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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.

JOHN DODD:

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

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Reader Request Week 2022 #7: Space Exploration

Joseph asks:

What is your relationship to and opinion of, as a science fiction author and just as a person, the present-day effort of space exploration? (Human astronauts, robotic probes, astronomy with ground-based telescopes, or any other aspect of it.)

I don’t think it’s going to be a surprise when I say that I am an unabashed geek for all of it. I love all the whole gamut of exploration, and happily consume whatever news pops up about astronomy, astrophysics, planetary exploration, and crewed missions. I know astronauts and people who have landed probes on Mars! They’re all super cool people! My enthusiasm for it existed prior to my becoming a science fiction writer, and I suspect, in the worst case scenario that sees my science fiction career coming to a grinding halt, I’ll still enjoy our space exploration endeavors. This is all a no-brainer to me.

With that said, some subtle wrinkles to my enthusiasm:

One, in general I lean toward robotic missions over crewed missions, because I think at this point they offer more value, in terms of what we learn about our universe, than crewed missions do. Please note this is a lean, not a “do only one kind of exploration,” and I think we as a nation and as a species are perfectly capable of doing both robotic and crewed missions. And should! If I were the one planning missions for NASA (or whomever), however, I would probably prioritize telescopes and planetary missions and such over putting human footprints back on the moon, or on Mars.

Two, on the subject of crewed missions, I’m reasonably optimistic about the upcoming Artemis missions to the moon, but I’m deeply skeptical that we’ll actually land humans on Mars before I shuffle off this mortal coil (presuming a reasonable lifespan). This is because, in nautical terms, going to the moon is like leaving England and traveling to Ireland in gentle seas; going to Mars is leaving England and traveling to the Antarctic Peninsula, with gale force winds and five-story waves the whole way. Boasts by administrators and oligarchs aside, it’s gonna be a whole project, and I suspect whoever goes first should be planning on it being a one-way trip for them. People would still go! But, yeah.

Three, more than a few of the private crewed space missions seem little more than expensive press releases for billionaires, which I don’t love; again, I would like space missions to be about science more than anything else. But also, no one is asking me, and also, with regard to the incipient wave of space tourism, if millionaires want to give ridiculous sums to billionaires just to go into the upper reaches of the atmosphere to experience microgravity for a few minutes, well, it’s their money, I suppose. In their place I would spend that money elsewhere.

Four, what I really want are probes to the moons that we are reasonably sure have bodies of liquid water on them. If we’re going to find extraterrestrial life anytime soon, this is going to be the one of the most likely ways, and I think finding that life should be one of the priorities of our space missions.

(The other was we’re going to find extraterrestrial life? Super massive telescopes that can image the atmospheres (or at least, the spectral absorption of atmospheres) of planets around other stars. Atmospheric oxygen (probably) doesn’t just happen, folks!)

But again, I’m happy with what I get, which is good because it’s not like I’m making the policy or building the spaceships. Space! It’s my jam.

— JS

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Big Idea

The Big Idea: EC Ambrose

Footnotes, side comments, errata, vague asides — sometimes these don’t matter much. But sometimes, as E.C. Ambrose discovered, they do. And sometimes, as in the case of Drakemaster, you get a book out it!

E.C. AMBROSE:

Sometimes, the big ideas come from very small places…

I was happily reading along for no particular purpose, in a non-fiction book about the Antikythera Mechanism, when I came upon the most intriguing footnote in the history of superscript numerals. The chapter covered other advances in clockworks and gears, and the author clearly loved the material, but knew that it must be somehow restrained lest it take over the main document. The tantalizing footnote referred to a medieval Chinese astronomical clock, and “the vermillion pens of the ladies’ secretarial.”

Such a tasty detail that I pounced like a cat on the vermillion dot of a distant laser, pointing my way to a novel—not that I knew it at the time. The quote turns out to be from Cambridge historian and Sinophile Joseph Needham, who, during the 1950’s, proposed to compile a volume for Cambridge University Press called Science and Civilisation in China. 

(I thought I went down rabbit holes! His single proposed volume now consists of an entire library of Chinese historical documents which has produced 27 reference books so far…)

That’s how I discovered the subject of the quote, Su Song’s astronomical clock of about 1090 CE. Polymath Su Song, in the employ of the Northern Song emperor, devised his extraordinary technological wonder to track celestial phenomenon using the finest astronomical instruments of the day, and display the information on a series of dials (complete with moving figures and music) for the purpose of generating highly accurate and detailed horoscopes for the emperor’s children. The “ladies secretarial” recorded this information in red (because of course imperial children are very auspicious, and red must therefore be employed) for future reference.

Naturally, I was hooked! If the footnote was the laser pointer, now I had found the catnip. But a clock, in spite of its ticking, is not a plot.

(Footnote to the footnote discussion: clocks at the time did not tick, actually, because what makes them tick is the escapment mechanism, a newer innovation. One thing that made Su Song’s clock remarkable was his mechanical escapment employing a chain and water buckets to maintain regular intervals.) 

One large obstacle to writing into Chinese history is that the region is vast, and its history is extremely deep. Just beginning the research was daunting, and organizing what I found perhaps more so. I needed to learn enough to discover characters and conflicts, and zoom in on the particular experience of a milieu that makes fiction so compelling. The clock, my centerpiece, had been erected in Kaifeng—then the capital of the empire—only to be taken apart again when the imperial family moved south in the face of incursions by nomads from the Steppes. The Jurchen people claimed the region, and the emperor made one of the great blunders in the history of the world. He invited another nomadic tribe sick of living under Jurchen rule to ride south and rout the invaders. This second nation was, of course, the Mongols who would eventually conquer the world’s largest contiguous land empire.

Right. Looks like my quest to define a small niche of history to write into has, instead, expanded exponentially. I found myself overwhelmed again by the scale of the project. When that happens, I know I need to return to the source, the nugget that originally excited me to take on a writing project. In this case, the clock. I stopped broadly exploring the area, and instead began to learn all I could about this very specific place, Kaifeng, the city of the clock. When I learned that the city had rebelled against its Mongol conquerors in 1257, I knew I had my milieu, both time and place, and a several layers of conflict to explore, not only the large, external problem of the occupying army, but also the way that the region’s history would influence the characters. The Mongols, while possessing a well-deserved reputation for desctruction, also recognized talent when they found it, recruiting skilled engineers, craftsmen and bureaucrats into their army.

I developed my cast of characters from several of the cultural groups and classes coming into conflict, looking for a variety of perspectives to illuminate the narrative, and my beloved footnote grew into a historical fantasy novel of epic proportions: Drakemaster.  A team of rivals in a desperate race across medieval China to locate a clockwork doomsday device. The rest, in this case, isn’t history—it’s the future.


Drakemaster: Amazon|Barnes and Noble|Apple|Kobo

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Reader Request Week 2022 #6: High School Reunions

Laura S asks:

My 50 year high school reunion was last fall. Actually 50+1 because of COVID. Have you attended any high school reunions? Or have you kept in touch with childhood friends post high school?

I’ve been to several high school reunions: Specifically the 5th, the 10th, the 20th and the 30th, and I have plans to attend my 35th, which as it happens falls on the centennial celebration of the founding of my high school, so it will be a big ol’ to-do. That said, most of the class reunions are an at-least-medium-sized to-do, since the way my school does it is to group alumni by five-year anniversaries, so when we went back for the 30th, others were there for their 10th, 20th, 40th, 50th and also their 5th, 15th, 25th and so on. My experience is that the reunions that end with “0” get more people at them than the ones that end with “5” (see my own attendance), but regardless the attendance is pretty solid, because many alumni live within driving distance of the school, and because it’s Just That Sort of School.

And why are The Webb Schools of California (my high school alma mater) Just That Kind of School? Lots of reasons, including small class sizes, so you know everyone and everyone knows you in a way that a school with a thousand kids per class can’t provide, and because it was a boarding school, which means that for four years everyone was up in everyone else’s business; even the “day students” spent far more time on campus than most kids at non-boarding schools. Also, as a college prep school, regardless of our backgrounds coming into the school, as alumni most of us inhabit a largely homogeneous social class, which aids in class cohesion. Finally, Webb goes out of its way to develop and encourage alumni outreach, between it and between alumni, for its benefit and ours — we get a useful and congenial alumni network, and Webb (among other things) gets alumni giving. The result is admirable alumni connectivity, both within graduating classes and among the alumni in general.

Given all that, I don’t suppose it’s surprising for me to say that I kept in touch with a pretty large number of friends from high school. Even now, a large number of my friend cohort is from that time in my life, including several of the people I would class into the “best friend” category. In the before times, we would keep in touch through phone and things like alumni notes; these days Facebook and other social media do the trick. On one hand, the persistence of our alumni connections mean that there are very few surprises at reunions; we all know what each other have been up to, in an at least basic sense. But on the other hand it’s nice to have those connections be a constant.

Indeed, one of the things I would say that has been a pleasant surprise over time is that these days, on average, I am probably closer to more of the classmates I went to school with (and other alumni from my school) than I was when we attended Webb together. When you’re in high school, you’re a teenager, with the attendant teenage angst and drama and everything else. I’m not snarking on teenage angst and drama — that’s part of what being a teenager is for — but it does generate alienation and conflict even within a small cohort of people. Everyone I went to high school with is now rather more settled, generally, and most of the conflicts we might have had in high school are either resolved, or at the very least so far in the past that we can’t remember what they were, so why bother hauling them up to the present day.

But beyond that, well, I just mostly like the people I went to school with. They’re pretty excellent folks, by and large, and the sort of people I would probably want to know even if I had not gone to high school with them and had that shared history. Inasmuch as we did share that history, however, I suppose one of the things that does incline me to like them is that the school did actually attempt to instill values in us: Service, and community feeling, and trying to be a just and decent person even when other people aren’t looking or you will see an immediate benefit from doing so. If you like who I am as a person, a non-trivial part of my ethical make-up comes from the values Webb tried to instill in us. I suspect I’m not the only one for whom those values still resonate and matter.

(That said, allow me to be the first to admit that my generally very positive experience with Webb is not universal. I know people who had not great experiences there, and also, aside from any purported values the school would instill, it was still high school in the 80s, with the inequities and questionable behaviors, from students and staff, of that era. It wasn’t a perfect place, filled with perfect people, he said, in an understatement. It was, however, good for me, and I believe the foundation for much of my future successes in life, personally and professionally, was laid there.)

I’m happy to know today the people I went to high school with, and expect I will be happy to know them all of our respective lives. I’m looking forward to seeing some of them at our 35th reunion this year. We’ll laugh and hug and talk and be glad we still get to have the connections we do. I like who we all got to be. I like that we get to be those people together.

— JS

(It’s not too late to get a question in for this week’s Reader Request Week! Go here to find out how to do so.)

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Reader Request Week 2022 #5: The Clawback of Rights in the USA

Nellie asks:

I’d love to get your perspective specifically on the rash of anti-trans legislation getting pushed all over the US right now – Alabama just today passed their version, making it a felony to help someone transition under the age of 19, and there are a LOT of bills under consideration in other states as well.

Not to mention, we’re already starting to see the pivot from focusing specifically on transgender people to more broadly targeting LGBTQ+ people in general…

Well, mind you, it’s not just trans people or LGBTQ+ folks; let’s not forget that Republican-led states are actively passing laws to take away the ability of women (and other folks who can get pregnant) to have abortions, up to and including criminalizing having one, and the whole of the Republican Party has been making hay about “Critical Race Theory,” which very few of them understand, or at the very least, will admit to understanding. We have GOP senators blithely saying out loud that fundamental Supreme Court decisions establishing nationwide rights for women, minorities and LGBTQ+ folks were wrongly decided. It’s very clear that here in 2022 the GOP sees curtailing the rights of everyone who is not a straight white cis Christian man as a winning strategy, and in the short run is seeing some success with it. If the Supreme Court does not in fact overturn Roe v. Wade, as it is almost certain to do, it will at the very least whittle down its efficacy to the point where it will be entirely useless.

In fact the Supreme Court is why all these horrible laws are being passed: because the GOP, for the first time in 60 years, is confident that the highest court in the land is more than willing to overturn decades of court precedent on the flimsiest and most-poorly reasoned of legal arguments, thereby clawing back the rights of hundreds of millions of Americans, and in doing so, subject them to legal and social harassment for trying to live their lives with the same sort of liberties that the GOP arrogates solely to straight white cis Christian men. The GOP probably doesn’t expect all of these laws to pass constitutional muster, but at least some of them will, according to this current court.

Every one of those laws that does, establishes a precedent and means that every group that is not comprised primarily of straight white cis Christian men will have to expend their time and energy fighting these fights again. Which is one of the goals: If you have to spend your time fighting the laws favoring straight white cis Christian men, you can’t spend time competing with straight white cis Christian men on equal standing.

(Hashtag NotAllStraightWhiteCisChristianMen, and also hashtag SomePeopleInRightsThreatenedGroupsDontCare, but let’s not pretend who is the primary beneficiary of this hobbling of the established rights of others, please and thank you.)

That said, why the anti-trans legislation, right now? The short answer is: Because trans people are one of the groups least understood and sympathized with, not only by straight white cis Christian folks, but by other folks as well; because they are a very small group, relative to others, and easier to push around; because their ability to exercise the same rights as others has only recently been established and thus is easier to take away; because decades of political and media portrayal of them as deviants and mentally ill makes them vulnerable to attack.

And also: the GOP understands that the best way to start the clawback of rights of people who are not straight white cis Christian men is to pretend it cares about children. Why keep people from having abortions? Because they are saving the babies! Why ban books about, and the teaching of, race or sexuality? Because it’s not age appropriate for children, and white kids are having their feelings hurt, and also gay people are groomers! Why pass legislation targeting trans people — and trans children in particular? Because gender-affirming therapies are child abuse and also what if your child went to the bathroom and there was a trans person in there and also what if your child had to compete against a trans athlete it isn’t fair!

Let’s be clear: As a matter of policy, the modern Republican party doesn’t give a damn about children in the United States except as a way to weaponize parental fears into restricting the rights of others. If the modern GOP actually cared about children, their policy portfolio would be rather different than it is today. When a GOP politician publicly grouses about the well-being of children, it usually either means they want to take away the rights of some group, or they want to make public education in the United States worse (because the children of the groups they want to take rights benefit from public schools).

Also, very specifically, if the GOP cared about children, then they would care about trans children and their well-being. They have made it clear they do not, just as they have made it clear with “don’t say gay” bills that they don’t care about other LGBTQ+ children, and as they have made it very clear with the anti-CRT nonsense and book banning that they don’t care about black children or the children in other racial groups. Children are not just straight white cis Christian children — or more accurately just some of them, since the GOP will make a minor carry a baby to term, even the straight white cis Christian ones, which is not about the need of the child in question.

But even then, they don’t care about the straight white cis Christian kids, either. Here’s a news flash: There’s a very good chance that at least some of those straight white cis Christian kids are friends with the kids the GOP is currently actively legislating against. They like them, and may even love them, and may consider them part of their family. They know the GOP isn’t doing these horrible things for them, even if they are using them as the excuse to do them. And they’ll remember: who was doing it, and to whom, and for what reasons. In the long run — too long, unfortunately, for all the children whose lives they are working to ruin in the interim — I suspect that’s not going to be great for the GOP.

But for now, that’s why the anti-trans (and anti-other LGBTQ+, and anti-minority, and anti-woman) laws are being passed: because the GOP has a Supreme Court that is very likely anti-everything-not-straight-white-cis-Christian-male, and it needs to get this stuff on the books while it can. They’re not doing it for the children. The GOP spent decades working toward this moment. The rest of us have to decide how long we’re willing to have this moment last.

That, we can do for the children. And for us.

— JS

(It’s not too late to get a question in for this week’s Reader Request Week! Go here to find out how to do so.)

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The Big Idea: Nancy Werlin

Hey, do you remember the 90s? Nancy Werlin does, and one of the reasons she does involves her latest novel, Healer & Witch. Her latest novel… but perhaps not her most recent novel. Werlin is here now to explain how that works, and why she’s delighted this novel is now out in the world.

NANCY WERLIN:

Healer & Witch is being published now, but I wrote it in 1996. I had a clandestine love affair with it when I was supposed to be monogamously involved with a contemporary young adult thriller. Healer & Witch is a historical fantasy set in 16th century France for ages 9-12—in other words, it wasn’t remotely a YA thriller.

I didn’t care.

I was in love with Sylvie, a teenage village healer who with a touch of her hands could locate and destroy pieces of a person’s memories—only her own power terrifies her and she needs to learn how to restore what she can take away—and with her barefoot companion, eight-year-old Martin, a headstrong farrier’s child who wants to see the world. Could they trust the bastard caste-climbing young merchant, Monsieur Chouinard? What was Ceciline the wisewoman planning for Sylvie, and why? What about the fanatic inquisitor newly come to Lyon? Also, how was I going to work Italian double-entry bookkeeping into the plot? The underground tunnels of Lyon?

I wrote longhand, which was not my usual method, at a breathless pace and finished a draft in months. Overcome with joy, I showed it to my editor, who’d been waiting patiently, years, for that thriller. Surprise!

Heartbreak was gently delivered unto me; Healer & Witch was too much like another middle-grade historical novel they had recently published. (It wasn’t!) But what about that thriller? Wouldn’t it be a more appropriate follow-up to my first YA, and shouldn’t I think about building a career, and not just about following my whims? (Oh.)

To the young writer that I was, that all made sense. It makes sense still . . . except in the ways that it doesn’t. But I was then too inexperienced to fully understand how to work with my creative needs.  

And so, Healer & Witch went into my file cabinet. Just for now, I thought. And it turned out that the break had done me good; I finally found my way into The Killer’s Cousin and loved it too, and it eventually won an Edgar award. My editor and publisher then wanted another thriller.

Time passed, a great deal of it. I wrote and published YA novels, 11 of them, and I loved each one.

But at the same time, I buried the Nancy Werlin who wrote longhand on yellow legal pads, with a book of herbs and poisons by her side for ready reference, and her French dictionary, and her historian college roommate on speed dial. The Nancy who’d pinned up a map of France to track the course of Monsieur Chouinard’s caravan, and another map of the underground tunnels of Lyon (which, sadly, I did not end up able to incorporate into the plot).

I had also set aside the Nancy who was inspired by the adult historical fiction of Dorothy Dunnett and wanted to engage with it as writers do. Dunnett’s invisible hand is on the shoulder of the writer that I was and am. I can’t speak of her work without awe. Her books have it all: Unforgettable characters. Twisty plotting that makes your head hurt. Meticulous yet creatively inspired use of historical detail. Action scenes to give you a heart attack. Prose at once beautiful and precise, and dense with multiple meanings that reward close attention and re-reads.

In Healer & Witch, I had tried to evoke for younger readers what Dunnett had for me as an adult reader: intellectual and emotional absorption in another time and place, with life and death stakes, and accurate attention to the political, religious, and economic realities of the period. Only feminist, too, and also with a bit of magic, for I play looser than she, and for a younger audience.

That Nancy spent 25 years in a file cabinet.

Then, as the pandemic dawned in 2020, I was homebound. I was scared. I sought comfort, diving deep into reading old, beloved books. One day, I looked in that file cabinet and saw a paper manuscript. It was the only copy I had of Healer & Witch.

I read it. I had no expectations. I remembered being the Nancy who’d written this story, but I had no certainty about her passion or reliability. I felt the way you might when, after many years, you meet your teenage love. You don’t know if intense emotions will reignite, or if you will smile and shake your head.

But as I read, my breath caught; heart beat faster. It was 25 years later, but I was still in love with courageous, desperate Sylvie. I still cared about her predicament, and her friends and enemies, and her world. And I thought I had told her story very well indeed.

And so, I retyped. I needed another opinion; one I trusted. I sent the manuscript to my new editor at my new publisher. She had minored in medieval history at college.  Within a week, she emailed me with a few exciting suggestions for revision.

And an offer.

Publishing Healer & Witch makes me feel as if my character Sylvie has touched me with her healing hands, and restored my past self to me.


Healer & Witch: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s|Audible

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Reader Request Week 2022 #4: Rogue One

David asks:

Ranked from worst to best, the Star Wars movies, and why is Rogue One the best?

Rogue One isn’t the best — that’s still, and is likely to remain, The Empire Strikes Back — but at this point I would rank it a solid #3.

Before I get into why, here’s that ranking of the Star Wars movies (best to worst):

  1. The Empire Strikes Back
  2. Star Wars (aka A New Hope)
  3. Rogue One
  4. The Force Awakens
  5. The Last Jedi
  6. Solo
  7. Return of the Jedi
  8. Revenge of the Sith
  9. The Rise of Skywalker
  10. Attack of the Clones
  11. The Phantom Menace

Not ranked here: The various live-action and animated Star Wars properties, because I was asked about the movies, not the series, and anyway I haven’t watched all the animated stuff. I will say if I were ranking the two live-action series (so far), The Mandalorian would slot in after The Last Jedi and The Book of Boba Fett after Sith. I’ll also say that Sith and Skywalker swap around in the ranking depending on my mood for the day; I think Skywalker is more competent overall (notwithstanding the absolute loss of nerve by Disney in its story construction), but Sith has more operatic scope. Both are flawed and it’s a matter of which flaws annoy me the most at any particular moment.

Additionally, I’ll note that while I rank Star Wars/New Hope at #2, it’s not actually all that well-scripted or directed or acted, it’s “merely” epochal and a sea change in how films were made, released, distributed and marketed, and can’t be ranked any lower than #2 thereby. As a film, Star Wars is far more important than it is good, and George Lucas is an absolutely brilliant filmmaker as long as he’s not writing words for humans to speak, or directing them in how to speak them. Yes, there is irony in the fact that his Oscar nominations are for screen writing and directing. I said what I said. I have spoken.

Coming back round to Rogue One, I wrote a review of it when it came out, and by and large I stand by what I wrote there, with the acknowledgment that my opinion regarding the Disneyfication of the Star Wars universe has changed a bit since I wrote the review. Indeed, in the further consideration of time, Rogue One stands out as the true outlier in the entire canon of Star Wars films — the one fully adult Star Wars film, which is to say, the one that engages with the idea that not everything is “light side” and “dark side,” and that even the good guys do not great things, and that sometimes your heroes do not get a happy ending. There is irony in the idea that of all Star Wars films, this is the one that best lives up to the morally ambiguous storytelling ethos of the class of 70s auteurs that George Lucas was himself spawned out of; Rogue One is closer to The Conversation or The French Connection (or, shit, THX 1138) than any Star Wars film Lucas himself ever made.

(Not that much closer, let’s not overegg the pudding. But still.)

What Rogue One has over any other Star Wars film is that is it almost certainly the best acted film in that canon, thanks to a very fine cast which has a script that gives them more than merely declamatory things to say about a story with at least moderate complexity, and direction that allows them a full(er) range of human emotions on screen. If I were ranking Star Wars films in terms of proficiency of acting, it would be Rogue, then Empire and then Force, with each offering some interesting things to discuss (with Empire, it would be how the workmanlike competence of Irwin Kershner got so much better performances out of the cast than Lucas’ disinterested auteurism; with Force, it would be how JJ Abrams’ facility with pastiche made the Star Wars franchise feel fresh again… but only once). But Rogue has consistently better acting than either of those two films.

The one disadvantage that Rogue One has over the other top-rankers (Empire, Star Wars, Force) is that it is both interstitial and dependent; it’s an aside to the main thrust of the film canon, and it’s so contingent on the viewers’ knowledge of films that came 40 years before it that really can’t be understood on its own terms. The conflict of the film falls flat if you don’t come in with an innate understanding of what’s at stake with the Death Star plans, and the moment that Darth Vader shows up to try to grab those plans from the rebels doesn’t have the same sort of visceral chill if you haven’t already gotten the scope of his evil. To be fair to Rogue, the number of people on the planet who have no clue regarding the Death Star or Darth Vader is miniscule at this point, and the number of people who went to Rogue One without that information is even smaller. But that doesn’t change the fact.

A final thing I will say in praise of Rogue One is that is the one Star Wars film that makes almost no missteps in telling its story; there is almost nothing that is put on the mantlepiece in act one that is not used in act three, there is very little unnecessary faffing about in the name of fan service, there is nothing to my memory presented in the story that becomes another director’s or screenwriter’s problem in a future film. Rogue One understood its assignment, as the kids say, and executed it nearly flawlessly. Nearly — hello, dodgy CGI and a pointless brain-scrambling slime monster in a dungeon — but in Star Wars, like in horseshoes and hand grenades, “nearly” counts.

If you like Rogue One, I would suggest enjoying it for what it is and as a true one-off, because it seems unlikely to me the film segment of the Star Wars universe will come ’round to its more adult-leaning pleasures any time soon. Solo’s box office made Disney rethink some of its film plans, and Disney+ has convinced the company that television is the way to backfill the Star Wars universe mythos; as far as I can see all the Star Wars series take place before the sequel trilogy, with nothing after it. This is what it is, but it also means that Rogue One seems likely to remain its own thing (and before you say it, yes, I know about the scheduled “Andor” series, and it proves my point: it’s on TV, and in the “past” of the Star Wars universe; it’s even in the past of Rogue One, come to think of it).

But cry not that there will (probably) be no more Star Wars films like Rogue One, smile that it happened. It’s a really good Star Wars film. Let’s hope there are more that are almost as good. It could happen, if Disney ever finds its nerve again with the films. We’ll see.

— JS

(It’s not too late to get a question in for this week’s Reader Request Week! Go here to find out how to do so.)

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Reader Request Week 2022 #3: Travel in the New Age

Transiting through ORD. Note the mask on the dinosaur.

James asks:

I’m curious about your experience with travel. How has your experience of travel changed now that you are able to travel again after a year or two of break? Are there things you do to maintain normalcy during heavy book tour travel? Do you try to get other things done while traveling, or is your attention mostly just focused on touring?

Having just come back from touring, and having several more trips to book festivals to go before the end of May, I have to say that the dynamic of touring this time was pretty much the same as it was before: I showed up, did my schtick, signed books and chatted with people as I did so, went back to the hotel to sleep, went to the airport, wash, rinse and repeat. When I tour I’m focused on touring, and not on doing other stuff, and that didn’t change this tour; aside from the occasional business email which couldn’t be ignored, I was in a tour bubble, and happily so.

What was different this time, and will continue to be different with the festivals I’m attending, is that a lot of my things were “back at it again” events. At several of the bookstores I went to on the tour, my event was the first live event that they had hosted in two years or more. When I go to the LA Times Festival of Books in a couple of weeks, that will be the first time they have done that festival — the largest book festival in the US — in a live setting since 2020. And so on.

None of it is new, but all of it is happening again after long enough of a pause that in a sense there was an uncertainty about it all. As in: Will people show up at all, or are they still staying at home? Alternately, if people show up, will they throw a fit if they are asked to wear a mask (as many if not most of the bookstores on my tours asked people to do)? Will people remember how to be people in front of other people, or will we revert to grasping savagery? And so on. And as it turns out, the answers have been: They will show up, albeit maybe not at completely full capacity yet — my events were running at about 80% of the attendance of my last live tour — the people who show up will have no problems wearing a mask (one assumes if they had a problem with it, they just didn’t show up, which may explain the 80% thing), and the people who showed up seemed to be able to people just fine, or at least, as well as they ever did.

In a larger sense, my feelings about travel now are roughly what they were before; with the exception of currently still having to wear a mask at the airport and on planes (to which I have no objection, and fortunately haven’t had to share airport or plane space with anyone who does), it feels about the same. Bear in mind that I didn’t take a plane trip for 18 months, during the time when air traffic was severely curtailed, so by the time I did get back to it, in September of ’21, most of the rough edges of COVID-era travel had been smoothed down, and most major airports were no longer ghost towns (smaller airports are a different story, still — my local airport in Dayton lost a huge amount of its activity, both in terms of its shops, and where planes go. Now, if you’re not going to Atlanta, Chicago, Charlotte or Dallas/Ft. Worth, you’re taking a connecting flight).

But certainly there was a moment of adjustment. The first trip Krissy and I took together after more than a year of lockdown at home was last July, when we took a (belated) anniversary trip to the far and exotic city of… Indianapolis, to which we drove. It was at the point where friends of ours who lived there had all had their second shots, so it felt safe(r) to hang out and enjoy each other’s company. It was a modest trip, in terms of travel, but it was also the proof of concept: It could be done. Our next trip was to Dragon Con in Atlanta, and that was a bit of a cannonball into the deep end, since it was 40K+ people. It was an enjoyable time! And not a super spreader event! And another proof of concept: As long as people weren’t complete dicks, and followed some basic hygienic guidelines, travel could be a thing.

At this point I have done several conventions, a Caribbean cruise, and, of course, a book tour. I have not caught COVID, and thanks to two shots and two boosters (and other factors), I’m am not too worried that if I do, that I will end up in a hospital (I would of course still quarantine if I caught it; I’m not going to give to others if I can avoid it). It’s fine. Everything is mostly fine.

Which is to say, again, with the exception of masking still being a thing, travel no longer feels strange or odd or a new wrinkle into the life routine. It’s just… part of what we do again. Which is nice. I hope it lasts.

— JS

(It’s not too late to get a question in for this week’s Reader Request Week! Go here to find out how to do so.)

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Big Idea

The Big Idea: Wil Wheaton

For most of the readers here, the name Wil Wheaton is a familiar and even beloved one: Actor, television host, famous nerd, and award-winning, best-selling audiobook narrator. And also, in case you didn’t know, an accomplished writer and essayist. In Wil’s new book, Still Just a Geek, he revisits an earlier work, revises and expands it, and in doing so, opens himself of to the truths within it, good and bad. And, as he explains in this Big Idea, finds a way through all of it, using his own voice.

WIL WHEATON:

When I narrated the audiobook of Redshirts, and got to the codas, I emotionally faced what it would feel like to lose my wife, and live the rest of my life without her. The story called for a very different set of emotions than I was feeling, and after a bunch of runs at the scene, the director and I decided that I needed to take a break, process all that emotion, and then come back to the booth.

About an hour later, we recorded what’s in the book.

Until I narrated the audiobook for Still Just A Geek, that was the only time I’d had that experience. It turns out that writing about and then narrating the single most traumatic event of my life was even more emotionally challenging, because it wasn’t a story. It was my life.

I never talk about how much I was abused when I worked on this movie called The Curse, after Stand By Me. It was such a traumatic experience, I’ve done everything I can to forget it. But it’s a big part of who I am, and when I did Still Just A Geek, it was part of my story that I needed to tell.

It was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done. I was afraid that the emotion was too raw, too intense, just too much for the listener. I didn’t want to do it again, but I asked Gabrielle, who directed me (and who I’ve known forever) if it any of those things I feared were true.

She assured me that it was all honest, and all the emotions I experienced as I read it were entirely appropriate. I’ve known her long enough and done enough books with her to trust her judgment.

This is where I reveal that the director for Redshirts and the director for Still Just A Geek are the same person. She’s been there on the other side of the glass for both of these intense, emotional experiences.

That scene, from Redshirts, was tough, but absolutely worth it. I believe the performance is solid, and I’m proud of it. When I was done, though, I completely left it all in the booth. I told Anne about it when I got home, hugged her until she was like “okay that’s really enough” and we went on with our lives.

Put a pin in that for a second.

In Still Just A Geek, I write a lot about the child abuse, neglect, and exploitation I survived and still struggle with. It was incredibly challenging to revisit (and in the case of The Curse, relive) all of it. In the afterword, I wrote that I expected that doing that work would lead to a catharsis, but all it did was retraumatize me.

That was true, until I narrated the audiobook. Over the course of six or seven days, I said everything I wrote in the book out loud. I gave a voice to the child who was put to work against his wishes at seven years old. I gave a voice to the teenager who was abused by his father. I gave a voice to the young father and husband who was struggling to provide for his family while he also struggled to figure out what he was going to do with the rest of his life.

And in so doing, in speaking these words out loud, feeling the emotion that went with them, and defiantly saying, “This is my story. This is my truth. This is what happened to me, and here’s how I survived it,” I found the catharsis that the writing didn’t provide.

In the infamous William Fucking Shatner story that’s part of Just A Geek and now Still Just A Geek, I remember that, when my costumer asked me how my meeting with him went, I didn’t want to say out loud that he was a dick to me, because that would make it real. But saying it out loud set in motion the most incredible series of events, as the adults in my life on the set of Next Generation all stood up for me, protected me, defended me, and made sure I knew that I was loved. That’s something I never got at home, or ever, from either of my parents.

When I did the narration for Still Just A Geek, saying what I wrote out loud made it all real. I’d been hoping my whole life that I’d hear from my parents that my experiences were real, were valid, and that I was enough. I have had to accept that I’m never going to hear that from them, but I have heard it from myself.

It turns out that the voice I always needed to listen to was my own, and doing that audiobook narration allowed me to hear it for the first time in my life. I didn’t leave it in the booth. I have it now, in my memory, and I’ll keep listening to it as long as I need to, until my healing is complete.


Still Just a Geek: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s site.

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Reader Request Week 2022 #2: How to Be Pretty Happy

LEA asks:

You seem pretty happy. This is something I seem to be bad at. Any advice?

I am in fact “pretty happy” on a day-to-day basis, and now having said that, let me roll out a couple of caveats before offering any advice.

First caveat: As a general practice, I would recommend against estimating someone’s happiness based on their public persona (which this is, or at least, is one of them). I’m the first to admit my online public face, here and elsewhere, is edited to be mostly personable and emphasizing the positive things that happen to me, with very little about the negative things, aside from annoyances and irritations. When I do discuss negative things, it tends to be only after I’ve had time to sit with them and process them to my satisfaction, and (usually) when they involve other people, after consultation with them and with their permission — which includes their ability to veto my discussion of it at all.

As a result, while this public face of mine is not a false face, it is selective. It may present happier than I actually am at any given time.

Second caveat: Happiness is like so many other emotions and events in the day, which is to say, transient and not necessarily always present even in the best of times. When I note that I tend to be happy, what I really mean is that I have a fair share of happy moments, and then most of the time I’m not feeling one way or another, I’m just getting through my day in a sort of agreeably neutral way. For example, right this moment, I’m not feeling particularly happy. I’m not feeling particularly unhappy either; I’m in “writing” mode, which is mostly about problem-solving how best to put words in the most effective order. “Methodically intent” is the best way to describe my emotions right now. Earlier in the day I wasn’t particularly happy or unhappy either; I was just doing stuff. I had moments of happiness: Eating some carrot cake Athena made (which was really good), giving Krissy a kiss when she came up the stairs, singing the theme song to one of the cats (yes, each of our pets has their own theme song, just deal with it). And then the moment passed and what I was left with was not unpleasant, but also not actively happy either. I was just, know, being while I was doing stuff.

I think it’s okay to acknowledge at even “pretty happy” people aren’t just floating around on a cloud of bliss on a 24/7 basis, and it’s okay if one is not all happiness, all the time. I think perhaps the issue is less happiness as a default state, as it is being able to access happiness regularly, and without extraordinary effort.

With those two caveats noted: Sure, I am mostly a happy person. I’m also aware that for various reasons, it is pretty easy for me to be happy. My brain chemistry seems to incline me toward happiness, or at least contentment. Some days are better than others, but the good days and the bad days and the ups and downs largely seem to be in the band that is neurotypical. Also, on most days I am free from the life crises that invite unhappiness. I and my family have the necessities for life in the United States, and more on top of that. We do not have any current financial or health concerns. My career is successful and I don’t have much worry that I won’t be able to continue what I do for a living. Friends and family are largely well. Finally, I have a life that allows for a variety of people and experiences in it. I am not bored.

(knocks on wood)

Am I always happy? No; aside from the caveats noted above, like anyone I can be affected by events, from family emergencies to the general state of the world. I sometimes have career hiccups and frustrations. I can crack a toe or have a cat pee on a mattress or have a computer just decide to stop working. Some days I wake up with the attitude of fuck all of you, every one of you, you should all die in a fire for no good reason, and I can’t get out of that attitude for the rest of the day. And sometimes I do stupid things, intentionally or otherwise, and have to live with the consequences. There are any number of reasons for me to be unhappy on any given day.

But I’m usually not, or at least, not for long. Again, on average, I revert to being mostly happy, or at least, mostly content. I think that’s just, you know, me. Some people with equal or better circumstances have not been happy with their lot; many people with far worse circumstances are just as happy (including me, at earlier times of my life). Some people are just that way. Brain chemistry, trained optimism, the ability to find a silver lining whatever the circumstance; some people just get happiness as an easily-accessible state. Some people don’t, and have to put in the work to get there.

I am optimistic that the work can be put in, but I also recognize that I may not be the best person to ask about this. I will also note that when I say “the work can be put in” I don’t mean a simplistic “just put on a happy face” sort of Pollyanna sensibility. I think “the work” in this case will very often start with a willingness to acknowledge that some brains are divergent from what is understood to be the norm, by design or by circumstance, and maybe can’t do “happiness” the way that I or other people understand it on a daily basis.

So one piece of advice I might give is: If you think you’re bad at happiness, check in with a medical professional. It’s entirely possible that your brain might need some help in the form of therapy or medication. With regard to the former, I’ve seen it work, and with the latter, the saying “if you can’t make your own neurotransmitters, store-bought is fine,” is something that I think is important. The stigma of pharmaceutical intervention for mental illnesses is still out there, and I would prefer that we live in a world where it wasn’t. All I can do about that at this point is to let all of you know there are people I like and love who medicate to help their brains work better, and I am happy they do so, because their lives are better for it. So if you can (the US medical system being what it is), go to a doctor and see if that’s a useful avenue.

Beyond that, the only real piece of advice I have to offer with regard to happiness is a mindfulness of the things in your life that give you happiness or contentment. The things that we worry about are very good at consuming brain cycles, so making an effort to give brain cycles to the good things, no matter how small, is a useful practice. When you pet a cat, give as much of your brain over to petting the cat as you can. When you’re eating ice cream, really get into that ice cream. When you’re with friends, center yourself in your enjoyment of their company. Watch a sunset without taking a picture of it (or at least, enjoy it for itself before taking the picture). Make time in your day, even just a moment or two, for doing something happymaking or joyful. Making a practice of doing things that can offer happiness is a skill that can be learned. Will it always make you happy? Maybe not — but creating the opportunities betters the odds.

(Oh! And! Sometimes it doesn’t make sense to be happy, and it’s all right to acknowledge that, and to experience the not-happiness of moment, or day, or, Jesus, sometimes weeks or months. I spent a lot of 2020 angry and pissed off, and I think that was perfectly valid. I didn’t try to make myself happy. I didn’t stomp on happy moments when they happened, but I didn’t try to pretend the anger I was feeling wasn’t real, either. I had to process it. It took a while. It would have taken longer if I denied I was having it.)

Again, I don’t think “all happy, all the time” is a realistic goal or state of being for most people; as “pretty happy” as I am, I am not actively happy all that much, as a percentage of the day. I think it’s probably okay not to be “pretty happy” as long as when happiness does show up, you can focus on the experience, cherish what it gives you, and be glad you have it. And be open to it happening again, hopefully not too far into the future.

— JS

(It’s not too late to get a question in for this week’s Reader Request Week! Go here to find out how to do so.)

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Reader Request Week 2022 #1: My “Man-Cred”

Me, looking very manly, if I do say so myself.

Hello, and welcome one and all to Reader Request Week 2022, where you offer up the topics, and I offer my thoughts on your topics. Let’s start this week off on a manly topic, shall we?

“Just Sayin'” asks:

You have occasionally been criticized by meatheads for being a “girly man” type, and you have dismissed these idiots appropriately.

However, for the sake of argument and fun, please defend your man-cred, and demonstrate your good standing in the white male dominated patriarchy. What tools do you own, and what can you do with them? Can you fix an engine, sail a boat? Are you a deadly shot with a pistol? Do you hunt? What sports have you, can you play well? Macho achievements, skills? Can you drink all night and crank out immaculate prose like a Hemingway? You get the idea.

So, to answer this, I need to go back to high school, and the day that the dance teacher, Joan Rohrback, decided that I was going to be in her dance class.

It went like this: I was standing around in front of my high school administration office, doing whatever the hell I was doing, when Ms. Rohrback marched up to me, said “I need a guy to be in the dance class. You’re it,” and then walked away before I could say anything one way or the other. And just like that, I was the guy in the dance class, because as it happened a physical education class was required, so I had to do something, and also I didn’t want to argue with Ms. Rohrback about it. She was a dancer, she could pop my head right off with her thighs.

It turned out that dance class was in many ways fundamental to my understanding of my own masculinity. This was for several reasons. One, it reinforced to me that I was, in fact, a straight dude — and a cis straight dude, although “cis” was not a word I knew or a concept I would have understood at the time. Regardless, I was very aware of the women I got to be with in the class, and felt like I was getting away with something being able to spend my time with them instead of, say, wrestling another dude into a foam mat. Two, it taught me to dance. To be a good dancer, I think, you have to understand that your dance partner is your equal — you may lead (or may not, depending on the dance and whether it is a partner dance or an ensemble dance), but the dance doesn’t work if you don’t support and aid those you dance with. I wanted to be a good dancer, and as a result I learned to understand, in a very oblique way I wouldn’t unpack until much later, the benefit of equality and support.

Third, it really effectively short-circuited my concern about the judgment of other dudes. A lot of straight men, especially young men, don’t dance, because they think they will look foolish doing so, and when they’re concerned about looking foolish, the people they’re most concerned about looking foolish to are other men — who they often imagine will see them on the dance floor and cast judgment on them, not for their moves, but for being on the dance floor at all. Learning to dance got me over that, by actually teaching me how to dance and by teaching me to enjoy dancing for itself, and by giving my dancing proper focus — not on the other dudes, most not on the dance floor, who may or my not be judging me, but either on my dance partner, who legitimately deserved my attention, or on myself, enjoying the pleasure of the dance itself.

Did I get shit from other dudes about dancing? Sure, both in high school and beyond, but I didn’t care. And some time later, when literally the most beautiful woman I had ever met in my life saw me dancing and then told me we had to dance sometime that evening, and I said “now is good,” and then we got married (not that night, to be clear), my policy of not giving a shit about what other dudes thought about my dancing was vindicated. When I took Krissy to meet my dude friends for the first time, and they all said to me (when Krissy was out of earshot), “We don’t understand, how did you manage this,” I got to say, “Because I learned how to dance, motherfuckers,” and I have to say, that was especially sweet.

So, learning how to dance went a fair distance of getting me out of needing the approval of other men for the things I did, and who I was. It wasn’t the only thing, to be sure, and here are some of the other things that helped: My enormous ego, even as a child, which made me resistant to the opinions of people I thought were full of crap, particularly if they were my peers who I realized knew possibly even less than me about how the world worked; My manifest lack of genuinely useful male role models growing up, counterbalanced with a surfeit of women in my life who Just Got Shit Done; The ability to be in my own head a lot of the time, and to do my own thing, regardless of what anyone else thought of it. And also, you know, the realization that so much of the US Standard Model of Masculinity was just complete bullshit, which was evident to me at a very early age; so much of it posturing and so very little of it actually useful to anyone who had to deal with it, including the men themselves. But certainly the high school dance classes gave me a structure to think about masculinity and my relationship to it, whether I was fully aware of it at the time or not.

Now, let’s fast forward to today, and the interrogation of my masculinity by other dudes. It is correct that I have a tendency to wave away attacks on my masculinity by other men, but that doesn’t answer why I do that. One reason is because I don’t care what these dudes think; they’re all resentfully holding up the gym wall in the high school dance of my life, while I’m in the middle of the floor, dancing with my gal and all my friends. Another reason is that even by their own standards of what masculinity is, they’re usually not measuring up, so why would I let their opinion of what I’m doing matter one way or another?

A third reason is that, bluntly, and again, by their own standards of what masculinity is, I’m wiping the floor with them. Hello! I’m a financially sound cis, straight white man who, even factoring in all the societal buffs he got for free, built a successful career with his own hands(*), and has been living the life he’s wanted to live for going on three decades now. I’m good enough at it that the way these dudes deal with it is to try to demote me out of it. And, my friend, if you have to concoct an actual industry-spanning conspiracy to explain how I’m actually failing in my masculinity, well. You have fun with that. It’s all the same to me. You can’t demote me out of my manhood, and it’s not my manhood that looks lesser for you having made the attempt.

That said, I cheerfully acknowledge that I don’t care about so many of the things that (jokingly presented in the question, but not-so-jokingly presented by the Masculinity Police) are on the checklist for Standard Issue Man-Cred. Who made those lists? What are their credentials? What about those activities are so inherently strongly gendered that someone who is not “masculine” can’t do them? Tool use is not inherently masculine. Sailing a boat is not inherently masculine. Shooting a pistol is not inherently masculine. Writing whilst drunk is not inherently masculine (see: Dorothy Parker). Can I do the things on any random given Man-Cred list? Possibly! But there’s almost nothing on any random Man-Cred list that needs a man, by whatever definition you want to give that word, to do it.

But because we live in a sexist and deeply gender-anxious world and culture, both globally and locally, I concede that there are certain things that men are expected to do, or at least aren’t given the same amount of shit for doing, than other folks; it’s not suggested they can’t do these things, nor is their competence questioned when they do them.

To this end, these are some of the things on my own “Man-Cred” list, the list by which I measure my own success as a man, and which, I suggest, I will not encounter static for being able to do:

  • Provide, financially and emotionally, for my family
  • Love and champion friends
  • Be a good and useful neighbor
  • Contribute positively to my community
  • Be kind and fair with others when I can
  • Use my voice and wherewithal for the things I believe in
  • Use my privilege to raise people up, not keep them down
  • Acknowledge the wrongs I do and make amends if possible
  • Work to be the better version of myself every day
  • Plan for a future beyond myself and my own immediate desires

Again, there’s nothing on this Man-Cred list that needs a man to do them; anyone of any gender can perform them. But let’s also acknowledge that if men centered these sorts of things in their masculinity, we might be better off in general.

I will be the first to acknowledge that I am not perfect in observing the things on my own Man-Cred list; I’m not always performing my own conception of masculinity to its best. But I do make the effort. I become a better man, and a better person, by doing so. And if nothing else, I still get to dance.

— JS

(It’s not too late to get a question in for this week’s Reader Request Week! Go here to find out how to do so.)

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Uncategorized

New Books and ARCs, 4/8/22

After a brief(ish) haitus whilst I was on the road, the New Books and ARCs feature is back, and with a very fine stack of reading if I do say so myself. What here is calling to you? Share in the comments!

— JS

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Reader Request Week 2022: Get Your Questions In!

So, next week is literally the only week in the next two months where I am not traveling and/or have something on a deadline, so you know what that means: It’s a perfect time for the annual Reader Request Week! That’s when you, the faithful reader of Whatever, provide a topic that you want to see me expound upon, and then I expound upon it, perhaps providing more information about the subject — or myself! — than you may have wanted or expected. Good clean fun!

What topics can you request? Anything you like: Politics, culture, personal positions, ridiculous scenarios, whatever you’d like to see me answer — ask away. Post your question in the comment thread, and I will go through the thread and pick the topics I’ll respond to, starting on Monday, April 11, and going through the entire week.

While any topic is up for request, I do have a couple of suggestions for you, when you’re making your topic selections.

1. Quality, not quantity. Rather than thinking of a bunch of general topics for me to address, which isn’t very interesting to me, and which is also like hogging the buffet, pick one very specific topic that you’re actually interested about — something you’ve thought about, and taken time to craft a question that will be interesting to me. I’m much more likely to pick that than look through a menu of very general topics.

2. Writing questions are given a lower priority. Me writing about writing is not unusual here, so for this week, writing topics are a secondary concern. But if you really want to ask a question about writing, go ahead, just remember that point one above will apply more to your question than most. It’ll have to be a pretty good question to stand out.

3. Don’t request topics I’ve recently written about. I’ve included the last five years of Reader Request topics below so you can see which ones are probably not going to be answered again. That said, if you want to ask a follow-up to any of the topics below, that’s perfectly acceptable as a topic. Also, for those of you wondering how to make a request, each of the posts features the request in it, so you can see what’s worked before.

How do you submit requests? The simplest way to do it (and the way I prefer, incidentally) is to put them in the comment thread attached to this entry. But if you have a reason not to want to have your request out in public, the other option is to send me e-mail (put “Reader Request Week” in the subject head so I don’t have to hunt for it).

Please don’t send requests via Twitter or Facebook, since I don’t always see those. I credit those whose topics I write on, but feel free to use a pseudonym if you’re asking something you’d prefer not to have attached to your real name.

Here are topics from the last few years:

From 2017:

Reader Request Week 2017 #1: Punching Nazis
Reader Request Week 2017 #2: Those Darn Millennials
Reader Request Week 2017 #3: Utopias
Reader Request Week 2017 #4: Haters and How I Deal With Them
Reader Request Week 2017 #5: Remembering Dreams
Reader Request Week 2017 #6: Reading as Performance
Reader Request Week 2017 #7: Parents, Their Age, and Their Kids
Reader Request Week 2017 #8: The Path to Publication
Reader Request Week 2017 #9: Writery Short Bits
Reader Request Week 2017 #10: Short Bits

From 2018:

Reader Request Week 2018 #1: Incels and Other Misogynists
Reader Request Week 2018 #2: Our Pets and How We Treat Them
Reader Request Week 2018 #3: The Reputational Reset, or Not
Reader Request Week 2018 #4: Far-Left(?) Scalzi
Reader Request Week 2018 #5: Who’s Cool and Who’s Not
Reader Request Week 2018 #6: The Fall(?!?!?!) of Heinlein
Reader Request Week 2018 #7: Mortality
Reader Request Week 2018 #8: Public Speaking
Reader Request Week 2018 #9: Writing Short Bits
Reader Request Week 2018 #10: Short Bits

From 2019:

Reader Request Week 2019 #1: Strange Experiences
Reader Request Week 2019 #2: The War Between the Generations
Reader Request Week 2019 #3: Blogging With Extreme Confidence
Reader Request Week 2019 #4: The Things You Outgrow
Reader Request Week 2019 #5: Civility
Reader Request Week 2019 #6: Being Entertained as an Artist
Reader Request Week 2019 #7: How My Wife Can Stand Me
Reader Request Week 2019 #8: 13-Year-Old Me
Reader Request Week 2019 #9: Writing Short Bits
Reader Request Week 2019 #10: Short Bits

From 2020:

Reader Request Week 2020 #1: Being Politically Persuaded
Reader Request Week 2020 #2: The Hellish Swill I Consume
Reader Request Week 2020 #3: Becoming More Ourselves
Reader Request Week 2020 #4: What It’s Like To Be a Cis Straight Man
Reader Request Week 2020 #5: Me and Sports
Reader Request Week 2020 #6: Pulling Punches in Criticism
Reader Request Week 2020 #7: Cover Songs
Reader Request Week 2020 #8: What It Means to Be Dead
Reader Request Week 2020 #9: Writing Short Bits
Reader Request Week 2020 #10: Short Bits

From 2021:

Reader Request Week 2021 #1: Creative Kids in a Computer Age
Reader Request Week 2021 #2: Book Numbers
Reader Request Week 2021 #3: Teaching “The Classics”
Reader Request Week 2021 #4: Living on a Boat
Reader Request Week 2021 #5: American Fascism
Reader Request Week 2021 #6: Krissy and Dogs
Reader Request Week 2021 #7: Does Money Satisfy?
Reader Request Week 2021 #8: Local Favorites
Reader Request Week 2021 #9: Short Writery Bits
Reader Request Week 2021 #10: Short Bits

Got it? Groovy. Hit me with some topics, then! I’m looking forward to what you want to ask.

— JS

Categories
Uncategorized

Church Update: 4/7/22

Many of you have asked for updates on the church we bought, so here’s that update:

We’ve begun the renovations. We’ve engaged the services of a building contractor who specializes in churches, which is fortunate because these spaces are in many ways unique and have singular issues. We’re starting with big stuff first: We’re redoing the roof (which will likely be the single largest expense, unless/until we try to refurb the pipe organ) and updating the electricity, and we’re having the sanctuary cleaned out and refurbed. The basement and the balconies are also scheduled for major renovations.

The work is underway and we’re hoping to make good time on it, but more important than “making good time” is to have it done well and how we want it done. We are fortunate that the plans we have for the church do not require immediate occupancy; we’re not in a rush. This is the best way to go with a project on this scale, I think.

I can say we’re very happy with how things are going. Our contractors are good folks, they’re excited about the project, and when all is said and done we’re going to have a space that is cool and invites use. There’s so much we want to do here and we’re on our way to doing it. It’s exciting to see things in process. It’ll be even more exciting when it’s done.

And there’s your update!

— JS

Categories
Uncategorized

Hey, Look, the 2022 Hugo Finalists Have Been Announced

And I’m delighted that many dear friends and colleagues are nominated this year. Congratulations to everyone who has made the finalist list!

The whole list, as emailed to me (and many others) by Chicon 8, this year’s Worldcon:

Best Novel

Light From Uncommon Stars, Ryka Aoki (Tor; St. Martin’s)
The Galaxy, and the Ground Within, Becky Chambers (Hodder & Stoughton; Harper Voyager US)
A Master of Djinn, P. Djèlí Clark (Tordotcom; Orbit UK)
A Desolation Called Peace, Arkady Martine (Tor; Tor UK)
She Who Became the Sun, Shelley Parker-Chan (Tor; Mantle)
Project Hail Mary, Andy Weir (Ballantine; Del Rey)


Best Novella

A Psalm for the Wild-Built, Becky Chambers (Tordotcom)
Fireheart Tiger, Aliette de Bodard (Tordotcom)
A Spindle Splintered, Alix E. Harrow (Tordotcom)
Across the Green Grass Fields, Seanan McGuire (Tordotcom)
Elder Race, Adrian Tchaikovsky (Tordotcom)
The Past Is Red, Catherynne M. Valente (Tordotcom)


Best Novelette

“O2 Arena”, Oghenechovwe Donald Ekpeki (Galaxy’s Edge 11/21)
“Bots of the Lost Ark”, Suzanne Palmer (Clarkesworld 6/21)
L’Esprit de L’Escalier, Catherynne M. Valente (Tordotcom)
“Unseelie Brothers, Ltd.”, Fran Wilde (Uncanny 5-6/21)
“That Story Isn’t the Story”, John Wiswell (Uncanny 11-12/21)
“Colors of the Immortal Palette”, Caroline M. Yoachim (Uncanny 3-4/21)


Best Short Story

“Mr. Death”, Alix E. Harrow (Apex 2/21)
“Proof by Induction”, José Pablo Iriarte (Uncanny 5-6/21)
“Tangles”, Seanan McGuire (com: Magic Story 9/21)
“Unknown Number”, Blue Neustifter (Twitter 7/21)
“Where Oaken Hearts Do Gather”, Sarah Pinsker (Uncanny 3-4/21)
“The Sin of America”, Catherynne M. Valente (Uncanny 3-4/21)


Best Series

The World of the White Rat, Kingfisher (Ursula Vernon) (Argyll)
The Green Bone Saga, Fonda Lee (Orbit)
Wayward Children, Seanan McGuire (Tordotcom)
Terra Ignota, Ada Palmer (Tor)
The Kingston Cycle, C.L. Polk (Tordotcom)
Merchant Princes, Charles Stross (Macmillan)


Best Graphic Story or Comic

Die, Volume 4: Bleed, Kieron Gillen, art by Stephanie Hans, lettering by Clayton Cowles (Image)
Once & Future, Volume 3: The Parliament of Magpies, Kieron Gillen, art by Dan Mora, colored by Tamra Bonvillain (BOOM!)
Far Sector, N.K. Jemisin, art by Jamal Campbell (DC)
Strange Adventures, Tom King, art by Mitch Gerads & Evan “Doc” Shaner (DC)
Monstress, Volume 6: The Vow, Marjorie Liu, art by Sana Takeda (Image)
Lore Olympus, Volume 1, Rachel Smythe (Del Rey)


Best Related Work

Never Say You Can’t Survive, Charlie Jane Anders (Tordotcom)
The Complete Debarkle: Saga of a Culture War, Camestros Felapton (Cattimothy House)
Dangerous Visions and New Worlds: Radical Science Fiction, 1950-1985, Andrew Nette & Iain McIntyre (PM)
True Believer: The Rise and Fall of Stan Lee, Abraham Riesman (Crown)
Being Seen: One Deafblind Woman’s Fight to End Ableism, Elsa Sjunneson (Tiller)
“How Twitter can ruin a life”, Emily St. James (Vox 6/21)


Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form

Dune
Encanto
The Green Knight
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings
Space Sweepers
WandaVision


Best Dramatic Presentation, Short Form

Arcane: “The Monster You Created”
The Expanse: “Nemesis Games”
For All Mankind: “The Grey”
Loki: “The Nexus Event”
Star Trek: Lower Decks: “wej Duj”
The Wheel of Time: “The Flame of Tar Valon”


Best Editor, Short Form

Neil Clarke
Oghenechovwe Donald Ekpeki
Mur Lafferty & S.B. Divya
Jonathan Strahan
Sheree Renée Thomas
Sheila Williams


Best Editor, Long Form

Ruoxi Chen
Nivia Evans
Sarah Guan
Patrick Nielsen Hayden
Brit Hvide
Navah Wolfe


Best Professional Artist

Tommy Arnold
Rovina Cai
Ashley Mackenzie
Maurizio Manzieri
Will Staehle
Alyssa Winans


Best Semiprozine

Beneath Ceaseless Skies
Escape Pod
FIYAH
PodCastle
Strange Horizons
Uncanny


Best Fanzine

The Full Lid
Galactic Journey
Journey Planet
Quick Sip Reviews
Small Gods
Unofficial Hugo Book Club Blog


Best Fancast

Be The Serpent
The Coode Street Podcast
Hugo, Girl!
Octothorpe
Our Opinions Are Correct
Worldbuilding for Masochists


Best Fan Writer

Chris M. Barkley
Bitter Karella
Alex Brown
Cora Buhlert
Jason Sanford
Paul Weimer


Best Fan Artist

Iain J. Clark
Lorelei Esther
Sara Felix
Ariela Housman
Nilah Magruder
Lee Moyer


Lodestar Award for Best Young Adult Book [Not a Hugo]

Victories Greater Than Death, Charlie Jane Anders (Tor Teen; Titan)
A Snake Falls to Earth, Darcie Little Badger (Levine Querido)
Redemptor, Jordan Ifueko (Amulet; Hot Key)
Chaos on CatNet, Naomi Kritzer (Tor Teen)
The Last Graduate, Naomi Novik (Del Rey; Del Rey UK)
Iron Widow, Xiran Jay Zhao (Penguin Teen; Rock the Boat)


Astounding Award for Best New Writer [Not a Hugo Award]

Tracy Deonn*
Micaiah Johnson*
K. Larkwood*
Everina Maxwell
Shelley Parker-Chan
Xiran Jay Zhao
*Finalist in their 2nd year of eligibility.

Categories
Big Idea

The Big Idea: Adam Oyebanji

In his novel Braking Day, author Adam Oyebanji wants to take humans into deep space. But just because he wants to take them into deep space doesn’t mean he’s going to make it easy and simple for them to get there… or stay there.

ADAM OYEBANJI:

I fear I’m here under false pretenses. I don’t really have a big idea when I write. I have a little idea that spirals out of control. My little (and utterly unoriginal) idea was this: wouldn’t it be great if we could travel to other stars? Jeez! Even by my standards, that’s lame. Sci-fi is full of stories about interstellar travel. For some people (me) that’s the whole point of the genre.

But here’s the thing. I want to go there, like, for realz. I want the dream to come true. I want to write something that might one day happen.

Which means that 99.9% of space stories are off the table. The vile and unpleasant truth about the universe we live in is that Faster Than Light is impossible. So FTL in its various and multitudinous form, hyperdrives, jump points, wormholes (okay, so technically not FTL but still pretty freakin’ impossible) isn’t going to work for us. Someone, someday, is going to have to build a big ass means of propulsion and push. Sub-light.

But sub-light, while painfully slow for sci-fi is not, you know, slow. 99.9% of light gets you from Earth to Mars orbit in comfortably under four-and-a-half minutes. At that speed, the nearest star, Proxima Centauri, is less than four years away. Not great, but sailing ships used to be away from their home ports for years at a time, so totally doable. Let’s go!

Not so fast. No. Really. Not so fast. Per Einstein, the reason you can’t get past the speed of light is that the faster you go the more massive you get. One pound of mass becomes two becomes twenty and, at light speed, infinite. Just under? Freakin’ tons. Not going to happen. The only reason light travels at light speed is because it has no mass. I guess photons could eat as much as they like and still not put on weight. Bastards.

So, let’s get real(ish). Maybe we can aspire to a speed where the relativistic effects of weight gain can be kept to a minimum; where the energy required, while astronomical (see what I did there?), is not so massive that one loses hope for our future selves. Say, one tenth light speed.

Okay, one tenth light is bad. But not the end of the world. We can still get to Proxima Centauri in, say, forty years. Put our guys in cryo and let’s go, go, go.

No.

Why the hell not?

First, in sci-fi, everyone and their dog has been to Proxima or Alpha Centauri. Precisely because it’s close. Alpha Centauri makes a guest appearance in Isaac Asimov’s Foundation as early as 1942, it’s the intended destination for the 1960s TV show (and Netflix reboot) Lost in Space, and Proxima Centauri features heavily in a 2013 Stephen Baxter novel, called, unsurprisingly perhaps, Proxima (it’s awesome, by the way). I could go on (and on and on), but I won’t. I don’t want to go there. Second, even if I did want to go there, I don’t want to go in cryo. Nothing happens in cryo. That’s the whole point. How the heck can we write about an interstellar journey if everyone is asleep?

Well, I guess we could if something went wrong and they woke up, right?

Right. But I don’t want to do that. Cryo isn’t FTL. It’s absolutely a plausible way to travel, and I could write a cryo story where they wake up mid-flight. But no. What I want to do is write a story where the mission goes basically as planned. I want to show interstellar travel working.

But if things go as planned, you won’t have a novel. Stories where everything goes swimmingly aren’t stories, they’re Instagram posts. Still fictional, because no one’s life is that great, but totally lacking in drama, conflict, or anything else. So just put them in cryo, break the cryo and…

No. We’re not going in cryo, and we’re not going to the star next door.

Fine. Fine. So, where are we going?

Hmmm. Well, the nearest stars that are vaguely like ours are Epsilon Eridani and Tau Ceti. We should go to Tau Ceti. It’s less of a mouthful than Epsilon Eridani but Brits and Americans pronounce it differently. That has got to be good for some real mischief down the road.

Tau Ceti, regardless of how you pronounce it, is about twelve light years from Earth. So, you want to have a journey of 120 years?

At least. Let’s slow them down a little and say 130 to 135 years. This has got to be a generation ship if no one’s going to sleep. We can get in an extra generation that way. If you count a generation as, say, twenty-five years, Gen One launches, Gen Two is the first cohort born in space. If you do the math like that, by the time they’re getting ready to decelerate at the end of the journey, Gen Seven is just getting around to being born, Gens Four and Five are running things, and our heroes will be from the still-young Gen Six. Youth is too young and too stupid to realize you can’t change the world, which is the only reason the world actually changes. Thank heavens for young people.

Young people aren’t as stupid as you seem to think. To have our story get off the ground (both literally and metaphorically) we’d have to get a bunch of ’em to board a ship they’re never going to leave. It’d be like boarding a high-tech coffin. Why would they do that?

I guess a couple of reasons. First, where they are might not be so great (we’ll figure out why later). And second, we may all live on Planet Earth, but we only live long enough to see a tiny fraction of it. Many people live their best lives within small towns. If it has the resources, most of us could be perfectly fulfilled in a city of, say, ten thousand people.

How many? That’s insane! Our generation ship is going to have to be, like, huge.

Several miles long, I’m thinking. We’ve got zillions of tons of mass to move now, which means zillions of tons of fuel, probably. So, miles of fuselage for the fuel tanks and other stuff. It’s space, so it can be more like a really big gantry than a fuselage. No need to be aerodynamic and less mass. A gantry stretching on and on through space with our big ass propulsion at one end and the habitat wheels at the other

Habitat wheels?

Sure. Artificial gravity á la Star Trek doesn’t exist. Worse, we have only the faintest idea about what gravity is and no good basis for thinking we can ever make it to order. It’s like FTL: great for sci-fi, but probably ain’t gonna happen. As humans can’t live without gravity….

So, we’re not going to genetically modify them, then?

No. What am I? A monster? We want a story about people like us (but cooler) in deep space. As people can’t live without gravity for very long, we need to make some. And the only way we know to do that is to spin something up. Our people will need to live inside a giant wheel…

Wheels. Ten thousand people, remember.

Inside giant wheels with centrifugal/centripetal forces keeping their feet on the ground.

Now look what we’ve done. We’ve talked ourselves into a miles long ship crewed by ten thousand people living inside spinning wheels that have got to be a mile or more in diameter. That’s inhumanly large. We’ll never persuade anyone that the humans who live there are even remotely like the rest of us.

Sure, we will. People have been building bigger and bigger structures since the year dot. It doesn’t make us any less human than our ancestors. Besides, our main character should have some very human failings.

Like what?

Well, motion sickness for one. Like people in the “vomit comet.” You know, the plane where they do all that freefall training you see on TV. Our protagonist gets spacesick.

But they’re born in space! We can’t make them spacesick. They’ll never hear the end of it.

No. I guess they won’t. I feel sorry for them already.


Braking Day: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s site.

Categories
Uncategorized

“Kaiju” a New York Times Bestseller (Again)

This time on the NYT Audio Fiction Best Seller list, where it pops in at #14. As it also appeared on the NYT Combined Print & eBook list, we can say that the book is officially a hit in every format it’s come out in. Which is a lovely thing to be able to say. I’m very pleased with how this book has been doing out in the world.

(It’s also in its third week on the Indie Bookstore Hardcover Fiction list. Whee!)

And how was your Wednesday?

— JS

Categories
Uncategorized

Double Vaxxed, Double Boosted

If you’re wondering if people are actually getting a second COVID booster, well, hello, I’m people, and I just got my second booster shot. Why did I get my second booster shot? Let me count off some reasons:

1. COVID is still out there! And still infecting people! And still killing people, alas; this is not an abstraction to me as it has very recently claimed people I loved. I’m inclined to continue to take it seriously.

2. Plus there are new variants going around, against which it doesn’t hurt to have an additional boost.

3. Also, I live in a county where, still, less than 40% of people have had their first shot of the COVID vaccine, much less the full regimen including that first booster, so I’m inclined to believe a second booster would be prudent.

4. Additionally, I’m traveling more or less on a pre-COVID schedule now, with the recent tour and further festival/convention appearances. This means exposure to a hell of a lot of people in airports, hotels and at events, and that many more chances to be exposed. Boosting my immune response to the virus is useful given how many people I’ve seen and will be seeing.

5. An obnoxious cold that plagued me on the second half of my book tour reminded me that no matter how otherwise healthy I am, I am still well capable of catching a virus and having it fuck with me. The cold just made me phlegmy. COVID could incapacitate or kill me. So, uh, yeah.

6. Finally, I’m over 50 and while I feel fine and healthy and have no obvious comorbidities, there’s still a higher risk for people my age than not. Simple statistics suggested going ahead and getting that second booster.

Now, with all of that said: I strongly suspect that, at this point, if I do contract COVID, it’ll likely present itself as something like a bad cold than something that puts me in the hospital, or requires something like a respirator, or puts me in the ground. Again, the statistics are on my vaxxed-and-boosted side here. But then, that’s because I am vaxxed and boosted, not just because I feel lucky. It’s also possible that this second booster will end up having less efficacy than the initial booster; that’s fine. For me, a modest boost to my ability to swat back COVID is still better than not.

Naturally, I encourage everyone to get a full vaccine regimen, including at least a single booster, if not for themselves then for the people they may know who are more susceptible to to the virus and/or can’t get the shot for reasons better than “I don’t want to and you can’t make me get it and it’s all a government conspiracy anyway.” But, to be blunt about it, at this point, aside from the relative few who legitimately cannot take the vaccine, the country now falls into two groups, the vaccinated, and the damned fools. The damned fools are unreachable at this late date, so I will leave them to their karma. All the more reason, however, for me to get that second booster. It’s not like the damned fools want it. I might as well have it.

Would I get an additional booster from here? Probably, if it made sense to — for example, if a new strain of COVID not well covered by the current crop of vaccines/boosters pops up and a new booster addresses it. In this it would be like getting a flu shot (which, of course, I also got this year). I do understand there is a relatively minor concern that too many shots will mess with the body’s ability to develop an antibody “memory” or some such, but then, I’m not planning to get a new shot every month. I suspect I and my immune system would be fine.

And at this point, I think I will be fine in general, too. Double vaxxed, double boosted: As covered as I can get, and ready to be in the world. It’s nice to worry less. And all it took was a half-hour out of my day.

— JS

Categories
Big Idea

The Big Idea: Leah Cypess

Reuse and recycle: If it’s a good idea for physical things, can it also be a good idea for story concepts? Leah Cypess suggests that it might be — and explains how this has direct bearing on her novel Glass Slippers.

LEAH CYPESS:

Let me start with a confession: I used the same Big Idea twice.

I’m sure I’m not the only writer who’s done that. But I was pretty blatant about it. I wrote two Cinderella retellings, both from the point of view of a sibling I invented, and both circling the same theme: how deeply we believe the stories we are told as children, and what happens when we start to question them.

Like many American kids of my generation, the Disney version of Cinderella was one of the first movies I ever saw. Cinderella, in the movie, is the embodiment of sweetness and innocence. She triumphs over her more powerful enemies through pure goodness and coincidental magic, and then sort-of-accidentally becomes queen.

I mean, come on.

I’m a cynical person with a dim view of human nature, so when I take a serious stab at a Cinderella retelling, there’s only one way I can do it: with Cinderella planning her own ascent. There was no fairy godmother, though the royal family threw all its weight behind that story. There was magic, obviously, but Cinderella went after that magic and used it deliberately.

And magic always comes with a price.

When this idea first came to me, I had a different fairy tale retelling on submission, and I was thinking a lot about the way fairy tales — like other stories we hear in childhood — become embedded in our minds and are never examined critically until they’re challenged. I’d also recently had an experience in my own life in which a conversation with an old acquaintance turned my perception of a childhood narrative completely upside down – and made me realize that my original narrative had never made that much sense to begin with.

All this was ricocheting around my mind when I got to work on a story about a man investigating the murder of Cinderella’s stepsister. Needless to say, this story was pretty dark, and somewhat to my delighted surprise, it got nominated for both a Nebula and a World Fantasy Award.

By the time that happened, my Sleeping Beauty retelling had not only sold, but turned into a 3-book deal for a series of fairy tale retellings. I didn’t have to think twice before deciding that the next book would be about Cinderella’s third and youngest stepsister, who has grown up believing that her family was evil and that Cinderella had adopted her out of the goodness of her heart. But (you will not surprised to hear) that version of events gets called into question.

So far, this spin might strike many of you as not all that original. There are hundreds of coming-of-age narratives in which the main character finds out that the story they’ve always been told is the opposite of what really happened. They’ve been on the wrong side all along!

But that was not the story I chose to tell, in either version of my retelling. To me, that complete about-face is often every bit as naïve as the original belief. For the most part, my characters do not discover that in the fight between good and evil, they have unwittingly been on the side of evil. Instead, they discover that the world is far more complicated than they had been led to believe.

Writing this realization into a dark story about an adult was relatively straightforward. My adult character could recognize the complexity of the world, the mix of good and evil, and then choose what he, as a lone individual, wants to do about it. An adult can decide to fight, or to escape, or to leave his options open. But a child, for the most part, doesn’t have that option. My main character in Glass Slippers is an 11-year-old girl, and she doesn’t have the ability to turn her back on all the adults around her and make her own way in the world. She’s going to have to do something that an adult protagonist could have avoided.

She’s going to have to pick a side.

That, in the end, that was the harder story to write. It’s part of what makes middle grade harder to write in general: your characters’ choices are limited by the decisions of the adults around them. But you still have to find a way to give them agency (occasionally, without killing off their parents), and you have to find a path forward that can lead to an earned and satisfying ending.

(Sometimes, in order to make that happen, you have to go back and rewrite half the book a month before it’s due. Ask me how I know.)

In the end the same Big Idea, written for different audiences, resulted in two very different stories. Since I want everyone to buy Glass Slippers, I should probably tell you that it is the better story. But the truth is, they’re simply different. I love them both, and I’m just glad that this Big Idea seized me so fiercely that I had to use it more than once.

(Possibly more than twice. But that’s an essay for another day.)


Glass Slippers: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

Categories
Uncategorized

A New Story For You: Grizzly Bear Conflict Manager

Artwork adapted from a public domain National Park Service photo by Jim Peaco.

Whenever I go on book tour, I like to write up a short story to read at the events; a thank you, as it were, to the people who show up, who get to hear me read something no one else has gotten to yet. The stories are usually short, usually funny, and hopefully enjoyable for the crowd. Occasionally one of them goes on to greater fame — the Emmy-winning Love Death & Robots episode “Automated Customer Service” is based on one of these tour stories — but even when they don’t, they’re still fun to have written and fun to perform on the road.

This year, the short story I wrote (which I performed first on the 2022 edition of the JoCo Cruise) is called “Grizzly Bear Conflict Manager,” and it comes with a backstory, which is, there’s an actual job with the US National Park Service called a Grizzly Bear Conflict Manager. This job was pointed out to me by a friend who works with the park service; they were going to go into detail about the job actually entailed, but I stopped them before they could do so. “No, no,” I said. “I want to write a story about this job, and I do not want it sullied by mere facts.”

Thus, this story is a fanciful interpretation of what I imagine a Grizzly Bear Conflict Manager does, which I am almost entirely certain has nothing to do with what someone with this job actually does. Please do not come to this story for a true accounting of the job, you will be gravely disappointed, and possibly in danger if you ever encounter an actual grizzly. Needless to say, apologies to all genuine Grizzly Bear Conflict Managers out there.

This story is dedicated to Gail Simone, who is, as her Twitter bio assures us, and this is a quote, “NOT EVEN A BEAR AT ALL YOU GUYS,” and who has chosen me to have one of her many blood feuds with. I am honored.

And now: On with the story!


GRIZZLY BEAR CONFLICT MANAGER

By John Scalzi

Let me start by saying that this is a circle of trust. We are here not to assign blame or dole out punishment, but to resolve conflict and come to a space of understanding and care. There are no bad bears here. There are only good bears, whose motivations may be misunderstood. Through discussion, we can come to a resolution.

We have a few issues to get through, and this room is scheduled for a raccoon encounter group right after us, so let’s just dive in. Kodiak, let’s start with you. I understand that you have been possessive of a certain point in the river where the salmon have been swimming upstream to breed, and that you have been trying to keep other grizzlies from wading in and catching their own salmon. Do you want to explain your thinking here?

Yes, I understand that you are a large bear with a large appetite, and I hear the validity of that argument. But surely you understand that all grizzlies are large bears with large appetites? And that while you have claimed that neck of the river as your own, even you, large as you are, and hungry as you are, cannot eat all of the salmon that come up the river?

Right, yes, I understand that you believe you could eat them all. That ambition is a sign of a healthy self-image. But, large as you are, you can’t be where every single salmon is as they come up the river. Let me put it another way, Kodiak. You see that large bowl of blueberries I have put on the table, right? If I tossed one of the blueberries toward you, you could catch it with your mouth. But what if I threw five at the same time? Could you catch them all? How about ten? Or fifteen?

Okay, now, Kodiak, grabbing the bowl and consuming all the blueberries in one go, as you have just done, is very clever, yes. But I think you’re intentionally avoiding the issue at hand, aren’t you. The salmon aren’t just sitting there in the bowl, some of them will get past you. Why not let some of the other grizzlies have a chance at them? There will still be more than enough for you at the end of the day.

Thank you, Kodiak. Everyone, see how this works? Just a little discussion and reasoning and we can come to a conclusion that makes life easier for everyone. Grizzlies can be reasonable and kind. 

Yes, Paw-Paw? No, I’m sorry, there are no other snacks. But at the break we can go out and root for something.

Which brings us to our next conflict, and it involves you, Paw-Paw. I understand that you have been wandering into town and digging through the humans’ trash again. We’ve talked about this before, Paw-Paw, haven’t we?

Now, Paw-Paw, this can only be a circle of trust if we tell the truth, and when you tell me you haven’t been going through trash, I know you’re not being truthful. You know that the court order we have on you allows us to examine your stool samples. Your last stool sample contained evidence of enriched flours, processed meats, and several types of plastic wrappers. You were snacking out of the bin behind the Stop N’ Shop again, weren’t you? We all know how you love Sno Balls and Slim Jims.

Yes, of course we found your stool in the woods, Paw-Paw. That’s where bears go to poop. This is widely known. Please don’t act surprised. Instead, tell me why you’re dumpster diving again.

While I find your newfound commitment to the environment admirable and indeed heartening, Paw-Paw, I have to inform you that your ingesting all that human trash does not, in fact, constitute an “accelerated composting project.” If you sincerely want to start composting, I can see about getting you an actual composting drum. Which, I want to be very clear, since I see you perking up about this, you will not be able to eat out of, either. Yes, I see, there goes your enthusiasm. That’s what I thought.

Paw-Paw, let me tell you what I’m going to do. I’m going to team you up with Kodiak, you can go with him to his bend of the river, and the two of you can eat all the salmon you can catch. It’s much healthier for you, and Kodiak will learn the value of sharing. See? Everyone wins here.

Yes, except for the salmon, very true, Kodiak. But this is not the Salmon Conflict Resolution session, is it? That’s next Tuesday, my colleague Ranger Adams handles that. 

Moving away from salmon: Scruffy, it’s my understanding that you’ve been photobombing tourists, sneaking up on them while they are taking selfies and family portraits. Would you like to explain your rationale for this?

Uh-huh. While I certainly understand that it’s important to maintain a presence on social media in order to be an “influencer,” what I want to ask you at this juncture is what does being an “influencer” mean to a grizzly? Who are you trying to influence, and why, and more importantly, how are those goals achieved by sneaking up on teenagers and families and sending them screaming into the distance?

Yes, I understand that’s your “thing.” But, Scruffy, I want you to understand that terrorizing tourists is not the same sort of thing as being food YouTuber or a true crime podcaster. No one’s worried that a food YouTuber is going to maul them and eat their face.

No, Scruffy, I do recognize that you almost never eat faces any more, and I appreciate your restraint. But you need to realize that, one, “almost never,” is not as reassuring a qualification as you might expect, and two, these tourists don’t know that you’ve cut back your face-eating considerably. You don’t wear a t-shirt that says “hardly any face-eating anymore” and even if you did, I’m not sure how much that would help. You might be wearing that t-shirt ironically.

Let’s do this, Scruffy. You stop popping up behind unsuspecting parkgoers, and I’ll talk to the Park Service about setting you up with your own Instagram account. And in the meantime if you have to get your social media fix, there’s that trail camera that’s attached to the Internet. Drop by it and do a funky bear dance. The kids love that. It’ll go viral, I promise. Yes? Okay, good. 

Finally, and honestly, I can’t believe we’re back here again — Gail. Gail, Gail, Gail. Again with the blood feuds. You’ve been asked to lower the number of blood feuds that you have with others, and not only have you not done that, you’ve actually increased the number!

Oh, don’t give me that look, Gail. Okay, everyone, a show of paws, here: How many of you are currently under a threat of blood feud by Gail? Don’t be afraid, this is a safe space, Gail can’t hurt you here.

Do you see, Gail? Everyone has their paws up. And beyond this, I’m told that you’ve expanded your blood feud list to include actors, artists, politicians, even obscure science fiction writers. Where does it end, Gail? How much blood feuding is enough? Isn’t it time to call off some of these quote unquote blood feuds?

What? Lymph feud? You want to change some of your blood feuds to lymph feuds? No. No, Gail — no. Stop. Gail, listen to me. Changing what you call the feud doesn’t really solve the problem. Blood feud, lymph feud, spinal fluid feud — the common denominator is the word “feud,” isn’t it? It doesn’t matter if the fluid in question goes through the heart or the spleen or the spine; stabbing someone through any of them is still going to hurt.

What, Scruffy? Yes, I suppose people can live without their spleens, and thus a lymph feud might be marginally less severe than a blood feud. But that’s really missing the point. The point is not to develop a taxonomy of feuds whose severity is based on bodily fluids. The point is to reduce the number of feuds altogether. Gail, when will you see that the conflict that you see in the world has actually just been inside of you all along? That the person who you most need to resolve a blood feud with is not Kodiak, or Paw-Paw, or Scruffy, but with yourself?

Yes. Good. Thank you, Gail. This promise to reduce the number of blood feuds you have to just one is a very good step. I am less enthused that the person who you’ve chosen to have that single blood feud with is me, but, well, baby steps, I guess. We’ve made some real progress here. And also, I have bear spray if you get out of line.

All right, Grizzlies, let’s have a ten minute break, and when we come back, I want to talk about this turf war you have going on with the polar bears. Yes, I know about it, when you start throwing out gang signs on the Discovery Channel it tends to get noticed. You better believe we’re going to get into it, folks.

— JS

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