As we head out of April and into May, here’s another very fine stack of new books and ARCs that have come to the Scalzi Compound. What here makes you want to take it into a brand new month? Share in the comments.
I have had to turn down five(!) book blurb requests this week, so it’s worth making an official public announcement so people know it’s not personal. That announcement is:
I have a book due in about a month and I have a large number of works that I’ve already promised to look at with an eye toward blurbing. Because I both need to get my own work done, and need to work through my current potential book blurbing commitments, I cannot take on any more book blurb requests through the end of July 2022 at least. It’s neither fair nor ethical on my part to agree to look at something for blurbing purposes if I don’t know when I will be able to get to it, or whether I can give it a full and considered reading.
If this changes in either direction I’ll let folks know asap. For the moment, however: Blurbing hiatus until August. Thanks for understanding.
Most of you are aware by now that we bought a church in our town and are now in the process of renovating it, and and I know many of you are curious about how that renovation is coming along. So, here’s a brief update: It’s coming along pretty well! Let me walk you through three of the biggest things currently under renovation.
First, and perhaps most significantly, the church now has a whole new roof. The previous roof was not a disaster, but it needed to be replaced, as there was some leakage and other issues that ultimately would have presented long-term problems if left unaddressed. The new roof is, I am told by my wife, whose professional experience is directly relevant to this information, a 50 year-colonial slate dimensional shingle, which basically means that this roof will almost certainly outlive me. There are flat surfaces on the roof which have been resealed, and masonry work which has been updated. This was all not inexpensive. On the other hand, now that it’s done, I probably don’t have to think about it again, and if I do, it’s very likely our insurer’s problem. Which is great.
Second, we are redoing the balconies of the church. The previous balconies were multi-level, to accommodate tiered rows of seating, and also, thanks to a cantilevered overhang, not exactly structurally sound; when we got the church, the (too-low) railing of the balconies were peeling away from the wall. We are making the balconies all one level, removed the cantilevered part and are going to be putting on a taller, rather more secured railing. The balcony areas are going to be my combination library and chill out area, and are going to be pretty awesome when they’re done. I’m really looking forward to this area being completed.
Third, we are redoing the concrete retaining walls that surrounded the church property, elevating it up from the street — here you can see, by way of a retaining wall that’s already been removed, how far up from the street the church is (Krissy, five foot ten, presented for scale). The retaining walls were as old as the church and were not designed to let water drain out, so over the decades they degraded and tilted. The new retaining walls will have seep holes and better general design, and will again last for decades.
(You may notice that the area where new wall will go through also appears to go on the property of the house next door to the church. That is the old parsonage for the church, and we also bought that when we bought the church. Why? Among other reasons, so that we wouldn’t have to ask anyone else’s permission to, say, tear up a crumbling retaining wall and replace it something more structurally sound. No, you can’t come live in the parsonage; the previous owners were already renting it out and we kept the tenants. They’re lovely.)
There’s more going in inside the church, particularly in the basement area where we’re revamping the kitchen and putting in another bathroom, but that’s for another update. For now, a lot of big things are getting done, and the church will be better than ever because of it. I’ll be happy when it’s all done.
Current events have had a hand in Kali Wallace’s newest novel Hunters of the Lost City, but as Wallace points out in this Big Idea, some elements of it are taken from facts that are perennial, for better or worse.
You ever have one of those ideas that you really, really wish you didn’t have to think about? Like maybe one day you’re just minding your own business, plugging away at a your next children’s book that’s full of monsters and magic and adventures–you know, fun things–and you look up from your desk and you realize, oh right, oh no, the world outside is still a flaming garbage fire and somehow that has infested everything you write.
I don’t want to get into how this is my pandemic book. Everybody is tired of hearing about pandemic books. I’m tired of it too. It can be a bit wearying to look at a book and think, “Yup, I sure was feeling some kind of way about the world when I wrote that.”
Hunters of the Lost City is, in fact, a fun kids’ book full of monsters and magic and adventure. It really is, I promise. It’s about a brave girl gets into a lot of scrapes and trouble trying to learn more about her home, her family, and herself. There’s magic. Monsters. A bakery. A lost city. Scheming sorcerers. You know. Everything a fantasy book needs!
But amidst all that fun is the big idea that underlies the story, the one that wormed its way in as I was writing and revising, the one that I now recognize is unstoppable bleed-over from the real world. And that is the fact that the stories we tell ourselves and our children about the history of our communities and our societies are very rarely the complete truth.
I always knew this was going to be a book about an isolated community, but what the meant evolved throughout the writing process. My initial idea was more of an aesthetic than an idea: a peaceful walled town in the mountains, bright and idyllic during the daytime, but both surrounded by danger when darkness falls and shadows by its own secrets. The story is told from the point of view of twelve-year-old Octavia, for whom the past events that resulted in the town believing they are alone in the world are distant history. She is concerned about the here and now, not about tragedies that happened decades before she was born.
But part of growing up is learning that everything is connected to what has come before–and that adults often lie through their teeth about what that means. Sometimes they don’t mean to, as they are only repeating what they have been taught. Sometimes they do it on purpose. It’s not always easy to tell the difference.
I love writing middle grade fiction precisely because it’s for and about an age group that is starting out on the frightening, confusing, and wonderful journey of figuring out what it means to be a person in a big, messy world. This means learning that your parents are fallible. Your teachers are not telling you everything. There are people whose lives are nothing like yours. There are people in power who make terrible choices. There are times when people can believe they are doing the right thing and still cause so much harm.
Octavia’s story is both a journey through a magical land and one through the tangled quagmire of her home’s history, one that has been clouded for a long time under the lie of safety and protection. I wish this didn’t end up being such a timely concept. I wish I wasn’t having to say, “Well, this book is in part about how adults fabricate lies about history for their own personal gain,” while school boards and politicians across the US having full-on histrionic freakouts over the idea that schoolchildren might learn uncomfortable truths about the world.
And I wish kids didn’t have to deal with all that adult stupidity, but they do. Because the other thing about being ten, eleven, twelve years old is that kids see and understand so much more than grown-ups give them credit for.
Spice doesn’t judge.
(This is a lie, Spice is in fact very judgy, but she’ll still come back for pets and scritches, so that’s okay.)
Also, as I noted on Twitter earlier today, there’s a new Journey song! And it’s very Journey! None more Journey! Why not listen to it, and enjoy it, or judge it harshly, really, either is fine, Journey is gonna do their thing anyway:
Have a good rest of your evening. I’m gonna go pet my judgy cat.
Elon Musk is buying Twitter, apparently mostly just because he can, and people are — strangely! — worried about whether a thin-skinned ego monster of a billionaire who has problems relating to humans and appears to equate “free speech” with trolling is going to make a service already rife with trolls and and bots any better.
I have thoughts about this! And I will share them with you now.
So, is Elon Musk going to make Twitter better?
Probably not! Part of this can be understood by who appears to be genuinely excited by the fact that Musk is buying the service, namely the trolls and/or the bad actors who have been punted off the service because they were real dicknozzles to others, and are now deeply excited that they might be allowed to return and get right back on their bullshit again. Most everyone else is, at best, ambivalent about it, and a not trivial number of people are taking this as their cue to head for the exit; my follower count is down a solid 1,000+ since yesterday. Some of that may be bots being cleared away, but I suspect it may be folks going, “whelp, I’m out.”
Also, aside from the common trolls, everyone fully expects Seditionist-in-Chief Donald Trump to return to Twitter the moment he can; he’s out there saying he’s not going to, and that he’s going to be on his own service, but we all know that’s a lie. He’s another thin-skinned ego monster, purporting to be a billionaire, who has problems relating to humans, etc, and he will go to where the most people will find him, which is Twitter, and he’ll bring the shit brigade back with him. We all know how that worked out for the country last time.
Elon Musk buying Twitter will be resetting the service back to 2015, basically. Which is not great for anyone but Trump and the trolls.
Okay, yeah, maybe, but Elon Musk could make Twitter better!
I mean, it’s a quantum physics universe; anything could happen. But very little that Musk has said or done seems to suggest that he’s actually going to make Twitter better for anyone but trolls. His definition of “Free Speech” appears to be of the “I get to say entirely shitty things and face no consequences for it” variant which has made being on social media such a delight these latter years, so it seems likely that the new regime will just make Twitter swampier, not less so. Under this “free speech” rubric, reporting trolls and bots and fake accounts to the service seems even less likely to get a useful response than it does now, and it seems more likely than not that harassment and threats and general assholic activity will go way up, because the dude at the top thinks that’s just fine.
Now, Musk could do things to counteract the malignant shittery that by all indications he intends to let flourish on his site: As just one example, he could have Twitter offer finer-grained user-facing filtering and blocking tools that allow users better control of what and who shows up on their feed. He could also make them easier to find and use — put them up front, so people are aware right from the start that they exist and how to use them. Twitter does have filtering tools, but has done such a poor job communicating about them that really only the power users know they exist, much less use them, and even then they’re not entirely adequate. So if Musk gets the service to overhaul and improve user-side control, I’ll be happy to give him a thumbs up there.
But I’m not counting on that! Because, again, Musk doesn’t much seem to care whether people are shitty on Twitter, in no small part because he enjoys being shitty on Twitter. It also seems likely that he doesn’t care that the “free speech” dynamic he appears to tout emboldens the worst sort of people to attack, harass and threaten others, safe in the knowledge that there are no service-side consequences for doing so.
Maybe give a him a chance to prove himself before you criticize him!
Well, one, Musk doesn’t need for me to give him a chance: save a last-minute intervention from shareholders and/or the US government, neither of which I find likely, he’s gonna own the joint no matter what I think. Two: Why? Elon Musk is not exactly shrouded in mystery. He’s a very public individual and has clearly stated his opinions on many subjects, and has a verifiable history in terms of how he acts and what his positions are. It’s perfectly fine to make suppositions about him from existing evidence.
Could I be proven wrong? Absolutely! It may turn out that Elon Musk was the best thing ever to happen to Twitter, and that he will lead us into a new era of social media utopianism. But I’m not exactly counting on it. To the extent that Musk knows who I am (he doesn’t) or cares what I think (he doesn’t), he’s welcome to prove me wrong. And I would be delighted to be wrong! I just don’t suspect I will be.
You just hate him because he’s an outspoken billionaire, you socialist liberal snowflake!
I don’t hate him (I don’t know him, personally), and I don’t even think he’s been unfailingly awful, in terms of the products and services he’s had a hand in. PayPal has been useful to me for decades. Tesla has been a net good, I think, in helping us wean away from oil and fossil fuels. SpaceX seems to me mostly an affectation, but it’s an affectation that I have a personal and professional inclination toward, so, you know, fine. Starlink? Messing up the night sky for Internet, I don’t love it. Twitter? I suspect he’s going to fuck that one up, based on his public behavior over the years and stated plans for the service.
As for Musk being a billionaire: look, this might be surprising, coming from a rich straight white cis dude as this does, but I don’t really have prima facie antagonism of billionaires, and even if I did, that doesn’t stop me from doing business with them and/or their products when it suits me to do so, or when honestly there’s no choice if one wishes to interact with the modern world. I have taken money from Jeff Bezos, Rupert Murdoch and Stefan von Holtzbrinck, to name just three billionaires who have tossed proverbial coins at me, and I will very likely do so again, from them and other billionaires. I use Facebook and Instagram, whose billionaire leader Mark Zuckerberg is probably as delighted as it’s possible for him to be that Elon Musk has usurped him as the Tech Dude Most People Seem To Think Is Evil Today, and I used Twitter when Jack Dorsey was its eccentric billionaire leader. I use Apple and Google and Microsoft products on the regular.
But just because I take money from billionaires and/or use their products and services, it doesn’t follow that I have to be unfailingly fawning of them, or believe that they are peerless examples of humanity, whose glowing example we should all follow. They’re not! By their public actions, a lot of them are real dickheads. I understand there are oligarch fluffers out there, weirdly highly correlative to the sort of dude who thinks he’s a free-thinking libertarian but actually just doesn’t want to pay taxes or be obliged to care about anyone else. I’m just not sure why I am obliged to be one of them, even if I do continue to use Twitter, or buy a Pixel phone, or get something off of Amazon, etc.
You just don’t like free speech!
I like free speech just fine. I don’t think it has much to do with Twitter, however. Twitter is, and will remain, a private company, and what speech is there, is what whoever runs it decides is going to be acceptable. Musk’s iteration of it seems likely to encourage bad actors and decrease the signal-to-noise ratio; either Musk knows this and wants this, or thinks that this one time things will be different — in which case, bless his heart. But it will be his show; he can do what he wants, and everyone who continues to use Twitter will have to deal with it.
So are you going to continue to use Twitter?
Probably. It’s been extremely useful to me professionally, and a lot of my friends are there (still, at least for now), so it’s an important way for me to socialize with others during the day.
But you said Twitter is likely to get worse!
And it likely will! But the awfulness is also unlikely to be evenly distributed, and in my case I expect the awfulness to be manageable. Some of this is based on my own personality, which is generally reasonably well-insulated from the sort of bullshit trolls get up to on Twitter and elsewhere (having three decades of experience dealing with trolls going back to the USENET days helps). Some of this is based on being a rich straight white cis male and thereby getting rather less bullshit sent my way, and when I do it’s mostly losers punching up at me and hoping I engage so they can benefit from the exchange, and I’m happy to disappoint them. Some of it is based on being a Twitter power user, so I actually do know how use the service’s tools to shape my timeline, and for the places where that’s not sufficient I use Block Party, which, because Twitter is a legit marketing tool for me, is a tax-deductible expense. So in all I assume my Twitter experience will be only marginally more sucky than it is right now — again, more like it was in 2015.
That said, not everyone can afford $120 a year for a third-party filtering system for Twitter, or has familiarized themselves with the service’s tools, or, critically, is a straight white cis male who doesn’t mind that much when losers try to punch up at him, hoping that senpai will notice them. It’s lots of people not in that demographic for whom Twitter is likely to become a more degraded and difficult experience. Don’t worry about me. Worry about other, more vulnerable people.
Well, I am leaving Twitter.
As you should if it’s not something you believe you can or should participate in.
But I will miss you.
Awww, thanks. You don’t have to miss me. I’m also at Facebook and Instagram and LinkedIn and Reddit and Mastodon and CounterSocial and Flickr and Tumblr and even at Ello. And, of course, I will be here, at Whatever, where I have been for 23+ years now, having seen off AOL and Friendster and LiveJournal and MySpace and all other manner of social media entities that existed in the before times and are now huddled in the “We Were Beautiful Once Too” bin of the Internet.
Do you think Twitter will be in that bin too?
One day, sure. Whether Elon Musk purchasing the site hastens that moment remains to be seen.
Is this where you rant about having the importance of your own space on the Internet?
It’s not a rant, and also yes. Look, scalzi.com has existed for 24 years now, and Whatever for almost as long, and I never had to worry about whether some damn fool other than me was going to come in and wreck it. And as noted I’ve seen several generations of social media come and go from the privacy of my own web site. No matter what happens, people will be able to find me here.
But you don’t own your own ISP or web host! You’re just as vulnerable!
You are technically correct, which as we all know is the best kind of correct, and also, in the real world my web host for scalzi.com has been unchanged for 20 years at least and if it suddenly went out of business I feel pretty confident someone else would host my site, I’m not doing a terrorism or a porn here. And if it really came down to it, I could just roll my own, although if it did come to that a) I would be miserable, since plugging directly into the Internet backbone is not my skill set, b) things are probably a lot worse than they are now in so many other ways that this site is not going to be high on my list of problems. So while you’re not wrong, also, you’re mostly wrong, and also, I’m not going to sweat it.
Nor should anyone else. Have your own site, people! Run a blog! Get an RSS feeder! Relive 2008!
Of all your various social media iterations aside from Twitter, which ones are you most likely to be on?
Well, here on Whatever, obviously; I update nearly every day, and I have comments open so there can be conversations here (and I moderate pretty seriously). After this, probably Instagram and Facebook. Depending on how things go and my technical acumen, I may mirror some or all of my tweets on Mastodon and CounterSocial. Tumblr runs a feed from Whatever, so there’s that. But again, I’m planning to stay on Twitter for now and I suspect that will remain my primary non-Whatever outlet.
What about doing a Substack or a Medium or a Patreon or a newsletter?
Substack and Medium and Patreon are basically blogs, are they not? I have a blog. You’re reading it. And (again!) unlike Substack and Medium and Patreon, this site is not dependent on anyone else’s business plan, nor unlikely to go away if those sites disappear and/or merge with something else and/or change their user agreement or whatever. I don’t worry about making money directly from the site, and it seems unlikely this will change any time soon, so I don’t need those various monetization options (and if I did, I believe WordPress, which hosts this blog, has options for that).
As for a newsletter: Hey, you can get the blog posts from this site sent to you via mail! If you don’t know how, look down at the very bottom of the site’s sidebar, you can put your email address there. Once you fill it in, presumably you’ll get an email confirming that indeed, you wish to subscribe. There, you have the Whatever newsletter!
Twitch? Discord? TikTok? Other site which has previously gone unmentioned?
I have accounts on quite a lot of social media sites but I also have only so much time in the day for being on social media and/or moderating and maintaining sites. At a certain point, the choice becomes: maintain a social media presence or get actual work done. I do have to prioritize work. It’s what keeps the cats from trying to eat me whilst I sleep.
Would you ever leave Twitter?
Sure, if being on it became more trouble to me than it was worth, or if it devolved into such a state that I didn’t believe I could reasonably be associated with the site. And also if it just stops being fun. I don’t own the site and I don’t owe the site loyalty. Or alternately I’ll just post career-related updates and leave it at that. Will it get to that point? We’ll see. I hope not!
But if it does, well, Twitter had a run, and that’s fine, too. Nothing is forever. And I’ll still have this site, probably. Welcome. I’m glad you’re here.
Do we learn from the past? And how does the past inform today, and the art that is created in it? These are questions Alma Katsu is confronting in this Big Idea for The Fervor, and is inviting you to confront them as well.
The Fervor is a novel about the Japanese internment. It’s about the lives of four characters during the waning days of WWII: Meiko, the Japanese wife of a U.S. fighter pilot, sent to one of the Japanese internment camps; Archie Mitchell, whose wife is killed at the opening of the book when a fu-go, or fire balloon, explodes near Bly, Oregon; Fran Gurstwold, a reporter intent on writing up the dangerous and mysterious fire balloon incidents; and Aiko, Meiko’s daughter, who escapes from camp and makes a dangerous solo journey back to Seattle when she’s told her mother has died. It’s all tied together by a forgotten episode in Meiko’s past: a trip taken with her researcher father to a remote island reportedly linked to the Japanese underworld.
On another level, though, it’s an exploration of racism in America.
I write historical novels with a horror twist. The question I’m invariably asked is why now? Why should we care about the Donner Party (The Hunger) or the Titanic (The Deep) or the Japanese internment (The Fervor)? Don’t we have enough to worry about today without dredging up the troubles of the past?
What I’ve learned is that the troubles of the past are still with us because we failed to learn our lesson the first time.
Nowhere is this more true than with The Fervor. While the novel centers on the internment, that event couldn’t have happened if prejudice against Chinese and Japanese on the West Coast hadn’t been allowed to ferment in the open for decades. And now here we are 80 years later, and violent attacks on Asians in America have jumped over 300 percent, directly attributable to politization of the origins of COVID. The attacks by these American nativists are disproportionately against elderly Asian women.
I know a fair amount about civil unrest. It was part of my beat as an analyst at CIA and NSA. Bosnia-Herzegovina, Rwanda, Sierra Leon—name a civil war in the 1990s, I was part of the team analyzing it. A campaign of demonization of “the other” is an important part of the game plan.
As aware as I was, I was shocked to learn during my research for The Fervor just how widespread white nativist groups were in the American Midwest and West in the decades leading up to WWII. Their hatred of Asians was sickeningly open. Except for the white hoods of the KKK, they didn’t bother to hide it. The white nationalist group I created for The Fervor is based on one of the most virulent of the time—and one that exists to this day. (I don’t know if they ever apologized for their antagonistic behavior toward Asians.)
I realize this post is a bit of a downer. I hope you’ll give The Fervor a chance, as it was written to entertain and I think it does, but it’s also meant to impart a lesson, one that is (depressingly) still relevant today.
To be short about it (because I’m at the airport, waiting on a flight): It was lovely. I saw friends, I had meetings and strategized about projects that are in various stages of development, and I hung out at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books with a bunch of writers I like and admire, and had a panel with Veronica Roth and David Duchovny, both of whom were delightful to be on a panel with. Everything was groovy. And now I’m very happy to be headed home, where I will get to spend two! whole! weeks! before heading out again, first to my event with Holly Black in Cincinnati, and then to the Bay Area Book festival. Travel is back, folks.
How was your weekend?
Some people seem to attract attention the moment they enter into the room. Then there are others who… don’t. In I Am The Ghost In Your House, author Mar Romasco-Moore explores what it means to be the latter, in ways that might surprise you.
Every day on the bus to school I’d eavesdrop. I carried a tiny notebook and I’d hunch over in my seat, dashing off hasty notes about what I heard and saw.
Some of these observations stick with me all these years later – the powder-pale girl in the pink velour tracksuit who insisted she had never once sneezed in her entire life, the enormous drug dealer boy who sat at the very back of the bus declaiming heavily embellished stories about his exploits.
I can still remember these people. But I feel confident none of them remember me. It’s likely they never even noticed me. There would be little reason to.
People, in my experience, are perfectly capable of maintaining directly contradictory desires. Back then, I desperately wanted someone to look at me and know everything about me, to understand and accept the darkest and most peculiar parts of my personality. I longed for someone to say “I see you,” or heck, even just for a teacher to look at me and be like “oh jeez, maybe that kid is not doing okay.”
But at the same time, that was my greatest fear.
I hid in as many ways as I could – dark eyeliner, sunglasses, silence, outright lies. There were things about me that might have drawn attention – being weird, being queer – so I kept them as shrouded as possible. I hovered around the edges of things, never quite fitting in, never fully belonging, but not outright ostracized either. Ignored.
I’m sure I’m far from the only teenager who felt invisible. When writing my novel, I Am the Ghost In Your House, I took this idea a step further. For the main character, Pieta (Pie for short), this feeling is literal.
She is invisible.
And not like a superhero who can turn it on or off as they please. She is completely invisible all the time. There are perks – all of which grew directly out of my teenage daydreams about invisibility. Pie and her mother, who is also invisible, can walk freely into places off limits for other people. They can go to a museum after hours and touch all the art. They can walk out of a fancy boutique with any expensive item they’d like. They live like ghosts in the houses of the rich, helping themselves to gourmet food and precious objects, scraps of luxury. Theirs is an existence unchained to the tradition rules of society.
But there are also downsides. Creating the character of Pie was ultimately a way for me to explore and amplify the loneliness I felt as a teenager – and to imagine what might happen if someone terrified of being seen was able to let go of that fear.
I don’t feel invisible anymore, but sometimes I still worry whether anyone truly knows me, truly sees me, and whether they would accept me if they did. There’s a good chance other people feel this way too – I hope that some of them find this book and recognize a little of themselves in the pages.
Not the most scenic of views — I daresay it feels kind of like a view you might get at a hotel in New York — but the hotel is lovely and I will be busy with meetings and events regardless. I’m here for film/TV stuff during the week and for Los Angeles Times Festival of Books doings on the weekend. Keeping myself busy, that’s me.
I’ve loved the Matter of Britain since I got my first library card. I dragged home every bit of Arthuriana I could find. What I loved most about books like Mary Stewart’s The Crystal Cave and Rosemary Sutcliff’s Sword at Sunset was the setting, the landscape of Long Ago: the scent of the forest, mist on the moors.
What I didn’t love was never seeing people like me moving through that landscape: no crips and no queer people, no women who weren’t tropes, and zero people of colour.
There’s a reason we’re not in these stories: the Matter of Britain is at heart a national origin story. Its nativist, class-ridden, ableist, manifest destiny is pretty much baked in. So in late 2019 when I was asked to write a story for a ‘race-bent, queer-inclusive’ Arthurian anthology, I said no; I didn’t think it could be done and still feel Arthurian. I went back to researching Menewood, the sequel to Hild. Then I got a second email about the anthology.
I opened the email intending to say no—my fingers were poised over the keyboard—when into my head dropped an image: half hidden by trees an exhausted figure in mended armour sitting on a bony gelding and holding a red spear. And I knew how to combine Arthurian legend with Welsh history and Irish myth—and lose all the nativist baggage. More to the point I knew it would be fun—something silvery and quick. So I set Menewood aside, opened a new document titled “Red,” and began.
Words roared out, a torrent leaping and tumbling with sheer joy. In just 17 days “Red” had become Spear.
Think of Spear as a cousin of Hild, but with magic—not just Hild’s wild magic of the landscape, and the magic of love and the human heart, but the sword-swinging, monster-killing magic of myth and demigods. It’s set a hundred years earlier than Hild, in Wales rather than England, so instead of Hild’s sturdy Anglo-Saxon sentences I let the language off the leash, let it run as it wanted, and what it wanted was to be throughly Celtic: rhythmic and rippling and periphrastic. Which makes sense because after all Peretur, the character at the centre of Spear, is Welsh.
Written mention of the Arthurian hero most people know as Sir Percival begins in Old Welsh of the sixth century. But the figure in my vision was not nobly born or a person of privilege. That bony gelding, for example, spelled poverty, or at least a sense of mend-and-make-do. And though their armour was red—like the fifteenth century Sir Percival’s armour—it wasn’t medieval plate but leather sewn with horn panels: something from a much earlier era. It had to be Peretur, from sixth-century Wales. Which was perfect—not only because it’s my favourite period but because I wanted Wales specifically. In the fifth century, after Roman legions withdrew, the Irish raided west Wales repeatedly, and eventually ruled it. So now I could link the story to legends of the Tuath Dé and their Four Treasures: the cauldron, the sword, the stone, and the spear.
The first three treasures, in the guise of the Grail, Excalibur, and the stone Excalibur is pulled from, fit very neatly into Arthurian legend. The spear, though? Not so much. But on one of those philological deep dives researching Menewood I’d learned that the name Peretur could plausibly stem from two Welsh words, bêr (hard or enduring) and hyddur (spear). Bêr-hyddur: Peretur.
If you’ve read Hild you know I’m a big fan of historical accuracy. Spear though, is stuffed with magic and demigods, so I approached historical realism from a different perspective. Queer people, disabled people, people of colour, poor people, women and the gender non-conforming are an integral part of the history of Britain—we are here now; we were there then. So we are in this story.
My Peretur, then, is born in a cave to a traumatised mother who has fled into hiding with almost nothing, who’s barely able to look after herself, never mind her child. Peretur learns to provide for them both, without being seen, via a kind of involuntary barter: she steals what she needs from isolated farmsteads and, in exchange, gives the farmers something they need. Although Peretur’s poor in material goods, she’s rich in experience: she revels in her physical strength, she loves roaming her valley, and she delights in protecting these people—who she thinks of as her responsibility—even though they have no idea she exists. And later, when she leaves home, her stance to the world isn’t wary and folded-in but wide-open and full-throated. There’s danger, yes, and loss and fear, but this isn’t a story of stress or angst. It’s a story of love, and lust, and fights to the death: Peretur lives large because Peretur’s a hero.
Having said that she’s not like the heroes in the Campbellian tradition, who are relentless in pursuit of their goal—which is to crush their enemies, heedless of the suffering they cause, and move on, unaffected by the wreckage and weeping in their wake. Peretur’s goal is not just to win fights and slay monsters—which she does, with great élan—but to find her people and a place to call home. And that’s what I want for this book: to find its people.
To me, it doesn’t matter whether Arthur or Camelot ever existed—because to me Camelot isn’t really a place. It’s a state of mind, a condition outside reality whose heroes fight not for power over others but the power to fight in service of a dream, a dream of justice and inclusion, a dream of belonging. Camelot could have existed, yes, and maybe some of us wish it had existed, but what makes it enduringly attractive is that it might yet exist. So this book is for people like me who want to be immersed in a time and place we’ve never seen—a past we’ve been told doesn’t belong to us. Spear is for those of us who long not only to see ourselves in that heroic past but to be the heroes—to not just exist, but to live large and to thrive.
It’s now been a month (and change) of The Kaiju Preservation Society being out in the world, so I thought this would be a nice moment to catch up with the book and answer some questions I’ve been asked about it, and also talk (very briefly) about what’s next for me. Because that’s what having a personal site is all about, yes?
So how did Kaiju do commercially in its first month? Pretty well, and honestly, better than I had hoped for. The book is a light romp, and I’d not put out a novel in 2021 (Kaiju was originally slotted for October ’21 and then Tor moved it, sensibly as it turned out, due to Omicron and paper shortages), and other publishers put out a number of heavy-hitting titles in the week of, and in the weeks immediately previous to, its release. I would have been content with it just being out in the world and selling to the usual crowd (hello!). So having it chart on two separate New York Times Best Seller lists (Combined Print/eBook; Audio Fiction), as well as a healthy number of other national and regional bestseller lists, was gratifying. The book has also hung in there through the month in terms of sales (doing the book tour helped), and the raw number of sales in this first month across all formats is encouraging in terms of the book having “legs” from here on out.
In short, it outperformed my expectations, and has made my publishers pretty happy. Hooray!
Okay, but how did it do with readers? Also pretty well as far as I can tell. I’ve gotten more fan mail about Kaiju than I’ve gotten for any of my books since Redshirts, so as an anecdotal barometer, that’s pretty encouraging. In terms of both the press and regular readers leaving reviews, it seems like the sort out has been 85%-90% positive and 10%-15% less so. The ones that have been positive have generally bought into the idea of Kaiju being a “pop song” of a book, i.e., light and fast moving and leaving you with a smile on your face and a spring in your step; the negative reviews seem to be of two varieties, with some overlap: Irritation with the tone and style of the book, and annoyance that a book that takes place during the height of the COVID pandemic might have a bit of contemporary political/social commentary to it.
Valid criticisms? Sure, for the person for whom these things are an annoyance. No one likes everything! My personal thought toward both these criticisms is: fine, this book isn’t for you, and that’s okay. Also, given your specific criticisms, you might skip the rest of my books, because, as Mike Wazowski might say, these are the jokes, kid. I like my schtick, and also it does well for me financially, so I’m inclined to continue it, for both personal and professional reasons. It’s not for everyone! However, clearly, it’s for enough people that I’m going to keep at it.
Can you talk about the thing you did with your protagonist? What thing?
You know, the thing. I’m sure I have no idea what you’re talking about.
(Exasperated sigh) Jamie doesn’t have an obvious gender! I mean, sometimes people don’t have obvious genders.
But you know, right? I don’t! Also, I think it’s fine for people to decide for themselves what gender if any Jaime is; what they decide brings an interesting and personal spin to the book, and I like that. It’s also fun for people to interrogate their own defaults and what they mean for them as a reader and human. As a caveat, I’ll note that since the audiobook is read by Wil Wheaton, people encountering the book in audio may assume Jaime is the same gender as Wil; I would only remind them that Wil also narrated my Interdependency series of audiobooks, where two of the three main characters were women (as was the primary antagonist). Audible pairs Wil with me because, from a sales point of view, people seem to like the match; it’s not a hand tip to the character’s gender.
You also have clearly trans and/or non-binary characters in Kaiju. Yup, because I know trans and non-binary people, so I’m reflecting the world I know. Also, given the context of the characters — theater folks, academics, scientists — it makes sense to me for there to be trans and non-binary folks in the story, and for the cis people they know and work with to consider their presence non-controversial and commonplace.
Not everyone is cool with trans and/or non-binary folks. They wouldn’t last long in the Kaiju Preservation Society, then. Nor would any other type of obvious bigot, as KPS is clearly a diverse, international organization with no time for that sort of bullshit. It’s my world, I get to write it the way I want it.
Kaiju seems thinner than your other novels. It doesn’t just seem thinner, it is thinner! It’s 280ish pages where my novels are usually 300+ pages. And yet, the book has the same number of words, more or less, as the last several of my books. The thing is, there’s been a worldwide printing paper shortage, so Tor made the decision to design the pages to have the same number of words on slightly fewer pages. This is how the global supply chain issues of the last couple of years affected this particular book. I assure you, however, you have not lost word count. I am as wordy as I have ever been.
What’s the current status of the Kaiju TV option? It’s active and I’m happy with the choices that are being made so far, and other than that I can’t say anything, partly because it’s not the time or place, and partly because there’s not all that much to say at this point. I’m optimistic! But then, I always am.
Have you given any thought to a Kaiju sequel? Not at the moment, because I have other things I’m working on, and also, a sequel is not accounted for in my current contract. Which is not to say that a sequel is impossible, if there’s reader interest and if Tor wants another. I never say never about this stuff. But I’m also happy if this is a “one and done.” Standalones are fun too, you know?
What are you writing next, then? The thing I am currently writing is a) another standalone, b) not dissimilar to Kaiju in tone and feel and the fact that it’s a “high concept” idea whose gist will be easily grasped by the title alone. So if you liked Kaiju, you’ll hopefully like the one I’m working on now. That’s tentatively scheduled for next year (assuming I finish it in the next couple of months, which I am supposed to).
What else do we get from you in 2022? Well, has it happens, the third volume of Love Death & Robots was announced just yesterday. It will be on Netflix on May 20, and it’s already been long established that a sequel episode of “Three Robots” is part of that line-up, so: that’s one thing. Also, Dispatcher 3 has been written for a while, so depending on other factors a 2022 release is possible. You’ll know when I know. Beyond that, well. We’ll all just have to wait, won’t we?
Final thoughts (for this piece) on Kaiju?
First, at this point what’s really going to keep the book finding new readers is word of mouth, so if you liked Kaiju, please consider suggesting it to friends who are looking for new, fun things to read. I would very much appreciate it.
Second, and as I’ve mentioned elsewhere, Kaiju has a special place in my heart. It was such an unexpected book, coming out of the wreckage of a difficult year and writing process. It was a joy to write, and reminded me why I like being a writer. Is it a great book? Probably not, but is a really good book, and the book I needed to write for myself. So to see it succeed and become a joy to others is something that has brought me contentment in the last month. This book has my affection in a real and specific way. I’m grateful it has earned affection from others, too. Thank you for that, folks.
Some famous musicians once said that all you need is love. It’s a nice sentiment, but in this Big Idea for The Devil’s Dictionary, author Steven Kotler might instead recommend a different-yet-related emotional state as the one we all need.
I stopped trying to categorize my writing a long time ago. Still, if I wanted to slot my latest book, The Devil’s Dictionary, into a recognizable genre of literature, I’d call it two parts cyberpunk to one part climate fiction—with a twist.
The twist is this: The Devil’s Dictionary is not a dystopian novel. As a rule, cyberpunk and climate fiction are set in dark, post-eco disaster worlds. Now, for certain, the world I built is dark. There are menacing shadow corporations, creepy genetics experiments, and the occasional Blade Runner reference—it is a cyberpunk thriller, after all. There are also plenty of ecological nightmares with which to contend. Yet, the most familiar nightmare—impending climate disaster—has been avoided.
I wrote The Devil’s Dictionary to provide an alternative vision of our environmental future. If we can’t imagine this possibility, we’ll never create this future. I wanted to bridge that gap, but had no interest in creating a perfect utopian world. I wanted a near-term version of our world where we’ve battled back the worst parts of species die-off and climate change.
Yet my desire to create a non-dystopian future raised the question: How could this eco-friendly world come into existence? What changes in ourselves and society would be needed to create a greener tomorrow? And this brings us to “Empathy-for-All,” which is the big idea at the center of The Devil’s Dictionary.
“Empathy-for-all” is the ability to feel empathy for all beings. Sure, it means feeling empathy for humans. Really, it means feeling for plants, animals, and eco-systems—or what scientists call “cross-species empathy.”
To rise above our environmental challenges, we need a massive shift in consciousness. Technically-speaking, we need to expand what psychologists call “our sphere of caring.” We need to feel about forests the way we now feel about family. We need to love the planet like we love our children. We need empathy-for-all.
There’s no choice really, not if we want this better future. The problem lives in our brain. It’s an information-processing bottleneck.
Every second of every day, our senses gather millions of bits of information. Yet, the conscious mind can only process a few thousand bits at once. As a result, filtration is the first order of business for brains. We constantly sift and sort data, trying to tease apart the crucial from the casual.
So what gets filtered out? Anything not critical to our survival. Anything that doesn’t align with our goals and needs.
And this is an issue in the modern world. Today, we live in boxes. We spend our days staring at other boxes. Sometimes, we live in boxes while staring at inboxes. So the brain believes box-world is what’s most important and filters out all the rest. The natural world gets erased from our field of attention. Plants, animals and eco-systems become mostly invisible. Our values and lifestyles blind us to the web of life. This is to say, if you ask psychologists why we’re in the middle of a giant biodiversity crisis, one common answer: we can no longer see the very things we’re trying to save.
How do we reboot “ecological perception”? Simple. Empathy. This is the tool evolution designed for exactly this challenge. Empathy is perceptual bridge building. Empathy both tells the brain to pay attention and widens our sphere of caring.
If our species is interested in solving the ecological challenges we now face, empathy-for-all is the critical next step. And if you’re interested in what this world might look like, The Devil’s Dictionary is one glimpse of that future.
Also, there are killer robotic polar bears in the book. And, seriously, who doesn’t love a good killer robotic polar bear tale…
Look what’s coming back. Soon.
This seems to happen every April 18: It’s Krissy’s birthday again! And, as ever, she’s just fabulous, and I love her tons. For her birthday I bought her a rice cooker (this one) and will be taking her to dinner. If you were to wish her a happy birthday in the comments, that would be lovely. No pressure, however, she’s fine either way.
Stringers features individuals who have knowledge they can’t explain called, well…“Stringers”. Our main character Ben’s knowledge centers on three distinct areas: nitty-gritty of animal reproduction in eyeball-exploding detail, antique watches, and also something called The Chime, but he doesn’t know what it is. There are others in the galaxy, and presumably the Universe, who are like Ben.
Another POV, a pipefitter from the planet Scella named Naecia HyRope, is tormented by an algorithm and plans for a mysterious machine that she feels compelled to build. Oush-Sadicet Ciksever, a side-character, is possessed of information on theoretical weapons systems as well as the ins and outs of Boblet farming (“small, roundish, six-legged oinkers, bred in order to guard livestock”). Again, none of these people know why they have this extra gunk in their brains, but unfortunately, there are people do (it’s bounty hunters). And sometimes, that information can be valuable.
*Teeny* spoiler: Stringers are people who have limited access to consciousness of the dead. Ew. Oh, and consciousness is a ubiquitous type of particle matter called the “Oblivion Fray”.
The problem for bounty hunters is that Stringers usually aren’t super keen on giving up their secrets…and sometimes those secrets are buried so deeply in the subconscious mind that they aren’t readily accessible anyway. How then to get them out?
I wanted to get creative here, while hopefully not overshooting my audience’s patience. Some of the obvious methods for extracting information I considered were interrogation, torture, drugging, downloading a subject’s brain to a thumb drive—you know, the usual. I wanted to push the boundaries beyond what I’d seen before. Our main protagonist, Ben, is a big fly-fisherman. So, I thought, let’s treat his brain like a body of water. How do you find things at the bottom of a river in a really dramatic and devastating way? You dredge it.
Enter the Neural Dredge, a super-computer “videogame coffin” with an interactive glass lid. It works by creating a link between machine and subject by “baiting” the subject’s brain with flashing images projected on the glass that the person sees from inside. These images are simple shapes, presented in a variety of Tron colors, and it’s implied in the story that these shapes, together with their sequence and color are a sort of “language” of deep subconsciousness.
Eventually, the person being dredged learns that if they blink the afterimage of one shape over a subsequent shape, they begin to make sense. The subject’s progress in building these larger structures allows the machine to go deeper, churning up visual packets of “glimmers” dredged from the consciousnesses of others residing in the Stringer’s brain. Glimmers present as small vignettes of the life of another as seen through their eyes.
Could a Stringer just shut their eyes? Sure, but then they get a drug called anxiolysin; and its side effects are usually enough to force cooperation.
Is dredging good for you? It’s not advisable. It induces nausea (Ben lets fly during his first session), headache, fatigue, and malaise. And the more a Stringer is dredged, the more coherence they lose; coherence being a measure of how much a person is themself. The deeper one goes into their subconscious, the more they lose. If they go too deep, their own consciousness unravels into the Oblivion Fray like a ball of yarn. The Universe takes you back.
That’s the big idea for gaining access to potentially valuable secrets from those with the Stringer’s curse. Now, if you suspect that you may be a Stringer, the best way to avoid being picked up by a bounty hunter and ending up in a neural dredge is to never, ever, do internet research about your condition. So long as you aren’t sending signals into space at the speed of light, no one lurking in the void will be the wiser.
And now, as promised, the final installment of this year’s Reader Request Week, zooming through some of the remaining questions:
How much do you think your readers from other countries (actually, in my case, other language areas) should read authors from their countries (language areas) over authors from, for example, the United States?
Another point that is related to that questions and that is hard to estimate from a perspective in Europe: How much are authors from oversea a part of the American SFF market? How much would you advice SFF fans from your country to also consider reading SFF authors from other parts of the world?
In a general sense, I think it’s both laudable and useful to support local authors — “local” in this sense meaning writers in one’s own country and/or language — because, like any local creative scene, whether it’s in your city, state or country, if you don’t support local efforts, they go away and then you’re left with a top-down culture which doesn’t necessarily reflect one’s own circumstances and interests, and that’s boring as hell. I don’t want to get into whether you should read them over writing from the US/UK, since that’s a matter of personal taste, but they should definitely read them, too, and decide the ratio for themselves over time.
I do think it’s also worth reading outside of one’s culture/language, because it’s good and useful to see how people do things differently around the world. In the US, for the longest time it was difficult to get science fiction and fantasy in translation, but that has been (slowly) beginning to change in the last decade or so, as mainstream and smaller SF/F publishers have started looking at overseas authors — and, equally importantly, been springing for translators. Translated SF/F work in the US is still rare, to be sure, but less rare than it used to be.
For those in the US looking for a place to start with translated SF/F, here’s a handy resource: Speculative Fiction in Translation.
You mentioned Dayton in your travel post. What do you think of Dayton? What are some of your favorite things in Dayton?
I like Dayton pretty well! It’s just big enough to have interesting things to do, and just close enough that I can get there and back when I feel like doing them. I enjoy the Dayton Art Institute, going to watch the Dayton Dragons every now and then, and there’s a Peruvian restaurant I like, called Salar.
How do you feel about spoilers? There was a recent Washington Post article advocating for them. I’m personally on team No Spoilers (unless I explicitly ask for them because I won’t ever read/watch/play the thing).
I’m not a huge fan of spoilers but I don’t lose my shit when I see one, because as a general rule the success of a creative work isn’t just about a surprise twist or significant plot point, but everything that leads up to it and comes after it as well. If those are done well, you can know the “big twist” ahead of time and still enjoy it when it happens.
I’ve noticed in most of your novels you very rarely give physical descriptions of characters (height, hair color, etc…). Is that intentional, or is it more like Linus not drawing hands?
I mostly don’t write description because description usually bores me to read, and to write. So unless it’s relevant to the plot, I tend to leave it out. I suspect if I started putting in description, my books would be ten to twenty percent thicker. I do understand this creative tic of mine annoys and/or frustrates some readers, and I think that’s a fair criticism for them to make. I am, however, unlikely to change my ways at this late date.
How do you find construction contractors you’re happy with and how do you maintain a good collaborative working relationship with them? Do you have a strategy to get things way you want them without micromanaging?
My strategy is to let Krissy handle almost every part of the contracting discussion, since, a) with her work she deals with contractors all the time, and is thus familiar with how they do things and what’s reasonable and what’s not, b) it better fits her temperament. When I have something specific I want I tell her, and when she needs input from me specifically, she’ll ask. Otherwise she’s in charge. She avoids micromanaging by having a very clear idea of what we want and communicating it to the contractors early enough that’s there’s no ambiguity when the work starts. Krissy is awesome.
What is your methodology (or thoughts or philosophy) on world-building for your novels? Just enough to get the story done or do you get all J.R.R Tolkien and invent languages and draw maps and so on? Do you enjoy the process or is it a necessary part of the process?
It depends from project to project, but mostly I just make things up as I go along. Sometimes I do more pre-writing worldbuilding than usual (I did that for the Lock In novels, for example, because I needed to know more about epidemiology and the then-current state of brain prostheses), but mostly I start and fill in background as needed, and adjust in the text via editing as I go.
I often read or hear about “American Exceptionalism” and as a Canadian, I’m always perplexed by such a statement. What do you think of it?
I think less of it the older I get and the more it becomes evident to me that the US is not particularly exceptional, it’s just powerful. It might be more useful for the planet if the strain of “American Exceptionalism” that was predominant was the one that models Peter Parker (“with great power comes great responsibility”) than Veruca Salt (“I want it NOW,” for whatever value of “it” applies at the moment). Perhaps it would be even more useful if the US just got over itself. But I do suppose a hallmark of super powerful nations, to which the US is ironically not an exception, is that they believe certain rules don’t have to apply to it.
When you, as a reader, are reading a series you are attached to (perhaps the characters are having their own adventures in your imagination) and the author does something completely out of left field and out of character with the characters and story how do you go about detaching from that series and moving on? (For example 8 books in swerving wildly)
I’ve never had too much of a problem with this, because as a reader I am quickly and easily bored, so if a series starts going in a direction that does not interest me, for whatever reason, I can put it down and go on to the next thing. I don’t owe anything to the writer, and the characters are, well, fictional, so they’re not hurt by my lack of readership. I understand that other people do not have the same sanguine approach to dropping series (I understand a fair amount of fan fiction comes from readers wanting the story to go differently than the canonical version), and that is of course fine; we all process this sort of stuff differently. My way is: Oh, look, here are literally hundreds of thousands of other things I could read, I think I’ll try them out.
Have you ever acted in a Shakespeare play? If so, which one, and if not, which one would you want to be in?
I was in Hamlet once (as an emissary from the King of Norway), and then for a class where I was required to do a monologue from Shakespeare I played Puck (and peroxided my hair to look more punk, which went terribly). I also played Guildenstern in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead in college, which is not Shakespeare, but is heavily Shakespeare adjacent. My acting skills are probably best described as “unimpressive but takes direction adequately,” and I’m not especially magnetic to look at, so it seems unlikely I will be essaying the Bard on stage or screen anytime soon. That said, if I were 20 years younger I would be happy to play either Benedict or Henry V in a deeply mediocre but enthusiastically-mounted community theater presentation.
Just Good Sense:
Given the thousands of movies you’ve seen—and having written a book on them and whatnot—is there a “big one” that’s eluded you? What great, classic movie have you never seen, whether because you and it have never been together in the same place at the same time, or because you just know it’s not for you? For me, I’m a middle-aged American man who’s never seen any part of The Godfather, nor have I ever seen a Martin Scorsese movie except for Hugo.
As a former professional film critic there are not many “Big Ones” that have eluded me, especially since I went out of my way to watch a lot of them, so that I could speak about them from a place of knowledge rather than ignorance. But now that you mention it, while I have seen large segments of it over the years, probably enough to have seen the whole thing in aggregate, I don’t believe I’ve ever sat down to watch Gone With the Wind from start to finish, and at this late date it seems unlikely that I will.
M. H. Lee:
Why do publishers seem to hate mass market paperbacks so much? For me as a reader if I have the choice between trying out a new-to-me author in a $7.99 paperback or a $16.99 paperback, I’m going to choose the $7.99 paperback every single time. There are multiple authors I would have tried in a mass market edition but just can’t get excited enough to try at a trade paperback cost. And I don’t read ebook because my e-reader always seems to be dead when I want to read. Why don’t publishers understand that they’re missing a whole group of readers by not having mass market paperback editions?
The short answer is that while you may love it, by and large readers have abandoned the mass market paperback medium for ebooks; ebooks have not really cannibalized hardcover or trade paperback sales, but they absolutely did so for mass market. So publishers have gone to where the money is, which is trade paperback, with ebooks mostly filling the mass market niche.
You will still find mass market books: Most of my books in a series are in mass market, for example, and mass market is still a thing in other genre fields, particularly mysteries and thrillers, which are the sort of thing that move in the airport “news shops.” And it will continue to fill that niche. But it is definitely a niche, and publishers will send things to trade paperback when they can, so: Maybe charge your ebook reader more often (or download the ebook reader of your choice onto your phone, which you probably do charge regularly).
I just finished reading Katie Mack’s book “The End of Everything”, which delves into the cosmology and astrophysics theories of how the universe – all of it, not just humans – will end. Scientists agree it will happen, just not necessarily how. Does knowing this end of all things is a certainty bother you?
Nah. One, my end will come a lot sooner than that (probably in the next thirty years! Get ready!) and after I’m gone it’ll all officially be Someone Else’s Problem. Two, the Earth and Sun will both be long gone by then, the Earth likely swallowed by the sun in its red giant phase and the sun itself a slowly cooling cinder of its former self, so again, locally, we’ll have more immediate problems. Third, all of these things (except my death, probably) are on timescales so incomprehensively vast that worrying about something that happens trillions of years from now (or alternately will happen suddenly, instantaneously and undetectably so I won’t even know) seems like a waste of brain cycles.
So: Yes! Everything will end! But between now and then we’re most likely to have lots of time, and can probably have a lot of fun. Or figure a way out. As ee cummings once said: “listen: there’s a hell of a good universe next door; let’s go”.
And on that note, here’s the end of Reader Request Week 2022. Thank you everyone who sent in questions. Let’s do it again! More or less a year from now!
On the weekends of Reader Request Weeks, I gather up a bunch of the questions I didn’t get to during the week and try to address them briefly. I often part them out between writing questions and general questions, but this time I don’t feel like doing that. That’s right! I’m very minimally shaking up the formula! Come with me on this wild journey, won’t you?
Did you ever want to change the world?
Not in a science-fictional way, but here and now, in the present time and place where you are, using whatever is available to you.
If you’re trying, or have tried, how did it work out?
We change the world just by existing in it; if we never existed, the world would be different. In my case: No Old Man’s War or any other book I’ve written, which is a measurable difference. No Athena, which would be sad for the rest of you. Krissy would probably be married to someone else, and so on. I change the world every day! So do you.
But specifically, the thing I helped to change in the world that I think was useful was me saying I wouldn’t attend a science fiction convention without a robust harassment policy, to which hundreds of other industry pros co-signed, which helped to fast-track policies at a lot of conventions. Lots of people more directly affected by harassment had been asking for those for fucking years, but I was a white dude famous in the industry, so, uh, yeah. On the other hand, harassment policies are now standard, so putting my shoulder to that wheel did its part.
What is your experience with TTRPGs? Are they something you’ve sought out actively, and if so what do you look for in them when (if) you get to play them? Any particularly poignant memories from a gaming session?
I play RPGs (table top or otherwise) occasionally and I enjoy them, but it’s not something that’s a huge part of my life, simply and solely because I already have enough hobbies and amusements, and only so much time. I play them when friends who like them ask me to play with them, and then I play because they enjoy them, and I like spending time with my friends. That said, when I play them, I usually enjoy them! I’m occasionally asked to turn my books into RPGs, and it’s something I may consider doing, and if I do, I would probably delve deeper into them.
Question with spoiler for The Last Colony:
Both the humans and the alien coalition just ignore the planet’s native population’s rights.
Considering your stated views on native American history, this feels like a large plot hole. Would you care to explain?
It’s not a plot hole, it’s just not on plot, i.e., not something I delve in to in the course of the book because I have other things I want to get to. But it’s certainly a question worth asking! I will say it’s approached more directly in Zoe’s Tale.
Also, remember that the Colonial Union is not necessarily a benign governmental entity, as the course of the series makes reasonably clear. Finally, remember that I as an author may have opinions and thoughts different from the ones I give my characters (or fictional governments in the books). That said, I as a creator am open for examination and criticism about I handle stuff like this, so: fire away in your master’s thesis!
Care to comment on your lack of hair on your head? Both on top of your cranium and your face?
The lack of hair up top I can’t do much about, short of medical intervention, which I’m unlikely to pursue. The current lack of hair on my face is simply because after a few years I got bored with having a beard and decided to switch things up. I may change my mind again, probably when I get bored with shaving.
How likely do you think it is that we’re living in a computer simulation? If you found out for certain that we were, would it change anything about the way you live your life?
It seems unlikely to me, but then, I might be programmed to think it’s unlikely, mightn’t I? If I knew for certain that we were living in a simulation, I’m not sure that my life would change much, not the least because I’m not sure there’s much I could do about it, and this specific simulation requires me to do things to exist within it. Also, ultimately existence within a simulation seems unlikely to be different than one outside of it; one lives, seeks activity and enlightenment, and then ceases to exist. Although I suppose in a simulation my data can be saved and rerun! Hey! Reincarnation!
I’ve followed you for a long time and when I first did you still had a day job of sorts as a freelance writer. I’m making my first steps in establishing myself as such (people are paying me money! To write words! I may never get over this!) and I was wondering if you had any advice in that realm.
Honestly at this point I’m doing so much less freelance work, and what work I’m doing comes to me rather than me seeking it out, that I am hesitant to offer advice to someone starting out in the field because I just don’t know what it’s like to have to do it on the daily anymore. The only advice I can offer is very broad, which is try to have as many income streams as you can, and also, develop a reputation of not being a pain in the ass, because “not being a pain in the ass” and competent will get you further than being a genius and a real pain in the ass.
Understanding that you are invested in your present home and other properties (such as the once and future church), have you ever considered living in any other state/region? Our winters are a lot more tolerable here in Texas (barring the outlier Feb 2021 icepocalypse).
Lol, nice attempt to elide the whole state losing power there, but otherwise: I think we’re likely to stay put. That said, if I we were likely to move anywhere I suspect the two places most likely for us to go are California, which is where both Krissy and I spent the majority of our childhoods, or Chicago, because I have a history there and am very fond of the city.
Food: Is there anything your younger self is surprised to see you eating? Or that your younger self is shocked you no longer eat?
I think my younger self would be surprised at the brussels sprouts that I happily eat now, because younger me only ever had them boiled and sulfurous, not crispy and fried up in bacon fat and dressed with a vinaigrette like current me has, and also, today’s sprouts are actually different from the sprouts of yore, bred to cut back on the bitterness and sulfur taste. I still eat most of the stuff younger me ate. I mean, you’ve seen the burritos. I eat like kid.
Do any of your neighbors keep honey bees?
I don’t know! I don’t think so? I think the winery across the street might? But I’m not sure. We have thought about it, but if we do it’ll be part of a plan to commit a big chunk of our yard to rewilding, and we’re not there yet.
What (or whom) would the hypothetical John Scalzi Award honour? Would the award itself be burrito shaped?
It’s not hypothetical, it exists. It’s an award named after a notable masonry scientist and honors the best contribution to masonry science. It is not, to my knowledge, burrito-shaped.
Tune in tomorrow for Short Bits, Part 2!
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.
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.