Big Idea

The Big Idea: Kester Grant

A dash of history, a pinch of literary invention, and a soupçon of imagination — all of these combine in The Court of Miracles to create author Kester Grant’s new novel. She’s here now to tell you how all these ingredients came together.


As I left the cinema after seeing Disney’s latest Jungle Book movie, I was mulling over the plot’s premise: young vulnerable man-cub is adopted into a dangerous jungle of wild animals. The jungle is ruled by a strict hierarchy, and the man-cub must adapt to the animals’ way of life and navigate his way among them.

Then it struck me—if you remove the words animal, jungle, and man-cub, that’s exactly the same premise as Oliver Twista young, naïve boy is adopted into a dangerous criminal world. . . .

Marveling at previously unseen threads of commonality, my brain grabbed the next link in the chain, this time from my favorite classic, Les Misérablesyoung, naïve Cosette is left to the charge of the criminal Thénardier and his gang of murderous burglars.

In Victor Hugo’s masterpiece, Cosette is soon rescued by the fugitive Jean Valjean and given a life of safety and comfort. Yet the aspect I had found so compelling in The Jungle Book and Oliver Twist was the characters learning to navigate the dangerous new society. I started to compose a story in which Cosette is thrust into a larger criminal society, and I didn’t have to look much further for more ideas than Hugo’s second most popular work, The Hunchback of Notre-Dame.

In Paris in the 1600s, a large portion of the population was wretchedly poor. Begging, thievery, and prostitution were rife. The slum districts were known as the “Courts of Miracles” because of the cynical belief that beggars, who faked injuries to gain more alms, could relax their roles there and were thus “miraculously” healed. A popular Parisian urban legend states that in these slums, criminals, migrants, and unwanted people had formed an organized criminal society. Although historically untrue, Hugo adopted these ideas, presenting them as a part of the world of Hunchback.

The underground criminal society, the titular “Miracle Court” of my debut book, came full circle back to The Jungle Book. I extrapolated the animal clans and their customs and strict laws onto a world of criminals, divided into guilds according to crime: Assassins, Thieves, Beggars, Prostitutes . . . I wove the strict rules and hierarchies that they would live by.

But it didn’t seem enough to have them simply exist. I also wanted to create a feeling of rich, layered otherness for the Miracle Court. So I researched countercultures: how they are formed and what makes them different. Our day-to-day language and expressions, our western curses and oaths, and our celebrations and customs often stem from religion or historical events that form our cultural identities.

The first Parisian police chief, Gabriel Nicolas de la Reynie, was tasked with eradicating with the city’s crime problem. He achieved his goal by clearing out the slums, arresting anyone found within no matter whether they had committed a crime. This included the imprisonment and institutionalization of many poor, foreign, and unwanted members of society (the disabled and the sick), as well as a vast swath of criminals. I made this event the birthplace of my Miracle Court, adding Paris’s long history of violent persecution of religious and ethnic minorities to de la Reynie’s purge. I posited that within the dark walls of the city’s prisons, the Wretched, who had been displaced, killed, and institutionalized, formed an underground society in order to protect each other against their powerful enemies.

One of Europe’s oldest folktales is the ballad of Ysengrim the wolf and his long war against the wily fox Rennart. With the Miracle Court’s “birth” in place, I wove a mythology that served as the basis for their counter-society. I created a brother for de la Reynie and had him stand against the purges and so get swept up in them, losing his family, title, and position in de la Reynie’s quest to clean up the city. De la Reynie became Ysengrim the boar, and his brother, Rennart the fox.

Thus, the Wretched don’t curse by the devil but rather say, “Ysengrim take you!” In the mythology of their people’s origin, Ysengrim is the true villain. When surprised they cry “Rennart’s eyes!”—Rennart being one of their founding fathers. When they gather, each member of the court bears a candle in memory of the darkness of the prisons where their people first came together. All their laws are also created to preserve and protect their society. Their Guild of Letters—devoted to spying and white-collar crime—does not exist solely for illegal profit but also to create a vast library of knowledge that might enable them to safely neutralize any of the Miracle Court’s enemies and thereby protect their people.

In order to make Paris a city thick with paranoia and conspiracy, I took one turn from historical truth by having the French Revolution come close to succeeding, but ultimately failing. The leaders heads were mounted on pikes outside the royal palace, and the paranoid nobility was left ever watchful for any signs of further uprising. To this I added another other urban legend of the era—the idea that the nobility was poisoning the city’s wells to keep the numbers of the poor down in order to prevent uprisings. I wove this into the story as fact. Thus, setting up deeply entrenched factions within the city—the nobility who were almost overthrown by the failed revolution had seen the violent retribution the poor would have subjected them to. The Wretched, who knew they could trust neither the nobility nor the average Parisian, formed their own society to protect themselves and the man on the street, some of whom believed in the cause of the revolution.

Into this murky jungle of opposing factions, comes one little girl: Cosette, along with her Bagheera-like mentor Eponine “Nina” Thénardier, Black Cat of the Thieves Guild. The two of them are caught between these societies at odds with each other.


The Court of Miracles: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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


Five Things: June 4, 2020

It’s only June 4, y’all. Here’s today’s five:

James Mattis stabs Trump in the eye: And courageously says what everyone already knows, which is that Trump is awful and divisive and wants to use the military on American civilians so he can feel big and tough.  And yes, I’m giving Mattis a bit of stick here — his insight here is not, shall we say, a new or surprising one — but it does matter that Trump’s former Secretary of Defense is saying it and that in doing so, he’s giving cover for other military folks to come forward and say the same thing (usually when retired). And it has at least put up a roadblock for Trump siccing the military on civilians without pushback, so that’s something. And of course Trump’s petulant response on Twitter takes him look even smaller, if possible. On that score: Mission accomplished, General Mattis.

New York Times writers revolt over Tom Cotton’s op-ed: You know, the one where he, like the good soldier he is, supported Trump’s position on unleashing the military on civilians to make President Trump feel big and strong. I would say that Cotton, a graduate of Harvard Law and a former US Army captain with a Bronze Star, should know better, but if the (heh) cogent example of Ted Cruz shows us anything, being educated and knowledgable takes a back seat when lickspittlery, and early positioning for a presidential run, is involved. At the very least Mattis’ comments stuffed Cotton’s op-ed into the trash where it belongs.

I’m not personally as outraged as others are about the Times publishing the Cotton piece because I think one of the purposes of the op-ed pages are to let people make fools of themselves in public so you can’t say later on that you didn’t know who they showed themselves to be. However, I also acknowledge I am a straight white dude who isn’t out protesting — or reporting on the protests — in an era where the police have declared open season on both protestors and journalists. I’m perfectly happy to cede that I’m probably not the one to be listening to on this particular matter. There’s the theory of how op-ed pages work, and there’s a practical matter of what effect an op-ed will have in the real world. The NYT journalists are rather reasonably concerned about the latter.

It’s hot and humid and our air conditioning is on the fritz: Because of course it is, why wouldn’t it be. The diagnostic guy was here and apparently our outside unit is leaking coolant and they won’t be able to fix it until a week from today, and between now and then we have a bunch of days in the mid/high 80s and low 90s, with humidity to go along with it. This is not great, and also a reminder that the vast majority of humanity had to live without air conditioning and I honestly don’t know how they managed. I wouldn’t do it. Heat sucks. Heat with humidity sucks the will to live.

2020 Time Travel: The first one, which came out a little over a month ago, has comedian Julie Nolke visiting her January self from April. The second one (which came out earlier today) has her April self visited by her June self. Both are worth your time, but if you have to pick just one to watch, watch the second. You’ll have enough context to go on.

When you’ve lost The Rock, you’ve lost America. Yeah, even Dwayne Johnson is all “WTF, dude” anymore. Did I mention it’s just June 4? 26 more days of June, folks. We’re gonna feel them all, looks like.

Big Idea

The Big Idea: Jeremy Szal

War changes people, and in Stormblood, some wars change people more. Author Jeremy Szal is here today to explain how, and why.


Blood is thicker than water. Does that still apply when your blood is infused with alien DNA?

Let me explain.

The central idea for Stormblood is that a far-flung, interstellar society has began injecting humans with stormtech, the DNA of an extinct alien race. This biotechnology fuses with a person’s muscles, nervous system, bloodstream, ultimately making them permanently addicted to adrenaline and aggression. So when an interstellar war broke out, they shot their soldiers up with this untested, unknown alien DNA, turning them into Reapers: living bioweapons with super-strength and enhanced abilities, literally addicted to their own body chemistry and literally addicted to killing. When Reapers were dumped on the frontlines, the outcome was inevitable. The war was won. The galaxy’s saved.

Except, it wasn’t.

Because these Reapers who’ve been jammed back into a society they no longer recognize still have an alien organism kicking around inside their bodies, demanding adrenaline, demanding danger and demanding prey. Because stormtech has leaked onto the drug market, with millions of citizens addicted. Because there’s now a drug epidemic spreading across the galaxy.

Of course, that’s only half the idea.

I’m interested in the personal, intimate side of my characters. Their relationships. How the stormtech changes that. Which is why I wrote Vakov Fukasawa, my protagonist, in first-person. He’s a broken, wreck of a man who’s desperately trying to do the right thing, even when it hurts. The only way he and his Artyom survived growing up on a backwater planet with an abusive father was by leaning on each other, by showing love and support in their darkest hours. And when Vakov left his brother behind to become a Reaper, that same sense of kinship was transferred to his squadmates. How they were the only people who understood what it’s like to have an alien organism sniffing up your backbone and into your skull. How you got excited when enemy gunfire started chewing your cover away.

Stormblood isn’t set in wartime, but through character, I used it to build upon the central themes of loyalty and brotherhood. How friendship helped these men and women stand together against this terrible darkness. How the desire to do right by the people you love is the most human thing you can do, even when you’ve got a non-human organism twitching in your flesh, your blood, your sweat. These soldiers aren’t just fighting a war; they’re fighting for their humanity. And the battle only became winnable when they stood side by side. I’ve always loved the tropes of a found family, forged by trauma, bonding as they march through hell and back together, so I transferred that passion to my protagonist.

But it doesn’t end there, of course. Because when the war’s over, Vakov is enraged to discover that his former squadmates slowly being killed off, deliberately overdosed by their own body chemistry, and knows he has to find out whoever’s doing it.

Only, the prime suspect is his first brother: Artyom.

I said earlier that I’m interested in the personal and intimate side of stories. I want to get close to the bone, into that little vulnerable area in the heart where things really hurt. And for it to be real, I need to put a bit more than is comfortable on the page. Friendship and brotherhood and loyalty are everything to Vakov, because they’re everything to me. In the war, Vakov promised he’d do right by his Reaper brothers, as they would for him. But he promised he’d protect Artyom, too.

I’d be lying if I said I didn’t pour myself into Vakov, his heart slowly tearing as he struggles to navigate his loyalties as a brother, a Reaper, and the friends that help him investigate the murder. I allowed Vakov’s emotional arc to drive the narrative, and the more time I spent in his body and head, the more surprised I was by the themes that developed on the page, and how much they meant to me. Not least of all seeing how he emotionally adapts to his body as the danger ramps up, becoming more and more aggressive, to the point where he’s afraid of hurting the people he cares about most. Whether he’s ever in control, if the alien organism’s been manipulating him this whole time.

And keeping that balance wasn’t easy. Not only is Vakov a soldier, he’s bursting with an alien organism that plays havoc with everything from his sweat and saliva to his taste buds and mood swings. That, and he’s got the patience of a cocaine-addled fruit-fly with ADHD. Not sure it’s much of a surprise when I say he doesn’t like playing by the rules. Or listening to authority. Or taking the procedural route. So, when interrogating an alien drug dealer, Vakov’s more inclined to skewer the creature’s face with his fist than have a talk. But afterwards when his friends rub him the wrong way, he’s got to literally force myself not to hurt them. Mapping out Vakov’s internal struggle as he forces himself not to tear apart anyone and anything that rubs him the wrong way was difficult, but it was fun. It also let me get away with some very morbid humour.

Stormblood is a space opera wrapped up in a murder mystery, but it would be nothing without the emotional core of the narrative. What we owe to each other. How the war to maintain your humanity and empathy is a never-ending one. How when we feel broken and worthless, brotherhood and love can pick us up, can make us want to always do better. Putting my characters through hell and making these important to them showed me what’s important to me. I guess I’m saying that parts of this book are autographical. Because, at the end of the day, that’s why we consume stories, right? To see ourselves on the page, broken and messy and utterly human, having wild adventures while trying to figure ourselves out, trying to do the best we can?

Maybe that’s why we write them, too.


Stormblood: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Book Depository

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


Five Things: June 3, 2020

Let’s get to today’s five, shall we?

Hey, did you remember that there’s a presidential campaign going on? Well there is, and seven states and the District of Columbia even had primaries yesterday. Not that you would know it from the front pages of the news sites, I had to dig deep, deeeep into the New York Times site to find all of yesterday’s results. Part of that is that the world’s on fire, and part of that is also that at this point it’s a cakewalk for Biden, who will officially clinch the Democratic nomination next week with the Georgia and West Virginia primaries. But still, it’s very odd to be in an election year where the presidential campagin feels like an afterthought at best.

Hit the road, Steve King: It’s an indication of how weird a year 2020 is that while I had to dig for the delegate counts from last night, the news of US Representative Steve King, Iowa’s notorious racist fucknugget, losing his primary race, was splashed all over the place. And of course, it is delightful news, as King is a loose bag of hate and unearned superiority, shambling about in a vaguely human form. Liberals should enjoy their delightful moment of schadenfreude now, since Randy Feenstra, who won the GOP primary over King (and will likely win the general in November), is unlikely to vote any differently than King has in the House, he’s just probably smart enough not to spout explicitly racist words over a live mic and then be flummoxed why anyone should think that’s a problem. But yes! Enjoy it now! And best of luck to King in his next endeavor, which will probably be as a columnist for the Federalist or something else similarly egregious.

I put on pants today. First time in a month! More or less. The reason for the occasion is that I actually left the house and went into the world, because I had a dental appointment. Turns out I need a crown (which I knew) and I also have a cavity (which I did not know, but I’m honestly not all that surprised about). So I’ll be going back to the dentist’s in a couple of weeks. I will put on pants then, too. Pants between now and then? We will see, but I wouldn’t get your hopes up.

Bill & Ted congratulate the Class of 2020 at San Dimas High School. This just warms my heart. I’ve mentioned this before but I’ll mention it again: I lived in San Dimas during my high school, in fact right across the street from the water park. I did not go to San Dimas High School, but I still feel mighty pleased that this little town has been immortalized by two of Gen X’s most notable fictional characters. Much of “San Dimas” in the film was filmed elsewhere, but I can say that indeed there is a Circle K there. And strange things were indeed often afoot.

And now, what you’ve been waiting for, the Ant Situation Update: I’ve seen a couple of stragglers, but that’s it, so I’m going to go ahead and declare victory, and also credit Febreeze with the MVP role for totally wiping out the pheromone trails and otherwise sowing fear and confusion in the Formicidal ranks. Mind, they may just be regrouping. But I’ll have the ant traps here today or tomorrow. I’ll be ready for any counterattack (or any attack on my counters). These days we take our wins where we can.

Big Idea

The Big Idea: Robert J. Sawyer

Hugo and Nebula Award-winning author Robert J. Sawyer has gone “back to the future” with his newest novel The Oppenheimer Alternative. But why does he go back at all — and back to this particular Great Man of History? Sawyer is here to explain it all.


It’s been obvious since the days of Hugo Gernsback that science fiction could be set in the future, and that’s the standard mode today.

And the field’s progenitors ably demonstrated that science fiction could be set in the present: consider Mary Shelley with her Frankenstein, notably subtitled “The Modern Prometheus,” not the “Futuristic” one, and H.G. Wells with such works as The War of the Worlds and The Invisible Man.

But, except for those stories employing time travel or alternate history as their central conceit, rarely has science fiction been set in the past.

I’d spent most of the last decade publishing big-ideas hard-SF set in the present day—from Wake through to Quantum Night—but wanted a new challenge, and found myself drawn to the rarely trod path of setting an honest-to-goodness hard-SF novel in the days of yore.

But who or what to write about? Well, although J. Robert Oppenheimer will forever be praised or damned as “the father of the atomic bomb,” prior to becoming scientific director of the Manhattan Project he was doing research in astrophysics. In fact, it was he, along with his grad student Hartland Snyder, who first proposed what we now call black holes.

Now, yes, others have written fiction about the Manhattan Project, but most of them took the easy way out by having their main character either be wholly fictitious or, if real, so obscure that he or she might as well be.

I set myself the challenges not just of putting Oppenheimer (one of the few Manhattan Project figures who never wrote an autobiography) front and center, but also of having every other character in the book be a well-known real person.

See, normally, a novelist has a get-out-of-jail-free card. When a reader grouses “I don’t think this character would do that,” the writer can reply, quite truthfully, “Actually, I’m the world’s foremost expert on that character and I assure you she would.”

But with a cast consisting entirely of famous people who have been explored in multiple biographies, have been studied in depth by historians, and are still vividly remembered by many alive today, I had to cheerfully concede that I was not now and never would be the world’s leading authority on any of them.

Still, I wanted to make sure that my portrayals—not just of Oppie but also of Edward Teller, Leo Szilard, I.I. Rabi, Richard Feynman, Enrico Fermi, Kurt Gödel, Freeman Dyson, Albert Einstein, General Leslie R. Groves, and Wernher von Braun, among others—passed muster with the true experts.

And I didn’t want to tell an alternate history. That is, I didn’t want to say, well, sure, you can gainsay me until this page—the point of divergence—but after that, anything goes. Rather, I decided to tell a secret history: a series of plausible events that were, in themselves, authentic big-ideas hard SF, and have them occur in the lacunae in the public record. I wanted no one to be able to say, “Okay, that was fun, but of course it never happened.”

The more I dug into the research, the more obvious it became that there really was something major beyond what the public record shows of that period.

Deak Parsons, Oppie’s second-in-command at the Manhattan Project’s Los Alamos Lab, concurred. He told colleagues, concerning Oppie being cut off from classified information after the war, that even President Eisenhower was in the dark about the truth:

“I have to put a stop to it. Ike has to know what’s really going on. This is the biggest mistake the United States could make!” Unfortunately for him—and damn near as much for Oppie—Parsons died the next day of a heart attack before speaking to the president.

Even Freeman Dyson, Oppie’s great post-war colleague at the Institute for Advance Study, who died this year at the age of 96, felt Oppie was hiding something:

“As a direct result of Oppenheimer’s work, we now know that black holes have played and are playing a decisive part in the evolution of the universe. He lived for twenty-seven years after the discovery, never spoke about it, and never came back to work on it. Several times, I asked him why he did not come back to it. He never answered my question, but always changed the conversation to some other subject.”

Indeed, as Oppie himself declared, “There is a story behind my story. If a reporter digs deep enough he will find that it is a bigger story than my [security-clearance] suspension.” My goal was to tell that bigger story, and to make it one that could only be portrayed in the science-fiction genre.

Oppie has always been an enigmatic character: nonfiction books about him have titles as conflicting as Oppenheimer: The Tragic Intellect (by Charles Thorpe) and The Hope and Vision of J. Robert Oppenheimer (by Michael A. Day), as well as the on-the-nose Oppenheimer: Portrait of an Enigma (by Jeremy Bernstein). But that just made it all the more enticing to crawl inside his thundering brain and try to see things from his point of view.

I’ve often said my favorite science-fiction novel is Gateway by the late, great Frederik Pohl, in part because Pohl never cared whether his main character, Robinette Broadhead, was likable but only whether he’d been portrayed with raw psychological truth.

In Oppie, history handed me a similarly flawed person—one that just happened to be an erstwhile astrophysicist who went on to change the world for all time—and I hope I’ve done him justice in The Oppenheimer Alternative.


The Oppenheimer Alternative: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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


Uncle Hugo’s Fundraiser + Editorial Note

First things first: Uncle Hugo’s, the venerable Minneapolis science fiction bookstore, was burned down last week (along with Uncle Edgar’s, the next-door mystery bookstore). Almost immediately a GoFundMe was set up, but it wasn’t endorsed by Don Blyly, the owner of the bookstores. The GoFundMe has since been taken over by the Blyly family, who has made it the official GoFundMe for the stores, with an eye toward using the funds for rebuilding the bookshops.

I’ve done signings at Uncle Hugo’s and I know how important the store has been for fandom in Minneapolis and Minnesota, and am heartsick that some foolish (or malign) person set it alight. If the store was important to you, or if independent bookstores are important to you in general, for what they do for their communities and for readers, considering contributing to this GoFundMe. Again, it’s controlled by the Blyly family, so the money raised here will go to Don and to the stores. Check it out, and thank you.


Second things second: I got an email today about the Uncle Hugo’s GoFundMe, one of several I’ve gotten over the last few days. I was aware of the GoFundMe and have been for several days, but I was also aware that it was originally set up by a third party, whose association to the store and its owner were unknown to me. I wasn’t going to point to a GoFundMe I didn’t know was endorsed and supported by the store or its owner, and I knew Don Blyly was thinking of doing his own fundraising effort. I held off and then I got busy. When this most recent email showed up, I clicked over to see if the GoFundMe was the one that Blyly was planning to set up. It turned out it was the original GoFundMe, but the Blyly family has taken over its administration. All well and good; it was now something I could point to.

The sender of the note (who I am keeping unnamed, for reasons that are about to become clear), also wrote this:

Personal note to John: Larry Correia is already exhorting his fans to help, and I really don’t want to see him do more than you on this, please help!

And friends, I will tell you what, this really really pissed me off.

For those of you who are somehow lacking context, Larry Correia led the “Sad Puppy” campaign for a couple of years, and it’s well-known that I was not a fan of that little adventure, and that Larry and I had our go-arounds because of it. It was not a pleasant time for science fiction (I am, you will understand, eliding much for the sake of brevity), and neither Larry nor I are on each other’s respective Christmas card list. But it’s largely in the past now and both of us are off doing our own things.

With that understood, two things here.

One: Good for Larry Correia! Dude donated a thousand bucks to the GoFundMe and is apparently exhorting his fans and friends to contribute as well. What’s not to like about that? Well done him. I applaud his efforts.

Two: I don’t know how to explain this to people, but I don’t think about Larry Correia all that much, and when I do, it’s not really with any heat. He’s not all that important to me. I feel pretty comfortable suggesting that he doesn’t think about me all that much, either. Why should he? He’s got his own life, which I touch on almost not at all. I’m guessing I’m not all that important to him, either.

So I am annoyed and actually sort of resent the fact this random dude thought Larry was the perfect foil to poke me with here. I am not so seized with animosity toward Larry that I will leap up from my chair to “beat” him in a fundraising score just because we hates him, precious, nor am I interested in reheating the whole Puppy bullshit one more fucking time, and certainly not in the service of a GoFundMe that is in point of fact absolutely and entirely unrelated to that particular lamentable moment in science fiction fandom history.

More bluntly: the thought process of “I want someone notable to contribute to a fundraising project I think should be important to them so I will motivate them by dragging the spectre of someone I think they hate into their field of view! It’s the perfect plan!” is really weird and fucked up, y’all. Don’t do it.

Even more bluntly: Look, asshole, if you want to rally a community together, don’t start by trying to fucking divide them. Helping Uncle Hugo’s isn’t about me, or Larry, or our respective fans (which almost certainly have significant overlap in membership) fighting over who can do more. It’s about saying this place was and is important to us all. Let’s all help.

So let’s do that. Let’s all help.


Five Things: June 2, 2020

Oh, not much going on in the world at the moment, is there?

Here are today’s five things:

Trump gassing peaceful protestors to walk to a photo op: I think we’re all used to the president being appallingly tone deaf, but this one seems destined for the top ten collection (I’m hesitant to rank it any higher at the moment simply because there are at least eight months left in his presidency, and he’s going to be more desperate as he goes along). The fact that the tear-gassing begun during his “Oh boy I sure wanna do me some martial law” speech, and then the president walked over to the church and held up a Bible like a cudgel, surely did give the event symbolism. Just not the symbolism he was aiming for, and definitely not the symbolism history will provide it.

The topper, of course, is that the Church was neither told he was coming nor wanted him to be there. As the Bishop Mariann E. Budde noted:

“He did not pray. He did not mention George Floyd, he did not mention the agony of people who have been subjected to this kind of horrific expression of racism and white supremacy for hundreds of years. We need a president who can unify and heal. He has done the opposite of that, and we are left to pick up the pieces.”

Mind you, gassing protestors and wielding the Word of God like a club makes the president’s base of racists and Really Bad Christians happy, and he wants them happy with him because no one else is, or will be. Trump is not the anti-Christ, but I tell you what, if a Democratic president did exactly the same things Trump is doing now, the same Very Bad Christians who are oozing with joy over Trump would be tossing the term around with impunity. But that hypothetical president wouldn’t be the anti-Christ, either. Just a very very very very very bad president.

Update on the ant situation: Lacking a strong pheromone trail, the ant legions are bit scattered and confused in the front hallway, and I thunder through regularly, deploying the Thumb of Doom on them. I tried cinnamon as some suggested to see what it would do to them; the answer is, it doesn’t seem to do anything, and now I have cinnamon in my hallway. What does seem to work, however: Febreeze. It corrals them pretty effectively. This is all containment until the ant traps arrive in a couple of days. I’m making a science project out of it, basically.

For all that:

That blackout thing: I missed the “Blackout Tuesday” thing in the planning stages and found out about it after people started complaining that associating lots of black screens with the #blacklivesmatter hashtag was making it useless for actual transmission of information. Good intentions have unexpected consequences, basically.

While I would not tell others how to do their thing, for myself I’ve been largely resistant to changing up my social media profile pictures or jumping onto hashtags. That sort of thing often feels like empty calorie activism to me, I suspect in part because I have other ways to signal how I feel about current events and social issues (hint: you’re reading it right now). But I also acknowledge that if you feel like you want to do something but don’t know how, profile pics and hashtags are at least a start. It does help to pay attention to consequences, however, unintended or otherwise.

Crazy Rich Asians: I eventually maxed out on reality last night and decided to indulge in some escapism, which involved a) salted caramel ice cream, and b) Crazy Rich Asians, which has become one of my go-to films for a bit of happiness. There are lots of reasons I like this film, but one of them is that — having gone to a high school that had its share of kids whose families were “comfortable” (to use the euphemism one character in the film uses for being really rich) — it does a pretty good job of simulating the casual aspects of being wealthy, i.e., what your concerns and cares are like when money literally is no object. I don’t want to go too far in that, since there are a lot of clearly amped-up-for-plot-purposes bits (the bachelor and bachelorette parties are prime examples), and ultimately this movie is a fairy tale complete with a marriage proposal. But when it’s not directly doing that, it gets the everyday utopia of wealth right. These folks have problems, but rent sure as hell isn’t one of them.

A wretched record: Speaking of films, this is an interesting story in Variety about how The Wretched, a low-budget horror film I certainly haven’t ever heard of before, has been the number one movie at the box office for weeks — because it’s showing at drive-ins, which are the only theaters currently open. This is one of those “technically correct, but come on” records. 2020 is going to be full of those before the end, I suspect.

Big Idea

The Big Idea: Drew Murray

Author Drew Murray knew he wanted to write a technothriller with his novel Broken Genius — but how to do it in a way that reader would not get lost in the technological weeds? Murray explains his solution for you now.


Very close on the heels of every technology humans invent is a way to misuse it.

One crisp fall weekend a couple of years ago, I went to visit an old friend I’d last seen in Northern California while on a pilgrimage to see the birthplace of the computer age in Silicon Valley. Over pasta heaped with bacon, he filled me in on his new job in the world of programmatic advertising.

On some level, I knew we all, as consumers, were being watched online. But how much can be found out about us? The answer is a gut-crunching, tingle-down-the-back-of-your-spine feeling of being spied upon. I wondered, What could happen if the collector of said information were to use it for something less benign than advertising?

I had a protagonist in mind who would also be interested in the answer to that question. I’d come up with him for a short story I wrote at a writing conference with the theme, “Murder at the Beach.” I wanted my detective to be a creature of Silicon Valley, but that presented a problem. What would cause someone to leave the lavish tech industry with its catered Michelin-star-rated buffets and eye-watering wealth? Something terrible. I had several ideas. Will Parker ended up being so fascinating to me that I wanted to explore his character in the greater space afforded by a novel.

Writing about current technology requires research to get the details right, or people won’t feel it’s genuine. Writing about distant future technology in a science fiction setting has few boundaries, but must feel familiar enough to the reader to suspend disbelief. Writing about a near-future technology combines both of these challenges. Too much detail and a reader could lose interest. Not enough detail and a reader could fail to believe in the possibilities. Either way, the reader is taken out of the story.

One technology capable of elevating an eerie amount of information collection to frightening and dangerous is a quantum computer. Able to analyze almost limitless amounts of data instantaneously, it’s the hardware that will enable true artificial intelligence. But so far, this technology remains experimental. Explaining the details of how that technology might evolve in the future makes a great science journal article but is snooze-inducing in a novel.

The lifeblood of a thriller is stakes. People being killed to possess this technology is a great start and raises juicy questions. Who wants it? What would they do with it? And who else is in danger? If the answer to the last question is everyone, you’ve hit the gold mine of stakes.

The next challenge I had to keep the tension high was to find action. In some thrillers that comes naturally. In military thrillers, soldiers jet around the world getting into battles. In spy thrillers, secret agents operate under constant threat of capture. Action is everywhere! Tech thrillers have to work harder because the truth is, high-tech work is boring to watch. I spent over twenty years in technology, and most of the time it was people sitting at a computer screen, typing away. At first, it was in cubicles, later in large open spaces, and now at home because everything is connected. Not exactly gripping stuff. I needed a way to get out of the office.

To get the movement I was looking for, it had to be about hardware. A physical device, disconnected so it could move around. Even better, it could be lost, becoming the treasure in a treasure hunt. Something so valuable on the loose and up for grabs would trigger real physical action and a healthy dose of danger, since we’ve established that people are willing to kill for it.

But where would this object, this high-tech McGuffin be lost? For that, I considered what would be a natural and interesting environment for my protagonist, Will Parker. He’s a techie. He’s from California. He’s definitely a fan of science fiction in popular culture. My answer was a Comic Book Convention.

The problem with setting a book at a comic con is that like technology, the level of detail is everything. Not enough detail and it won’t feel authentic, especially to fans that have gone to one (or if they’re like me, lots of them). Too much detail and you get lost in the comic con itself, breaking the tension of the high-tech treasure hunt. What followed was a process of trial and error. It took several revisions to get that level of detail right, and the feedback of a carefully selected panel of early readers with varying levels of experience with comic cons.

The winning strategy was to choose elements of a comic con that are readily understood by someone who’s never been to a one, and then have the story interact with it in some way—such as celebrity autographs. Everyone knows what an autograph signing is, whether it features sports heroes, movie stars, or tech entrepreneurs. By choosing that element, I had only to show how it typically works at a comic con, and then have it play a role in the treasure hunt. Approaching it this way led to surprising and humorous outcomes.

The last piece that brought it all together was to choose a first-person point of view for Will Parker. Being inside Will’s head inherently makes him a guide through the worlds of tech and comic cons, while allowing him to bring his own particular style of commentary to the sights and events as they unfold. His narrative perspective allows me to fine-tune the level of details for readability because of what he focuses his attention on. We trust that he understands the details of technology, so that when he’s fearful over what could happen if this new technology is misused, we share that fear. And who doesn’t want to feel that creepy tingle when reading a thriller?


Broken Genius: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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


Five Things: June 1, 2020

For the month of June I thought I would try something sort of new, sort of not: A brief daily write-up of five things I’m thinking about in one way or another for that day — could be news, could be personal things, could be a piece of entertainment, whatever (there’s that word). The point of it will be to a) be brief, and b) be daily. It’s not unlike the “various and sundry” pieces I’ve done from time to time, although a bit more formatted, for the simple reason that I think it’s probably easier to write to a format.

It doesn’t mean I won’t write longer pieces if I feel like it (honestly, I’ve never had a problem with that), but after a few months of feeling fairly disconnected to the world, I think it might be time to re-engage with a little more… after I’m done with my actual paid writing for the day, that is. Which is another reason to do a “Five Things” sort of column; if I’ve had a brain-draining creative session in the morning (which sometimes happens), then spieling out five things is less taxing than writing at length on a single subject. It’s all about me, folks!

When I say “daily” I’m gonna mean weekdays; I may do it on the weekend too, but if I do those will be bonus pieces. After the month of June, I’ll check to see how I feel about them. If I like the format, I may continue it. If I don’t (or find that contrary to expectation I’m spending too much time on it) then I won’t, or will amend it to better fit into my life. We’ll find out! It should be fun.

Also, generally speaking expect them later in the day than earlier.

With that as preamble: Five Things for June 1, 2020.

Trump wants to label “antifa” as a terrorist group: Well, except for the issue that “antifa” isn’t an actual group, it’s a descriptor and shorthand for “anti-fascist.” And while it would be, shall we say, bold for Trump to publicly say that being anti-fascist is terroristic, I think it’s more to the point to say that Trump and his administration are trying to use “antifa” as a general umbrella for “any left-wing group of people we don’t like for any reason.” Which is also bold, and stupid, and bound to make more headaches for this dim-witted administration than anything else.

As I noted on Twitter, I am personally and politically adamantly anti-fascist, and I think that not only is that a non-controversial thing to say, it should bluntly be a foundational part of any American’s political philosophy. Someone noted that no one says that they’re fascist; they call themselves “patriots” or “real Americans” or whatever. Which is true enough, but as in all things, the thing one keeps one eye on is not what people say but what they do. It’s not that hard to see who is leaning into their fascist tendencies these days, both in government and out of it.

Ants have invaded my home: On a much smaller scale than the item above, we found ants marching across the floorboard in the downstairs hall, on their way to the pantry. Despite living here for 19 years, this is a new one for us; we might get the occasional wayward ant but this is the first serious incursion I can remember. I wiped down the floorboards with soapy water to dissolve the pheromone trail, so we’ll see how that does before the next step. Of course people on Twitter have been very vocal about what to do next, from Windex to diatomaceous earth to nuking the site from orbit, it’s the only way to be sure. I’m pretty confident we’ll not do the last one.

Making My Phone See Me: I have face recognition on my Pixel 4 and I use it, so it’s been annoying for the last several days when the phone has decided to only see me intermittently. I dropped my phone fairly hard recently so I suspect I might have dislodged the part of the phone that “sees” me in some way, but if I did that I would think that it would not see me all the time, not just some of the time. That’s the thing that makes it especially aggravating, honestly. Either work or don’t, please! (It’s not the front-facing camera — or not just the camera, since there’s an infrared sensor in play too, to reveal depth.) I do wonder if it might have something to do with my quarantine look at the moment; it’s safe to say I’ve let myself go a bit, facial hair-wise, in the last few weeks.

Christo dead: For those for whom the name is not familiar, he was an artist who did very large scale art installations, some more memorable than others. The one that sticks out in my memory is when he installed very large umbrellas in the “Grapevine,” the mountain pass that connects Los Angeles County to the Central Valley region of California. I was in California when he installed them, and I had reason to go through the Grapevine during the time the display was there, and you know what — it was beautiful, and made me happy all the way through the drive. Near the end of the display, one of the massive umbrellas got loose and caused a fatality, unfortunately; I remember seeing the picture of Christo during the press conference for that and he looked grief-stricken. As well he should have been; it changed the tenor of the installation entirely. But I at least will remember the joy it gave me when I drove through it.

And Now, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar on George Floyd: The link is to the LA Times, which is paywalled but which also should let you look at the article if you don’t visit all that often (I just checked; I could get at it fine on a browser I don’t have my LA Times account on). If all you know about Abdul-Jabbar is that he played for the Lakers way back, then I will update you by letting you know he is also a very fine writer of both fiction and non-fiction, and an incisive opinion writer. What he has to say on George Floyd and the current waves of protest is well worth reading and thinking about. So get to it.

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