but boil down to this: a nameless protagonist comes to town and finds that town driven into the dirt by fighting gangs, and so this hero, a trickster, pretends to join them as a way of taking them all down. And, of course, does.

It’s common when writing genre stories to talk of being in conversation with what has gone before. It’s a little odd to find oneself in conversation with a single plot. I thought a long time about what lies behind events like these. It’s one thing to read it or watch it, because that goes by so quickly. But writing something new in that vein means answering hard questions: What can drive rivals to hate each other so much they’d rather turn Station 35 into a two-for-one funeral than give an inch? What might push someone who jealously guards her privacy to take a look at such a miserable place and decide to put her life on the line to try and fix it, for strangers? There are many powerful emotions that make people put their lives at risk for others, but this is a job uniquely suited to righteous anger. No matter how cool or jaded the protagonist, without that core it just doesn’t work.

I did a lot of reading and viewing, trying to find my way into this story. Cowboy Bebop; Romeo and Juliet; Sanjuro; The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly; The Count of Monte Cristo. I read David Morrell’s First Blood, the source for the first Rambo movie (it’s a lot more subtle and interesting than the film, by the way). All of them were fueled by anger in some way, all different. Sublimated, frustrated, betrayed, furious. Anger drives decisions that drive plots.

It is also notorious for driving bad decisions, though, and I was determined to show a competent protagonist. More than that, I refused to believe that being angry was truly inconsistent with being smart. I found a study in my reading that intrigued me: it suggested that anger can actually lead to better decisions. People experiencing anger when they’re trying to come to a decision, it seemed, don’t wait as long, they don’t compromise as much, and they are happier with their decisions later. All together, my reading helped me understand better how this primal emotion drove my plot too, how it helped and hurt the decisions people make, and it helped me see that central anger motive with all its many facets and dangers for the characters.

From the protagonist’s perspective, the story is about being clever and resourceful. But for the gangs and the crooked cops, it’s about being manipulated into self-destruction. And they’d be justifiably angry about that, wouldn’t they? I found I needed more characters. In particular, I introduced a pair of gangsters, Screwball and Ditz, to help me distill those thoughts in a different way from the protagonist. Their journey wound up disrupting how I originally thought about how things had to play out. More than that, I realized that I was wrong about where the tension was coming from. The reader isn’t worried that this badass might lose the fight; we’re afraid of her losing the fire. We’re afraid she’ll stop caring.

Writing this book with anger in mind was useful to me, but sobering too. It made me question why I found these stories so appealing, why in 2017 I needed to write about corruption being pulled apart at the seams. God knows we’ve all found that it’s possible to get tired of being angry. Why add to the pile?

What I realized, after first reading so many stories about anger and then writing one, is that we need the practice. We need to see it through in miniature, get a little taste of a small win. Living out anger on the page doesn’t lessen the fire: it stokes it.

—-

Red Noise: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

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Five Things: June 10, 2020

Annnnd here we go for today:

Trump wants CNN to apologize for a poll that has Biden ahead: Oh, bless his sad little heart. I do understand it’s been a bad couple of weeks for the president, what with botched photo ops and hiding in bunkers and behind gates and his open racism not working for him the way he wants it to. But this is a very silly tantrum for him to be having in public, and anyway, it’s not just CNN that has him taking a poll thumping recently. I don’t see it being out of the realm of possibility that Trump demands an apology from everyone who give him poll data he’s not happy with, although I understand he’s going after CNN specifically because he’s decided it’s the news company that will be his nemesis, this week, anyway. CNN, of course, has no intention of apologizing, because why should they.

Christopher Columbus had a rough night: A statue of him in Boston was beheaded and another in Richmond was toppled and thrown into a lake — immersion in water apparently being the new hotness in statue desecration. On one hand, public property shouldn’t be attacked, blah blah blah, etc, but on the other hand, speaking as an Italian-American who therefore has Columbus as his secular patron saint in the United States, fuck that genocidal piece of shit, there shouldn’t be statues of him up anywhere, much less entire cities and countries named after him. Someone on Twitter made the cogent point that statues aren’t about education, they’re about commemoration, i.e., propaganda, which can be benign or… not. The propaganda about Columbus stopped being convincing a while back. I’m not going to cry to much about him walking the plank.

Gone With the Wind gone with the, uh, wind or something: More accurately, pulled down from HBO Max, apparently until such time the studio can do for it what they already do for Looney Tunes, which is to put a disclaimer up that basically says “Hey, FYI, there’s some real racist bullshit here, we’re not going to pretend it didn’t exist, but we all know better now.” Which, you know. Is fine. Stalwarts who are winding themselves up about non-existent First Amendment issues will be pleased to know one may still rent GWTW via Amazon Prime or Google Play or other online services, and can still get the Blu-Ray, so no one can take it away from them, ever (the book is also widely available, if you’re into that). So, yes: If three hours and forty minutes of genteel southern racism is your thing, you can still have it, all over the place.

The newest winery in the Dayton area, literally across the street from me: I mean, literally, as in, I can see the driveway for it from my office window:

The property used to belong to the parents of one of Athena’s classmates, and for the last year or so they’ve been doing construction, putting up vines and otherwise getting ready to welcome people in. I suppose it’s likely to increase traffic a bit, but we’ll see if it’s an actual nuisance. I’m optimistic about it and am thinking it will be a nice addition to the neighborhood. They start takeout service this Friday, so we’ll soon find out. I do like the idea of a new business in our little town. It’s good to see it happen. Here’s their direct site, if you would like to check it out (and/or would like to order something from them).

It’s hot and humid and our air conditioning is on the fritz, Part II: The Humiditing: We had our house air conditioning looked at last week, and then guy who came was all, yup there’s a problem, and then told us that the soonest anyone could get out to fix the particular problem was Thursday next week, i.e., this week, i.e., tomorrow. So we’ve had to endure the hottest and most humid week on the 2020 calendar (so far!) without central air. I am personally a delicate little flower who actually does work from home and would like not to dissolve into a puddle of anguished sweat, so I went and got a single-room air conditioner for my office. It works great, in that the instant I leave my office during the day every other part of the upstairs is noticeably hotter and makes me want to die. So: worthwhile investment, and since it’s for my office, tax-deductible as well. The only drawback is that it’s not exactly quiet. But if I have to choose between silence or sweating miserably, well, let’s just say I bought an air conditioner and got a white noise generator as a bonus.

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Big Idea

The Big Idea: A.J. Fitzwater

In today’s Big Idea for their novel No Man’s Land, author A.J. Fitzwater gives a good example why it’s a good idea to support local businesses: because you may find something there that opens a lost world to you.

A.J. FITZWATER:

Books talk.

Within a moment, across the years, decades, centuries.

They speak to each other in agreement or argument, uplift or downfall. Sometimes their crossing of paths is beautiful serendipity.

No Man’s Land speaks to something I didn’t think I had in me – history isn’t my jam. And it also speaks of some of the most important things to me – the invisibilized parts of New Zealand women’s and queer life.

The conversation began in a Christchurch second hand book store, Smith’s in the Tannery. Post-earthquakes, Smith’s had moved from a three storey joyous chaotic warren in the central city to a pared down nook specialising in everything New Zealand. Not usually my cup of tea, but I was trying to give my custom to as many local bookshops as possible.

A shelf of women’s history piqued my interest. One book in particular literally leapt into my hands. The Land Girls: In A Man’s World 1939-45 by Dianne Bardsley (University of Otago Press, 2000). The cover shows a muscular, tanned white woman, sleeves rolled as tidily as her hair, clip shearing a sheep, staring boldly into the camera.

How many times had I heard women weren’t strong enough for trade work or the farm? That was at odds with the amount of rural women I knew (a fair few, who would kick your arse for suggesting as much). I wanted to know how far this patronising myth extended.

Post-war, the New Zealand land girls were ignored by society, the farming community, and the government in an effort to force them back into domestic spheres. Accolades didn’t exist, they weren’t welcome in the VE and VJ day celebrations, it became difficult to be paid what they were owed and to find jobs, and government documents of service were destroyed. What remained became mostly oral history, and Bardsley endeavoured to document some of this history before the generation disappeared.

A title rung like a bell in my mind, luscious with layers: No Man’s Land. The land girls took on the farming jobs the troops left to go to war. They were fighting for their rights, conscious or not, in the liminal space between necessary “manpower” and discrimination. And a number of them were queer – defying gender norms, “spinster aunties” who lived alone or together, too busy with the farm to get married.

This was a story I wanted to tell, with magic for good measure.

What began as a short story, my preferred form, began to blossom out, to demand space, life, breath. I did more research into New Zealand women in war time (the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force, the Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps, and the Women’s Royal New Zealand Naval Service), and tapped into family memories of the area and era. The Bletchley Girls, Rocket Girls, and Hidden Figures stories became popular around the same time; while not explicitly linked to my work, they provided good tangential inspiration for characters and other stories.

What I discovered along the way is that history isn’t my jam because it was designed that way. It was written by the victors – the patriarchy – so I had only a narrow, domestic view of women’s contribution. And how I could even imagine queer heroes or lives when those stories were upheld as tragic figures, or weren’t told at all? Without a view of yesterday, we have to reinvent ourselves, bring our imaginations back to square one, over and over.

With each book on women’s war and STEM history I read, it spoke to another and another, speaking truth back into the space created by the warp of history around the event horizon of women’s contribution and lives.

As with many of my stories, I started with the themes first – isolation, marginalization, found family, discovery of self, fear, sacrifice – then the characters fleshed into those ideas. The townie who knows little about farming but is doing it to escape the spectre of marriage became Dorothy “Tea” Gray (Earl Grey Tea. Hot). Her brother Robbie became a twin in family and magic as a nod to one of my favourite childhood books, Under the Mountain by Maurice Gee. Izzy Larson is the friend who must use her magical abilities to hide multiple parts of her identity in a world she is always at war with, creating layers of thick skin and a sharp tongue. And Grant Stevenson is the token man of the team (as Robbie is on the front lines), scrawny, sickly, quiet, and with an understanding of the feminine that mystifies Tea.

(I will admit it here now, because NO ONE has guessed the Easter egg of Grant’s name; Grant and Robbie are AU pre-serum Steve Rogers and didn’t-get-Winter-Soldiered Bucky Barnes. And…KISS.)

Of course I was going to make this story queer. Very very queer. Queer all over the place. There were always queer people in the war and in rural areas. They ran risks to find each other, to be together, so as not to be so alone, and to show the way for others. Need and identity are forces just as magical and necessary as the shape shifting power than sits in my characters’ skins. Closeted queer hiding within an illegal system often have the ability to shift between the different parts of their identity with different people, sometimes so intuitively it seems like magic. These are stories that speak across generations. Queer oral history, books, and archiving are vitally important to preserve the fact that queers have always been here and you will not send us back to the darkest places.

The last theme I wanted to play with was a sensorium of New Zealand locations. My country is often culturally filtered at a second hand remove (Lord of the Rings), sweeping landscapes and sparse urban grit. I wanted the reader to smell the cold from the Southern Alps, feel the heat and dust of the nor’west wind, discover the ice-born chill of our streams and rivers, taste the humid green of the native bush, and feel the crunch of summer-brown pastures beneath their feet. This isn’t something a photograph, postcard, or a souvenir book can convey. It is something I work very hard on with each New Zealand based story I tell, my books trying to speak to and of the land.

From one book and generation to another. Translated from history to fantasy and delivered back to reality again. Stories speak to stories. The invisible is spoken and spoken and spoken again (as often as it takes, loud, soft, joyous and righteous and angry) into visibility. The Land Girls speaks to No Man’s Land. And maybe, hopefully, my book will speak to you, or another book, another story, another time, and continue the conversation.

—-

No Man’s Land: Amazon | Kobo | Apple Books | Barnes and Noble

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

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Five Things: June 9, 2020

Okay, let’s see what’s up in the world and with me today:

He pushed himself! A study in contrasts between the two men vying to be the president for the next term: Trump is suggesting the 75-year-old man who was injured whilst being abused by the Buffalo Police sorta, you know, made himself fall harder; Biden, on the other hand, gets applause for directly and sympathetically addressing George Floyd’s six-year-old daughter at Floyd’s funeral in Houston. One may be as cynical as one likes about Biden and his motivations for making at appearance (via video) at Floyd’s funeral, but honestly it’s refreshing to see someone on the presidential level who has the horse sense to read the moment. Remember when we had presidents who could do that? Seems so long ago now.

Bon Appétit and Refinery 29 editors gone: For wearing brownface and being a real jerk to minority staffers, respectively. I’ve seen relatively little hand-wringing about what this means, and whether white editors should be judged on racist things they did at some point in the past when they were still actually adults who should have known better; now doesn’t appear to be the time for that, strangely enough. Likewise, treating minority staff poorly (or allowing them to be treated poorly). The most I’ve heard is anxiousness about what this means for the Bon Appétit test kitchen videos, which apparently a large chunk of America has been self-medicating with during the quarantine. Apparently people who weren’t being paid for appearing in the videos will be paid now? Good.

Poll problems in Georgia: Shocked, shocked I am that people in Georgia, of all places, might have experienced difficulties in voting. I’d like to believe that this issue will be resolved before November, but I would also like to believe in butterscotch unicorns as well. You can say I’m a little skeptical about the state of voting in the United States right now. It’s not my number one political issue at the moment, but it’s up there in the top ten.

Lollapalooza cancelled: Which is not surprising but still makes for a sad moment in this particular Gen-Xer’s day. Fun fact: I attended the first Lollapalooza tour (back when it was a tour and not a festival) — outside Chicago, which is where it eventually ended up when it became a festival. I went to a few more installments after that, but as they say, you always remember your first. I specifically remember Nine Inch Nails tearing the roof off the place; they were third from the top of the bill and they made it hard for Siouxsie and the Banshees and Jane’s Addiction to top them. The Lollapalooza’s organizers promise to do something online and virtual this year, and I’m sure that it’ll be fine. But I think everyone will be happier if and when in person musical festivals come back.

A less than welcome summer first: Say hello to the first horsefly of the season, thankfully on the outside of the window screen:

In real life, this dude is roughly the size of my thumb, which means it’s pretty big. They’re nasty customers and they like to pick fights with my car as I’m heading down the driveway. I’m not entirely sure why; my Mini Countryman may be small, but it’s still exponentially larger than they are. They’ll be around through early September at least. Oh boy.

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Big Idea

The Big Idea: C. S. E. Cooney, Jessica P. Wick, Amanda J. McGee, Mike Allen

This Big Idea post for the collection A Sinister Quartet represents an actual record: The largest number of authors co-writing a single Big Idea piece. I’m going to get out of the way here and let them do their thing.

CSE COONEY, JESSICA P. WICK, AMANDA J. McGEE, MIKE ALLEN:

A Sinister Quartet pays tribute to the legacy of collections of dark fantasy and horror novellas like Stephen King’s Different Seasons, the main difference being it’s written by four authors rather than one. The book started life as a duet, with a notion that it might be published with two covers like one of those vintage Ace Doubles, but became a quartet in its final form. We the contributors (C. S. E. Cooney, Jessica P. Wick, Amanda J. McGee, Mike Allen) decided to interview each other about our Big Ideas in the order we appear in the book.

Okay, we start with Claire Cooney—why is your story structured using the language of cinema?

Claire: The idea for “The Twice-Drowned Saint” has been around for years. My first draft was mostly a tone of voice and a series of images—an angel with eleven eyes, a ritual sacrifice turned miracle, a jaded narrator awakening to the horrors and wonders of her world. Perhaps voice and image together meant “cinematic” to me, because in draft two, I began using the language of movies to help me pin the narrative to a specific place and time. I wanted a secondary fantasy world that was experiencing a timeline much like our early twentieth century. I wanted weird angels, sorcery, and fallen gods in conversation with global wars fought with modern weapons, the progression of silent film to talkies and technicolor, plus some really cool motorcycles.

I’m very happy that Mike sparked my deadline fuse and got this story burning again; I’ve never written four drafts of novel-length fiction in a mere four months before. It’s like nothing else I’ve ever attempted, but it also bows to some of my earliest published stories. There’s a sense of personal history here, of inward scope and infinite possibility, that, to me, is pretty breathtaking. And if I am wonderstruck, I hope my readers will be too.

So, Jess. The threat in “An Unkindness” seems to have its roots in a fairyland. Why fairyland?

Jess: First and foremost: Fairyland is my jam. There’s nothing so chilling as the amoral righteousness of fairyland. I grew up imbibing myth and folklore, pretending to bargain with fairies and kelpies who might steal me away—not because they wanted to hurt me in a mean way, but because that’s just what fairies do. There are rules to follow and break and obscure and follow and wield. Secondly, it was important to me the external threat feel beguiling but scary, that most readers—and Ravenna—would immediately judge it “bad.” I wanted a threat that could strike at the heart, because the heart is what I’m chiefly interested in. All of the characters in “An Unkindness” regard themselves as right and knowing best. But they can’t all be—can they? Fairyland is a place that can reveal, obscure, or both; it revels in moral quandaries and ambiguities while at the same time kind of telling us that, no, actually, there are True Things. What better origin for a threat?

Now to Amanda. Why a modern-day retelling of a fairytale?

Amanda: It’s funny you ask, because I originally conceived of this story as a Civil War era retelling. It was also going to be epistolary. So obviously the final story became something very different!

As for why a retelling—I think I’ve always been fascinated with how stories change in their adaptations, but I first really became conscious of how much things transform in adaptation when memorizing lyrics to “Black is the Color” which is an old folk song I first heard covered by Gaelic Storm. I was listening to a radio show on Gaelic and Appalachian music and they played an old Appalachian tune which was clearly derivative, but wildly different. Most of those changes had to do with cultural values evolving. So I wanted to see how a tale set in a different time might evolve and transform itself. Thus, eventually, “Viridian” was born as a modern-day piece. I plan to do a handful of other fairytale retellings in modern times because I really enjoy exploring them in this context. I hope that I’ll bring the true horror of fairytales home to modern readers in a way that’s true to their roots.

Mike, you’re last. Why do you keep writing creepy stories about buttons?

Mike: It’s not the buttons that keep me hooked, so to speak, so much as it is the notion of a predator that craves to learn your deepest, most unpleasant secrets and can assume your identity once it has done so. It just happens that when I was first struck by this idea, it was inextricably visually entwined with the image of a person’s skin being unbuttoned so the monster could access the prize inside, a metaphor literally made flesh. I’m somewhat surprised at how often I’m drawn to revisit this world and further chronicle the fates of the people who encounter these monsters, both those that escape and those that don’t.

My gamble (I admit it is one) is that my novella “The Comforter” (threequel to my horror tales “The Button Bin” and “The Quiltmaker”) is so bizarre that it doesn’t matter what you knew going in, thus it’s a standalone. There are other stories of mine it also ties into, for the first time codifying an “Allenverse,” fun for me but a hazardous place for its populace.

We’ve found that the four stories connect in unexpected ways, even though all were written independently. Shapeshifting of some sort happens in all four stories. The angels in Claire’s story and the monsters in Mike’s have in common chaotic, patchwork forms. Jess’s story has a fairytale feel, while Amanda’s retells a fairytale. Claire’s and Jess’s stories take place in secondary worlds, while Amanda’s and Mike’s are set in present day reality. All the stories have central relationships involving siblings, either familial or found. All use cultural references and genre tropes to set up expectations that then get walloped in the snozz.

Oh, and there’s cannibalism. Many varieties of cannibalism.

—-

A Sinister Quartet: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt.

The authors’ web sites: C. S. E. Cooney|Jessica P. Wick|Amanda J. McGee|Mike Allen

The authors’ Twitters: C. S. E. Cooney|Jessica P. Wick|Amanda J. McGee|Mike Allen

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Five Things: June 8, 2020

Well. Quiet weekend, huh? 

Here’s today’s five:

Defunding the police: It’s a catchy phrase, all right, and one designed to provoke outsized responses on the right and the left, and at least mild consternation for the people who don’t think they’re either on the right or the left. It’s a lot catchier than “Don’t make cops the people who have to handle every damn thing because we’ve defunded social programs and the experts who would do a better job with those issues and also don’t have guns to shoot people, let’s fund those programs with some of the money that we’ve given to the cops because we made them do all that stuff,” which as I understand it is closer to the generally accepted understanding of what “Defund the Police” means. There are other parts to it as well, so before you come into the comments to let me know that, please be aware that I do, but I’m trying to keep things short, here.

Interestingly and anecdotally, the little rural village I live in, Bradford, defunded the police a long time ago — when I moved here, Bradford had its own police force, and then several years ago the village decided to cut the force and contract with the county sheriff’s department for law enforcement, presumably to save money and/or reapportion that money to other village services. And what happened? Not much of anything, really. Crime didn’t go up, or if it did, not enough that I noticed. Mind you, I don’t imagine anyone here would call that “defunding the police,” even if that’s literally what it was. Whatever you call it, we did it, and it was… fine. Possibly this solution from the heartland could apply elsewhere.

Trump poll numbers are down: Which made my brain offer two contradictory thoughts, the first being well yeah, after that last week of his where else could they go, and the second being, who was left to support him but his base? But apparently there were some people left? Bless their hearts. It’s June and not November, so Trump loathers (of which, you should know by now, I am one) should not get in the least bit cocky. But yes, it’s not looking good at the moment. There’s a rumor that Trump is planning to speak this week on race and national unity. Well, that will do something for his poll numbers, I expect.

Local protests: In case you were curious if my own rural county had any protests this weekend, why yes, it did: Roughly 150 people in Greenville, the county seat. It went… pretty peacefully, apparently. 150 people doesn’t seem like a lot, but per capita, it would be like 30,000 people protesting in Los Angeles county, so when you put it in those terms, it’s a decent enough showing. And honestly, for a rural county that’s 98% white and went 78% for Trump in 2016, 150 people showing up for a Black Lives Matter protest is not insignificant. Good for them. Hopefully it was done in a responsibly socially distant manner.

Yes, Scalzi, but what did you do? Well:

I put some money down, on top of some money I had previously put down for other charitable organizations related to the protests, and the money I put into the GoFundMes for Uncle Hugo’s and DreamHaven. I have the money to give, so out it goes. Someone on Twitter was talking about lanes and protesting, as in, some people are in the “show up at a protest” lane, some people are in the “be loud with your words” lane, some other people are in the “get out your checkbook” lane and so on. All lanes are valid and you don’t have to be in every lane. I like that sentiment, and I’m good with the lanes I’ve chosen to be in.

Stop “Help”ing: Apparently in the wake of the current protests, The Help has become one of the most watched films on Netflix, as (presumably) white folks try to walk a mile in their African-American betheren’s shoes by watching a film about a white person, made by mostly white people, mostly for white people. Fortunately, The Help star Bryce Dallas Howard is here to be of assistance, with some film/tv suggestions centering on and by black people, to watch instead of The Help, or, at least, after one is done watching The Help. See, that’s actually being helpful.

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Big Idea

The Big Idea: Tim Major

When you have kids, it can really mess with your focus and ability to do things. But can it also be an inspiration? Ask Tim Major, who in this Big Idea for his novel Hope Island, has some thoughts on this very subject.

TIM MAJOR:

Probably, all new parents are entirely preoccupied with the act of parenting. Probably, it’s for the best. Becoming a parent rewires the brain, and the act of parenting distracts you constantly. Again, totally fair. You’ve taken charge of a lifeform singularly incapable of fending for itself. You’ve split your brain right down the middle. Half for you, half for something that has only just begun to exist.

I became a parent in 2013, the same year I began to take writing seriously. My first novella was written during my wife’s pregnancy and I began writing my first novel when my son was a few months old. Almost all of my writing has been grounded in this new status of parenthood, and my new novel, Hope Island, is the most explicitly connected to it yet.

It was a literary editor, Cyril Connolly, who commented: “There is no more sombre enemy of good art than the pram in the hall”. I don’t know his circumstances. Perhaps he had a really narrow hall, and kept his pens in one room and his paper in another, with the pram blocking access between them. And his statement isn’t true, anyway. I tell myself often that it’s not true. The pram in the hall is significant, obviously. Children are wild and cruel and they care little about their parents’ ambitions – but becoming a parent can provide motivation rather than sap it. It can force you to channel your available time.

When I became a parent it was soon clear that carving out time to write would be harder. So I dropped other activities, and carved out the time. I conjured new ideas on the commute to work and wrote them up in the half-hour before my colleagues arrived. I didn’t get around to writing. Instead, I just wrote. I allowed my writing to be shitty. I would tidy it up later. I told myself there would be a ‘later’, when my presence of mind would return, and eventually there was. When my second son was born, I resigned from my job and started a freelance editorial business, and so then all four of us were almost always in the house, often laughing together, often clawing at the walls. I still wrote but I don’t know how or when I did so. Everything of that period remains a blur. My wife and I divided our days right down the middle, tagging in and out of childcare and work, passing each other in the corridor, sidestepping the pram in the hall.

These are all practicalities, but something else happens to your mind when you become a parent. I can’t tell you what. I write stories to figure it out. Becoming a parent scrunches up your identity and when it’s finally unscrunched, it’s different. There are holes in it, and crayon doodles on it.

Whenever I sit at my attic desk to write, temporarily free of my responsibilities towards my children, they are still on my mind. I love being a father, but I worry about that not being the case. What if one day I found myself resenting my children? What if things had been different, and I had resented them from the beginning?

When I was planning Hope Island, the thought of writing about creepy children in a remote community seemed just one of those ideas, those tropes with which everyone is allowed to play. I relished its heritage, from John Wyndham’s The Midwich Cuckoos onwards. Now it seems ridiculous to imagine that I chose the subject arbitrarily. In my novel, a British mother and her teen daughter, who are already out on a limb on a tiny island off the coast of Maine, struggle due to the tensions between them as much as the terrifying circumstances they face. Hope Island is about my newest fear, now that my children have survived infancy – the fear of a failure to communicate with them as they grow older. In the novel, Nina only reluctantly became a mother to begin with, and she has no support from her absent partner, and the visit to the island represents her last-ditch attempt to reconnect with her daughter.

Hope Island has its fair share of speculative elements, and its fair share of scares. There are ethereal cave songs and uncanny archaeological finds and silent, murderous children. But as far as I’m concerned, the most horrific element is the straining and breaking of the relationship between a parent and child, a daughter drifting away to join an impenetrable group – and, worst of all, a mother who fears losing her child but, equally, fears keeping her, uncertain of her own parental love.

I’ve tested my attitude to parenthood by writing about differing ones, but I’m still afraid about not being the right kind of father to my two sons. It’ll take more years of parenthood, and more years of writing about parenthood, to figure it out.

—-

Hope Island: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

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Uncategorized

Thinking More on #PublishingPaidMe

Over on Twitter right now, there’s an active hashtag called #PublishingPaidMe, in which writers are divulging their book advances, in part to see if there are systematic biases against writers of color and other marginalized groups. Well, my last major book deal is literally public knowledge, and I didn’t see that there was much downside in discussing what I got paid for my other novels prior to that, so I participated:

I also noted that these are just the advances for the print/ebook novels, and don’t include things like advances on audiobook or foreign language versions, or cover what I get for film/TV options and other ancillary rights. The figures above are roughly chronological, in terms of what I got when I sold my books, but I’ll note that I contracted for some books I did not write, and then later attached other books to those contracts.

In the service of hopefully being of further use to the discussion about advances, I will now add some more thoughts here.

1. First off, generally speaking, and for those who don’t know: an advance is usually a sum the publisher estimates an author would make from the book in the first year or so of publication, based off their own experience, the previous sales of an author (if any), and sales of similar books/authors in the market, and wild guessing. So, for example, when Tor offered me an advance of $6,500 for Old Man’s War, they were factoring in a) that I was a debut author with no track record in science fiction, b) the current sales of military science fiction at the time, c) that I had already published it on my Web site so that might have an impact on sales, d) etc.

It’s also worth noting that book advances are generally low across the board. I’ve noted before the average advance for a science fiction novel is something like $12,500. That’s for all novels, not debuts.

2. It’s not (necessarily) a bad thing to have a small advance, nor is an advance (necessarily) all you will make from a book. To be sure, for most books, the advance is all you’ll see out of it — because publishers generally do a decent job of knowing their market, and almost all sales of books come in their first year of publication.

But some books earn out their advances through sales, and generate other income via options, foreign publication and so on. Old Man’s War earned out and has been a steady seller for 15 years, is published in more than two dozen languages, has been optioned for film and TV and so on. All told I’ve probably earned in the seven figures from it (so far), beyond that original $6.5k advance. To be clear, this is not the usual path for a novel — again, the advance is often all a writer sees for their work — but sometimes one gets lucky, either from a breakout hit, or from solid, steady sales of backlist titles over years and years.

(For another perspective on this, please see this Twitter thread from NK Jemisin; it’s useful and edifying.)

3. Looking above at my novel advances, I see four distinct eras in them:

Debut: The $6.5k and $2k advances, signed when I was brand new and no one knew what would happen;

Developing: The $13.5k, $25k, and $35k contracts, after Old Man’s War hit commercially and critically and Tor realized there was possible headroom to my career, but I was still building an audience;

Established: The $100k and $115k contracts, when I had hit the bestseller lists, won awards, and had a series (Old Man’s War) that was spinning off serious money;

Franchise: The $3.4M deal, when Tor decided to go all in and lock me up long-term, both to continue momentum in new releases and to extract value out of my profitable backlist.

The thing is, in each of these eras, I can’t really argue with what I was paid in terms of advances. Bear in mind that by the time I sold Old Man’s War, I was already a published author and had been writing professionally for more than a decade, so I knew the business and had some inkling why I was getting paid what I was, and whether what I was getting paid was reasonable considering market factors. Would I have liked to have gotten more for OMW in advance? Sure, who wouldn’t? But I didn’t think the sum I was offered was unfair (and to his credit, when my editor Patrick Nielsen Hayden was sounding me out about acquiring the novel, he informed me that the advance he would offer would be a “not life-changing amount of money.” He was right, at least at first).

On the flip side of this, that $3.4M deal is not unreasonable either, because at the point the deal was done, I was hitting bestseller lists, winning awards, and, most importantly, backlisting like a monster; in other words, making my publisher lots and lots of money. The deal was commensurate to that track record and structured to support the shape of my career at that time and how we expected (hoped) for it to go from there. So far, so good, on that score.

In all cases, the advances, whatever the sum, were more or less rationally based on the market and where I was in it. Hold that thought, I’m gonna come back to the issue of “the market,” but before that:

4. Caveats! First, I do think it’s important, when looking to compare advances, and especially in the case of my advances, to make sure you’re taking those “eras” above into consideration. If you’re a debut author, don’t be looking at the $3.4 million deal, be looking at the $6,500 one I got for my first published novel (for the purposes of clarification, that deal would be worth about $9,250 in 2020 dollars).

Second, I am fortunate — and unusual — in that my novel-writing career has been, to date, almost all upswing. I haven’t had a novel flop and I haven’t had setbacks happen that have notably stalled my career momentum, things like a publisher going under or personal issue keeping me from writing and selling. It does mean, however, that the progression of my advances is unrepresentative to a significant degree.

Third, I am also unusual in that I started my novel-writing career when I was already making six figures annually, writing other things. Which meant that early low advances weren’t an imposition to me; I wasn’t starving. Also it meant that I could say no to things I didn’t want to do or that I thought were bad deals for me. I got to pick and choose in a way other newer writers often couldn’t — and I would pick and choose, which was something the people I was doing business with understood. It cut down on the amount of bullshit I had to tolerate, in terms of contracts (and consequently, advances).

5. Also, with respect to science fiction genre publishing, and “the market” (see, I told you I’d come back to this), let’s not elide certain things here. It’s easy to say “the market” as if it’s some objective thing the publishing industry stands outside of, rather than a thing it significantly helps to make, through its choices in terms of what to publish and also what it decides to promote. When I was published into the science fiction field in 2005, I was benefiting from the fact that the genre had catered to the tastes and worldview of people like me (white, straight, male, nerdy) for decades. Also I had consciously and with specific intent written my debut novel to aim at the very center of that white, straight, male, nerdy demographic: I wrote a military science fiction novel. When it hit, it was easy to continue in that mode (and I have), and easy to sell and market me in the genre (which Tor has).

Did I and Tor take advantage of the structural biases of the science fiction genre to sell books and make money? Oh, my, yes, we did. And have done a pretty good job of it, too. As with so many things, I can’t pretend that being what I am (a straight white dude) didn’t offer me systematic advantages, which I was then happy to take and use. I was not guaranteed to succeed — trust me — but once that ball was rolling, the path was easier for me than some others who have similar talents, both as writers and as people who can market their writing. Yes, I work my ass off, and write stuff that people want to read and buy. Also the genre was designed across decades for someone like me, and the novels I write, to thrive in it. All of this — my talent, my work, and the biases of the genre — are reflected in my advances.

6. I don’t feel guilty about any of the above (guilt is rarely one of my pressable buttons, psychologically speaking), but I’m not going to pretend these structural biases aren’t there, either. As a moral human being and working writer, I have an obligation to help expand opportunity, both in the genres of science fiction and fantasy and in publishing in general, and to promote other voices — and to support equitable advances for everyone. This is not, shall we say, an onerous task. Philosophically it aligns to my personal interests, and as a reader I like having more things to read which are not just things I’ve read before, which necessarily means paying writers well enough to write those stories. So, not onerous. But it is a thing.

7. I think it’s important to see the limitations of a self-selecting Twitter hashtag in terms of being an accurate representation of author advances across genres and author demographics. I also think it’s important that writers talk about what they’re paid and how and by whom. One thing that’s popped up in these discussions is an acknowledgement that some authors are now contractually bound not to discuss their advances; I think that’s both ridiculous and dangerous, and something writers should push back on, hard. Silence is not our friend here. To that end, #PublishingPaidMe has been significant, and useful.

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Uncategorized

Spam Filtering Note

In the last couple of days I’ve been getting emails from folks asking if I’m moderating people more than usual and/or have revoked people’s posting status. The answer: Nope — but it does appear the site’s spam filter is being unusually aggressive recently, and comments have been getting kicked into the spam folder.

That being the case, two things: One, I’ll keep a closer eye on the spam filter for the next several days to see if there are errant posts there, which should help. Two, it’s a fine time for everyone, especially newer commenters, to check in with the comment policy for the site, to remind themselves of the general rules of the road here.

I have noticed comments becoming more immoderate recently; this is understandable given the state of the nation and planet, and tempers are shorter than they might otherwise be (mine certainly is). But that also means that the spam and moderation filters, trained for over a decade on my own idiosyncratic moderation policies, are flicking things into the spam filter before I see them. What can I say, my spam filter is a harsh moderator.

In any event, I’ll keep an eye out, and in the meantime reaquaint yourself with the comment policy and try to play nice with others in the comment threads. We’ll get this sorted soon enough.

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Uncategorized

New Books and ARCs 6/5/20

Right on time for the first weekend in June, a brand new stack of new books and ARCs for your perusal. What here is calling to be added to your “to be read” pile? Share your thoughts in the comments.

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Uncategorized

Five Things: June 5, 2020

Here’s today’s five for you:

It’s a police riot: Or so Jamelle Bouie says in the New York Times, and there’s certainly been enough evidence in the last week to show that the police working the protests aren’t exactly treating the folks protesting the death of George Floyd with the same tender care and respect as they treat, say, a bunch of white dudes with semi-automatics screaming about their desire for a haircut. Greg Doucette has been collecting up video of the police in various places not exactly keeping order; currently he’s above 300, which makes it difficult for even the most persistent “#NotAllPolice” to keep finding excuses for them all. Or as Kumail Nanjiani notes:

I’ve written before about how and why it is I don’t fear the police, and indeed usually feel they are serving me well. But I also know that lack of fear, and positive experience with them, is strongly rooted in my whiteness, and that my lived experience isn’t the lived experience of so many of the people I know and care about. As Kumail notes, what’s happening now is lot of other people who like me have gotten the benefit of being on the white side of policing, are getting their faces rubbed into fact that policing is systematically racist and also concerned with its own perpetuation. All these videos, at least, make it much harder for police to argue against the first of those.

(Plus now the police have pissed off journalists by going after them, too. Yeah, that’s going to be remembered by the press for a long time, folks.)

Is Trump losing the evangelicals? Lol, I’ll tell you what, I’ll believe that when we get the exit polling in November and it shows either some significantly larger percentage of evangelicals voting Democratic (which I find deeply unlikely), or just staying home because they can’t bear to vote for Trump a second time (somewhat more likely, but still deeply unlikely). I suspect evangelical disapproval of Trump is like Susan Collins’ disapproval, i.e., a scrunching of the face to express concern, and then voting exactly the way Trump wants her to. Evangelicals have hitched their wagon to Trump; I suspect he’s going to run them right off a cliff. They will deserve it if he does.

Cate Blanchett vs. a Chainsaw: The result may surprise you! (Spoiler: It won’t. She’s fine. If she had done herself a serious harm, you wouldn’t be hearing it from me first, now, would you.) Personally Ms. Blanchett’s misadventure just reconfirms my general choice to avoid all serious machinery. I know my dexterity stats, and I want to keep all my limbs if at all possible (and also my head).

Space Force and trademarks: Okay, this is interesting to me — Netflix has beaten the United States government to trademarking the term “space force” around the world and the ramifications of that are discussed in the linked article. Like the writer of the article, I don’t suspect people are going to confuse the show with the military branch, but if I walk around with a Space Force t-shirt, someone might reasonably wonder if I’m promoting the show or showing enthusiasm for the military. I personally would have thought the government would have dealt with that, but then again, I was also surprised that Paramount hadn’t trademarked the term “Redshirt,” thus giving me free rein to use it for my book. So, I don’t know. Maybe I expect too much out of large organizations as regards their potential intellectual property.

The UK version of The Last Emperox has arrived at The Scalzi Compound. Here it is with its US sibling:

My UK edition is a trade paperback, because apparently that’s how I sell over there, which is, you know, fine. Whatever works, is my motto. Soon I’ll start getting copies of the various foreign language editions (well, soonish — it takes a while for translations and scheduling and so on). In case you’re wondering, no, it never gets old, seeing books with your name on them. Because you’re the author, I mean. Anyone can scribble their name on a book, you just need a Sharpie for that. But being there because you’re the author — hits a little different, as the kids say.

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Uncategorized

DreamHaven Books & Comics Fundraiser

A couple of days ago I posted about the fundraiser for Uncle Hugo’s, the science fiction bookstore that was razed to the ground last week during the protests in Minneapolis. At the same time, another science fiction bookstore, DreamHaven Books & Comics, took damage as well, although fortunately not as much. Nevertheless, damage was done, it was real, and DreamHaven owner Greg Ketter has set up a GoFundMe to help offset some of the costs.

Here’s the link to the DreamHaven GoFundMe. Check it out and if it’s something you can support, that would be great.

(And here’s the Uncle Hugo’s GoFundMe link again, just in case you missed it the first time.)

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