The Big Idea: Corry L. Lee

When thinking about how to develop a magic system for her new novel Weave the Lightning, a big idea came to Corry L. Lee… almost like a bolt out of the blue.

CORRY L. LEE:

I love reading the adventures of diverse protagonists. Except… what’s this? There’s magic! There’s spaceships! But the world is still riddled with the same sexism and racism? With infinite possible worlds, why are imagined societies so often burdened by the same glass ceilings and arbitrary lines in the sand as our world?

Speculative fiction has deep roots in imagining a better world. In writing Weave the Lighting, I wanted to create a better world… that at the same time was a terrible world with serious, systemic problems my characters could fight.

So I started planning around two fixed points: gender equality and a big, crunchy magic system. If the magic was important, and magic didn’t discriminate along gender lines, I reasoned that a society would develop where women and men were treated equally. If that magic were practical enough to erase unequal biological challenges (like the risks of unprotected sex), that would help, too, but I wasn’t concerned with those details at first.

What I did care about was making the magic really cool but dangerous, hard to learn and easy to screw up. I also wanted it to feel like magic, which to me meant drawing deeply from a mage’s personal experience. In the back of my mind, too, was a way to give strength to people who might otherwise seem weak.

I decided that to create new magical objects in my world, a mage had to be hit by lightning. (I’ve always loved lighting. So beautiful, so deadly.) To allow technology to grow and influence the magic, I created a storm cycle—decades that passed where all that sparked in a storm was electricity. And to make magic personal, I decided that a mage had to shape their magic out of a desperate need—a need to fight against overwhelming physical odds, a need to heal a dying loved one or feed a starving family.

There’s more to the magic system, of course (you can read about it on my website if you geek out about magic systems like me or like having the rules explained up front), and I’m really proud of how it turned out. It’s intricate like a lightning strike—it branches and forks and grows organically. It influences the world in deep and inextricable ways and, like lightning itself, is hard to control.

I don’t believe in the inevitability of patriarchy. I don’t believe that skin color or sexual preference or physical ability must divide us. People will draw lines, yes. We will define a ‘them’ to hold up against ‘us.’ In Weave the Lightning, the lines are not our own. The fascist regime draws lines that are hard and dangerous—but the world is filled with magic, and the people will rise up to fight.

Weave the LightningAmazon | Barnes & Noble | Indie-Bound | Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit Corry L. Lee’s website. Follow her on Twitter.

 

My Quarantine Field Trip

Today I actually left the house for the first time in two weeks (minus walks up and down my rural Ohio road), in order to travel up to Michigan, where I signed copies of The Last Emperox at the Subterranean Press warehouse. Usually when I head up there to sign books I make a day of it, hang out with the Subterranean Press folks, have dinner with friends and stay the night before heading back in the morning. However, these are quarantine times, so what I did was drive up alone, get to the warehouse where the one person working stayed mostly on the other side of the warehouse from me, sign the books, and then head directly back home. It was the social distancing signing. Not as fun as it could have been, but I wanted to make sure everyone who ordered a book through SubPress got their book when it comes out (postal service willing, of course).

So if you pre-ordered The Last Emperox through Subterranean Press, congrats, you’re getting a signed book for sure.

For everyone else who still wants to be sure to get a signed book, remember that my local bookstore, Jay & Mary’s Book Center, is taking pre-orders, and I’ll be signing (and when requested, personalizing) books there. Call them during regular hours, that’s the best way to get a book. If you want to get the book around the time it comes out, I suggest ordering by this Friday, although I will continue signing books for them after that (you can also other books of mine from the store).

It was nice to get out. It’s also nice to be back.

State of the Scalzi, Three Weeks In

I’ve been quarantining for three weeks now. How am I doing? Let’s break it down, in no particular order:

1. Weight: Quarantining offers many opportunities to confront the question “Am I Hungry or Just Bored,” and I know that left to my own devices I will graze incessantly, so I’ve been using a calorie counter to track the amount of food I’m shoving into my own face and how many calories it has. I strongly believe that if people just want to eat during quarantine, why the hell not, and have already developed a term for “the weight we all gain because it’s quarantine and, well, fuck it”: The Quaran-fifteen. That said, I also know that me gaining too much weight will make me unhappy, and possibly unhealthy. My goal here is simply to stay within the 165 – 170 pound range, and tracking food and calories helps with that. Today: 167.5 pounds, so, yes, smack dab in the middle, well-done there, Scalzi.

2. Exercise: I’ve been exercising about every other day, walks when it’s nice outside and drumming when it’s not. The walks are easy to do because I live in rural America, where I can walk for miles and not see another person (yay, low-density living), and drumming is fun, so it doesn’t really feel like exercise. I think I might need to exercise more because I do notice I’m crankier on days when I don’t exercise. I don’t know if that’s because on the days I don’t exercise the lack of exercise makes me crankier, or if it’s because on the days I don’t exercise I fill that time with reading news and social media, which makes me crankier. Maybe both!

3. Sleep: I find myself sleeping more the further I go along in the quarantine. According to my Fitbit, the first week I was in quarantine I slept an average of 7 hours, 6 minutes a night; the second week, 7 hours, 49 minutes; and last week, 8 hours, 3 minutes. Pre-quarantine I was sleeping on average between six and a half and seven and a half hours a night. I’m sleeping more both because I can — no travel is really helping with this, I have to say — and because I suspect I’m using sleep therapeutically at this point. Yesterday I was in a particularly not great mood and went “fuck it, I’m going to sleep,” got in bed early, slept nine hours and woke up feeling pretty decent. I recommend more sleep to everyone.

4. Work: I thought last week I would do a little creative work and did none at all, which was a cause of some of my crankiness, mitigated by the realization that right now I really do need to do marketing and publicity for The Last Emperox, and I was doing rather a bit of that in terms of interviews, feature pieces and what have you. I’m keeping busy at the very least, which is useful. Part of the problem with the creative side is my brain is jumping around. I have a novel that I have to write (I will literally always have a novel I need to write, contractually speaking, for the better part of a decade yet), but my brain is also, like, now is the time to write that concept album! And that short story! And that screenplay! And and and… Some of that I suspect is just quarantine restlessness, but the short term result is lack of focus.

5. General mood: Mostly good; it gets worse when I read the news, but then, why wouldn’t it. In the main we are doing pretty well here — we’re all healthy and we’re mostly in good spirits and entertained — and it helps that we live in a big enough house that the three of us here can get out of each other’s way when we need to. But I have my less-than-great days, yesterday being one, in which I felt like doing something but nothing in particular was interesting to me, so I just sat about being in a bad mood and trying not to transmit it to anyone else in the house before I went to bed. I don’t worry too much about the cranky days being a symptom of quarantine depression — I have cranky days regardless of outside events — but I am paying attention to whether there are more cranky days now, and if so, how they affect the way I’m treating others.

With that said, come on: Weird fucking times we’re living in and the anxiousness of it is getting to me like I think it’s getting to everyone. It’s exacerbated by the fact that our ignorant, dimwitted president and his incompetent administration has literally made everything worse; I have so much generalized anger and frustration at him and his people that I don’t know what to do with it, save the occasional caustic Twitter post (and slightly longer if no less caustic posts here). I’m also aware that for various reasons I have the luxury of mostly ignoring the outside world if I want to, so while I wouldn’t call my anger and anxiety voluntary, exactly, it’s true enough that I can do things to moderate it that other people can’t. It’s still pretty bad. I envy people who aren’t anxious and angry at the moment; they’re probably delusional, which isn’t any better at all, but at least they’re happier.

6. Financial anxiety: Not much for me or the Scalzi family, thankfully. I’ve noted that we took a pretty severe haircut on stocks, as did anyone else who is in the stock market these days, but we’re also about two decades out from doing anything with those investments, so, eh, it’s not fun but it’s not something for us to freak out about yet, either. Otherwise financially we’re going to be fine through the rest of 2020 at least. We’re fortunate and we know it.

As a matter of prudence I’ve already substantially downgraded what I expect to take in for the next couple of years at least. Reasons for this include contraction in the publishing market, both with domestic and international publishers and booksellers, people having less disposable income and more general economic anxiety, and the options market (for film/TV) probably drying out considerably in the short term. I could be wrong about this — people in the short term seem to be buying books, which is nice for someone who has a book out in nine days — but it makes sense to plan like I won’t be wrong. Again, I’ll probably be fine; I (and we) have margin to work with. A lot of people don’t, including people we care about.

7. Non-family relationships: So far, so good? While I have good relations with my neighbors, most of my strong personal relationships are with people who live some distance from me and with whom I mostly communicate day-to-day through online/phone-based means. So… business as usual on that end. I am more than a little disappointed that my physical book tour was cancelled because I had friends at pretty much every stop and was looking forward to spending some in-person time with them. That’s not going to happen now. I’ll find other excuses to get with them some other time. In the meantime, I’m checking in on them and they’re checking in on me and we’re doing what we do. It seems all right.

8. And everything else: I’m drinking more Coke Zero than I used to, and I used to drink rather a lot, so maybe I need to think about my choices there. The cats seem to be fine and largely unconcerned about anything, which makes sense because they’re cats and they don’t worry about things as long as the food and sunbeams keep coming. I was reading more, and I’ve stopped and now want to get back on it again; I reread a novel this weekend, which is a start. I’m excited about The Last Emperox coming out and am curious how it does in the short term and in the face of an economic and social shutdown. I very much like that I have more time with Krissy and Athena right now; it’s the silver lining in all of this. I’m trying very hard not to fall down stairs or have any other sort of medical emergency, as this is absolutely the worst time for that. My hair is beginning to get unruly and I’ve already told Krissy that when it goes full Doc Brown I’m just gonna take some clippers to it rather than wait for an appointment with my usual hairdresser. We’re buying a lot of local business gift certificates that we have no intention of redeeming anytime soon.

Things could be worse. I wish they were better.

This is where I am at the end of week three.

Yes, But What Does JOHN SCALZI Think of This Moment?

Because I once wrote a book about a global viral pandemic, I was asked by my local newspaper to prognosticate about what changes we will see from the coronavirus in the future. I answered largely in generalities, because that’s the sort of interview it was. You may find the interview at this link.

Return of the Flies

It’s pleasant to think of where I live as a bucolic paradise, and a lot of the time it is just that. But one does have to remember that nature includes the less than pretty parts, like, for example, hundreds of recently-metamorphosed houseflies congregating on one’s back porch and (in this case) trash can, sunning themselves before heading off to do whatever it is that flies do with their time.

The cats don’t mind them, because the cats like to hunt and eat the little critters, but all things being equal, the human residents of the Scalzi Compound would rather have them go away, and may be inclined to take a fly swatter to them in order to encourage their dispersal, or, at least, removal. No matter how many you swat, however, there are always more. Flies are like that.

Anyway: One of the less attractive harbingers of spring around these here parts. Not exactly the swallows to Capistrano.

New Books and ARCs, 4/3/20

And here we are: Another intriguing stack of new books and ARCs that have come to the Scalzi Compound. What is calling to you this week? Tell us all in the comments.

The Dance of Spring

Spice is performing it for you! Enjoy.

Also, spring is now here in Ohio, which means some sun but mostly clouds and rain, but when it’s sunny we all go out into the outside. Social distancing means something different when you live in a rural area — I took a three and a half mile walk yesterday and the only person I saw out and about was the Amish fellow who fixes our lawn mower when it breaks down, as I walked past his place of business. We had a nice chat across a ditch. He was the first person I’ve spoken to live who was not a family member or a delivery person in almost three weeks.

The walk (and a similar walk I took a couple days earlier) were for exercise, which is important during a quarantine, but also recognition that even someone who is as much a homebody as myself actually needs a change of scenery once in a while. Also it’s nice to see that even as humans stay home the rest of nature is busy doing its thing, waking up from winter and coming online for spring as if nothing much has changed. The mortal concerns of man don’t seem to matter much to the birds and the trees, and there’s something reassuring about that. Life does go on, even if right now we’re mostly looking through a window as it does.

How are you doing?

 

Adam Schlesinger, RIP

Best known for Fountains of Wayne, but the songwriting mastermind behind a surprising number of other perfect pop songs, dead at 52 from coronavirus-related issues. A very bad day for music, and a reminder that the coronavirus is going to take a lot from us all before it’s done. Stay inside, people. Stay safe.

The Big Idea: Rysa Walker

Hold on to your butts: in this Big Idea for her new novel Now, Then and Everywhen, author Rysa Walker eyes the topics you’re not supposed to talk about… and then totally goes there.

RYSA WALKER:

There’s an old adage that you should never discuss politics or religion in polite society. If that still holds and it’s something you believe strongly, consider this a warning: I’m about to discuss religion and politics.

I’ll start with an anecdote you may have heard. Two science fiction writers are at a bar in the late 1940s having a friendly chat over a few too many drinks. After a shared lament about the penny-a-word rates they’re earning, one of them notes that they’ll never get rich writing science fiction. “The real money,” he says, “is in religion. I’ll bet I could start my own religion and be a millionaire long before you make that much writing.”

There are multiple versions of the tale, some with the wager and some without. I won’t name the authors in question, both because the story is quite possibly apocryphal, and because even though the undisputed winner is now dead, he left behind a very profitable (and very litigious) church.

While we may never know whether the story is literally true, it’s hard to deny the central point. In the US, tax breaks alone tip the scales in that direction. Most religious leaders also wield far more political power and seem to provoke less anger when they dare to express a political opinion in the course of their work… even though their tax-exempt status should, in theory, preclude that.

Personally, I’d rather write even if it never makes me a millionaire, but religion still intrigues me. I was raised in a rural area of the South so deeply fundamentalist that I was nine years old before I fully understood that religious beliefs extended beyond the narrow spectrum of Protestant churches lining the highway that bisected our tiny town. I met my first non-Protestant around age twelve when a Catholic family moved in, and my first non-Christian when I went away to college, although I’m sure there were a few atheists in town who were simply smart enough to keep their mouths closed on the subject.

My own religious views took a sharp turn as a teenager, when a chance encounter with Mark Twain’s Letters to Earth awakened my inner skeptic, and also because I began questioning the racist views of my particular denomination and chafing at the whole women be silent thing. (Which will surprise no one who knows me.)  But I still have a certain affinity for the more positive messages of the New Testament and fond memories of sermons at my grandparent’s church, where the minister focused on the golden rule and charity rather than the eternal damnation of anyone who held different beliefs.

Given my previous career as a professor of government and history, I’ve had a chance to explore many of the intersections of religion and American politics. The most baffling combination, in my view, is the odd meshing of Ayn Rand’s loosely organized political theory and fundamentalist Christianity. There’s really no overlap between her philosophy of Objectivism and the words of Jesus in the New Testament. Indeed, they’re close to polar opposites. Yet somehow, prosperity gospel ministers manage to blend these into a message that resonates with many Americans. See me? I’m rich. And if you send me your love offering…or seed money…or sustaining gift…you can be rich, too. God wants you to be rich.

It’s a successful business model. But what if they could ramp that message up a notch? What if they could say not merely that you might become rich if you support them? What if they could guarantee it? If they get thousands of followers with vague promises of prosperity, how many more might they get with some actual follow-through?

To put it in the context of our two science fiction writers in the bar, let’s imagine that the religious entrepreneur has more than drive, charisma, and an active imagination. Now he also has the ability to jump back a few centuries and drop off copies of the central text of his new religion, avoiding that whole awkward phase when established religions dismiss it as a cult. Since he wants his religion to become mainstream, he probably would not introduce an entirely new theology with aliens and the like. He would, instead, follow the lead of Christianity in its early days, blending his ideas with customs already embraced by the people he hoped to convert. At various junctures in history, he might also make a few stops to deliver a  well-timed prophecy, perform a miraculous cure, or co-opt a few rival groups. And once he reached the modern era, he could spread his new religion rapidly by providing the faithful with the occasional uncannily accurate stock tip—as long as they kept up their monthly tithe, of course.

A similar wager sets in motion the events in both of my CHRONOS series. The main antagonist, Saul Rand, is one of three dozen genetically altered historians equipped to travel through time to study their subjects in person. There are safeguards, of course. Rigid controls on when and where the historians can travel. And the Temporal Monitoring Unit is there to ensure that the historians don’t alter the timeline enough to affect the course of history. Saul has found a way around those safeguards and he’s convinced that a world crafted in his own image would be an improvement.

If the original wager in the bar was tilted in favor of the wannabe messiah, adding time travel makes it a slam dunk. And once his new religion was widespread, it would give him a tremendous amount of power to change history. Whether that was for good or for ill would be largely determined by the personality of this new prophet…although I think it’s fairly safe to say that anyone with the hubris to think that he or she should have the ability to shape all of history is not someone you’d want in that role.

—-

Now, Then and Everywhen: Amazon | Barnes & Noble

Read an excerpt. Visit Rysa Walker’s Website | Instagram | Facebook | Twitter

The Collapsing Empire Free, The Consuming Fire $2.99, The Human Division 99p

It’s a busy day for sales here in Scalzi Land, so let’s dig right into it:

Today (April 1, 2020) only — and not an April Fool’s joke — You can download the ebook of The Collapsing Empire for free as part of the Tor.com eBook club. This is for US and Canada only.

Also in US/Canada, for the next couple of days also today only, The Consuming Fire, the sequel to The Collapsing Empire, is $2.99 at your favorite online retailer. So if you missed out on this book, now is a fine time to get it.

If you’re in the UK, you can get The Human Division, the fifth book in the OMW series (and the start of an independent two-book arc in that series), for just 99p, which is a pretty good price if you ask me.

Oh, and remember, The Last Emperox comes out in less than two weeks, so now is a very fine time to pre-order it! Also if you pre-order through Jay and Mary’s, my local bookseller, I’ll sign and personalize your copy (US delivery only).

There, we’re all caught up now. Happy April!

The Strategic Reserve

Last Thursday Krissy, who has been appointed the Person Who Leaves The House to Shop, reported that once again she had been unable to find toilet paper, or paper towels, while she was out shopping. We had been back from vacation for nearly two weeks at that point, and the Great Toilet Paper Panic of 2020 had begun the week we were on our cruise. So that meant it had been three weeks since toilet paper had been readily available locally — every roll snatched in a panic. Here at the Scalzi Compound we were doing okay on the toilet paper front, with enough to last us a couple more weeks if we were not, shall we say, profligate in our usage. I had assumed that at some reasonable point in the future the stuff would be back on the shelves. But here we were, three weeks in, and the shelves were still bare.

Which was how, last Thursday afternoon, I found myself on Amazon, finger hovering over the “buy” button for a box of Tork brand toilet paper — the stuff you find in airport bathrooms on massively-sized rolls, and which is unperforated because it’s assumed you’ll rip it across the serrated edge of a Tork brand toilet paper dispenser. This industrial-grade toilet paper was, literally, the only toilet paper available online — not just on Amazon, mind you, but on the sites of Kroger, Wal-Mart, Home Depot, Lowe’s, Walgreens, CVS, Staples, Office Max and even Jet.Com. Uline claimed to have some, but it was rationing orders and was additionally limiting them to customers who had accounts before January 2020. Everywhere I looked, toilet paper wasn’t, except for these 12 boxes of Tork Mini Jumbo Bath Tissue Rolls (12 rolls each), which had somehow managed to escape the view of the ravening hordes, on Amazon, of all places.

As I was considering the purchase, part of my brain was going, come on, this is ridiculous. But between the moment I added a box of the stuff into my shopping cart and the moment the Amazon shopping cart page popped up, five of the boxes of Tork Mini Jumbo Bath Tissue Rolls (12 rolls each) sold and only seven boxes remained. Suddenly it became a lot less ridiculous. I put my order through.

When I got the little confirmation notification from Amazon that indeed my order had gone through, I felt three emotions, in rapid sequence. First, smugness: Fuck you all, I and my family will still get to poop. Second, enraged exasperation that a virus had reduced a once-great nation into a fearful panic-buying rabble, grabbing onto rolls of toilet paper like 2-ply security blankets, perhaps thinking if I can poop like a civilized person maybe this pestilence will pass over my home. Third, a mild but nevertheless disquieting sense of shame, because, after all, if I didn’t myself just panic buy some toilet paper — any toilet paper at all, as evidenced by my willingness to claim unperforated industrial tissue — I at the very least bought it at an elevated level of alarm. It was not, I admit, my most dignified online purchase ever.

And as it turns out, not an entirely necessary one, either. Yesterday Krissy went to Sam’s Club, which had more or less at that moment brought out onto the sales floor a pallet of 45-roll packs of the quilted good stuff. Krissy scored one package — just one, one is more than enough for a three-person home for a very long while, thank you very much — and a similarly-sized package of paper towels. When my box of Tork Mini Jumbo Bath Tissue Rolls arrived this afternoon, it was thankfully superfluous. It has therefore been dispatched to the basement, where it stands as our Strategic Reserve, at the ready should the stores once again be depleted through the panic buying of others, or in case of natural or other disasters depriving us of easy access to the sort of toilet paper that features cartoon bears on the packaging. It is the toilet paper for When It Comes To That, in other words, and let’s hope that it never does.

I’m writing this all in a light, jokey manner, but I’ll note that underneath this jocular tone is a mild bit of shock that, in fact, it took two fucking weeks for Krissy to locate toilet paper anywhere within a 50-mile radius of where we live, and that my grand backup plan to deal with this was to haunt the commercial sites of the Internet and grab the first box of the stuff I could find, regardless of quality or, indeed, perforation. I’ll note that at this moment on Amazon, the same box of Tork Mini Jumbo Bath Tissue Rolls I bought will set you back $100 (which is rather more than what I paid for it), and it will be at least two weeks before arrives. Try Sam’s Club first.

My point here is we’re none of us doing a very good job of not freaking out, and I worry about how much worse it will get before it gets better. I don’t have an answer to this. But at the very least, we’re not going to panic buy (or hopefully even mildly alarmed buy) any more sundries. For the duration we’re going to buy as we normally did in the Before Times, and if that means sometimes we do without — as it has already for a couple of other things besides toilet paper — then we’re going to work with that, and around it, and through it. We’ll get through all of this, all of us. We just have to think about all of us, and make room for the rest of us, too.

Also, when all of this is said and done, I’m finally getting myself a bidet. All of those are on back order too, at the moment. Who would have thought.

Gah! Cat!

Sometimes you wake up from a nap and a cat is right there, being all, like, “hey, what’s up.” And it is disconcerting. So naturally you take a picture.

The Two Week Quarantine Report

We got back from the JoCo Cruise on March 14, and March 15 was our first full day back in the world, so today marks two full weeks since I’ve basically holed myself up in my house. In the first week back I had two trips out to the grocery store, both observing full social isolation (i.e., at least feet between me and everyone else, no touching), and this week I’ve been off my property exactly once — today, when I went for a long walk down my street, on which I encountered no one because it’s a rural road and no one actually walks it except for me. It was good to be out in the early spring.

And how has this two weeks of (mostly) isolation been? On the whole, for me: fairly pleasant. I’ve mentioned before that when I’m at home, I don’t tend to go out a lot anyway — I can easily go a week or longer without leaving the house or seeing anyone but my family and pets. The two weeks back from the cruise I had nowhere scheduled to be anyway; I was supposed to go somewhere nest Tuesday (that’s now been postponed), but up until then my plan was: Be at home. So in that regard, “self-isolation” has just rather closely modeled what my plan already was.

Likewise with work I didn’t have a lot scheduled for myself — mostly plotting out new work (which is a grand way of saying “staring into space a lot while vaguely thinking of things I might write next”) and preparing for the book tour that was supposed to start a little over two weeks from now. Well, the physical tour is cancelled but we’re actively replacing that with online events, and also I have been plotting out that new work, so while some things have shifted, essentially I did what I planned to do with this time, i.e., mostly nothing, but a little bit of something.

Moving forward, plans have changed a bit, of course. I was planning to continue a relatively light work load through the length of my tour, because tours are busy and also enervating. Now that there’s no physical tour, I plan on being a little more serious about daily work, starting this next week. When I say “a little more serious” I should note that I’m planning to be careful not to overschedule my workload. This self-isolation thing I’m doing is very much like my normal routine but these are very much not normal times, and while for various reasons I’m probably better insulated from the world’s woes than most people, I’m still feeling the stress. My daily work goals are going to be modest to start and then we’ll see what happens from there. The point for me is to start up daily work again, and to start filtering out the outside world during work hours (or at least until I meet my work goals for the day).

Between now and the end of May I have exactly two places I need to be other than home: I need to take a day trip to Michigan to sign copies of The Last Emperox at the Subterranean Press warehouse, and I need to go to Jay and Mary’s bookstore here in Troy to do the same thing. I’ll do those in the next couple of weeks (provided I’m allowed to travel to Michigan at all — state-to-state travel is becoming a weirdly testy subject these days). In both cases I’ll be very sure to observe appropriate distancing.

Beyond that: Well, I’ll be here, with family. And cats. There are worse fates, to be sure.

The Last Best Time

Three fridays ago I was lying in bed on the Nieuw Amsterdam, the cruise ship that the JoCo Cruise was sailing on this year, trying to decide whether or not I wanted to bother to get my ass up, head down to the tender boats and go over to Half Moon Cay, our current stop on the cruise. I’d been there before and it was the last full day of a week-long cruise, and no matter how enjoyable a cruise is or has been, at some point you hit cruise fatigue. I was hitting it. Staying in bed and then wandering around a mostly-empty cruise liner for a few hours sounded like a pretty good day.

Then a thought came into my head: You know what you’re going to back to. Who knows when or if you will ever get back to this place again. Go and swim in the ocean, why don’t you. 

So I did. I went and took the tender to Half Moon Cay and hung out on the beach eating ice cream with friends and family, and then jumped into the crystal blue waters of the Caribbean and floated there as fluffy white clouds drifted overhead and my scalp became a rather alarming shade of red. I got out and had lunch with my wife and fed bits of bread to a rooster who knew a sucker when he saw one. Then I jumped back into the water, floated there again and took a moment to be mindful of where I was and who I was there with, and what an actual privilege it was to be afforded this one last best time.

To be clear, six days earlier, as we were boarding the Nieuw Amsterdam, I think most of us knew we were running ahead of a storm. There had been some question of whether loading 2,000 nerds on a cruise liner was a reasonable thing to do at all, given it was clear the coronavirus had landed in the US and was beginning to break out. The cruise line had put restrictions on who could get on the boat based on their previous travel through hotspots, which meant one of the cruise’s performers had to stay off the boat, and the boarding process featured spot health checks of the passengers. Hindsight being what it is, we were lucky that these precautions actually worked as hoped. But we were lucky.

I made a resolution that while I was on the ship I would avoid news and social media. I had email so that if there was a career emergency, my editor, agent or manager could get hold of me, but I had arranged things so that there should have been nothing that would have been an emergency during the week I was on the boat. We had departed on a Saturday; I was fully confident I wouldn’t have to think about the rest of the world until the next Saturday, when we returned to Fort Lauderdale.

In fact I made it until Thursday morning. Wednesday night my editor at Tor sent me an email, which was, basically: You have to call me immediately.

To which I replied: I’m in the middle of the ocean. There are no cell towers here. Just tell me. 

He responded in the early hours of Thursday, to tell me that my book tour for April had been entirely cancelled — and not just my tour; indeed, every event for every author my publisher published had been cancelled through April at least.

You have no idea what it’s like now, he told me. Everything’s changed. It’s been four months since last Monday. 

And I was all, well, shit, now I have to know. So I looked at the news.

He was right. Everything had changed.

For one, and very much least importantly in the grand scheme of things, no more cruise ships were going out. We were one of the very last to sail, and would be one of the very last to return.

By this time a lot of the performers and passengers on the cruise had also broken their news and social media fasts and were catching up on events in the world, and grasping what we were going to be coming back to when we arrived at port. Most of us also understood our first order when we got back to wherever it was we were going was to put ourselves in quarantine, for our own safety and the safety of others.

Because of that, at least some of us started looking at the cruise in a different light. The JoCo Cruise was always a good time — it’s why it had lasted for ten years and spawned a community that existed outside the confines of the cruise ship — but it was beginning to sink in that this might be the last good time for a while. Maybe for a long while. Or at least, the last good time we could spend with friends in reasonably close proximity, outside of the confines of our own homes.

So we enjoyed it. With the time that we had left to us, we enjoyed our time with each other. Our last best time. Then we came off the boat, got on our planes and came home to where we are now, and to the world as it is now.

We were fortunate. We were fortunate that on a cruise during a viral time, we avoided that contagion; it’s now been two weeks since we returned home, so we’re now outside the understood penumbra of its infection time. If any of us who were on the cruise get sick now, it’s far more likely that we got it here than there.

We’re also fortunate that we got to have this last, best time, with friends and music and laughter and blue skies and oceans to float in. It’s something that will help to sustain us through what we have now, and what is yet to come.

New Books and ARCs, 3/27/20

As we round the bend toward April, we have one more stack of new books and ARCs for March! What here is getting your attention as a possible Spring Read? Share in the comments!

Distance and Patience and This Moment of Time

The frustrating thing for me during this moment of time that we’re in is that I don’t think it’s quite sunk in to some folks that this virus doesn’t care about politics, or the economy, or in fact any human concern at all. It doesn’t care about anything. It just wants to spread, and will take any opportunity it is given to do so, to rich or poor, conservative or liberal, to any person regardless of their situation or circumstance or makeup.

And it’s really good at spreading — better at it than flu or many other communicable diseases — and it’s really good at hurting people. Right now we think its mortality rate is slightly above 1%, but I think equally important is that we estimate 19% of the people who get it will need to be hospitalized. That’s pain and fear and money and weeks if not months lost to recovery. Much of that avoidable, if people remember that this virus doesn’t care about politics, or the economy, or any human concern at all. It just wants to spread.

Now, let me speak of a particular human concern. I have lost hundreds of thousands of dollars (and, uh, possibly more) in the stock market in the last few weeks. I certainly understand how people might panic to look at it. I also know that historically speaking, the market will recover in time, as it did in ’87, and in ’08. It’s a good bet that if I’m patient I will see that money again.

If we rush to put this virus on a timetable that it cannot and will not honor, we will kill and hurt people who do not need to be hurt, and who do not need to die. I will see my stock market gains again, in time. I won’t see the dead again. They’ll be gone forever and every future moment any of us could have had with them lost.

It won’t just be the old, although that would be bad enough. Young people are dying of this too. People who are immunocompromised are dying, and so are people who were thought to be perfectly healthy. The virus doesn’t care who you are, what you want or what you believe. It doesn’t care who you will miss, or who will miss you. It doesn’t care that those lost will never be seen again.

The only weapons we have against this virus right now — the only weapons — are distance and patience. Right now we’re practicing the former, but we’re fighting against the latter, in ways both small and large. This virus doesn’t care if you’re patient or impatient. But if you’re the latter, it will take advantage of that to get to you, and it will use you to get to others. Please be as patient as you can, for as long as you can. It matters for you, and for the people you care about.

I understand some of you reading this will want to make political arguments, or argue about what we know about the virus, or (in the US, at least) make the very real point that money is running out for so many of us. Your points may be good, or they may not be, but I’m not going to argue any of them with you right now. I will simply remind you of what I said at the beginning: This virus doesn’t care about politics, or the economy, or any human concern at all. It just wants to spread. That’s it. That’s all. It will, if you let it. And won’t, if you don’t.

Try to Get a Message to Her: (Another) LP-Length Playlist

Hey, I made another playlist! Enjoy. Here’s the Spotify link, or follow along with the videos below.

The Big Idea: Robert Mitchell Evans

Science fiction writers don’t only grow up on science fiction. Their influences can be all over the map in terms of genre and medium. Just ask Robert Mitchell Evans, who for his novel Vulcan’s Forge has tapped into another rich vein of storytelling entirely.

ROBERT MITCHELL EVANS:

“I killed him for money and for a woman. I didn’t get the money — and I didn’t get the woman.” – Walter Neff’s confession, Double Indemnity.

My twin loves are film and science fiction. Drive-in movies are among my earliest memories. My older brothers, in order to obtain the family car, always promised my parents to take me along and that they would be going to Disney-like movies but invariably we went to lurid full-color horror spectacles. This goes a long way in explaining a great many thing about me. My affection for film noir came many years later when a history of cinema course introduced me to the dark and cynical genre. With Vulcan’s Forge I have fused my passions for movies, noir, and science fiction.

By far, I am not the first to combine science fiction and noir. Hard-bitten private eyes, dogged detectives, and fatales of every kind, produced by terrific writers, are numerous in science fiction but I wanted something else.

Don’t get me wrong, Spade, Marlowe, Hammer, and the rest of those classic characters, both on the page and the silver screen, are great and excellent SF version of these iconic archetypes are wonders to behold but I wanted something more akin to Walter Neff in Double Indemnity or Frank Chambers in The Postman Always Rings Twice, an person that, because they are unable to resist temptation, finds themselves suddenly in over their heads with lust and murder taking over their lives. It took me quite a while to find the characters and plot where everything came together for the kind of SF noir I wanted but eventually I did.

Writing a novel you discover surprising things about yourself and your subjects. Vulcan’s Forge taught me that noir stories besides being about crime and character are also about culture.

Noir characters, the outcast, the forgotten, and the greedy, propelled by taboo appetites, brawl with their cultures. They are characters that fall into crimes chasing forbidden desires and it is their culture that defines those taboos.

Invented cultures fill science fiction. Some are utopian and others dystopian but usually they are already well-established societies with readers meeting them mature and functional. But what about a culture being born? How do you teach a specific culture to a population? What about the people that don’t fit in? These are a few of the questions that nagged at me as I wrote Vulcan’s Forge.

In the backstory, near the end of the 21st century a rogue brown dwarf barreled through the solar system disrupting the planets and destroying the Earth. With decades of warning humanity launched thousands of automated arks loaded with human eggs and sperm, replicating technologies, and artificial intelligences. Advanced automation, the vast resources of the solar system, and artificial intelligences made producing individual arks so affordable so that even sub-cultures could construct their own in hopes of persevering their unique value. The net results were thousands of colonies spanning the vast complexity of human cultures, including somewhere a planet devoted to perpetuating Texas. Propelled by light-sails these arks dispersed through the local stellar neighborhood and a few found habitable planets. The onboard computer intelligences established colonies and with artificial wombs they raised the first generation of colonists — humans who had never have known Earth.

Jason Kessler lives in a colony dedicated to a mythologized view of mid-twentieth century urban Americana. Charged with helping establish this culture Jason, a third-generation colonist, carefully screens curated mass media to create a stolid society morally guided by Doris Day, John Wayne, and Mickey Mouse. However, he is far from ready to settle down to the life of a respectable family man. When Pamela Guest, sensual and mysterious, sweeps into his theater offering him a life free of suffocating societal expectations he leaps at the chance and lands amid corruption, crime, and a conspiracy beyond his petty concerns.

One of the central questions that emerged from writing Vulcans Forge was what does an individual owe their society and what does society owe them in return? To me this strikes at the very heart of what it means to be human. We are individuals with compelling drives to be our own persons and yet simultaneously we are also highly social animals fighting for in-group status. Jason’s desire to live as he wants, forsaking a ‘family life,’ whatever that may mean, is understandable but life isn’t just about selfish wants it’s about ‘us’ as well. One the other hand a culture that demands total obedience and compliance is despotism even if they are operating on a misguided belief that they are serving some greater good.

Vulcan’s Forge forced me out of my writing comfort zone. Noir is a deeply cynical genre; it is base drives that compel its characters. What ‘good’ characters may exist in these stories are often sidelined or ineffectual. None of my earlier novel length fiction embraced such a worldview and I seriously doubted my ability to sustain it. Following Jason as he made mistakes, as temptation overpowered his judgment, and he discovered truths about himself and his world challenged me but I firmly believe that outside of our comfort zone is where creation waits. That’s not to say I didn’t have fun writing this novel. I played games with myself burying references to favorite movies in the narrative. I wrote it ignoring trends and markets. It is a love letter to the shadowed world of film noir and a reminder that even among the stars we will remain our own worst enemy.

—-

Vulcan’s Forge: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Mysterious Galaxy|Powell’s

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

 

RIP, WIlliam Dufris

William Dufris was a voice actor known for a number of high profile roles, the most famous being “Bob the Builder” from the children’s television show of the same name. More relevantly for me, he was the narrator of five of the audiobooks in the Old Man’s War series (excepting Zoe’s Tale, which was narrated by Tavia Gilbert, who also co-narrated The End of All Things with Dufris). In the last couple of days he passed on from cancer, and I have to say I’m in a bit of shock about it. He did such a good job with the books that the voice I hear coming out of John Perry and Harry Wilson is no longer my own but his.

He will be missed by many, and also by me. RIP, sir.

Nothing But Blue Sky

So, here’s a thing I never expected to see again in my lifetime: A sky entirely devoid of contrails, and the planes that make them. This is a 360-degree “photosphere” panorama from my yard, so the entire sky is here, and not altered from the photo that came out of my camera (I did photoshop the yard, since Athena was in it and she didn’t want to be in the final photo). Minus the curving streaks from the sun that are an artifact of the camera lens, there’s nothing but blue sky.

There’s only one other time in my life I’ve seen a sky like this, and it was in similarly extraordinary circumstances. And just like that time, I am amazed to see the sky of my ancestors. I genuinely never thought it would come around again.