I wrote last week about my need to purchase a new office chair, and lo and behold, as if by magic (and by “magic” I mean “by means of ordering it online and paying for it to be delivered by the retailer”), it has arrived at the house and is ensconced at my desk. It is indeed a Steelcase Leap chair, and it is indeed reasonably comfortable, although it is also clear to me that a chair with so many potential adjustments requires actual adjusting before I am completely comfortable with it. So I expect to be fiddling with it for the next few days to get it just exactly how I want it.
I am taking a picture of it now, not only to commemorate the momentous occasion of its arrival, but also because this will be the very last time in its history that there will be no cat hair anywhere on it. Please enjoy its pristine state with me, while it lasts, which won’t be long at all.
In fact, the picture above typifies many of the reasons why I enjoy taking pictures, getting them ready for presentation, and then showing them off to the world. Let me enumerate them for you now.
1. I have a lot of photogenic subjects around me: Krissy, obviously, and the cats, but flowers and clouds and sunsets and people I know and so on. Some subjects lend themselves to photography, yes, but the other thing is once you start taking pictures on a more than casual basis you realize that “photogenic” is not just about pretty or striking but what you can do to whatever thing to make it the subject of a compelling photo. You could take a picture of a fork and make it look compelling and interesting. “Photogenic” is as much about the photographer as the subject, and that was a cool thing to learn.
2. Good pictures are everywhere. The picture above looks studiously posed but is not. Krissy happened to come into my office to talk to me about her plans for the day, Sugar leapt up into her lap to be petted and then settled down on her knee. I grabbed my Pixel 4 phone, opened up the camera app and shot three photos of the two of them in rapid succession. One of them (this one, obviously) was good enough to refine further. I couldn’t have planned this shot (I mean, I could have, but I’m almost certain the cat would not have cooperated), but the fact it was there literally for the taking is a reminder that so much of what is worth seeing in the world isn’t planned; from a photography point of view it’s nice to be living in an age where a decent camera is usually within reach. Certainly not every photo I snap is gold — Out of ten pictures I take, four are blurry and at least two have people doing weird things with their faces — but enough of them are to make it worth it.
3. Photography hardware and software are conducive to how I do photography. I am not a studio photographer, nor am I one who usually uses the more complex setting of his camera; I use mostly natural or ambient lighting and I mostly keep my dSLR settings on “auto” for ISO and shutter speed. This means outside of basic composition of the shot (i.e., placing myself or my subjects somewhere to get the best picture) I do everything else in post-production, primarily with Photoshop but with some other programs as well, either standalone or as add-ons to Photoshop. I make pictures this way because it works for me, and also because as a self-taught photographer this is just how I have accreted knowledge and process.
This doesn’t mean my way is right — other photographers might find my process curious or laborious or the long way around to do things, and as I go through and learn more about photography, I’ll often find some way of doing things in-camera that, had I known earlier, would have saved me a lot of pain in the ass post-production fiddling. But I don’t actually mind that! I don’t kick myself when I learn something that I maybe should have known earlier. It just means that now I have two different ways of getting to the same desired point for the photo. And the larger point is: No matter how you do it, today’s photography hardware and software usually allow you a way to achieve an effect or look that you want. Also, here’s the thing:
4. I find fiddling with photos enjoyable and relaxing. The picture you see above has been altered from what came out of the camera in a number of ways: One, it’s in black and white where the original was in color. Two, before it was black and white, I went and did things with the lighting and color balance to give a more dramatic presentation, and to do things like even out skin tones and shadows. Three, I used Photoshop to clean up cat hair on Krissy’s clothes, and irregularities in the paint on the wall (I tried taking out the light switch but did a bad job of it, so it stayed). I played with various filters, in color and in black and white, to get a look I liked — for this specific black and white photo, I actually used a particular color filter (after all the other stuff I did to the photo), and then desaturated the photo’s colors. And then, at the end of it, I added a light dusting of “grain” to the photo, to give it a little bit of texture that all the post-processing I did had taken out of the photo.
And, I enjoyed every fiddly, nit-picking moment of that process. It’s fun to sit there on Photoshop and move sliders and apply brushes and slowly make a photo into something you like, and maybe want to show others. It’s a process I can get lost in, and in doing so forget about other things for a bit. Also, it’s a creative process that for me has a quick(er) result than my usual stock in trade: in the space of a few moments or an hour, I can make something I find artistically satisfying. As a novelist, whose books usually take months to compose and complete and then often even longer to go out into the world, this is something I appreciate quite a lot. Look! Art! In a couple of hours from snapping the photo to putting it out into the world! Wheee!
And it doesn’t even have to be “art” for me to enjoy it. One of my favorite things to do is, when friends post old family pictures on Facebook or elsewhere that are yellowed (or magenta-ed, honestly, that usually what happens to old photos), is to take the snap and do a quick color correction that brings the photo closer to what it was when it was originally taken. It’s a five-minute thing, it’s fun, and generally people are like, oh, cool, thanks. Process is enjoyable sometimes, folks, as much or even more than the final product.
5. It’s not my job. I know a number of professional photographers and they have a very cool job that generally speaking I do not aspire to. One, because I already have a very cool job, and, thank God, I don’t need another at this point to eat. Two, because I stepped in to be an emergency wedding photographer once, and having done so I have some small inkling of how difficult the job is when other people’s expectations are on the line. Three, because I’m good enough to recognize where the skill/knowledge gap is between me and the professional photographers of my acquaintance, and what I would need to do to level up, and, meeehhhhh I’d rather not?
But, and mostly, four: because I enjoy photography as a hobby, and as a hobby it provides me certain artistic and mental benefits which are actually useful and important to me. So that’s where I’m going to keep things for the most part. Do the occasional photo shoot for friends? Sure, why not? (I did some author photos for some folks recently and it’ll be cool to see those in their books.) Do that on the regular? Nah, I’d rather take photos of my hibiscus plant and make it look like an alien appendage just because that looks cool to me.
6. Because memories. Which is why the vast majority of people take photos, so I’m not special there. But that doesn’t mean it’s not important. As it turns out I don’t have a huge number of photos from when I was growing up, or indeed, really before the advent of digital photography at the turn of the century. However, I have lots of photographic evidence of my life from about 2000 onward. There are those who suggest that people spend so much time taking pictures or video that they’re not actually experiencing the moment, and I think there’s a small argument for that. One’s memories should not be just looking into a screen or viewfinder. But I also think you can do both: Experience the moment, and at some point in it, record it in a photo to help remember it better later.
I also think photos can be their own moment; not just what you’ve captured, but the experience of the photo in itself. That’s a real thing, too, and and experience worth having. As well as the experience of everything else that comes with making a picture from that photo. I enjoy the whole experience of photography, from shot to showing. I’m glad to have that experience. It makes my life better.
Oh, hello! How are you? I have a few things I’m thinking about today:
Hey, did you know? Our economy is shit! Specifically, the last economic quarter is absolutely the worst on record, either on its own (in which the GDP shrank more than nine percent) or on the especially dramatic “annualized” basis (which has the GDP shrinking an unfathomable 32%). Here’s an explainer about what “annualized basis” means, and why it’s probably not the one to look at for an actual accurate bead on the economy, but, look, no matter how you slice it, our economy is in a bad way.
“It’s the Trump economy!” Well, as much as I hate being fair to the awful bastard, let us stipulate that given the pandemic and the initial shutdown it precipitated, the economy would have taken a massive hit during this first phase of the coronavirus regardless of who was president. Trump and his administration’s policy of “welp, you’re on your own, guess you’re gonna die,” certainly didn’t help between April and June, of course. But it would have been a mess regardless. It’s all the rest of the year, and the subsequent economic mess that exists (and is coming) from the administration’s incoherent and incompetent response that will define the Trump Economy. And just before an election! That’s great news for him.
Speaking of which —
Trump wants to delay the election: Sure, he’s trying to distract from the horrifying economic report today (it won’t work), but also, he’s pretty sure he’s going to lose the election (he probably will) and if and when he does he’s going to spend the rest of his life in courtrooms and/or in jail (I can’t wait), so why not try to delay the election on the basis of the utterly spurious lie that voting by mail is fraudulent? This is an utterly foolproof plan with no flaws whatsoever!
The good news, such as it is, is Trump’s brilliant plan doesn’t seem to be getting much traction with other GOPers, who I have to assume have actually read the Constitution, or at least have had someone read it to them. Also, Congress would need to change the date; good luck getting that past the House at the moment. But this is just more evidence that Trump is planning to deny the validity of any election that doesn’t go his way, and the rest of the GOP will have to decide which they like more: The US Constitution, or, you know, actual fucking treason. I wish I could say that “actual fucking treason” had less than coin-flip odds at the moment.
Herman Cain dies of coronavirus:Which is sad, and also, I don’t think it’s politicizing his death to point out the odds are really excellent that he contracted the virus either at Trump’s Tulsa event or traveling to or from it. Cain’s people want to suggest there are other places where he could have picked up the virus, and of course they would do that. One does have to entertain the possibility that they may even be correct; Cain was extensively traveling during a pandemic and also eschewing things like mask wearing, which increased his chances of exposure. What we can say for sure is: stay home when you can, folks. Wear a mask when you can’t.
Meanwhile, back here at Whatever: Athena and I held our first staff meeting today, talking about short and long term plans for the site now that she’s coming on as staff — not just in terms of posts and features but a bunch of backend stuff too, like scheduling and where in the house she’ll do her work (home office, folks!). I suspect I bored her a bit with all the things I had on the agenda to discuss, which just means I am totally being a boss, I guess. In any event, a good meeting and a good start. I’m looking forward to next week. Just FYI, expect the Athena rollout to start relatively modestly as we get things going; we have a fair amount of backend stuff to contend with the first couple of weeks.
Spice with the catnip sock: We have a lot of catnip toys in the house, because the cats are all catnip-sensitive (not all cats are) and we enjoy watching them get stoned. But they are also super aggressive with the toys so they don’t last very long — someone sent us some catnip bananas and the cats had eviscerated it an hour later, and we had catnip all over the hardwood floors.
So what I end up doing is taking a whole bunch of catnip, putting it into an old sock, putting a knot in it to sequester the catnip, and tossing it to the cats. Voila: a durable catnip toy the kitties have yet to destroy. And after a couple of weeks, replace the catnip inside, and you’re back in business. I reloaded the sock the other day; here’s Spice enjoying it quite enthusiastically.
Music can be life changing, but as Lif Strand found out in writing Evolution Device, turning that life-changing feeling into a novel can be a challenge worthy of the gnarliest of musical performances.
Music is powerful stuff. It enters the ears and takes over the brain. If that isn’t power then I don’t know what is.
I’m not much of a musician, but music is right up there with the most important things in my life. Even so, I can’t let myself listen too much. Not if I intend to accomplish anything. Where there is music there is me at a dead stop, intent on what I’m hearing. Even in stores. Yeah, that’s me, transfixed in the aisle. Not comparing cans of peas on the shelf but lingering under the ceiling speaker till a song is over.
My obsession started with Classical music. I found Buddy Holly, then Link Wray, Motown, and the Ventures. And then the epiphany: what is now considered classic rock. My vinyl treasure horde, worth every penny.
I knew in my heart that real music came from melody carried by notes, not words. Forget lyrics. My soul resonated to the voice of the electric guitar. Clapton and Keef, Harrison and Hendrix, Mayall & friends, Santana – I couldn’t get enough of them. I named one of my dogs BB and another Lucille. I lived for riffs that yanked me out of the path of predictability, for solos that shot me into the realms of the gods, blowing my mind along the way.
But Jimmy Page. I loved his guitar before I knew who he was, back when he was a session man on at least half of the songs I was listening to. Over time I came to realize that his musical genius bore an extra something I couldn’t quite identify but that I craved beyond any other. The voice of his guitar slithered into my ears and bypassed my brain, not just resonating but transforming my soul.
Shortly after I began wrestling with the first draft of Evolution Device in 2011 I started a blog about Jimmy Page’s music. I needed a name for that extra something that so enchanted me. I wanted to identify the sorcery that raised pitch, rhythm, dynamics, and timbre to another level, that ineffable something lost when the music was performed by others. That power that changed duplicable into unique, using energy from… what? Transforming base into noble… how?
Energy, power, transformation, base, noble: Alchemy talk! Why not just call the energy magic? It made sense to me. Aren’t music fans always going on about the magic in the songs they love?
Probably they don’t really mean magic magic, but still…
What if the greatest acts of creativity — the ones that seep into base souls and lift them to a nobler state – what if they really were acts of magic?
Wow. That was a story I needed to tell.
The ideas I blogged about were the foundation of Evolution Device, a story of music and magic. Writing the first draft should have been a piece of cake, what with all the time I had spent on the subject — but no. I had to flog myself to get the words out. It wasn’t pretty.
How could that be? Blogging had been so easy! All I had to do was think a little, then write down my ideas in a logical fashion, explain the basis for my thinking, and then present my conclusions. So simple. So straightforward.
So not a story.
I despaired. I was no storyteller! I’d been a non-fiction writer for years. The people who paid me expected me to build arguments for them while poking holes in their opposition’s positions, but not to make stuff up. Even blogging about magic was not really making stuff up, not in the sense of telling a story. All that research into the history of magic, all those precedents for my theory that magic and creativity are essentially the same, all the delightful serendipities that came my way to bolster my ideas, all the crafting of logical arguments: Worldbuilding isn’t storytelling
Nevertheless, I persisted.
The first draft of Evolution Device was 450 pages and it unleashed… nothing. I knew my characters, could so clearly see the scenes, and praise the gods I could write dialog. It was all so there in my head but on paper? Meh. I poured even more into it but it didn’t matter. I had the right ingredients but the wrong incantation. And the more I tried, the more muddled it got.
I was done. No point in putting more time into a lost cause. I started on a contemporary mystery that had not a bit of music in it. Except my musician characters wouldn’t let me go. The gigs, the parties, the sound checks, the groupies, the dealers – the music in my head — I dreamed them at night and they haunted me by day. I cursed them, those made up people, because I knew what I wanted to say but not how to tell their damned story.
Nevertheless, they persisted.
Eventually I came to my senses. I throw the problem at a professional editor. Boy howdy, was that a good idea! With my editor’s help I created a new writing rule: “when in doubt, chop it out”. I did away with a hundred fifty pages. Fixed the mixed points of view. Dumped narrative and added dialogue. Rewrote the beginning and the ending and a bunch of the middle, too.
And then, like magic… I had a story.
Lilith is a spirit bound to a physical body by the guitarist whose muse she is. Eddie is succumbing to the excesses of fame and fortune, the demands of a supernatural guitar, and fear of the power he was born to wield. His bandmates sense how close Eddie is to the edge but can’t let him stop. All hunger for the energy of the audience that both consumes and fuels the wild magic that is their music.
I dislike being confronted over and over again that our current president is literally the least intelligent president we’ve had by a significant margin, and that a significant percentage of the American electorate thinks he’s some sort of mastermind. I would ask them whether they think demon sex causes uterine disorders. If they answer anything other that “fuck no, that’s ridiculous,” then I’m fine with not trusting them with anything more complicated than a Fisher-Price toddler toy.
Trump removing troops from Germany:Because apparently Putin wants it, is my guess, and our President, when he’s not plumping physicians detailing demon diddling, is delighted to be a fawning lickspittle for the man paying out bounties on our troops. Yes, I know: tell you how I really feel about Trump, right? Anyway, my understanding is that this removal and transfer will actually take years, which (knowing nothing else about the details at this point) suggests to me that there’s a very excellent chance that come January 2021, this little plan will be tossed into the garbage, or at least altered in a way that doesn’t actually cater to Russia’s interests in Europe. That’s just a guess.
The theatrical window now down to 17 days — that is, if Universal and AMC Theaters have their way; it appears the other major theatrical chains in the US are deeply opposed to it. There is irony here, in that Universal tried to shift the theatrical window earlier this year and AMC responded by saying it wouldn’t carry its films anymore; the new deal apparently cuts AMC into the video-on-demand take so the theater chain figures they’ll make money out of it anyway. At the moment it’s a moot point because hardly anything is being shown theatrically and the idea of sitting in a movie theater should give anyone not convinced of actual demonic coitus the heebie-jeebies, but one day it might matter.
I suspect what’s actually going to happen after the dust settles is that the current theatrical window, currently at 90 days, is going to get cut to something like 45 or even 30 days. The vast majority of films don’t stay in theaters for more than a month these days anyway (part of the reasoning for the 17-day window is that most films make pretty much all their domestic box office in three weeks), and those who want the theatrical experience will be motivated to get to the theater. Where I live the local multiplex gets the big titles in and out the door in four weekends, and the smaller indie/art films don’t show up at all (and those tend to get VoD releases much sooner anyway), so it would be all the same to me. So: 17 days? I’d guess that’s probably not gonna stick. 30 to 45 days? Realistically that’s where we are anyway.
100-million-year-old microbes revived: Seriously, have these people never watched horror movies? But I guess we’re already in the clutches of a massive biological pandemic, so what’s one more possible vector of infection, right? More seriously, though, the fact that scientists were able to revive bacteria from the age of dinosaurs at all is fascinating and certainly has implications for the folks who tout the “panspermia” idea that life on earth might have been seeded by asteroids or other detritus from space. Like that doctor in the first item! Who thinks scientists are fiddling around with DNA from space! Seriously, that person is loooooopy. Do not listen to her.
Spongebob, anime style: To really enjoy this you must, a) have a basic understanding of anime tropes, b) either have grown up with Spongebob Squarepants or have had a child who did, c) probably be stoned out of your goddamned mind. But if you are some combination of the three, this is pretty great. Enjoy.
Good things come to those who wait… and learn. That might be the theme of this Big Idea by Richard Cox, for his novel House of the Rising Sun, which experienced a pause in its writing and in doing so just may have arrived at precisely the right time.
Before I started work on House of the Rising Sun, I didn’t know such a thing as prepping existed. I didn’t know there was a whole culture of people expecting the world to end at any time, who were storing food and water and supplies in advance of this impending fall of civilization. All I wanted was to write an epic novel about an apocalypse that didn’t immediately kill all the people or blow everything to smithereens or feature zombies or a virus. I didn’t imagine I would publish two other novels before this one or that when the book finally hit the shelves it would be during the throes of an actual pandemic. I didn’t know how strange and transactional it would feel to promote a project that captured so much of the reality we currently face, and when I say reality, I don’t just mean COVID-19.
My desire to write a post-apocalyptic novel dates to when I was 16 and read The Stand, and toward the end of 2010 I decided to get serious about it. I hopped on Google looking for a real-life cause for the type of apocalypse I wanted, and lo and behold there existed such a thing! By now I think many people understand what an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) is, but ten years ago the threat was less well-known, and certainly I had never heard of it. The idea of that all our computer chips and transistors could be fried by a pulse fascinated me.
Think of the mayhem it would cause. Cars wouldn’t run. The power grid would collapse. No phones, no television, no Internet, no anything. Such an event would send a developed nation back to the age of horses and buggies and kerosene lamps, only worse, because back then horses and kerosene lamps were commonplace. Before the 20th century most people didn’t rely on water pumped into cities from distant artificial reservoirs. They lived somewhat near their sources of food instead of depending on daily shipments from hundreds or thousands of miles away.
And even though I wanted the novel to be set in the continental United States, it didn’t seem interesting for the EMP to be local. I wanted it to be global. I wanted there to be no easy chance for rescue for anyone by anyone. That meant the EMP would need to be caused by a celestial event, and since I’d always wanted to title a novel House of the Rising Sun (I’m keen on The Animals’ version) I chose a supernova as the culprit.
So I wrote a few pages and thought I had a solid concept, but there was still the matter of these two other projects on my plate. Eventually I set the new idea aside and published Thomas World in 2011. After that there was a decision to make: keep going on House or pick up the pieces of this other project that had been brewing for years, The Boys of Summer. I was pretty much on the fence until I saw, with some dismay, that someone had beaten me to the EMP story. A novel had been published in late 2009 that was similar enough in concept to mine that I decided not to proceed…at least not yet. I wanted to read and understand that book so I didn’t write the same story again, and because I didn’t want to follow it too closely for looking like I had stolen the author’s idea.
I’m so glad I waited.
What happened was, on the heels of that 2009 EMP novel, many, many others followed. In part, I suspect, because the novel sold well, but also because the prepping community began to behave as though civilizational collapse was imminent. I can’t say for sure if they really believed such a thing, or if certain authors decided to capitalize on cultural anxiety, but it doesn’t seem like a coincidence that prepper fiction gained momentum soon after an historic election that saw a Black Democrat become President of the United States.
Even though I had no intention of writing about preppers, at least not directly, it still seemed like a good idea to become familiar with novels that covered similar ground. So I downloaded a few eBooks and quickly discovered most of these novels followed a template: 1) An EMP quietly kills all the things, 2) Most people have no idea what happened, 3) Preppers inherit the Earth. And yes, that leaves out a few steps, but honestly not that many. Because the point of most of these novels is not to push a character’s life out of balance and explore her attempts to restore equilibrium. It’s not to live in a character’s mind while he shelters in place and hides his supplies from neighbors and battles against grief and guilt.
No, the point of most prepper fiction is to tell you what to buy to protect yourself from Armageddon while also picking sides in an imagined culture war. Like you should order precisely this gun and exactly these water purification tablets and this particular mess kit. And, perhaps most importantly, how to defend yourself against (and by defend I mean kill) hungry city slickers when they realize the power isn’t coming back.
Eventually I came to understand that even though scores of EMP-centric novels had been published, there might still be room for another one. What if I told such a story from the layperson’s point of view? What if some or most of my characters weren’t prepared at all? What if these people hailed from various walks of life and held differing cultural or political views? What if the women in my novel were given agency in their lives instead of idly watching while the manly menfolk solved all the problems and killed all the evil city dwellers?
What if the desire to survive wasn’t taken as a given?
The more I researched, the more I noticed how many reviews critical of EMP novels were published by readers who were fascinated by the story concept but wanted to read a book where normal civilians were forced to navigate a world that became suddenly and dangerously quiet. They wanted to experience the thrills and pain and difficult choices that any character might face if an EMP really happened. And fortunately for me, that’s just the novel I wanted to write.
The irony of all this is that I composed the bulk of the first draft in 2016, while several candidates were careening toward the U.S. Presidential election, and in order to generate a dystopian mindset I pictured a certain candidate winning, even though I did not expect that candidate to win. I watched as that candidate incited anger and violence among his supporters, which absolutely influenced scenes in my novel. With time I came to realize the subtext of my story wasn’t as different as I had imagined from the others in the EMP space…I was just inspired by a different boogeyman.
And now my novel about the end of the world has just been published while the real world is buckling under the strain of an actual existential threat. Another Presidential election is just around the corner, and there is no end in sight to the COVID-19 pandemic, and I can’t help but imagine what sorts of apocalyptic stories are being written right this minute…and who the next boogeyman might be.
This morning I went and opened up a SubStack account, for a couple of reasons. The first was to take “Scalzi” off the market on SubStack; I do this pretty much which every social media site, for branding consistency across the Internet. Second, at some point or another I might decide to do something I’ll want a paid subscription model for, and if I do, SubStack offers a relatively frictionless way to do that. What might that be, and will SubStack actually be the best way to do it? In both cases, the answer is: got me. Taking the SubStack account is for possibilities, not certainties.
That being said, taking the account gave me a moment to reflect on what I do here and how I do it. For the last twenty-one years and ten months, this blog has been up and has been absolutely free to visit; I haven’t charged for any content here (I have on occasion put stuff up and let people know there was a voluntary payment, usually for charitable purposes, but that’s different). I’ve done it this way because, one, it’s simpler than trying to manage either advertising or subscriptions, and two, because it’s allowed me to always post on my own terms — if I decide to take a break, or a hiatus, or stop posting altogether, there’s no harm and no foul. This web site is free, so you get what you get, or don’t get, as the case may be.
There’s another reason as well, which is that for the entire two-decade-and-change existence of this site, I have made a comfortable living doing other writing, first as a consultant and freelancer, and for the last several years as a novelist. There has never been a need for me to look at this site as something that had to make money, either passively or actively, so I didn’t. I wouldn’t trivialize this site by calling it an affectation — I have put out nine(!) books from material that was originally published here, including a novel that launched my fiction career and a short story collection that got me my first TV story credits — but it is true that its nature and character are what they are in no small part because of the thing it doesn’t have to be: Something explicitly commercial.
I think of this because so many writers have turned to places like SubStack and Patreon and other subscription vehicles and venues as part of their way of making a living. I think this is great — writers making money is a good thing — but it does generally entail a certain level of attentiveness to one’s audience that I’m not sure is in my nature to attempt, or to fulfill, here. The “you get what you get” nature of Whatever suits me, and if people don’t like what they get, they can leave, and I don’t have to worry about what it means for my bills and my bottom line. There are other places where I have to craft my writing specifically to please some specific person (or many of them). This doesn’t need to be one of those.
Still, who knows? I have sold things directly to people before, here and elsewhere; there might come a time when I decide to do it again, and it might be that a subscription model, either limited or ongoing, will be the best way to do that. I’ve been writing professionally for three decades now. I wouldn’t have made it this far if I was precious or snobby about how I make money writing. If I think up of something that would fit a subscription model, I just might do it, and see how it turns out for me.
And if it does great, well, then, it can be the thing that subsidizes this, where you get what you get, and hopefully like it, but it’s okay if you don’t. This web site is free, after all.
What does your cell phone or XBox have to do with AI-laden weapon systems? Ferrett Steinmetz has an inkling, and in this Big Idea for his new novel Automatic Reload, he lays it out for you.
You’re already too slow for technology. You knew that the first time you used a calculator; it could multiply 6,317 x 256 before you could pick up a pencil.
Some day a computer will be able to shoot you before your brain can tell your trigger finger to fire.
That’s right; militaries everywhere are working on targeted weaponry as we speak, which is a significant problem, but not an unsolvable one. Our troops are endangered on patrols because they don’t see the dangers surrounding them; wouldn’t it be nice to have automated weaponry seated on their shoulders that scans for incoming threats and neutralizes them before of our boys can get shot?
And while it’s nice to think we’d never use such automated systems in combat, well, war has never rewarded ethics as thoroughly as it should. Which means eventually some guns will be shooting themselves.
Which leaves one big question:
Who’s programming those targeting systems?
In my book Automatic Reload, the answer is “Our hero, Mat” – a man who’s a walking weapons platform, having replaced his arms and legs with auto-targeting armed prosthetics. He gets hired as a freelance mercenary to do jobs that computerized weaponry can’t do on their own. Because as it turns out, enemy combatants are very creative, and the one thing computers aren’t very good at is reacting to new strategies. So he stomps in to rescue a hostage, his fragile human torso shielded by bulletproof armor and surrounded by four lethal limbs, reprogramming his reaction packages on the fly to shoot the bad guys, and no one else.
Mat’s also breaking down under that pressure. Because he knows what happens when his auto-fire routines aren’t tuned correctly. For him, combat is like being in a car wreck – he’s patrolling when suddenly his limbs catapult him around to shield him, airbags deploying as his guns fire, and if things go wrong he’ll be dead before he knows what happened.
Or, worse, a bystander will be dead. It’s happened before. He had lax input restrictions on the drone he was flying for the US Air Force, and the routines he programmed generated an automated approval to fire upon a group of suspected terrorists.
Problem was, one of those suspected terrorists had his kid with him. The kid wasn’t a suspect. Mat got to watch that kid blown to smithereens through hi-def streaming visuals. That was why Mat quit the Drone Corps, and why he’s been determined to program perfectly safe target-capturing routines ever since, but…
Technology is hard.
The programs that run those armed prosthetics work a lot like your cell phone does – which is to say they’re occasionally glitchy, working well until they don’t. And as much as people would like to believe that programmers know it all, unfortunately, we don’t. The programs we’re building are reliant on libraries and interpreters and drivers built by other very flawed and very human programmers, so each of those potentially harbor bugs or misconfigurations.
The scary thing about the Internet, or your smart phone, or the apps on your television, is that nobody fully understands them. You’re perfectly justified in getting mad when nobody at tech support knows how to fix your bricked XBox, but the ugly truth is there’s so many layers of programs involved that it’s often impossible to tell what precisely broke down.
At this point, “stuff bugs out sometimes and we don’t know why” is pretty much the fundamental core of all our technology – which is not reassuring when your auto-targeting glitches can accidentally headshot a teenager riding a bike.
And so Mat is reacting to his televisually-induced PTSD by trying to achieve perfection. He’s one of the top prosthetic armament technicians on the planet. He spends sleepless nights replaying old missions, running tests, fine-tuning his weaponry, determined to make sure that his routines never take the wrong shot.
Except he’s entering war zones.
Things go very wrong in war.
Automatic Reload is about a lot of things, and it’s not quite as heavy as I’m making it out to be here… mainly because at its core, Automatic Reload is actually a romance. Mat finds a woman – a woman who happens to be a genetically engineered killing machine, but a woman – who he falls in love with, because she also understands the stress of combat. They talk about old movies, they dance, they destroy the cop cars who are chasing them, it’s strangely sweet.
But Automatic Reload is also about the morality of unplanned technology. We’re charging ahead into an uncertain future, where we’re deploying computer-targeted mass surveillance using data taken from cameras to try to automatically catch terrorists, and not thinking about how all our old biases are ingrained as assumptions into our AI routines. We’re using social media to deliver personalized experiences to trusting users, without thinking how those personalized news stories can warp someone’s perceptions – or how evil people can hack those news stories to propagate misinformation.
Automatic Reload is very personal. Because Mat is on a mission to rescue this assassin (who he kinda maybe loves), and he’s willing to go to great lengths to keep her safe. And yet every battle piles on more stress as Mat is forced to bring the war straight to New Jersey, where one buggy line of code could cause an auto-generated massacre.
Yet Automatic Reload is also about the ethics of programming in a world where technology is fundamentally unreliable. Your cell phone’s far too useful to give up, so you’ll forgive it when occasionally the screen goes black.
Likewise, when it comes – if it comes – the power of automated weaponry will be such an advantage that nobody will want to give it up. But it won’t be perfect, and it won’t be bloodless.
The Short Version: Athena Scalzi is coming on board Scalzi.com/Whatever as a writer and editor starting August 4. She’ll be taking over some administrative tasks, posting her own entries and helping me update and possibly expand the site.
The Less Short Version: Athena is taking a gap year from college, more or less, partly because she (and we) are waiting for the US to figure out what the hell it’s doing with the coronavirus. Prior to the shutdown, she’d been working out in the world, but at this point, between the rapid spread of the virus and the fact that aggressive, ignorant dipshits will scream about muh rights when they’re asked to wear masks or take other precautions on behalf of others, it doesn’t seem the risk-to-reward ratio for working in the service sector is all that great. Athena has also been wanting to focus on writing, and on building skills and knowledge that would be useful to writing and publishing, and content creation in general.
As it happens, Athena knows someone who could be useful in helping her develop all of those skills: Me, who has worked as a writer and editor for years, and knows all about publishing and content creation. And as it also happens, I’ve been aware for while that my current workload with books and other projects means this site is increasingly a last priority for the day. It could benefit from some more regular attention, and someone to handle tasks I have less time for now. Athena interned on the site a couple of years ago, so I know she understands the site, and I know I can work with her. Also, you know: I’m personally invested in her learning these skills in any event, and she’ll be at the house anyway.
So: Starting on August 4, Athena’s coming on to Scalzi.com/Whatever as a writer and editor for the site. She’ll be handling some administrative tasks for me, writing her own entries based on — yes — whatever it is she wants to write about, and working with me to plan the future of the site and to possibly create new and interesting features. You know: stuff. Don’t ask for too many details right now, we’re going to be making this up as we go along. But I’m happy both to have her here to handle some things for me and post her own things, and to be able to be useful to her as she builds up her skills and experience.
To answer some questions I know people will have: Yes, it’s totally nepotism, ask me if I care; No, I don’t know how long this new arrangement will go on, but I suspect for a bit because if nothing else we as a nation are not exactly on top of this virus thing, now, are we; Yes, this does mean I’ll now actually act like a real editor for the site, which means some formalization of what has been to this point a largely informal thing; No, I don’t know if you’ll notice any of that, other than seeing Athena’s byline on the site. There’s a bit to Athena’s new gig that will not manifest itself on the site in any obvious way. The answer to all other questions at this point is likely to be: shrug, you got me, guess we’ll find out.
I’m excited for this new chapter for Whatever and Scalzi.com. I think it will be fun and I’m looking forward to what we get to do here. I hope you’ll enjoy it too.
So, what is The Key to All Things? Aside from the title of the new novel by Cindy Lynn Speer? The good news is, we have Speer here to tell you what it might be, and how it relates to her tale.
CINDY LYNN SPEER:
I came through the central driving idea for The Key to All Things in a rather circular way. I was watching Lady Hawke, and thinking about all these great love stories that seem to be so resonant. These glorious adventures and (spoiler, sorry) Happily Ever Afters.
And then I thought, what happens if the happily ever after turns false? So the original story was about a man who was once part of a Great Love Story – until she betrayed him. He needed to go and get something (A sword? I don’t remember?) and set off on a quest. The second main character was a younger woman who had grown up hearing this story, and felt like this story set the bar for all her expectations for love and romance. It would have been a story about redemption (which the current one still is, to be honest) and love.
I liked the idea – I always like the “that’s very nice but what if…” kind of ideas, but I wasn’t sure what I was trying to say. If I even liked what I was saying. A couple times I tried to resurrect it…but I never really was sure if it was working so I let my people sleep.
And then, a snow storm happened. Which meant I was able to sleep in, and the story came back to me. I was well rested, in a great mood, and all of a sudden things came together in an almost audible click. I knew where the story was supposed to go and how to get there. New characters took the field, though they were the same basic shapes. Edward DeVere, the handsome captain of the human King’s guards still loved the wrong woman – Catherine of the Willows, who threw him aside to grab power and become the Queen of the Fae. He still fell – and his story was still loved. So loved, in fact, that variations of their forbidden love (human and fae aren’t supposed to be together) became a powerful tale. So powerful that it pushed out every other story. No more songs, unless they were about Edward and Catherine. No more poems or pulp novels or anything save about…yes. The Sapphire Queen and her lost human love.
And then, there is Avriel. The woman – about Edward’s age, this time – half human, half fae, working as a double agent in both courts. During the day the story itches at her, makes her sad, and she pushes it off, not understanding why – and then nine o’clock at night chimes, and for three hours, she knows the truth.
Edward was not Catherine’s lost love – in fact, he rather detested her. Edward DeVere was actually Avriel’s husband. Avriel, under a new name, was relegated to the back pages of the cheapest versions of the story. Avriel, a woman who is more powerful than she knows and who is determined to fix the world and get her life back.
But is one woman as powerful as a story?
And that was what I realized I wanted to talk about. The power of story itself. Also a love story with mystery, intrigue and some sword fighting scenes. Avriel and Edward both have to fight the narrative to get what they want, which is something I think we all do in our lives. We fight the story we tell ourselves about not being good enough, about – whatever. Even now we are fighting stories, fighting narratives that have been whispered and taught to us all our lives.
Because stories are power. They are, indeed, the key to all things.
Krissy’s extended family congregates every year in early August for a reunion, an event that a few years back had its 100th anniversary — but because of the virus, there will be no reunion this year. The family skipping the reunion has only happened once before, in concert with World War II, so if you’re looking for quotidian evidence that this pandemic is in fact a history-level event, there you are. Also, obviously, it’s the right thing to do; many of the annual attendees are elderly and possibly exposing them to this thing is not a good plan. I will miss the lard cake (which is cake made with lard, but not a cake made primarily of lard, that would be weird), but as with so many things now, I can wait a year to have it.
(Or make it myself! I could do that! But it would be strange having it outside of the reunion. Those of you who regularly partake of reunions probably know what I mean here.)
I woke up this morning with a song from the 2001 film Josie and the Pussycats in my head, and because of that felt mildly wistful for the era in which it came out, the sort of Millennial Moment just before 9/11, with its boy bands and first Internet Bubble and all the sorts of capitalism (CDs! Malls! Print magazine and newspapers!) that were about to be buried under the next couple of decades of wrenching change. I don’t want to say it as a more innocent time, because of course it wasn’t, but two decades have passed, which means that enough time has gone out that the mental sifting has occurred and and the bright and fluffy bits seem brighter and fluffier in retrospect. It’s nostalgia I’m feeling, basically, for the turn of the century.
But it’s a little weird to be thinking of it as nostalgia, because as a card-carrying member of Generation X, my Nostalgia Era is already pretty well defined, basically early 80s to early 90s, starting with New Wave and ending with Grunge. And indeed that’s the era that gives me the full-on nostalgia feels; the nostalgia I have for the turn of the century, although real enough, is significantly less intense, more of an “oh, yeah, I enjoyed the nice parts of that” feeling than the whole “Proust eats a madeleine” wave of remembrance that I sometimes get for the 80s and early 90s.
I think the reason why is pretty obvious; I was younger in the 80s, experiencing everything for the first time, so on and so forth, while at the turn of the century I was already an adult, with some amount of life experience under my proverbial belt. This is not a complicated puzzle. Still, I find myself interested in the idea that enough time has passed in my life that I can feel nostalgia for two entirely separate eras in history, and qualitatively less nostalgia for one than the other.
I don’t imagine I am the first to feel this, nor the first to note it. So for those of you with enough water under your bridge, two questions: One, do you feel similar real-but-less nostalgia for previous eras that are not “your” eras; and Two, if so, does this phenomenon have an actual name? Second Nostalgia? Nostalgia Lite? Nostalgia Vu? I’m curious and want to know.
Also, if you’ve never seen Josie and the Pussycats, this is my recommendation of it, again, as I’ve recommended it here before, calling it “a trashy pop awesome instamatic picture of the Y2K-era music business,” which is a description I stand by. It’s also funnier and smarter than you might expect. Plus it began my now two-decade-long crush on Rosario Dawson! And the songs are great pop, too. Plus, you know. Nostalgia. Check it out.
First, as I noted on Twitter, responding to this tweet: “Implying that ‘one of the great essayists in America’ wouldn’t be smart enough to read the commercial room, and say what he wanted to say in a way that sold to the market that exists today, is going the long way around to say you don’t think he was that great a writer, my dude.” Which is to say Brooks isn’t interested in considering what Christopher Hitchens might be doing and saying if he were alive at the moment; he’s only interested in Hitchens in stasis, preserved in amber since 2011.
If your argument is “A commercial writer couldn’t write to the current market if he was writing like he was two or three decades back,” then, well, yes, and also, this would likely be an accurate statement in whatever year you might want to place it. the 2020s are not the 00s, which were not the 80s which were not the 60s and so on. As the great moral philosopher Hillary Flammond once noted, times change, people change, hairstyles change. So do commercial markets, although some faster than others.
But “great” writers are often not known to be great merely because they write well; they’re known as great because they have some sense of the market and manage to keep getting published over a long enough period time that critics and/or sycophants decide to label them “great.” This usually means being smart enough to know what acquiring editors want, and also (to a lesser extent) knowing what the acquiring editor’s audience wants. To have a career over decades, you probably have to adapt over time to new venues, new editors and new audiences. If you don’t… well, I hope you have a day job.
I was a reader of Christopher Hitchens; he wasn’t entirely editorially inflexible, and he didn’t exactly lack a willingness to go where the money was. I pretty strongly suspect that in the year 2020, Hitchens would have found a way to cast his thoughts in a manner that would be appealing to the market now. Either Brooks doesn’t understand that about Hitchens, or he thinks his readers don’t understand it, so he’s either a fool or a cynic (or both! It could be both!). Either way, he’s probably wrong.
Second, even if Hitchens had not progressed rhetorically since 2011, he’d still be perfectly employable, because — surprise! — the market is actually pretty vast, and there are certainly outlets that very profitably cater to the sort of audience who likes to wring its hands about “cancel culture,” and related nonsenseries, a concept that those very outlets have created in order to give their audiences that anxious “we’re under attack” feeling they apparently desperately crave. I mean, shit, David Brooks is still employed, for some unfathomable reason, and as far as I can tell he hasn’t switched up his particular bag of tricks since the Times hired him in 2003. David Brooks’ continued employment at the New York Times, the most establishment of publications, is its own best argument for why David Brooks’ assertion is complete horsepucky.
(Brooks then goes on to point out that so many of the writers he’s fretting about are now profitably self-publishing in any event, via Substack or other venues, which, I mean, good for them? Is this not the very embodiment of “get your own damn publishing press”? What is actually the problem here?)
I find the “[insert famous, now dead writer here] couldn’t be employed/published today” trope embarrassingly lazy in the best of times. It’s never true, to begin; in the world of books alone, publishers crank out hundreds of thousands of books annually, and self-publishing authors crank out hundreds of thousands more. You can write anything you want and set it out into the world.
It is true, for living authors, that certain publishers may decide they don’t want your book, for whatever reason; welcome to the world of publishing. Equally true, publishers may decide not to publish you for your politics or personal behavior; again, welcome to the world of publishing.
The good news is, there is often a publisher who will be just fine with your politics or personal behavior! Often run by the same overarching publishing conglomerate! In the last year we’ve seen some high profile book titles dropped by one publisher snapped up by another; this is not a new phenomenon. Or self-publish; it’s easy enough to do via ebook and print-on-demand, and you can even do presales via Kickstarter or some other venue. The point is, in fact, almost anyone can be published today.
What is not guaranteed is that everyone is published with the same status and stature as they might have had in years past, or that what they publish will be accepted with a minimum of criticism. But this is not exactly a new phenomenon either, is it? Careers go up, careers go down; people fall out of fashion and then have a resurgence, or not; others plug away for decades and never break into the common consciousness; people whose work was critically acclaimed stop being reviewed; people’s political views stop being mainstream, or they stop having mainstream views and move to the fringe, and their common appeal suffers. Yes, social media has decentralized some aspects of this process; the process itself is as old as the hills.
Ultimately David Brooks’ tweet and column are just the plaintive whine of someone comfortable with things as they were: Why couldn’t they have stayed that way? The answer is not all that surprising: Because they weren’t ever that way for long, you just came up in a moment. And now that moment’s over. Get on with it, or it will get over you.
And when it does, don’t worry: there’s always a Substack newsletter waiting.
Well, this is sad news for me and about 2,000 other nerds:
The safety & well-being of our attendees, crew & performing guests are of the utmost importance to us. So we have made the difficult decision to reschedule JoCo Cruise 2021 to March 5-12, 2022. If you were booked for 2021, check your email for detailed info about this process. pic.twitter.com/jdSNKZ40us
Sad, but of course necessary. While I would like to think by next March we’ll be seeing the light at the end of the Covid-19 tunnel, given how well this country has managed its response to the pandemic so far (and Florida in particular, as that is where the cruise would launch from), it’s best to assume that the Covid tunnel is long, and the light further away than we would like it to be. Nothing would ruin a cruise like everyone on it confined to quarters the entire time.
It’s still disappointing. I’ll miss my friends and I’ll miss the community that has spring up on the JoCoCruise over the years. I feel pretty strongly that this community will keep itself intact even though it will be necessary to skip over a year, however, so that when we reconvene in 2022 (knocks on wood) it will be, well, not like no time has passed, but at least that the absence will have in fact made hearts grow fonder.
As an aside, this now means that officially and finally I have no conventions or events scheduled for more than a year from today, and (equally obviously), had none scheduled since I got off the JoCoCruise in March. This is the longest I’ve gone between a convention or event since (checks calendar) 2003. That’s just wild. Fortunately I like my house, and the people in it. Even so.
My office chair, which was your basic Staples Special, blew its pneumatic cylinder a couple of weeks ago, and in the interim I’ve been using Athena’s desk chair, which I don’t like much because it’s not terribly comfortable and it doesn’t have arms, which it turns out are things that I need if I want to type for more than an hour at a stretch. So I have been looking at new office chairs and in doing so have visiting the realm of expensive office chairs, in which one can spend anywhere from $800 to $1,600 for various back and butt supports. The one pictured above, the Steelcase Leap, is about $1,000 if you go for customization, like “wasabi”-colored fabric instead of black.
And of course my brain goes in two directions looking at this. The first direction is: Well, you can afford it and you need a good, comfortable, ergonomically-designed chair, and over the long term this is a sensible business purchase. The second direction is: $1,000 for a friggin’ chair? Someone is SUPER high! You need that money! For stuff! Use an old barstool, it’ll be fine!
Spoiler: It won’t be fine. I’m 51 years old, and even if my body is in generally decent shape, I feel it if I’m sitting in a not great chair for any period of time now. Also, the second voice is a goddamn hypocrite, because it has no problem spending the same amount for a new phone or a guitar. I can’t (or at least shouldn’t) sit on a phone or guitar for several hours a day.
What it comes down to is that my brain is a weird thing that continually confronts me with irrational pronouncements of what is “affordable” and what is “too expensive.” A well-made, carefully designed seating apparatus with a 12-year warranty that I will use every day for years? Too much! A tiny rectangle of metal and ceramic for the same price that I will use for a year to take pictures of cats and to yell at people on the internet before trading it in for a slightly improved tiny rectangle that I will use to do exactly the same things on? Perfectly priced, get it NOW! I do not trust my brain, is what I’m saying.
I do, however, trust Krissy’s brain, which has instructed me to go ahead and get the aforementioned Steelcase Leap, albeit in basic black rather than Wasabi, on the basis that it is both $150 cheaper and will arrive in a week rather than in three. A sensible brain, that one. I’m glad it’s around.
Having spent my morning plugging away on the web site, I now turn my attention to what’s going on (waves abstractly) out there:
Ohio’s Speaker of the House is in some deep shit: Turns out you’re not supposed to (allegedly) take bribes! Which I suspect Larry Householder probably knew, but I guess he thought that maybe just this one time either no one would notice or that they wouldn’t care. Turns out, maybe they do? Almost as a side note, the bribery scandal is about Ohio helping to prop up old and/or dirty energy sources at the expense of newer and cleaner sources. I am not so naive that I do not think Democrats cannot get caught with their hand in the cookie jar as much and as often as Republicans, but certainly the dynamics of this particular bribery scandal seem ready made for the GOP. There are calls for Householder to resign his speakership; I’m curious as to how long he’ll try to hold onto it.
Speaking of the fair state of my residence:
Ohio finally gets a statewide mask order: As of tomorrow at 6pm, if you’re out in the world, or at least the Ohio part of it, you have to be wearing a mask. I gave Ohio Governor Mike DeWine a fair amount of praise early on, and then slack later, for how he handled the plague crisis here, but honestly he should have made a mandatory mask order a long time ago. The state’s infection numbers have been headed up for a while now. I live in the part of the state where mask use has been, shall we say, spotty at best, so I’ll be very curious as to a) how this will be taken up, and b) whether there will genuinely be any enforcement of it. I’d like to think that between retail outlets like Kroger and Walmart requiring masks and the state itself backing them up, we’ll finally get more than 50% of people masking up. I guess we’ll see.
Author bulk buys his book to get on a bestseller list, gets dropped from the list: Which is not a real surprise, since the organizations that create the bestseller lists (in this case the Sunday Times in the UK) frown on people so very obviously gaming those lists for personal gain. Personally I’m mildly surprised that the bulk buy worked at all; over on this side of the Atlantic the list-makers have been hip to that tactic for years; you have to really work at it more than just buying a whole bunch of your own books from an obliging local retailer (and then talk about it in public almost charmingly guilelessly, as this author apparently did).
Back in the day, when my haters were particularly exercised about me, they liked to pretend that I got on bestseller lists because Tor bulk bought my books; aside from being wrong, it was charming how little these dudes knew about how the listmakers are on the lookout for nonsense like that.
Volcanoes on Venus, maybe: This is cool because all the smart scientific money was on Venus being volcanically dormant, but it appears that maybe it’s not, or wasn’t fairly recently (“recently” in this case being within a couple of million years of the present). This is a reminder that even now we’re learning new things about celestial bodies we already thought we knew so much about. The universe keeps throwing us curve balls, and it’s great. Venus is even more of a hellish deathtrap than we thought! How awesome is that?!?
Whatsername (Susannah Hoffs): For honestly and genuinely no reason whatsoever, this mashup popped up in my head, mixing up “Whatsername” from Green Day with “Manic Monday” from the Bangles. It’s tremendously good. And now it’s also more than a decade old, because Internet Culture isn’t new anymore, folks, for better and for worse.