New Books and ARCs, 8/9/19

I’m in Dublin all next week, so this week you get a super-sized edition of the new books and ARCs stack. It’s a very fine one, too. Which of these are calling to you? Tell us all in the comments!

Sunset 8/8/19

A nice combination of clouds and orange, I have to say.

The Big Idea: Matt Mikalatos

In today’s Big Idea, author Matt Mikalatos considers the idea of justice, and how it works both in our world in and the world of his novel, The Heartwood Crown.

MATT MIKALATOS:

“Whatever happens, don’t go to the police.”

Twenty years ago I lived in a totalitarian state. Still, I was an American, and was treated with general respect. We Americans brought a decent amount of money into the country. My acquaintance who warned me away from the police brought in more than a decent amount.

Someone had broken into his house in a gated community and stolen some electronics. He made a report, and the police returned his belongings a few days later. They had caught the thief, they said, and executed him. The thief’s family had been required to pay for the execution.

The emotions coming out of this moment would become a core part of The Heartwood Crown. The horror of someone losing their life over a VCR. The recognition of how messy it is to seek justice. Do we consider issues like this thief’s poverty? Why is justice harsher if he steals from the rich and influential? Wasn’t another injustice created by killing this man? What does that mean for his family, his friends, his community? What is the role of government and the police force here? And, years later, realizing that this sort of thing happens here in the United States, too… that too often terrible costs are paid for small crimes.

The Heartwood Crown is the second book in a trilogy. I already had the big idea for the series overall: There’s a fantasy world called the Sunlit Lands that’s only open to teenagers. What’s more, to cross from our world into the Sunlit Lands they have to be teens who have experienced tragedy or true injustice in their personal lives.

And I already had the main characters, carrying over from the first book, The Crescent Stone:
Madeline Oliver is a privileged American with a terminal illness.

Shula Bishara is a Syrian war orphan.

Jason Wu lied to his parents, and his sister died as a result.

Darius Walker had a loved one stolen away by the magical people of the Sunlit Lands.

The big idea I was lacking was a theme. I knew that I wanted to explore issues of injustice, generational wrongs, revenge, mercy, and forgiveness, but I was having a hard time narrowing all that down.

I had plenty of in-universe ways to explore those themes. Madeline discovers her terminal illness was the result of magical interference in her life. There are people in the Sunlit Lands called the Scim who have been in generations of poverty because of another people group, the Elenil. Shula is dealing with the loss of her parents and siblings. And all these teenagers had the passion and desire to fix the world, they were looking for solutions.

The intersection of injustice and the question “what do we do about it?” finally brought my big idea into focus: exploring the myth of redemptive violence.

My whole life I’ve been taught that violence is the solution to injustice. Entire genres of movies taught me that if someone threatened my loved ones, I should hunt the bad guys down and kill them. The government taught me that if there’s an evil regime somewhere in the world, we should go to war. When I was a child, some people in my religious tradition even taught me that a loving God required not just death but violence in response to evil actions. “It’s only through violence that we can have peace,” they would say. It sounds like a George Orwell quote, but that’s the message of redemptive violence. It’s what leads us to places where criminals are executed for stealing a VCR or selling loose cigarettes.

Fantasy novels often embrace this idea. We have to kill the evil king, fire bomb the city with dragons, build our undead army, or find the magic spear that can slaughter our enemies. It’s not that other tools don’t exist, but if there’s injustice we reach instinctively for the sword.

So now that I had the big idea, I had to flesh it out. Darius already had a magic sword and a thirst for revenge, so I sent him off for the traditional quest: build an army, then find and kill the evil king.

Meanwhile, Madeline’s perspective changes as she confronts her own mortality. She doesn’t want to kill anyone – her own impending death is more than she can bear — she just wants to fix the world. Does she have the moral imagination to find a solution? Is power and violence required to change the world?

Shula is wrestling with the violent deaths of her own family… and how could anything other than a violent response be sufficient?

And Jason is dealing with the very real question that haunts many of us: How can he forgive himself?

This led, of course, to flying cats and swamp monsters and necromancers and a kitten-sized unicorn named Delightful Glitter Lady. There are unbreakable oaths and dirigibles and enchanted shackles and – yes – revenge. Secrets. Sacrifice. It’s still a fantasy novel, after all!

Ursula K. LeGuin said, “Imagination is the instrument of ethics. There are metaphors besides battle, many choices besides war, and most ways of doing good do not, in fact, involve killing anybody. Fantasy is good at thinking about those other ways.”

Twenty years ago a man was executed for stealing from an acquaintance of mine. Today there are spaces where our culture keeps pushing us, over and over, toward violence. The Big Idea for The Heartwood Crown is that maybe, just maybe we can expand our moral imagination to find new solutions to the problems that plague us. As Jason often says in the book, we have to learn to change our story. That was a little frustrating as the author since he would never do what I wanted (he refuses to fight warriors, confront dragons, or accept the consequences of magic), but it’s good advice for us in real life.

—-

The Heartwood Crown: Amazon|Barnes and Noble|IndieBound|Powell’s

Here’s a link to the first couple chapters of the book. Matt’s website and Twitter account.

A Father- Daughter Photo Interlude

Athena finalized her next semester’s class schedule today, and one of her classes is on digital photography. This got me talking about how the camera and the eye don’t really see the same thing at all, and then taking pictures of her with my 28mm – 300mm lens at different focal lengths so she could see how much it changed the apparent shape of her face (very generally, if you’re doing portraiture, the higher your focal length is in millimeters, the flatter and wider someone’s face is going to look). Then we also talked about how I used photo software to work with pictures after I took them, and how what you do in Photoshop (and other programs and plugins) can change the photo.

The photo above, for example, was shot with a 28mm focal length, then tweaked in software to fix facial distortion, lighting and skin tone evenness, and then turned monochromatic, with grain and a border added. The idea was not to turn the photo into some obvious and unrealistic Facetune slider-fest (although sometimes that’s fun to do), but to at least initially bring what comes out of the camera closer to what the human eye sees, and then find a visual presentation that compliments the subject. Mind you, this is what photographers have done pretty much since the advent of photography; the only difference is that digital tools make it quicker and easier (and cheaper!) to do, without the need to devote space in one’s home for a darkroom and its attendant poisonous chemicals.

I don’t think it will come as a surprise to people that when I post pictures of Athena and Krissy, I run them through Photoshop to clean them up and to make them more visually interesting. I am occasionally asked whether either my daughter or wife ever take a bad photo; the answer is yes, of course, it’s just I never show you any of those. I show you my bad photos. That should be enough for anyone. Anyway, I’ve from time to time had people tell me that they thought I probably prettied up pictures of Krissy but then they met her in real life and realized that no, she actually does look like that, which I find gratifying. As I noted before, I want the pictures I take to accurately reflect life.

It was fun to talk photography with Athena because it’s a hobby of mine, and it’s fun to explain your hobby to others, and also because Athena is already a pretty decent photographer herself, so talking about something she already has an eye for I think will make her eye even better in the long run. I suspect she’ll do just fine in her class this next semester.

The Big Idea: Dee Garretson

There’s the old adage that history is written by the winners — but history, and who gets to tell it, is more complicated than that. As Dee Garretson will tell you, as she talks about her new novel, Paradox Hunt.

DEE GARRETSON:

My son used to believe I had eyes in the back of my head, to the point where he would comb through my hair looking for them. At those times I would tell him I could make the eyes disappear whenever I wanted to and he fell for that as well. It wasn’t something he wanted to believe, unlike Santa Claus, the tooth fairy and the Easter bunny, all who rewarded his beliefs with good things. He believed me because I was a person in authority. I feel a tiny bit bad about it now, but then it made my life easier so he wouldn’t pinch his sister in the backseat when I was driving.

We also had a kid in our neighborhood with an amazing imagination who convinced the other kids they could get rabies from touching a tree that a rabid animal had climbed. While that kid didn’t have any authority, he could tell stories and sound absolutely convincing so they believed him. I really hope the boy grew up to be a writer instead of a politician.

It’s easy to shape the beliefs of a few young children, but people with power and reach can manipulate the beliefs not just of the young and gullible but of the educated as well. I’ve thought about this for a long time. I studied history in college and I’ve wanted to write a story with this theme ever since I read an article in the Chicago Tribune about how the Chinese government didn’t broadcast the 1969 moon landing and decided their people didn’t need to know it happened. It happens in the U.S. as well-we hear about far too many textbooks that try to lessen the impact of slavery or promote a revisionist history of the Civil War.

So the big idea for Paradox Hunt arose from all of this: How do you know the history you are taught is true?

Paradox Hunt is about two young people from two different cultures, and each culture has manipulated the accounts of their histories to keep the powerful in their societies in control.

The galaxy is on the brink of chaos and Earth has grown repressive over the centuries, touting democratic principles while ruling with an iron fist. Sixteen-year-old Quinn Neen has discovered the truth behind the façade and he is determined not to be part of the elite who let the horrors continue.

I wanted to take this story beyond just having the characters fight against authority. Both Quinn and Mira, the main characters, benefit from this power structure. Their families are in charge. What does it take to move beyond your own self interest to do what’s right? It’s easy to search for truth and rail against power if you don’t have it, but if you benefit from it, it’s so much more difficult.

I wrote this story as a future where Earth is in control of much of the galaxy, because it’s easy to imagine that given humans’ propensity to colonize what they want, it’s a likely way in which the future may play out. I wrote it as young adult fiction, not because I want to go back to being a teenager (!), but because much like writers trying to get published for the first time, young adults have that mix of naivety and bravado to keep going even when it seems like everyone around you is trying to slap you down.

Save the galaxy? Sure, we can try that. Why not? Who says we can’t?

I like to write about people who are optimistic enough to believe they can make a difference. We all need those stories in this day and age. Oh, and just for fun, I’ve included a diva parrot, because why can’t there be parrots on space ships?

—-

Paradox Hunt: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

I’ve Got a Lot of Writing to Do Today, So I Offer You This Flower in Lieu of a Lengthy Post

I saw it on my walk yesterday. It’s lovely. Have a good Monday, if you can.

Dayton, August 4, 2019

Lois Oglesby, 27. 

Jordan Cofer, 22.

Saeed Saleh, 38.

Derrick Fudge, 57.

Logan Turner, 30.

Nicholas Cumer, 25.

Thomas McNichols, 25.

Beatrice Warren-Curtis, 36.

Monica Brickhouse, 39.

For those who need it, here’s my piece from three years ago on “thoughts and prayers.”

Oh, Look, Another Silly Kvetch About Me

"One thing is making me a bit sad, tho: realizing that the SF landscape of Heinlein juveniles (I'm also reading the new Heinlein biography), Niven hard SF novels, etc is sliding over the horizon. Landscape now is built out of Harry Potter, Hidden Figures, Scalzi, and movies."

An author who actively dislikes me and what I write laments on Twitter that in his opinion the era of Heinlein and hard SF has been replaced by — Me! Oh, and JK Rowling and movies and black women who do math.

Leaving aside whether that particular assertion is accurate (and even if it is, whether my placement on this list is motivated more by animus against me than my actual importance, because in terms of the cultural impact of the things listed, I am a very distant fourth behind Potter/JK Rowling, Hidden Figures and the entire medium of film), some thoughts on this:

1. I like the idea that someone who dislikes who I am and what I do nevertheless has to begrudgingly admit that I represent a principal mode of commercial science fiction right now. Yes, yes, he hates it, and me. Oh, well.

2. It wasn’t that long ago that I was considered “the next Heinlein” — seriously, the Publishers Weekly review for Old Man’s War said it “reads like an original work by the late grand master,” and since then I’ve been more or less continuing a “golden age of SF” vibe in my work, updated for the current era (note that this updating is the part fellows like him whine about). So there’s no small irony in complaining that the Era of Heinlein has been superseded by the Era of Scalzi.

3. Imagine claiming to enjoy hard SF, and yet somehow being disapproving of the popularity of Hidden Figures, in which three women employ their understanding of for-the-time-cutting-edge math, physics and technology to allow humans conquer space. It’s literally everything hard SF aspires to be.

4. Anyone lamenting that film is a now major mode of popular science fiction knows nothing about either film or science fiction, and the popular marriage of the two which goes back at least to 1902 and Georges Méliès, i.e., long before the age of Heinlein and “hard SF.”

5. Grousing on the rise of Potter and Rowling is like a music snob griping about the rise of the Beatles. It’s a once-in-a-generation cultural event, and you might as well complain about the tide coming in, and going back out again.

This fellow may at least take comfort in the idea that my era will one day pass — indeed, might be already passing as we speak! Unfortunately for him, what comes after me (as in, is here right now) in science fiction is NK Jemisin, and Mary Robinette Kowal, and Yoon Ha Lee and so many more astounding talents like them. All of whom I strongly suspect this particular fellow will find some reason for objection. “Some reason.”

The problem isn’t really that the “Age of Heinlein” is passing in science fiction. The creative mode that Heinlein wrote in still exists and will continue to exist, inasmuch as I and many other people write in it, and do just fine, creatively and financially, with it. The same with Niven (who is as it happens still alive and still creating) and his mode, and all the other folks working in the hard and golden age-style SF modes. It and they are still there and doing well. The “problem” is that a certain sort of person who claims science fiction for his own is no longer centered in the genre, and the genre no longer listens to his demand to be centered in it, and is doing just fine without him being centered there.

At least this fellow has the sense to admit it’s happened. It has. The genre isn’t going back.

New Books and ARCs, 8/2/19

For the first weekend of August, a nice collection of new books and ARCs for you to consider. What here is calling to you? Share in the comments!

The Big Idea: Gretchen McCulloch

Hey, did you know you’re on the internet right now? It’s true! And as it happens, the internet has been doing things to the way language is used for almost as long as there has been an internet. And now, author Gretchen McCulloch is here to tell you a little bit about that, why she felt that it was interesting enough to capture in her book, titled, naturally enough, Because Internet, and how, in some ways, a book is an ideal repository of information about an electronic medium.

GRETCHEN McCULLOCH:

In 2014, I started writing a book about internet language. Every so often, while I was working on it, I would look at myself and think, surely this is a fool’s errand. How could I possibly sum up the entirety of the living, breathing language of the internet within a couple hundred static pages? 

That wasn’t my only problem. I also had to figure out who I was writing this book for. Imaging the audience is a crucial part of writing for me — it inspires my jokes and metaphors and cultural references, even though I know it’s never completely true. When I write for somewhere like The Toast or Wired, the audience is already very clear in my imagination, a joyful companion while I write. But I could imagine these audiences because I was already reading these news sites — writing for them is adding my voice to an existing chorus. A book doesn’t have an audience when it doesn’t exist yet. 

The big idea that solved both of these problems together was deciding that I was writing to the reader of the future. If it was going to be several years before anyone read the words I started drafting in 2014, why not acknowledge how weird that was and cast my sights even further forward? If any book about the internet was inevitably going to be out of date sooner or later, why not write it with an eye to the reader of, say, 2049 or 2099, just as much as towards the reader of 2019? 

Writing towards the future provided useful practical guidance. One thing I had to figure out was exactly which bits of the internet needed additional context. When I was writing towards the reader of the present, I’d worried about seeming condescending by explaining what Snapchat or Usenet was (for two, ahem, very different audiences). But when I thought of myself as writing towards the future, I realized that I was grateful to writers of the past for their vivid explanations of now-dead technologies, and felt less self-conscious about necessary asides. 

Another practical thing that I did for the benefit of future readers was to safeguard against link rot, a problem I faced constantly when trying to access urls from old articles. I archived all of the links mentioned in the book via the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine, and made a donation to help them stay in operation, which I then made a note of in the acknowledgements section. This allows readers of the future to know what to do with any urls that stop working, acknowledges the important work that the Internet Archive does, and encourages other authors to do likewise. 

Writing for the future also let me write a book that wouldn’t sound dated quite so quickly.  I grew tired of reading “now” or “current” or “modern” and flipping to the copyright page, so I became conscientious about using absolute time references like particular years and decades. I noticed the amusing datedness of words like “Web site” and “E-mail” in earlier books about technology. Linguistic conservatism caters to the reader of the past, but the reader of the past doesn’t exist anymore — someone in 1999 can’t bend time and read a book published in 2019. The reader of the future does exist — someone in 2039 can very well pick up a book published in 2019. Why should I not, in my turn, aim to avoid things that are likely to seem hilariously out of date to a reader a few decades hence? (I’ll give you a clue: one of them is uppercase “internet.”) 

But those were largely cosmetic changes. Writing towards the future also changed the structure of the whole book. Rather than worry about whether I was chronicling a complete list of all of the possible functions for emoji or punctuation, all of the possible memes or social media platforms, I went for a longer timeline of where each of these things came from — all caps has precursors in Victorian letters, irony punctuation has proposals back to 1575, people doodled in postcards before emoji came on the scene, and so on. I started aiming for a bigger picture of how each of these things fit into communication, one that could still be true even if we replace all of the specific sites and tools we’re using.

I found out that, paradoxically, a book can be bigger than the internet. The very constraints of a book — its linearity, its lack of updates — are also its greatest strengths. I can be far more confident that each reader will have a roughly similar experience of a book, rather than spidering off in all directions as with hypertext. When I work on an article or the podcast, I have to assume that each individual post or episode might be the first time someone has even heard of linguistics. There’s no designated reading order for the internet. But with a book, I have the luxury of being able to take people through a sequence of chapters, letting ideas build on top of each other, developing a fuller argument. It’s a smaller space, but it can support bigger ideas. 

In the end, I wrote a book about the internet by not trying to compete with the internet on its home turf. If you want to look up the latest memes and slang, there’s always websites like Know Your Meme and Urban Dictionary and Emojipedia. But if you want something that tries to take a step back and see the internet as if we’re already living in the future, well, may I interest you in a book? 

—-

Because Internet: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound | Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: Derryl Murphy and William Shunn

Authors Derryl Murphy and William Shunn weren’t necessarily looking to collaborate on a story. But then a chance encounter on the road set events into motion that would result in Cast a Cold Eye. I’ll let the two of them take it from here.

DERRYL MURPHY and WILLIAM SHUNN:

Derryl Murphy:

My mind often wanders to thoughts of Story on long drives. A story I’m writing, a story I want to write, often a story I had no idea existed. The latter happens more often than is healthy, and in the middle of one eight-hour drive with my wife and two (now adult) sons I watched an old truck with a hand-painted sign approach, and as it zipped by I knew I had misread the sign but insisted Jo write down that misreading in my notebook: Spirit Photographer.

At the same time I was wrestling with a few disparate ideas circling the Spanish flu epidemic that had killed a great-grandfather. Perhaps I could tie them together when I got home.

Reader, I could not. I tried and tried, but wasn’t happy with any of the outcomes. At one point I was sure this would be a short story, another time I worried I was looking at a novel. About ready to shelve it and move on to other things, I happened to read a story by Bill Shunn and thought, Gee, I wonder if he might have the key? And so I emailed him.

William Shunn:

When Derryl’s email arrived, I was already working on too many projects at once, with too little time for them all – like usual. This was the summer of 2004, and I lived in Queens, New York. I had a novel and a handful of short stories going, not to mention another draft of my seemingly endless memoir project. Derryl is Canadian, but I had become acquainted with him online when he moved to Utah and started hanging out with some of my old writing group friends. I liked him and I admired his work, but jumping into a collaboration with anyone was not high on my list of priorities.

It wasn’t just that I was so busy with my solo projects. I don’t think I trusted the process of collaboration. I had only tried it once before, in the mid ’90s, with a young writer who was on a hot streak and couldn’t seem to not sell every story she wrote. Our collaboration sent her streak careening into a brick wall, and after just two rejections she swallowed some sleeping pills. She was fine – it was only six pills – but my desire ever to collaborate again had suffered a mortal blow.

Or so I thought. Despite myself, something about Derryl’s pitch spoke to me: “It involves photography and spirituality, sorta, which might make for a nice blend between us.” The pitch also involved Luke Bryant, a teenager whose parents were among the many who died in the Spanish flu epidemic, and Annabelle Tupper, a widowed “spirit photographer” who needs an apprentice for the duration of her stay in town.

With no idea what I was really signing up for, I said yes. Soon enough we were brainstorming over email, tossing ideas back and forth until we had a rough plot that we liked. Then Derryl sent me the first chunk of actual text – Luke hiding out in a cemetery where he can feel the statues watching him – and the hard part was underway.

Derryl Murphy:

It’s a difficult thing, writing with someone else. Whether it’s more difficult doing so long distance or if you’re in the same room fighting over the keyboard, I don’t know. But while it was a long haul – some four years – it did result in 24,000 words, as opposed to the five or six years it took to write a 5,100-word story with Peter Watts. (Points to the first person who can point out the odd thing Bill and Peter have in common.)

What did that four years get us? Well, I fully believe that Luke Bryant would not be the realized, pained, and desperate young man he became if it wasn’t for Bill. I think working together resulted in a fine line between keeping things real and heavy-duty one-upmanship: we didn’t mess things up for each other, even as we ramped things up more than either of us might have done on our own.

It also got us a damned spooky story. And a damned moving one.

William Shunn:

From this remove, it’s hard to remember who was responsible for which elements of Cast a Cold Eye. Certainly Derryl provided all the expertise in early photography, including the eerie detail of Annabelle’s chemically blackened eye. The Nebraska setting was my contribution. Beyond that – the stern uncle and aunt, the gun in the truck, the ghostly buffalo – who can say? One thing I can say for sure, though, is that this slim book would not exist without both of us.

The Big Idea of Cast a Cold Eye, looked at one way, is of a boy plagued by ghosts who learns to see a brighter world – literally – through the lens of a camera. It’s the story of a haunting, yes, but even more so it’s a story about perception.

But looked at another way, it’s a story about two people with their own ways of doing things learning to work together to create something neither one could have created alone. That’s what Luke and Annabelle do in the book. I like to believe that’s what Derryl and I did in learning to tell their story.

Derryl Murphy:

We were lucky enough to sell the story, a rejection or two before a fairly quick acceptance from PS Publishing in the UK, which resulted in a gorgeous little hardcover book, in a very limited signed and numbered edition and an only-slightly-less limited unsigned edition. When it was gone, it was gone. An apparition only a few people got to witness.

All these years later, we’re happy we can finally share the story of Luke and Annabelle and the ghosts that haunt them with the wider world.

—-

Cast a Cold Eye: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Apple Books|Kobo

Read an excerpt. Visit Derryl Murphy’s site and Twitter. Visit William Shunn’s site and Twitter.

Sunset Clouds, 7/30/19

Thought you might like to see them. Have a good evening, folks.

The Big Idea: Christian McKay Heidicker

How scary is too scary? Or not scary enough? And does the calculus change when you’re writing for a younger audience? These are the questions that Christian McKay Heidicker confronted when writing Scary Stories for Young Foxes. Don’t be frightened: His answers await you below.

CHRISTIAN McKAY HEIDICKER:

When I started work on Scary Stories for Young Foxes, a middle-grade novel for ages eight to twelve, I had a tough decision ahead of me.

How scary should I make this thing?

The book is a retelling of classic horror tropes from the perspective of fox kits. Outside of some narratively necessary anthropomorphism (the foxes talk), I tried to make the story as scientifically accurate as possible. So, the zombies are rabies-infected foxes. The ghost is a white-furred predator that’s camouflaged by snow. And the witch is a woman who taxidermies small critters in order to sketch them for her children’s book. (This person was real, by the way. Her name was Beatrix Potter. Apologies if I just ruined your childhood.)

I had a vision and a formula. I just needed to decide how far to push the horror for my tender-aged readers.

Many fox kits don’t survive their first winter. The world is filled with hawks and badgers and tractors and traps that will snuff out their innocent, adorable lives. If I was going to be honest, then young foxes were going to die in this book. This started a tug-of-war in my brain.

Animal deaths in fiction seem to be more difficult for us to cope with than human ones. A good author friend stopped watching Game of Thrones because “They keep killing the direwolves!” Another friend still gets teary-eyed when she talks about Hedwig. Save the Cat, the all-time bestselling book about screenwriting, encourages writers to always, ALWAYS rescue the pet. I was caught between being honest about nature and breaking one of the golden rules of storytelling. So, I started searching for a model for how to be honest about fox experiences without disturbing my young readers beyond reason.

Of course, animal deaths are prevalent in popular children’s fiction: Where the Red Fern Grows, Black Stallion, Old Yeller, The Yearling. But these stories follow a specific formula: the death always comes at the end, and it teaches the reader a Big Lesson, be it about morality, responsibility, or even just introducing kids to the concept of death. But none of these stories qualify as horror. In order to deliver on the promise made by SSFYF’s cover, I’d need to shiver my readers’ whiskers from start to finish. I kept searching.

Fortunately for my book, anthropomorphized deaths seem to be less traumatizing than those of “real” animals, who have little to no agency. Charlotte from Charlotte’s Web was aware of her own mortality, so her death felt more like grandma slipping off to sleep. Aslan from Narnia obviously has his own thing going. And the splatter-horror fest that is Watership Down is mercifully shelved in the adult section.

Disney movies weren’t much help because they tend to exchange Big Lesson deaths for plot device. The Lion King and Bambi kill off parents early in the story so the main character can go on a great adventure. The best example I could find was in Pixar’s Finding Nemo. In the opening scene, the mother fish and ninety-nine percent of her eggs are eaten by a barracuda. It isn’t a lesson or a plot device but a bonding moment between father and son. Even though these are the last characters to die in the movie, the scene infinitely magnifies the threat of the deep, wide ocean our heroes about to get lost in.

Revisiting Finding Nemo emboldened me to make my book slightly scarier and to start poking at the literary norms. Why do we save animals in stories? Are we reasserting the obvious point that innocent creatures don’t deserve to die? Are we trying to convince the audience that we aren’t bad people and would never hurt a cat, not even a pretend one? Or are we just sweeping facts under the rug?

Considering that humans have developed into the type of creature that doesn’t like to know where our food comes from, I’d vote on the latter. We aren’t revolting against animal deaths in media for the animals’ sake—it’s for our own peace of mind. If anything, our ignorance of animal plights puts them in more danger. We only feel guilty drinking from plastic straws after seeing a YouTube video of one being bloodily extracted from a sea turtle. Most people I know tend not to finish these videos. I think this is because we’ve been trained to compartmentalize animal suffering from a young age. But I’m not convinced this does our kids any favors. As Neil Gaiman points out, “. . . if you are keeping people, young people, safe from the darkness . . . you are denying them tools or weapons that they might have needed and could have had.” Scary stories can be healthy for kids. But where was my model for how to tell the scary story I wanted to tell? David Attenborough to the rescue.

Right as I started writing the book, my fiancée introduced the BBC series Planet Earth to her young daughters. Those of you who have seen the show know that it can be harrowing. In one memorable scene, a lone baby iguana scrambles to escape a swelling tide of hungry snakes. My soon-to-be-stepdaughters barely batted an eyelash. In fact, I don’t think they blinked during the entire segment.

Was it scary? Absolutely. Did the girls pinch at their own elbows with worry for the poor baby iguana? You betcha. Did they whimper when some of the iguana’s siblings were caught and devoured? Of course. But did they want to see how it ended? Minecraft itself couldn’t have torn them away.

Most shockingly, the girls didn’t even cry. They’re four and six years old. They cry when I mess up the grilled cheese. But they accepted the iguana’s horrifying reality with quiet stoicism. There seems to be something about nature that kids inherently understand. Prey has to die so the predator can eat. The rain stops, and there isn’t enough water to go around. Humans tear down forests, leaving behind homeless orangutans. And there’s no all-powerful author who read Save the Cat to write them out of it.

Of course, nature documentaries always end on a hopeful note. Life finds a way. There’s no use in telling kids that the Earth is dying if you can’t also tell them there’s something we can do about it. You’ve gotta scrape a little char off that burnt grilled cheese.

After months of tweaking and balancing and adding a lick on the whiskered cheek for every gnash of teeth, I tried to make Scary Stories for Young Foxes land in what I call “Cozy Horror.” So long as there’s balance to the world . . . so long as life continues . . . things can get pretty scary. And instead of disturbing them to sleeplessness, I’m hoping my book will provide readers with tools to face the challenges ahead.

—-

Scary Stories for Young Foxes: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

We Interrupt This Evening’s Program to Bring You Cows

On my walks on my street these days, I pass by a dairy farm. Mostly the cows keep near the barn but yesterday they were down by the road, and they were very very interested in me as I walked by. I kind of wanted to pet them! But I suspect that would have been a bad idea. In any event: Look, cows. Thank you for your attention.

Last Night’s Sunset

Because I forgot to post it last night. Not bad.

Also, I’m outta here for the weekend. See you on Monday.

New Books and ARCs, 7/26/19

Here’s a nice healthy stack of new books and ARCs to head into the weekend with — what here is catching your eye? Tell us all in the comments!

My Dublin 2019 Schedule

As many of you already know, I will be attending the Dublin 2019 Worldcon, where I will hang out with friends, maybe watch some of them win Hugos, and — oh! By the way! — do a few events as well. Here’s my schedule at the convention.

15 Aug 2019, Thursday 14:00 – 14:50, Level 3 Foyer (KK/LB) (CCD)
Kaffeeklatsch: John Scalzi
A Kaffeeklatsch is basically when I sit around a table with, like, ten or so fans, and they ask me questions and I answer them. As I understand it, the Kaffeeklatsch sign-ups are first come, first serve, so if this is something you’d like to do, get to the convention early and have your pen ready.

16 Aug 2019, Friday 12:30 – 13:20, Mezzanine – Signing space (Point Square Dublin)
Autographs: John Scalzi
I’ll be signing books, and occasionally other things, because sometimes people bring other things.

17 Aug 2019, Saturday 15:00 – 15:50, Liffey Hall-2 (CCD)
GoH talk: a fireside chat with Diane Duane
“John Scalzi sits down to talk with Diane Duane about the ups and downs of a life given over to SFF and genre TV and film. Other topics: crossing the streams of fandom and prodom, the cohabitation of art and married life, the intersection of writing and quirky food habits, and possibly the dead rising from the grave, human sacrifice, and dogs and cats living together… Actually, maybe the cats more than the dogs. In fact, a whole lot more.”

(Diane is one of the Guests of Honor for the convention, and I’m thrilled that they asked me to talk to her. This conversation will go all over the place, that’s pretty much a guarantee.)

17 Aug 2019, Saturday 22:00 – 01:00, Wicklow Hall 2A (Dances) (CCD)
John Scalzi’s ‘Dance Across the Decades’
“Put on your dancing shoes and bring all your friends as award-winning DJ (and occasional author) John Scalzi plays the most danceable tunes from the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s to today. From the Bee Gees to Bowie to Beyonce and beyond – all the best beats to move your feet. Let’s dance!”

(Yes, I’m DJing another dance. My philosophy for dance parties is basically “all the big hits that everyone knows so the dance floor stays full.” It’ll be fun. Bring yourself! Bring your friends!)

18 Aug 2019, Sunday 12:00 – 12:50, Liffey Room-3 (Readings) (CCD)
Reading: John Scalzi
At this reading I’ll be debuting two new things: The prologue chapter of The Last Emperox, and a new, humorous piece from A Very Scalzi Christmas. This will be the first time these things have been read in public anywhere, so you won’t want to miss this. And if there’s time left over, I’ll do a Q&A. Because I know you have questions. Heck, I have questions.

And that’s what I’m doing. See you there.

A Couple of Bits on Hugo Award Proposals and Attempted Wikipedia Deletions

Because I’m thinking about them and might as well get them out now before I focus on nothing else besides novel writing:

* Over at File 770, and on the subject of the Hugo Awards, they’re talking about a proposal that will come up at the WSFS Business Meeting at the Dublin Worldcon, to roll back one of the two measures implemented to blunt slating actions in the wake of the Sad/Rabid Puppies nonsense; namely, to drop the “5/6” change, which allows people to nominate five people/works in any Hugo category, and to have six slots on the final ballot. If passed, the change would have the Hugos go back to a “5/5” setting, i.e., you can nominate five people/things, and there would be five finalists. Note the “5/6” change is scheduled to sunset in 2022 in any event; that was part of the deal when it was passed.

My thought on this matter is that inasmuch as it’s going to sunset in a couple of years anyway, there’s not exactly a pressing need to get rid of it early. The proposal notes that having fewer finalists makes administration of the awards easier, and while I would certainly agree, for example, that having  up to 25 (or so) fewer finalists show up at the the pre-awards ceremony would save costs on nibbles, I’m not sure that’s a great argument. Likewise the argument that having six things to read/experience in each category is harder on the voters; I mean, come on, these are Hugo voters we’re talking about here. You don’t really have to force them to read much of anything, especially these days when the Hugo Voters Packet is a thing.

Finally there’s an argument that having six finalists diminishes the cachet of being a Hugo finalist. Well, I’ve been a Hugo finalist under 5/5 and also under 5/6, and I gotta tell you I didn’t really notice a diminishment of cachet. I think I would have noticed. Certainly there’s not been a diminishment in overall quality of the finalist work, as the last couple of years in particular have yielded very strong work across the board.

Looking at who is backing the change, it’s mostly Worldcon/Hugo administrators and other SMOFs saying “we think 5/6 is more work, and we don’t wanna.” Which I entirely sympathize with — I hate extra work myself! — but that extra work was put in to mitigate damage done by slating. I think after the multi-year adventure we had with that silly bullshit, it’s precipitate to roll back changes implemented to stabilize and to restore confidence in the Hugo Awards. Again, 5/6 is going to sunset in 2022 anyway, so the folks proposing this change are going to get their way in a couple of years regardless. In the meantime, it’s fine to let 5/6 continue to do the job it was designed to do, and, as far as I can see, is doing pretty well.

* Speaking of Sad Puppy bullshit, over at Wikipedia, there’s been a push to delete the articles devoted authors Michael Z. Williamson and Sarah Hoyt, on the grounds that neither of them is notable enough to warrant a Wikipedia article. The Puppy Rump (i.e., what’s left of that particular movement, dissolute as it is at the moment) is spinning around in tight, angry circles about this, and Williamson in particular seems to have completely lost his shit about it over on this blog (which I won’t link to because some time ago Mr. Williamson told me he never wanted to have any interaction with me ever again, for reasons, which, you know, fine, I can respect the boundaries he wishes to set, which I take to mean he wouldn’t appreciate a link over to his site from here).

You might think that I, who was the target of much Sad Puppy whining and mewling, would be sitting here happily munching on popcorn while this bit of Wikidrama unfolds. But in fact I think the deletion attempt is a problem. Neither Williamson nor Hoyt are exactly on my Christmas card list at the moment, but you know what? Both of them are solid genre writers who for years have been putting out work through a major genre publisher, and who are both actively publishing today. They are genuinely of note in the field of science fiction and fantasy. One may think their politics, in and out of the genre, are revanchist as all fuck, or that their tenure and association with the Puppy bullshit didn’t do them any favors, or that one just doesn’t care for them on a day-to-day basis for whatever reason. But none of that is here or there regarding whether, on the basis of their genre output, they are notable enough to be the subject of a damn Wikipedia article. They are! Wikipedia notability is kind of a middlin’-height bar, and they get themselves over it pretty well.

Or to flip it around, if neither Williamson nor Hoyt is notable enough for inclusion in Wikipedia, there’s gonna be some bloodletting in the site’s category of science fiction and fantasy writers, because there are a fair number of Wikipedia-article-bearing genre authors who are no more notable than Hoyt or Williamson. If they go, there are legitimately many others on the chopping block as well.

Looking at the disposition of this particular set of nonsense, it does seem like Williamson and Hoyt were targeted for deletion on the basis of their politics and/or association with the Puppy bullshit, and this is, well, silly. Wikipedia isn’t the place to settle this particular set of scores, and honestly, at this point there shouldn’t be any further scores to settle on that incident. The Puppy movement failed badly, exposed most of the people participating in it to shame and ridicule, and it appears to have damaged the careers of several of the participants (note: they will disagree on all these points, but then they would, wouldn’t they). The Puppies have already punched themselves in the face quite enough. Going after them via Wikipedia after all this time, aside from the site being the wrong place for it, just seems like poor form.

So, yeah: Keep Williamson and Hoyt on Wikipedia. They did the work to be there.

My 300 Mile Lyft Ride From Chicago to Bradford

I mentioned this on Twitter yesterday:

Here’s the full story on it.

Yesterday I flew home from Spain, where I’d spent a week at the Celsius 232 festival in Aviles. It was a lovely time, and the first two legs of the flight — Asturias to Madrid, Madrid to Chicago — went fine. But when I got to Chicago, my flight to Dayton kept getting delayed. After the third delay I should have just tried to rent a car, but I decided to stick it out. For my pains my flight was cancelled at 8:30 and my rescheduled flight wouldn’t be until 10pm the next day, meaning that I wouldn’t get home until after midnight on Tuesday (i.e., today). It’s ridiculous that the leg from Chicago to Dayton would take almost three times longer than the leg from Madrid to Chicago; I decided to rent that car after all.

And found that there was no car rental service in Chicago that would give me a one-way rental to Dayton. That was in itself unusual; I’ve done the one-way rental before when I was stuck in Chicago, and it’s normally not really a problem. But this Sunday it was. I checked the O’Hare car rental services: None. I expanded my search outside O’Hare to other rental locations in Chicago: The locations were either closed or didn’t have one-way rentals.

Finally I went on the American Express site to see if I could rent a car one-way through there. And I could! Literally, there was one car available in all of Chicago, through Hertz. It wouldn’t be available until 7am the next day, but that would still get me home earlier than the flight, and I was going to have to get a hotel room anyway, so fine. I rented it and when I did, I noticed that the pickup was at someplace called Signature Flight Services, not the usual Hertz location. So I called Hertz, gave them my confirmation number, and confirmed with the person on the other end — several times! — that indeed I was meant to go to Signature Flight Services, not the Hertz location at O’Hare. The person on the other end said “yes” each time, so, fine.

The next morning I was at Signature Flight Services bright and early at 7am. At 7:07 I called Hertz and asked where my car was. They said I would have to call the O’Hare Hertz location directly and ask what the deal was, and gave me the number. I called the number, only to discover that if you don’t have the extension number of the specific person you want to reach, you can’t actually call the O’Hare Hertz location directly. So I called the reservation line and pointed out the problem of not having an extension. They said I would have to call the O’Hare Hertz and talk to them about that.

The next bit of dialogue is paraphrased but essentially true to the conversation that followed.

“So, you understand the part where I said that without a specific extension, I can’t actually reach anyone at the O’Hare Hertz, correct?” I asked.

“We don’t have any extensions to give you,” the Hertz person said. “You’ll have to call the local number.”

“So your solution to me not being able to reach anyone at the O’Hare Hertz because I don’t have a specific extension is to give me the number that if I call I can’t use to reach anyone, because I don’t have an extension to call.”

“It’s the only number we have in our system,” the Hertz representative said, sensing my irritation.

“Look, I’m not angry with you,” I said. “But I want you to acknowledge that the way you’re telling me to deal with the problem of a number I can’t use is just to give me that number again.”

“… yes.”

At which point I hung up and the very nice people at Signature Flight Services let me take their shuttle over to the actual O’Hare car rental building, where I could to talk to the real live local Hertz people about my rental, and why it wasn’t where it was supposed to be, and if, since I was now there, in front of them, they would give it to me so I could be on my way.

Turns out, they wouldn’t give it to me.

And here is why: Apparently, Signature Flight Services is part of the area where charter flights go through O’Hare. If I had flown in through the graces of a charter flight, then Hertz would have happily given me the one-way car rental. But since I flew into O’Hare on a commercial flight, like a common schmuck, Hertz wouldn’t give me the car, even though they clearly had it to give. Basically, I wasn’t rich enough to rent the car Hertz had allowed me to reserve, so they weren’t going to let me have it. Which, I don’t know. Seems like a real dick move on Hertz’s part, and doesn’t incline me to use them ever again for anything. The dude at the reservation counter seemed to think so too — he checked to see if anything else was available, but otherwise there was nothing he could do. I was out of a car.

And once again, no one else in Chicago — the entire city, as far as I could tell — had a one way rental available. Which seemed ridiculous. It’s the third largest city in the United States. You would think it would be possible. But clearly not.

At this point, because I was frustrated and mostly to grimly amuse myself, I clicked on the Lyft app on my phone and entered my home address to see how much it would cost to take one to from O’Hare to my doorstep, a journey with a grand total of 301 miles.

Turns out it would cost about $330. Which, as it happens, was only a little bit more than what it would have cost for that one-way rental that Hertz wasn’t going to give me even though they had the car.

I considered about it for a minute, and then thought, why the hell not, and scheduled the ride. The worst case scenario in this situation is that no one would take the fare, and I would be no worse off than I already was. After a few seconds, I was matched with a car, and I went out to meet the driver.

I had a suspicion that the app might not tell the driver exactly where I was going, so when the driver — Victor — pulled up, I double-checked with him.

“I want to be absolutely clear what you’re getting into,” I told him. “I’m asking you to drive me to Ohio.”

“The state?” he asked.

“Yes.”

He thought about it for a second, consulted his own Lyft app (which hadn’t, in fact, told him the destination, just that it was more than 30 minutes away), and then looked back to me, and sort of shrugged. “I like long trips. This could be fun.” Then he popped the trunk for my luggage.

And you know what? It was fun. Victor, in addition to being a Lyft driver, had been a news editor back in his native country, so he and I talked about writing and history and travel and other subjects, listened to music and otherwise had a pretty enjoyable time over the roughly five hours it took to get me home. When I got home I tipped him hugely, gave him one of my books (The Collapsing Empire) and signed it for him, and otherwise thanked him for getting me home, and doing it in such a pleasant fashion.

And then I collapsed, because fuck, it had been a long couple of days trying to get home. It’s ridiculous that the longest and most exhausting part of a transatlantic journey was the last three hundred miles, on US soil, but of course it was, why wouldn’t it be. This all confirms my opinion that O’Hare is possibly the worst of all major US airports, and it’s certainly given me the opinion that Hertz should be my last possible option when getting anywhere. On the flip side, I feel more positively about Lyft. I generally use standard cabs when I can, but Lyft is my backup when it’s not feasible. They and Victor came through for me yesterday, and with flying colors. I appreciate it immensely.

In the post-trip Twitter discussion, there was some observation that my decision to take a Lyft all the way home was something not everyone could do, or would feel safe doing. And I can’t argue that. Being able to spend a few hundred dollars to get home via a Lyft simply because one doesn’t want to wait for a rescheduled flight is not something that everyone gets to do. Neither is being able to do it without having to consider whether it’s safe to be in some stranger’s car for five hours, and who will travel three hundred miles with you to drop you off at your house. It’s all true. Welcome to my privilege! I acknowledge it. And also, my privilege in this case would have meant nothing if I hadn’t been fortuitously paired with a driver who thought something like this would be an adventure, rather than just a pain in his ass. I am lucky all the way around this time.

But inasmuch as I am lucky in these respects, I now have a pretty great story of how I took a three-hundred-mile, five-hour Lyft ride because the thought of being stranded at O’Hare one more minute than I really had to be was too much to bear. And since it was part of a business trip (I was at a book festival in Spain, after all!), it’s even tax-deductible. As far as ridiculous travel stories go, this ended up as a best case scenario.

And, of course, best of all: I got to go home. I missed it and everyone there. It was good to be back, however I got there.

The Big Idea: Jeffrey A. Carver

For his Big Idea for The Reefs of Time, the first of his Out of Time series, Jeffrey A. Carver talks about structure — of his story, the universe, and other important things.

JEFFREY A. CARVER:

Big ideas are the meat and potatoes of classical science fiction, but sometimes they collide with one another like bowling balls on a pool table. In The Chaos Chronicles, I have played with some pretty cool cosmic ideas: sentient suns and sentient singularities, supernovas and hypernovas started (or stopped) by the likes of humans and their alien friends, the starstream (a cosmic superhighway for star travel), an enormous Shipworld at the edge of the galaxy serving as refuge for species who have lost their home planets… and in my new book, time travel a billion years into the past, via quantum entanglement. I love this sort of thing! They are part of the driving energy of these books.

But long before I rolled any of that into this story, I had a big idea of a very different sort—a grand scheme for how I was going to structure the books. It was very new for me: I was going to make the books small. Short. Quick. Snappy. Entangled with each other, though not necessarily in a quantum sense.

I tend to create long stories—my mind just works that way—maybe not Game of Thrones long, but long enough that I’d completed a number of my books with enormous exhaustion, as well as satisfaction. Unfortunately, I’m also a slow writer. I had to rethink my approach.

Thus was born my crucial idea: Write that long story that’s percolating in your head—you’re going to, anyway—but do it in a string of short, connected-but-self-contained novels. That way you can keep the books coming, but still write long. (I can just hear you muttering, “Say, isn’t that what most people call writing a series?” Well, yes, that’s obvious now. But then, to me, it was a revelation.)

At first, I stuck to the plan. Neptune Crossing was suitably short, and pretty snappy. The books that followed were… not exactly short, but not long, really. And then I took a break to write in a different universe, and Eternity’s End was… the longest book I’d ever written. Uh-oh. By the time I came back to The Chaos Chronicles, my “big idea”—short, quick, snappy—lay in little bitty pieces. Smashed by the bowling balls of my other ideas. Sunborn took seven years. The Reefs of Time took eleven. A lot of people thought I’d quit writing, or died! When it was finished, it was so complex I had to break it into two volumes, though it was still one novel.

So much for my structural “big idea.” But I still had the cosmic gems I mentioned earlier. And they were a big part of why it took so long to write the blasted books.

When you set a story around sentient stars and supernovas and time-entanglement, there’s a central challenge: How do you wrap your people around such things? Part of it is a plotting problem. How do you make the ephemerals and the near-eternals intersect? But more than that, how do you create relationships? The stories I like to read are all about relationships. The cold universe might not care about us, but good stories aren’t just about cold, unfeeling things (or even “cold equations”). Stories are about people clashing and loving and hating and killing and rescuing and winning and losing and finding redemption. And by people, I mean everyone sentient, regardless of species, planet, number of dimensions occupied, or organic status.

I wasn’t sure how to do that. I’m a pretty intuitive writer, meaning I often don’t know what I’m writing until I’ve written it. Oh, I try to plan, but my way forward can be (with a nod to E.L. Doctorow) like driving in the fog at night with one headlight out. There’s a lot of faith involved. Faith that I’ll find the way. Fear that I won’t. Wrong turns. Bridges out. Lucky breaks. That’s how I felt as I threw my people together with cosmic entities.

So you want a character to somehow have a relationship with, maybe even a friendship with, say, a sentient star who lives on a scale so unthinkably different that the human is a mayfly by comparison? In this case (I eventually realized), it is helpful to have a third party who has a special facility for manipulating time. Time fusion. You can’t maintain it for long, but maybe for a brief interaction, the human and the star can connect. Share thoughts. Share feelings. Share joys and pain.

Or, as in Reefs, where the mental and emotional journey backward in time (through something called a ghoststream) is just as important as what you find when you arrive in deep time. I wanted to warn the characters: It’s crucial to notice little things you feel along the way. There might be something alive there, something that matters to you, even if you don’t know it yet. Also, that quantum thread of space-time you’re moving along is fuzzy, as quantum things tend to be. Think of it as yarn, not thread. The edges are uncertain. You might need to make use of that uncertainty to find your way home. You might need the help of unexpected others to find your way home. (I, the author, certainly needed the help of others—for example, my initial readers—to find my way home.)

But for all this, I think the biggest challenge remains the question (or questions) wordlessly posed: Who am I? What am I doing here? What will I do when confronted by, not just the problems I was expecting, but the hard edge of the infinite?

These are questions John Bandicut confronts—again and again, as his story unfolds and one crisis after another looms in his path. Will there be any rest for this man? Any salvation or redemption?

It’s not just John. Everyone who comes into his life, from the noncorporeal alien Charli, to the inscrutable Ik (whose homeworld was destroyed), to the two women he loves (Julie, a human; and Antares, an alien)—each one ends up facing similar questions. Why me? Can’t someone else save the world this time? Can I please rest?

Because you’re here, no, and not yet. And don’t expect to be thanked.

Battered by the winds of destiny, by the forces of chaos, by malice, or even just by ignorance, they have to find a way. It all seems terribly unfair. Who could be expected to rise to the job of (take your pick): preventing a comet from devastating the Earth, stopping a deadly AI from destroying a “Shipworld” vaster than the Earth, redirecting a rogue intelligent stardrive, or stopping a hypernova being engineered by a malicious intelligence? And yet, somehow, they find a way. Because they must.

If the lives of others depend on you, you must change, grow, adapt. Find a way. Because if there’s redemption to be found in this world, maybe that need is the first place to look.

—-

The Reefs of Time: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Kobo|Book View Cafe

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