Big Idea

The Big Idea: Rebecca Coffindaffer

Sometimes, despite all your efforts to the contrary, you have to think about being the hero. Or so author Rebecca Coffindaffer might argue, in the context of her novel Crownchasers.


I love a reluctant hero.

I’ve loved them ever since I sat, wide-eyed, as my dad read The Fellowship of the Ring out loud and I listened as poor Frodo and Samwise found themselves further and further entangled in the fate of the One Ring. I love Ellen Ripley, who never wanted to go back to that damn planet but still ended up on a Weyland-Yutani ship. I love Buffy Summers, the Slayer who just wanted to be normal.

It’s that moment in Gladiator. When Russell Crowe’s Maximus is offered the imperial throne of Rome. With all my heart, no, he says, and the great Richard Harris as Marcus Aurelius replies, That is why it MUST be you!

I created the main character of Crownchasers, Alyssa Farshot, in the vein of some of my favorite heroes — Han Solo, Indiana Jones, Buffy, Kara “Starbuck” Thrace. She’s quick with a comeback, runs headfirst into danger, and is really great at the controls of a spaceship (but absolutely terrible with her own emotions).

And like General Maximus Decimus Meridius, she stands at the heart of an empire and is offered power she doesn’t want.

Alyssa is the niece of Atar Faroshti, the emperor of 1,001 planets — his only true heir, really — but she has no interest in the throne. Her eyes are on the stars, searching for the next great discovery, the next exhilarating experience, as she crisscrosses the galaxy in her beloved starship. But when her uncle’s health deteriorates suddenly, he calls for a crownchase — a race across the galaxy between the most elite families in the empire to find the royal seal and claim the throne — and Alyssa is pulled back into the tangled web of imperial politics that she’s been working so hard to escape. She knows all too well the kind of damage a struggle for power can do — most of the Faroshti family, including her mother, was lost to a war over the crown — and she’s never wanted to go down that road. She just wants to be…Alyssa, free to choose her own path and make her own (oftentimes questionable) life choices.

When I started writing Crownchasers a few years ago, what I needed most was a project where I could challenge myself to put the voice front and center and rediscover a little of what made writing fun. And writing this dashing, funny, thoroughly reluctant hero was most definitely fun.

But even as I pieced Alyssa and her story together, I struggled with whether we needed another reluctant hero, especially in the world we live in right now. A world where so many of us feel our powerlessness amplified by every new crisis plastered across the churn of media, and no matter how much we shout about the corruption and inequality and violence and suffering, the response from those entrenched at the top is, “Who cares?” Could I even still love a reluctant hero as I watched what was happening, knowing how much I would give to stand toe to toe with the rich and powerful and have the leverage to make a difference, make them listen, gain by feet instead of inches? C’mon, Becks, why write another reluctant hero?

And then I realized: it’s never been about their reluctance. It’s always been about the poignancy of the moment they choose.

Frodo steps into the middle of Elrond’s Council and volunteers to go to Mordor.

Han Solo and Chewie reappear in the middle of the battle against the Death Star.

Ripley gears up and wades into the heart of the xenomorph nest.

Buffy steps out of her front door so she can save the world again.

The power of that decision, where you can feel in your chest how much the character would rather be doing anything else in the world but they turn and choose to fight anyway — that is the true crux of the reluctant hero. They do it because they can, sure, but mainly they do it because it’s right and deep down they always knew that.

I wanted to take Alyssa Farshot on a journey like that. A journey that includes so much of what I love about science fiction and space opera, galactic politics and starship battles, and traveling faster than light between strange new worlds. But also a journey that, at its very core, is really about one reckless, wiseass, wonder-filled girl realizing she has the responsibility to become the hero she never wanted to be.


Crownchasers: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Bookshop|Indiebound

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


A White Supremacist, For White Supremacists, Counting on White Supremacists

Screen capture from C-SPAN, photoedited by me.

Last night, after catching up with a debate that it turns out I was 100% correct not to watch live, and thus still have a TV that’s functional because I didn’t throw something heavy at it, I wrote this on Twitter:

Now it’s the next morning and it still looks like that was the accurate takeaway from the debate. If there was still somehow any doubt in anyone’s mind that Trump is in the tank for white supremacy, because white supremacy is in the tank for him, last night’s “debate” should have taken away that fig leaf. Not only could Trump not bring himself to disavow white supremacists longer than a sentence or two, he doubled down on them and effectively told them to wait for his signal. Certainly the white supremacists have taken it that way: “Proud Boys” and neo-nazis are openly saying they’re waiting for his further orders. He signaled to them that they were his personal paramilitary shock troops, and they have responded: Yes. Yes they are.

Let’s be clear about this: A sitting president of the United States has openly and actively claimed control of a legion of white supremacist domestic terrorists, and that legion of white supremacist domestic terrorists has openly and actively told him they’re his to command. You can’t pretend it didn’t happen — the white supremacists certainly aren’t pretending that. They heard him loud and clear. This wasn’t a dog whistle. “Stand back and stand by” is an explicit admission of control and a passing of orders.

Four years ago, after Trump, much to the dismay of himself and others, was elected to the presidency, I wrote about the Cinemax Theory of Racism, about how people who said that they voted for a racist for reasons other than his racism were still on the hook for supporting a racist. The racist in question, Trump, was never coy about the racism (and sexism, and every other bigotry he offers on display); it was there front and center, all through the campaign. When people claimed they were voting for him for other reasons, they were saying “I want this more than I’m worried about his bigotry.” Perhaps, presuming they were concerned about that they were worried about his bigotry at all, they were of the opinion that once in office, his tendencies would be moderated by his advisors and underlings.

And, well. We see what happened there. From Charlottesville to last night, every time Trump has an opportunity to condemn white supremacy, he finds a way to weave and dodge and then wink at the white supremacists. After last night’s explicit “stand by” command, which everyone watching heard and immediately understood, Trump’s underlings have attempted to flood social media with examples of Trump condemning white supremacy and white supremacists. The problem with that is a) the examples are belied by Trump’s actions and policies, b) no one who isn’t a credulous child thinks he was sincere when he said that, least of all the white supremacists. White supremacists get that Trump has to occasionally pretend not to be one of them; that’s how the white supremacist game is played.

It’s one reason why they exploded with joy last night after Trump’s command to them. For just a moment, senpai well and truly noticed them. And sure, today, the underlings have to pretend that what actually happened didn’t actually happen, and maybe even Trump himself will be prodded into walking back what he said. Again, the white supremacists understand how that all works. They also know that Trump has told them he knows they’re in his pocket, and he likes that they’re there. They like it too. This is where we are, four years in: A president who waves to white supremacists in a debate, and then his underlings pretend that he didn’t and are angry that you saw it, even as the white supremacists are quite happily waving back.

Which is the point: Four years ago, a Trump voter who hoped to avoid being splashed by his bigotry and white supremacy could hope someone would keep him in check. Today, when the man might as well have a neon sign over his head flashing “The Nazis Will Riot When I Say So,” they don’t have either that luxury or excuse. Americans generally are not better off than they were four years ago; the president has had a disastrous four years in office and has no actual plans for the next four, other than grift and white supremacy. Any attempt to get him to articulate a policy will result in an answer that’s fifty percent rambling (probably lies), forty percent self-congratulation (definitely lies), and ten percent appalling (and thus probably true). Again: all Trump has to offer is grift and white supremacy. That’s all there is. That’s pretty much all there ever was, it turns out, but now there’s no pretending otherwise without looking like a fool.

Trump’s supporters are generally not likely to get onto his grift, so that just leaves white supremacy as the thing they’re getting out of the next four years. That’s the platform, that’s the policy, and that’s the promise. That’s pretty much all Trump supporters are voting for, here in 2020. They can pretend it’s something else — anything else! — but that’s the deal, and none of the rest of us at this point need to pretend otherwise. White power and stripping down the US for parts: Trump 2020.

If it works, and Trump is elected for a second term, then I don’t expect that Trump is even going to bother with pretending that he or his administration is opposed to white supremacy, or that he isn’t a white supremacist. After all, white supremacy was what he was offering, and it worked. As Molly Ivins memorably said, you dance with them what brung ya. He’ll be under no obligation toward, and have no interest in, pretending otherwise.

And if it doesn’t work — and let’s again be clear, at this point, it doesn’t look like it will, and Trump’s window for legitimately winning the election is closing rapidly — well. The Proud Boys and the neo-nazis and all the other white supremacists are standing by. Trump asked them to. Loud and clear, and in front of an entire nation.

— JS

Correction, 1:09pm: I’d originally had the quote as “stand down and stand by”; it was “stand back and stand by.” I’ve fixed the graphic and the quote in the entry. 

Athena Scalzi

Answer Time!

And now, the moment you’ve all been waiting for (since last Monday)! I have picked a handful of questions from all your lovely inquires. If I didn’t pick yours, I’m sorry, there were seriously a ton of really good ones that I did not pick simply because I didn’t have a solid, clear cut answer, or because I wouldn’t be able to answer them in just a paragraph or less. Anyways, without further ado:

jeffbaker307 asks: Do you write any short stories?

Yes! Short stories are like my specialty. That and poetry, especially haikus, because writing long things is kind of proving to be harder than I thought it would be. But, yeah, I love short stories! I used to write a lot more of them when I was in high school and had to constantly write short stories for creative writing class, but I definitely still enjoy it. In fact, I shared one of my short stories on here back when I was writing in 2018!

Susan asks: What is your favorite dinosaur?

I have always really loved long necks, aka the brachiosaurus. Just really seems like a gentle giant, you know? I love that they’re so huge and yet they’re herbivores. They’re always portrayed in dinosaur movies as the super friendly nice ones, and I think it’s made me biased. But honestly their design is just so cool, I mean they’re just ridiculously tall! Like their head had to have been twenty degrees colder than their legs at all times.

David Karger asks: It sounds like you live in an area where your neighbors are rather more conservative than your parents. Has growing up there pulled your politics to the right of your parents as well?

Oh lord no. I’m super far left. Which, in my opinion, anyone who is “radically left” isn’t really that far left, they just want basic human rights afforded to everyone, which isn’t that radical, but some people think it is. I guess I’d say I’m liberal, but I agree with a ton of socialist type stuff, too. In my mind, everyone should have access to a home, a hot meal, and a shower, no matter what. Homelessness and starvation is a failure of our government to serve its people. Growing up here has made me experience Trump supporters and their hatred first hand, and I’m more left than ever.

AlexaJade asks: What is your favorite flower?

I love all flowers! There’s so many fantastic, beautiful, colorful ones. But I’ve always been partial to tiger lilies. There’s something about seeing a big patch of them growing wild in a ditch and swaying in the breeze while driving down a country road. I first saw one when I was ten, at my friend’s grandparents’ house, and her grandma gave me some bulbs, so I could plant them, too. But they never grew. I wish my yard had them, like so many naturally do around here. Any bouquet is automatically enhanced by lilies. They’re show stoppers. It’s funny, orange is my least favorite color, and yet tiger lilies just really take the cake.

mopiegirl asks: I’ve always loved the name Athena; how do you feel about your name (and/or nicknames)?

Thank you! I actually really love my name, I’m so glad my parents named me it (shoutout to them and their awesome name skills). I have always loved Greek mythology, which may or may not be a result of narcissism because of my name, especially since Athena has always been my favorite and I adore her. I also like my name for more vain reasons. I like when strangers tell me my name is pretty, when people say it’s such a beautiful name. I dislike nicknames.

The Wooglie asks: What’s your favorite TV show you’ve watched in 2020 so far?

I don’t watch a lot of TV shows, it’s hard for me to have patience to watch like, nine seasons of something, especially if it’s one of those shows where seasons 1 and 2 are pretty good and then the rest absolutely blow. But I do really like Lucifer, especially since Netflix took over and they only have like ten episodes per season instead of like twenty-five. However, I think The Boys on Amazon Prime is the winner here. It is quite the show. I highly recommend it. I’m currently keeping up with the episodes of season 2 they’ve been releasing weekly, and it’s getting wild. Who am I kidding, it was wild from the get go! I adore it.

Hillary Rettig asks: Which college course to date has had the biggest impact on you, and why?

I would say my favorite so far, and the one that has been the most impactful, was Children’s Literature, aka ENG 262. I passed with a B+! I took it in the spring of my freshman year. It was wonderful! My professor was this lil’ ol’ lady who wore sweaters and skirts everyday and read us picture books. In the class, we started off the semester with picture books like Where the Wild Things Are, and then worked our way up through books such as Charlotte’s Web, Holes, The Giver, The Outsiders, and The Hunger Games. I had to do a report over The Outsiders and honestly, digging deeper into a children’s book I had read in seventh grade was kind of eye opening. There’s so much more packed into these books than you realize. Children’s authors are tasked with taking a great story and making it accessible for young readers, and that is an incredible talent. Children’s authors are shaping the minds of the future, and that’s no small feat. I had never considered being a children’s author before, but now I’m kind of considering it. I want to be a lot of things, y’know? Literature has a lot of variety.

Chris M asks: You were a vegetarian and stopped, weren’t you? What are your reasons then and now and what are your opinions on the ethics of meat consumption?

I was vegetarian for five years, starting when I was eleven, almost twelve, and ending on my 18th birthday. I went to Minicon when I was eleven and met a vegetarian named Isabel, and I had a conversation with her about vegetarianism. I couldn’t imagine not eating meat, but our conversation enlightened me. I started thinking about how utterly fucked up the meat industry is. Factory farming is an abhorrent thing, one of humanity’s cruelest creations, and after doing what meager research an eleven year old can do, I became too disgusted and sad with the idea of eating meat, so I stopped, cold turkey. I stopped for no good reason other than that I grew tired of it.

It’s not super hard to be vegetarian, but it does take more effort than not being vegetarian, especially when you live in rural Ohio. I just try not to think about it anymore. I try not to think about the mass suffering of animals, the nonstop slaughter of creatures who don’t deserve it. It’s just like the consumption of clothes from Old Navy or buying iPhones. You know they’re made overseas in sweatshops and you know the behind the scenes aren’t pretty, but you just don’t think about it. It’s so easy to just pretend to be ignorant to the suffering of others as long as it benefits you.

Our world is so very “City of Omelas”, and meat consumption is a part of that mindset of “just turn away and pretend like it’s not happening” for me. But in those moments you get a steak that’s just a bit too rare, or the heads are attached to the shrimp you’ve ordered, it comes flooding back; the guilt, the disgust, the abhorrence. I used to think hunting was cruel and harshly judged those who could go out and kill something themselves like that, but I see now that buying Tyson Chicken Nuggets or Oscar Meyer Bologna is far worse. I’ve been thinking of going vegetarian again lately.

Dean Rabo asks: Do you believe in life after death?

No. I’m not religious and I don’t believe in an afterlife. Once you’re done, you’re done. It’ll be just like before you were born: nothing. You will have no consciousness, no awareness, there is nothing but the void, forever. I don’t like thinking this way. I wish I believed in something nice, like Heaven, but I don’t. And even if I believed in Heaven, that’d mean I’d believe in Hell, too, and that’s where I’m going, if it exists, so I guess it’s better that there’s nothing. There is no soul, no pearly gates awaiting you upon your inevitable demise. Just the unyielding darkness. This fraction of existence if all you get, and then you will never exist again for all time. Enjoy it the best you can.

peggyleslie asks: What gives you joy?

After that super depressing answer above, I’m glad to end on something lighter! Things that give me joy include (but are not limited to): rainbows, baking cookies, flowers, kittens, eating a ripe cherry tomato right off the vine, the smell of rain, chai lattes, reading a good book in a hot bubble bath, the beach, farmers markets, bubble tea, picking out a pumpkin from a pumpkin patch, making apple cider and hot chocolate from scratch, smelling candles at the grocery store, getting pedicures, aaand spending time with my family.

Bonus question from glinda: What’s your favorite ice cream flavor?

Cotton Candy! Now and forever.

I had fun doing this. I liked a lot of your questions! Thank you to everyone who participated. I’d like to do this again sometime, so if your question didn’t get picked, you could try asking again next time. Have a great day!


Big Idea

The Big Idea: Lauren Shippen

Do you love a good villain story? Who doesn’t enjoy a nice anti-hero now and again, right? Take a trip to the dark side with author Lauren Shippen’s newest release, A Neon Darkness, and see just how bad a good person can be.


I never thought I would write a villain story. 

It isn’t that I don’t find villains compelling, or enjoy it when they monologue about their sinister plans—there are hundreds of engrossing, thoughtful stories about villains, anti-heroes, and those who never quite settle on either side. I liked these stories in the way that I like popcorn—I have a good time eating it and then the moment I’m done, I don’t think about popcorn until the next time it’s put in front of me. I certainly never expected to be spending all of my time out in cornfields. 

This metaphor is falling apart—the point is this: I’ve never mooned over the bad boy. It’s not that I want simple and perfect heroes either.  I like nuance, I like complicated characters, I like hanging in the moral grey area.  But mustache-twirling, leather jacket wearing, said-it-with-a-smirk-ing characters have never been the object of my affection. So imagine my surprise when I decided to write an entire book detailing the origin story of my own podcast’s antagonist, whom I had bestowed with the self-aware moniker of “Damien”. 

When I introduced Damien in The Bright Sessions, he was meant to be a direct commentary on the slick bad boys that send fans into a tizzy despite the bottomless black void that sits where their heart should be. What is it that makes people go wild for characters who behave so badly?  How much are we willing to excuse when a villain is given a tragic backstory of their own?  How much pain is a person in pain allowed to inflict on others? I created Damien to poke at this archetype, to show that, yes, a person can be redeemed but only if they are active in their own redemption. It isn’t the hero’s job to save their villain.

But then something funny happened. The more I got to know Damien—in writing with him and working with my voice actor, Charlie Ian, who also voiced the audiobook for A Neon Darkness—the more I realized that, in Damien’s mind, he was the hero. When we meet him in The Bright Sessions, he’s in his late twenties, comfortable with his supernatural ability, and refusing to take responsibility for his actions.  He’s the villain in everyone’s story, but the hero of his own. 

When I wrote A Neon Darkness, I wanted to flip this on its head.  Damien isn’t Damien yet—he’s still going by his given name, Robert. He’s eighteen and terrified of the power he has to make people do whatever he wants. It’s not that he doesn’t want to take responsibility, he doesn’t know how. Like a lot of young people arriving in a new city, with no idea what to do with his life, Robert makes mistake after mistake, but also falls in love with a place, with a group of people, and realizes that the thing he wants most is to keep them. 

Robert’s intentions in A Neon Darkness aren’t to gain perfect control of his ability, or to get money or fame or power.  He isn’t trying to take over the world or build his perfect life.  He’s just trying to keep the family he’s built and will do anything to achieve it, even when it means hurting the people he loves most. And that was my Big Idea: do intentions matter when we do bad things? Can intention redeem our actions? How many chances do we give someone who behaves cruelly but doesn’t have cruel intentions?  Robert may be the protagonist of A Neon Darkness, but this time he isn’t the hero. 

I fell for my own trap. In trying to create a straightforward commentary on inexplicably captivating villains, I got captivated.  I decided to put gourmet truffle salt on the popcorn.  But those little corn kernels still get stuck in your teeth. They cut your gums, pouring salt in the wound, but you keep going back for more. Now that I’ve written a villain story of my own, I don’t know that I have an answer for why I find them compelling, why I keep putting my hand into that popcorn bowl.  But if I were to wager a guess, I might admit that sometimes I worry I’m the villain of my own story too.  And that if I understand what a real villain looks like, I can work on being the hero. 

I have one last confession: Damien does smirk. Once. 


A Neon Darkness: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|IndieBound|Powell’s

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



Sunset, 9/28/20

Because it’s been a long day, and you deserve a moment of beauty.

— JS


What We Knew, What We Know, and Why It Matters

Does the New York Times’ extensive and highly-researched dive into Donald Trump’s taxes tell us anything we didn’t know before? As a practical matter, yes: Donald Trump actively avoided releasing his taxes for years, and now we have the actual facts and figures out in the open — or, at least, the actual facts and figures that Trump’s legions of accountants and tax lawyers decided they could not avoid offering up to the Internal Revenue Service without substantial and likely public repercussion. We also have the little tidbits, like the already-infamous $750 sum for income taxes that Trump paid with his most recent available filing, which is less than most people who do pay taxes shelled out, and which is still more than what he paid most years, which was zero. We now actually know things we didn’t, which Trump would have been happy for us not to know, forever, if possible.

As an existential matter, no: This doesn’t tell us anything we didn’t already know. No one but the most credulous and gormless among us wasn’t aware of the Trump Presidency origin story: An overextended and overleveraged Trump, who is not so much a successful businessman as a someone who cosplayed as a successful businessman on TV, decided to “run for president” in order generate publicity to raise his personal commercial value. This publicity, however, would have been worthless if his taxes were released and he was revealed to be a threadbare huckster on the verge of dissolution who paid less on his taxes than a fry cook, and who is up to his neck in debt owned by foreign interests.

So he stalled on those until, thanks to a perfect storm of internal and external political factors, he experienced the actual worst case scenario for him, and for everybody else: He won and had to become president. Since then he’s been doing the only thing he knows how to do, which is to keep running his grift from the Oval Office, because the moment he stops, it all falls down.

All of this was known by anyone with the sense to know, and the willingness to know it. The tax numbers fill in details here and there, but the outline of the Origin Story of the Trump Presidency, which is both tragedy and farce, was already there.

Likewise, now we know for sure why it is Trump is running for re-election. It’s not that he wants the job or has a legislative or political agenda, or has any interest for or in the country he leads or the people in it. It’s because as long as he is president, all his personal financial misfortunes are shoved down the road. It may be technically possible to bankrupt a man with access to nuclear codes, but as a practical matter, it’s difficult. That doesn’t mean he’s not still in thrall, and susceptible to, the people to whom he owes money, or the political players behind those people. As they say, follow the money, and you’ll see an entire nation’s foreign policy hinging on who will cut Trump the best deal on his debt.

Equally clearly, Trump’s avoidance of personal consequence for his own financial acts is strong enough that he’s perfectly willing to undermine the validity of the election in order to stay where he is. If you were to ask him which he prefers, a functional American democracy or rolling out the crushing weight of his own debt load for another four years, you know which of these he’d choose. Someone should ask him, because after the five or so minutes of meandering word salad that passes for thought in the man’s head, he would actually say it out loud, and probably not understand why what he said was so wrong.

But let’s be clear that Trump couldn’t have gotten where he is alone. I’m not talking about the Russians or the other foreign interests who meddled with the 2016 election, although they did, and, again, everyone knows it. No, Trump needed people on the inside, and got that with the GOP. Trump neither wanted nor deserved a first term. But he got one, thanks to the GOP intellectually and politically neutering itself to the point where its base of voters gleefully swamped the “best minds” of the party to embrace a flashy con man, who happily peddled the white supremacy and bigotry they craved after eight years of having to tolerate a black man in the White House. Trump then had the good fortune of having as his political opponent someone who was both a woman (hey, did you know the GOP is also structurally sexist?), and also someone the GOP had already spent two decades vilifying on a regular and profitable basis (and yet she still got more actual voters to vote for her than Trump did, which is an important point, and which still galls Trump).

Trump doesn’t deserve a second term, either, and at this point probably can’t get one fairly. But he might get one anyway, because the GOP has definitively decided to say the quiet part loud, after years of pretending that it wasn’t saying it loudly: That a white supremacist autocracy is better than a democracy where the GOP is out of power, probably forever. That Trump is the instrument of this works perfectly well for the GOP; since Reagan the party has shown a preference for dimwitted, incurious men to install in the top office while apparatchiks do the heavy lifting away from the spotlight. Trump is certainly dimwitted and incurious. He’s also dangerous, because he owes so much money to entities that do not have the interests of the United States at heart, but the GOP has decided that as long as they can finally dismantle the social net, keep women from having control of their own bodies, and shove minorities, immigrants and the gays back into their respective holes, meh, whatever, that’s fine.

So this is the bargain between Trump and the GOP for the second term. He gets to kick his money troubles down the road, they get to perfect their white, christianist, oligarchic autocracy. We already knew why the GOP does what it does — because it’s currently a white supremacist organization whose entire political modus operandi is to deny that any other party should have control of the levers of power, whether they earned them at the ballot box or not — and now, thanks to the tax returns, we have confirmation of what we already knew about Trump: Grifter, con man, fraud, and broke… and terrified of having all of that revealed beyond the power of denial.

And thus we are at a place where we know what we knew before — only now we know it factually, and have the actual numbers. Already on the right are assertions of “it’s fake news and even if it’s not so what,” and on the left I’ve seen “it’s not going to change anyone’s mind, so what’s the point.” The former doesn’t surprise me, because the people who are in the tank for Trump aren’t there because they’re interested in facts, they’re there for the white supremacy and owning the libs; the latter doesn’t surprise me because there’s always an element on the left who would prefer to be defeatist pieces of shit because it doesn’t require any effort on their part.

The thing is, it’s not fake news, and the truth always matters, sooner or later. There’s no hiding what Trump is any more, versus what he presents himself to be, and no one can go into this election unaware of what and who they’re voting for, or against. We know what we already knew. Now let’s hope we know better.

— JS


Mayhaw Jelly and Novel Crunch Time: Two Unrelated Things in a Single Post

First: as we recently did a survey of fancy jams here on Whatever, a reader (who I will let self-identify if they wish in the comments) sent along a type of jelly I had not heard of before: mayhaw jelly, “mayhaw” being a seasonal fruit in the South of the US, apparently ripening in May, or thereabouts. I and Athena have sampled the stuff and it’s quite tasty — “like a tarter strawberry” is how our northern palates have translated it. As noted previously, I had not known of mayhaw as a type of fruit (or tree) and I am delighted to still be discovering new flavors indigenous to these fine United States. Also, I can recommend mayhaw jelly (or at the very least this Cane River brand of it), and can assure you all we’ll be working through his jar of the stuff. Thank you to this reader for sending it along. It will definitely not go to waste.

Second: In other, entirely unrelated-to-jellies-and-jams news, we’re coming into crunch time for the novel I’m writing, so over the next few weeks I may be writing shorter and/or skipping days entirely around here. I realize that I say this every time I get into crunch time with a novel, and then often go on a massive post spree, because my brain doesn’t make sense and I am a doofus. But on the off chance I actually stay disciplined this time around, uh, yeah, see that first sentence of this paragraph again. The good news is there is a second contributor to the site now, and also there are a lot of Big Idea pieces for October, so even if I post less, you might not miss me.

Also, until the novel is done, I’m going to try to cut down on my news consumption. Theoretically, when I’m writing I avoid reading the new until the close of the business day; for the next several weeks I will actually attempt to implement this. Of course, the month before a presidential election is not a great time to try this, especially this presidential election. I am helped slightly by the fact that I have already planned to vote early and at the first opportunity, so after that point I can say that I’ve done my part and leave it up to the rest of you to do likewise.

I’m not going to try to hide from news entirely — that’s going to be impossible — but I am going to prioritize my brain cycles. I can focus on the novel, or I can focus on the election. The election will happen whether I focus on it or not; the novel, on the other hand, will not. Don’t worry; I’ll still be yelling at you all to vote, just like I’ve done all year long. But this diminishment of engagement of news might mean fewer topical posts from me until the novel is done. This may be a disappointment for some of you, but then again, people here rarely complain about cat and sunset posts.

So: Mayhaw jelly — pretty great; novel crunch time — also great, but a focus time for me, so be aware. And now you’re all caught up on the trivia of my life that I’m deciding to share right now in a public fashion!

— JS


And Now, Something Relaxing

It’s not that I was having a stressful Saturday — it was in fact mostly fine! — but the world is a lot these days, isn’t it, and you might need a moment to center yourself. This lovely new song by musician Rachel Croft just might do the trick for you. Enjoy, and have a lovely rest of your Saturday.

— JS

Athena Scalzi

Get Gud, Scrub

I’ve always loved video games. My whole life, I’ve been enamored with the gaming world, from the PS2 to the Nintendo Switch, from arcade machines at the movie theater to the PC (which is obviously the best but we’ll save that for another post). But there is one thing I’ve been noticing recently that I never really had an issue with when I was younger. I’m not sure if it’s just me or if it’s like, a newer game problem, but: Everything is too difficult.

I know, I sound like a big crybaby who isn’t very good at video games. And you’re right, I am exactly that. But I honestly believe that combat in recent video games is too difficult! I tried to play Fallout 4 on the PS4 this year and no joke I got my shit rocked by glowing ghouls and synths alike. I’m less than halfway through the game because I simply can’t complete the missions I’m supposed to, I just get sick of trying after like my seventh attempt.

I’m mentioning all this because I was planning to write a post this week over Red Dead Redemption 2. All I had to do was complete the last mission and then I was going to write up my post, easy peasy. However, when I sat down yesterday to finish the game, I found that I was getting my ass handed to me on a silver platter by some cowboy NPCs. So instead of making that post, I’m making this one to complain about how tough this shit can be.

Most of my life, I’ve played games where you can adjust the difficulty setting. Even some newer games, like Spider-Man for the PS4, have choices between easier combat for players who are more focused on the story, and harder combat for those who like a challenge. Some games like this will make fun of you for choosing the easy route, but I’m not about to set myself up for failure by picking something harder than I can handle.

This difficulty setting from Wolfenstein is especially funny to me because when I was a kid I would play games with my dad on his computer. I would sit in his lap and he’d let me be the guns and he’d do the movement, and we’d kick the shit out of aliens in Half-Life.

When it comes to games being so difficult you can’t even play them, I think the first one that comes to anyone’s mind is Dark Souls. Absolutely bonkers. Rage quit every time. Listen, I bought the remastered version on the Switch earlier this year and I’m quite literally not even past the second boss. This game gets a pass in my mind though because it’s specifically meant to be hard as fuck. Or is that false, and I just think that because I’ve heard my whole life that it’s ridiculously hard?

Anyways, maybe I’m just worse at video games than I previously thought. Maybe I just don’t have that pro-gamer gene in me. All I know is, I’ve abandoned a lot of games, games that I really liked and enjoyed and thought were super cool, just because I simply can’t continue. It’s just too hard.

This is one of the interesting things about a game like Skyrim. You can go around and explore and find things to fight in the woods. However, if you accidentally come across a level 90 dragon priest up in the mountains, you can RUN AWAY. You don’t have to fight! You can outrun pretty much any enemy. So yes, the combat can be hard if you stumble upon an NPC that’s a way higher level than you, but you can just as easily avoid said conflicts or even run away from them. You should always have a “chicken out” option.

There are just so many games I’ve stopped playing either halfway through, or at the final boss fight. Another good example is Breath of the Wild. As much as I adore practically everything about it, the Divine Beasts are ridiculously hard. I started with the elephant and the camel, and I had to look up walkthroughs for both. I would have never gotten them on my own, and they’re supposed to be the easier two of the four!

I’m really starting to think this might just be a me problem though, because all of my friends that play the same games seem to have no trouble with them. Especially the handful of my friends that are really good at Dark Souls. Maybe I’m just the weak link in my gamer group, y’know?

(Unrelated to combat being too difficult, but can we talk about how RIDICULOUSLY DIFFICULT Rocket League is?! GOD that shit is so annoying.)

Okay, back to my original point. It’s especially frustrating to not be able to beat a game when you spend sixty bucks on it. Like, at that point I’m just mad at myself that not only am I not good enough to win, but I spent money on this unbeatable game!

So, yeah. Just wanted to have a quick vent about that and explain why you all shan’t be receiving a Red Dead Redemption 2 post (yet). I’m off to give it another whirl. Yee-haw!



In Which I Offer An Opinion So Contentious It May Rock the Very Fabric of Our Society

And it is:

Brach’s Mellocreme Pumpkins are the best mass-produced, fall-themed candies of them all.


— JS

Athena Scalzi

The Art VS the Artist

Last night, I wrote a post for the blog. It was only about seven hundred words, and it took me probably an hour or just over that to write it. In the post, I was talking about how much I liked a piece of media, and telling all of you to consume the media, too. However, after completing the post, I told my friend what it was about, and they informed me that the creator of said media was kind of a bad person.

I had known the creator wasn’t, like, an ideal person, or someone to really look up to, but after learning about this heinous thing they did, I decided I simply couldn’t post something that was promoting them or giving them the spotlight in any kind of way.

And so comes the age-old question; how much can you separate an artist from their art? Are you a bad person if you enjoy the creations of a flawed creator? Can I still watch Baby Driver even though Kevin Spacey is in it? Can someone enjoy a Woody Allen movie or does that make them complicit in his awfulness? Can I still love a book series even if the author turns out to be really problematic?

If you consume the creation and enjoy it and don’t know about the bad deeds of the creator, does that make it okay because you simply didn’t know? And then if you find out and continue to enjoy that thing, does that make you a bad person? What if it’s been years and years since said celebrity got “cancelled”? After a certain time period, is it okay to enjoy your problematic faves again? If you acknowledge that the creator is flawed and keep that in mind while consuming their media, does that make it acceptable, or worse?

If we got rid of every single piece of media ever made that had someone problematic star in it, direct it, write it, sing it, or create it, how much would we have left? How many people are actually bad and problematic, how many were falsely “cancelled”, and how many people have more complicated cases that we don’t know all the facts about?

For example, Johnny Depp. Here’s a celebrity that has starred in pretty much everything, and has done a good job, and became widely loved by the public. So when it came out that he might be an abuser, a lot of people were completely shocked. Some swore off Johnny Depp movies forever, and some adoring fans stood at his defense. Then, recently, when it was revealed maybe he was actually the victim, those same fans said they knew he wasn’t bad all along, and suddenly all those people who had banished Johnny Depp movies from their lives could watch Pirates of the Caribbean again without feeling guilty. But his case is ongoing. Is he the victim, the victimizer, or both? During this ongoing case, should we continue to enjoy his movies in good faith that he is a good person, or steer clear of his work just in case he isn’t?

I can’t get on a high horse and say “you shouldn’t engage with this media because so and so is a garbage human” but then turn around and consume media from people I definitely think are a problemIs piracy a viable option in this situation? If there’s a movie you want to see but don’t want to put money in the pocket of the problematic director, is that fair to subsequently be taking money out of the pocket of all the actors, producers, and others who worked on the film? Maybe you could just borrow a copy of the DVD from a friend who already purchased it, or get a copy from your local library? Same with books from problematic authors.

On the other hand, old books that are now seen as kind of bad, the ones where the authors are long dead, if you buy a copy, where does that money go to? It’s okay to buy it if it isn’t supporting the racist/sexist/homophobic dead author, right?

I don’t really have the answer to any of these questions. I think it’s okay sometimes to like art made by problematic people, but also to make sure you don’t give them a platform or showcase them to others like I almost did with my post last night. And maybe don’t buy the problematic person’s merch. There are some cases where you’d literally have to be living under a rock to not know what someone did, and then there are cases where you really had no idea that this person did a bad thing a decade ago. It’s okay if you didn’t know, I think. It’s not your job to keep tabs on every single creator and celebrity in the world. Ignorance is okay, so long as it’s not willful.



Hey, I’m Doing an Audible Live Event Tomorrow (9/24/20)

In which I will discuss my Number One Top Audible Plus Listen(ed to) audiobook Murder By Other Means, and other things about writing and life and cats and stuff and things. If you’re not doing anything tomorrow (September 24, 2020) at 8pm ET, come on by. And if you are doing something at the time, if you find it boring and inexorable, then fake a charley horse to get out of it, and then come see me do my thing. Simple!

— JS


Autumn’s First Sunset

It’s very dramatic. It would be lovely if this was as dramatic as this autumn was going to get. But I wouldn’t count on that.

— JS


The State of Masking in Trump Country: An Anecdotal Report

I had a doctor’s appointment today (spoiler: I’m fine, everything’s fine), and I was excited about it because I haven’t been out of the house for a while and also I bought some new masks and I was excited to try one of them out. The new masks are triple layer (one of the layers being an N95 insert), have an elastic band around the back of the head so they don’t fall off, and fit snugly around the chin for extra cover-your-faceness. Welcome to 2020, masks are so in this year.

Well, sort of. As most of you know, I live in a county that went 78% for Trump in 2016 and is likely to pull similar numbers this year, and out in Trump Country, masks are the sign of a multinational Soros-funded conspiracy to compromise our precious bodily fluids, or whatever. So the question is: What is the status of mask wearing in rural-ish America, or at least the part of it where I live and move around in?

The answer: Spotty! At the doctor’s office, of course, it was full compliance; all the receptionists, nurses and doctors wore masks (mostly basic disposable surgical masks) and wore them the entire time they were working on me. I also wore mine the entire time, as I was not there for anything that involved anyone needing me to breathe on them, or them looking down my throat. I suspect it would be a bad time for anyone trying to argue in a medical office that masks weren’t needed or required.

Then I went to Kroger, to pick up some things, and the mask-wearing percentage dropped significantly. Who were wearing masks? Well, it wasn’t middle-aged-and-younger dudes, I can tell you that much; not counting the dudes working, I was the only man my age or younger wearing a mask. Older men (and older people in general) were wearing masks, probably because regardless of their political positions it’s been drilled into their heads by now that older people are more susceptible to the ravages of COVID-19 than younger people. That said, of the younger men I saw not wearing masks, a rather lot of them had, how best to put it, obvious co-morbidity factors. It probably wouldn’t be great for them if they got sick.

Anecdotally, this has been the way of it for a while now out here: If you’re a man visibly under the age of 60 (and here where I live, in a county that is 98.5% white, this means basically white men under the age of 60), you’re far more likely not to be wearing a mask out in public, and in the retail sphere, than you are to be wearing one. Now, note that Kroger and nearly all other retail establishments have signs at the entrances telling customers that masks are required; the dudes are ignoring them and the retail workers (all of whom are masked) are not stopping them, because we’ve all seen the videos of people completely losing their shit when asked to wear a mask, and retail doesn’t pay enough for that sort of nonsense. Over the age of 60, men wearing masks becomes more common, because they don’t want to die. In my experience the ratio of women of all ages wearing masks is the inverse of the men under 60; most women wear masks, but some don’t.

Mask wearing, at least as I see it here and in my own anecdotal experience, is very definitely coded by sex, and while I haven’t done any sort of serious study of it — I’m not out in front of Kroger, tallying up masks and not masks — it wouldn’t terribly surprise me if the correlation between who refuses to wear a mask and who is voting for Trump is very high. Likewise the correlation between the dudes not wearing a mask and their level of education (less than a quarter of the people who live in Darke county have a bachelor’s degree), which again correlates well with one of Trump’s most solid voting constituencies. Trump eschews the wearing of masks and has made wearing them both political and a referendum on masculinity, so it’s not entirely surprising if his supporters have followed suit.

Does this mean that I am getting terrible looks from dudes because I’m wearing a mask? Not at all; mostly everyone in Kroger and elsewhere is working on minding their own business. I do find anecdotally that dudes have far less of a problem with the “social distancing” aspect of things, which doesn’t surprise me all that much — Trump and his associated lackies have made much less of an issue of standing six feet apart — so it’s been relatively simple to keep a prudent distance from the maskless in any event. Most people here seem to have settled on the “If you want to wear a mask, wear one; if you don’t, dont,” level of things. Which, again, is against current retail regulations. But rules that aren’t enforced aren’t really rules, are they.

Important point: I’ve made the anecdotal connection between supporting Trump and not wearing a mask, but let me take a moment here to note that my anecdotal experience is anecdotal; I’ve literally not been more than 15 miles from my house in months. It’s entirely possible that dudes under 60 in deeply blue areas are just as useless about wearing masks as the dudes under 60 here in my deeply red area. In which case, it’s not about rampaging Trumpism, it’s about dudes under 60 generally being shit when it comes to caring about other people. Dipshit masculinity is a hell of a drug, y’all. Those of you elsewhere, you can tell me your own anecdotal experience in the comments, if you like.

I’m not thrilled by people who don’t wear masks; at this point, however, I’ve sort of wearily accepted that some people are just never gonna, and since the Governor of Ohio has not vested in me the power to be Mask Warden, what I’m going to do is a) stay home most of the time, b) mask myself up when I do go out, and c) keep out of the way of the maskless when I can, and I mostly can. This is low-density living and people are mostly just fine giving everyone else space. Hopefully that will be enough for now.

— JS

Big Idea

The Big Idea: R. B. Lemberg

Who needs to be the Chosen One at the age of thirteen, or to save the world at sixteen? With The Four Profound Weaves, author R. B. Lemberg takes us on a fantastical journey with an older character, one whose story has just begun.


I’ve been writing in Birdverse, my LGBTQIA+ centered fantasy world, for about a decade. For a while, I primarily published poetry. Then I began writing short stories that revealed, from different angles, a complex and diverse fantasy world in which queer and trans people take central stage – in the world’s mythologies, histories, politics, and in my storytelling. One of these short stories was “Grandmother-nai-Leylit’s Cloth of Winds,” a novelette published in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, which became a Nebula finalist in 2016.

The story, told from a perspective of a young, cisgender queer woman called Aviya, looked at what happens when one’s family members don’t fit into the mold prescribed by one’s culture. I always knew that there is a big story – a much bigger story – to be told about Aviya’s transgender grandparent, and in 2017, I finally began working on the book which is my Birdverse debut, the novella The Four Profound Weaves.

My Big Idea for this piece has always been this: what if older transgender people get to tell their own stories, get to go on a quest, on a grand and tragic and hopeful adventure in which they can finally, in their sixties, truly begin their stories? 

This shouldn’t be, perhaps, such a Big idea, but older people – especially older women and older queer people — are underrepresented in SFF unless they are mentors. And of course, there are barely any older trans people in SFF, even as mentors. Older mentors are often in the stories only briefly – they endow the hero with cool magical skills or the Really Big Sword, and then the mentors go on to be tragically killed, so that they can continue to inspire the much younger hero from a safe distance of being dead. I always wanted to write a “mentor’s own adventure” type of story, in which these brilliant mentors get to be in focus.

I was curious about the nameless man, the trans protagonist of my book. He transitioned in his sixties, after forty years of agonizing and closeted life. I wanted to know what he would do after he finally transitioned. Well, almost immediately he made a friend, another trans person, Uiziya, who became the other protagonist of The Four Profound Weaves. Together, they embarked on a mystical quest to find Uiziya’s exiled aunt Benesret, a master weaver who knows everything about death. Uiziya and the nameless man need to learn to weave from death itself to defeat an evil ruler who’d once, a very long time ago, imprisoned and killed the nameless man’s lover.

I often write people with histories of trauma. Sometimes, exploring my characters’ traumas helps me think about my life, and sometimes my own CPTSD interferes with my process; I need to stop and attend to my feelings and memories before I can proceed writing my characters’ intense and emotional worlds. It is a very intimate process. The Four Profound Weaves took shape after my father of blessed memory passed away in a different country, before I could get to see him for one last time. I was en route when he passed.

For months after, I thought I would never write again. The grief was so big it was like the whole world was blanketed in snow, and I could not see or hear anything else. Then, slowly, writing resurfaced, and it was time to tell this story. I wrote the initial draft quickly, followed by many revision rounds. After the book sold to Tachyon, the fine folks there helped me through two big rounds of revision. I love revising, especially with such excellent editors.

The road to publication has been emotional for me. The situation is unusual – I am a debut author who’s been writing and publishing in Birdverse for a while – and it feels so right that it’s this particular book. It feels right that a poet’s debut would have a fable-like and lyrical feel. It feels right that it’s a trans book, that it’s a book about older trans people fighting a tyrant, that it’s a book which is rooted in grief and which is, at the same time, deeply hopeful and triumphant. 

I am deeply grateful to all my readers, editors, and allies for believing in this book. It’s amazing to see The Four Profound Weaves out in the world. I hope many more readers will discover it, engage with its core ideas, find meaning and wonder and and solace in this story. Some of my readers described reading this book as a religious experience. I cherish that.


The Four Profound Weaves: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

Athena Scalzi

Ask Me a Question!

Hey, everyone! Today I thought I’d mix it up and have a Q&A. I’ve been writing on the blog for over a month and a half now, and I thought to myself, these people read my posts, but how much do they really know about me? Obviously, you probably know at least some stuff, considering how much my dad has posted about me in the past, or if you follow me on Twitter or Instagram then you probably know a considerable amount! But I thought it would be fun to open up more and have y’all learn some trivial information about me.

So, if you would like to know something, leave me a question in the comments! Please leave only one question, but it can be about any topic! You can ask me about writing, my home life, my favorite ice cream flavor, or even something philosophical or political — but note, since this will be for just one entry, my response will probably only be a paragraph, at most. I plan to pick a handful of questions and answer them all in a post sometime next week. Fair warning that your question may not be picked, but I will definitely read all of them.

And as always, have a great day!



Internet Speed Update

This will sound slightly ridiculous, but I can’t tell you how nice it is to have reasonable internet speeds after close to two decades of having to make do with substandard bandwidth relative to the rest of the county. When I moved to Bradford in 2001, the only local internet provider had speeds of 9600 baud, and since then every internet connection I’ve had was a compromise — slow and/or metered and/or susceptible to clouds or rain. Prior to this upgrade I could either have fast internet or unmetered internet but I couldn’t have both, and I spent a non-trivial amount of time doing the daily internal calculus of how I was going to access the internet with which gadgets and for how long, and whether it would affect what the other people in the house were doing.

Now for two weeks I haven’t had to do that, and it has been delicious. Again, an internet speed of 40mbps down/3Mbps up isn’t great, either in itself or relative to speeds available in non-rural areas. But it is enough — enough that I don’t have to do any of the connection calculus that I’ve been doing on a daily basis for literally years. I can just use my connection, like I can use my plumbing or my electricity. You turn on the tap, and there it is. A long-standing resource issue has been effectively solved, and I can use the brain cycles previously occupied dealing it for something else.

And yes, it’s been a genuine resource issue; more than most people, my life and livelihood are tied into my ability to get on the internet and use it. Or, more accurately, more than most people until recently, as the plague times we’re living in have made it clear to everyone that internet access is no longer a luxury or nice to have when you can get it; it’s an actual necessity for work and for school and for communication, for better or worse. The rural internet gap is no joke. I could get around it, sort of, because I have the money to do so; not everyone who’s been in the same sort of rural internet desert as I’ve been in has the same (imperfect) options I’ve had.

Intellectually I’m annoyed at how pleased I am at my increase of internet speed; emotionally I don’t care what I’m feeling about it intellectually. What a pleasure it is to simply to have enough bandwidth, for now, anyway.

— JS

Big Idea

The Big Idea: Karen Osborne

Sometimes, good things can emerge from bad circumstances. Author Karen Osborne’s newest book, Architects of Memory, is a prime example of that. What started as a medical emergency spiraled into a novel about facing one’s fragility. Read on as the author shares her emotional journey from pain to novel.


An orthopedist once saved my life with a phone call. 

Two weeks before, he’d slapped a walking boot on my broken foot and told me I’d be on crutches for a while. The break had been painful, but the pain I felt that day was worse—a ravening agony, like someone had shoved a knitting needle made of molten lava up my femoral artery. 

He took one look at my swollen calf, frowned behind his Claus-congruent beard, and told me to drive to a specific hospital where the radiologists had special training in vascular issues. He called ahead—I skipped triage and was delivered almost immediately to an ultrasound room in the vascular department, where a technician tried her very hardest to keep an adequate poker face as she stared at the massive time bomb in my leg.

The orthopedist had not been my first stop. I’d appeared in his office without an appointment, literally crying in pain. I’d previously been to two urgent care doctors and my GP, who all told me that I’d probably just pulled a muscle or was experiencing referred pain, that I was too young for a blood clot. I believed them—they were doctors, and I was not—but I couldn’t shake the crawling sense of doom that was making a slow apocalypse of my composure. That day in the ER was the very first time I really understood that you could know down to your bones that something was wrong with your body and the world. I did have a blood clot, and it would have killed me if left to its own devices. 

They also found that I had a clotting disorder known as Factor V Leiden. FVL is a funny little genetic twitch that tells the platelets in my blood to keep right on singing “Come On Eileen” like they’re bartending at Coyote Ugly when they should be staggering on home after the last rendition of “Closing Time.” People with FVL have to worry about blood clots forming all the time: after surgery, after broken bones, or when they’re minding their own business walking down the street.

Recovery was $600/day of blood-thinning tablets, injections, and near-daily lab visits. It was also a major hit to my mental health: since I’d almost been gaslighted out of going to see the orthopedist, every minor pain in my leg for the next decade sent me into an anxiety spree (which the support groups actually said was completely normal). 

Pre-clot, I’d wanted to be a freelancer, but post-clot, that was completely out of the question. See, this was 2006 in the United States of America, and FVL was a pre-existing condition that put you on the no-fly list if you didn’t have employer insurance. The diagnosis stapled me to a job until I died. Want to live, Karen? Pay for it. Your worth is in your wallet.

If you’ve never had issues with American healthcare, say a prayer to whatever level of divine pasta monster you believe in that you never will. I can’t imagine what would have happened if I’d been freelancing for my paper instead of on staff. It’s a story told over and over again around here: she didn’t think she could afford the bill, my friends would have said. So she didn’t go.

A lot of us with pre-existing conditions ugly-cried when the Affordable Care Act became law. And we just haven’t been all right since the election of 2016, when the “businessman” holding the nation’s highest office started farting off about tearing it down whenever possible. 

I had just started Architects of Memory. I was angry. I imagined my protagonist Ash uninsured and staring down a healthcare system that wouldn’t give her the time of day. I gave her a quintessentially American problem: I put a time bomb in her blood and sent her off to a world where she couldn’t get treatment because she had a pre-existing condition, just to see what would happen. She’d recognize the steaming humanitarian crater that is the healthcare system of the most developed country in the world.

At least Aurora pays for your hospital bills if you get hurt on the job, she’d say. At least the CEO believes in science.

Science fiction is the literature of ideas. But ideas live in minds, and minds are meat like the bodies they run. They are linked together with an unassailable bond. When we love, we feel butterflies. When we lose, our heart aches. Ideas are married to the bodies in which they are born. Creativity is not some heavenly state divorced of care; it is a chronology of pain and nausea and viscera and breathing and moving and being. And so is science fiction. 

But Ash doesn’t have the luxury of money or time or health—the secrets of Tribulation are coming for her, whether or not she wants them. Life doesn’t wait. Everyone’s a terminal case. It’s only a matter of time. Until then, it’s a matter of if you want to be like the doctor who dismisses your crying patient, saying “it’s just anxiety”—or the one who listens and makes a call. 

Writing Architects helped me get through a time in my life when I felt like I was collecting chronic diagnoses like extremely crappy Pokemon, but at least I was allowed to actually go places. Since COVID was revealed as a disease that causes serious, fatal clotting, I’ve basically walled myself up as much as I can with a partner that plays church services for a living. The walls of my house are pretty much my world. Going for a walk feels like going EVA.

That’s the funny thing. I gave Ash her world and her problems. She gave it all right back to me. We’re all Ash now, facing down our squishy, delicate bodies, going no no no no, not symptoms, it’s too early for symptoms. Every twinge says: is this the day? Is it now? Is this it? Can I afford to go to the ER? I’ll be fired if I go, so should I go to the office instead? It’s care for those who can pay and everyone else can have prayer and oleandrin.

One of my first readers said they didn’t understand why an organization like Aurora doesn’t have more resources to deal with the problems at Tribulation. Look at how many ships they have, he said. They shouldn’t need to pick the bones of old wrecks to function. 

They shouldn’t, I agreed, but they do. Kinda like us.

And organizations like that never forget that you, too, have bones.


Architects of Memory: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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


Clash of the Geeks, Ten Years On

In the more innocent days of 2010, I commissioned artist Jeff Zugale to create the amazing image above, of me as an orc, doing battle with a totally ripped Wil Wheaton, who is astride, of course, a unicorn pegasus kitten. The image was designed to evoke wonder and curiosity, like “what the hell?” and “why is John Scalzi, as an orc, doing battle with a mega-buff Wil Wheaton, who is riding, of course, a unicorn pegasus kitten?”

It’s that last question that gave us the impetus for Clash of the Geeks, a small chapbook anthology whose several stories, by me, Wil, Patrick Rothfuss, Catherynne Valente and Rachel Swirsky, all centered on, what, exactly, was going on in the illustration. These stories were, well, rather silly, but obviously that was sort of the point. If you can’t have fun with the picture above there’s something wrong with you.

But there was a serious goal for the chapbook as well: To raise money for organizations supporting those who suffered from Lupus. Clash of the Geeks was offered for free here on the site, but we encouraged people to donate to lupus-related organizations, and specified the Michigan Lupus Foundation in particular, because our friends at Subterranean Press, who published the chapbook, were in Michigan (and Gretchen Schafer, wife of SubPress publisher Bill Schafer, was and is someone living with lupus). We ended up raising something like $25,000 for the Michigan Lupus Foundation, in addition to whatever people donated to other lupus-related charities (we weren’t keeping track of those). For something silly, we did some good.

Today is the tenth anniversary of the release of Clash of the Geeks. Because Whatever and its various subdomains (including have been moved around and/or redirected over the years, direct access to the Clash of the Geeks chapbook has been difficult — it’s become a bit of a lost, if fondly remembered, piece of Scalzi ephemera. Given the day, it seems appropriate to make it accessible once more.

So: Here is the PDF of Clash of the Geeks. Here also are the ePub, Mobi and RTF versions, courtesy of the Internet Archive (which will also show you a version of the original site here). As before, there is no cost to this chapbook — it’s yours, enjoy! — but if it inspires you to donate to a lupus-related charity, that would be lovely. Thank you for continuing to make Clash of the Geeks something that is useful as well as fun.

And what about the brilliant artwork above? Well, we made two prints of it. One, we auctioned off for charity. The other I framed and now it’s displayed in our guest room, over the fold-out bed. When people come into the room, their first question about it is “what the hell?” and, “why?!?” or some variation thereof. It’s nice to see that even after a decade, it still reaches people.

Also, for everyone who visits my house and then sleeps under the orcish Scalzi and buffed out Wheaton, and, of course, a unicorn pegasus kitten: Sweet dreams.

— JS


Smudge’s Grand Plan for the Weekend

It’s not a bad plan, to be honest. I may emulate it.

— JS

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