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The Regrettes: Anxieties

YouTube Poster

Weird little video. Pretty good song.

Traveling tomorrow for my appearance at Little City Books in Hoboken at 7pm, as part of the Hoboken Literary Weekend. If you’re in the area, come by and say hello. If you’re not in the area, uhhhh, have a good Friday, I guess.

— JS

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20/20

The Big Idea: Marion Deeds

Whether in the real world or in a world of fantasy, power is a currency that always compels. In this Big Idea for Comeuppance Served Cold, author Marion Deeds essays the persuasiveness of power, and how it informs the alternate Pacific Northwest she’s created.

MARION DEEDS:

Magic is a form of power. Who has it? Who gets to use it? These were my thematic questions when it came to writing Comeuppance Served Cold. But there were all kinds of power inequities in Prohibition-era Seattle, and some of my characters are more caught up in the life of illegal booze, corrupt cops, and protection rackets than that of charmed amulets or magical spells.

Dolly White, the main character of the book, lives in a world where magic is an everyday thing. She’s hired by a wealthy upper-class magus, Ambrose Earnshaw, as a companion for his rebellious daughter. Earnshaw is the head of Seattle’s Commission of Magi. Its stated purpose is to protect folks from the misuse of magic. Really, though, the Commission uses a fee system to fill its own coffers at the expense of people who survive by small magics, like protection charms and healing potions. The Earnshaws take the exploitation a step further; the son and heir leads a protection gang, extorting even more money from working magicians and magic-adjacent people.

One cynical campaign the Earnshaws are waging is the intentional demonizing of shape-shifters, which makes problems for two other important characters in the book. On the surface, Philippe and Violet Solomon could not be more different from Dolly. Black Americans, they’ve been pushed into shadowy occupations by discrimination and corruption. Violet, a trained herbalist, runs a speakeasy. Her brother Philippe tends bar for her and delivers hooch for a bootlegger. He loves men. He turns into a cougar.

In the story, anti-shape-shifter prejudice isn’t a stand-in or a metaphor for the actual racism of the day. Violet and Philippe face racism already. In the real world at this time, even wealthy Black entrepreneurs (some folks pronounced that “gangsters”) like E. Russell “Noodles” Smith, were raided and arrested frequently—in fact, more frequently than white club owners. Smith was a successful and legendary club-owner—luminaries like Duke Ellington played in his clubs—but he was routinely shut down, even though he paid off the cops like everyone did. In one case, the raid was so violent, with the police attacking Black bystanders, that even the newspapers turned on the cops. The corrupt Seattle police of the time were comfortable pocketing protection money and breaking the law themselves, including bootlegging.

(By the way, Duke Ellington, Ray Charles, and other Black musical legends played at white clubs and hotels, too, they just couldn’t stay in those places. They ended up at the Black-owned businesses near Jackson Street.)

Philippe and Violet are not unusual in making illegal hooch a family business. Even the city’s best-known bootlegger made the operation a family affair. Chief Roy Olmstead wasn’t the police chief, in spite of the nickname. He was a police lieutenant, who arrested plenty of other bootleggers, while he was bringing in Canadian hooch big-time. During foggy or rainy nights, the legend goes, Olmstead’s wife, who had a radio show broadcast from Smith Tower (then the tallest building in the city) would encode coordinates into her reading, to guide in the contraband-carrying boats.

The best thing about this story—or worst, depending on your point of view—is that Elise Olmstead’s show consisted of her, in the persona of “Aunt Vivian,” reading children’s book aloud. Nothing quite says “shameless law-breaking” like hiding directions for your illegal enterprise in charming stories for children.

Part of the attraction of writing about Prohibition is this hypocrisy, plus the unintended consequences, and the sheer funhouse-mirror aspect of it. As a writer, it wasn’t much of a leap for me to imagine a power-grabbing group deciding to destroy random magical lives (like those of shape-shifters) for further financial or political gain. And I wanted to look at that from the perspective of those whose lives were being destroyed.

Philippe, a shape-shifter, is a gay black man. The demonizing of shape-shifters puts his high-risk life on the edge of the precipice. Violet, whose true love was murdered by the Earnshaw protection racket, vows to protect her brother, and she will do whatever it takes to keep him safe.

When the story starts, Violet’s business, like many Black-owned businesses of the time, is thriving. By the time Dolly shows up, Violet and Philippe both have a lot to lose. Philippe likes adventure, but Violet isn’t ready to trust a white outsider with no ties to family, the neighborhood or the community. On the other hand, Dolly is facing off against a family Violet would definitely like to bring down. Dolly’s challenge is to find a way to make Violet trust her, while Violet has to weigh all the risks. And those risks are flesh-and-blood real.

Comeuppance Served Cold isn’t all speakeasies, jazz, and forbidden cocktails. I tried to create a world close to the historic one, with real dangers and real opportunities (even if those opportunities weren’t legal). Seattle’s Prohibition history is weird and colorful. The city was the perfect place to set this story. Who has power? Who gets to use it? Sometimes, it’s the everyday people who answer those questions.

—-


Comeuppance Served Cold: Amazon|Barnes and Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s
Visit the author’s website. Catch up on Twitter.

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And Now a Brief Musical Interlude

One of my favorite bands in the last decade or so has been The Naked and Famous, originally from New Zealand but now with the principal members, Alisa Xayalith and Thomas Powers residing in Los Angeles. The band recently announced a hiatus, which makes me sad as a fan, but Xayalith and Powers are doing solo and/or collaborative work with other artists, which makes me happy as someone who likes new music. And so, here’s their respective latest bits: A solo song from Xayalith, and a Meg Myers song that Powers produced. The Xayalith song is gentle and lovely; the Myers song is gothy and spiky. Enjoy both.

— JS

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Big Idea

The Big Idea: Jess Montgomery

William Faulkner once said “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” It’s a sentiment that Jess Montgomery can certainly appreciate, since her new novel, The Echoes, deals with something very close to that idea. Here she is to explain further.

JESS MONTGOMERY:

Can we ever outrun our pasts?

I think the answer is… no.

Of course, most of us don’t try to fully escape our pasts—because most of us don’t have such dramatic pasts that we feel we must.

But all of us have at least bits of our pasts that we’d rather forget. A thoughtless comments we wish we hadn’t made. An awkward or uncomfortable event. An embarrassing choice.

And yet, even though we can’t possibly recall ever second of our lives, I’d contend every moment lived (recollected or not) shapes us.

The past echoes through us, into our present, ever part of our worldview and how we relate to one another. Sometimes, it’s not even our past that comes into our present to reshape our lives, but the pasts (and past secrets) of our loved ones.

This is the Big Idea at the core of The Echoes.

As July 4, 1928 approaches, Sheriff Lily Ross and her family look forward to the opening of an amusement park in a nearby town, created by Chalmer Fitzpatrick―a veteran and lumber mill owner. The park is in honor of veterans, particularly Lily’s brother Roger, who was killed in the Great War while overseas in France.

But Roger had a secret that he kept from his family; he had a daughter in France.

Meanwhile other secrets and past haunts riddle Chalmer’s family.

These pasts collide in the present, leading to murder and a kidnapping.

As Lily investigates these crimes, she also confronts her brother’s past, but her own past losses and haunts as well, and must decide how to come to terms with them for the sake of her present life as well as her future. She also must reckon with how to handle that her and Roger’s mother kept his secret as well.

Of course, this won’t be the last time that Lily will need to think about the past and how it has rippled forward in her present life. She’s wise enough to know it’s a continual, ongoing process—and a necessary one for a fulfilling present.


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

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

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Return of the Space Toilet: A One-Month Update

A month ago I wrote about our having installed a very fancy “intelligent toilet” and offered my initial reactions to it, and promised to do a follow-up about a month later. It’s now a month later, and here are my thoughts about the Space Toilet today:

1. I’m still delighted with my purchase, as the entire experience of an “intelligent toilet” is a posh and enjoyable one which everyone should try (although, probably, not on my intelligent toilet; I don’t want all of you tromping through my house to try it, sorry). It really does elevate the bathroom experience, enough so that I find myself going out of my way to use this toilet over any other in the house.

2. Indeed, at this point I’m a little annoyed with all the other toilets that they don’t automatically raise their lids and flush themselves once I’m done. Not so annoyed that I’m going to replace every other toilet in the house — that would be expensive and also would require rewiring every other bathroom on the property — but still mildly piqued. How dare they offer a basic loo experience that I was previously perfectly content with!

3. That said, I still can’t in good conscience recommend most people get themselves an “intelligent toilet,” because, really, it is so damn expensive. You can get a bidet toilet seat for a fraction of the cost, and while it won’t automatically raise the seat or flush the loo for you, you can get a heated seat and the bidet cleaning action, which really are the main attraction. I want to be clear I do not regret my “intelligent toilet” purchase — I am really happy with it — but also, I’m aware that ultimately it’s a bit of a folly. I might get bidet toilet seats for the rest of the toilets in the house. I’m not going to buy anymore intelligent toilets.

4. Side note: Whether you get a bidet seat or a full blown “intelligent toilet,” you will still need to use toilet paper in my experience. Not as much, and mostly for a slightly different purpose (which you will figure out after your first bidet use), but, still. In these days of intermittent supply chain issues, it’s a thing you should be aware of.

And there you have it: the Space Toilet, revisited.

— JS

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Big Idea

The Big Idea: Gareth L. Powell

If you don’t think that science fiction is affected by the events of moment, than Gareth L. Powell has some news for you: oh, boy, is it ever. In this big idea for Stars and Bones, Powell explains how world events caught up to his story in strange and unexpected ways.

(Disclosure: As you can see from the cover photo above, I gave this book a blurb.)

GARETH L. POWELL:

I really didn’t mean to be topical.

When I set out in early 2020 to write my latest novel (Stars and Bones, Titan Books), I had no idea how hard it would shortly become to write about a mysterious contagion threatening humanity, and the quarantine measures necessary to contain it, and then COVID-19 happened.

I worried the nuclear war that almost happens in the first couple of chapters might seem far-fetched, and then Putin invaded Ukraine just before the book was published.

Near-future fiction is a tightrope act, a game played with the audience. It’s a way of looking at the world, reflecting it through a prism to make the everyday extraordinary and the future relevant to the reader. But it’s a risky undertaking. If you assume it takes 18 months to write and publish a novel, world events may have rendered the entire premise of the book obsolete before it hits the shelves. No other literature has such a potentially short shelf life.

In Stars and Bones, a bumbling British prime minister makes a joke, not realising his mic is still on. The big red button gets pressed and the world braces itself for full-throttle Armageddon, only to see all the missiles snatched away while in flight and cast into the sun by a powerful alien entity. When I penned that scene, it was a wish-fulfilment from my Cold War teenage years, mixed with more recent despair over climate change.

In the 1980s, nuclear war seemed not only imminent but inevitable. All the science fiction I consumed seemed to take it as an article of faith that humanity would nuke itself before the year 2000. Even the utopian future predicted by Star Trek was built from the ashes of WWIII. And there seemed no way out. So, I would lie in bed at night and wish for a superior alien intelligence to step in and stop us acting like children.

In the book, instead of being allowed to trash our environment and run amok with nuclear weapons, the human race gets cast adrift in a fleet of a thousand 25-kilometre-long arks, with strict instructions not to mess up any other biospheres. In other words, our toys are taken away and we’re relegated to the cosmic naughty step.

Life on the arks is very different from life on Earth. For a start, every person has equal access to food, water, and healthcare. It’s a post-scarcity society, and it takes a lot of people a long time to adjust to that. But seeing as how nationalism and artificial scarcity brought us to the brink of a yawning existential chasm, it seems reasonable to imaging we’d decide to do things differently from that point onwards, to avoid the possibility of such a thing ever happening again.

But humans aren’t that simple or sensible. By the time the main story starts—seventy-five years after humankind’s expulsion from Earth—each ark has customised its interior and exterior appearances to match its own preferences, and the preferences of the millions of people that live on it. And as there’s a web of instantaneous transport between the arks, likeminded groups have tended to congregate on the arks that best match their temperaments or climate. This means that instead of a swarm of cookie-cutter starships, the characters have a thousand unique and quirky environments to explore, some hosting forward-looking societies, and others with groups that cling to the old ways.

In the book, the fleet soon runs into trouble, because the cosmos is weirder and more dangerous than we could have imagined. If you imagine Philip K. Dick got high and dreamt a crossover between Battlestar Galactica and The Thing, you’d be in the right ballpark. But the creation of the vast, intelligent arks probably owes a lot more to my love of Iain M. Banks’s Culture novels. Nobody goes hungry and everyone has access to anything they need, watched over by the superior minds of their intelligent starships. And much like the Culture novels, all the books in this series will be standalones and feature different characters, with the idea they can be picked up and read in any order. Stars and Bones is the first in the series, but it is self-contained, so you don’t have to worry about waiting for sequels.

I hope readers will enjoy Stars and Bones as an adventure. It’s exciting, scary and entertaining. But on a deeper level, perhaps it might make a few think about some of the assumptions that as a society, we take for granted. SF and space opera allow us to place ourselves in the context of the wider universe and ask the big questions. They also enable us to comment on today’s society by setting up alternatives and showing how they might be better or worse that what we currently have. If art holds up a mirror to reality, science fiction holds up a crazy funhouse mirror that shows us the truth by distorting what we see. And the truth is, things don’t always have to be the way they are today; change can be a traumatic upheaval, but it is possible.

Given the way real life events almost caught up with the events in this book, though, I think next time I might write about something more restful. Like kittens, perhaps.


Stars and Bones: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

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A Night on Cat Mountain

Photoshop has some new filters that run a picture you might have through some pre-existing artwork, and so I took a picture of Spice and ran it through a filter of a painting of mountains. The result is not displeasing. Yes, this is what I am doing with my Sunday (I also wrote an essay, but that won’t be out until later this week).

Also, the last couple of days I was battling a cold which I picked up on the road, and yes, it was just a cold, I did a nose-stab when I got home, and it came out negative for COVID, so. I slept like a rock last night and woke up less phlegmy and scratchy-throated, although still a bit tired. Honestly it’s been so long since I’ve had a cold — thank you masking and social distancing — that I almost forgot what they were like. I could have been happy not knowing for a while longer, honestly.

— JS

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Home

It’s where I want to be. And I am indeed already there. Good be back.

— JS

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View From a Hotel Window 3/25/22: St. Louis

I don’t know, it’s kinda trashy. But St. Louis is lovely, and the hotel in general is nice, so there’s that.

Tonight is the last event of this stretch of the tour, 7pm at the St. Louis Public Library. Please come by to say hello!

And then I go home for several days. Hooray! But next Friday I will be in Hoboken, for the Hoboken Literary Weekend. If you’re in the area, and there are several million of you who are, please come see me.

— JS

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Big Idea

The Big Idea: Joe R. Lansdale

Frankly put, Joe R. Lansdale is an American literary treasure, and his characters Hap and Leonard are a substantial portion of the reason why this is so. So a collection of Hap and Leonard stories? Yes, sir, more please, sir. Here’s Lansdale talking about his collection Born for Trouble, and where he, and his characters, might go next.

JOE R. LANSDALE:

So one day, way back in time, I’m sitting around thinking, what do I write next? All I knew was I wanted to write a crime novel, and for some time I had wanted to write a straight novel about the late sixties, early seventies, but couldn’t come up with the right vehicle. The crime novel had to come first, due to a deadline, so I thought, well, just start something.

This is my normal way to begin a novel. I take an interesting sentence, and proceed. Every morning when I get up (or most) the story is there, unfolding for me. My subconscious is doing all the work, and I’m recording the results. My subconscious is a tricky creature, and even though it was providing me with a novel idea, it was also proving anxious to deal with that sixties business, so it all came together in Savage Season, the first Hap and Leonard novel.

I thought it was the only Hap and Leonard that would ever exist. In fact, Leonard was originally supposed to be pretty much a walk-on character. But the two met, and their past jumped out of my subconscious, and before I knew it I had characters who would return some years later, and a series would begin. Actually, I didn’t know it was a series until the second book, Mucho Mojo.

Those two characters have allowed me to visit all manner of storylines, social problems, and so on. Those books allowed me to take characters with different political views, personal views and different tastes, and show how they fit together, because they are brothers at the core. But sometimes they are less socially involved, and have what can only be called straight-forward adventures. Action, adventure, an almost folklore like element about the characters, is always there, but over the years I’ve written several straight forward action-adventure novellas starring the boys, and though their quirky characteristics were still on board, and there were tinges of mystery and so on, they were a lesser element, and it was just the boys and forward movement.

Those stories have a spotted history, appearing here and there. Tada. They have been collected and can be read in one volume titled, Born For Trouble. Tada again.  If these characters are new to you, it’s a good way to get a taste of Hap and Leonard. Tachyon has published several volumes of Hap and Leonard stories and novellas, and if you get a kick out of these, you can check out the others, including stories that go back to Hap and Leonard’s childhood and teenage years. It amazes me that they became series characters at all. It amazes me they are so beloved. It amazes me that they were the source for the Sundance—now available on Netflix–series Hap And Leonard.

These two guys had been boiling around in my head for years, and I didnt’ even know it. Not consciously. Then I had  the right catalyst. A deadline. That’s what got them started. That was nearly thirty years ago. Boy, have they been fun to write about.

I haven’t written a novel length Hap and Leonard tale in a while, but dealing with this volume has sort of “seeded’ the sourdough, so to speak, and I may dive back into their world any day. And if you don’t know about sourdough and sourdough starter, look it up.

So, off to the races, dive deep into the wilds of East Texas and keep your eyes over, and expect the unexpected.

You might like to bring some Dr. Pepper and Vanilla cookies with you for snacks. Leonard usually has some on hand, but I warn you, he does not like to share.


Born for Trouble: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

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View From a Hotel Window, 3/24/22: Iowa City

And look! It’s a library!

(Actually I suspect it’s not a library anymore because there’s a newer library off camera to the left. But it was a library, once, and that counts.)

Tonight I’m at Prairie Lights bookstore, one of my favorites, and the festivities begin at 7pm. Tomorrow I’m at the St. Louis Public Library, also at 7pm. And then I go home! Wheee!

— JS

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The Kaiju Preservation Society a New York Times, USA Today, Los Angeles Times, Independent Booksellers, Amazon and Audible Bestseller

How is Kaiju a bestseller? Let’s add it up!

New York Times: #10 (Combined Print & eBook)

USA Today: #19 (This list covers all books sold in the US)

Audible: #6 (Audiobook Fiction)

Los Angeles Times: #4 (Hardcover Fiction)

Indie Booksellers: #10 (Hardcover Fiction)

Amazon: #15 (Fiction, across all formats)

You know what? This is a good day.

Thank you, all of you who bought the book, in whatever format. I could not be happier.

— JS

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View From a Hotel Window, 3/22/22: Parma

Aw, hell yeah, pure parking lot goodness. Of all the hotel window shots this trip, this one is definitely the most parking lot-licious. I hope you enjoy it as much as I do.

Tonight: Parma/Cleveland! At the Parma-Snow branch of the Cuyahoga Public Library! 7pm!

Tomorrow: Boulder! At the Boulder Bookstore! 6:30 (I think, doublecheck with the store)!

— JS

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Big Idea

The Big Idea: Kenneth Hite

Location is everything — or, if not everything, then still quite a lot, especially when considering the work of foundational fantasist H.P. Lovecraft. For Tour de Lovecraft: The Destinations, master games writer Kenneth Hite gets out the map and takes us traveling, from Arkham to Innsmouth, in pursuit of terror and tourism.

KENNETH HITE:

The most important part of the Big Idea for my second Tour de Lovecraft book came from Stephen Segal, who at that time was non-fiction editor for a little magazine called Weird Tales. He had followed my first Tour de Lovecraft in its original publication (in my LiveJournal, of all things) and his Big Idea was “Ken should do a series like that in Weird Tales.” Rather than simply re-doing the first Tour, I pitched a series on Lovecraftian locations: the settings of the various stories. I sorted through all of Lovecraft’s tales and collaborations and winnowed out not just where the stories were set (Arkham, New York, Antarctica, and so on) but the other locations that informed the tales (Leng, Dreamland, Egypt) and a few setting-concepts (Antiquity, Hyperspace, Deep Time) to boot.

Lovecraft, it is fair to say, deprecated characters, and often explicitly subordinated his plots to incident and atmosphere. That leaves setting as the only one of Aristotle’s Big Three elements of story that Lovecraft cared about. And Lovecraft didn’t just care about setting, he was obsessed with it: “I am as geographic-minded as a cat,” he wrote to fellow fantaisiste Clark Ashton Smith in 1930, “places are everything to me.”

One can (and I did) find dozens of similarly emphatic statements to that effect in his letters, if the evidence of location-drenched stories like “The Dunwich Horror,” “The Colour Out of Space,” and “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” weren’t convincing enough. For Lovecraft, stories grew out of the very ground and shape and feeling of the setting, terror emerging (if you will) from the terroir. Some of this approach he took from his great unsung model Nathaniel Hawthorne, but much of it came from his “extreme & lifelong geographic sensitiveness,” as he wrote to Smith on another occasion.

All that established, I found it very odd that almost nobody (with the very occasional exception from the great Lovecraftians Peter Cannon and Steven Mariconda) had ever approached Lovecraft’s settings from a literary direction. We have plenty of speculation on the question “Where is Arkham?” for example, but almost nothing on the question “What is Arkham?” What did Lovecraft mean by a city simultaneously full of “witch-haunted” gambrel roofs and a “lovely vista of … white Georgian steeples”?

Once more I turned to Northrop Frye, and his discussion of the symbolic double-city in Western literature, backstopped by Lovecraftian scholar Robert Waugh, who wrote the definitive monograph on the topic. My Big Idea was to turn Frye toward Lovecraft, and to expand Waugh from the city to specific cities – and to the Swamp, and the Moon, and Arabia, and the Apocalypse.

I always intended the series to begin, like Dante, in The Woods and end, also like Dante, in Providence. I got through about a dozen of my “Lost in Lovecraft” pieces (Air Supply as cosmic horror: discuss) before, Lovecraftian creature that it was, Weird Tales sublimed and died once more. But I still wanted to finish the journey, and so did my beloved publishers Atomic Overmind, and perhaps most importantly, so did our Kickstarter backers. Vampires and pandemics notwithstanding, we did. Like Randolph Carter, I spent years seeking the “sunset city,” and also like Randolph Carter, all it took at the end was waking up and looking around.


Tour de Lovecraft: The Destination: Atomic Overmind Press|DriveThru RPG

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

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Jonathan Coulton and Aimee Mann Sing “Red Shirt”

Recorded at the final JoCo 2022 concert. For those of you who don’t know, I commissioned this song from Jonathan when Redshirts came out a decade ago. It’s a lovely song, made even lovelier by the fact that Aimee freakin‘ Mann is singing background on it here. My life is delightful sometimes.

Back on the road for me tomorrow: Cleveland at the Parma-Snow branch of the Cuyahoga Public Library at 7pm, and then Boulder, Iowa City and St. Louis. And then home again, home again, jiggity jig.

— JS

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Big Idea

The Big Idea: C.G. Volars

There are tropes in literature that we all know, and, well, maybe not always love. For Static Over Space, author C.G. Volars thought about the tropes and what might happen if you flip them… and them flip them again, in an entirely different direction.

C.G. VOLARS:

Here’s a bit of irony for you: I first started thinking about Static Over Space—my gender-bending Scifi debut featuring a flying Latinx—while enrolled in an Honors Seminar in Gothic Literature.

It was one of my favorite courses, taught by a brilliant and fascinating professor who exposed us to niche classics and delightfully nuanced terminologies that, once understood, had a funny way of sneaking into every literary essay and conversation from then on.

It was in this class during an especially high-spirited debate that the initial idea came to me. We were arguing about archetypical roles in The Castle of Otranto when a young man in a pink polo shirt, khaki shorts, and penny loafers began ranting over Damsels in Distress.

“They’re so annoying in any story,” he groused. “All they do is get in the way and scream.”

“Isn’t that their job?” I remember replying. “The damsel in distress is supposed to be helpless. The story falls apart otherwise.”

He didn’t look appeased. “I’m just saying, they could try and act a little tougher.”

A Tough Damsel in Distress?

I remember walking back to my dorm, head swirling with wild story beats and reversed character tropes. Was it possible to write a tough damsel in distress?  I began imagining an ornery, fiercely independent person who’d absolutely refuse to recieve help from anyone else, no matter how bad they needed it. They would be tough, surly, sarcastic, and utterly helpless.

The absurdity of the idea expounded as the character came more fully into view. Not only would they refuse help, they would be in complete denial about their role through the whole story. It would be a comedy of stubborn-headed missteps. The plot would push the damsel further and further into situations maniacally out of her control. The villain’s hold would be absolute. Every nearby person would be logically aligned against her. The entire society—no—planet—no—UNIVERSE would be in deep conspiracy to keep her from success and safety. But still, she would never accept help! She would be far too caught up in bullheaded pride and her own self-image to even begin to admit she was 2,000 leagues over her head in shit.

Which is when it hit me—she obviously needed to be a man.

Years later, a dear Beta Reader helped me realize it would be even funnier if it was a Latino man because, well duh, who would hate being a damsel in distress more than a macho Latino dude? The entire endeavor would be one string of continuous frustration and torture for him. And it would be hilarious.

A Male Damsel in Distress

The story quickly became a study in purposeful irony. Every major character was soon flipped inside out:

-The archetypical caregiver? He was actually an manipulative trickster, capable of changing people’s emotional states at will and convinced he was only “doing what was best” for his victims the whole time.

-The villain? He’d think he was a romantic, a creator, an artistic soul who couldn’t help but be obsessed with finding and fostering beauty all across the universe. The fact that he needed control over everything and everyone around him? A minor personality flaw in his eyes.

-The outgoing, inter-galactic popstar? A victim of low self-esteem, forever put-upon and filled with constant guilt and self-questioning. Famous beyond description, she would have suffered a dismally lonely childhood that grew into an unfillable hole for companionship as an adult.

-The supernatural mentor and sage? A morally-gray pimp looking for a pay day with all the shadiest connections.

-The Wookie? A sensitive female working as a bodyguard to send money to her sickly Aunt.

-The Hero? Well, wasn’t it obvious?

He would be our Damsel in Distress.

What about Theme?

There’s no doubt, I was having a lot of fun subverting every known character stereotype out there. But it occurred to me that I still didn’t have a central message (other than snubbing Penny Loafer).

What was the moral of the story? Again, I had to come back to the root of the issue. What’s the point of a Damsel in Distress? Plot-wise, the job of the Damsel is to get in trouble, right? But thematically what do they actually teach anyone?

Lost, confused, and scared of dying? Find a big, strong hero to come and save you!

Hmm. It wasn’t terribly inspiring. It eventually occurred to me that the Damsel often functions as a moral exemplar for accepting love, particularly where you thought least likely to find it. The nerdy guy at school? Secretly a super hero! The uncouth, tempermental werewolf-looking-dude who kidnapped your Dad? Turns out he’s a total keeper!

So okay, fair enough. My damsel-dude just needed to fall in love with a seemingly mismatched love interest. I tried to make it work with a couple of romantic arcs: first there was an electric-powered female whose temper could only be matched by the latent heat between them. But she kept saying stupid stuff at exactly the wrong moment. Then there was a laid-back male with high emotional IQ and a supportive streak as long as the Nile; he would have worked, except I had a hard time seeing him taking on anything directly. Finally, I tried an clasically Big Hero type, a person equally matched with the villain in size, strength, wealth, and access to power. But then his main attractive quality seemed to be incidentally being “large” enough to take on the Bad Guy. Not exactly the stuff of true love.

Truth was, none of them felt right. Or, more accurately, it didn’t feel right pushing my damsel-dude towards anyone romantically for the sake of being saved. Would my damsel need help from others? Of course. But why did he have to fall in love with whoever helped him the most? Why couldn’t he fall in love with (excuse my crassness) whoever he happened to fall in love with? Did being saved HAVE to amount to romantic feelings?

As a fastiduous egalitarian, I decided no—men don’t have to fall in love with whoever saves them from certain death. It simply isn’t necessary for the story. With that, I decided to leave the romantic arc open-ended. It would be up to Izo to sort out his feelings as a young, bisexual damsel-dude lost on the wrong side of the universe. Would he need all of these character’s help to defeat the villian? Yes. But he’d decide who was most attractive based on other things.

So What Do We Learn from Damsels Then?

After all these years, what’s the conclusion? Was Penny Loafer right—are Damsels in Distress useless characters, forever relegated to cowering at the mercy of larger forces? Are they nothing more than pitiable screamers whose purpose is mainly to entice villains into being villainous and heroes into being heroic?

Or did the strength of a Damsel’s character lie in unrealized virtues: Perseverance. Graciousness. The ability to accept and support those offering help.

If so, weren’t these actually universal qualities necessary for everyone? After all, how many heroes need help at some point duing their journey? According to Joseph Campbell, isn’t it all of them?

So where’s the line? When does someone go from being a Hero who needs help to succeed to a Damsel who can’t save themselves alone? After all, how many times has a secondary character chosen to sacrifice themselves for the hero just in the knick of time? Wouldn’t that automatically make the Hero a Damsel then? Could most Heroes be portrayed as Damsels and most Damsels be depicted as Heroes with only minor tone adjustments?

Is it possible they’re not that different? That we’re just used to accepting the help Heroes recieve as negligible and the agency of Damsels as non-existent? More to the point, if so, are we creating false distinctions simply to reinforce gender norms?

I don’t know. I suppose it depends on which Damsel and which Hero you’re talking about. But after flipping the idea around in my head over the last few years, there’s one thing I do know for sure.

There are times in everyone’s life where we have to play the Damsel. There are other times when we get a chance to reach out be the Hero. We all need saving sometimes. We get chances to selfless sometimes. There’s nothing inherently shameful in being either.


Static Over Space: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

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Happy Gotcha Day, Charlie

A year ago today, we brought home this complete doofus. Life has definitely not been boring since then.

Happy gotcha day, Charlie. May we have many more with you.

— JS

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The New Chair

Oh, hello. First, I am home for two! Whole! Days! in the middle of the tour, which is not to say that I am not currently touring; I have an online event in a couple of hours from this writing, in fact, with the Poisoned Pen bookstore in Scottsdale, Arizona. If you’re seeing this before it happens, come on by and say hello. But it’s nice to be home, to see the family and pets and to do some laundry and sleep in my own bed before setting off again.

Two, the chaise longue in my office has been replaced due to a decades worth of wear and tear taking its toll and making it less comfortable than it had once been. In its place is the very spiffy new polka dot chair/ottoman ensemble, picked out by Krissy because she has much better taste in furnishings than I do. And to compensate the cats for the removal of one of their favorite lounges, we also got a new cat tree, with three (3) cats beds, corresponding to the number of cats currently in the house. Will they accept this new offering? We shall see!

Also, look, a side table. Let’s not forget that, either.

That’s literally what’s new at the Scalzi Compound. How are you?

— JS

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View From a Hotel Window, 3/18/22: Brookline

The sun is out today! Well, at least some of the time. I will take that. Also, Brookline, hello! I am in you and looking forward to the event tonight at 7pm at Brookline Booksmith.

Tomorrow: United Theater in Westerly, Rhode Island! First, me, at 7pm, and then Pacific Rim, at 9pm! How cool is that?

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KPS Workplace Guidelines

Here’s a fun little thing I did over at Tor.com today, assisted by their able graphic artists: The Kaiju Preservation Society Workplace Guidelines: The Too-Short Version. It’s what you need to know to survive a world that has massive creatures who could step on you like you step on an ant. Not everything you need to know, but perhaps just enough to get you through your first week. But really, you’d be better off reading the manual. Isn’t that always how it is?

— JS

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