RIP, WIlliam Dufris

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

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

Nothing But Blue Sky

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

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

The Big Idea: Ilana C. Myer

Where some people end their books is where Ilana C. Myer, in her new novel The Poet King, begins hers. Why does she do it that way? She’s here to explain.

ILANA C. MYER:

Power is something we talk about a lot in fantasy—from rings of power to the One Power to the sword that makes a farmboy a king.

I wrote my first book, Last Song Before Night, intrigued by the idea in Celtic myth of poets wielding magical and political power. Through the eyes of multiple poets, I explored the tension between art and political gain. The path to success for a poet, in that milieu, was by using art to ingratiate himself with authority. And what did that mean for his art?

As the enchantments arise, so do new challenges. The second book, Fire Dance, explores the consequences of accessing enchanted power, on an expanded geopolitical landscape that introduces elements of Middle Eastern magic, Spanish flamenco, and more.

Finally, the last of the series tackles another fantasy preoccupation: The role of a king.

Many fantasies revolve around putting the rightful king on the throne as an end goal. Right at the start of The Poet King, that goal has been realized: A brilliant, charismatic poet has brought about the downfall of a weak king and taken the throne. He promises to bring the realm to heights of glory never before achieved, combining the enchantments of poets with the authority of the crown.

That is, however, the beginning of the story.

As a book where the enchantments of poets come at last to full fruition, at their most fierce, elemental, and dangerous, The Poet King required that I return to the original sources that first inspired the series. In order to write the end, I had to go back to the beginning. There is no roadmap for researching a novel, no syllabus assigned; there is only following one’s instinct. Mine took me to unexpected places. I went as far back as I could in time, to tales so strange to modern ears that even in translation they are nearly opaque. But the enchantment imbued between the lines needs no translation.

Readers will recognize some of the inspirations without difficulty: Arthurian literature, with its roots in Celtic myth, turned out to be indispensable as a source. And then there were other stories, wilder, that perhaps won’t be recognized by most but lent a hand in their own way. An accidentally well-timed trip to Ireland was useful as well, in particular for capturing the atmosphere of Academy Isle in winter. All these roads intersected to lead me to the story I wanted to tell about art, power, and the magnificent king who seems to flawlessly combine the two.

It may sound obvious to say that power comes at a cost, but that hasn’t always been the case in fantasy. Fantasy that relies on flashing wands like laser guns often doesn’t deliver a sense of awe for the forces that are being tapped. As someone who sees magic as analogous to the mysteries of our world, I believe a sense of awe is warranted. I also believe that power should function in fantasy much as it does in our world: Someone will always pay the price.

For me, literature is about the human heart or nothing at all. And there is nothing like a test of character for showing us who people really are.

Coming face to face with what we’re capable of—and what we choose to do about it—is the most meaningful use of enchantment I’ve found.

—-

The Poet King: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

CoNZealand Goes Virtual

This year’s Worldcon is going virtual, because we’re currently living in a global pandemic, and despite what some clueless politicians might say, we’re not going to be out of the proverbial woods by Easter. Moreover, the nation of New Zealand is currently under a stage four lockdown and will be for several weeks, which I imagine makes it very difficult for the Worldcon planners in country to do much of their work. Finally, who knows when international travel will be unfucked. Add it all up, and not only is going virtual this year the best and most responsible choice, essentially it’s the only choice, short of calling off the Worldcon entirely.

For the record, I fully support and endorse the online version of CoNZealand; I plan to attend and, if they want me, will participate in the programming as well. We’re currently in a world that calls for flexibility and imagination in order for people to get together as individuals and communities, and the science fiction and fantasy fandom is one of my communities. This is how our tribe comes together this year, and I want to be part of it. I’m sad I don’t get to do it in the physical New Zealand this year — it’s always been one of my travel goals — but that just means we can visit some other time. This works for me in the interim.

If you were planning or even thinking about going to CoNZealand, I hope you’ll support and attend this version; it will work if we want it to, and show up. I’ll be there. I hope I’ll see you there, too.

News Books and ARCs, 3/24/20

I’ve got two — yes! two! — new book stacks for you this week, to catch up from when I was away earlier in the month. And this is the first one! What here in this group is calling to you? The comments are waiting for your input.

The Big Idea: Christopher Swiedler

What kind of book is In The Red? As author Christopher Swiedler relates, this seemingly simple question turned out to have a more complex answer than one might assume.

CHRISTOPHER SWIEDLER:

Many years ago, an instructor in a writing workshop asked me whether my sci-fi novel In the Red was for middle grade or young adult readers. My answer was a blank stare, so she helpfully explained the difference. In young adult sci-fi and fantasy, the world can’t be trusted. Darkness and evil are omnipresent. Protagonists fight against the scary things, but even when they win, the balance doesn’t really shift.

I nodded. I’d seen these sorts of books, and they weren’t my thing.

On the other hand, she went on, readers of around eight to twelve years old are optimistic. They still want to believe that the world is good. In middle grade stories, evil, suffering, and conflict are aberrations that can be overcome. Characters know that when they grow up they will be part of a decent, honest, and fair society.

My ears perked up. Optimism about the future? A world that’s positive and trustworthy? I felt an instant connection. This was what I was writing.

My own love story with science fiction began when someone gave me an anthology of Robert Heinlein stories for my twelfth birthday. I quickly devoured Space Cadet, Podkayne of Mars, and every other Heinlein book that I could find. His juvenile novels were written decades before the term “middle grade” was coined, but everything about them fit perfectly into the genre. The stories all had plenty of conflict and danger, but the basic structure of society was always trustworthy. Younger characters had competent, positive role models to look up to. And most of all, the worlds were places that the reader wanted to be.

I explained to the class how In the Red is about a boy named Michael who lives in a domed city on Mars. He wants to join the planetary Rescue Service like his father and spend all his time out on the surface. That’s a little complicated, though, since putting on an environment suit tends to trigger a claustrophobic panic attack that’s bad enough to make him puke and pass out. His doctor has diagnosed him with environment suit anxiety disorder and his parents have forbidden him from going outside the dome, all of which makes him feel like a complete failure. In an effort to prove to them that they’re wrong, he and his best friend Lilith ‘borrow’ a rover and drive all night to his dad’s research station. They have a good shot at it, too—until a massive solar flare knocks out the planet’s artificial magnetic field and all of its navigation and communication satellites, leaving them stranded out in the middle of nowhere with a beautiful-but-lethal sun just about to rise.

The world of In the Red is tough and dangerous, but it’s not evil. Adults are trustworthy. Problems can be solved with ingenuity and courage. I’d been writing a middle grade novel without even realizing it.

“So it’s not a dystopia?” someone in the class asked.

“Actually,” I said, “I guess it’s kind of the opposite.”

This was the height of the YA dystopia craze, and I could see the disbelief on everyone’s faces. I just shrugged. I wouldn’t describe the world of In the Red as a utopia, but Mars in the twenty-second century is definitely a place that I wish I could have grown up. Domed cities? One-third gravity? Playing with friends, going to school, and living a normal life under a butterscotch sky? Sign me up!

“Is it science fiction like Star Wars?” another writer asked. “Or the ‘hard’ kind?”

This was a much easier question than whether the book is YA or MG. I’ll take a well-written space opera, but my bread and butter is the scientific accuracy of hard sci-fi. Long before a teacher got around to explaining Newton’s laws, Isaac Asimov taught me the principle of “equal and opposite reaction” in Marooned Off Vesta, where the characters melt a hole in a ship’s water tank to use as emergency propulsion. Similarly, the spinning alien spacecraft of Arthur C. Clarke’s Rendezvous With Rama helped me understand how centripetal acceleration works to simulate gravity. These stories gave me a love of science and engineering. I grew up wanting to emulate their logical, intelligent, and scientifically-minded protagonists.

In the Red has its share of futuristic magic bits, like an artificial planetary magnetic field that protects colonists from solar radiation. But I’ve done my best to be accurate about chemistry and physics. The characters use real scientific principles (and a big helping of courage) to escape their predicaments. Michael and Lilith manage to send radio signals over the horizon, plot ballistic trajectories, and navigate on Mars during a dust storm that blocks out the sky. And in my personal favorite bit, a timely application of Boyle’s pressure-volume law is instrumental in helping them escape a rapidly-flooding underground tunnel.

“It’s definitely the hard kind,” I told the class.

The skepticism was palpable. An optimistic-future, hard-science fiction book for middle grade readers? Exactly, I wanted to say. But it’s not as if I’m inventing anything. A half-century ago, Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, and Arthur C. Clarke did all this and more. I’m just following in their footsteps.

Young readers today are living in a radically different environment than the post-war world of sci-fi’s Golden Age. Instead of nuclear war, we now have global pandemics and the threat of climate change. Instead of MULTIVAC, we have computers in our pockets. But hope is just as essential now as it was during the Cold War. If we can’t imagine how our society will get better, then why bother working toward it? If we can’t dream of growing up on Mars, then what chance do we have of ever getting there?

The world that our kids will face as adults is literally the stuff of speculative fiction. They will encounter challenges that we can only dream of. Some young person living today will be the first human to set foot on Mars. Imagination and optimism aren’t enough to get us there—but they’re a good start.

—-

In The Red: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

Advice to Myself (and Others) About The Great Pause

Dear creative folks (and the people who love and/or buy their work):

Like many of you, I am looking at our current situation — which it seems were are moving toward calling The Great Pause — and wondering what this means, both in the long and short terms, for our careers and livelihoods. This is a perfectly reasonable concern! We should be having it! Because otherwise we will have to go back to actual jobs, which to be clear, are also kind of up in the air during The Great Pause. The Great Pause is like that.

The actual answer to what The Great Pause means for creatives is: Nobody knows. Because at the moment no one knows anything, except that staying at home and washing your hands so as not to overwhelm the medical system is a really excellent idea. Nevertheless, I have been thinking about the current moment a lot. Given where we are at the moment and where it seems reasonable (to me) to project where we are going, I have formulated a plan for myself, regarding expectations for the immediate future, and for the slightly longer term. I will share them with you now. Hopefully you find these points useful.

1. I’m grading 2020 on one hell of a curve. 

As many of you know, I have a new book, The Last Emperox, coming out in (checks watch) three weeks. It’s a very good book! With great reviews! And it’s the conclusion of an award-winning, best-selling series! With popular characters that people like! Which is in development for TV! If any book is positioned to do pretty well, it would be this one.

And it might! Still! Also, people are now shut up in their homes and away from their jobs, if they still have them, which rather suddenly a lot of people do not. My book tour, which is the way I usually promote my new work, has been cancelled because it’s not safe for me or my readers to meet up right now. Bookstores are still out there but a lot of them are closed for the duration. The economy is crashing and people are prioritizing where their money goes. And so, while a good book is in fact a really excellent way for people to pass time whilst in self-isolation, I understand that people, and this is an understatement, have a lot on their minds right about now. It’s possible that getting my book when it comes out may not be the same priority that it might have been even a month ago.

Nor am I the only author or creative in this position — a lot of us have work scheduled for release this year that now we’re looking at and wondering whether the audience will be there for it. Authors and musicians, at least, can get their work out; people who work in film, television or theater (as examples) are finding their work delayed, postponed or even dropped outright. It’s a mess, and it’s a mess that none of us have control over.

I want The Last Emperox to be a financial success out of the gate — I want people to find it and read it and love it. I also realize that, more than in any other year, that success is so very not up to me anymore. If the book doesn’t do what I hoped it would do in terms of sales, my official response is going to be to throw my hands up in the air and say, “It was 2020, baby.” And then watch every single creative I know nod and get a rueful look on their face. Because, man, 2020. You remember how that was. And if, in fact, Emperox does do just fine — and it might! Still! — then I’m going to be especially happy. Because, man, 2020.

So, yeah, creative folks: Don’t beat yourself up this year about how your work does, or doesn’t, do. This is nothing we could have figured into our plans. Do what you can to let people know your work is there, and be happy for the people who find it. But this year is not like other years. Be kind to yourself (and your work) when you think about it.

2. It’s going to take time to get to somewhere like we were before. 

Probably. Maybe we’ll get lucky and flatten that curve and navigate the economic fallout and come out of this all in six months not really worse for wear, and go back to something close to where we were in January. But, you know, I wouldn’t plan for that. I would plan for us dealing with this for the entire rest of the year and then spending a few years with the fallout, retrenching and then rebuilding. I’m assuming a recession of 2008 proportions.

Nor do I think we’ll get back exactly to where we were before — things are going to change and the models of how we sell and distribute and share things will likely be something other than what they are now. Mind you, “things will change and be different” is a statement that was going to be accurate anyway; a decade ago the landscape of my book sales was very different than it is now. Audiobooks came up, Borders bookstores went down, and there was a big fight over what the cost of an ebook should be. What I mean here is that the changes now are likely to come faster, because the economic situation we’re in is going to be that much more volatile. What’s going to come out of it will be good for some, less good for others, and who will be in those respective camps, we don’t yet know.

But no matter what, I’ll be working on the assumption that for the next couple of years, at least, people will be digging out from the economic mess of 2020. That’s going to affect the new books that I have coming out in the next couple of years — and also my backlist, which is my true economic engine. I expect my publisher (Tor in the US/Canada, but others elsewhere) are going to make adjustments to deal with this new era. Same with Audible, who handles my audiobooks. I think I’m going to be fine, but I also am, shall we say, tempering financial expectations for the next couple of years, which is going to have an influence on my how I plan for my life in that period. Which means, among other things —

3. Time for a thorough vetting of expenses.

I’ve always considered myself a thrifty sort of person who has an eye on the bottom line of things, and who doesn’t live extravagantly, given his income. However, having just looked over our taxes for the year prior to handing them over to our accountant, I can say that the variance between my self-image and my actual expenditures is… wider than perhaps it should be, let me put it that way. So this enforced downtime at the Scalzi Compound will not go idly by; one of my tasks for the next couple of weeks is to go through our finances and to do a triage of things we need, things we don’t need but are still willing to pay for, and things that it’s time to drop entirely.

Among those things in the latter category: Recurring online subscriptions, which as it turns out really pile up when you’re not paying attention. I currently subscribe to four separate music services, for example, which is, uhhhh, probably at least two too many. There are other services which I will have to give hard consideration about their usefulness in this era: We have Dish Network but watch streaming services rather more, so the question becomes whether to ditch Dish or at the very least cut back on the package, which features probably 280 more channels than we ever actually watch.

Other things: Last year’s biggest expenditure by far was travel. 2020 has cut into that considerably in any event by making us all stay at home for a currently indefinite period. Even after that stay is lifted we plan on keeping closer to home for the next couple of years. My MINI is ten years old next year so I’ve been thinking about whether it was time to move on from it; now I think I’ll keep it going for a while longer. I’ve been planning to make a music studio in my basement; in the short term I’ll work on getting better on the guitar I already have.

I don’t have any intention of withdrawing from the economy entirely. I will still buy and subscribe to things. But inasmuch as I do expect things to be economically variable the next couple of years at least, it makes sense to do an audit of what I (and we) spend and to bring those expenditures to a sensible level.

With that said:

4. Also time to support creatives and local businesses (more than I already am).

At least some of the savings from above will be going into the pockets of the creative people whose work I admire, and the local business that are feeling the pinch from this slow-down. In both cases, these groups are getting hit hard by this moment, and can use support. In the latter case in particular, if I don’t support them now, they might not be around to support later, and there’s no guarantee anything will spring up to replace them.

I want to be clear that on some level, as someone who grew up poor, and as someone who (factually or otherwise) sees himself as prudent with money, my initial impulse to current events is to listen to the not-so-little voice in my head which is incessantly screaming HOARD ALL THE MONIES FOR VERILY THESE ARE THE END TIMES. I’m gonna hoard some of it. But honestly, if I won’t support my local business, and the creatives whose work I like, a) who will, b) how can I expect anyone to support me and my work? And in any event, putting money into nearby businesses is an investment in the local economy, and my neighbors. Putting money into creatives means maybe I’ll get more stuff from them in the future. Again, an investment. It makes sense.

5. Try different things.

When the global economic collapse of 2008 hit, I was on, shall we say, a pause from publishing novels, out of contract and not actively pursuing one. Zoe’s Tale was published in 2008, and it wasn’t until 2011 that Fuzzy Nation came out. In the meantime, I: Wrote a novel for fun, with no immediate intention of selling it (Fuzzy); wrote a novella that was not representative of my previous work (The God Engines); edited and contributed to a shared world anthology (Metatropolis); and worked as a creative consultant on a television series (Stargate Universe). I also worked on a video game during this time, which never came out, but which was fun to be a part of. Of all of these things, the only thing I had done before was the novel-writing. Everything else was new and worth trying, one, to see if I had any facility for it, and two, to see if I could make any money from it.

I’m in a different place here in 2020 than I was in 2008 (I have a long-term contract, for one), but during this time I’m still going to try some new and different things, both to find out if I might be good at them, and also (although a lower priority, for now) to see if I might be able to make money from them. As I noted earlier, things won’t go back to exactly the way they were before, so it makes sense to me to be using this time to look at other things and see what I think of them. They could pan out! Even if they don’t, I’ll have learned things, not least about myself. It won’t be wasted time.

6. Don’t panic.

Right now is not a great time — we’re all isolated, afraid of getting sick with something that can really mess us up, worried about our financial futures and careers. Immediately after this time is not likely to be a great time, either; we’ll be digging out. I think it’s totally valid to be upset, and angry, and afraid, and bored and all those other not great things. Pretending not to be those things will often make them worse to deal with later. It’s useful to acknowledge all of these things that many if not most of us are feeling, and will continue feeling in the immediate future.

I do think there’s a difference between feeling all these things, and even feeling anxiety about them, and panicking about them. Mind you, it’s easy to say “don’t panic,” however, and harder to do, especially if there are accompanying personal life and/or mental health issues that are overlaying everything else that’s going on now. I am a huge supporter of addressing mental and personal issues, through therapy or medication or both. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, ask for help, however you can and in whatever way is best for you.

For me, however, the reason I’ve been thinking about all this stuff is so that I can put structure to it, and plan, and prepare mentally and financially for what I think is likely to happen next, without undue panic. That’s useful to me, and I think it’ll be useful for other people too. Maybe also you. This won’t be forever, and when we’re coming out of it, the planning and preparing we do now will help. This has been my experience so far. I think it’ll help in the future as well.

JoCo Cruise Concert Photos 2020

Each year I go on the JoCo Cruise I post up photos I take at the concerts I go to (or, at least, the ones I bring a camera for). This year’s collection is now up on Flickr, and you can look at it here. If you’re a Seamonkey, then you’ll know what I mean when I mention that the photos cover the opening Gold Team, and final Red and Gold Team, concerts. Everyone else: The album covers three separate concerts. I went heavy on black and white this year, but I like the results. I hope you do, too.

New Books and ARCs, 3/20/20

Seems like now is a fine time to return to one of the favorite features of Whatever — and accounting of the new books and ARCs that have come to Scalzi Compound! What here is calling to you this weekend? Tell us all in the comments.

After the Pandemic

Illustration by Mark Pernice

The folks over at the Washington Post have put together a piece on how the world will change after this pandemic — not in the huge ways, but in the smaller, day-to-day ways — and they asked me to write something for it. I did a piece on personal greetings, because, as it happens, it was a matter of some discussion on the cruise I just came back from. My piece, and the whole package, is here for your reading. Enjoy.

The Big Idea: Eeleen Lee

Travel delays are rarely the raw material for novels, but as Eeleen Lee found out, sometimes a little time — and a new obsession — can lead to inspiration, and eventually a novel, in this case, Liquid Crystal Nightingale.

EELEEN LEE:

In late 2005 I was stuck in transit at Charles de Gaulle airport, and to pass the time I bought a notebook and made myself do a few writing exercises.

“Write what you know” goes the clichéd advice. I had just begun collecting rocks and minerals as a hobby and was eager to use this new knowledge. As the novel took shape over the next several years it deviated from the original plan: I had envisioned a collection of science fiction short stories, in the style of Primo Levi’s The Periodic Table. Each chapter was to be inspired by a mineral or some aspect of gemmology.

The second story I drafted was about a city called Chatoyance. It looked like a giant cat’s eye when seen from space, and this trait was inspired by the interplay of bands of reflected light on the surface of certain minerals such as tiger’s-eye.

In collecting specimens I also collected myths, superstitions, and legends. Diamonds are a girl’s best friend and allegedly, they’re forever. The ancient Chinese believed when a tiger died its soul entered the ground and became amber. Opals are the captured interplay of fire and oil on water, according to Pliny the Elder. Diamond and opal are the birthstones for April and October, respectively.

Out of all this extensive lore and romance a universal recognition of eternity emerges, albeit bookended by birth and death. Gems⁠—and humans⁠— are shaped by and subject to the forces of time.

What is associated with power, magic and romance, is unfortunately also connected with ongoing exploitation, corruption, and the plundering of riches. In a few surreal instances, when my hobby transmuted into obsession, it has granted me unexpected glimpses into corridors of power, if not movement within them. It is supremely disconcerting to view scintillating jewelry pieces up for auction in a hotel ballroom, surrounded by traders and VIPs, and the next minute read about the latest embargo on conflict stones on your phone. These experiences inspired the creation of the wealthy Tier Dwellers in my novel.

Gemstones also remind us that we live in a universe subject to extreme forces of nature. To extract treasure from the rocky layers beneath our feet, is to enter the realm of various chthonic deities, and tempt fate. The mining company in my novel does not respect such forces. Which is why the asteroid miners in my novel conduct rituals and name their children after rocks and minerals as a form of appeasement. But the miners pay for their employer’s hubris when tragedy strikes.

I also highly recommend a visit to the Earth Gallery of the Natural History Museum in London or to the Smithsonian in Washington, DC. The most striking exhibits are the ammonites and amber specimens. The amber evokes raw honey with its trapped insects, grit, and pollen, and the ammonites are timeless and self-contained in their Fibonacci-sequenced spirals. Gemstones are also artefacts, bringing us into contact with our past and the planet’s deep past.

A writer working in a certain genre is all too aware of its past. The dazzle of preceding works is so bright as to outshine but she sets herself a Sisyphean task to improve on or at least match these past glories. The major sci-fi films hanging over my novel are 2001, Solaris, and Alien but I tried to avoid any throwbacks to my favourites. The goal was to throw-forward as far as possible: via an invented martial art, a sprawling yet claustrophobic urbanscape, and new spins on the science fiction staples of cybernetic implants, forcefields and guns.

In a genre that tends to feature action and explosions, I was seeking to reintroduce a sense of quiet, or disquiet, and a plot that prompts audiences to absorb its implications rather than merely following it. But there’s still action and explosions because it would be strange to not include these in a space opera. It’s all part of the experience and immersion. In gemmology you immerse your eyes and hopefully, in reading you immerse all of yourself.

—-

Liquid Crystal Nightingale: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

Till the Heart Caves In: An LP-length Mixtape Playlist

I felt like making a mixtape today! Which I did, and it turned out exactly as long as an LP, with five songs on each side. Here it is, in YouTube video form. I also have it on Spotify, here.

SIDE ONE

SIDE TWO

The Big Idea: S.A. Jones

It’s not every day that your book is the debut novel for an entire publishing line, but S.A. Jones has that honor with The Fortress, which is the first release from Erewhon Books. It’s a big responsibility, but as you’ll see below, Jones has a big idea to match.

S.A. JONES:

I began writing The Fortress when I was twelve, although I didn’t know it then. At the time I was a competitive swimmer and had the occasional dream of Olympic glory. But I also wanted to be Prime Minister of Australia and David Attenborough, so I was keeping my options open.

Along with four others in my swim squad, all boys, I had achieved the qualifying time to try out for the state team. This meant travelling from our tiny island in the Buccanneer Archipelago in Western Australia to the “big smoke” of Port Hedland in the Pilbara region.

Being four boys and me in the 80s, our squad was called “SJ and the Meaner Machine,” after the formidable Australian freestyle relay team “The Mean Machine.” My initials are “SJ.” We had shirts made up and everything.

We were chaperoned by the coach and his wife and billeted with a family in Port Hedland. A roster of chores was drawn up for us five kids while we were there. This was a sensible thing to do given we ate constantly and created mountains of chlorinated washing.

When it was Jeffrey’s turn to do the dishes, he refused. This put my coach and his wife in an awkward position, because Jeffrey was their son. His parents insisted.

Jeffrey refused and began to glow red around the ears. This was a warning sign we were all familiar with. Jeffrey’s tantrums were epic: a loud, kinetic spectacle that he claimed to have no memory of afterwards.

The embarrassment in the room at Jeffrey’s refusal became a palpable thing, another presence.

As the redness spread from Jeffrey’s ears to his temples and a high pitched whine began to escape his mouth, Jeffrey’s mother announced that I would do his dishes.

His dishes. As well as the dishes I was rostered to do.

“That’s not fair,” I pointed out.

But the desire to avert a scene was stronger than the inclination for fairness, and my protests fell on deaf ears.

As I stood by the sink doing Jeffrey’s dishes, my face burning with humiliation, Jeffrey smirked at me from the doorway.

For the few days we were billeted there, I had to do all Jeffrey’s chores as well as my own.

As injustices go it was trifling. It probably doesn’t even rank in the top ten most sexist experiences of my life. What is significant is that during those few days my consciousness of girlhood, and what that means in relation to boyhood, was born. Even setting aside the gross error of judgement in releasing Jeffrey from his chores, there were three other kids in that team that could have shared the load. But they were boys.

Housework was girl work. I was the girl. The SJ in the Meaner Machine.

I’ve given a lot of thought to what it is to be a girl. In some ways, Jeffrey has always been smirking at me from the doorway of that kitchen.

I’ve read wonderful, powerful books about the female experience. Kate Grenville’s Lilian’s Story. Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. Charlotte Wood’s The Natural Way of Things.

But where was the book about Jeffrey? About what happens to a boy who learns early in life that the world will bend his way. Who is not taught to discipline his emotions and appetites. Who expects that handmaids will clean up when he won’t.

And more importantly, what does it take for this man to change?

The Fortress is my answer to that question.

What is evident is that empathy is not enough. If it were, we would have no difficulty entering into the reality of other people’s lives and changing ourselves to better their reality. Fathers would discard sexist expectations as they raise daughters. White women would unpack their colonialism as they understand how it distorts the lives of their friends of color.

Clearly, some people do work from empathy to change.

But if empathy were sufficient in itself, our world would not look like it does. That is why The Fortress is so carnal. I could have told this story while being coy about the sexual elements in the way of “serious” literature. But I want the reader to be physically discomfited. The aroused and feeling weird about it reader is the reader I want. The reader I designed.

The Fortress is supposed to get under the skin because imagination – the gateway to empathy – isn’t enough. Change is not an intellectual exercise. It is gritty, visceral and awkwardly physical. Like shame (which often pre-empts change), it happens in the body.

—-

The Fortress: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Visit the author’s site.

Great Scott

I noted this on Twitter yesterday but it bears a retelling and an archiving here: The folks at Jay and Mary’s Book Center, my local bookstore, knew that I and my family were away on a cruise the week that the coronavirus started to bite down hard, and people started freaking out and hoarding toilet paper. So out of their own purchases (which I can only assume were moderate and responsible), they saved us this 4-pack. Athena went and picked it up the other day.

As it turned out, we were not in want of toilet paper — we have an ample supply to get through the next two or three week at least — but I very much appreciated the neighborliness the act represented. That sort of simple kindness and consideration of those near us is the thing that’s going to get us through the next couple of months, and may hopefully set a pattern (or reset it) that we can continue on after this.

Also this is a fine reminder that I do sign stock at Jay & Mary’s on a frequent basis, and will be signing The Last Emperox for them when it comes in, so if you don’t have a local bookstore you already support, and you feel like splashing out a little extra in shipping in order for me to scribble in your book, you can give them a call and they will be happy to help you out.

The Big Idea: TJ Klune

In the writing of The House in the Cerulean Sea, author TJ Klune looked a little history north of our border — and current events right here in the US — to inform his world of magic, and bureaucrats who seemingly trudge through it.

TJ KLUNE:

When an author gets an idea in their head—one with legs that isn’t just a fleeting thought—it tends to worm its way into our brains and won’t leave us alone until we either write it down or kill it with fire.

Before I started The House in the Cerulean Sea, I had the pieces of an idea, these little shards that didn’t quite come together into a clear picture. It had to do with magical people dealing with fear and discrimination. Specifically, it would involve magical children, those who should have been protected at all costs, but instead were shunned for simply existing at all.

It helped (maddeningly so) that I could already hear the main character’s voice in my head, a fussy fellow named Linus, who was a stickler for the rules. He would be a caseworker in an Orwellian world, where the government sees all, knows all, and controls everything. Linus would work for said government with the bureaucratically gloomy name of The Department in Charge of Magical Youth (DICOMY), a drone who did as he was told because it was expected of him. And he’d be queer, because that’s what I write: queer people from all walks of life.

The pieces were there, but the picture was still fuzzy.

It remained fuzzy until I stumbled across the Sixties Scoop, something I’d never heard of before, something I’d never been taught in school (I’m American, by the way). In Canada, beginning in the 1950s and continuing through the 1980s, indigenous children were taken from their homes and families and placed into government-sanctioned facilities, such as residential schools. The goal was for primarily white, middle-class families across Canada, the US, and even Europe—to adopt these children. It’s estimated that over 20,000 indigenous children were taken, and it wasn’t until 2017 that the families of those affected reached a financial settlement with the Canadian government totaling over eight hundred million dollars.

I researched more, and discovered instances the world over, in my own country and abroad, of the same thing happening: families being separated because they were different, because of the color of their skin, because of their faith, because those in power were scared of them. I wrote The House in the Cerulean Sea in the spring of 2018, months later, in the summer, news exploded from our southern border about families searching for a better life being separated and put into government-sanctioned facilities.

History, as it does with terrifying consistency, was repeating itself once again.

Let me be up front about something: I’m a white dude. There really isn’t much I should be preaching about. I’m queer, and a loud one at that, but the marginalization I’ve faced because of this isn’t to be compared to others facing bigotry. It’s not a contest. It sucks across the board, but I’m a mid-thirties cis man in America. I’m privileged in ways others are not. I know this, so when I wrote Cerulean, I knew I had to do so carefully, to make sure that what I’d decided on to be the central theme of the story wouldn’t be lost.

That central theme?

Kindness.

Look, I get how that sounds. I’m sure more than a few of you reading this rolled your eyes at the word. It’s trite, isn’t it? Sure it is. But stick with me for a moment.

As I write this, it’s 2020, and we’re so divided, I don’t know how we’ll recover from it. Those in power fling insults as easily as they breathe. People take to the streets in masks and hoods, spreading their hate as if it were gospel. We’re all so angry almost every second of every day, and we have a right to be. We should be angry. The world is on fire. The news grows more dire with each new breaking broadcast. People are hurt—or worse, killed—because of who they love, what they believe, or the color of their skin. We’ve lost our way, and I worry that this has become our new normal.

I can only do what I think I do best: write. And so I began writing The House in the Cerulean Sea, imagining a world not so different from our own, where people who are different than the majority are controlled by those in power. The smallest of us—the children—are taken from their homes and placed into euphemistically named orphanages, overseen by caseworkers in DICOMY. Linus is sent on a top-secret assignment to investigate a special orphanage, one hidden away, housing what the world considers to be the most dangerous of children.

What he finds there changes him. How exactly, you’ll have to read for yourself, but I never strayed away from kindness as a theme. It was—and still is—important to me. To offer a hand in compassion rather than a fist raised in anger seems like it should be common sense, but many appear to have forgotten that. We, like Linus discovers, need to use our voices for those who can’t speak for themselves, those who should be allowed to be small in this great, wide world. But sometimes we also need to shut up and listen to those small voices, because if we don’t, we run the risk of drowning them out.

We are better than what we currently seem to be. I know we are. And I don’t believe it’s too late for us to course correct. It’s going to take time, and a hell of a lot of hard work, but we’re capable of it. The House in the Cerulean Sea is my great wish into the universe, a fable about the goodness in us all, if only we can believe in it. Hope is a weapon, kindness our battle cry. As long as we stand together, I know we’ll shape this place we call home into something we can all be proud of.

—-

The House in the Cerulean Sea: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

A Bunch of COVID-Related Thoughts

The front page of the Dayton Daily News, 3/17/20.

I’m awake at an absurdly early hour and can’t get back to sleep! A perfect time to post a bunch of musings on the current apocalypse! These aren’t in any particular order because see above, re: absurdly early hour.

* First off, this is an apocalypse that I have to admit seems uniquely suited, on a day-to-day basis, not to inconvenience me all that much. Let’s recap: I’m an introvert writer who works from home, rarely goes out, does almost no local socializing and who has over the years developed long and fruitful relationships with people he mostly hangs out with online. What we’re all doing now? This is my actual life. Staying at home for weeks at a time without outside human contact is what I do anyway. I know this current situation is difficult for a lot of you, and you’re struggling with this enforced isolation. I do sympathize, and I mean that entirely without irony or sarcasm. But for my own self, well. I got this.

* Also, on a slightly more serious note, this current apocalypse is one I and my family are fortunate to be equipped to handle. We live in a small town on some land so “social distancing” is not exactly difficult. My wife’s job already let her work from home two days a week, so she already had her infrastructure and habits set and we already have a “both of us working from home” routine set. Her working from home five days a week (as she’ll be doing for the next several weeks) will not be a problem. As already noted, I work from home anyway. Our kid is back at home right now, but we like having her home, and she likes us too, so that’s great. We have health insurance and we can cover our deductible without a problem, and we are all generally healthy. We have money in the bank and no debts or immediate financial concerns. We have satellite TV and streaming services and internet and musical instruments and, of course, thousands of books. We have cats. We’re fine. Mind you, if civilization collapses entirely we’ll be just as fucked as everyone else. But until then: We’re fine.

* However, I’m well aware that not everyone else is fine. Even leaving aside those who are ill or taking care of the sick, there are millions of Americans who are not in a great position to weather weeks at home, and whose jobs and lives and incomes and health are threatened by the Great Stop of Everything we’re seeing now. I am worried about friends and family and I’m worried about local businesses. We are giving thought to how best we can help, locally and with the people we care about. There’s a rush to do everything up front, but this is something that’s going to be with us for a while, both in the immediate crush of crisis, and the long follow-up of reconfiguring our lives to what comes next. We’re thinking about both, and what we can do.

* And it’s not as if the current situation isn’t affecting me, either. I just had a book tour cancelled, because it’s unlikely things are going to take a sudden magical turn for the better in less than a month. That’s going to have an effect on how the book does in the short run — as will the fact that people are at home rather than out at bookstores, and that they’re worried about their finances, so book purchases may (understandably) be a lower priority for some. Long-term, I think it will be fine; one weirdness of my career is that I frontlist well but I backlist like a friggin’ rock star, so in time any hiccup with the launch will probably be smoothed over (EVEN SO pre-order The Last Emperox right now, if you can, please and thank you). But yeah, I’m going to take an early hit on this, possibly a real big one. It is what it is.

Also, that portion of my retirement account that’s invested in the stock market has, uhhhhhh, taken a bit of a haircut — the stock market is down a third from its highs, and much of that has been in the last couple of weeks, while our incompetent national government has been saying and doing exactly the wrong things, frequently and in sequence, and the repercussions of our economy shutting down have hit the markets. The “good news” here, for me, anyway, is that I’m not retiring for 20 years anyway (if writers ever retire at all), and this isn’t the first massive market correction I’ve weathered as an investor. You may recall the 2008 unpleasantness, for example. But it’s still rather emphatically not great.

Again, I’m fine, my family is fine and short of a complete collapse of civilization we should get through this okay. We are affected less than others, and you really should not feel sorry for us. But we’re still being affected.

* Let me talk a moment here about the president and the federal government and their response to this crisis, and let me begin by noting that no matter who was in power, this global pandemic would have happened and it would have been horrible for people and the economy. This is a tsunami that feels almost specifically designed to swamp the way we’ve designed our global systems and the way we move around in the world, locally and internationally. This was always going to be bad; the role of national governments in this case was always going to be how to mitigate the awfulness as much as possible.

With that said, let’s not pretend that we did not have the absolute worst president and administration possible for the circumstances presiding at the moment (and yes, this is a recurring theme). We did and do, and we and our economy are currently suffering for it. The president and the administration lied and minimized and denied responsibility while all of this was happening, and wasted billions trying to prop up markets that collapsed regardless. I mean, I know why they did that: one of the great “justifications” for the incompetence and malign nature of the Trump administration has been a smug “how’s your 401(k) doing?”, as if one’s retirement account excused the vast corruption and incompetence.

Well, the answer now to that smug question is: Terrible, actually, it’s lost every single gain it’s made in the last three years, and it lost it in just under two weeks, in no small part to how the administration bungled the response to this. Now everyone is at home and lots of people won’t have jobs or money after all this is over. What’s the excuse now for this awful, terrible, incompetent regime, now that the nation’s 401(k)s are well and truly screwed? There is none, except, basically, racism, bigotry and “owning the libs.” Enjoy your MAGA hat, folks. That’s all you’re getting out of this presidency.

At least our response (now) isn’t “Get them all sick, let God sort them out,” which I understand is the current UK government response — or was until I think yesterday evening, when the Tories figured out they were going to end up slaughtering mostly their own voters. Congratulations, US, for not having the absolutely most heartless national response to a global pandemic!

Also, for fuck’s sake, people, stop voting for rich, ignorant, venal white men (and their quisling lackeys) who don’t care about you unless you’re a goddamn billionaire. Just fucking stop, already.

* This would also be my cue to slam US conservatives in general for their “let’s pretend this isn’t happening because if we say it’s not happening then it won’t happen” mode of thinking and responding, and generally speaking I would not be wrong to do so — except for the actually conservative government of the State of Ohio, in which I live, which has been doing an overall very decent job of recognizing there’s a crisis. It’s been shutting down the state in an orderly fashion so that people will just stay the hell home, already, and coordinating with local governments to stay on top of things. They were doing these things at the same time or even before more liberal state governments in places like California and New York were doing their things. Apparently, conservatives in Ohio may be conservative, but they still have some relationship to a reality that’s not been entirely crafted by Sean fucking Hannity and Fox News. So thank you, Ohio conservatives, for generally being in the same world as I am, at least for this bit. It’s heartening.

(EXCEPT for this complete bullshit, closing down the polls as a health hazard at ten fucking thirty the night before the Ohio primary, with no prior notice and with no actual plan to reschedule the primary aside from “oh, we’ll move it to June, except that I, the governor, have no legal right to do that, so, uh, yeah [Jedi hand wave].” I usually vote early in Ohio, but didn’t this time, and now I’m kicking myself. Never again. Also, hi, folks, do your voting early/by mail this year if you can, because you just know this bullshit is going to pulled again come November. There is literally no excuse for this last minute rug pulling, and everyone of every political persuasion should be waving red flags about it.)

* To come back to me for a moment, and I think for the duration of this (at least), one of my plans will be to write more here, and to do what I can to support other writers and to give people things to read and do to occupy their time. What that means at this point I’m a little fuzzy on, other than probably writing more posts. I’m figuring this out as I go along like everyone else. But again, I know this isolation thing is tough for folks, for all sorts of differing reasons. I’d like to do what I can to make it a little more bearable. All which is to say: I’m working on it, folks. We’ll see what comes of it.

(Note, because I see some of you hovering over your keyboard, I’m not looking for suggestions on what to do. I’ll figure out what works best for me. If I do want suggestions, I will specifically ask. But thanks!)

* We’ll get through this, most of us. Wash your hands, stay home, take care of yourself and your family and look out for your neighbors and friends. Don’t hoard toilet paper or milk or whatever other saleable good everyone seems to be panicking about today. Stick to actual reputable news sources and don’t forward bullshit you see on social media. Support your local businesses now so they will be around when all of this is over. If you can, buy a book (waves) or subscribe to a Patreon or otherwise give support to the creative people you know who are low-key panicking about how they’re gonna eat for the next month or two.

Finally and for the foreseeable future: Let’s be kind when we can. I bet we can be kind most of the time. Let’s all try it and see.

Important News About The Last Emperox Tour

So, let’s get right to it, folks: The book tour for The Last Emperox has to be cancelled.

Why? Well, I’m pretty sure you know why:

1. There’s a global pandemic going on as we speak.

2. Gathering in groups is not a great idea.

3. In a lot of the places where my tour stops are, gathering in large groups is currently not allowed.

4. A number of the events and festivals that I was going to as part of my tour have already been delayed or cancelled.

5. Neither I nor Tor can in good conscience ask people to risk their health — or the health of others — just to come see me do my thing. These are extraordinary times and circumstances, and we want you all to be safe and healthy, today and in the future.

I want you to know that neither I nor Tor have come to this decision lightly. If you’ve ever seen me at an event then you know how much I genuinely enjoy them. I love coming to town, seeing all of you, and supporting booksellers in their communities. I am as unhappy about this as you are. But! This is just one tour. There will be other books, other tours and other opportunities to see each other. Let’s keep that in mind even if things are disappointing right now.

Also and this is important: If you have pre-ordered The Last Emperox from your local bookseller in anticipation of my upcoming tour event, please keep your pre-order with your local bookstore. The next couple of months are going to be very difficult for local business, bookstores included. They will need your help to make it through what is going to be a very tough time. On my end, I’ll be doing what I can for the bookstores where we had announced tour events to get signed copies and/or bookplates to them. We’ll try to do right by them and you on that score. That’s another reason we’re announcing this now — so we’ll have enough time to work with these stores.

So, please, please, please: Keep your pre-order at your local bookstore, or make that pre-order at your local bookstore. Your local bookstore needs you right now. The more you support your local bookseller today, the more likely it is to be around in the future, when I and the other authors you like are able to go back on tour. I want to be able to see you and scribble in your book face-to-face, the next time I have a book out. And the way for that to happen is for you stick by your local bookstore today.

Also remember that I am signing and personalizing copies of The Last Emperox through Subterranean Press (get your orders in there soon; I’ll be signing those at the end of the month), and that you may also order signed books through my own local bookseller, Jay and Mary’s Book Center of Troy, Ohio — and that’s any of my books, not just Emperox.

Finally, and just to be clear about this, I will be promoting the crap out of The Last Emperox. Folks, I’m not bragging when I tell you this book is really good; I can’t think of a book I’ve written before where I’ve been this excited to have you all read it to find out what’s happening with the characters and the universe. I want to share it with you and talk about it with you and geek out about it with you.

That being the case, just because I’m not going to be able to do a physical tour doesn’t mean I won’t be around to talk it up and to get with you all. I had a long phone call today with the folks at Tor where we thought about what to do for the book and how we can get people excited for it. We have plans. Oh so many plans. You will find out more about them soon. This will be fun. Stay tuned.

In the meantime: Wash your hands, be kind to each other, support your local businesses including your local bookstore, and above all be ready, because in less than a month The Last Emperox will be out. It will be worth it, and I can’t wait for you to get your hands on it.

The Big Idea: Ann VanderMeer

And now for something a little different: A Big Idea about a Web site, not a book: Avatars, Inc. But it is an anthology, and it’s something I think qualifies here, because as editor Ann VanderMeer explains, it’s got quite a big idea behind it.

ANN VANDERMEER:

The XPRIZE Foundation has been around for over twenty years, doing great work by incentivizing breakthroughs in science and technology. In 2018, XPRIZE produced Seat 14C, its first fiction anthology, followed by Current Futures in 2019, and now Avatars Inc. The goal: To use storytelling to intrigue and inspire the public about our possible futures, brought about by the work XPRIZE is doing today.

There has been a big push in the last several years in current STEM programs around the world to add in the “A” for Arts and have STEAM. And why not? Including the arts into any science and technology program will only expand your reach and include more people. It’s much easier to get the point across in a story than in a bland, jargon-filled article. Which is why you are seeing more and more fiction writers invited to speak at science conferences.

We face many challenges in the modern world, what with climate change, health issues, global conflicts, access to education, and poverty. At XPRIZE, people are working together to find solutions for the future. And the stories being expressed with the XPRIZE anthologies give rise to the imagination. Indeed, storytelling is often used for applied creativity in problem solving.

The relationship between science fiction stories and actual science has always been there. Many scientists who became involved in the Space Program at NASA were early readers of science fiction and were inspired to make a career of science. It’s not just that certain technologies and ideas that originated from science fiction stories become real in our modern day, but also that some SF readers go on to pursue careers in the sciences and make an impact in the world.

I was first approached last year to edit the Current Futures anthology to promote World Oceans Day. I had the opportunity to bring in new voices and work with other writers that I knew and admired. It was a dream project and I was thrilled to see writers like Rochita Loenen-Ruiz, Deborah Biancotti and Karen Lord get excited about stories and work with them again. I was also thrilled to work with other writers for the first time, including Malka Older, Madeline Ashby and Gu Shi.

When I was later asked to edit Avatars Inc, I immediately said yes, and what a wonderful venture it has been. I love working with writers from all over the world and seeing what they can come up with. In this case, they were asked to imagine the uses of avatars in the near and far future. This idea expands on the real-life ANA Avatar XPRIZE competition underway with teams all over the world competing to develop avatar technologies. As innovators work together to develop uses for real avatars, the writers work to imagine what could be. And one of the things that science fiction writers do best is explore the possibilities of “What If?”

Pat Cadigan’s story “The Final Performance of the Amazing Ralphie” imagines the avatars entertaining those consigned to off-planet hospice care. People struggling with health care issues need more than medical attention and this story shows how technology can step in and enhance the lives of those that may have been forgotten.

Avatars are often used in places where it is tricky for humans to navigate. In “Uma,” by Ken Liu, avatars move high up in the power lines to fix and maintain the electrical power structures that we all rely on so heavily. But in this story, their use is pushed beyond the original mandate when life is threatened. Their original purpose is questioned and new uses are discovered.

In both of these stories we can see the typical uses for avatars expanded beyond the original ideas and that’s what gets me so excited about these narratives. Yes, medical and mechanical uses are abundant, but these writers take this a step beyond and imagine what would happen if the avatars (and the humans operating them) are pushed further. Indeed, some of the best inventions have come about when an original idea paves the way into something else. For example, something as simple as the Post-It note, or more complicated like the pacemaker, were both discovered as a result of other pursuits.

After spending the last couple of years fully invested in fantasy while I worked on two mega-anthologies (The Big Book of Classic Fantasy and The Big Book of Modern Fantasy – a combined total of over 2000 pages!), it was refreshing to dive back deep into science fiction. And it reminded me that there are so many highly intelligent creators out there, both in the arts and in the sciences, who continue to create and innovate fearlessly and without slowing down. It brings me much hope for the future that even as we seem to be facing dark days ahead, there are others who show us what opportunities can be achieved and how far we are willing to go to ensure a better future.

—-

Find the AVATARS INC anthology here: www.avatars.inc

Visit the ANA Avatar XPRIZE website

Follow AVATARS INC on Instagram

Follow XPRIZE on Twitter and Instagram.

Follow Ann VanderMeer on Twitter and Instagram

My First Associated Press Photo Credit

I snapped a picture at the Ft. Lauderdale airport yesterday while I was trying to head home and posted it on Twitter with the requisite snarky comment, and then it went viral (so to speak). One thing led to another and now the AP is distributing the photo. Now I have an AP photo credit to my name, which as a former full-time journalist, is kind of neat. I also talked to the AP’s local reporter (Terry Spencer of the byline you see above) of the mood, etc of that very packed airport.

When he asked me my occupation, I noted I was a science fiction writer who had, in fact, written books about a future plague, so the unfurling of current events was not exactly surprising to me. We’ll see if that quote gets in any future updates to this particular story.

If you’d like to see the story to which the above photo was appended, it’s here.

Also, hello! We’re back home. We’re feeling fine. I for one don’t plan to leave the house for a while. Not only best practices at the moment, but just, you know, what I do anyway.

Life at Sea, Thursday Edition

It’s nice. I’ll be sad to be back on land.