View From a Hotel Window, 8/15/18: San Jose

It’s a lovely day in San Jose, despite a certain amount of particulate matter in the air, cause by parts of California being deeply aflame. Here you can see the convention center in which we’ll have Worldcon 76, which starts tomorrow and runs through Monday. It’s nice to be in California again.

Aaaaand now I think I might take a nap.

A Pre-Worldcon Q&A

Tomorrow I head out to San Jose and Worldcon 76, and before I go let me address some questions about it and related things that I’ve been asked online and in real life, through the use of my fictional interlocutor.

That’s me!

Yes, it is. Let’s begin, shall we?

Okay! So, are you nervous yet?

About what?

You’re nominated for the Hugo! For Best Novel!

Okay, and?

Well, are you nervous about winning? Or about not winning?

No.

Why not?

I already have a Best Novel Hugo Award, for Redshirts, and two other Hugos besides. If The Collapsing Empire wins this year, great, I’m Hugo Award winner John Scalzi. If it doesn’t, great, I’m Hugo Award winner John Scalzi. I’m good either way.

Well, okay, but do you want to win?

Sure. I like Hugos, and I like my book, and I would be delighted for my book to be awarded and to have another rocket for the shelf. I’m not going to pretend that I would not find that super cool. But, and this is the thing, wanting to win doesn’t mean I will be disappointed if I don’t win.

That’s hard to believe.

Nah. One, as noted, I’ve already got a best novel Hugo, so I already accrue the social and commercial benefits of that. Two, all the other books nominated this year are really really good, and all of them are worthy of the Hugo. I’m not going to be disappointed that a worthy book has won the Hugo. As a side benefit, most of the nominees are friends, and all are colleagues. I like it when friends and colleagues get recognition for their work. I will stomp and cheer and clap for whoever wins, and be genuinely happy for them.

That’s… a suspiciously healthy response.

Well, you know. I work on having healthy responses. They don’t always come 100% naturally, I assure you. Also, I’m not going to lie, it helps that Empire’s done very well commercially, and has already won the Locus Award. I’m cool.

Well, do you think The Collapsing Empire will win the Hugo? 

Nope, I think N.K. Jemisin is gonna three-peat with The Stone Sky.

Why is that?

Uhhh, because the Broken Earth trilogy is an absolutely groundbreaking achievement (pun entirely intended) in modern science fiction and fantasy? Don’t you agree?

I guess I do since I’m actually you? 

Yes. Precisely. But even if you weren’t in fact me, you would still have to acknowledge that Nora’s work on this series is stunning, and deserving of every accolade that’s been sent her way. To be clear, saying this is not a diminution of any of the other nominated works or their authors, including me and my novel. As I said, every novel on the ballot is eminently Hugo-worthy and could win, depending on the calculus of the voters as a group. But individually, The Stone Sky is worthy, and as a part of a larger whole, it’s a remarkable work.

Hugos aside, what is the event of yours you’re most looking forward to at the Worldcon?

Well, on my schedule, The Retro Hugo party on Thursday, because at the end of it (around 10pm) I get to DJ an 80s dance and it is going to be absolutely on fire, my friend. Metaphorically. We will hopefully not actually set anything aflame.

You’re not the most intuitive person to DJ a dance.

What is that supposed to mean?

Look in the mirror, Mr. Chunky-Middle-Aged-Science-Fiction-Nerd-Dude-In-An-Aloha-Shirt.

Point taken. That said, I actually studied dance in high school, and met my wife because she admired my dancing skills, and we still go dancing when we can. Plus, in the late 80s and early 90s I was a professional music critic — it’s one way I paid for college — so I have this particular era of dance music wired. Also, now I’ve DJed at conventions and nerd-related events for years.

How did that get started?

One year I was a GoH at a convention, and they had an 80s dance, and it was terrible because the DJ was, like, nineteen and wasn’t alive when the 80s happened and was playing not great music, almost like at random. And I was all “I WAS HERE TO DANCE AND I CAN’T DANCE TO THIS AND YOU SHOULD HAVE HAD ME DJ THIS DAMN THING” and they were all “Cool, come back and do it next year,” and I did, just to make the point. And it was fun. And I’ve been doing it since.

I’m not sure I’m ready to handle you gyrating on the dance floor, though.

You’ll just have to deal with it, my friend. But honestly if you can’t handle that, you can see me, somewhat more static, on some panels and a reading.

Speaking of Worldcon programming in general, anything else you want to add about this year’s programming fracas?

Not really. There were problems with the initial program slate, people complained, it got fixed, and now most people seem happy with it, and honestly, that’s kind of how it’s supposed to work, yes? Problems arise with every Worldcon (and every convention, if we’re going to be honest about it) and then the issue is, do they get resolved? This time, they got resolved. Hooray! Credit accrues to the convention and all the people working on programming. They did good.

Some people still aren’t happy.

Those would be the people, who are not coming to Worldcon, who were thrilled to see it stumble, and when the convention managed to keep going without falling on its face, complained about how it kept its balance, yes?

Pretty much.

Fuck those dudes.

Also, you know there are some protests scheduled in front of the San Jose Convention Center on Saturday? 

Yes. As I understand it there will be four main groups: a likely very small contingent of self-promoting shitheels who disingenuously picked a protest subject to mask their desperate desire for attention of any sort; a likely larger but still small group of racist fascist assholes who glommed on to the first group’s plan; a probably larger group of anti-fascist protestors who will likely scare the shit out of the first two groups; and probably some police.

Think there will be a riot?

I seriously doubt it.

How are you going to deal with the protests?

Since my hotel is connected to the convention center and I’m busy with programming the entire time the protest is scheduled, my plan is to ignore it entirely, and I suspect other convention-goers will do the same. There are many entrances to the convention center, including ones that are ADA-compliant, away from where the protests are scheduled. So they will be easily avoided, and then they will be over.

No deeper thoughts on it?

Nope. I’m not obliged to take seriously a protest I know the initiators don’t take seriously. I have better things to do today, and will have better things to do on Saturday.

Are you looking forward to Worldcon?

I am! As with most years, I’m mostly going to hang out with friends, who will be there in abundance. When I’m not on programming, I will mostly be catching up with my pals. It’s going to be a blast.

And then you go home, yes?

Not at all! Starting on August 20, Mary Robinette Kowal and I start an epic road trip that takes us from San Jose to Phoenix/Scottsdale (where we have an event at the Poisoned Pen Bookstore on the 21st) and then to Santa Fe (where we have an event at the Cocteau Cinema) and then finally to Albuquerque, where we are guests of honor at Bubonicon 50. Mary is debuting her latest book, The Fated Sky, on this trip, so if you’re anywhere near where we’ll be, come see us!

Sounds like you’ll have a busy couple of weeks.

Yes! Worldcon! An 80s dance! (Probably) not winning a Hugo! A road trip! Another convention! It’s fun being me right now, I have to say.

We Interrupt Your Monday For This Very Important Picture of Smudge

I think we can all agree that this has been a vital and necessary update.

For those of you asking how well Smudge is being assimilated into the Scalzi clowder of cats, the answer is: reasonably well, but not without its problems. Smudge basically has two personality settings at the moment, “adorable” and “asshole,” which is about par of kittens generally, but even more so for him. This duality of his nature has definitely been noted by the other cats, who have varying levels of tolerance for him. Zeus is generally the most tolerant of him, and will wrestle with him for a while before he gets tired of it. Spice will also wrestle with him, for a much shorter period. Sugar is all “I will fucking cut you” when he approaches her for a tussle, and he backs away sensibly. Otherwise, he’s fearless and underfoot, which again is to expected in a kitten.

The things Smudge is the most frustrated about is that the other cats go outside and he can’t. He can’t because he’s still too small and could be marked as a snack by local raptors. The other cats go outside to do their thing and also (it has to be said) to be shut of Smudge, who can be relentless in his attention-seeking. But I don’t see giving Smudge outdoor privileges for another several months. We expect him to be a fairly big cat, so it might happen sooner than later. But for now when Smudge makes a beeline for the door, he finds them closed before he can get to them — or if he’s at the door when it’s opened he’s picked up before he can escape. It’s frustrating for him, but better alive and frustrated then a snack for a hawk.

And this has been your Smudge update for the day. Thank you for your attention.

New Books and ARCs, 8/10/18

Hey! It’s Friday! And that makes it a very time to show off another stack of new books and ARCs that have come to the Scalzi Compound this week. See anything here that piques your interest? Let us know in the comments.

My Worldcon Schedule

Next week I’ll be at Worldcon 76 in sunny San Jose, California. Want to know my schedule of events while I’m there? Sure you do! This is what it is. All events in the San Jose Convention Center unless otherwise noted:

Thursday, August 16:

8pm: Retro Hugos Party (includes 80s dance), room LL20: All attending members are invited to the Red Carpet Celebration for the 1943 Retrospective Hugo Awards. Immediately following the Red Carpet, you’ll be dancing through the decades as we award Science Fiction’s best for the year 1943. Come for the awards and then stay to rock out, 80s style, with DJ John Scalzi and dance the night away.

Yes, that’s right, I’m DJing an 80s dance, roughly beginning at 10pm! Come and bring everyone you know — it’s gonna be fun.

Saturday, August 18:

1pm: Hugo Finalist Reading, room 211A: Listen to some of this year’s Hugo Novel finalists as they share their work.

This reading includes me, Ann Leckie and Mur Laffery. I’ll likely be reading from The Consuming Fire.

3pm: Keeping Ahead of Tomorrow: Near Future Fiction, room 210F: How do you successfully write near future fiction when reality is constantly catching up? Is it meant to be predictive? A warning? Can your story avoid becoming dated? Panelists explore stories, books, and authors that have done this successfully, as well as the techniques that make it work.

Panel includes me, Sarah Pinsker, Linda Nagata, Annalee Newitz and Chen Quifan.

5pm: Author vs. Fan Ownership, room 210DH: How much do readers “own” the books they read? Writing is a private art intended for public display. Once the story is out of the writer’s hands, it can take on a life of its own–inspiring fandoms, fantheories, and fan interpretations that can vary widely from the author’s. How much do the fans own the work? Can you (and should you) divorce the writer from their fiction? What is the writer’s role in participating via social media in debunking or encouraging fan theories? Can the author be “wrong” about their own work? Our panel of authors and expert fans discuss the various and increasingly complex interactions between work, author, and reader.

Panel includes me, Foz Meadows, Greg Hullender, Renay Williams and Eric Kaplan.

Sunday, August 19:

2pm: Autographing, SJCC: Come get your books signed by me!

8pm: Hugo Ceremony, Grand Ballroom: Come see me probably lose a Hugo, but possibly win one instead!

And that’s my Worldcon 76. You might see me otherwise wandering about. If you do, feel free to say hello to me.

My High School Gets It Right

The Webb Schools of California, which is the high school I went to way back when, has updated its handbook with a section for “Transgender and Gender Non-Conforming Students” and as far as I can see it gets it right — establishing explicitly that Webb students have a right to identify their own gender and to be called by the names and pronouns they choose, and that the school will work with them to accommodate their choices with dignity and respect. The relevant section of the handbook is here (and is immediately followed by a robust harassment and discrimination policy, which I also applaud). Note I am a cisgender hetrosexual so there may be things I miss, but to the extent I know about about this stuff, this is pretty great.

It makes me proud of my school, and it also shows the distance it’s come since I graduated there more than 30 years ago. In 1987, the gay students in our school were not out, and would not have been comfortable being out; likewise being trans or otherwise non-conforming would have been difficult. 1987 was a different time, which is neither a defense or an excuse, but is a small part of an explanation. I was mostly oblivious at the time to which schoolmates of mine were gay or non-conforming, and these days it makes me sad to think that their experience with our high school, which was positive and life-changing for me, was not everything it should have been for them.

I like the fact my high school now recognizes that not every one of its students is going to have an identity that fits comfortably in a box, and is willing to work with them so that their high school educational experience is fulfilling to them. I don’t expect Webb to execute on this perfectly at all times — my high school is full of people, and people are fallible on a daily basis — but the policy has been set, and people now know what they’re expected to live up to and work toward. That’s a good place for my school to be. I’m glad it’s there, now, for its students today.

An August Hemi-Demi-Semi Hiatus

So, I don’t know if you know this, but next month will mark the 20th anniversary of the existence of Whatever. This is a fact that among other things is causing me both practical and existential reflection on what this place is, and what it means to me, and what is the best way to keep doing it moving forward, particularly in an age where “blogs” are not the center of online gravity that they used to be. To be clear, the site isn’t going anywhere — I’m not thinking of shutting it down or not writing here or such. But I am doing a serious think about what I want this place to be, for me, and for others.

Also, this August I’m traveling quite a bit — to San Jose for Worldcon 76, where The Collapsing Empire is a finalist for the Hugo, and then the weekend after that to Albuquerque, where Mary Robinette Kowal and I are Guests of Honor at Bubonicon. So for two weeks this month I am entirely out of pocket with travel and events and seeing in the real world people that I like spending time with. This isn’t a bad thing! But it does have an effect on my online presence.

Also also, in a larger sense it’s time for me to have a think about my overall time management — how to balance things I like doing and things I have to do and the things I want to do, along with the day-to-day aspects of, you know, actual life. The last couple of years have not been great for how I allot my days and energy, which is also not great because the last couple of years have been some of my busiest. It’s great to be busy as a writer! But not so much when you’re exhausting yourself because you’re not working efficiently with your time.

All of which explain why I’m declaring the rest of August to be a Hemi-Demi-Semi Hiatus month. I’m gonna take a step back for some introspection and reorganization, followed by a bunch of travel, followed by a smidgen more introspection and reorganization before we dive into September.

What does this hemi-demi-semi hiatus mean for you, the Whatever reader?

* No Big Idea pieces for the rest of August (my workflow for these pieces is a key thing I need to work on);

* Not a huge number of thinky pieces from me. I expect mostly to post updatery (Worldcon/Bubonicon schedules, book-related stuff) and pictures of sunsets and cats. I’ll post other stuff if the mood strikes me, but I’m not expecting the mood to strike me much.

* Athena will be continuing her internship and posting, but is also winding down her presence (she goes back to school this month). Enjoy her thoughts here while you can!

I’m not calling it an official hiatus mostly because I have enough going on that it doesn’t make sense to go away completely, but I also don’t want y’all to worry if you don’t see me posting a lot here between now and September. So: hemi-demi-semi hiatus. It’ll be relaxed around here in August, basically.

And now, to end on a high note: Smudge.

New Books and ARCs, 8/3/18

As we’re easing into the first weekend of the last month of summer, here’s a nice, varied stack of new books and ARCs that have come to the Scalzi Compound. What is making your eyes say “yes”? Tell us all in the comments.

The Gamification of Rhetoric

I posted a thought earlier on Twitter today and I’ll repost it here in non-tweet form:

It’s really frustrating to me that more people don’t understand that racist/alt-right people have gamified their rhetoric; they’re not interested in discussion, they’re slapping down cards from a “Debate: The Gathering” stack, and the only goal is taking heads.

They gamify their rhetoric because essentially this shit is a low-stake game for them, whereas for other people it’s their actual lives. That’s an advantage they have. If they lose, they shuffle their cards and go on to the next thing. If others lose, their life takes a hit.

And because their rhetorical strategy is essentially card-based, actual knowledge of issues is unimportant and probably a hinderance. They don’t want or need to understand the issues that affect others, they just need you to play their game so they can win.

I don’t have time anymore to diddle about with children who think other people’s lives are some sort of turn-based game, especially when all they want is to hurt other people. And it bothers me more people, especially those with power, don’t understand this shit.

I’m not going to tell people not to engage with these chuckleheads. But don’t engage with them on their terms. Engage with them on your own. One, they hate that, and two, it exposes what they’re doing as a pointless, hateful exercise, and them as awful people.

In sum: Understand what these folks are doing. Refuse to play along. And if you choose, point out to others the hollowness of their game. Because their “game” is to hurt other people, and then go on to the next target. Their game is other people’s lives.

The Big Idea: Michael Mammay

Trust in your friend, colleagues and superiors is a good thing… mostly. In Planetside, author Michael Mammay considers the price of loyalty and the cost of trust, and how both can end up being different than one might expect.

MICHAEL MAMMAY:

The big idea that became Planetside started with a conversation I had with another officer while deployed to Afghanistan. It was early in 2014 and we’d been there six or eight months on that particular tour, and for whatever reason we were sitting in his office one morning and talking about people we’d worked for before, and our list of generals who we’d work for again if they called, no questions asked, no matter the job.

I feel like I need to explain that.

As a relatively senior officer (I had 24 years experience at the time) I’d had the chance to work for some amazing people. Forget the television stereotypes of the uptight or inflexible leader. I’m talking about generals who are so smart, so charismatic, and so driven that you’d literally do anything for them. Leaders who know people, and how they tick. They give an order, and you want to follow. They get the most out of everybody around them, and get everybody moving toward the same goal.

That might sound like a problem, that kind of personal loyalty, but it’s not. The reason that these particular leaders are so good is that you trust them. If they were the type of person who would abuse that trust, then they wouldn’t be on the list in the first place. You trust that they’ll put you in situations where you’re going to be successful, because they know you, your strengths, and your limitations. You trust that they would never ask you to do something that went outside the morals or standards of the organization.

But what if they did?

That was the idea that came to me later that day. It’s not based on any real situation where I saw it happen, but rather the idea that it could happen. What if somebody that you trusted, that you’d do anything for, asked you to do something messed up?

That’s the big idea at the center of Planetside. In the first chapter, Colonel Carl Butler answers a summons from General Serata, one of the generals on his list of people he’d follow anywhere. They’re more than leader/subordinate. They’re friends. So even though he doesn’t understand the details of the mission at the time, when Serata tells him that he’s the right guy to handle it, Butler trusts that. It’s not a job he wants, but he signs on because it’s Serata asking. And he is asking. He could have simply ordered it, but he’s got too much respect for Butler to do that. Butler, while subordinate, is a senior officer who has earned that kind of deference. At the same time, Serata knows him well enough to know that he’ll say yes.

Of course there’s more to the mission than initially meets the eye. I mean, it wouldn’t be much of a book if there wasn’t. As he gets deeper into his investigation and the difficulties present themselves, Butler starts to understand more clearly why Serata chose him for the job. To get to the bottom of things, he needs to be able to maneuver in both the political landscape of the base and in the war-ravaged landscape of the planet itself. He has both skill sets, which is rare. Most people have one or the other. Both locations hold secrets. It’s debatable which is more dangerous.

—-

Planetside: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Listen to an audio excerpt. Visit the author’s site. Follow him on Twitter.

Sunset 8/1/18

A good one to start August with, I’d say.

 

The Big Idea: Claire O’Dell

A dash of fan fiction, a smidge of authorial inspiration and a dollop of a world-famous investigator adds up to a brand-new concoction in Claire O’Dell’s novel A Study in Honor. How did this all come about? As O’Dell will tell you, it was elementary.

CLAIRE O’DELL:

A Study in Honor is all Jim Hines’s fault. (Except for the parts that are all my fault.)

Back in 2014, Jim wrote a blog post about his experience writing fanfic. I’d never felt the tug of fanfic before, but after reading about how satisfying and involving it was for him, I decided to take a stab at writing some myself. After all, fiction is a conversation with itself, and what else is fanfic but a very intimate conversation?

Right away, I knew I’d want to write a Watson and Holmes story, but with a few changes. For one thing, I wanted to make them both black women. Why? Several reasons. Most (though not all) of the pastiches I’ve come across show Watson and Holmes as two straight men, or one man and a woman. And in those same stories, Holmes is always a white man.

So, Dr. John Watson became Dr. Janet Watson; Sherlock Holmes became special agent Sara Holmes. Both black. Both queer. One wealthy, and one who needed all her stubbornness to achieve a medical degree.

But the top reason is because of the other changes I made in the story. It’s the mid-twenty-first century when Dr. Janet Watson steps off the train in Union Station in Washington, DC. She’s newly discharged from the war–not the war in Afghanistan, though that would be plausible, but the New Civil War–a New Civil War that came about because the alt-right rebelled against equal rights for people of color, for gays, for women. The right viewpoint for such a war and its consequences logically belongs to a black queer woman.

I also wanted to do a deep dive in Janet Watson’s character, to make her more than an accessory to Holmes. This is a woman who has lost nearly everything in the war. Her parents died in a terrorist bombing. Her beloved abandons her. A sniper’s bullet shattered her arm when the enemy overran her medical unit, and the replacement prosthetic is unreliable.

A surgeon needs two reliable hands, she thinks. Not one of flesh and one of metal and false memories.

Her plan is to argue with the VA for a more modern device, so she can resume her career as a surgeon. She expects to stay in DC only a few days, a week at the most.

Her plans get upended the next day. The war has wreaked havoc with the economy on both sides, the VA tells her, and prosthetic devices such as Janet needs are scarce. She will have to wait her turn. Jobs aren’t easy to come by, however, and housing costs more than she can afford. When a friend tells her about someone who needs a partner to share the rent, Janet reluctantly agrees to meet the person.

That person turns out to be special agent Sara Holmes, a quirky, brilliant woman somewhat given to ignoring boundaries. The apartment in question is #2B at 2809Q Street, in an upscale neighborhood. Janet has reservations, but oh, the apartment would make a lovely refuge.

All of that poured out of me as fast as I could type. By the time I had three chapters written, I knew Janet would not let go of my imagination until I finished her story. She is stubborn and smart and defiant. The war might have left her wounded in body and mind, but she’s not going to give up. As she writes in her journal:

I will have my victory. I will have my life back. I swear it.

—-

A Study In Honor: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

Whoops It’s Past 6pm and I Haven’t Posted Today So Here’s a Video of a Song I Like

The video itself is enigmatic (who are all these young people doing slightly odd things while looking miserable? Would they be less miserable if they, like, stopped posing and went to get snacks?), but the song is good and the band, The Naked and Famous, is one of my favorites to have come out in the last decade. Enjoy, and hope you’ve had a good Monday.

The Locus Award Arrives + Reminder About Hugo Award Voting

I was thrilled when The Collapsing Empire was announced as the winner of the Locus Award for Best Science Fiction Novel, but was not present for the ceremony because one of my best friends on the planet was getting married, and, well, priorities. Fortunately the good people at Locus were kind enough to ship it to me. I arrived yesterday, and what a pretty award it is, too. The art on the award comes from Hugo and Oscar-winner Shaun Tan, so that’s another reason to geek out about it too. And Smudge seems to like it, as you can see here. And clearly that is the most coveted endorsement. Thank you to everyone who voted for the book — I’m delighted to have this award at home.

On the subject of awards, we are down to the final days to vote for the Hugo Awards, for which The Collapsing Empire is a finalist for Best Novel, along with some other very excellent works from NK Jemisin, Kim Stanley Robinson, Mur Lafferty, Yoon Ha Lee and Ann Leckie (not to mentionall the other excellent people and works in other categories). The final day to vote is this Tuesday, July 31st, and if you are a member of Worldcon 76, this year’s Worldcon, I definitely encourage you to cast your ballot for the work you admire. The link to the online ballot is here.

The End (Sort Of) Of the Landline

It sometimes amazed people that we here at the Scalzi Compound still have a landline. We do, basically because I receive (terrible, horrible, low-speed) internet service through my phone company, and it’s basically cheaper to bundle it with a landline than to get it by itself. And also, because if the power goes down, the cell phone towers go down too, but the direct phone lines (usually) stay up. Living in rural America, that makes some bit of sense.

With that said, in the last few years it’s become abundantly clear that the only people calling us on our landline were a) robocallers/telemarketers, b) dentists/medical offices reminding us of appointments, and c) my mother in law. And of those, the robocallers/telemarketers were by far the highest volume, even with the various laws, etc against them. Even though I’ve gotten to the point where I don’t answer the phone if I don’t recognize the phone number, the phone still rings and I still check. The rate of return on even that bit of action is super low.

So I’m not doing that anymore. As of today, everything gets forwarded to my Google Voice number (which I got, like, ten years ago or something). The legitimate callers can leave a message; the rest of them I don’t have to deal with, not even a ring (my mother-in-law will now just call Krissy directly on her cell phone). Google Voice emails me a transcription when someone leaves a message, so I don’t even have to check messages like a common schmoe. Simple, easy, and the end of the landline being a pain in the ass.

And! Since we’re not actually getting rid of the landline, we can still use it to make outgoing calls if we like (which I do when I’m doing phone interviews because the audio is generally clearer). So we get the few remaining benefits of a landline without having to deal with the negatives. Which is kind of the best case scenario.

(And as for the robocallers on my cell line — well, Google actually does a reasonable job letting me know who is likely to be a spam caller there, and soon will give me the option of not having suspected spam calls show up at all, so there’s that. Beyond that, at this point cell phones give one so much more customization regarding who gets to access you that once again keeping a landline in most cases is an exercise in futility.)

So if you were hoping ever to call me on my landline, sorry. That moment has now passed. I could call you, though. There’s still a chance!

Today’s Somewhat Unfortunate Event Involving a Kitten

Smudge is a curious fellow, and also, when I use the bathroom, if there is no other human in the house, I don’t always close the door entirely. The confluence of these two facts today is why, while standing at the toilet today, doing my business, Smudge barged in and, needing to see what was going on, leapt up on the toilet seat faster than I could direct certain things out of the way.

All which is to say that “pee on a kitten” is now something I can check off my Bucket List. What a relief, if you’ll excuse the pun, that is.

(Also, Smudge is fine, and has been cleaned up, which he disliked more than the actual being peed upon.)

Note to self: Close the door completely from now on.

The Big Idea: Theodora Goss

For European Travel for the Monstrous Gentlewoman, author Theodora Goss considers a famous Victorian book, character and author for an extended thought on who and what can truly be called a monster. Grab your stakes and let’s hammer this one home, shall we?

THEODORA GOSS:

In The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter, I brought together a collection of female monsters: Mary Jekyll, Diana Hyde, Beatrice Rappaccini, Catherine Moreau, and Justine Frankenstein. They found each other, told each other their stories, and ultimately moved in together, into Mary’s residence at 11 Park Terrace, also known as the Athena Club. There, they live and get along as you would expect five women to: often bickering, sometimes fighting, but supporting each other when it counts.

It’s a good life in a comfortable home, decorated by Beatrice in the latest aesthetic fashion, to the extent a group of women who have to work for their living can afford it, presided over by the redoubtable Mrs. Poole. Right across Regent’s Park are Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson. I could have left them there, to live happily in late nineteenth-century London: Justine could have continued her painting career, Catherine could have continued to write pot-boilers about spider gods and dangerous femmes fatales, Mary could have gone to work each morning for Mr. Holmes, filing his cases and helping solve the occasional mystery. Diana could have continued to be a pain in the arse. But as a writer, I did not want to leave my characters in such peaceful circumstances! I had to make life harder for them . . .

And so, in European Travel for the Monstrous Gentlewoman, I send them off to the Austro-Hungarian Empire to rescue Lucinda Van Helsing.

To be perfectly honest, there wasn’t a single big idea behind this second adventure of the Athena Club—just a collection of smaller ideas that added up to a big, long book. As you may know if you read my Big Idea post for the first book, it started with my doctoral dissertation on late nineteenth-century gothic fiction. While writing that dissertation, I realized that around the turn of the century, mad scientists kept creating female monsters . . . and destroying them. I thought that was not fair, not fair at all. Those female monsters deserved to live and tell their own stories, so I brought them to life in my book. But there was one late nineteenth-century novel that I could not include in my dissertation because it was so long, so complicated, that it would have taken another hundred pages (in addition to the four hundred I had already written) to discuss. That novel was Dracula.

Bram Stoker’s most famous novel is so difficult to write about because it takes all the themes of late nineteenth-century gothic fiction and incorporates them into one very long book. It’s about immigration, the British Empire, the power and importance of wealth, the New Woman and reversed gender roles, evolution and degeneration, the English gentleman, the criminal anthropology of Cesare Lombroso, the emerging field of psychoanalysis . . . even, obliquely, the Irish question. It’s a strange, ambiguous novel. The closer you look at it, the more its multiple narrations collapse, and the more you begin to question who is the monster.

My choice is one of its most complex characters, Abraham Van Helsing, the Dutch vampire-hunter whose first name is Stoker’s own, and whose last name is an anagram for English. He’s the hero of the story, right? After all, he saves civilization and Victorian womanhood by telling his group of male followers to stake and decapitate Lucy Westenra when she has turned into a vampire. That staking scene, which takes place on the night Lucy was supposed to marry her financé Arthur Holmwood, is described in all the lurid detail of a Hammer film, with orgiastic cries and splashing blood.

The problem with a straightforward reading of Dracula is that Stoker was a more complicated writer than he’s given credit for. You can see that in his short stories and less well-known novels, such as The Jewel of Seven Stars and Lair of the White Worm. He may not have been a Henry James stylistically, but he shared James’s tendency to turn stories inside out, so that you’re not entirely sure what you’ve read. The closer my students look at the final scene of Dracula, in which the vampire’s throat is sheared through with a kukri knife while the sun sets over his Transylvanian castle, the less sure they are that he’s been destroyed in the proper, prescribed vampire fashion. Although the Count disintegrates into dust, he’s done that before, on several occasions. And can we really trust the eyewitness account of Mina Murray, who is in Dracula’s power?

Here’s what I think: Van Helsing is a villain, the worst of them all. Dracula and Mina are in league together from the moment he first sucks her blood. And the book, compiled by Mina herself, is fundamentally untrustworthy.

So one of the ideas behind the second book was that I needed to write about the characters and events of Dracula. You simply can’t write about monsters at the end of the nineteenth century without discussing Mina, Van Helsing, his vampire-hunting groupies, and the Count himself. And where would they be, after the events of Dracula? Why, in Budapest of course!

The second idea was to take my characters from the British Empire, which was about to fall apart, to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, also about to fall apart. If I was going to write pulp metafiction about the late nineteenth-century, I had to pull out all the stops, and two of those stops are Vienna and Budapest. I particularly wanted to write about Budapest, the city where I was born, which seemed to be the logical place for the headquarters of a secret society of alchemists. After all, Budapest has been associated with both magic and science for centuries—and it is, itself, a beautiful, magical city.

The third idea was that once I had introduced these five young women to one another, they should go have adventures together. It was so much fun writing about Mary, Diana, Beatrice, Catherine, and Justine, not when they had just met, but when they had known each other for a while and were forced to work together under circumstance that were sometimes exciting, sometimes difficult, and sometimes just plain tedious, as travel can be. I had a lot of fun writing this book, going to Vienna and Budapest to imagine what those cities would have been like in the late nineteenth century.

But in the end, it was all about the central characters. Have they become friends? What do they think about each other and the Athena Club? Has anyone strangled Diana yet? Out of all these ideas came a novel that I hope will be a fun read for anyone who enjoyed The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter and its cast of monstrous gentlewomen.

—-

European Travel for the Monstrous Gentlewoman: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

A Little More On Recent Worldcon Stuff

I just did a tweetstorm about the recent contretemps involving Worldcon. As many of you know, there was a dustup about programming (among other issues) for which the head of the Worldcon apologized and took action on, including bringing in a team headed up by Mary Robinette Kowal to help fix things. Here’s what I wrote about that, formatted here in essay form.

Also, while I’m on the subject of the Hugo and Worldcon, I see some various turdlings out there are gleeful about the recent dustup re: the Worldcon program. “The SJWs are eating themselves!” is the basic line of the turdlings. In fact, something entirely different happened.

Which was: When the problems cropped up (and they did) and people started to complain (and they did), the Worldcon, within a day, acknowledged that various mistakes had happened and actively moved to correct those mistakes. Not perfectly or instantly, but it still happened.

Which is what you want to happen! In an ideal world, mistakes don’t get made, but we don’t live in an ideal world and none of us is our ideal self. The next best thing is, when mistakes are pointed out, you move to fix them and to learn from them.

The turdlings who are gleeful at the Worldcon’s temporary woes don’t care about anything other than an institution they dislike and tried (or are still trying) to sabotage having a stumble. That’s because they’re basically awful, whiny menchildren. No surprise there.

Many folks who like or feel invested in Worldcon weren’t pleased about the stumble, and moved prior to the Worldcon itself to help address the problem by offering up their programming slots to folks who didn’t have them. This exemplifies the best aspects of the SF/F community.

What is not laudable about people saying “it’s important that we have more and different voices in the mix, and I’m ready to share my time and space to make it happen”? Is this not what you would want to see?

“It’s just virtue signaling!” One, it’s okay to signal that you support bringing new people and perspectives into the genre’s mainstream. Two, giving up your space to make space for others isn’t just signaling, it’s action. Yay, virtue actioning!

Equally as important, the folks running this year’s Worldcon, the premier lit-focused convention in the genre, listened and followed up with action of their own, and took help offered to change for the better. Mistakes were made, but action to improve is worth noting.

This action is not caving or retreating or [insert other negative spin here]. It’s *learning*. There’s more work to be done, and not everything will be done perfectly, but the situation is already better than what it was a few days ago. Worldcon 76 wants to be better. Good.

We all stumble, and the test is what we do after. We’re seeing some people point and laugh, because that’s who they are. We’re seeing others use their position to help, because that’s who they are. And we’re seeing an organization trying to improve, because that’s what IT is.

So, yeah. A lot of people in science fiction and fantasy have revealed themselves in the last few days. It’s been instructive. For myself, I can say I’m supporting Worldcon 76 trying to be better, and supporting those working to make it happen.

The Big Idea: Craig DiLouie

One of the great questions in literature, genre or otherwise, is: What makes a person a monster? In One of Us, author Craig DiLouie takes a crack at the question… and the answer.

CRAIG DiLOUIE:

My novel One of Us began as a misunderstood monster novel and ended up a much more ambitious examination of prejudice.

What if monsters lived among us, but were only monstrous in appearance? If they had extraordinary capabilities, would they be admired or feared? If they were abused enough and responded with violence, would that violence be justified?

In One of Us, a disease in the 1970s produced a generation of monstrous children that years later are living as teenagers in orphanages throughout the rural South. Rejected and scorned, they are coming of age without rights or opportunity, while those exhibiting extraordinary powers are exploited by the government.

When they’re pushed too far, they finally react, with horrifying consequences.

The result is a visceral dark fantasy about human monsters and monstrous humans told as a Southern Gothic. Violent, dark, and excessive, this type of lit features prejudice, the grotesque, and a society in decay, making it ripe for this novel.

What I wanted to do with the story was pull the reader into a world where a fantastical, sympathetic group is victimized by extreme prejudice, and then let the reader process it with their gut, not their heads.

The idea behind using monsters was to create an extreme example of a group the reader might find threatening but otherwise have no preconceived notions about, allowing greater empathy as we get to know them as individuals.

Unlike typical monster stories in which the monster is innately evil, in One of Us the monsters turn out to be just like you and me. The story therefore becomes an examination of what makes a monster a monster, and what it means to be human.

One of Us had many inspirations, among them To Kill a Mockingbird, with its theme of prejudice making good people do bad things; The Island of Dr. Moreau, with its questions about what it means to be human or a beast; and Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, with its violent, cathartic uprising against slavery. One of the things that makes these works great is a striking question lies at the heart of their big idea.

While the novel has several strong themes that include prejudice, the idea here wasn’t to preach or even put theme in front of the story. There are few clear-cut “good guys” and villains. Like the stories that inspired it, it doesn’t claim to have the answers. These will ultimately come from the reader.

In my view, a novel’s chief purpose is to entertain. But by the end of One of Us, I hope readers will ask: Where does prejudice come from? How does it affect my life? If I feel prejudice, is it based on reality or self-reinforcing myths? Is violence ever justified—either by a group oppressing another, or by that group pushing back? And then apply what they think and feel, with fresh eyes, to their lives and today’s America.

—-

One Of Us: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: Kali Wallace

City of Islands is author Kali Wallace’s first children’s book, and in writing it, she was thinking about where the balances were in telling a story for children, and still telling a story with some complexity. For her Big Idea, she’s here to talk about finding that balance, especially in today’s times.

KALI WALLACE:

Adults ruin everything.

It’s an abiding theme of children’s stories: to have an adventure, you’ve got to ditch the parents and guardians. It might be a trope, but it’s one I’ve always rather liked. It’s always seemed to me the closest a story can come to capturing the moments a uninhibited, unsupervised make-believe of my 1980s go-play-in-the-ditch-behind-the-house childhood.

Mara, the main character of City of Islands, is a plucky orphan in a children’s fantasy novel. She lives in an archipelago city where magic is sung in music, and she dreams of learning magic herself. But being an orphan doesn’t give her freedom. It means she has to take care of herself, in a world that does not spare a whole lot of compassion for struggling children.

You see, too much supervision is not the only way adults can ruin a child’s story. There is also literally everything else adults do.

This is the first children’s book I’ve written, and I wasn’t quite sure how to balance the lightness and the dark. My agent had to tell me that perhaps opening a children’s novel with a giant pile of corpses did not quite strike the right tone. On a bigger scale, I wasn’t quite sure what kind of villain I needed. I didn’t want an evil overlord. All I wanted was somebody who could get away with his schemes because the other adults were too obsessed with their own status to see a monster among them. But I worried about how monstrous was too monstrous. I worried that a power-hungry villain who tore families apart and locked children in cages might be a little bit over the top. A little too mustache-twirling. A little unbelievable.

I know. I know.

When fantasy writers talk about world-building, we talk about histories, political systems, belief systems, cultural mores, economies, geography. As I was writing, I made many world-building decisions to ensure the story would be welcoming to all kinds of children. The City of Islands is a multicultural port city filled with people from all over the world. There are a variety of skin colors, backgrounds, languages, and economic statuses among the primary characters; same-sex marriage is accepted and normal. There are no kings or gods, but there are imbalances of wealth and power. I wanted the world to feel wondrous and magical and strange, but I also wanted young readers to be able to imagine themselves going along for Mara’s adventures.

But there’s another aspect of this invented society that kept creeping into the story. I didn’t even realize I was doing it until the revision process, because I wasn’t used to thinking about it as a specific aspect of world-building.

I’m talking about the way a society treats its children.

The concept of childhood is neither universal nor static; it’s not even universal or static in the same place and time or in the same person. (Witness: people who demand their children be protected from harm at all costs while at the same time arguing that other children deserve the harm inflicted upon them.) The treatment of children in a society, contradictions and all, is always revelatory and rarely flattering. Through the process of writing and revising, it evolved into one of the central ideas around which I wove my story.

Twelve-year-old Mara must work to survive. She knows that parents and friends can vanish in the blink of an eye. She knows that adults lie, scheme, and betray. She wants to learn but education is largely out of reach for children like her. Experience has taught her there is little room for dreams in a world that considers children to be a cheap, easily replaceable labor force. She dreams anyway.

When I started City of Islands, I thought I was writing the kind of children’s story that can’t be told if there are responsible adults around to ruin the fun. A little dark, yes, and a little rough on its characters, but still a magical, exciting adventure. But it turns out I was actually writing the kind of children’s story that illuminates the ways in which adults fail children. That’s what I had been writing all along. It just took me a while to figure it out.

This is a surreal time to be launching a children’s book. Our world is dark and frightening, and children know that as well as anyone–or better, because they are too often treated as props in the grandstanding of cowardly, dishonest, venal adults. I wrote City of Islands to be a fun, exciting, and enjoyable story for kids, but I also want the darkness in the story to resonate with the children reading it in this very dark world in which we live. It seems like such a small hope, when the problems facing the world’s children are so huge, but I do hope they find a bit of courage and comfort in Mara’s story.

—-

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

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