Big Idea

The Big Idea: Mark Van Name

Fiction can inspire those who read it to do new and even possibly noble things with their lives – but fiction can also be cathartic and transformative for the writer as well. While writing Children No More, author Mark Van Name discovered he wasn’t just trying to write an efficient page-turner, he was working on something that would make him confront parts of his own past… and work to change the future of some whose own pasts need healing.


Novels begin for me like small leaks in a dam.  One idea shoots through, then another, then more and more, each one growing stronger until the dam vanishes beneath the water.  With Children No More, what came first was an image of my protagonist, Jon Moore, standing with a few other people, one of them a child, in front of a small army.  The child had until quite recently been a soldier. 

I knew I’d write the book the moment the image came to me. 

In addition to thinking about what would have brought Jon to that point, I also wanted to challenge myself to attempt things I hadn’t done in any previous books.  Other notions then rapidly added to the idea flood.

 Jon couldn’t fight safely with a child at his side, so I had to create a situation in which not fighting was better than fighting—even with armed soldiers threatening him and others dear to him. 

Jon is a classic American mono-myth character:  People ask for his help because of the skills he possesses and his willingness to use them, he deals with the problem at hand, and he leaves.  Leaving is vital, because the very traits, such as an aptitude for violence, that make characters such as Jon necessary also make them undesirable when the action is over.  When you work in conditions that are fundamentally horrific—think soldiers, cops, firefighters, relief workers, and many more—you pay dearly and are forever altered.  You witness things no one should have to see, PTSD settles into you like a black mist, and you never again fit into normal society as well as you once did. 

So of course I had to make Jon stay when the action was over. 

That decision immediately led to another problem:  How to sustain dramatic tension while writing about the post-action parts of the story.  The previous three novels in the series all had the reputation of being page-turners, and I wanted the same compelling reading experience in this one. 

Excellent.  Make him stay, make fighting the less attractive alternative, and make the book a page-turner. 

About that time, I remembered that Jon had been trained as a child to fight and to kill, but I’d never told the story of those times, so I’d do that, too. 

Even better.  Make him stay, make fighting the less attractive alternative, weave in a long story arc from a much earlier time, and make it a page-turner. 

As I was starting the book, my mind finally reminded me of something I’d managed up to this point in the process to ignore:  I had been trained as a child to fight and to kill. 

When I was ten, my most recent father died.  In an effort to give me some male influence, my mother signed me up for a youth group that trained boys to be soldiers.  Its intentions were good:  To use military conventions and structures to teach discipline, fitness, teamwork, and many other valuable lessons.  It accomplished many of those goals with me—but it also did many bad things.  Part of the problem was the time:  I joined in 1965, as the war in Viet Nam was gaining speed.  My first day, an active soldier on leave acted as our drill sergeant.  When he formed us up in ranks and started screaming at us, I began to cry.  He punched me so hard in the stomach that I fell and vomited.  He then ground my face into my own puke with his boot.  A few hours later, I saw my first–but not my last–necklace of human ears and learned the ethics of collecting them. 

I was a member for three years.  The first day wasn’t even in the top twenty worst days I had. 

The worst of those worst days was nothing, nothing at all, compared to what child soldiers around the world endure. 

Those years, though, gave me a strong understanding of their pain and a deep desire to help stop the practice of using children to fight wars. 

That desire led me to the last big idea of Children No More, one that hit me last February, when I was finishing the third draft of the book, about a month before I turned it in.  I was sitting at TEDactive, listening to people talking about changing the world, and I decided I wanted to do something concrete to aid child soldiers, something more than just write the book. 

After some research, I found a group, Falling Whistles, that was working to help rehabilitate and reintegrate child soldiers and other war-affected children, mostly in the Congo.  I partnered with them in a simple program:  I’m giving everything, including the advance, that I earn from sales of the hardback edition of the novel to them to help those kids.  So, when you buy the book, you’re not only getting a good read, you’re not only spending time on an important social topic, you’re also doing a good deed, because money is heading to those children. 

So, I had to make Jon stay, make fighting the less attractive alternative, weave in a long story arc from a much earlier time, make the book a page-turner, and spend months dealing with a lot of shit from my past.  I feared that I might not have the skills to do all that, and I definitely didn’t want to spend that many months in those dark places in my head. 

If I succeeded, though, I could help child soldiers in the real world. 

With a payoff like that, I had to try.


Children No More: Amazon|Barnes&Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt from the novel.Visit Mark Van Name’s blog.


First Day of School

From John:

Today’s the first day of school for Athena — sixth grade this year — and normally I post a picture of her on the first day, so here you are:

Yes, she’s quite the fan of Gir and Invader Zim. We wouldn’t have it any other way.

Today is also the day I’m off to Australia. I have 25 hours of plane rides awaiting me. Joy. Dear Australia: You better be AWESOME.

Kate Baker

Playlist Confessions

In anticipation of my upcoming trip to DragonCon, I had to update my iPod’s playlist for traveling. As I searched the almost 40GB of music, I cringed. I don’t remember adding the entire Spice Girls album to my collection or “Ice Ice Baby”. In an effort to cull the list to prevent embarrassment, I found others like:

  • Quad City DJs – “Space Jam”
  • McHammer – “Hammertime”
  • Extreme – “More than Words”

I’m sure there are more in there that I haven’t found.

Granted, I have no idea why I am now singing each of these songs. I guess I’ll just file them away in the “guilty pleasures” file.

So tell me, I dare you, what do you have on that player that you don’t want anyone to know about? Come on, I won’t tell anyone. I promise


OMG, Itz Another Caturday!

This one comes with a caption contest. The winner will receive some cool books by cool authors from my stash. You have until Monday noon, PST, to come up with something for this one. Good luck!

Big Idea

The Big Idea: Mike Shevdon

If you want to tell a story in a modern setting, you often have to look at the past to figure out how you got here and now — even if, in the here and now, you want to write a fantasy story. Mike Shevdon learned this in the course of writing Sixty-One Nails, in which a desire to tell a story set today meant he had to follow paths that lead to the past, in the process discovering, as Faulkner once memorably put it, “The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past.” Here’s Shevdon to explain why.


When I started writing Sixty-One Nails, I wanted to write fantasy set in the real world – the world of shopping malls, CCTV cameras and mobile phones. I wanted to create a feeling that if you were quick and observant enough, you might see something quite extraordinary. I wanted magic in the now.

This is easy to say, but it immediately spawns a host of questions. Where is the magic? Who’s doing it and what are they using it for? Most of all, why don’t we know about it? After all, if people were able to do magic, it would be obvious, right? We’d be able to go into stores and buy it.

As I began researching the novel I realised how little people actually see. So much of modern life is about attracting your attention to adverts or warnings, that we routinely block out anything that isn’t shouting for our attention. It occurred to me, therefore, that it wouldn’t take very much to be completely unnoticed – not invisible, just not seen. I began to postulate that there could be another race of beings living alongside humanity, unseen by most people; the creatures of folk-tales and faerie stories. What if they existed and were part of our world, but we just didn’t notice them?

That spawned a whole new set of questions. If they exist, why aren’t there any records of them? Where are the fossil remains? Why has no-one photographed them? Why don’t they show up on CCTV or trigger burglar alarms? Where do they live? What do they eat?

I started reading and researching English folk-lore and discovered layers of stories like sedimentary rock, with the oldest stories often revealing more ominous themes. The Victorians gentrified fairies and gave them flower petal hats and mushroom houses to live in – Barbie for the nineteenth century – but before that there were other stories with a darker tone.

A number of themes emerged. The appearance and disappearance of creatures and people, often accompanied by a loss of time. Abduction and replacement of children with something older and not necessarily human is also frequent. Sex crops up, often as a single night of passion which seems like a dream once daylight returns. Deals and bargains occur, often to the benefit of the human party, only to fall apart when the human gets greedy or tries to take the source of the power for themselves. These themes fed into the imaginary world hidden beneath the surface of everyday life.

The questions became opportunities. Why are they so interested in sex, fertility and children? Don’t they have any children of their own? What if they live a very long time and therefore breed very slowly? What if they breed so slowly that a catastrophic failure in fertility goes unnoticed until it’s too late? What if they’re dying out? What if they’re the last of their kind? What happens when they discover that a union with humanity is fertile? What happens to the children of that union? Would the half-breeds be a welcome boon, the saving of a dying race? Or would they be gene pollution for an ancient and noble race?

What if it’s both?

As part of the research I started looking into the relationship between faerie-folk and iron. Its use as a talisman against magic is still present in today’s society, which is why horse-shoes hang over doorways and are used as symbols at weddings. It’s why you find iron nails embedded in the roof-beams of old houses and why blacksmiths are considered lucky.

While researching horse-shoes, I came across something unique. In London each year, in the Royal Courts of Justice, which is home to the Supreme Court, a ceremony is conducted as it has been since the year 1211. It’s the oldest legal ceremony in England barring the Coronation, and it involves the payment of two quit rents, a medieval mechanism allowing a person to ‘go quit’ and avoid an obligation to their baronial lord by making a payment or delivering a service in its stead.

The first of these quit rents is for wasteland called ‘The Moors’ in Shropshire, an area well-known for its ancient iron-workings, and it consists of two knives, one blunt and one sharp. The knives are made by a smith and presented to the Queen’s Remembrancer, an official who is also a senior master of the Royal Courts of Justice. The knives are tested in court to verify that the blunt knife will dent, but not cut, a hazel stick of one year’s new growth, and the sharp knife will cut clean through it.

The second Quit Rent is for a forge in Tweezers Alley, just off the Strand and not far from where the ceremony takes place. The forge is no longer there, but the rent is still paid. It consists of six iron horse-shoes and sixty-one nails, all of which are counted out each year in court. The horse shoes are massive, sized for a Flemmish war-horse, and are the oldest known to exist in England.

The ceremony takes place each autumn (I have been to several now) and next year will be the eight-hundredth anniversary. The question that occurred to me was why, after 800 years, though numerous different governments and changes of political system, an industrial revolution, a civil war and two world wars, was a ceremony involving horse-shoes and iron knives still being performed at the heart of the realm?

The answer to that question forms the core of Sixty-One Nails and inspired the title of the book. It is a tale of magic hidden in plain sight, of danger and darkness threading back through human history. It is the story of a man who has a heart attack on the London Underground and is revived by an old lady who tells him that the reason he is alive is that he is not entirely human. It is about his fight for survival, and his discovery of the magic hidden in the real world.


Sixty-One Nails: Amazon|Barnes&Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt from the novel in .epub format. Here is the PDF.Visit Mike Shevdon’s blog. Follow him on Twitter.


The 2010 Summer Sci-fi Wrap-Up

It’s incredibly sad to think that the days of grilling out, sitting by the pool and enjoying the beach are almost over. With the end of the season upon us, John shares his thoughts on the sci-fi movies that kept us cool on hot days. Follow the link to his weekly column, grab a glass of lemonade and try to hang on to the last few weeks of warmth.

As usual, comments are closed. Click and join the discussion over there.

Big Idea

The Big Idea: Matthew Hughes

I’ve been a follower of Matthew Hughes’ work since Old Man’s War and one of his novels had the same “birthday,” and that following has been rewarded with a series of works that think deeply on a number of issues, along with enough plot twists and turns to keep things interesting along the way. Template, his latest novel, is more of the same, with a panoramic view not only a series of worlds, but with a series of people and cultures, and the things that make each culture unique… or perhaps more accurately, uniquely corrupted. Here’s Hughes to tell you more.


Not so long ago, if you called a man a liar, it was coats off and outside, pal. Go back a few generations farther, it was sabers or pistols at dawn.

Reputation was everything. “Give a dog a bad name and hang him” meant that when good standing was lost, all was lost with it. Better to die, or at least take a beating, than be branded a weasel.

Then something changed. Now people go on “reality” TV to lie and cheat their way to fame and fortune. And their blatant weaselhood doesn’t earn them public contempt. Instead, they become celebrities.

These aren’t secret agents who lie to defend their country. They’re doing it for the money and a chance to appear on Good Morning America. And every time there’s an audition, tens of thousands more rush forward and beg for a chance to connive and backstab their way to the top.

The thing that has changed, it seems to me, is that the role that honor used to play in our society has been supplanted by greed. I see it as a side-effect of the social transformation wrought by marketing in my lifetime: today we no longer think of ourselves primarily as citizens of a society, with rights and responsibilities; instead, we have become consumers in an economy whose only purpose is getting and spending. You know: “This means war! Everybody go shopping!”

In the old days, honor was an extension of pride, especially the esteem of our fellows. People might do something unworthy, but they sure didn’t want anyone to know about it. Our grandparents’ world was built around vanity. Our times are driven by avarice. We want it all, and we want everyone to know about it. And how we got it doesn’t much matter.

Being classically educated (well, I’ve read some really old books), I am aware that greed and pride are two of the seven deadly sins. I once got to wondering if there were societies based on any of the other five. For those of you who don’t read really old books, the rest of the seven big bads are: anger, envy, lust, gluttony and sloth.

Anger was easy: Sparta, Nazi Germany, Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge. Envy? What about all those Asian societies where it is crucial not to lose face? And mini-cultures within our own sphere where keeping up with the Joneses is a driving force?

That’s about as far as I followed the train of thought, when I first had this insight eight or nine years ago. I was only looking for an idea that would underpin an 800-word guest column for the Vancouver Sun. Writing satirical op-eds was one way I kept my name in front of my client base back when I was a freelance speechwriter in British Columbia.

So I wrote a column on the vanity-avarice switch. Then, about a year later, I was working on a novel called Template. It would have been my second book for Tor if the first, Black Brillion, had sold more copies. Template is a Jack Vance-influenced, multi-planet space opera, about an Oliver Twistish orphan whose origins are shrouded in mystery and who has to go from world to world trying to find out who is trying to kill him and why.

I thought it would be cool to work in the idea that all societies are based on one of the seven sins, and take my wandering hero through exemplars. That turned out to be easier said than done. Pride, greed, anger and envy were no problem. The hero came from a world where every human interaction was an economic transaction; that took care of greed. He visited a society on Old Earth where money was considered disgusting but people knew their social worth precisely and he met a fellow from another world where people endured excruciating agony rather than say uncle.

To look at a society based on envy, I had him make a brief stop on a planet where everybody constantly sought to score one-upmanship points against each other without admitting it–passive-aggression as a way of life. A world built around anger was part of the dark secret behind the hero’s origins.

I didn’t want to do a world populated by overeaters (too easy). So I extended the meaning of gluttony beyond mere chomping and swilling to account for a society whose members tended to go overboard on whatever their interest were–imagine a world full of completist collectors.

Lust was a little trickier. Of course I toyed with the idea of a Hollywoodesque planet where sex appeal was the only determinant of status, but it kept coming out as buffoonish. In the end I opted for a sinister cult of decadent Old Earth aristocrats–a secret society called the Immersion–whose members vied “to encompass the full depth and breadth of amatory experience and thus enable themselves to break through to a new realm of consciousness they call Prismatic Abundance.”

With sloth, I confess I gave myself a pass. I will argue that any society based on doing as little as possible would soon die out or be supplanted by some invading culture that was powered by a more energetic iniquity.

All taken in all, I think I made the idea work well enough to support Template’s overarching theme: that there are all different ways to be a human being among other human beings, and that the most important thing in life is to discover where (and perhaps to whom) you belong, then go there and make the best life you can.


Template: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s|Paizo

Read an excerpt from the novel. Visit Matthew Hughes’ news page.


My New Ride

As photographed at the Barnes Airshow in Westfield, Mass. As the bus emerged on the far end of the runway, I turned to my friend and asked why. As it shot white smoke and left a trail of flame, the why turned into laughter.As it raced down a wet runway at 350 mph, I exclaimed with delight, “That is so cool!”

I am easily amused.

This was rather interesting as well. There is nothing quite as sobering as reminding yourself you are in fact,  not living in the movie Inglourious Basterds.


John’s Worldcon Schedule

Hey, folks:

For those of you coming to AussieCon4 in a couple of weeks and are wondering what my schedule will be, here’s what I’m doing and when.

Thu 9/2 1500 Rm 201: Kaffeeklatsche
Notes: This is where I sit around a table with about ten or so folks and talk about me me me me me me me. For these you typically have to sign up on a signup sheet and they’re first come, first served. This Kaffeeklatsche is very early in convention (for perspective, the Opening Ceremonies are at 2pm/1400), so if you want to be in on it, remember to come early to the convention.

Fri 9/3 1100 Rm 201: Signing
Notes: You bring the books, I’ll bring me (and a pen). Note that I have a panel directly after this signing slot so if you want a signed book, coming earlier is better than later, and I’ll probably limit folks to three signed objects at a time (you can always get back in line).

Fri 9/3 1200 Rm 219: Making a living: Professional writing for speculative fiction authors
“For many writers of science fiction and fantasy, the money earned from her or his craft is never enough with which to make a living. What other opportunities are there to earn a sustainable income? A look at ways to earn many as a professional writer outside of the speculative fiction markets.”
Cory Doctorow, John Scalzi, George Ivanoff, Jennifer Fallon
Notes: Because, as I’m fond of telling people, multiple revenue streams are your friends.

Fri 9/3 1500 Rm 203: What is the SFWA?
“Find out about the SFWA and what it does.”
Notes: This is meant to be a very informal and informational session for both current and potential members to catch up on what SFWA’s doing at the moment and what it offers to writers. It’s not a business meeting — we’ll be having that at World Fantasy — just a way for me to say hello as the President. Overseas Director Sean Williams may also be there, his schedule permitting. Everyone is welcome. Also, “SFWA,” not “the SFWA.”

Sat 9/4 1000 Rm 210: Videogames as art
“In early 2010 noted film critic Roger Ebert famously stated ‘no videogame can be art’. His comment sparked off a wave of discussion, outrage, disagreement and debate, but the question still remains: can videogames be art? How do we define quality art in games? What are the best examples of ‘high art’ games?”
K. A. Bedford, Foz Meadows, John Scalzi
Notes: Video games are TOTALLY art. And now, let’s all have snacks.

Sat 9/4 1200 Rm P3: The future is overtaking us
“Science fiction used to be a means of extrapolating today’s technology and society, and predicting the future. More and more often, however, our ideas of the future simply aren’t turning true. What happens when the real world starts advancing faster than the imaginations of science fiction writers?”
Kim Stanley Robinson, John Scalzi, Mike Scott, Norman Cates
Notes: Hey, the sooner I get my rocket car to the moon, the better.

Sat 9/4 1500 Rm 211: Reading
Notes: Apparently all the reading slots are 30 minutes long, which actually means 20 minutes in order for people to get in and get out of a room. I think a 20-minute reading slot is a bit silly, but hey. To make it all up for you, I’ll write something specially for the occasion, which no one else will have ever heard, ever. And it will probably be funny, because that’s how my short bits usually roll.

Sun 9/5 1700 Rm 204: Talking it on the chin: authors and reviews
“Sooner or later, every author is going to receive a bad review. Bad reviews hurt, and it’s often hard not to take them personally. How should authors react to negative reviews? How can  you tell the difference between a review that’s negative one that’s actually unfair – and what can or should you do about it if it is?”
John Berlyne, Jean Johnson, Karen Miller, John Scalzi
Notes: This could be a fun one, not just because of the topic but because it’s a couple of hours before the Hugo ceremony and I’m likely to be a nervous wreck.

Sun 9/5 2000 MCEC Main Plenary Hall: Hugo Awards Ceremony
Notes: Wish me luck.

Mon 9/6 1200 Rm 204: Losing the plot: plotting in advance vs. writing as you go
“For some authors, the most important aspect of writing a story or novel is preparing a meticulously constructed plot. For others, the appeal of writing comes from developing the  story on the fly, and allowing the plot to develop as they go. What are the benefits and drawbacks of each approach, and the best techniques for plotting in a chosen way?”
Stephen Dedman, John Scalzi, Melinda M. Snodgrass
Notes: As a spoiler, I just make things up as I go along. It’s not really a spoiler, I’ve been telling people this for years.

Mon 9/6 1400 Rm 210: Shared universes and united visions
“Wild Cards, the Cthulhu mythos, the DC and Marvel Universes and Forgotten Realms: self- contained fictional worlds with multiple creators. What are the creative opportunities when  a group of writers collaborate on a unified fictional universe, each writing their own works but feeding into a common backstory and environment? What are the drawbacks and challenges?”
Sean Williams, John Scalzi, Alan Stewart
Notes: I imagine I’m on this panel because of METAtropolis.

When I’m not doing these things I am likely to be at whichever bar people end up deciding to hang out at, up at the SFWA Suite, or possibly, you know, sleeping. They say you should every now and again at a Worldcon. Maybe I’ll try it this time.

See you there!

Kate Baker

Your Plan for the Zombie Apocalypse

So I was sitting in a Cracker Barrel restaurant a few weeks ago and instead of being involved in the conversation, I was lost in thought. Glancing at all the old and wickedly dangerous kitsch surrounding us on the walls, my musing turned into dreams of survival. I blurted out, “You know, this structure would be a pretty great place to make a last stand in the impending zombie apocalypse!” My dining companions were suddenly very confused.

“No really, you could totally use that scythe over there to decapitate.”

“We’re trying to eat here, Kate.”

“But, it would be awesome, think about it! That ax, that baseball bat, that plow, hockey sticks, kayak. It’s probably filled with industrial size cans of food. It’s got indoor facilities, clothes and tons of retro candy!”

“Really? We’re having this discuss…”

“Also, table checkers!”


Yeah, I’m pretty sure I would meet my doom.

So you have to help me out here! What are your plans for the impending zombie hordes? I can’t be the only one who is anxious enough to plan while out with family. Right?



Happy Caturday

It’s been ages since anyone has posted any cat pictures around these parts, so I stole this from John’s super sekrit stash. You’re welcome.

How do you hope to spend your Caturday?


Don’t Stop Believing for About Forty Minutes

Are you tired of all those super peppy pop stars and their toe-tapping Top 40 hits? Or are you that obsessed with the likes of J. Biebz that you wish the fever could last forever? Well, with song stretching, you too can enjoy popular songs the way they were meant to be heard!

Taking the phenomenon to a whole new retro level, Scalzi Enterprises™, gives you “Slow Stop” an ambient Journey through time and space.  You definitely won’t stop believing the awesome.

Note: There is some confusion as to whether listening to this track while high on speed will make it sound like the original track or more fatally, make your head explode. We suggest you don’t try it. Scalzi Enterprises™ will not be held responsible for bloody messes. The company also is protected from lawsuits due to injury caused from bad punning.

Meet the Winners of the Wheaton/Scalzi Fanfic Contest!

John sez:

There are two winners of the Wheaton/Scalzi fanfic contest:

Bernadette Durbin: “Bedtime Story”

Scott Mattes: “Vintarini’s Peak”

The Jury of Awesomeness™ picked them both because we couldn’t decide between them, and then thought, “why decide?” Because, hey, we can totally do that.

Their stories will be bundled up with stories by Wil Wheaton, Patrick Rothfuss, Catherynne Valente, and me, into an electronic chapbook from Subterranean Press, the proceeds of which will go to benefit the Lupus Alliance of America (via its Michigan/Indiana affiliate).

All the stories are in — and fantastic — and are headed for production. We’ll have more information on a release date and how to buy the chapbook soon.

Congratulations to Bernadette and Scott!


Unicorn Pegasus Kitten Update

John wanted me to mention that the winners of the fanfic contest have been chosen and are in the process of being told. Once they are notified, we’ll happily post the results for all to see.


The Dollar Value of Nerd Love

In an opening weekend reminiscent of the cliques within my high school walls, the jocks bullied the nerds while pretty women watched. Scott Pilgrim vs. the World ultimately whimpered into fifth place behind The Expendables, Eat Pray Love, The Other Guys, and Inception.

Over at his weekly column,  John explains why nerd love only gets you $10 million worth of opening box office.

As usual, comments on this post are closed here at the Whatever, so please click on over and discuss.

Big Idea

The Big Idea: Anthony Huso

Suffering: Sure, it’s a pain in the ass, but does it make for good art? And more to the point, if you make your characters suffer (which is objectively at least more comfortable than having yourself suffer), will their struggles help to perfect their stories? Perhaps it’s not the only way to tell a tale, but it’s an interesting way to tell it, no?

These are some of the questions Anthony Huso’s been rolling around in his head on the occasion of the release of his debut fantasy novel The Last Page. And after considerable thought on the nature of suffering, angst and depression, he’s come to some conclusions. And as luck would have it, here he is to report on what he’s discovered.


So here’s what happens.

One day you wake up and realize, crap.  I think I’m having a nervous breakdown.  Somehow, my world just exploded, and I’m watching the remnants float down like burning pages.

It’s bad form to wallow in misery but most of us have been there, on that day when we didn’t know if we were going make it.  And –- surprise — tomorrow wasn’t a big improvement.  Nor was the tomorrow after that.  It’s not that we want to wallow.  But it takes time to adjust after calamity.

Coincidentally, it takes time to write a book.

John [not Scalzi] first showed me Vonnegut’s words: “You cannot be a good writer of serious fiction if you are not depressed.”

Exclusionary assertions aside there’s truth enough there that you can excavate it with a spoon.  Angst is a reliable minter of art.

Angst also sells because we relate to it.

In the past couple of decades we’ve witnessed a brand of anxiety that only the internet could unearth.  The sort that stuffs the whole of humanity into a runaway train and sends it down the track at breakneck.  This is the thrill ride of 2012, meteor, super volcano, mega tsunami, disaster-porn that carries an acknowledged titillation value.  Look at this.  It would make a great B-movie. 

Maybe we’re making movies like this because as our knowledge of the universe expands, so does our ability to catalog erenow inscrutable catastrophic threats to our existence.  Quite naturally, the notion of extinction gets reactions from creatures easily smashed or burned by rocks falling out the sky.  So we make and watch disaster movies and think, wow

Now, we probably don’t go to bed worried that the end is just around the corner.  I hope not.  But there is — I think — a heuristic dread lining our collective psyche.  In other words, we do actually think about it from time to time.

In The Last Page I wanted to bring some of that fringe hysteria into the plot while keeping it analogously anchored.  Understand that my goal was for the characters to not be fretting constantly about some esoteric doomsday scenario.  Rather it’s background noise, which I think makes it far more uncertain and believable.  Think of it as a subconscious horror, a fly sucking fluid from the corner of your sleeping eye.

You’re probably getting the sense that the world where The Last Page takes place is fairly dark.  Indeed, I would call it brutal.  It is a place that exacts its toll indiscriminately from every character within its bounds.

Let’s begin with Caliph Howl, the first character to appear in the book.  When he assumes control of his backwater country, the political landscape does not pause for him to get his footing.  He sees his own values compromised by degrees.  He feels the sting of being lampooned by the press and the pain of repeated betrayal.

But to make this fantasy, and to make it fantastic, I needed to pile considerably more and far weirder pressures on top of him, so that he could really struggle.

This role is filled by Sena Iilool (though she would say she never intended for things to go the way they did).  Being Caliph’s college obsession, she is for him the harbinger of things fantastic.  While Caliph is embroiled in pragmatic affairs: paperwork, meetings and espionage — Sena is up to her earlobes in hexes, fables and the occult.  Their relationship might be summarized as the empirical vs. the theoretical.  This results in a slow-moving fracture across both of their realities.  Eventually all preconceptions shatter and the accompanying bottoms fall out.

To clarify Caliph and Sena’s dynamic within the story: whenever you have a boy-meets-girl-thing it’s natural to ask, as Fred Savage once did, whether this is a kissing book.

I admit the story to have torture, revenge, chases, escapes, true [dysfunctional] love, miracles…

But The Last Page isn’t a light-hearted romp.  Caliph and Sena are cautious rivals, best friends and bitter enemies depending on the chapter.  Their relationship is not easy to define because, if it was, the book (and its companion Black Bottle out 2011) would be a much diminished tale.  And the grim struggles and fine lines between obsession and love, fidelity and cowardice, of rationalizing the accomplishment of good things through dark means, I think, would be significantly undermined.

Sometimes plots evolve out of big ideas like: what if this crazy dude parked his spacecraft at the edge of a singularity and murdered his crew; then turned them into zombies and fitted chrome pantyhose eggs over their faces?  That would be cool!

And other times, plots evolve from the characters themselves.  Plot = struggle.

Sure I’m offering zeppelins, sex, gun fights, Lovecraftian god-things and a haunted building outside of town.  That’s scratching the surface.  And I hope it is entertaining.  Under the hood, however, I have to confess a secret hope that I’ve also delivered a story that resonates with what happens under real pressure, real heartache, when everything goes suddenly very wrong.

Calamity!  What do you do now?  That’s the big idea.  Rather than slaying the personification with a weapon and taking its treasure home, I think real people are just hoping to survive, even before they try to start making sense of what happened.

And that’s the true part.

One day my world blew up.  I was shell shocked.  But I was lucky.  I found my keyboard.  I wrote this story.


The Last Page: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt from the novel. Visit Anthony Huso’s Blog. Follow him on Twitter.

Kate Baker

The Coolest Thing You’ll See Today

(If you haven’t seen it already, that is.)

You can either watch it here on the Whatever, or click on the video for higher resolution and explanation. I stumbled upon it during lunch and have watched it a few times. Students of the visual arts continue to amaze me. The rendering and editing of this video took a gentleman by the name of Alexander Lehmann three years to complete. It’s well worth your few minutes especially if you are SF and/or disaster film addict like I am. (Don’t ask.)

The music is pretty awesome D&B too!

Kate Baker

Things Weren’t Really That Different When I Was A Kid

Ever since I was a little girl, I loved going to the movies. The first film that I remember was ET at a now defunct drive-in. (Damn, I really miss those.) Then multiplexes were popping up everywhere. While we would pay for the ticket into the theater, I never understood why my parents thought it necessary to pop corn at home and stow it under  big winter coats or in my mother’s large purse. I always resented the fact that I couldn’t have that over-salted, yellow monstrosity in an overpriced bucket. We weren’t trying to be obnoxious, that stuff was just as expensive even back then.

We’d do the same with other snacks as well. Hitting the local RX Place next to the cinema, we’d hide cheap cans of soda and candy within our pockets only to get nervous as we approached the overzealous ticket warrior.

He only caught us a few times, when the smell of burned kernels wafted up through our clothes or my when my little brother asked when we could have the sweets we just bought at the “other place”.

I remember being mortified. But now, as an adult with small children, I realize something. (This will happen a lot when the child becomes the parent.) My mom and dad were pretty smart. They “skimped” on those luxuries because we couldn’t really afford them and by doing so, with the money we saved, we went to more movies. If we really liked a certain film, sometimes we got to see it a few times if all the bills were paid and food was in the refrigerator.

As I got older and got a job of my own, I continued to follow that unspoken advice borne out of necessity. Granted, there are times where I don’t bring anything on which to munch, but I have been known to hide those Red Vines purchased at a much lower price in an overly large winter coat, or in a purse.

And you know what I do with the money I save? I  go to more movies.

As theaters continue to squeeze dime and dollar out of already struggling families with rising ticket and concession costs, perhaps they could take a lesson from my parents. I do believe there will be a breaking point. Either when the public is sick of paying to watch commercials at the beginning of their movies, or they just stop going all together because it’s cost prohibitive.

As for the popcorn, I never did get used to the taste. Anytime I decide to splurge with either friends or my own children, I always end up with a stomach ache and a much lighter wallet.

But I’m sure that James Cameron and the studios appreciate the fact that I went to see Titanic seven times and have seen other films numerous times as well.

And no, for the last time, I don’t want a large for just 25 cents more.

Big Idea

The Big Idea: Zoe Ferraris

It’s well known that one of the best ways to get someone to do something is to tell them that they shouldn’t do it. In the case of author Zoe Ferraris, the thing she was told she shouldn’t do is write about a particular character — one whose origins are outside the usual experience of her audience. Two books on, this character is alive and well, so there. Here’s Ferraris to tell you about the character, the world he lives in, and why she keeps on with him in her newest novel, City of Veils.


City of Veils comes from a big idea and a small one.

In Jeddah, my ex-husband once brought me to a jacket bazaar. Yes, there was a whole market devoted to outwear in the hottest country in the world. Furs, pea coats, leather, you name it. He wanted to buy a “Columbo coat” – a Peter Falk trench coat – and set off to solve mysteries. He was bored. But I was electrified. It occurred to me that there were no Muslim investigators in crime fiction, and I thought that it might be fun to write one.

That was the small idea.

City of Veils started out as a serial killer novel back in the early 00s. (I go with the Brits and call them the naughties.) I set an American serial killer loose in Saudi Arabia. He was happily killing people but mostly chasing down one American woman whose husband had conveniently abandoned her in the one country on earth where she couldn’t fend for herself, being a woman and an American and someone not very good at wearing a veil. I sent the novel to an agent who said that the story of the American woman was great, but that my little subplot about “that Arab investigator” needed to be ejected into space.

I was so aggrieved at being told what to eject that I went out and wrote a whole book about my Arab investigator, Nayir Sharqi, which turned into my first novel, Finding Nouf.

I guess I’m still aggrieved, because City of Veils is basically that original story, minus the serial killer. We have an American woman abandoned by her husband. We have a brutal murder in which her husband may have been involved. We have a chase through the desert. And most importantly, we have a sandstorm. But still, that Arab investigator persists in taking up most of the book!

I arrived in Saudi Arabia with the notion that women were deeply, darkly oppressed by a conspiracy of ignorant, cruel, patronizing men. Then I started meeting my ex-husband’s friends, basically a bunch of twenty-something guys who wanted nothing more extravagant than to find a decent Friday-night date in a country where they weren’t allowed to talk to women outside their family. What’s a man to do? Turns out that in courtship, gender segregation is just as difficult for men as it is for women.

Nayir’s problem is even bigger than that. He has no experience with women. So when he finally gets to talk to one (putting his religious convictions aside), he tries his damndest not to mess it up, because he’s fairly certain that it would take no effort at all to mess everything up. I really want him to have love, I really do. But the problem is big enough that it’s going to take more than two books to solve it.


City of Veils: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt from the novel. Visit Zoe Ferraris’ Blog. Follow her on Twitter.


Subterranean Press Movin’ Out Ebay Auctions

Bill Schafer over at Subterranean Press is moving into a larger warehouse and office space. 

He would love it if you would help lighten the moving truck. So in what you could call a win-win scenario, he’s put up a bunch of stock over at Ebay. Books are discounted from 50% to more than 70% off the regular retail price.

Bill also mentions that quanties are limited  on most titles, so don’t miss your opportunity to own some of the most beautiful and unique titles out on the market.

You might even notice a recently mentioned, signed, limited edition Seiun Award winner. Don’t take my word for it though, go see for yourself!

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