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Tonight’s Weird Sky

I’m not 100% sure what the clouds were doing tonight, but it was more than a little ominous. Although as I understand it the real bad weather is later in the week, when we’re going to get up to two feet of snow in a couple of days. Hopefully actually not that much.

How’s the weather in your part of the world?

— JS

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Mobile Site Looks Wonky

I suspect it’s due to WordPress doing an update and that wreaking a little havoc with the mobile site version. I’m looking into it now.

Update: I have the mobile version porting into a default WordPress theme at the moment while I look about, so it should be readable if not entirely fully featured. If you want all the bells and whistles (i.e., the sidebar for the site), click on the “Exit Mobile Version” bottom, which you will find when you scroll to the bottom of the page.

— JS

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Censors and Boycotts: A Twitter Thread

Posting here for archive purposes.


In an email, I was asked, given the rise of book bans in schools/libraries, if it made sense for me/other authors to ask publishers to stop sending our books to affected states until they pulled their heads out – a boycott, basically. So here’s why I think that’s not a good idea.

First, as a strictly practical matter, it wouldn’t work. Anyone can order anything online these days and have it arrive at their home. The people this sort of action would hurt would be small local indie booksellers and libraries, who are, to be clear, not the enemy in this case.

Second, while boycotts are often indiscriminate tools in terms of who they affect, in this case a boycott would work to the short-term advantage of the censors by punishing innocent local booksellers/libraries, ie, the entities the censors want to punish anyway…

… and while inconveniencing readers in these states to motivate them to act against censors is a legit tactic, remember, these readers can get books shipped to their homes, so they're often not *that* inconvenienced. Another tactic to encourage them would be better.

Third, what often does make sense in the case of censorship is to flood the zone: Make the censored material so ubiquitous and available that the censoring is futile, and the censorious look like what they are, ie, shitty tiny-minded bigots. More books are needed, not fewer.

I have never had a book removed from a library or school, but if I did, my inclination would not be to pull all my work from that state, it would be to work with people in the state to get the book into the hands of those to whom is meant to be forbidden. Because fuck censorship.

Fourth, what about boycotts in terms of personal events/appearances? Those might make more sense because in-person events can’t be bought online. But as writer events are usually with local bookstore/libraries, again the question is, who is being punished with this action?

In some cases a creator boycott of states makes sense. In the *specific* case of book bannings/removals, it often makes at least as much sense to show up and make the case for books and reading in the places where they are trying to be removed and discouraged.

In my case, if a book of mine was banned somewhere, I might go out of my way to show up in that place on my next tour, with a couple of boxes of my and other banned books, you know, for the kids (NB: Do not try to get my books banned as a way to get me to visit. That's weird).

Final note: School and library boards who censor do so because they believe “think of the children” is a sufficient shield for whatever bigotry they’re trying to implement. They’re using children as shields, all right, but what they’re revealing is something else entirely…

… namely, that they're aware their ideology *can't compete* with other, better concepts/ideas about society. You don't fight this purge of ideas with another, voluntary purge of ideas that leaves a vacuum the censors will happily fill with crap in the absence of competition.

So, no, I'll not be boycotting in these instances of censorship. I don't think it's the most effective way to protest, or to support local allies on the ground. Your mileage, of course, may vary.

And now, as is tradition, I end this thread with a cat picture. Enjoy.

/end

Originally tweeted by John Scalzi (@scalzi) on January 29, 2022.

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Get Your Stylophone On

Because you can never have too much Stylophone in your life, the Kingston University Stylophone Orchestra’s new album, Stylophonika, produced in part by, of all people, Tony Visconti. Their take on the Blade Runner end titles is my favorite bit. You can buy the album here, if you’re intrigued enough.

— JS

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New Books and ARCs, 1/28/22

January is hurtling to a close, but before we get there: A new stack of books and ARCs sent to the Scalzi Compound! What here do you want to take into February with you? Share in the comments.

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Big Idea

The Big Idea: Chad Orzel

Chad Orzel is one of my favorite explainers of scientific concepts, and in his new book A Brief History of Timekeeping, he covers one of my favorite topics: Time. But the story of time isn’t just about time itself, as you will see — it’s also about those who try to keep it.

CHAD ORZEL:

If I ask you to think about time, odds are you picture a clock, a relatively recent technological invention. The oldest mechanical clocks show up around 1200 CE, and accurate pendulum clocks were only invented in the mid-1600s. Electronic clocks with digital readouts, like the ones on seemingly every modern appliance, are a 20th-century invention.

This might lead you to believe that our preoccupation with keeping track of time is a relatively recent development, maybe even one associated with the particular form of modern civilization. The argument of my new book is that this is wrong: timekeeping is a universal human obsession, with a history that stretches back thousands of years, to before written language. 

The Big Idea here can be expressed in a very simple form, as an expansion of our definition of a “clock”: A clock is just a thing that ticks. It might be an audible tick, like the pendulum clock that hangs in our dining room, or it might be silent, like the vibration of the tiny quartz crystals that regulate all those digital clocks scattered around. It might be blindingly fast, like the 9,192,631,770 oscillations per second of the microwaves in a cesium atomic clock, or ponderously slow like the motion of the rising sun along the horizon as the seasons change.

All these things are clocks, and they all have a “tick”: a regular repeated action we can count to mark the passage of time. That idea of counting “ticks” is extremely ancient, and extremely powerful. Basically every human civilization that we know anything about has devoted significant effort to tracking and marking the passage of time.

The most ancient types of clocks use the motion of the sun: sundials are clocks that “tick” once a day, when the shadow of some object completes its sweep across the face. Solstice markers “tick” once a year, when the rising or setting sun returns to a particular point on the horizon picked out by massive stone structures. The passage tomb at Newgrange is more than five thousand years old, and still functions perfectly to mark the December solstice. 

Manufactured devices to mark shorter intervals also date back thousands of years. The “tick” of a water clock is the filling or emptying of a container with a hole in it, and we have records of their use dating back to 1500 BCE. Water clocks were the state of the art in timekeeping up until the Renaissance, when the pendulum clock came along, marking time with the regular swings of a mass on a string. And with the development of quantum mechanics in the 20th century, physicists learned how to use the energy states of atoms to make perfect clocks with no physical moving parts, just light waves oscillating at a frequency determined by universal laws.

The story of timekeeping isn’t just about nuts-and-bolts technology, though: it’s a human story, and so involves human choices and drama. Different societies have developed timekeeping systems that reflect their particular priorities, a fact most dramatically demonstrated by the elaborate and mysterious calendrical system of the Maya. The implementation and standardization of time is also a political process, as shown by the delicate negotiations that led to the Gregorian calendar reform in 1582, or the implementation of time zones in the most American way possible in 1883.

A Brief History of Timekeeping covers all these topics, and more. In it, I explain the science underlying some of the most significant “ticks” in the history of timekeeping: the basic astronomy of the sun and moon, the physics of an oscillating pendulum, the quantum rules we use to define the second. I also talk about the cultures and the politics of time through the ages, with examples that span the globe and thousands of years. I even get into the connection between the intensely practical business of synchronizing clocks and the revolutionary shift in the philosophical understanding of time brought about by Einstein’s theory of relativity.

All of these topics return to the same big idea: a clock is a thing that ticks. And humans all over the world have spent the last several thousand years identifying ticks and making ever better clocks. I hope you’ll spend a little of your time to learn about those efforts.


A Brief History of Timekeeping: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

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Oh, Look, a Box of Kaiju ARCs

Tor asked me if I would have a use for extra ARCs and I allowed I might; I have some people I need to slip them to. That said, I suspect at least one will come up for a contest here, uuhhhhh, soon.

(Speaking of which, I emailed the winner of the last Kaiju contest about their win and they never got back to me. If you’re the winner of that last contest, please send me an address! I can’t send it to you without it!)

Also, although you can’t see it from where you are, the publicity wheel for this book has already started turning; I’ve done a few interviews and will have more in the next few days. And then things really start getting busy. Fun! Fun! Fun! Actually it is kinda fun; you will not be shocked to learn I like talking about myself and my work. But it is also a lot of work. I will be sick of hearing myself speak by the end of it, I assure you.

— JS

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Under the Surface

I mentioned on Twitter today that this song from Encanto makes me tear up, not because I see myself in it but because I see any number of women I know in it — specifically, the hyper-competent women who do what’s necessary for their family and community, and do it so well that it’s easy not to ask them how it affects them to take on so much of the responsibility for the well-being of their tribe. Hey, if they’re not complaining then they’re doing all right, right? And, well, no. Maybe they’re not. Luisa gets to say their quiet part out loud in her song.

As I also noted elsewhere, this particular animated segment does a really excellent job of portraying the complexity of Luisa’s relationship to her role, both admitting to and simultaneously subsuming her fears and anxiety, while Mirabel, who up to this point has taken her sister’s strength for granted, sees what she’s missed before. There’s a lot going on.

Watching the video of this song prompted me (among other things) to check in with some of the hyper-competent women I know to make sure they’re aware of how much I value them and don’t take them for granted, and also, to see if I can do anything for them to lighten their load. If you know a hyper-competent woman (and I’m sure you probably do), take a moment to check in with them and see what you can do for them, for a change. I’m reasonably sure they will appreciate you doing that.

— JS

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Big Idea

The Big Idea: Sarah J Daley

In today’s Big Idea, author Sarah J. Daley lets you in on a secret for how to create a badass character, like she has in her novel Obsidian. All you have to do is break some stuff first. The whole world, for a start.

SARAH J. DALEY:

Everyone loves an apocalypse. There’s just something intriguing about taking a perfectly normal, ordinary world and smashing it with a hammer. The popularity of post-apocalyptic settings is evident in the plethora of zombie tales and dystopian science fiction. Fantasy is no different; we love broken worlds. Torn up and trampled on societies. Intrepid survivors navigating a dangerous hellscape.

I suppose I’ve always been drawn to these types of stories. Maybe it comes from being a GenXer; we grew up under the shadow of impending doom, after all. I wrote stories in high school about a post-apocalyptic future, and just assumed everything would go to shit by, like, 2010. We’ve lasted a bit longer, thankfully, but that post-apocalyptic world I imagined never fully faded from my mind.

The inception of Obsidian didn’t start with an apocalypse, however; it started with a person. A tattooed young woman who refused to be put into a box; a woman trying to navigate the world on her terms and no one else’s. Tough and competent, fearless, and more than a little wild, she doesn’t take shit from anyone, and I love her. I took this woman, this vision, and I gave her power. I gave her magic. I gave her obsidian blades out of the rainbow of gems she could have chosen. And I gave her attitude – wait, she brought the attitude. Then I dropped her into a nightmare world of corruption and blight and scheming enemies. My badass heroine found herself in a place broken by magic-gone-wrong, a tainted land where those with power ruled those without. And she was having none of it.

Once I established that Malavita wasn’t an ordinary place, that something awful had happened long ago to turn it into a wasteland, the story evolved and expanded. Now, there was a before and an after. Humans can’t help but mark those moments in history; a moment of collective memory that shapes us from that time forward. Devastating floods, horrific wars, deadly plagues. In my world, an apocalyptic battle between two opposing forces led to Malavita’s destruction, but also her creation. Everything in my world comes from that long ago war: the Veils, the gemstone blades, the tattooed bloodwizards, the Brotherhood church.

My heroine, Shade, owes her tattoos and blades and her blood-born power to the forces that ripped her world apart. Malavita’s religion arose from this event, the worship of the Four and the Hidden. The Four Faces of God are the elements bloodwizards control with their gemstone blades and tattoos, elements they weave into shields to protect Malavita’s inhabitants from the brutal, blighted Wastes – these shields are the Veils of Malavita. A Veil means life, protection, prosperity. It is the ‘normal’ world in a brutal wasteland.

But sometimes in the ‘after’, people forget what really happened to break then reshape their world. History becomes fluid and our collective memory fails after the first surviving generation passes. Events become misunderstood, religion twists historical records into myth and legend. Why should Malavitans be any different than the rest of humanity? Even in fantastical worlds, humans are still, well, human. No matter how pure we think our motives are, we see things through lenses colored by our own preconceptions, our own self-interest.

So, what was once an honorable aspiration – to clear Malavita of her blight and restore the normal order – has become a power grab. The Brotherhood priests who control the raising and maintenance of the protective Veils have lost their true purpose and want nothing more than to retain their power and the status quo, and they use the most corrupt and powerful of the bloodwizards to enforce their control.

And into this oppressive regime enters Shade Nox to turn their carefully maintained world order on its head. Her motive is simple: Protect her people from the ever-increasing dangers of their homeland because no one else will. Of course, she’d also like to stick it to her enemies, the ones who called her an abomination and framed her for murder. She’s not that noble or selfless.  

I started this post thinking my Big Idea was the apocalypse which destroyed the land of Malavita, but I’m beginning to believe that event was just a vehicle to showcase the really big idea: Shade Nox, my tattooed girl who wants to change the world, and won’t stop no matter what happens. Even death won’t stop this badass witch. I guarantee it.


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

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

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Smudge Offers You His Current Author Portrait

Actually, it might be his official CEO portrait. Honestly one can never tell with my cats these days. They are all very ambitious. As for me, it’s nice to know that if this writer thing falls through, I’ll have pet portraiture to fall back on.

In other news, Krissy and I are back home from our mini-vacation, which was to the Confusion convention up in Michigan, where I have attended every year since 2005, excepting last year, when no one attended, because plague. We are still in plague times, and thus the in-person convention was quite small this year, but those who did attended were all masked and vaxxed and took seriously the part where they were attempting not to infect each other. Krissy and I spent lots of time in our hotel room, lounging about and binging TV series and not being bothered by pets or household chores. It was pretty great. Also, I feel fine; let’s see how I feel in a couple of days (for the record, I expect to keep feeling fine).

This is also the weekend in which it finally actually turned into winter, which is to say that the temperatures dropped below freezing mostly for good, and snow both fell and started to stick. We have a field of white surrounding our house now. I’m enjoying it for the most part. Then again it’s going to get to just above zero (F) tonight, so we’ll see how much I continue to enjoy it when I’m out with Charlie, urging her to just poop, already, so we can both get back inside. I’d like to think she will cooperate. We will see.

Final note: Scalzi.Church is live as a Web address. It currently goes to a temp page (and may not be completely propagated across the internet yet, in case you get a 404. Don’t panic, it’ll be there eventually). I suspect we’ll build it out over time.

— JS

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Sugar and Charlie Wish You a Pleasant Day

And they hope you are doing well.

I’m taking a mini vacation with Krissy over the next couple of days and can’t guarantee I’ll update until Monday. I might! But then I might not. Please let the adorable visages of my pets hold you until then.

— JS

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When Electric Cars Cross Over (From a CO2 Standpoint)

Interesting video above on a study from Volvo about when, from a total production and use point of view, its electric cars become less of an overall emissions burden than their most-equivalent internal combustion cars (Volvo’s own report on it, in pdf form, is here). The gist of it is that EV cars are less of an emissions burden in the long run, but the point at which they become so may be later than you think, and will depend on where you live, how you drive and how you get your electricity in general.

Which… yes? This finding, if accurate, is not a huge surprise for me. I don’t expect EV cars to be magical creatures without carbon and other environmental burdens. That said, some points popped up in the video are relevant to me: ICE cars are close to being as efficient as they can be, from an environmental point of view, while electric vehicles are only at the beginning of their efficiency journey; power grids across the world are getting cleaner and will continue to do so over time; and there are local benefits to EVs (cleaner air, etc) even if the larger-scale benefits are not a great in the immediate time frame.

There’s also a benefit which is not mentioned in this video but which is not trivial for me from a philosophical point of view, which is reducing my contribution to propping up various petrochemical regimes and organizations, both foreign and domestic. Every little bit counts in this regard, if you ask me.

All of which is to say that we’re still in the early days of the electric vehicle conversion, and I have reasonable faith that things will get better from here. And in the meantime, the next car we get, barring an immediate emergency purchase, is still going to be an electric one. I’m looking forward to it.

— JS

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Big Idea

The Big Idea: Cassandra Rose Clarke

If only you knew the power of the dark side — or at least, entertained, the possibility that there’s more complexity to it than frequently advertised. Cassandra Rose Clarke delves into the deep darkness in this Big Idea for The Beholden, and comes back with something not often expected.

CASSANDRA ROSE CLARKE:

The story of The Beholden is one that starts over a decade ago, when I picked up a copy of Jacqueline Carey’s Banewreaker in a Half-Priced Books. The book recasts Lord of the Rings as a tragedy, telling it from the perspective of the “dark” side. It wasn’t the first time I’d seen such a story—I was an English major, so I’d read Paradise Lost in its entirety—but it was the first time I’d actually seen someone question the default fantasy narrative, codified by Tolkien and baked into so many of the fantasy novels I encountered through the ‘90s and early 2000s, of light vs dark, good vs evil. I liked the book precisely because it wasn’t the standard grimdark that was becoming popular at the time, which greywashes everything with moral ambiguity, but that it explicitly questioned the binary.

In hindsight, reading Banewreaker was the seed that eventually grew into The Beholden. That isn’t to say I hadn’t always been fascinated by the Dark Lord archetype, because I had (in fact, the very first convention panel I ever sat on covered the topic of dark lords). I mean, on the surface, it’s such an absurd concept: a ruler whose entire deal is just… being evil? For no real rhyme or reason? Just eviling evilly all over the place?

Except the most compelling dark lords, as evidenced by Banewreaker and a whole host of literature and popular culture, from Paradise Lost to Grendel to The LEGO Movie, are the ones who are run through a sympathetic prism. So when I decided that I wanted to write an adventure fantasy, I knew I wanted to include a sympathetic dark lord.

 But as I worked through the manuscript that would become The Beholden, I found myself diving deeper into the trope of the dark lord, into his place in a story and his role as a character. In classic fantasy, the dark lord exists because the good guys need someone to fight and the audience needs someone they are allowed to hate. But what if the dark lord has to exist for more crucial reasons? What if he’s the bindings that hold the world together?

And that, ultimately is The Beholdens big idea: what if the dark lord, instead of trying to take over everything, just stopped dark lording?

Defeating a dark lord is always supposed to be a metaphorical defeat of darkness—but the world needs darkness. Ever tried to sleep in the middle of the day? It kind of sucks. I grew up in Texas, and I can assure you there is nothing pleasant about high summer there, when the days are bright, hot, and painfully unending. The “darkness” in so many fantasy books purports to represent EEEEEvil, but really it just represents those things that scare us: sometimes it’s the Other. Sometimes it’s death. Sometimes it’s modernity and technological change. But these are all things that are inarguably a part of the world, and a part of what makes the world run.

Kjari, the dark lord at the heart  of The Beholden, is tied to death and decay. He represents one of my deepest, most primal fears: the idea that someday, I will cease to exist, and there is a chance that all that will become of me is rot. But rot turns to soil, and soil turns to growth—as frightening as death is, it is part of an ecological balance. And when Kjari decides he no longer wants to serve as a scapegoat for the world’s ills, the characters in the world of The Beholden learn exactly what happens when that balance is disrupted.


The Beholden: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

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On the “New Movement” in SF/F: An Archived Twitter Thread

Wrote this up on Twitter just now; archiving here for posterity. Because this is a Twitter thread, please note that the very first graf below is referring to the screen cap of text below it.


So, I do have a take on how this movement functions, strictly as a practical matter, and involving the Hugos and other awards. I will share it with you in further tweets in this thread.

(Quote is from Elizabeth Sandifer and taken from here: https://www.eruditorumpress.com/blog/four-tiny-essays-on-sf-f)

How it works:

1. The modern corps of acquiring editors, in both NY publishing and in short fiction, has SIGNIFICANTLY more women and/or (out) LGBTQ+ folks, and more diversity generally. Stories they buy reflect their interests, and the sales numbers are good, so they keep at it.

2. When the Puppy nonsense happened, people committed to more diverse storytelling either entered or re-entered the Hugo voting pool to counteract the Puppy brigade. When they were routed, Puppies and their sympathizers flounced. Those interested in more diverse stories stayed.

3. Generally speaking, the stories over the last few years written by more diverse storytellers and selected by more diverse editors are *really fucking good*. The table stakes for award consideration are higher these days, and all writers have to step up to this new level…

… white dudes are not excluded from the Hugos or other awards (said the white dude who had a Hugo nod last year), and they win their share. But the operative phrase is “their share.” The field is wider now, and better, and the default to them has decreased significantly.

Sandifer is correct that this shift is as significant as any that has come before, and possibly more so, because previous movements were still largely about white dudes. But I would suggest it’s not only about the aesthetics of today’s SFF; it’s also the MECHANICS of the field…

… WHO is acquiring, WHO is voting and WHO is writing — and how it’s selling and making a mark in the larger culture. Diversity in each case has broadened the field, in what’s bought, what’s read and what wins awards. As a field we’re better for it. It starts with the editors.

Final note: Because the aspects of this new shift are as much about the state of the industry as they are about the aesthetics, I strongly suspect this is not so much (or merely) a “movement” as simply(!) the new normal in the field and the basis of further growth.

As a postscript, I wrote about some of this before in this essay here, and particularly point 4:

https://whatever.scalzi.com/2021/09/12/thoughts-on-the-debarkle/

/end

Oh! Shit! Forgot the traditional closing cat picture. Sorry!

Originally tweeted by John Scalzi (@scalzi) on January 18, 2022.

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This Man Needs a Haircut

I believe I’ve noted before that one of the big problems with being mostly bald is the thinner your hair is, the shorter it needs to be to look reasonably good. I am at point where “reasonably good” will require a clipping with a 5mm setting.

That said, I like this picture a lot. It’s not necessarily flattering, but it has character, and I’m at the stage of life where “character” is usually more interesting than “flattering.” Yes, this is a rationalization. Hush. I still like it.

— JS

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Big Idea

The Big Idea: Gwynne Garfinkle

In life, we make choices, and we have to live with them. But as Gwynne Garfinkle details in this Big Idea for Can’t Find My Way Home, maybe sometimes the choices we make have consequences even beyond that.

GWYNNE GARFINKLE:

My novel Can’t Find My Way Home began as the story of a young actress haunted by her best friend who died protesting the Vietnam War. The haunting is a figurative as well as a literal one. The title of my first draft was Failing, because that was my conception of my protagonist, Joanna Bergman: someone consumed by how she’d failed her friend Cynthia Foster. In 1971 Jo and Cyn planned to firebomb a New York City draft board, but Jo backed out at the last minute. Cyn died in the explosion, and Jo was left guilt-ridden and emotionally isolated. In 1975, just as she’s falling for her married soap-opera costar and attempting to regain a sense of connection, Cyn’s angry ghost appears. The friendship between Jo and Cyn proves even more intense and complicated than it was when Cyn was alive, and Jo must figure out what her dead friend wants from her.  

The novel drew on my fascination with certain radical factions that came out of the movement against the Vietnam War, including the Weather Underground and the Symbionese Liberation Army. (When I was nine years old, I’d watched the SLA shootout on live TV with little comprehension of what was happening, though it took place just over twenty miles from my house.) Can’t Find My Way Home is also a love letter to the classic daytime dramas that used to be produced in New York. Two friends of mine who worked on such shows — Lara Parker, one of the stars of Dark Shadows, and Rory Metcalf, who was on the writing staff of Ryan’s Hope — helpfully fielded my questions.

I wrote a quick first draft of the novel and then embarked on a painstaking revision. When I completed the rather grim second draft, I realized the book still needed something, to put it mildly. (For one thing, it needed to be in first person rather than third, which really isn’t something you want to discover after the second draft, or even after the first draft!) Then I got the idea that Cyn’s ghost would force Jo to relive the night of the draft board bombing over and over, making different choices until she figures out how to get things right (if that’s even possible). I knew I had found the key to making this novel work, and I could hardly wait to write all of Jo’s roads-not-traveled.

In retrospect, I don’t think I could have gone straight into writing Jo’s alternate lives without the scaffolding of the second draft. With that framework firmly in place, I could go wild exploring all the personal and political pathways of Jo’s lives. Jo became more multi-dimensional, and the story of Jo and Cyn opened up in ways I couldn’t have imagined when I started writing the novel. It turned out to be one of the best writing experiences of my life. I hope some of that exhilaration comes through in the book.


Can’t Find My Way Home: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt (pdf link). Visit the author’s site. Follow her on Twitter.

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Sunset, 1/16/22

Those clouds look hardly ominous at all! Actually, what’s really ominous is that they have not budged for hours. They’re just lurking there to the south. We’ll see if they make a move when nightfalls. If you don’t hear from me tomorrow you’ll know why.

— JS

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Portrait of the Author As a Component of a “Punk-Or-Core” Formulation

From time to time, people who wish to comment on science fiction and fantasy will choose to typify the current state of the genre in a way that suits their rhetorical needs, often creating a new-and-possibly-not-especially-cogent subgenre of it by offering up some noun with the suffixes “-punk” or “-core” attached. On occasion, in course of explaining their new spin on where science fiction is at the moment, I or a specific work of mine will be offered up as an example, or as a cautionary tale, if their diagnosis of the current state of science fiction is particularly dire.

I generally find these post hoc attachments of me or my work to newly-minted punk-or-core movements intriguing. Both because it’s fun to see what things of mine get used as examples, and because it’s nice to be thought notable enough that dropping in one of my works is seen either as bolstering the existence of the thing, or damning the thing as an abomination. Hey, I’m still in the mix, you know? An easy-to-make reference point that most people who follow the field will get without too much Googling. It’s gratifying to be ubiquitous. Good for me.

I also think these attachments are usually incorrect to some degree or another. I think there are some distinct thematic streams in the flow of current science fiction, and some of them might even be rivers, but I’m not sure that I’m sailing along in any of them specifically. It’s not that I’m too special and precious and exist only in my own pond. I think it’s more that the waterway I mostly traffic in is not a stream or a river, but a canal — you know, those artificial waterways people create, usually for commercial purposes. This canal may intersect or run parallel to these other streams or rivers (and here the analogy might break down, honestly I don’t know the hydrological mechanics of canals when they encounter other bodies of water, but just work with me here, okay, thanks), and where this happens, there’s going to be commonality. But after that short confluence, every one goes on their merry way.

My canal, as it turns out, runs across a lot of thematic ground, and does a fair amount of intersecting. Some of that is by design, since I am easily bored, as a human and a writer, and like to splash around in new places. Some of that is just following the lay of the land. At the end of the day, however, it means that depending one’s inclinations and rhetorical needs, and contingent on examples, I can be grouped in with the gun-humping dudes who write military science fiction, or the woke SJW scolds who are currently ruining the Hugos, or pretty much wherever else you need me to go to make your point.

And at least superficially you won’t be wrong. I mean, I did write that story that you’re pointing to, and it does exist in that sphere, and I’m not sorry I wrote that thing, and may write a thing like it again, if I have a mind to. But I suspect on a deeper level — the level that actually makes your point something more than a facile, half-baked thesis to burble out onto a blog post or podcast because content content content — using me as an example is not hugely useful.

In furtherance of my point, it might be useful for me to note the things that I think my fiction writing tends to be, and what it tends not to be. Bear in mind as I note these that I am the author, and my view of my work is filtered through my ego and the limitations of my understanding of my own self. Got it?

Okay, then, here are the things I think my work tends to be:

Commercial. As in, I write my fiction with the intent to sell it, and I pay attention to the market. I famously wrote Old Man’s War because I went into a bookstore to see what was selling in science fiction and said to myself, huh, I see a lot of military science fiction here, maybe I should write that. I don’t do that anymore because I don’t have to, but I am still resolutely and unapologetically writing in the mode of I want to sell a kajillion of this. Overlapping this:

Accessible. And no, “commercial” and “accessible” are not the same thing. If you have a specific audience that’s large enough, you can create work commercial to that audience specifically, and not worry about whether anyone outside that group can latch onto it without doing homework first. I don’t write only for the crowd that’s already there, I write so that people who are curious can get in. Related:

Middlebrow. I play with cool and abstruse concepts but I don’t typically dwell on them in the text beyond what is useful for the telling of the story. This is the reason the one subgenre I am almost never lumped into is “hard science fiction.” I give just enough of a concept that readers feel smart for getting it, and not enough they feel stupid for not getting it.

Nostalgic. Old Man’s War reads (very intentionally) like a Heinlein novel; Redshirts explicitly plays on original series Star Trek tropes. Fuzzy Nation is an actual reboot of an H. Beam Piper novel. Generally speaking my work can easily be placed on a line with already-existing “classic” books within the genre. They also tend to play to existing themes and tropes in science fiction, either to explore them or to invert or subvert them.

Humorous. Humor is story lubricant — it helps get readers comfortable and gets them to move along with the plot. Also humor remains a differentiator for me in the field; it’s surprisingly difficult to do well in a general sense (for any genre, not just SF/F), and science fiction has not generally valued it beyond its most broad applications.

All of the above combine to make my work one overarching thing:

Familiar. Basically, if you’ve read science fiction at any point since roughly 1950 then you can hook into what I’m doing, in terms of style, tropes and themes, whether I am doing space opera, near-future science fiction, or anything else. Now, allow me to suggest I am also doing other things beyond merely and cynically rehashing what’s come before. I flatter myself that I have added to the field and not just restated it. But for better or worse, what I have added largely exists within the boundaries of the current design of the field. That design, for reasons both positive and deeply negative, was almost perfectly constructed for a writer like me to enter into it when I did.

Now, what things is my work not?

Innovative. As noted above, I don’t tend to be a fiction writer to break molds; I tend to be a writer who looks at the mold and figures out how best to use it as it is, or leave it alone if it’s not something I find useful or interesting. That’s fine, but that’s not everyone, and it shouldn’t be. Other writers, for whom the field has not been constructed so congenially, either for their taste or for who they are (or both) are currently taking a sledgehammer to parts of it and/or are building on previously unused land. This is useful and absolutely necessary work, and I applaud it and celebrate it, and work to be part of making room for it within the genre. I also recognize that the nexus of the most significant innovation in the field is happening away from what I am doing.

Didactic. There’s nothing inherently wrong with didactic literature, incidentally. It can be really useful, and obviously science fiction is filled with books, classic or otherwise, written didactically and/or absolutely read didactically by their fans. But I don’t tend to fill my books with explicit exhortations about what is best in life. I mean, I have a blog for that. There is irony here in that many of my detractors will tell you my fiction work is didactic as fuck; I do suggest that they have generally taken their dislike for my personal social/political positions and overlaid those onto my fiction. Which, fine, but I generally disagree, and anyway expression of opinion is not necessarily didactic in itself (on that note, I should say that as my upcoming book The Kaiju Preservation Society takes place in 2020, there is some real-world opinion leakage there, because how could there not be).

Ornate. Either in construction – my plots and stories tend to be straightforward in their composition and linear in their telling – or on the level of language use and sentence construction. Very few people come to my work for the sheer poetry of the text, or for the mirror maze design of the stories.

Exclusive. Some very excellent work has been created with no audience, or a very small audience, intended other than the creator themselves. Other very excellent work was created without a concern for finding an audience for it (even if the audience for it turned out later to be huge). And then there are the people really who do just write for themselves, for pleasure or compulsion or a little of both, and are surprised that anyone else might care. I can respect all of those, but that is so not me. For reasons of ego and income, I have never written fiction without the idea of others reading it. That has implications for both what I write and how.

Influential. This is a tricky one so hear me out: Inasmuch as I write well within the existing lines of the genre and my work generally can be plotted out on a line with other more foundational authors and works, the chance that my writing in itself will be influential for itself is low. It doesn’t mean that PR people don’t use the line “For fans of Scalzi” in the marketing materials, or that people haven’t been inspired by me or my work to write their own stuff. But the mode of my writing is well-established. If you write like me, you write like a lot of people do.

(Having laid these out, let me stress that I think each of these rubrics is value-neutral and that each them can be performed positively or negatively, or indifferently. You can write a stone-cold classic that is essentially familiar; you can be innovative as hell and make a complete textual mess. And vice-versa.)

(And while we’re at it, let me additionally stress that I am not running myself down here. Folks, I’m really fucking good at what I do, and bluntly, right at the moment, I’m not sure anyone else does what I do in the genre better than I do it. I also think what I do is desired, appreciated and useful in the field, both in an artistic and commercial sense. Don’t cry for me. I am fine. But let’s all not pretend about what I am and am not, relating to the current field of science fiction literature.)

Now, what you might notice for all of the above is that none of it is really about theme or subject or (with the exception of the bit about ornamentation) style, which are the things that are at the heart of most punk-or-core formulations, and of subgenres as a whole. Cyberpunk and steampunk, as two well-understood examples, were largely about theme: Technology and how it makes (and remakes) society. Some writers do tend to stick to a particular theme, or at least are known for it due to their most famous works. William Gibson is the father of cyberpunk; China Mieville is forever associated with “New Weird.”

There is nothing wrong with that! Gibson and Mieville are not exactly hurting in terms of notability and influence. But also, it’s not what I do. As noted before, my commercial path intersects a lot of subgenres, and there is no consistency, in terms of sales or critical response, to which subgenre I write in and what gets noticed.

Which I consider a feature, not bug, to my career. I like my commercial/critical reputation not being tied into a single theme/subgenre/series. I would be (mildly) sad if my career were defined as, say, the Old Man’s War series and then just “everything else.” I love the Old Man’s War series! I’m going to write another one in it (eventually)! Also, part of the reason I love that series is that I don’t resent it for being the only thing of mine anyone wants to read (and the OMW series doesn’t confine itself to a single subgenre in any event, so).

For these reasons, I generally find being lumped into a “punk-and-core” formulation with regard to me and my work superficially accurate at best, and inaccurately reductive beyond that – I hop between themes a lot, and my time in any one subgenre tends to be transitory rather than rooted. I mean, don’t let me stop you if you think you can make a reasonable argument otherwise; as I said, my own view of this is rooted in my own ego and self-regard, and I don’t claim to be a perfect arbiter of me.

I will say, however, I am likely to continue to do things as I have done them, because it works for me and I’m having fun doing it this way. This may or may not do damage to your punk-and-core argument somewhere along the line. I’m fine with that. You should be, too.

— JS

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Review: The Tragedy of Macbeth

First off, it doesn’t really feel like a Coen Brothers movie, probably because it isn’t: for the first time Joel Coen has put out a movie without his brother Ethan either in the producer or co-director seat. But I’ve seen people lump this into the “Coen Brothers” rubric, possibly more out of habit than anything else. So: Don’t do that, it’s not that, and you’re doing a disservice to the film, and the Coen Brothers oeuvre, if you do.

Second off, it is kind of a minor accomplishment that it doesn’t feel like a Coen Brothers movie, given that, aside from Joel Coen being one of the actual brothers in question, he brings with him cast and crew from his previous films, including Frances McDormand (also his wife), composer Carter Burwell, cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel, utility infielder Stephen Root among others. It would have been pretty easy for Coen to slide into the deep sardonicism and cosmic absurdity that nearly all his previous collaborations offered, and largely benefited from.

Instead of sardonicism and absurdity we get weirdness. Macbeth is unapologetically weird, and cinematically mannered in a way that I’m not entirely sure any other major director would attempt, or pull off, if attempted (I could see some lesser-known directors trying it, but probably not with this cast and crew, larded as each are with award winners). The things that Coen pulls off here — the black and white photography, the academy aspect, the wholesale pilfering of German Expressionism for the set design — run the risk of being winky, obscure or even twee, or of calling attention to themselves just for themselves, the self-conscious choices of a director who wants to show off. They could be a disaster, basically. But they turn out to just set the mood for and tone of the film. That’s actually impressive.

The story you know, or at least know of: Scottish thane Macbeth, fresh off a victory for and thus favor with the king Duncan, hears a prophecy that suggests he might one day be king. He then gets ambitious in a not very nice way, aided by his wife, who is just as ambitious and possibly more so. As this is a tragedy, things do not go well from there. If one wished to be facetious, one could make the argument that Macbeth (the play) is sort of a proto-crime noir, where overweening ambition gets people in over their head, and it all ends poorly, and often in shadows. And certainly crime noir-like films are Coen’s jam (see: Blood Simple, Fargo, No Country For Old Men, etc), and crime noir as an established cinematic genre owes a great deal to German Expressionism, which Coen heavily draws from here.

For all that I don’t want to attach a “noir” label too tightly. What Coen’s doing with The Tragedy of Macbeth exists in its own little pocket universe; it feels like the world falls away right out of frame, probably because, as the film was shot almost entirely on soundstages, it does. Noir doesn’t quite fit here; or maybe it’s best to say this film is noir’s odd cousin, the one with a lit degree and scenes from Un Chien Andalou running on a GIF loop on their iPhone.

I think this film is very good, but I don’t know if I like it. Denzel Washington, Frances McDormand and the rest of the cast are terrific, and also are all a few degrees off of where their performances might be said to be enjoyable (special nod to Kathryn Hunter as the weird sisters, providing the definitive what the actual fuck performance of 2021). The cinematography is, as already noted, laden with cues from another, grainier era of film, and shot with a digital clarity that is so sharp as to make the film (which is not on film) airless. Nothing is plumb; it’s all unsettled and unsettling.

It’s all effective, and I know I want to see this movie again. I don’t know that I will like it any better the next time I see it. I’m pretty sure that’s what Joel Coen was going for all along.

— JS

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An Omicron Update

I’ve been asked a couple of times about how we’re doing and how we at the Scalzi Compound are dealing with the current Omicron wave of COVID infections out in the world. The short version is: We’re fine, and are dealing with it like we dealt with the previous waves. For my part specifically, I’m at home and I don’t go out that much when I’m here anyway, so on a day-to-day basis the number of people I see (and therefore, the number of people who I could infect, or could infect me) is pretty low. We have contractors at the house working on our upstairs bedroom suite bathroom, but aside from letting them into the house to work, I don’t come into close contact with them, in no small part because I’m sequestered away in a kitchen-living room cube that I’ve put baby gates up in so Charlie the dog doesn’t get in their way, which she absolutely would. So the chances of passing anything to them, or vice-versa, is relatively low.

And while I’m neither resigned nor sanguine about catching the Omicron variant of COVID, neither am I hugely fearful of it. I’m triple-vaxxed and aside from my age slightly increasing my risk factors, have no real physical comorbidities to be concerned about. The most likely outcome for me if I catch COVID now is that I’ll lie on the couch for a couple of days, which, honestly, is not all that different than my usual daily routine. The irony about COVID-deniers saying that the infection is “just another flu” is that they’re not wrong — if you’ve been vaxxed and boosted. If you’re not, and most COVID-deniers aren’t, it can still fuck you up pretty badly, even the “mild” Omicron version, as we’re seeing with utterly swamped hospitals. “Mild” or not, Omicron is much more infectious, which packs hospitals just the same.

(And of course, let’s acknowledge that the “just another flu” line was appalling to begin with, since in a normal year, “just another flu” kills tens of thousands of Americans, which is nothing to be dismissive of. This is why in addition to my COVID booster, I also got a flu shot this year.)

I have two general thoughts about the Omicron wave. One is utterly selfish: I hope it’s cresting here in January because I have plans for March, including an actual book tour, and I’m going to be pissed if a massive wave of infection punts it all into virtual territory. I have no problem with virtual events! We have some planned as part of the tour! But I also want to go places and see people, without a COVID miasma hanging over everything. So I’ll be happy if Omicron burns itself out in the next few weeks.

The other thought is that the crisis this wave has precipitated was an almost entirely optional one. This statement takes a moment to explain, so bear with me. I’m not convinced that the Omicron wave itself was optional; we have little control over how variants emerge, or the transmissibility of variants when they emerge, so even if the vast majority of Americans were fully vaxxed and boosted, we still might have had this wave wash over us, with its large number of “breakthrough” infections. Omicron’s gonna Omicron. That’s not up to us.

What was up to us was how many people were vaccinated (not counting the actual and relatively small number who couldn’t, for age or medical reasons), and thus, the character of this wave of infection that’s crashing into us now. Latest reports from New York note that the unvaccinated are being hospitalized at 13 times the rate of the vaccinated. In Ohio (since 1/1/21), you’re sixteen times more likely to be hospitalized from COVID if you’re unvaccinated, and 21 times more likely to die from it.

After all this time, the US is still only 62% fully vaccinated, with only 36% boosted. Omicron may have happened regardless of what we did. But because nearly 40 percent of us still haven’t bothered to get vaccinated at all, our hospitals are slammed, medical workers are at the breaking point, and people who don’t have COVID but suffer other life-threatening medical issues risk lack of treatment or even death because of yet another cresting wave of serious COVID infection hogging resourses and personnel. Seriously, don’t need hospitalization right now for anything if you can avoid it. The problem is, you can’t really avoid either a sudden medical emergency, or a current ongoing medical issue. You can’t ask a stroke or a heart attack to reschedule, and you can’t ask cancer to pretty please stop metastasizing.

I’ve discussed here before my utter disgust at the fact that certain opportunists decided to make vaccination a political issue, and I don’t need to do that again in great detail right now. What I can say definitively is that the willfully unvaccinated made the affirmative choice to make this wave of COVID infection worse for all of us. That’s not an opinion, it’s just math. The number of vaccinated people who need hospitalization is a substantial multiple lower than the unvaccinated. The full crest of the Omicron wave against a highly-vaccinated population would still be bad, but it probably wouldn’t be the crisis it is now, grinding our medical system to a standstill and having other knock-on effects on daily life that will be felt weeks and months onward.

I genuinely don’t understand a human being who affirmatively decides that they both want to unnecessarily expose themselves to a substantial risk of hospitalization and death, and contribute to unnecessarily risking the lives of others who need medical care, and make daily life just that much more annoying, inconvenient and occasionally more dangerous. But I also understand these folks have been lied to, both about the risks of vaccination and of COVID itself, and encouraged not to look at the consequences of their actions aside from a vague handwave about personal freedom, and the grubby promise of sticking it to people they don’t like, or at least told they shouldn’t like. Sometimes it’s not an affirmative decision to hurt one’s self and others, sometimes it’s a passive one, greased along by disinformation and a poisoned discourse.

For all that, I do think there’s a certain point where a pawn should understand they’re a pawn, not a king, or a queen, or even a rook. So, if you’re still a willfully unvaccinated person: You’re a pawn, sorry. You’re definitively making everything worse for everybody, and your personal choices affect the lives of people you don’t even know. Please stop making everything worse. Get vaccinated, or if you won’t, consider staying at home. Stop making everyone else pay for the consequences of your own actions. People might die because of your choices, and one of those people might just end up being you. I don’t think you really want to die, or to contribute to the deaths of others, because of what Tucker Carlson has said and/or some bullshit meme you saw on Facebook. If you do, please spend some time in serious introspection.

I’m fine. My family, all vaxxed and boosted (or scheduled to do so) is fine. We’ve done the things we should do to protect us from this wave of COVID and in doing so, are helping to protect others. Taking a few minutes out of our day to get a shot was literally the least we could do, for ourselves, and everyone else. It was worth it. Would that everyone felt the same way.

— JS

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