New Books and ARCs, 4/15/22

Welcome to your Easter and Passover stack of new books and ARCs! What here is catching your eye on this weekend of reflection and celebration? Share, as always, in the comments.

— JS


Reader Request Week 2022 #8: Whatever, Changing

David S (not the same David as from earlier in the week) asks:

Has success spoiled John Scalzi?

I recently re-read Your Hate Mail Will Be Graded, which is full of what my grandfather would have called “piss and vinegar”. Whatever used to be biting and savage. Now it’s all “look at what I bought”, and “here are new books I got for free”, and “The Big Idea”. Aside from The Big Idea, it’s less interesting.

Well, I think you’re kind of comparing different things, here: a day-to-day blog experience (Whatever) and a “Best Of” book collection (Hate Mail). Remember that Your Hate Mail Will Be Graded is a curated selection of ten whole years of Whatever posts (1998 – 2008). You’re seeing the several dozen posts I thought were the punchiest and most interesting from that decade. You’re not seeing the literally thousands of other posts that went up in the same timeframe, which I deemed not worthy of inclusion because they were pedestrian, or repetitive, or fragmentary, or a picture of a cat or whatever. You’re also not seeing the gaps in posting, when Whatever was rather less than mostly daily. For example, in November of 2002, I posted five entries for the entire month, because I was taking time to do other things. One of those entries was talking about something I bought (a pen drive). One of them was a “hey, I’m taking a hiatus” housekeeping note. That was not in an interesting month on Whatever for its readers!

To flip this: 2023 is the 25th anniversary of Whatever, and in that year it’s not out of the question that I will release another essay collection from here, spanning the five years since Virtue Signaling, my last essay collection. I strongly suspect that you will find that collection (like Virtue Signaling and The Mallet of Loving Correction, the other essay compendium taken from here) will have comparable amounts of piss and vinegar as you found in Hate Mail, because five years of writing here will offer a lot of my opinions to distill down into a concentrated package.

In a larger sense, the current iteration of Whatever has nearly 13,000 individual entries to it, which doesn’t include at least a couple thousand entries from 1998 to 2003 that didn’t cross over because I wrote them with handrolled HTML code and it would have been a pain in my ass to port them over. Since 1998, however, there’s probably at least 15,000 entries here. They are not all pure gold, shall we say, even the ones in which I was in high dudgeon about some topic or another. Year to year, and day-to-day, quite a lot of them are space fillers: Sunsets and YouTube embeds of songs and housekeeping notes and brief updates of the sort like “ugh I am sick why even are viruses” and so on. This is the nature of a more-or-less daily blog, and particularly one called “Whatever,” where the remit literally is “whatever I feel like writing about today.”

Also, Whatever has always existed as an add-on. Which is to say, it’s always gotten done around however I was making a living at the time. The first half of its existence, that was largely freelance work, and some book writing; in the second half of its existence, it’s largely been book writing, and some freelance work (the nature of that freelance work having changed over the years). Success, I should note, has not necessarily made me busier than I was when I was mostly freelancing, nor more shy in expressing my opinions about things. I’m an imperfect observer of myself, but my own estimation of things is that I spend roughly the same amount of time doing work as I ever have, and have roughly the same size mouth as it’s ever been.

So, no. My success hasn’t spoiled Whatever; it’s always been spoiled this particular way.

Which is not to say some things haven’t changed over the years! Here are some of them, as far as I can see:

1. I’m writing fewer political posts over the last few years, because honestly there are only so many times I can say “The modern GOP is an authoritarian white supremacist party that has no other ethos than a will to power” without boring myself and others, and what I do have to say about it usually fits better on Twitter than here, so that’s where it tends to go these days. Not always (see posts from earlier this week), but often.

2. I have less interest in and energy for moderating comment threads, which have always been the real time-intensive aspect of the site. So sometimes I will put off writing about a topic I know will generate a lot of comments until I’ll be able to babysit a thread, and when I do that, some of those topics just don’t get written, because time passes and they’re not relevant anymore and/or I just plain forget.

(By the way, this is not blaming any of you who comment here; the comment threads have not gotten unruly or anything in the last few years, and by and large the commentariat here has interesting and insightful things to say. Please keep commenting! This is a me issue, not a you issue.)

3. In the last few years in particular, I’ve bumped up the number of Big Idea posts here, not to fill space, but because we’ve been living through a plague and lots of authors couldn’t do events and appearances, and the Big Idea was and still is a reasonably good way to introduce authors to readers. It does mean that on average more posts here have been Big Idea posts than they have been in previous years, and that’s probably noticeable.

4. I have changed over the years. The size of my mouth hasn’t changed, but I do tend to think more about what comes out of that big mouth, and whether what I have to offer has value or just adds noise. I’m less inclined to just add noise these days. Also, I’m aware that, particularly in my community of writers and in science fiction and fantasy in general, when I open my mouth I have the potential to wreck things, whether I intend to or not. I think that’s less about self-censorship, or being less “interesting” in what I write about, as it is simply being aware of what I say before I say it, because it has consequence beyond just me. Which maybe I should have thought about before!

5. Finally (for the purposes of this essay, anyway): I’ve been writing on this site for twenty-three-and-a-half years, which means a lot of what I have to say now, I’ve already said before, several times, here on Whatever. If I’m going to say a thing I’ve largely already said, often, whether it’s about politics or writing or life or whatever, I want to make sure it has a good and useful wrinkle to it, so I, at least, won’t be bored bringing the topic around again. This is another me problem, since the Whatever audience slowly changes over the years, and people who read here today aren’t necessarily going to be the ones who read me opine about something ten or fifteen years ago (some of you will be. But not all of you). But it is something I think about.

All of which has changed the tenor of Whatever, I suspect, since its earliest days. That’s okay by me. Whatever is intentionally a work forever in progress, and it is intentionally about me writing what is interesting to me at any particular point of time. Any year, month, week, day or entry is a snapshot, and (hopefully) not meant to be definitive. When I finally stop writing here, however many years into the future, what I hope it helps show is my progression in life: What was important to me and when (or what I wrote about, in any event).

That to me will be the measure of the success of this site, and my success in writing it.

— JS

Big Idea

The Big Idea: John Dodd

As writers, we all have the Story The Got Away From Us. For John Dodd, however, that story was the one he came around to once more. Here he is to talk about Ocean of Stars, and how it was written, when the time was right.


It started with a book that couldn’t be finished.

Way back in 2014, I wrote a million words in a year, got six novels done that year and one that wouldn’t go the way I wanted it to. That book was Ocean of Stars. I had an idea of a young engineer wanting to find her way in the stars, finding more than she thought she would along the way, and how she dealt with what she found out there.

Except this story wouldn’t play ball, the first draft went off on a roller coaster, till I stopped and looked at the story and wondered how I’d ever managed to get where I was. There was time travel, and ships that travelled the solar winds on sails of light, there were dragons that swum within the stars, and world eating beasts that were only slightly less dangerous than the humans on the ship, and I was only a hundred pages in.

I put it aside, you can lose fingers trying to get a wild horse to trot nicely, and so it was with this. 

I finished it in the following year, wasn’t entirely happy with it, but then what writer is every happy with what they’ve done, and submitted it a few years later, then went to Ytterbium, the 2019 Eastercon. I’d spoken to the convention’s guest of honor earlier that day, and he’d said that the enthusiasm for the story was everything. When you love a story, you can talk about it for hours, and that was how you won people over. I didn’t think that I loved Ocean of Stars, it had caused me nothing but difficulty.

Francesca at Luna however, had loved the story, but at fifty five thousand words, it was too short. 

And so I talked about the rest of the story, the other ideas, the way I’d seen the rest of it going, and by the end of the conversations, Francesca asked me to finish it, not just the first book, but the whole story.

And I found that all the years spent working through the problems on Ocean had given me a vast universe and a wide pantheon of threats and dangers, and that the story running away from itself had not been because I hated it but because I loved it enough to hang on to the reins and try to bring it safe back to the stables.

Ocean of Stars is the story of the Martian people, from the catastrophe of Olympus Mons detonating when greedy corporations dug too deep and too fast, to the rebuilding of Mars in another solar system, millennia later. Still ruled over by corporations and now with more problems than Old Mars had ever had. 

I wanted to tell the story of how life changes us, how we start out wanting to change the world and being ready to do it, but how few of us manage to do that, and how you look year on year as the world goes on changing, but sometimes you haven’t made the difference that you wanted to.  If you could look back on what you did, if you could look forwards on what you’re going to do, would you approve of what you would do.

What if you had the chance to see the mistakes of yesteryear, repeated thousands of years later, and know that the world had not changed, that what had always been, always would be, unless someone took that bold step into the darkness and said no, this will not go on.

This was the big idea.

Catarina is bold, she wants to change the universe, but she’s seen enough of it to know that very often, the universe kicks back when people try and change it. The first line of the book is watching her captain murder someone who dared to speak up against them, then she finds herself in the employ of another captain who holds no regard for any life, and as the book goes on, she sees at every turn that there will always be something in the way of making the changes that you want to make, that you need to make, that you were supposed to make. She realises that it’s not enough to want to make a change, you must be willing to put yourself in harms way to make a change, just as it is in this world, but on a far larger scale.

Most of all I wanted hope, this book was finished in the first stages of the lockdowns, when there was no hope and death was all around us, I wanted the possibility that life was going to be better one day, and that’s the spirit that found its way to the page.   It was still a wild spirit, the third part of the book was completely different from the ending that I’d pitched, but when it came back to the stable at last, exhausted and covered in dirt, it was happy.

And so was I.

What I found in writing Ocean was that the universe I’d created was one that I could play in forever, my first novella, Just Add Water was written in the same universe, after Catarina went out into the stars, but before she started really adventuring.  Got to love time travel.

Speaking of Time Travel and better tomorrows, I couldn’t have imagined three years ago that I’d be here, but when you believe you can do it, you find a way to do it. That’s not just Catarina’s story.

That’s all of our stories.

Ocean of Stars: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

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