The Big Idea: Katharyn Blair

How did Katharyn Blair know she was on to something compelling for her novel Unchosen? It involves her office, and something she was thinking of, waiting for her in it.

KATHARYN BLAIR:

So everyone thinks you’re the prophesied “chosen one.” Probably because you told them you were (you had good reasons, seriously). Now you’re humanity’s only hope. Now what? 

When I set out to write Unchosen, I had no idea what the plot was going to be. I had an inkling that it would be set on the ocean, a vague hope that I would be able to pull off a new take on zombies, and a deep love of pirate history. But I knew the main character would be the not-chosen-one. The issue I faced was making sure that all of the elements worked together instead of against each other. And I had my work cut out for me. 

The trickiest part about having an unchosen protagonist was finding a way to make it so that Charlotte, the main character, could claim something that wasn’t true—that she was the Chosen One—while still being a sympathetic, likeable character. I find that making your protagonist a liar comes with a unique set of challenges. How could I make it so that she could develop genuine relationships with people she was deceiving? How does that work? 

And then there was the worldbuilding around the crux of the story: the Crimson, a virus that is passed through eye contact that turns people into zombies. As an avid Walking Dead fan, I’ve become very familiar with the traditional threat/stakes of zombies. I wanted to do something a little different, while also making sure not to veer so far into the weeds that I was creating a different sort of monster, entirely. And it was very important to me that these things were scary. Eventually, I figured out a system that worked.

It’s important to note that I’m a thirty-one-year-old mother of three. A full-grown woman. I have a couple years’ worth of experience doing MMA training—Ju Jitsu and Krav Maga and Muay Thai. Still, every time I get up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom, I have to walk across my hallway. And at the end of my hallway sits my dark, empty office. My wonderfully comfy writing chair rests under a window, vacant and expectant in the shadows. And I can rest assured, no matter what, that if I have seen or read anything that’s even vaguely frightening that day, I will imagine it standing in my office (I don’t think I will ever stop seeing the Bent Neck Lady from The Haunting of Hill House— it’s burned in my brain). I knew that if I could think of a take on zombies that scared me when I pictured it in the middle of the night, I was on to something good. When I eventually thought of Vessels, with their red eyes and still-eloquent voices, I was freaked out, so I knew I was on to something.  

While I thought about the issue of Charlotte’s relatability and started fine-tuning the Vessels, I dove into research for the backbone of the story: the history of piracy. I’d long since been fascinated by the rather (sometimes) subversive role of women in piracy, and I read a wonderful book called Pirate Women: The Princesses, Prostituted, and Privateers who Ruled the Seven Seas by Laura Sook Duncombe. Anne de Graaf’s story stuck with me, percolating in the back of my mind as I set to sort out what exactly this book would be, because I had a lot of things going on at once:

Pirate lore! A virus/curse! Prophecies! Backstories! Zombies! 

And I knew I needed to really get in the weeds if I was going to untangle everything and find the heart of the story. 

And the heart of the story is about a girl fighting to save the ones she loves. Specifically, her sisters. I’m the oldest of four sisters, myself. I know what it’s like to love someone so much and at the same time kind of want to strangle her because you know she used your mascara without asking again. While everything else—the history, the worldbuilding, the stakes—all needed ironing out, the heart of the story was always clear. I could hear Harlow, Charlotte, and Vanessa without any static. I knew if I leaned into the love they had for each other, the rest of it would work out. 

That optimism was eventually right, though it took a couple of failed drafts to get there. I found that every aspect of the story leaned on each other, making a tangled web that made sense to me one day and confounded me the next. It took months of work and the guidance of my lovely editor, Sara Schonfeld, to get the book to a place where every element was perfectly balanced. 

And at the end, the story finally made sense. The Vessels were scary, the lore was clear, and the stage was set for an unexpected girl to save the world. 


Unchosen: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Bookshop|IndieBound

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

Five Things, 1/25/21

I’m back on my novel-writing thing now, but for you — just for you! — I took a quick look at the news and world to see if I had thoughts on any of it. Here’s what I’ve got for today:

Rob Portman retiring from Senate: He’s Ohio’s Republican senator, and he says he’s retiring because things have become “too partisan,” which I think is his polite midwestern way of saying “The GOP has become entirely batshit and I don’t want its traitorous stink on me any longer than it has to be.” I’ll be curious to see who in the Ohio GOP steps up to take his spot, and whether it will be someone like Jim Jordan (shudder) or someone somewhat more moderate. Given the current state of the GOP, I suspect it might be more toward the former than the latter. I also suspect that if someone like my own district’s Warren Davidson gave it a shot, he might do reasonably well. I’m not happy with Davidson at the moment — he’s part of the brigade that voted against certifying the election — but I’m not exactly his ideal voter anyway. On the Democratic side of things, I have no idea who they’ll run, but whoever it is will have a reasonably good shot; note Ohio’s other senator, Sherrod Brown, is a Democrat. Should be exciting, to the extent that Ohio politics is ever exciting.

Harry Potter, the TV series (maybe): A very preliminary report in The Hollywood Reporter suggests something is afoot at HBO Max. This strikes me as not entirely unlikely, given the enduring appeal of the series, even in the face of JK Rowling’s divisive public statements regarding transgender issues (disclosure: I know JK Rowling a bit, and it’s safe to say she and I don’t see eye-to-eye on these matters). I don’t have any inside or personal knowledge of any plans or negotiations with regard to a HP series, or anything else regarding the Wizarding World, and I’m not saying that what I’m about to suggest is likely to happen, but I would be surprised if Warner Bros/AT&T hasn’t offered Rowling a huge friggin’ pot of money — like, billions — to buy up all the IP of, and rights to, the Wizarding World, similar to how Disney bought LucasFilm from George Lucas. The franchise is that important to Warner Bros, and buying it lock, stock and barrel would get the franchise out from under any controversy regarding Rowling’s opinions. I don’t think Rowling has an interest in that (she certainly doesn’t need the money), but, again, I would be surprised if the offer wasn’t at least in the air out there.

Biden repeals Trump transgender military ban: Speaking of transgender issues, Biden tossed out Trump’s bigoted and awful executive order barring transgender folks from serving openly in the US Armed Forces. And, obviously, good on him for doing so, because a) it was bigoted and awful, b) it stole rights from our citizens, c) it made us less safe in a military sense, not more so. I do realize some folks are upset and/or scandalized about transgender folks once again being able to serve openly in our armed forces, but, you know what, fuck ’em. Being in the military is hard enough without being able to be fully one’s self. Biden continues to make me reasonably pleased with his policy decisions. Sure, it’s less than a week in, but so far, so good. Oh, and:

Majority of Americans approve of Trump impeachment and conviction: Which makes sense because Trump was an awful human who fomented an insurrection against our nation’s government, and more news comes out daily about how all the shocking things he tried to do in order to illegally stay in office. That said, I’m not betting the Senate actually convicts him, because the senate Republicans are cowards and even now you still have someone of them who can’t admit that Biden fairly won the election. Prove me wrong, senate Republicans! I know you won’t, but I’d be thrilled if you did.

State of the Scalzi: As noted last week, my plan is to get back into the fiction writing groove starting today, and while it’s waaaay too early to say anything about it, I will say that so far I’m feeling good, and somewhat more focused than I was. Again, part of that is not feeling like there’s a possibility that the world will fly apart if I take my eye off of it — honestly, it’s amazing what a decent, sane president in a decent, sane administration can do, even in the space of a few days — but a lot of it is some psychic impatience at not having the work done already, inasmuch as I’m already so late with it. My brain wants to get going on it, which is… nice!

And that’s five things for today.

— JS

How I’m Spending My Sunday

I’m playing with Photoshop and seeing what I can do with photos from the late 1800s! Photoshop these days has a lot of nifty capabilities baked in (including an automatic “colorize” feature, and the ability to replace backgrounds without having to mask it out) and combined with a bunch of filters I have to play with, I’ve discovered once can do quite a lot in just ten minutes. This is a delightful use of one’s weekend downtime, I have to say. I hope you are likewise having a lovely Sunday and are enjoying yourself, with or without photoediting software.

— JS

Showcasing My Collection: Enamel Pins, Volume Three

Hey, everyone! Hope you’re having a great weekend, or whatever day it is when you happen to read this. Let me welcome you to the third installment of me sharing some of my pins with you! Let’s just jump right in.

First up, we have this pin my cousin gave me for my birthday:

If you don’t understand what it’s a pin of, you may be one of the few people who isn’t obsessed with The Office. I watched The Office about two years ago, and I totally loved it. After all this time, the only merch I have to show of it is a sweater, but now I have this pin, too! It’s just coincidence they say the same thing, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Next up is another moth in my collection:

You may remember my luna moth from a previous installment of these posts, but this is a new one I’ve added to my collection! I told myself no for a couple weeks, because I already have a big moth! But eventually I talked myself into it because this one is obviously very different from the green luna moth I have! I ordered this from an artist named Carissa Williams, you can find her Etsy here!

If you don’t immediately recognize this super adorable turtle duck, then I highly recommend you go watch Avatar: The Last Airbender right away! This super cute pin is one of the many fantastical animal hybrids in ATLA and is by far one of the cutest to exist. You can get this pin here!

Finally, I decided to do a 3-for-1:

Basically, I have three strawberry milk pins, and I really like all of them, so I couldn’t pick just one to show off. Now that I’m looking at them in the picture, though, I think I like the one in the front the most, but don’t tell the others I said that. I don’t remember where I got these ones, actually, but I think the two glass bottle ones are from the same place.

I hope you enjoyed seeing more of my pin collection! I’ve been collecting pins for years, but in the past couple months I’ve just started getting into sticker collecting! So maybe sometime in the near future I can show off a bit of my sticker book. If you have any Etsy shops or artists that make pins/stickers in mind you think I should check out, let me know in the comments. And have a great day!

-AMS

Two Days In

We’re now 48 hours into the Biden Presidency, so obviously it’s time for a checkup on how things are going. Once again to assist me in the task, I am bringing out my Fictional Interlocutor. Say hello to the people, F.I.

Hello! Beautiful morning in America, is it not?

It is indeed sunny and the sky is full of picturesque fluffy white clouds at the moment.

And it’s all because Biden is president!

Well, to be strictly fair, he has no control over the weather.

Yet.

Stop that.

Sorry. So, how do you feel about being two days into the Biden Presidency?

In an entirely unsurprising turn of events, I feel pretty darn good about it! I’ve spent the last two days basking in the fabulous competency of its governance — which is to say that whether one agrees with the Biden administration’s policy goals or not, the sheer non-chaotic way it is going about them at the moment is utterly delightful. And while in fact deep down I hold an abiding and ceaseless rage that the last four years have been so awful that mere competence feels like a gift, yea verily as if manna from friggin’ heaven, on the surface at least I’m pretty placidly pleased. Hey, you know what I did two days in a row?

I do not.

I watched a White House press conference! Just to see how boring they would be. And the answer is: Pretty damn boring! White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki gets in there, is smiling and pleasant to the reporters, answers most questions directly, and the ones she wants to evade she does so pleasantly, not by suggesting the reporter who asked the question is a traitor to the nation and all that is holy. Did you know a White House Press Secretary could do that?

I had heard rumors, yes.

It’s wonderful! And boring! Wonderfully boring!

Well, you may think the Biden presidency is competent and boring, but it appears conservatives and/or Republicans are already upset with it.

Shocked! Shocked! I am! Give me an example, please.

To start off, all those executive orders Biden banged out. Seventeen the first day. Ten the second. More on the way.

Well, Trump did a lot of stupid shit, didn’t he, and he did a lot of it via executive order. Biden didn’t want to waste any time hosing out that nonsense. Most of the executive orders not relating to COVID are, as far as I can see, less about advancing a radical agenda than they were getting us back to where we were before an ignorant virulent bigot got into office. I can’t say I’m generally upset about it.

Well, not you. But conservatives and Republicans. They do seem especially upset about the executive order “On Advancing Racial Equity and Support for Underserved Communities Through the Federal Government.

That’s because transphobia is the new hotness in conservative bigotry. They lost on race, they lost on sex, they lost on sexual orientation, and now they think that gender is the place where they’re finally going to win and in doing so, start shoving everyone else back into their respective closets, kitchens and colored facilities.

You’re not sympathetic, then.

No. Fuck ’em. Fuck transphobia, first of all. Fuck it for itself, because in itself it is wholly bad enough. Then also, fuck it for being the lever that these bigots are trying to use to roll back the rights of anyone who is not, in fact, a cishet white dude. Fuck all the performative handwringing about bathrooms and locker rooms and women’s sports and hormones and especially fuck all the concerns about “the children,” not in the least because, as the parent of a Gen Z person, I can tell you “the children” are generally embarrassed at the actions of their obviously transphobic elders. Good on ya, Gen Z!

Wow, I didn’t notice that soapbox you had there until you stood on it.

Well, I’m short.

Fair enough. So basically your position on executive orders is, cool, keep going?

To the extent they’re wiping out Trump’s executive order bullshit and/or managing the COVID response — which, by the way, we just discovered there was really no Trump Administration plan to manage a federal-level response to the COVID crisis, so that’s fun — I’m fine with them. Biden, to his credit, has noted that executive orders can do only so much, so there will have to be legislative action as well. So I don’t think he’s planning to rule by fiat. And he does have the (bare) majorities of both houses.

But what about the Senate and the filibuster?

I’m not a huge fan of the filibuster and given the fact that the current GOP is a billionaire-supported white supremacist organization with no motivating principles other than the aforementioned racist bullshit and the idea that “whatever the Democrats want, they shouldn’t get,” I wouldn’t cry any tears over it going away so that the Senate can get work done that Americans actually want.

But 75 million Americans voted for the Republicans! Who will speak for them?

Nnnnnnnnnngh this bullshit line. Okay, first: Closer to 74 million, and of course 81 million people voted for Biden in this election. Second: Let’s not pretend that when the GOP is in the majority that it ever gives a shit about what the millions and millions of Americans who voted for the Democrats thought about any fucking thing, or that it didn’t move with alacrity to trim back the filibuster whenever it wasn’t convenient to its own goals, so the special pleading here doesn’t move me. Third: 74 million Americans voted for Trump and also polling tells us there are clear majorities in the American population for things Biden wants to do, with respect to health care and climate and human rights and so on, which is to say the GOP is to the right of the people who vote for them (or at the very least, they people they represent), which makes sense, because, again, at the moment the GOP is a billionaire-funded white supremacist organization. Fourth: The filibuster is a guideline, not a rule, which is to say it’s not constitutionally mandated, it’s a thing the Senate decided to do for its own reasons, which, if you look into them, are mostly not good reasons.

Finally: A Republican president, aided by a substantial chunk of the GOP in the Senate and the House, just tried to overturn a legal election because they didn’t like the result, and a large portion of the party still can’t admit that Joe Biden won the election fair and square. You know what? 74 million voters deserve better than the current GOP for their representation.

So, yeah, really not feeling the “but 74 million voters” whine right now. The national GOP needs to spend time in the fuckin’ wilderness, as far as I’m concerned, and the removal of the filibuster would be the absolute bare minimum of the penalties they ought to accrue. Those “74 million voters” would probably be just fine with the majority of what Biden would do for them, if the filibuster were not an impediment.

That said, I don’t actually expect the Democrats to get rid of the filibuster entirely, because when have the Democrats ever done anything the GOP would happily do in an instant if their roles were reversed. So we’ll see what happens next, I suppose. And I guess there’s always budget reconciliation if it comes to that.

You don’t sound all that optimistic.

I mean, I’m not unoptimistic? Look, just the fact that our executive branch is no longer headed by, or majority staffed from the ranks of, incompetent racist grifter chucklefucks, is a huuuuuuuuge load off my mind. I’ve had two whole days of not worrying about what awful, undemocratic-and-likely-fascist thing the president and his pack of malignant fuck-knuckles are up to today, and it’s delightful. Now, for example, if Stephen Miller wants to separate babies from their parents, he’ll have to attempt to do it himself, and the mental image of the absolute asskicking that would ensue from that keeps me warm at night.

In a larger sense, look: it’s hard to create during chaos, and four years of constant chaos took its toll on me and my ability to just sit down and shut out the rest of the world. And I am, as I remind people frequently, a well-off cishet white dude; how anyone further down the privilege pyramid got anything done in the same span of time is beyond me. I did get work done, and other people did too, but it wasn’t as congenial a process, shall we say, as it could have been. Now I have a few years — hopefully! — of not just “no chaos” but of actual, boring, unremarkable governance. I’m looking forward to not feeling like I need to witness the world breaking on a daily basis. I’m excited about the work I can do in that state.

Again, I fucking hate that “boring governance” feels like a balm and a gift, instead of just the way things are. But it is what it is. What I hope from a Biden administration is that, regardless of people’s politics, everyone will look around at the not-chaos that his administration offers and goes “I want more of that.” Maybe not of Biden, if you’re not a Democrat, but his similarly not-dramatic counterpart on the other side of the aisle (hint: Not Cruz. Not Hawley. Both of those motherfuckers need to be drummed out of the Senate).

Speaking of work, are you going to get back to it now?

Yes! I mentioned earlier I needed to get to the inauguration and then a little bit past it to see how I felt about things. And like I said, I feel not bad at all. And, uhhhhhhh, I still have a book due, which is now late. So the plan is to, if not disappear, at least make myself more scarce until the book is done.

I’ll miss you.

Thanks. That means a lot, coming from a fictional interlocutor.

— JS

I Forgot to Update Earlier, So Again, Here’s a Picture of a Cat

Look, it was a busy day! Hope it was a good one for you.

— JS

The Big Idea: Alexander Weinstein

Is love feasible in this bleak world we live in? Is connection possible in a world where everyone seems so blatantly disconnected from each other? Author Alexander Weinstein says it is! Read on to see how he expresses a hope for love in this world in his newest release, Universal Love

ALEXANDER WEINSTEIN:

In the early years of the new millennium, we often worried about our battery life. We needed outlets, power banks, rubber sleeves with extra juice. We asked shopkeepers about passwords, made sure there was wi-fi flowing through the atmosphere of every place we settled, and found charging stations at the airport where we could sit, wires stretching our bodies to small islands of electricity as other wires hung from our ears. From the fortresses of the Social Media empires, they stressed that the addictive apps they provided us with were all about connection. We were one global community, they said, as we sat scrolling through our phones, alone on busses and subways, laughing silently through lol echo chambers, our faces reflected in the selfies and dead screens of our smartphones. 

We weren’t alone—it seemed everyone was looking for connection. And it wasn’t just electricity we needed. We wanted human connection as well.  It was, after all, what the internet had promised us. We were searching for love. And if we couldn’t find that—then sex at least. There were plenty of apps to find the latter, all advertised with promises for the first. And as we scrolled through face after face, trying to open our hearts, we also learned to swipe people into the trash more quickly. We went on hopeful dates, and when we were in the bathroom, our dates scrolled through messages from other, hopeful dates. We unfriended. We blocked.  We ghosted. We deleted our dating apps, sickened by the emptiness of seeking love online and endless unsolicited dick pics, and then we uploaded the very same apps a couple weeks later.  

As a speculative fiction writer, I find the ways our lives, hearts, and families are being rewired by cybernetics both fascinating and worrisome, and it was the omnipotence of our internet culture alongside our secret hopes for love that led me to write the stories in Universal Love. Because though our interactions had become increasingly robotic (monetizing algorithms & getting-more-clicks are now legitimate personal goals), I sensed that we were yearning, more than ever, for real human connection, and it seemed that beneath all our clicking, scrolling, emailing, and endless messaging, there was a deep need for love arising in our culture. 

Speculative fiction often begins with a what-if.  What if we tried replacing lost loved ones with holographic replicas?  What if we purchased sentient robotic children and they began to use drugs like regular teenagers?  What if the world became flooded from global warming and a father and son were stranded on a small island with diving gear, exploring the drowned world below? Such what-ifs conjure vast landscapes, and part of the pleasure of writing is the world-building these stories demand.  And yet, speculative fiction cannot simply rely on a premise or it risks sacrificing character. For my stories to succeed, they have to go deeper than simply a what-if plot/premise; they need to explore the hearts of the characters. To achieve this goal, I must intertwine something that I deeply care about—my fears, hopes, and dreams—and give them to the very characters within the stories. 

This doesn’t merely deepen the stories, it deepens the mystery of the writing process itself, because the what-ifs suddenly take on new lives as much more meaningful metaphors. A story about children getting cybernetic brain implants to telepathically access the internet (We Only Wanted Their Happiness) suddenly becomes a way to speak to the struggles of limiting our children’s data usage. Holographic parents reveal a truth about the mystery of my own parents and the importance of connecting deeply with the people I love. And a father and son diving for buried treasure is secretly also a tale of watching my teenage son prepare to sail away for college, and the treasures I hope he takes with him.  

Writing about love is challenging.  There’s always a risk that the work will be overly sentimental, cliché, or schmaltzy. The process itself requires a great deal of vulnerability.  For writing about love is similar to loving in real life, it requires opening your heart, and part of the writing process for Universal Love involved finding ways to tap into the deepest parts of my own tenderness. I found these moments through my life as a father, as a partner, through yoga and meditation, and by listening to music which directly works to open the heart (such as Krishna Das and Nada Sadhana).

Interestingly, heart-filled writing is not always good writing. I tend toward the ecstatic too easily in first drafts, and when I do, my language becomes overly verbose and epiphanic. Unlike learning to love in real life, the editing process involved a great deal of holding back, allowing the element of love to remain beneath the surface of the stories rather than always being openly expressed on the page. My challenge was maintaining the humanity of my characters while realistically portraying their struggles within a world which has often gone awry. And though I may want my characters to find love, transform, and transcend, I often had to cut overly happy endings from early drafts. The robotic children in my story, Childhood, were indeed addicted to smoking their own emotion chips, the children of We Only Wanted Their Happiness had learned to use their brain-implants for authoritarian power over their parents, and the air in Beijing was nearly unbreathable, forcing my characters to choose between air tanks or food.  

In this struggle of portraying both love and grief, there’s a truth about being alive. For as much as I’d like to write about the beauty of parenthood, I’ve also failed in the battle against my son’s data-usage and we’ve had the teenage fights all parents struggle with. And right alongside my memories of those fights, are memories of a snowy Michigan day, when I found cross-country skis and my son and I set out together through the woods, huffing and happy as we struggled to learn.

It’s this constant back and forth, between moments of grace and the battle against losing our human connection that fuels my writing. Because within the dark political and cybernetic frontiers of our increasingly digitized reality, there’s simultaneously a great wealth of human kindness. It’s present when we gather together to listen to musicians at concerts, or hear poetry readings, or in the hugs of our friends and family at the in-person gatherings we once went to. During this pandemic, our choices to stay inside—alone and online—also demonstrate a love for others, and our human connection has emerged in beautiful ways.  In Italy, when people stepped onto their apartment balconies to create a cross-balcony concert together, or when a lone trumpet player played “Imagine” for a morning solo—what was revealed was the beauty of the human heart, projected on all of our screens to see. 

Beneath the robots, holographic parents, and virtual-reality-love-making couples of my speculative worlds, are stories of my own life. The challenge for me has always been to give my fiction a piece of what I hold sacred.  Sometimes its fatherhood, kindness, or compassion, other times it’s the vulnerability of heartbreak, grief, or the nostalgia of parenthood, where one day your child is holding your hand, and the next they’re waving goodbye.  These are the hearts of my characters, and the work of every story I write is to risk such truths in my fiction. While my near-future landscapes are sometimes dystopian, the stories in Universal Love believe a deeply utopian idea: that we can care for each other more deeply, that we can love one another more fully, and that we can work together to make this world a better place.

—-

Universal Love: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Bookshop

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s website. Connect with him on Instagram. 

 

Housekeeping 1/20/21

Small note here that thanks to the lovely people at WordPress, there are a couple minor improvements that have been implemented here today. The first is that now each post has a byline up top, so that you’ll know who is writing a piece even without our pictures and our initials at the end. I think we’ll probably keep up the “picture and initial” practice for now at least, but if we forget and/or write a piece too short for a photo, you’ll still know right away.

The second is that the individual post pages will also feature bylines and dates at the top, which was a thing that temporarily went away when I picked this new theme. I’m very happy about this.

The third thing is that comment preview is back, albeit slightly in a slightly different form than it was before. You’ll see the ability to check your comment when you track down to the comment form, and you’ll be able to switch back from one format to the other. I hope it’s useful for you (here’s a hot tip, whether you use the new form or not: Read your post aloud before you post it. You’ll catch more errors that way. It’s what I do).

Hopefully these small but useful changes will make the site easier to use for those of you who come visit it directly. Enjoy!

— JS

A Brief Installment Of Plant Based Food Reviews

As some of you may know, I used to be a vegetarian. In fact, I was a very strict vegetarian for about five years before I stopped on my eighteenth birthday. I don’t know why I stopped; some part of me just got bored of it, I guess. I just was tired of putting in effort. But now that it’s been a few years, my morals are reinvigorated and I feel ready to make a new change!

Lately, I’ve been thinking of being vegan. Maybe not completely cold turkey style, like I did when I became a vegetarian. But I would definitely like to cut down on my animal product consumption, if not cut it out of my diet completely.

One of the main problems for me, though, is that I don’t particularly like any substitutes for the real things. When I was vegetarian, I rarely ate fake meat, because I didn’t especially like it. Sure, there are some fake chicken nuggets or sausages here and there that taste alright, but to me it wasn’t really worth it go through all the trouble of eating fake meat when I could just, not. I was totally fine with that.

With milk, it’s a different story. I love milk, whole milk especially, and don’t even get me started on chocolate milk! In my pursuits as a vegetarian, I dabbled with the idea of being vegan, so I tried some milk alternatives. I hated all of them. Soy milk, almond milk, oat milk, rice milk, coconut milk, I couldn’t stand to drink any of them, or even use them in cereal. I even tried chocolate soy milk and I still didn’t like it. Even when I got the sweetened or vanilla versions of these milk substitutes, they just didn’t cut it.

That being said, in my newest pursuit for veganism, I decided to give milk alternatives a shot again. There had to be at least one I could tolerate, right?

Well, the other day, I happened across an ad for a new almond milk, Simply Almond. I had had the Simply brand of beverages many a time before; their orange juice, apple juice, lemonade, watermelon juice, etc. So to see them make a milk of some kind really threw me off.

I was skeptical to try it, but I picked up one of the vanilla ones anyway, which looks like this:

I’m not kidding when I say this is the best plant based milk I have ever had. Not only do I tolerate it, I actually really enjoy it! This almond milk is very good, and I can absolutely see myself making the switch from regular milk easily. It’s perfectly sweetened, creamy, and doesn’t taste significantly off like all others I’ve tried. I really recommend giving this a shot if you have been a milk-alternative hater for years, like me. This is the shining beacon in a world of dark fake milks.

While I was at the store picking this up, I also thought about how I would never be able to give up eggs. Even when I was vegetarian, I ate them, because I didn’t really count them as meat. I seriously love eggs, cooked in any style. Scrambled, omelet, fried, poached, deviled, hard-boiled, soft-boiled, they’re all amazing! They’re so cheap and easy and you can do so much with them.

Clearly, I was dreading giving them up. That’s when I saw this egg substitute.

JUST Egg. The packaging looked appealing to me, so I decided to give it a try, as well. And I was very pleasantly surprised! These cooked exactly like regular scrambled eggs, as evidenced here:

Tell me those don’t look like some regular ol’ scrambled eggs (yeah, I might’ve overcooked them, but I do that with regular scrambled eggs, too (I fear salmonella!)). Not only do they cook like and look like the real thing, but they taste like it, too! Sure, there’s a little bit of a difference, but it’s not even in a bad way, like these honestly taste really good!

While I definitely feel like I could absolutely make the switch from regular eggs to this alternative, it is a bummer to me that you can pretty much only make scrambled eggs with it. It comes as a liquid that you pour into a skillet, and you can scramble it or make it into an omelet. While that’s great and all, you could never make something like poached or deviled eggs with this, which are like my two favorite kinds.

When it comes to veganism, I worry about baked goods a lot. How can you make delicious baked goods without milk and eggs? Most milk alternatives are too thin to replace milk in recipes efficiently, and I didn’t even know about egg alternatives until the other day. Thankfully, both of these brands’ websites have a recipes page. While the Simply one doesn’t have any recipes for their milk alternatives yet, I would imagine they will soon, since their almond milk pretty much just launched. So I’ll check back with that later. However, the JUST one has many a recipe showing you ways to use their product, including oatmeal chocolate chip cookies!

So, yeah, I’m really glad I found these two products. I was very skeptical of both of them, but they turned out to be amazing, and I know if I do decide to go vegan, or at least cut down on animal products, these will both be essential parts of that.

Have you tried either of these? Are there any milk/meat/ice cream alternative brands you’ll swear by that I should check out? Let me know in the comments, and as always, have a great day!

-AMS

 

So Begins the New Year and Era

Because, after all, it was not 2021 until noon today. Now it is. And while there was much good to take away from the inauguration of President (!) Biden (!) and Vice President (!) Harris (!), this is the moment that will stay with me, from Amanda Gorman. All the tears I wasn’t yet crying went out here. This was a good day for our nation. Hopefully one of many.

— JS

The Unlamented Man

First and always, a liar.

Then a con man, a thief, and a grifter. A man who never saw a venture he couldn’t make fail, which is why he was always starting new ones: It was easier to jump to a new ship than stay with the sinking one. A cad, a harasser, allegedly a rapist. He treated women like they were disposable vessels for anxious manhood and was loved by the “family values” contingent for it, because they see women the same way he does. A racist, a bigot, a white supremacist. He saw neo-nazis march in Charlottesville and some part of his brain knew then that he had found his shock troops for an insurrection. A bully, a boaster, a braggart. He looked up to the worst leaders in the world because he wanted what they had: To be unquestioned, feared, and obeyed.

A bad man, a bad human, a bad person. And a bad president.

Not just bad, of course: In fact, the worst. A recitation of his moral failures and actual probable crimes would have us here all day, so let’s pick just one: 400,000 dead, so far, from COVID during his presidency. He is not responsible for the virus. He is responsible for denying its seriousness; for choosing to downplay it because he thought it would make him look bad; for making something as simple and useful as wearing a mask a political issue; for bungling a national response to it and then the distribution of medical supplies and, later, vaccines; for spreading misinformation and lies about it; for, fundamentally, not caring about his fellow Americans, and viewing the pandemic through the lens of him, not us. Hundreds of thousands of Americans who are now dead would be alive under a better president. Their deaths are on his hands, and he simply doesn’t care. He never will.

If there is a silver lining to any of this, it is that he was never popular, never the choice of the majority of Americans. He lost the popular vote in 2016; his electoral win came from razor-thin margins in a few states. This was enough to legitimately make him president, thanks to an electoral system rooted in having to accommodate slaveholders, which still disadvantages the descendants of the slaves. But he was never the people’s choice. He knew it and it rankled him. He was reminded of this fact every day of his administration, because never once did the average of his popularity polls crack fifty percent: indeed, according to FiveThirtyEight, which tracked it for his entire presidency, it never even cracked forty-six percent approval. There has been no president in the history of modern polling who was as unpopular in their first term for as long as he was.

This was how he, in turn, lost the House, the presidency and the Senate for the Republicans, even in a system that had been engineered over the years to value that party’s voters more. It takes effort for an incumbent to lose the White House, not to mention the legislature. He is the first in 80 years to lose it all.

But this silver lining is indeed just a lining to a very dark cloud. Americans are dead, the worst of us are emboldened, and our country’s standing in the world is at a historic low. One of the major political parties of our country simply abandoned what principles it had remaining to serve his will to power, choosing to abet his lie that a legal election had been tainted rather than to acknowledge he had, bluntly and widely, lost. We are nowhere good right now, save for the simple fact that very soon, someone else will be president. We did not so much lose our way as we were driven to a terrible place and abandoned there. We have to wait for someone else to come bring us home.

He will be gone after today; indeed as I write this he is already gone, winging toward Florida to an uncertain future. It is alleged he plans a new political party; I imagine the impending lawsuits and criminal investigations will keep him busy enough. Most importantly, he will no longer be president. He will no longer have the levers of power to injure the nation as he has done for four very long years. He is gone, and his administration is gone, and all that is left of him is an enduring stain on the presidency and the judgment of history. The judgment of history, I assure you, will not be kind. Its unkindness has already begun.

Here is my hope for the man: That no one ever has to think about him again. That his capacity for injury is limited only to those who choose to put themselves in his path. There will always be some; some people can’t, or choose not to, learn. I leave them to their own fate.

But for everyone else, a blessed silence — not an expungement of memory but the knowledgement that this man, this sad, defeated man, this piteous though not pitied man, this liar, this bigot, this churl, this failure, never has to be thought on in the future. After all he has put this country through because of his own ego, it would be a perfect goodness to never again have to say his name.

We’re not there yet. But soon. Let it be very soon indeed.

— JS

President Boring

Has there ever been, in the history of the Presidency of the United States, so low a bar for the incoming occupant of the position as Joe Biden now has? After Donald Trump’s tenure, if Biden did nothing more in his term of office than not shit on floor of the Oval Office, nor set fire to the drapes, he’d still be ahead of the game, in terms of personal comportment. Lord knows Biden is not a perfect man nor a perfect politician, but neither is he a buffoonish sociopath with rage issues and a chorus of inadequacies screaming in and out of his skull all hours of the day and night. Biden is boring, in point of fact, and never has boring felt so good. We’re not settling for boring. Boring is what we’re hoping for.

But boring alone won’t be enough from Biden. It’s been a tradition for the last few presidential cycles for a Republican president to fuck up the country in some significant way, and for a Democrat to come into the office and spend a not insignificant amount of his term fixing things; indeed, one could say fucking up the country is an actual Republican goal, to keep the Democrats from being able to achieve their own policies and plans. In this regard, Trump has done marvelously well; the US is as dysfunctional now as it has ever been short of an actual (declared) civil war, and while Trump did not do that on his own — he had vital assistance from the Republican party, who aided and abetted his worst excesses, up to and including an insurrection against the legislature — he certainly did enough. It’s good that Biden’s boring, relative to Trump. But if boring means simply a functional status quo for the next four years, a milquetoast attempt to get back to “normal,” we’re all fucked.

I want Biden to use his boring for good — a bland, genial and chummy front to keep white people from freaking out about substantive work his underlings are doing. And when I’m talking about “white people” here, I’m not talking about the dimwit QAnon jackasses who will need years of deprogramming to even conceive of the notion that Joe Biden, of all people, is not in fact the head of an international conspiracy to do terrible things to children and pets. I’m also not talking about the actual fascists, who are these days too bold and too many. Those people are lost. Fuck ’em. I’m talking about the rest of the white folks out there, the perfectly nice, oh-sure-we-vote-Republican-but-we-thought-Trump-was-a-bit-much folks, and also the perfectly nice, oh-sure-we-vote-Democrat-but-let’s-not-get-ahead-of-ourselves-here folks, who even after an actual white riot at the Capitol still don’t grasp how their own privilege and assumption got us to a place where we almost chucked away our republic for someone who represents the worst possible version of our union. White people in their obliviousness almost “both sided” our country into authoritarianism and, yes, fascism. We have a loooooong way to go to get back from that bullshit. If Biden’s “Uncle Joe” shtick makes them comfortable on the way, great, because now we really do know what the alternative is.

That said, I’m not expecting miracles from Biden. One, the political reality is there are razor-thin margins of Democratic control in the House and Senate, and then there is a radicalized Republican party, much of which still won’t admit that Biden actually won the presidency in a legitimate election, and which still unfathomably has not chucked to the side a corrupt, unpopular and criminal president who lost them the House, the Senate and the White House. There are things Biden and his administration can and should do from day one, and it looks like at least some of them will be done. But a lot of the really hard lifts are still going to be hard. No one likes to hear that, but it is a real thing.

Two, Biden’s grandfatherly centrist shtick isn’t just a shtick, he’s really that way. He’s a 78-year-old white man who spent his entire political life just to the right of whatever was “center left” at the time, and is still under the illusion that just because he spent time in the Senate with Mitch McConnell, McConnell wouldn’t stab him in both kidneys at the earliest possible convenience, sniggering as he did so. This is yet another place where Kamala Harris will come in handy: pointing out to Biden that the Senate is a very different place now, and there’s only so far “bipartisanship” is going to take him. Hell, Biden should know that after watching eight years of Obama getting his hand slapped away every single time he reached it out. But I guess Biden is gonna give it the ol’ college try anyway.

So, yes, I suspect I will be exasperated with Biden a lot, and remember that I am a well-off cishet white dude who is not, in fact, a radical liberal. However exasperated I will be is a mere fraction of what others, more affected by the nonsense of the last four years, will be feeling. What I’m going to try to remember in those moments is that every step away from the abyss our nation almost toppled into is a good step. Biden will be my president (thank God), but he’s not the president for me. He’s the president for White People Who Still Haven’t Realized How Bad It Just Got, and hopefully through him, things get better for a whole lot of other people. Every day of that will be a victory of sorts. Or could be, at least.

I will take that for now. It’s a vast improvement over what we’ve had for the last four years. I’m willing to let boring work for us. Let’s see where it can get us in four years, and then, possibly, beyond.

— JS

The Big Idea: M. A. Carrick

In today’s Big Idea, the authors behind The Mask of Mirrors are going to tell you the truth, about the fact they’re not going to tell you the truth. Truly. Should you believe them? Read on and decide!

M. A. CARRICK:

We’re going to lie to you.

It’s what you pay us for, after all. Fiction is lies, told for the purpose of entertainment. You agree to play the game of believing, and if we do our job well enough, then for a little while, you may even forget it’s a game.

Our Big Idea for this book is an accomplished liar. Although we have multiple points of view and strands of narrative, the most central one is Ren — aka Renata Viraudax, aka Arenza Lenskaya, aka some other aliases we won’t spoil for you — a half-Vraszenian con artist in the colonized city of Nadežra. The title of the book is The Mask of Mirrors because in the divinatory pattern deck used by Vraszenians, that’s the card of secrets and lies . . . and this book is a layer cake of deception so complex, at one point we had to make a chart of which characters knew which bits of the plot, and which personas of theirs could admit to knowing it.

People lie for many reasons, some good, some bad. You might lie to protect yourself: from embarrassment, from anger, from violence. Or to protect someone else. You might lie to gain an advantage over the listener, pretending you’re in a stronger position than you are, or luring them into an unwise move. You might lie out of sheer malice. You might lie to preserve the peace, or to break it into pieces.

In stories, we often enjoy watching liars do their thing. It’s fun to be “in the know,” aware of truths the other characters don’t see. And competence of any sort can be sexy, whether that’s athleticism, intellectual agility, or the ability to weave an intricate web of deceit. Con artists make for fun characters, the audience breathlessly wondering how their house of cards will stand up — or whether it will come crashing down.

On the other hand . . .

Anybody who’s ever been taken in by a scammer knows the horrible jolt that comes with realizing you’ve been had. Con artists stop seeming quite so sexy when you’re the one biting the hook. Lies can destroy relationships, or leave someone so scarred they have difficulty trusting like they used to.

And that’s part of our Big Idea, too. When we set out to have Ren con the noble Traementis family into believing she’s the daughter of an estranged relative, we also vowed to keep our eye on the other side of that story. The Traementis aren’t a faceless evil corporation in an episode of Leverage, deserving every fall they take; they’re people with their own history and problems, who might have feelings about finding an imposter in their midst.

Nor is Ren the only liar in Nadežra. And nobody hates being played more than a player.

There’s a lot of deception in this book. A lot of games being played simultaneously, some of them at cross-purposes. Not all of the falsehoods here are being told for good reasons, and depending on your feelings about this topic, you may draw the line between them in different places.

But if we’ve done our job right, you’ll thank us for the entertaining lie.


The Mask of Mirrors: Amazon|Barnes and Noble|Indiebound|Bookshop|Powell’s|Orbit Books

Read an excerpt. Visit the authors’ joint site, or Marie and Alyc individually. Follow them on Twitter: ma_carrick, swan_tower, alychelms.

The Four Movies That Have Made Me Ugly Cry, Part 4: The Lovely Bones

The Lovely Bones, aka the saddest movie of all time, is last on this list, and much further spaced apart than the other three, because I didn’t want to watch it again. I put off watching this movie for a whole month because it’s just so sad.

Before we go any further, here is your OFFICIAL SPOILER WARNING.

In case you haven’t seen it/don’t know what it’s about, The Lovely Bones is a Peter Jackson-directed film from 2009. It’s about a teenage girl that gets murdered by her next door neighbor, and watches her family grieve as a ghost.

The first time I watched The Lovely Bones, I was fourteen. This was the same age as the main character, Susie Salmon. I think this had a lot to do with how sad I found the movie. It just really hit different because I could relate to her in so many ways, even if she was a teen in the early seventies and I was a teen in the mid 2000s.

Like: That feeling of having a crush on a super cute senior guy that you think is too cool for you. And damn did that movie cast a really, really cute senior guy for Susie to like. My fourteen-year-old heart, and even my twenty-two-year-old heart, burst with joy for Susie when Ray walked up, asked her about Shakespeare, and told her she’s beautiful. He even asked her on a date, more or less. I was so happy for her!

And then she immediately died right after.

Like, WHAT?!

I would say it was unexpected, but Susie’s narration over the beginning says that she was murdered, so it’s not like it was a shock. It wasn’t surprising. It was still intensely sad.

Mr. Harvey, the neighbor that murdered her, knew exactly all the right things to say to lure Susie into his trap. He used just the right words of manipulation to goad her into walking straight into her grave. And it’s because he banked on her innocence, her naivety. The trap was set up specifically in a way that involved him tricking her, because he knew she’d fall for it, because she was a sweet, unsuspecting child.

Did Susie’s innocence get her killed? No. A cruel, evil man killed her, not her naivety. But those two things made it all the easier for him to murder her.

It was so messed up that the movie led us to believe for a moment that she got away. When she made it out and took off running, I was ecstatic. She didn’t get murdered after all! But that wasn’t what really happened. Her body was back in the cellar with her murderer, and she was dead. She just didn’t know it yet.

Watching Susie watch her family fall apart after losing her was sad enough as it is, but to see her constantly checking in on Ray, the boy she liked, was the sad little cherry on top of the world’s saddest sundae.

To see her mom leave, or her dad become obsessive about finding the person responsible, or seeing her sister become detached, all these things are just… tragic. Just like her death. The only good moments are when Susie occasionally interacts with the living world and gives her family signs that she’s there. Like the candle flame in the window, or kissing her brother on the cheek. Just these little things she did to let her family know she was around.

There are so many moments in this movie when you could practically scream at the screen. So many moments where you’re just tense, hoping so much that they’ll figure it out. Not to mention all the opportunities when Mr. Harvey could’ve been caught, like when the detective was in his house and if he had just looked down he would’ve seen Susie’s charm bracelet. It’s just a really frustrating movie. You want the villain to be caught so badly, and it’s so obvious to you, the viewer, that you just wish the family could know it was their neighbor all along.

This story is fictional. It has made-up characters, a fantastical after-life, and Susie is a ghost. Obviously, not real. And yet, so jarringly real at the same time. It is about something that really happens. Half a million children are reported missing in the US every year. Kids really do go missing, and not just the runaways, the ones that are taken.

That’s one of the frustrating things about the movie: the detective asks the parents if Susie has ever run away before, or if there are problems at home that would cause her to run away. But she didn’t run away, and the parents insist she would never do that. Assuming a kid ran away seems pretty shitty, because saying they ran away due to problems at home assigns a lot of blame onto the parents, which in Susie’s case is extra sad because she seems to have really nice parents and a loving family. I’m sure the parents felt bad enough to begin with, they don’t need to think that it’s their fault Susie didn’t come home.

When I was fourteen, I didn’t cry, or even tear up, until the credits hit the screen. And then I burst into tears. I was sobbing even though it had just ended. It was like the entire movie hit me at once. All these emotions had been building inside me, my emotions were wound like a wind-up toy, and then all my tears were released when it ended. It was wild.

This was the first Peter Jackson movie I ever watched, and from what I’ve seen, critics didn’t really like it. It didn’t get reviewed particularly well. Certainly, there are better Peter Jackson movies, right? So why did I think The Lovely Bones was so good?

Well, I think part of it had to do with being able to relate to the main character, and part of it had to do with my age. If I hadn’t seen it when I was fourteen, I don’t think it would’ve had as profound an effect as it did. If I didn’t adore the love interest so much, and think he and Susie are just the cutest ever, it probably wouldn’t have been as tragic to me that she doesn’t get to be with him.

The poem that Ray gives to Susie stuck with me for a long time after watching The Lovely Bones for the first time.

If I had but an hour of love,

If that be all that’s given me.

An hour of love upon this Earth,

I would give my love to thee.

As someone who loves poetry and at fourteen wanted nothing more than a cute guy to give me a poem and confess his love for me, this shit made my heart melt. It’s such a beautiful poem. I’m so glad Susie got to say goodbye to Ray at the end. Though, I do wish she had mentioned that her killer was right outside and currently throwing her body into a sinkhole, but it is what it is.

Watching Mr. Harvey die a horrific death was so satisfying. I would’ve liked if the cops had caught him instead of him dying randomly; I feel like Susie’s family could’ve been more at peace knowing that her killer was caught and wouldn’t harm anyone ever again, instead of believing that he’s still out there somewhere doing the same thing to other girls. Still, great death scene.

The Lovely Bones was sad, and tragic, and just goes to show that bad things happen to good people, which is a sad, sad truth of life.

If you’ve seen it, what did you think? If you’ve read it, how was the book different from the movie? Let me know in the comments!

And have a great day!

-AMS

 

Update: Still Got Nothin’, Here’s a Picture of Krissy Instead

She’s pretty great, but I’m admittedly biased.

Hope you’re all having a good day.

— JS

I’m Thinking a Lot of Things But Not Able to Formulate Them Coherently, Maybe Later, In the Meantime Here’s a Cat

I mean, a picture of a cat always seems like a decent fallback position, doesn’t it.

More later, perhaps, if my brain gets better at organizing the things flying about in it at the moment.

— JS

Mundane Sacred Objects

The picture above is of me (in the pink denim), my sister and my mother, on the occasion of the first day of school in, I want to say, 1977, although I may be off a year. I’d be in second grade that year, and it was a new school, so this is me trying to make a good first impression. Not only is the jacket pink denim, but so are my trousers, and also I am drenched in Hai Karate aftershave, although of course I don’t shave at that point. Nevertheless I made a good impression on at least one person, since I met my friend Kyle Brodie that day, and we are still friends now, which means he’s officially my longest running friendship. Good job, me and Kyle.

I post this picture today for two reasons. The first is it’s my mom’s birthday, so: Happy birthday mom, here’s a very 70s picture of us all. The second is that I think this may be the only picture I have of my second grade year. There were other pictures taken — 1977 had cheap cameras and film cartridges of 110 and 126 film — but over the course of years the photos were lost or abandoned or thrown away. Some of the pictures were put into photo albums, but I don’t have the photo albums, and I don’t know who does; maybe my mom does, but if she does they’re in storage. At the end of the day, this photo is it for me for the second grade.

Which puts it up on most other elementary school grades for me! I don’t have any pictures of kindergarten or first grade; third grade seems lost as well. You would think I would have some pictures of fourth grade, because I broke my leg that year and me in a cast seems like something we’d have documented, but I have no pictures of me in said cast. Indeed, in sum I think I may have a grand total of ten pictures of myself from the 1970s. Things get better in the 80s, because of yearbooks and such, but the 90s are hit and miss until 1995, in which an avalanche of pictures arrive in the form of my wedding. But, honestly, it isn’t until the 2000s that photodocumentation of my life really takes off, because a) digital photography happened, and b) I started taking pictures because I didn’t have to send them out to be developed. I have more pictures I took yesterday, than I have of my life in the whole decade of the 70s. Most of yesterday’s pictures are of my cats.

This isn’t a complaint, really. I don’t think I’m all that unusual. Lots of pictures were taken in the pre-digital age by a lot of people, but not a whole lot of them survive until today. I imagine for a lot of folks there is just a single photo, or a mere handful of photos, to represent whole years or even eras of their lives. Photos were and are physical things; they get lost, and misplaced, and thrown out. Even the ones that are preserved in photo albums experience rot and fading pigments, and eventually the albums themselves are thrown away, when the owner passes on and none of the heirs wants them or knows what to do with them.

And you might think, well, that’s yesterday’s problem — today we all have too many photos of ourselves. And on one hand yes, but on the other hand, really, no. Digital photos are even more ephemeral than the photos taken on cheap instamatic cameras in the 70s, because they are wholly contingent on storage devices. I took more than 20,000 photos last year with my dSLR and my phone. The dSLR photos are on an archive drive; the phone photos are backed up to Google photos. Of those 20K photos, maybe 700 ended up on Flickr, which is where I post the pictures I want to show to the world, and an equal number on Twitter or Facebook, and a couple hundred at most (not counting pictures of books) on Whatever.

Thing is: Hard drives break down and data rots. I regularly transfer to newer drives (and also store on multiple drives), but there’s always a chance of a physical failure costing me some or indeed all of those photos dating back two decades. Google Photos and Flickr are “in the cloud” but that doesn’t mean they are permanent in any meaningful sense — Flickr is on its third owner since I joined it, and honestly I just assume that at some point it’s going to close up shop. Likewise Twitter and Facebook; hard as it may be to believe, one day we may all get that note that informs us Twitter or Facebook is shutting down and that we should download our data if we want to keep it, which some of us will but a lot of us won’t, and even those who do often won’t bother to ever open up again. And then, of course, what happens to all that stored data and all those stored photos when we pass on one day? Will our heirs want them? Will they know how to even find them? Will they know the passwords?

I took 20,000 photos last year; unless I actually print some of them out, or leave specific instruction how they are to be preserved (and those instructions are followed), there’s a very good chance they will all be lost one day to digital rot and neglect. And I’m someone who is (relatively) careful with digital photos, backing them up on regular basis and making sure there are multiple instances. Does the average person? It seems less likely. Do you back up your photos? Do you print them out?

What I’m saying, I suppose, is that it doesn’t really matter how many pictures you take. It matters how you keep them. We may take exponentially more photos than we did in the decades past, but even so, it may still turn out that in the end we have just a few photos that will stand in for entire years or eras in our lives, with the rest lost — like photos in other eras — to time and rot and benign neglect. Photos are often mundane things in the moment but when you come across them later as the sole image from an entire time in your life, they can take on an almost sacred feel, the one small path back to a different time and place.

Certainly I did not expect this photo of me in a pink denim outfit to represent an entire era of my childhood. but here I am, with that photo, and only that photo. You — we — may yet be surprised which photos make it through the gate of time to represent today, and which ones don’t. There will probably be fewer of them than you think.

— JS

A Special Music Recommendation: K/DA

Hello, everyone! Usually, when I do music recommendations on here, it’s a song or artist I like, and I just say, “Here you go! Enjoy!” and call it a day. Today, however, I’m recommending you such an interesting artist/group that I can’t help but explain them a bit! The group is called K/DA. They’re so unique, and I love their music so much I knew I had to share.

If you haven’t heard of K/DA, I’m glad you’re here because I’m about to enrich your musical life by a million percent. K/DA is a fictional K-pop group made up of characters from the MOBA game, League of Legends. The members of the group, Ahri, Akali, Evelynn, and Kai’Sa, are all playable characters in League of Legends, and have their own classes and unique abilities. They’re all animated, and their songs have animated music videos to go with them.

I discovered them back in 2018, when they released their first song, “Pop/Stars”. Originally, the fictional group was meant to promote the game and sell skins (basically outfits). It drew in a completely different demographic than the one that game pandered to already, and made people who had never previously heard of League of Legends want to play it, or at least made them aware of it.

The first time I saw it, I was hooked. I listened to it every day for months, and I still listen to it constantly. I even annoyed the shit out of my friends because I made them watch it. The animation, the music, the lyrics, the outfits, it’s all just stunning and amazing!

Without further ado, here is “Pop/Stars”, for your viewing and listening enjoyment!

This song was the only thing K/DA came out with for two years, until their new album, All Out. It’s an EP, so it only has a few songs, but they are all SO GOOD.

Only one song aside from “Pop/Stars” has an official music video, that being “More”.

Another absolute banger, and this is their second most popular song. “Pop/Stars” has almost half a billion views on YouTube, while “More” only has 66 million. This might be simply because they are the only two songs with official videos, or maybe it’s because they’re the two best (in my opinion, of course). Though “Villain” is a very close runner-up.

I know I said the other songs didn’t have music videos, but this one is only a concept video, and the other two are “official” ones (though I suppose it does say official concept video…). I love this one so much. The whole aesthetic is so awesome, I mean the vibe is just killer. And the visuals are super cool! Plus the beat is just chefs kiss.

And here is the final song I’m sharing with y’all today! Even though this one is last on the list, that does not mean it’s not good. In fact, it’s amazing. I know I said the first two were my favorites, and then “Villain” was a runner-up to the two favorites, but maybe this one is the other runner-up? I just don’t know! They’re all so good in so many different ways. Though this one doesn’t have a video, so I suppose that’s a downside. Interestingly enough, I had the opportunity to listen to this one in particular while wearing a haptic vest, and that was such a cool experience! I really felt the bass deep inside my bones with that thing on.

K/DA has two other songs on their EP, but I didn’t want to share every single one of their songs in one post, so I just hand picked my favorites of the bunch to give to y’all. I sincerely hope you enjoyed them! They’re such fun, unique songs, with the ability to make their music videos look cool as shit, because they’re animated and don’t have to follow any rules of physics.

Let me know in the comments which one is your favorite song! Or who your favorite band member is (I like Akali)! And have a great day!

-AMS

New Books and ARCs, 1/15/21

Here it is, the book stack of new books and ARCs that have come to the Scalzi Compound in 2021! What here would you like to start this new year with? Share in the comments.

The Big Idea: Tim Susman

Independence does not mark the end of a revolution, for a country or for an individual. This is a fact well illustrated in Tim Susman’s newest novel, The Revolution and the Fox. Read on to find out how a revolution turns out after the smoke clears.

TIM SUSMAN:

The fight is over and the good guys won. Now what?

That’s the question I asked myself when I set out to write the fourth and final book in my magical alternate history series about the American Revolution. The Calatians follows the titular fox Kip, one of a race of magically created animal-people, and his human friend Emily, as they struggle to escape the prejudices against their kind and gender (respectively) and prove their worth, first in a college of sorcery, then in a war. At the end of the third volume, the American Revolution is over and Kip and Emily have established their reputations beyond any doubt. More than one of my beta readers assumed that must mean the end of the series. This is perfectly reasonable, especially for American audiences with our heavily mythologized origin story; just like coming-of-age stories for people, coming-of-age stories for nations tend to end with the achievement of independence. But my Big Idea for a fourth book was to go beyond that ending and find out what my now come-of-age protagonists and their fledgling society would make of their new independence, and the responsibility that comes along with it.

When given the freedom to choose your own path, at that one rare point in our lives when almost any path is open, what do you do? In some ways, this freedom is deceptive; sure, we can take any path, and a post-revolution country may shape itself in any image, but we can only walk the paths we know, and we favor the familiar ones—even those that turn us into the people (or countries) whose influence we just escaped. We inherit beliefs and habits from our parents, some we’re conscious of and others we’re not, and those last ones especially can direct our futures without us realizing it. I didn’t want my protagonists to fall into that trap.

So the fourth book had to expose them to new ideas, and that meant there needed to be a reason to search out those new ideas. Since the end of the war, Kip and Emily have established a magic school without restrictions based on race and gender. It’s kind of working, but they’re still living among people for whom those goals weren’t priorities, and who don’t care as much as they do about maintaining the school. If their new country isn’t going to support them much more than their old country did, they need to find a solution elsewhere.

Since one of the common abilities of sorcery in my books is to be able to instantaneously go anywhere the sorcerer has already been, I was able to open up the world to my characters early on in the series, so I went back to that device to broaden their horizons here by having the Dutch put on an International Exposition of Sorcery that would include countries from around the world. I relied on some of my own travel experience and a lot on research, but as I was mostly concerned with how sorcerer schools worked in other countries, I had to do a lot of guessing and making up things based on what we knew about those countries two hundred years ago. 

This part of the writing opened up something for me that I hadn’t expected: much as I was trying to open up my characters to new ideas about sorcery and society (as well as how to be an adult in this world), I found that I was challenging my own ideas about how I’d made up the world of sorcery in the first book. Schools, I’d decided, were arranged like so, students took this course of study and ended up in one of these three broad destinations, the sorcerers had a particular relationship with the government, and so on. By the time I was writing the third book, the institutions might as well have existed in my mind for the hundreds of years they’d existed in the world.

So when I set out to expand the world of my characters, I had to challenge my own preconceptions first. Why was sorcery integrated into society in this way? It made sense because I was working from a perspective steeped in American and English history, and so I slotted sorcery into the patterns I knew instinctively. But of course, duh, sorcery doesn’t have to be only one way. So I got to go through and re-examine every bit of my imagined sorcerer society.

I’ll say right here that I’m sure I missed an order of magnitude more opportunities than I took to change things around. I could have happily researched and studied and invented for a decade. But the book had to come out, and I wanted to focus on aspects of the world that would most directly inform my characters’ choices—for example, how the sorcerers treat demons, the powerful and capricious spirits they summon from another world to do their bidding. 

In the end, the choices the characters make about who they want to be directly impact the kind of society they’re trying to form. I had fun revisiting a time when I could make those kinds of decisions, and challenging myself and my characters to think about our preconceptions, even the ones we weren’t aware we had. It would’ve been easy to stop with independence, but if I had, there’s so much I would have missed.


The Revolution and the Fox: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|IndieBound|Powell’s|Bookshop.org|Argyll Productions

The Calatians series page: Amazon|Argyll Productions

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

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