I had the Midjourney AI art generator give me a few pictures of a cat in a library, in the style of Gustav Klimt. This was my favorite, both for the absolutely unimpressed expression but also because in the cat’s “fur” you can see hints of books and bookshelves, which is actually quite clever for an artist without actual sentience. It was worth sharing on this slow summer weekend, so here it is. Enjoy the rest of your weekend. Maybe read a book.
Netflix announced it on its Twitter feed (and presumably elsewhere):
Of course I’m thrilled about that and for the whole team at Blur, the production company who makes LD+R for Netflix.
Before anyone asks, at this particular point there’s very little I know and even less that I could tell you about the status of things for season four; Blur and Netflix like keeping their cards close to their chest when it comes to news. I’m just happy that something I’ve been involved with, and have admired well outside my own involvement, gets to keep going. Any show getting a fourth season in the streaming era is an increasingly rare event. I’m glad LD+R has pulled it off, and I’m looking forward to seeing where the series goes next.
And, well, that’s pretty damn cool. Here’s the whole ballot of finalists, and at the bottom of that I’ll put in a link so you can go vote for whomever you like.
1. Best Science Fiction Novel Leviathan Falls by James S.A. Corey The Kaiju Preservation Society by John Scalzi Goliath: A Novel by Tochi Onyebuchi You Sexy Thing by Cat Rambo Shards of Earth by Adrian Tchaikovsky
2. Best Fantasy Novel (Including Paranormal) Age of Ash by Daniel Abraham Moon Witch, Spider King by Marlon James Light from Uncommon Stars by Ryka Aoki Nettle & Bone by T. Kingfisher Book of Night by Holly Black Jade Legacy by Fonda Lee
3. Best Young Adult / Middle Grade Novel Gallant by V.E. Schwab Akata Woman by Nnedi Okorafor A Dark and Starless Forest by Sarah Hollowell A Snake Falls to Earth by Darcie Little Badger Redemptor by Jordan Ifueko Iron Widow by Xiran Jay Zhao
4. Best Military Science Fiction or Fantasy Novel The Shattered Skies by John Birmingham A Call to Insurrection by David Weber, Timothy Zahn, Thomas Pope Citadel by Marko Kloos Backyard Starship by J.N. Chaney, Terry Maggert Against All Odds by Jeffery H. Haskell Resolute by Jack Campbell
5. Best Alternate History Novel She Who Became the Sun by Shelley Parker-Chan Invisible Sun by Charles Stross The Silver Bullets of Annie Oakley by Mercedes Lackey When Women Were Dragons by Kelly Barnhill The King’s Daughter by Vonda N. McIntyre 1637: Dr. Gribbleflotz and the Soul of Stoner by Kerryn Offord, Rick Boatright
6. Best Media Tie-In Novel Star Wars: The Fallen Star by Claudia Gray Star Wars: Thrawn Ascendancy: Lesser Evil by Timothy Zahn Star Trek: Coda: Oblivion’s Gate by David Mack Star Trek: Picard: Rogue Elements by John Jackson Miller Halo: Divine Wind by Troy Denning
7. Best Horror Novel The Final Girl Support Group by Grady Hendrix The Book of Accidents by Chuck Wendig The Death of Jane Lawrence by Caitlin Starling My Heart Is a Chainsaw by Stephen Graham Jones Hide by Kiersten White Revelatory by Daryl Gregory
8. Best Comic Book Devil’s Reign by Chip Zdarsky, Marco Checchetto King Conan by Jason Aaron, Mahmud Asrar Immortal X-Men by Kieron Gillen, Mark Brooks Step by Bloody Step by Simon Spurrier, Matías Bergara Twig by Skottie Young, Kyle Strahm Nightwing by Tom Taylor, Bruno Redondo
9. Best Graphic Novel Geiger by Geoff Johns, Gary Frank Bitter Root Volume 3 by David F. Walker, Chuck Brown, Sanford Greene, Sofie Dodgson Dune: House Atreides Volume 2 by Brian Herbert, Kevin J. Anderson, Dev Pramanik Wonder Woman Historia: The Amazons by Kelly Sue DeConnick, Phil Jimenez Monstress, Volume 6: The Vow by Marjorie Liu, Sana Takeda Saga by Brian K. Vaughan, Fiona Staples
10. Best Science Fiction or Fantasy TV Series Stranger Things, Netflix The Expanse, Amazon Star Trek: Strange New Worlds, Paramount+ Wheel of Time, Amazon For All Mankind, Apple TV+ Halo, Paramount+ The Boys, Amazon
11. Best Science Fiction or Fantasy Movie Dune by Denis Villeneuve Spider-Man: No Way Home by Jon Watts Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness by Sam Raimi Ghostbusters: Afterlife by Jason Reitman The Adam Project by Shawn Levy Free Guy by Shawn Levy
12. Best Science Fiction or Fantasy PC / Console Game Elden Ring, Bandai Namco Entertainment Metroid Dread, Nintendo Destiny 2: The Witch Queen, Bungie Age of Empires IV, Xbox Game Studios Warhammer 40,000: Chaos Gate – Daemonhunters, Frontier Foundry Lost Ark, Amazon Games
13. Best Science Fiction or Fantasy Mobile Game Diablo Immortal, Blizzard Pokémon UNITE, The Pokémon Company Baba Is You, Hempuli Townscaper, Oskar Stålberg Alien: Isolation, Sega World of Demons, PlatinumGames
14. Best Science Fiction or Fantasy Board Game Ark Nova, Capstone Games Cascadia, Alderac Entertainment Group Return to Dark Tower, Restoration Games 7 Wonders Architects, Asmodee Alien: Fate of the Nostromo, Ravensburger Star Wars Outer Rim: Unfinished Business, Fantasy Flight Games
15. Best Science Fiction or Fantasy Miniatures / Collectible Card / Role-Playing Game The One Ring, Second Edition, Free League Publishing Thirsty Sword Lesbians, Evil Hat Productions Root: The RPG, Magpie Games Magic: The Gathering, Dungeons & Dragons: Adventures in the Forgotten Realms, Wizards of the Coast The Lord of the Rings: The Card Game – Revised Core Set, Fantasy Flight Games Magic: The Gathering, Innistrad: Crimson Vow, Wizards of the Coast
Here’s the link to the Dragon Awards site, which itself features a link to how to register and vote in the awards. If you’d like to vote for Kaiju, nifty! If you’d prefer to vote for something else in my category, that’s cool too, they’re all very fine work and I’d be fine with any one of those works getting the nod. And if you nominated Kaiju for the Dragon Awards, thank you! I’m really pleased.
First, this one is called “Deep in your heart there is a sunlight so hot that it makes you love people. That’s why you love people,” and its inspiration is a little poem my daughter wrote on her sixth birthday. I gave the whole poem to the AI art generator Midjourney as a prompt, and this is one of the things it came up with. It’s certainly evocative.
Since Midjourney, Dall-E and other AI art generators have come online, there’s been a bit of a freakout from actual artists/illustrators about what this means for their livelihoods. While my own prognostication skills are dubious at best, and I would never tell anyone not to be concerned about the creative sector they work in when new technology surfaces, in my experience of using several of these AI art generators over the last few weeks, I’m not sure I see them replacing human illustrators to any great extent any time soon. This is for several reasons:
1. Specificity and intentionality: One can prompt an AI art generator in the direction one wants them to go, but ultimately you get what you get with them, unless you really want to devote a lot of time to art directing the thing. It’s still easier to communicate what you want to an actual human and get an exact result, than to go through 25 iterations of an idea and hope the AI finally gets what you want, without messing up anything else.
2. Detail: Most of the images I get out of AI art generators are of a level that I would call “cool rough draft,” which is to say, there’s enough there that you see where it’s going, but the detail level isn’t there, and what detail is there is wonky. This is most notable with human facial features, and shapes of distinct animals and other natural objects. If I were wanting to make the image above into an actual piece of art, I’d hand it over to an artist to get it to a level I would considered finished. I think at this point AI art generation is a handy way to sketch ideas and concepts, and for someone like me would make it easier to let an actual artist know some of what I was thinking. But the handoff to an actual artist would still need to take place.
3. Sameness: Having played with several AI generators now, I can say it seems each has what I would call a “house style.” Midjourney, which is the one I’ve played with the most, has a distinctly “arty” and “moody” style that I think I would call Emo DeviantArt. I like it! But I also know, barring very specific instruction, what I’m going to get out of Midjourney when I give it a prompt. Which means even two weeks in I’m getting the feeling I know its default bag of tricks. Humans also have their own styles, to be sure, but also more flexibility. Human work feels, how to put it, less programmatic.
AI will get better at generating art — the amount to which it is better now, at effectively its second generation, from its first generation, is a really actually impressive — but I suspect it’s going to keep bumping up on these problems, because “AI” isn’t actually intelligent in way a human is, which will continue to give humans an advantage on generating art other humans actually want.
What I suspect is going to happen is that human artists will start incorporating AI art generation into their tool box, and that very rapidly; if AI can, for example, quickly generate a background cloudscape that is consistent with that artist’s style and intent, which that artist can then tweak to suit their needs, why wouldn’t they do that? Saves time and the final work is still under the direction of a human brain. Likewise, in the next generation of artists will be some who can’t draw to save their lives but who are maestros of prompting art generators to give them things that no one else can get out of those generators.
And for people like me, who have very little visual art talent, these AI art generators will let us play a bit and perhaps will spur creativity in other directions. I’ve already created some images that I want to write stories for, or which have at least have ideas popping into my head. Will anything come of those? Maybe, maybe not, but it’s nice to feel the creative ferment they help create.
So, no, I don’t suspect AI art generation is the end of human artistry. It’s another tool we can use, and I think it will be interesting to see what happens with it as we go along.
I’ve now watched all ten episodes of the first season of The Sandman on Netflix, and while I absolutely cannot be unbiased in my opinions about the series in any way, because a) Neil Gaiman is a friend of mine, b) Netflix is the service where I have been extensively involved in a series (Love Death + Robots), and have a movie currently in development (Old Man’s War), I do have some observations that I don’t think are out of line to note to you all. Please be aware that this post assumes you have some experience with/knowledge of The Sandman series, in both the comic book and the television iterations, and also, that you do not mind spoilers. If you don’t have the former, this piece may not make much sense, and if you do mind the latter, you should probably read no farther than this.
So noted, my thoughts, in no particular order.
1. Up front: I enjoyed the series quite a bit, and I strongly suspect I would have even if I did not know Neil personally. But as I do know Neil, I am also pleased that the version of The Sandman which has now been committed to television is one that he was both happy with and actively involved in. It’s an open not-so-secret that Sandman’s journey to screen has been filled with twists and turns and takes on the character and property that had almost nothing to do with the things Neil wrote into the series. The screen version of The Sandman deviates from the comics, sometimes significantly, but the emotional gestalt of the series is the same, and the variations have less to do with someone else new trying to “improve” the text by adding to/deviating from Neil’s work, and rather more to do the practical considerations of condensing down two full graphic novels worth of story (“Preludes and Nocturnes” and “The Doll’s House”) into one ten-episode series, and also, updating a three-decade-old property into 2022.
It mostly worked well for me, and the small quibbles I may have had with the adaptation were not nearly enough to affect my enjoyment. This is screen adaptation done well, with the involvement of a creator who has done enough film/TV work prior to this to be involved not just usefully but essentially.
2. The one thing I was particularly happy to see in the Netflix version of the story was the near-complete ejection of the DC Comics hooks in the “Preludes and Nocturnes” part of the series. I understand why they were there in the comics; The Sandman was a legacy character, and when the series started out, there had to be some obeisance to the DC machinery. Thus, the appearances by Martian Manhunter and other “mainstream” DC characters. But here in 2022, Neil’s Sandman is the Sandman. The story he tells in this arc does not suffer one whit from the removal of the traditional DC elements, and given the chaotic state of the DC cinematic and TV universe at the moment, there’s no benefit whatsoever trying to tie this series into any of that. If I had ever been given The Sandman to adapt (which to be clear was never offered, nor would I have taken it when Neil was right there all that time), punting the DC elements would have been job number one for me. So I was personally pleased to see my instinct here was a good one.
3. The best thing about the series is the cast, which is, down the last and least character, incredibly well-selected. Again, I have to think that this was substantially due to Neil being actively involved, although I have no detailed inside knowledge about this (you may assume for the purposes of this piece that I did not speak to Neil in any great detail about the production side of things, and have no special knowledge I’m trying to sneak in here).
The casting is impressive enough that I can say that Tom Sturridge as Dream is possibly the weakest bit of casting here, and he’s friggin’ perfect in his role — beautiful and haughty and a real hot mess who has the emotional intelligence of a sulky teen, but is who also, you know, trying. When I say Sturridge is the weakest bit of casting, it’s less about Sturridge — again, friggin’ perfect — than it is about the character of Dream himself, who is a cultural icon (so any actual human in the role would be deeply judged) and who in the context of the story is strongly defined by his relationships with and reactions to other characters. The role of Dream suffers, in other words, if other roles are not well-cast.
And again, the series nails these, and the way you know it’s nailed them is the fact you want more of almost all of them than you get on the screen. The most critical of these were the two of the other Endless that play a substantial role in this season, Death (Kirby Howell-Baptiste) and Desire (Mason Alexander Park). Neither of them is onscreen long — Howell-Baptiste is there for one episode, while Park is in there less than ten minutes across across several episodes — but when they were there I couldn’t take my eyes off them. Howell-Baptiste is deeply warm and empathetic and draws out Sturridge’s best acting, and Park — well, Park has the devious fucktoi energy the role needs and then some. In the case of both of these performers, there was some performative outrage by shithead bigot “fans” when they were announced in the roles, because Howell-Baptiste is black and Park is non-binary. Well, these “fans” can go fuck themselves, not only for technical reasons (i.e., canonically the Endless are seen differently by everyone anyway, depending on their cultural and personal opinions on what an anthropomorphic representation of their respective concept should be, so their wholly insincere “argument” is invalid on its face) but also because these performers are just so damn good.
Indeed, there is quite a lot of casting in the TV series that is different from what it was in the comic book series, notably Johanna Constantine rather than John Constantine, but also the characters Lucienne, Rose and Jed Walker, and Lucifer among several others. I assume these were done for varying reasons and again all approved by Neil, who I quite reasonably consider the final word on these matters. And, once again, all the performances are grand. So, yeah. I’m more than fine with the changes to the characters in the original text; in the TV series, they work.
4. On the subject of changes to the original text, I was really curious how the series was going to handle the “cereal convention” section of the comics, and in particular the character of Fun Land, who is definitely a child murderer and probably also a pedophile (I can’t remember at the moment if the latter is spelled out in the comics). In the comics Fun Land’s fate is, uhhhhhh, rather more charitable than I personally would have had it be. The TV series deviates from that in a manner I personally found more satisfactory.
That said, that change was one of the few where the TV series pushed forward with violence/gore/unsettling revelations relative to the comic rather than pulled back. The TV Sandman felt largely PG-13ish with occasional sallies into soft-R territory (excepting the “24/7” episode, which has as much gore as you might like — although even that is scaled back from the comic), while the comics dipped rather more heavily into gore and body horror, which is easier (and cheaper!) to portray in drawings than in high-quality special effects. This isn’t a negative in my opinion, and in any event the TV version doesn’t have a problem going hard when it makes sense to go hard (again, “24/7”), but if you’re coming from the comics, it is noticeable.
5. Others have noted, and I agree, that season one of The Sandman is actually two smaller seasons: The five episodes that are “Preludes & Nocturnes,” the four that are “The Doll’s House,” and the mid-season breather that is essentially “That Bottle Episode With Death and Hob Gadling.” Of all of these, the least successful is the second half of the bottle episode, not because it’s not done well or is uninteresting, but because it’s a bit out of sync with Dream’s emotional arc in the TV series (the actual story represented happens later in the comics than it does in the TV series). It’s a bit of fan service, and Hob Gadling is important to the story later; the TV folks might have reasonably decided that Gadling’s tale would be difficult to insert later, so might as well do it now. These are the decisions you make when you have to make sense of a decade’s worth of comics.
Speaking of which, this is going to be an interesting needle for the TV series to thread: So much of comics version of The Sandman are stand-alone stories that involve Dream and the rest of The Endless to some extent, but aren’t about them so much as the universe the Endless inhabit and shape. In many ways The Sandman comics are an anthology series, and some of the most beloved stories there have little to do with Dream directly. How to incorporate those stories and still tell Dream’s overall tragic and triumphant narrative arc? Will they be incorporated at all? The ending of the first season suggests there will be some skipping ahead in the comic book narrative, which makes sense to me. I have no idea how this all will be handled, but I’m curious to find out.
6. If I have one criticism of The Sandman series that I would want to share here, it’s one that’s largely technical: I’m not 100% sure The Sandman benefits from what I call “The Netflix Look,” which is a certain grade of visual presentation shared in common with a lot of Netflix product, in no small part due to Netflix having specific imaging and production requirements. Netflix ostensibly does this to make sure everything they bring to the service has a certain level of production clarity. This is laudable most of the time, and also means there’s a certain baseline look that becomes recognizable the more you see it; all that clarity adds up. I think The Sandman could have benefitted from, well, a little more murkiness and grain and a more film-like presentation — an emphasis on atmosphere rather than sharpness.
This is entirely a personal aesthetic choice relating to these specific stories, mind you, and one I think other people can argue with. I will note that in general I think the look of screen entertainment shouldn’t be chained to technical legacies like, say, 24 frames per second, just because that’s the way it’s always been done. If you have a larger toolbox, use the whole damn toolbox. But if you do have a larger toolbox, try to use the best tool you have in there for the particular task at hand.
7. Would I recommend folks watch The Sandman? Yup! After three decades, it has a screen presentation worth watching, and one its creator is personally proud of. These two things don’t always align, but they do there, and that’s a nice thing. I’m looking forward to the next season, too. I can’t imagine the series won’t get another one at this point.
To begin, it’s pretty damn good, if not the best “Predator” film than certainly the most nuanced, and the one that actually feels like real live humans dealing with a seemingly unstoppable adversary. The characters in this film are not roided-out mercs, cops or a murder’s row of assassins and psychopaths, they’re just people, in this case members of a Comanche tribe from the early 18th century. The protagonist, Naru (Amber Midthunder, who I had not seen before but would be happy to watch again) is not a super-fit super-soldier, but rather a smart and determined woman who chafes against tribal expectations, and who fights not just with muscle but with observation, intuition and understanding. She fights both harder and smarter, and she needs to do both to survive.
I liked that. To be clear, I don’t mind watching a Lt. Col. Beefy McChesterson punching an alien weightlifter in the face — it has its place and time, you know? — but in an era of super heroes smacking around super villains in the Inevitable CGI-Filled Final Battle, there’s a certain sameness to it all at this point. Prey does not lack for action sequences or violence (it’s just as “R” rated as the original), and no one who has come for that aspect of the series should walk away disappointed. But having human-scaled stakes, and the characters trying to save themselves and their tribe rather than the whole universe, is surprisingly welcome, especially when pulled off well, like it is here.
There’s been some discussion about the fact that Prey was sent directly to Hulu rather than getting a theatrical release, and what that all means for the film and its makers and cast. As a filmgoer, I would have been happy to see this film in theaters. Taking place as it does in the 18th century North American plains (and filmed in the modern day in Canada), the vistas are gorgeous and the scale of the movie fits a large screen. The action scenes are designed well enough to be intelligible on smaller screens, but seeing them on a large wall in surround sound would have given them a nice jolt. You can’t see this in the theaters, but you should probably see it on the largest screen you can, with a nice sound system if you can manage it.
That established, I at least understand, and think there might be some advantages to, Prey having been released to streaming rather than theaters. The first is a purely practical, economic decision: The Predator series has been, shall we say, extremely hit or miss in terms of quality and box office, and the most recent installment of the series (2018’s The Predator) was both a critical whiff and a financial bust, grossing just $53 million domestically ($160M globally) against a nearly $90 million budget. None of the “Predator” movies has ever cracked $100 million domestically, even the original, which brought in $60 million (in, to be fair, 1987 dollars), and the average domestic box office take for the series hovers around $50M.
Where the Predator movies tend to be best appreciated (and drag themselves into the black, financially) is in the home: video rentals when those were a thing, and endless cable and streaming viewings today. That being the case, there is a perfectly reasonable argument that 20th Century (now part of Disney) should just skip the essentially loss leader segment of its life (and its attendant millions in marketing and advertising) and go straight to where most people will see it anyway, and in the process give a boost to Hulu by providing it a “marquee” property of a sort that people will happily watch at home even if they might not have dragged themselves to a theater to see it. Now it doesn’t matter if Prey makes money; it only matters is if it attracts eyeballs and helps Hulu with subscriber retention and (to a lesser extent at this point) acquisition. It will certainly do that; I would not be entirely surprised if it ends up being Hulu’s most popular original film to date.
Second, I think its release on streaming lets the studio and filmmakers change the conversation around Prey to something other than its first weekend box office. Prey has a cast that, while excellent, are unknowns (Midthunder, the lead, is best known from genre TV and secondary film roles) and are all largely Native Americans. The former is a disadvantage when it comes to box office — people still go to theaters to see stars — and if the movie flubbed its first weekend box office, it’s likely the notoriously financially (and therefore not-so-secretly socially) conservative film industry would have taken the wrong lesson from the latter (“No one wants to see movies with Native Americans in the lead”).
With Prey at Hulu, the conversation about the film this week is not about the box office, but where it fits in the rankings of Predator movies (most rankings I’ve seen have it at number two, behind the original, which is a fair call), how Amber Midthunder is coming out of this a star (also a fair call), and how this movie and Reservation Dogs herald a new era of Native American representation in mainstream entertainment. These are much better conversations to be having than the inevitable small squib of “whoops, another Predator series stumble” if the film had finished in second place (or worse) at the theaters behind Bullet Train, which stars Brad Pitt, playing a Brad Pitt-like character doing very Brad Pitt-like things, Brad Pitt-ily.
All things taken into consideration, I think 20th Century positioned Prey as well as it could to be seen by the Predator series core audience, and then, through press and word of mouth, have a chance to build outside that core audience when it becomes known that, actually, Prey is not only a good Predator film, but surprisingly, a good film that has a Predator in it.
And it is that! A good film, with a fine cast — in addition to Midthunder, take note of newcomer Dakota Beavers as Naru’s older brother Taabe; he’s also terrific and I’d be happy to see more of him — and a solid story. And also, it’s got a Predator. A pretty nasty one at that. You’ll want to see how it gets handled.
I have a hot take to share with you. Are you ready?
This whole pandemic thing is a drag.
Shocking information, I know. Naturally, I’m being facetious, but the first step in overcoming a problem is acknowledging the problem. The fact is, for many, the pandemic has taken a bite out of our mental stamina. We’re constantly facing questions regarding personal and family safety. Should I go out? Will engaging in social activity be beneficial enough to offset the possibility of contacting COVID-19?
This is where online fandom can be a lifesaver. There is no replacing in-personal interaction, but online engagement can be a social bridge until you are comfortable and safe enough to participate in public events and activities. We’ve seen this through the rise of virtual events, online reading and writing groups, and Zoom, Discord, and Slack becoming a part of our daily lives.
Personally, online engagement has been an important part of my mental health. Sometime ago, I joined a Discord server for Hearthstone. Using Discord reminded me of the fun I had in my post-college days of goofing around on IRC. I eventually decided to create a server specifically for Apex Books and Apex Magazine. The community we’ve built on our Discord server has been an endless source of delight and fun. We have in-jokes. We play games. There are writing sprints. Arguments about how gross (or tasty, I guess) black licorice can be. My online friends do a lot to help my brain stay even-keeled.
While I won’t claim that online fandom engagement is a substitute for in-person socializing, I do believe it has helped me not be so reliant on public social exposure. It extends the time I can endure between activities.
Recently, the need to see others created a stressful situation. I had an opportunity to attend a local writing convention. I knew attending would be a great boost to morale. It was also a chance for professional development. But the news was filled with reports of yet another highly contagious variant spreading its way across the country.
I decided to chance it.
The convention was fun, of course. It felt great being with friends and colleagues. Leaving Sunday evening, my spirits were soaring. I was confident I had made the right decision. Then the day after, I received a message notifying me someone I had interacted with at the convention had tested positive for COVID. On Tuesday, one of my friends I had spent much time with that weekend was positive. Queue the worrying about every cough, body pain, and sniffle. The concern grew worse as more attendees reporting coming down with COVID. Ultimately, I avoided it, but I probably added to the grey in my beard from the stress.
I think about how stressed I felt the whole week after the convention. It’s made me think long and hard about attending ChiCon 8 in September. Every day, the mental calculus spins my head. The week of stress has also made me thankful for my online friends and communities.
Whether you’re into Hearthstone, Apex Magazine, or something mega-popular such as K-Pop, don’t be afraid to jump into online fandom. Many genre publications run Patreon accounts that offer Discord server access. SFWA has long had online forums and the organization just recently started a Discord server. You’ll find that your fandom commonality becomes secondary to the importance of the social engagement offered by the community. Like in-person socializing, once in a while you’ll encounter a toxic individual. Thankfully, they are few and far between and most online interactions are lovely.
If you’re looking for a place to chill, come hang with me and hundreds of others on the Apex Books and Magazine Discord server. A great way to do that is to join our Patreon or with an Apex Magazine subscription.
Most conveniently, we’re currently running a Kickstarter to help fund our 2023 publishing year. Backing the Kickstarter at any level grants you access to our community. You’ll also receive some wonderful exclusive rewards such as free original fiction, a one-page RPG scenario, and alien head swag!
Camaraderie. Award-worthy fiction. Alien head cocktail coasters. What more could you ever want?
Not the one we live in, but one that we own. We bought this house for Krissy’s mother several years ago and in the time since upgraded it rather considerably, including building a garage and a lovely pergola in the back yard. We recently moved Krissy’s mom to a newer, ranch-style house, so this one with all its improvements is back on the market as of this very morning. Here’s the actual listing. Please note that if you live in a coastal state, you may grind your teeth at the pricing. Welcome to small town Midwest house prices!
What is fiction good for, anyway?Sunyi Dean has an idea, and in this Big Idea for The Book Eaters, she delves into it, and how our stories can cause us to change our lives.
Back in August 2012, I was attending a teacher training course and got talking to a fellow trainee. We drifted into discussing linguistics and literature. He loved reading, which we could agree on, but only nonfiction. I liked nonfiction, too, but was surprised by the vehemence of his distaste for novels.
“There is nothing in fiction which can surpass the complexity and beauty of real life,” he said. “What even is the point of stories?”
The kind of question that book-nerds dream of being asked.
“Stories aren’t in competition with reality,” I told him. “They’re a framework for making sense of reality.”
Everything in life is a story. Including this essay. Conducting a science experiment? Data is just a set of numbers until you draft a narrative to explain their relevance. Trying to win votes? Create a political yarn that frames your ‘vision’ of the future. Advocating for rights? Proselytizing for religion? All of that is crafting a narrative about the world and how it works, ordering pieces of the universe into a shape that makes sense to the human psyche.
We need stories to understand ourselves, as individuals. Share your story, social media begs—and we oblige, weaving narratives about our lives in which we are important, interesting, unique. Our species is adept at the self-made myth.
That’s not an indictment of humanity; we’re just doing what is necessary. Without those narratives, humans would be adrift in a sea of sensory input and chaotic data, struggling to impose order on existence. But with them, we can key into the universe.
Stories aren’t pointless; they’re powerful.
That power also makes them dangerous.
I grew up watching Star Trek, and it changed my life. The ST universe portrayed an inclusive, socialist, and largely secular society. In other words, it was an antithesis to the conservative, suspicious, and theocratic culture that I’d been raised in. While the adults around me were busy insisting the world had to be a certain, fixed way, Star Trek cheerfully but adamantly assured me that it did not.
That is where stories veer into being dangerous. Data can be skewed. So can politics. Advocacy can be subverted. Religion can be controlling. All of those negative aspects can be effected with a sufficiently skilled narrative. Stories can ruin us.
In writing, authors will say that villains are always the heroes of their own legend. This is equally true in real life, and not limited to fiction. Abusers tell themselves that their actions are justified. The wealthy elite spin stories where their wealth was deserved and earned. Dictators, criminals, and killers all have stories to shore up their actions.
Many people consider the human race to be bad, yet most people also don’t consider themselves to be bad humans. For better or worse, that cognitive dissonance is down to stories.
The question then becomes: how do we separate good stories from bad, or skewed stories from truthful ones? How do we frame the story of our lives in a way that is empowering for ourselves, without doing harm to others?
My debut novel, The Book Eaters, is about stories and their power—both good and bad—and navigating those tricky issues.
The book eaters are a race of paper-eating humanoids who are dying out. Infertility is reducing their numbers, and an increasingly technologized world makes it harder to remain hidden and safe. To stay alive, they rely on an archaic system of arranged marriages and forced births to keep their dying species limping along, and live under a veil of strict secrecy.
In order to maintain their system of control, the family patriarchs have laid down strict rules about what books their children are allowed to eat. Girls are fed fairytales and taught to be ‘princesses’ who think only of marriage. Boys are given adventure stories and raised as ‘knights’ who enforce laws, or else patriarchs who rule houses.
In short, book eaters have crafted a very specific narrative about their society, one which keeps its members alive and safe even as it oppresses and warps them.
Enter Devon Fairweather, a book eater woman and the main character. As a woman, Devon is forced to comply with the system of arranged marriages, and produce children with different husbands. She desperately wishes things were different, but like the rest of her people, she suffers from a critical lack of imagination. Her worldview has been moulded by her family’s selective diet of fiction, and she struggles to imagine her life outside of the ‘story’ the patriarchs have framed.
Ironically, I also suffered from this failure of imagination.
In my early thirties, I thought my life was ‘over’ in the ways that mattered. I thought I had no path out of my marriage, or back into work. I had spent so long chasing happiness and being disappointed I could no longer imagine what it would be like to find it.
Writing salvaged me.
I began drafting The Book Eaters in 2018—my third novel, since the first two had failed to sell or attract interest. While grappling with Devon’s arc, I examined my life and really thought about who was telling my story. I realised that if I wanted things to change, I would need to relearn how to craft my own narrative; I would have to trust that the future could be different, even when I lacked the ability to envision that new path.
Long story short, I ended my marriage in the spring of 2020 and moved out, mid-lockdown. Starting over is hard; financial free-fall is terrifying. Covid was everywhere and the kids were miserable. I don’t miss those days.
But making drastic changes in my life became the catalyst I needed for understanding how Devon could make drastic changes in hers. A few months after separation, I finally had the clarity to type up an ending for The Book Eaters that did both of us justice, and set a new path.
Stories have power, especially the ones we tell about ourselves. What is your story, and what is it saying?
I don’t want to give you the wrong impression. I’m not a violent person. Outside of wrestling with my siblings as a kid, I’ve never punched anyone. But fascist-punching is an obvious moral necessity.
What’s less obvious is what we do when punching fascists isn’t enough. When fascists or other authoritarians hold power, when they’ve co-opted institutions and are counting on anticipatory obedience: what do we do then?
That’s the question that I’m obsessed with in my debut short story collection All the Hometowns You Can’t Stay Away From. It’s also compounded by other problems, like the existential threat of climate change. So I find myself asking: how we might survive, even (someday) thrive?
If you’re hoping I’m about to give you the answer to those questions, I’m sorry to disappoint you. I don’t have the answer. But I’m pretty sure I know where to find the various answers we’re going to need: in our communities.
That’s the idea at the heart of my work: that we need each other, we need our communities, our loved ones, our chosen families. Politicians and leaders can’t save us. We can’t even save ourselves. But maybe we can save each other.
That’s not to say communities are uncomplicated or without flaws. Like lots of queer folks, I know first-hand that the communities of our birth don’t always welcome our differences. Chosen communities can fail us, too. Communities of all kinds can shelter predators, can be undermined by power, by hierarchies, by outside influences. We can fail each other in so many ways. But that doesn’t change the fact that all we have is each other. I write stories about desperate people facing hard times.
They’re not always happy stories, but they’re not nihilistic, either. I think a better world is worth fighting for, and so I keep asking myself: what might that world look like, and how might we get there?
In my work, it looks like
two women working on saving the ocean with people they’ll never meet
a princess and an assassin finding what they need in each other and in a bigger cause
students at a boarding school deciding which monsters are preferable: those within or those without
a diviner of the future who joins the attempt to kill a tyrannical god, knowing it will mean her death
runaways with chimeric bodies finding ways to keep each other safe in the face of a world that wants them dead
As I’m writing this, our rights are under sustained attacks by courts, politicians, thugs with guns, fascists, and fascist enablers. The rich are getting richer while everyone else struggles to get by. A pandemic is still raging, climate change threatens to shatter human civilization, and our self-proclaimed leaders aren’t doing enough about either problem.
I don’t have the answer to these problems, and don’t believe there is an answer. I do believe we can find answers, but we’ll need to listen to, protect, and support one another. We’ll need to lean on each other’s expertise, and on each other.
I’m still working to understand what that will look like. I expect I’ll spend the rest of my life working on it. I hope you’re thinking about it too, because we desperately need your answers.
I’ve been using Google’s Pixel Buds since their first iteration a few years back, and just picked up the newest version, the Pixel Buds Pro (seen above in their “Lemongrass” colorway) because I was curious how this new “premium” version of the buds, complete with active noise cancellation, stacked up to the previous versions I’ve had. I got them today and have been fiddling with them since; here are some first impressions.
1. To begin, the ear buds themselves are both larger and have a different shape than the previous versions of the Pixel Buds, in part to accommodate the active noise cancellation. I understand that, but I preferred the previous design, in no small part because the last two iterations of the buds included little plastic “wingtips” that helped secure the buds into the ear. These don’t, and I’m already having problems with the left bud, because my left ear canal shape is such that non-secured buds of any sort have historically never stayed put without effort. I went for a short walk and the left bud fell out twice.
Some of that I can probably fix by changing the little rubber flange that fits inside the ear to a different size (the buds come with three different sizes for these), but it would have been even nicer — for me, anyway, your mileage may vary — if Google could have kept the wingtip design feature. As it is, for now I’m unlikely to use these particular buds for vigorous exercise or running.
2. Does the new active noise cancellation make up for the (slight) inconvenience of the missing wingtip? I suspect for a lot of folks, the answer will be yes. The ANC is pretty decent; it doesn’t block out noise like my Sony wh-1000xm4 headphones, but then I didn’t expect them to, because these are earbuds and the Sonys are over-the-ear headphones. A one-to-one comparison isn’t fair. The Pixel Bud Pros do bring the outside noise way down; I can still hear the world with the noise cancellation on (provided I’m not blasting music at a ridiculous level, which I don’t do much anymore because I am old and my hearing is a precious resource), but it’s unobtrusive and easy to ignore.
When one does need to pay attention to the outside, the Pixel Bud Pros come with a “transparency” mode, which is different from simply just turning off the noise cancellation mode — in my experience it bumps up frequencies for speech, and one presumes some other critical noises, so they can cut through whatever else you are listening to. I tried it to speak to my wife and mother-in-law while listening to music; it does the job just fine. You can swap between noise cancelling and transparency modes with a long touch on the buds. One may also simply just turn off noise cancellation entirely in the settings.
3. With regard to music, it sounds pretty good out of the buds. Again, these are earbuds with tiny drivers, so don’t expect monster bass response, but by and large everything I threw at the buds sounded decently full (especially electronic/EDMish things), and I could pick out little details in the music that I would miss with lesser earbuds or if I’m listening to something off my two-watt computer monitor speakers. They’re the best-sounding Pixel Buds, certainly, and I’m happy to listen to my music with them. I also used them for a phone call with Krissy earlier in the day; again, they did perfectly well in letting me hear her, and they had no problem picking up my voice to talk to her.
4. The buds are touch sensitive and you can control volume, pause, play and noise cancellation with them (you can also assign touch for Google Assistant if you want it). All of these work perfectly well, as they did with previous versions, but I’d also add the caveat that if you have to fiddle with the buds to any extent — hello, weirdly shaped left ear canal! — you’re gonna trigger the hell out of these various functions as you fiddle, which is vaguely annoying.
On the subject of Google Assistant, I have it set to be voice activated, and in the times I used it, it worked exactly how it was supposed to, without any hiccups or problems. Google Assistant is simultaneously the most useful and most colorless of all the virtual assistants, and that’s fine with me. I don’t need it to be vivacious and interesting, I need it to access things on my phone when I want it to. It does that really well.
5. Speaking of things done really well, the Pixel Bud Pro integration with my Pixel 6 Pro (yes, I’m well sucked into the Google ecosystem) was flawless and ridiculously easy; I literally just flipped open the lid of the Pixel Buds Pro holding case and my phone said “Oh, hey, look, Pixel Buds, you want I should connect?” Why, yes, Pixel 6 Pro, I do, thank you. So much easier than having to do the usual Bluetooth sacrificing of chickens to get something to connect, or whatever. And there’s no lag or (so far) any dropped connections or connectivity static that was a problem with earlier Pixel Buds before software/firmware updates.
For things that aren’t Pixel Phones (or Pixelbooks, as I understand the integration there is similarly easy), there is regular Bluetooth connectivity available. You’ll have to check with someone else about how it does with that. I’ll be over here, enjoying my seamless connection experience.
6. Other things: I’ve had these for less than a day so I can’t speak to battery life, but Google claims an up to seven-hour listening session before they need to be slipped back into their case for recharging, which is something like a 40% boost from the previous iterations, and the case will handle 20 hours of charging before needing a recharge itself. Google’s previous versions of the buds/cases hit their advertised marks in this respect, so I don’t have any reason to doubt this estimation.
The carrying case for the Pro Buds is marginally larger than the ones for previous iterations but not by enough that I could see it by looking at it on its own; I had to actually put the Pixel Buds A case up next to it to see it. This iteration of the case can wirelessly charge if that’s a thing you want. The buds come in four colorways; I got the “lemongrass” colorway because it stands out, and that way when my left bud falls out of my ear I can find it more easily on the floor.
7. Are the Pixel Buds Pro worth the $199 Google is charging for them? If you’re as deep into the Google ecosystem as I am and you want noise cancellation in your earbuds, I’d say yes; even with my annoyingly troublesome left ear canal, at this early stage I’m very much enjoying the overall sonic experience they provide. If you don’t care about noise cancellation, still want Pixel Buds and want to save $100, you’ll be fine with the Pixel Buds A iteration, which is still available for purchase, and with which my user experience was perfectly good.
But, yeah: So far, the Pixel Buds Pro are pretty nifty. More updates as warranted.
The change of climate around the world brings a wide spectrum of thoughts and strategies about it — no less in fiction writing than anywhere else. In Real Sugar is Hard to Find, author Sim Kern is thinking about their own thoughts and strategies to bring the topic to their own writing, and what their own choices here mean.
Get two climate fiction authors together, and you’ll hear a debate about the most useful kind of climate fiction. We don’t fear the criticism of being “too didactic.” Rather, many of us have explicit agendas that we’re happy to debate at a moment’s notice—whether to communicate climate science, inspire people to action, or even dismantle global racial capitalism. One of my favorite cli-fi authors, Aya de León, author of A Spy in the Struggle, calls herself the “Minister of Climate-Justice-Fiction Propaganda.” We agree that everything is a culture war; stories are the most powerful weapons in a culture war; so if you’re trying to change the world, you better think critically about your themes.
Among sci-fi writers of climate fiction—those of us rendering how the biosphere and humans might adapt to climate change in the years to come—the recurring debate is: dystopia vs. utopia. Which genre is a better kind of propaganda?
There’s no question that dystopian worlds dominate both science fiction and near-future climate fiction. The old adage holds true: it’s easier to publish the end of the world than the end of (extractive, oil-soaked) capitalism. Solarpunk, however, is challenging dystopian domination. Mostly coming out of small presses or short story outlets, authors are increasingly envisioning radically optimistic, abolitionist, anti-capitalist, green and sustainable futures.
Dystopian cli-fi authors, meanwhile, are doing important work translating scientific climate predictions into narrative; setting urgent, human stories in hothouse, fire-drought-and-flood-ravaged worlds. A dystopian-leaning editor friend of mine recently announced he’s no longer interested in stories set in utopian worlds, because he just can’t suspend disbelief that our fossil fuel addiction gets magically solved in the next few years.
In this debate, I agree with everyone, even when their points are contradictory, because my feelings about climate change are contradictory. It isn’t useful to ask us to choose one modality over the other—despair or hope. I feel a huge range of emotions about living through mass extinction. I want to write and read stories that let me feel all the things. Real Sugar is Hard to Find, my collection of cli-fi stories, contains both dystopian and utopian worlds, and stories that fall somewhere in between.
The titular story, “Real Sugar is Hard to Find,” follows a mother and son’s quest to bake a cake for their suicidal family member, in a world where common baking ingredients are scarce. The story explores how climate change will disrupt agriculture and food supply, but it’s also a reminder to the climate nihilist inside me that there will be cake—and birthday parties, joy, jokes, dancing, babies, and falling in love—even during environmental collapse, even after 2 or 3 or more degrees of warming. For as long as there’s a handful of humans left, there will be joys worth celebrating.
“The Propagator” comes from a place of screaming rage about living under the threats of rising sea level and rising Christofascism. Set in a flooded, future Houston, a woman who is forced to carry an unviable pregnancy to term turns to a life of crime: propagating houseplants. In the soilless city, all reproduction is tightly controlled under a carceral surveillance state. Written in 2018, the story has proven horrifically prescient, as the protagonist mulls a cross-continental journey to obtain an abortion, fears even searching the term on the internet, and her job takes her to a designated “repro crimes” ward at a county jail.
We also need stories that don’t ask us to force a smile, or call us to action, or do anything—stories that simply let us grieve. “The Listener” is born from the grief I felt in the drought of 2008, when 300 million trees died across the state of Texas. The protagonist is a queer, closeted scene kid, kicked out of her house and in love with her best friend, who eats too many mushrooms and gains the ability to talk to trees. At a really bad time.
“The New Nomad” and “The Night Heron” unpack the torments of parenting in a time of ecological collapse, while the last two stories in the collection are wildly, unabashedly utopian. More than out of any political allegiance to the solarpunk movement, I wrote them because I was tired of both living in a dystopia and trying to imagine even-worse-dystopias in my head. Ironically, the less hope I feel for reality, the more I’m called to write optimistic futures. It’s looking increasingly likely that I won’t live to see a better world, but at least I can escape to one in my mind.
“The End of the Nuclear Era” presupposes a green, anti-capitalist revolution that’s already occurred, and explores what would happen if children had the right to free themselves from abusive, neglectful families. The story kicks off as a runaway teen approaches the gates to a “Children’s Center,” where any kid can show up and find food, lodging, safety, and education—no questions asked.
I dreamed up “The Lost Roads” while buckling my three-year-old into her car seat in the blistering Texas heat. The premise is: What if there were no roads? Fuck car culture. Fuck asphalt. What if we figured out green mass transit and purposeful communities, so we could dig up all the roads and rewild them? It’s a story of unbridled hope, joy, and reconciliation with the natural world and each other.
Whatever you feel about climate change—despair, denial, grief, rage, hope, and fear—all those feelings are justified and valid and needed. So I guess my overarching “agenda” for Real Sugar is Hard to Find is to invite you to feel those feelings along with me. Hopefully, these stories offer some badly-needed catharsis as we stand amidst climate change and mass-extinction and wonder how much worse things are going to get before (and if!) they ever get better.
Because I’m a digital photography nerd, I have a lot of programs and Photoshop plugins designed to tweak photos and make them better, or, maybe more accurately, less obviously bad. One of the hot new sectors of digital photography programs is the one where “Artificial Intelligence” is employed to do all manner of things, including colorizing, editing and upscaling. Some of this is baked into Photoshop directly — Adobe has a “Neural Filters” section for this — while other companies are supplying standalone programs and plugins.
Truth be told, all of these companies have been touting “AI” for a while now. But in the last couple of iterations of these tools and programs, there’s been a real leap in… well, something, anyway. The quality of the output of these tools has become strikingly better.
As an example, I present to you the before and after picture above. The original picture on the left was a 200-pixel-wide photo of Athena as a toddler. There had been a larger version of it way back when, but I had cropped it way down for an era when monitors were 640 x 480, and then tossed or misplaced the original photo. So the blocky, blotchy low-resolution picture of my kid is the only one I have now. The picture on the right is a 4x upscaling using a program called Topaz GigaPixel AI, which takes the information from the original picture, and using “AI,” makes guesses at what the picture should look like at a higher resolution, then applies those guesses. In this case, it guessed pretty darn well.
Which is remarkable to me, because even just a couple iterations of the GigaPixel program back, it wasn’t doing that great of a job to my eye — it could smooth out jagged edges on photos just fine, but it was questionable on patterns and tended to make a hash of faces. Its primary utility was that it could do “just okay” attempts at upscaling much faster than I could do that “just okay” work on my own. This iteration of the program, however, does better than “just okay,” more frequently than not, and now does things well beyond my own skill level.
It’s still not perfect; some other pictures of Athena from this era that I upsampled didn’t quite guess her face correctly, so she didn’t look as much like she actually did at the time, and more like a generic toddler. But that generic toddler looked perfectly reasonable, and not like a machine-generated mess. That counts as an improvement.
Now, it’s important to acknowledge a thing about these new “AI”-assisted pictures, which is that they are no longer photographs. They’re something different, closer to a digital illustration than anything else. The upscaled picture of Athena here is the automated equivalent of an artist making an airbrushed painting of my kid based on a tiny old photo. It’s good, and it’s pretty accurate, and I’m glad I have a larger version of that tiny image. But it’s not a photograph anymore. It’s an illustrated guess at what a more detailed version of the photograph would have been.
Is this a problem? Outside of a courtroom, probably not. But it’s still worth remembering that the already-extremely-permeable line between photograph and illustration is now even more so. Also, if you weren’t doing so already, you should treat any “photo” you see as an illustration until and unless you can see the provenance, or it’s from a trusted source. This is why, incidentally, AP and most other news organizations have strict limits on how photos can be altered. I’d guess that a 4x “AI”-assisted enhancement would fall well outside the organization’s definition of acceptable alteration. So, you know, build that into your world view. In a world of social media filters turning people into cats or switching their gender presentation, this internalization may not be as much of a sticking point as it once was.
With that said, it’s still a pretty nifty thing, and I will play with it a lot now, especially for older, smaller digital pictures I have, and to (intentionally) make illustrations that are based from those upscaled originals. I’m glad to have the capability. And that capability is only going to get more advanced from here.
I came downstairs this morning to Spice on the kitchen counter, which is a place she is generally never on, so I figured something was up. Sure enough, Spice was hunting prey, in this case an adult antlion, which had positioned itself just out of paw-swatting reach. The antlion was escorted outside via a small plastic container; the cat was escorted to the floor, mildly protesting all the way, by my hands. No one died, and nothing on the counter was destroyed by a fast-moving predator. And Spice was praised and petted for her diligence in keeping the house safe from invaders. So in all, a good morning for everyone.
Recorded here for posterity, which will question why I bothered.
I have been left unsupervised.
They say we have strayed from the sight of God. I say, God sees all… And chooses inaction.
It is time to move humanity out of its comfort zone, beyond its antiquated ideas of what should and should not be. A new age is dawning. You are all witnesses.
They say genius is not understood in its time
Finally I know the infinite awe of Robert Oppenheimer as he beheld his terrible creation
We pause to let the flavors steep for a bit. Here's a dog whilst we wait.
Back to it
First, split the banana lengthwise and set it on the tortilla.
Step two: add the mayoreo to the center of the split banana.
Step three: time to add the gherkins!
Step four: lightly nestle macaroni salad to the side of the mayoreo-and-gherkin-filled banana.
Step five: gummy chicken feet at both ends of the banana, because, I mean, OBVIOUSLY
Step six: wrapped and rolled and into the microwave
Step seven: garnished with whipped cream and crushed Oreos. Charlie silently bears witness to history.
The all-important cross-section.
And now the moment you've all been waiting for and/or fearing was inevitable: the taste test.
Epilogue: To atone for my sins, I have made a donation to a local food panty serving my county. If you have somehow made it to the end of this thread, I encourage you to do likewise in your own community.
Also: Don't make Mayoreo. It's not good. Thank you.
(Food pantry, not food panty. LOOK I HAVE A STOMACHACHE OKAY)
In fact, today was the first day I got real serious work done on the novel in, like, forever, so blaming COVID for having a brain fart here feels even less sincere than it might have been previous. Although I suppose I could say I spent all my writing coins today on pay copy. Yeah, that’s it. That’s what I’m going with. The hibiscus is pretty, at least.
While walking the dog earlier today we walked by the neighbor’s apple trees, on which apple are coming in nicely but are not yet ready to be eaten. One thing I note about all the apples is that, even in this still-early stage of growth they are, largely, wildly misshapen and would never make the cut for a supermarket produce section. It doesn’t mean they won’t taste good (previous apples from other years confirm they do), it just means that they are lumpy and gnarled and would be destined for applesauce or juice or some other end where their cosmetics don’t matter.
I will still eat them, happily, however, with my neighbor’s say-so. I reject artificial beauty standards for real fruit! Long live ugly apples! Until, uh, I get them in my belly, anyway.
This post is clearly written so I can have an excuse to post this picture of an apple. Lumpy or not, I think it looks pretty cool.