Some writers have a “thing” – a niche, a trick, or a trope that they make their own. And then some other writers… wander. In this Big Idea for Being Michael Swanwick, a non-fiction exploration into the life and works of the multiple-award-winning author, Alvaro Zinos-Amaro explains how Swanwick’s thematic diversity is, indeed, his thing.
Life is like a box of Michael Swanwick stories.
In fact, read enough of them, and the membrane separating his fiction from our reality becomes increasingly porous, so that we might say that Michael Swanwick stories are like a box of life.
When we discussed his story “Universe Box” Michael shared with me that he enjoys cigar boxes–probably not surprising from the author of Cigar-Box Faust and Other Miniatures (2003).
“Universe Box” opens with a trickster stealing the whole universe and hiding it inside a cigar box. That seems like an apt image for the magic of Swanwick’s writing. He can conjure up an entire cosmos in a few thousand or even just a couple of hundred words, which was part of what inspired me to produce Being Michael Swanwick.
Stations of the Tide (1991), a Nebula winner, was my first encounter with Michael’s fiction. I found the novel in a used bookshop during a blazing summer in the south of Spain. A teenager at the time, I devoured the book in a white heat that rivaled the weather, and by the time I put it down I half-believed the whole thing had been a dream. Some years passed and, now a late teen, I hit on his short story “The Dead” (1996), which made me sit up very straight. It took me a few stunned minutes to accept that its author was the same guy who had written that memorably trippy book. This happened a third time in 2001, when, in my early twenties, I read the Hugo-winning “The Dog Said Bow-Wow,” the first in what would become a series of irrepressibly fun stories, and managed to “discover” Michael Swanwick yet again.
Some writers have such distinctive or consistent approaches to their material that their prose becomes almost as identifiable as their bylines. Not so with Swanwick. One of his trademarks, I realized, was that he could completely disappear into the voices and aesthetics of his tales.
Darger and Surplus, the protagonists of “The Dog Said Bow-Wow” and many other fabulous romps, are masters of deceit. Looking back, it’s not surprising that Stations of the Tide features shapeshifters, or that a variety of tricksters keep popping up in Swanwick’s work (“Legions in Time,” “Coyote at the End of History,” “Annie Without Crow,” and so on).
He himself is the ultimate literary chameleon.
As a quick showcase of his versatility, consider these three openings from stories all published in 2010:
“You’re not the master.
No, I’m a police officer.
Then I have nothing to say to you.”
– “Steadfast Castle” (2010)
“In 1646, shortly before the end of the Thirty Years’ War, a patrol of Hessian cavalrymen, fleeing the aftermath of a disastrous battle to the north wherein a botched flanking maneuver had in an hour turned certain victory to abject rout, made camp at the foot of what a local peasant they had captured and forced to serve as a guide assured them was one of the highest mountains in the Spessart region of Germany.”
– “Goblin Lake” (2010)
“Miles and weeks passed under the wheels of Victor’s motorcycle.”
– “Libertarian Russia” (2010)
From the start, I wanted Being Michael Swanwick to celebrate the possibilities of short fiction. Swanwick’s work has remarkable scope and variety along every conceivable literary dimension. He’s been playing with form, narrative structure and tone with admirable results for over forty years.
If we think of short fiction as a laboratory, Michael is no doubt one of its most brilliant experimentalists. He might even be a mad scientist. After all, he’s written books like Michael Swanwick’s Field Guide to the Mesozoic Megafauna (2004) and The Periodic Table of Science Fiction (2005)….
In his Introduction to Cigar-Box Faust he says: “The primary rule of writing is to use exactly as many words to say something as it takes, no more and no less.”
His bibliography is a testament to the diversity of things he’s wanted to say. If you enjoy short fiction, I hope that our discussions in Being Michael Swanwick will lead you to interesting discoveries. The dozen books that gather Michael Swanwick’s short stories are, by definition, collections–but, because of his phenomenal range, they double as anthologies. Open up any of his literary boxes, and you’ll find he’s thinking far outside it.
Why There’s No New Scalzi Novel Next Year, Why You’ll Get Two New Scalzi Novels in 2025, and What I’ll Be Up To in 2024
Let’s address that first thing first: Yes, I am currently writing a novel! Also, that novel will not be out in 2024. The reason is actually pretty simple: The date in 2024 that Tor had available for my book to come out was the first Tuesday in November. Which, if you check your calendar, is Election Day here in the United States. Do I want to have a book come out on Election Day in 2024? No. No, I do not. And neither does Tor! We both very enthusiastically agreed that we didn’t want that date.
Before you raise an objection, here’s a fun fact: I’ve already had a book released on Election Day in the United States. It was my very first book, The Rough Guide to Money Online. The release date was intentional: Rough Guides figured after the election there would be a lull in news, and it would mean that they could get me on TV to promote my little book. It was a great theory, which rammed hard into the fact that the Election Day in question was the one in 2000, when the election wasn’t settled for weeks. The news shows were jammed up, my media tour was cancelled after two days because no one had time for me, and the book flopped, not just because of the election (there was also the collapse of the Web 1.0), but also because of the election.
Now, the 2020 election, you may recall, was quite contentious, and the 2024 election, pairing as it likely will the same two contestants, is also likely to be quite contentious. I know the sort of book I am writing, and as much as I think it’s lovely and fun and that the people who enjoyed The Kaiju Preservation Society and Starter Villain will really enjoy this one too, I am also aware it’s absolutely the wrong fucking novel to go up against the 2024 election, especially if things go wonky and sour, which, again, they may very well do – indeed, let me suggest that at least one of the likely candidates for president in 2024 absolutely wants things to go wonky and sour.
So: If you’re an American citizen, please vote in 2024, and also, please understand why there’s no novel from me that year.
That second thing second: The novel I’m currently writing, which was originally scheduled for 2024, will now come out in February of 2025. It doesn’t have an official title yet (you’ll find out what that is when I turn the novel in) and I want to be cagey on the details for now. I will say that, like KPS and Villain, it takes place in contemporary time and has its cast of characters dealing with an extremely high concept plot device. I’ve taken to thinking of it as the final installment of an unintentional and otherwise unrelated trilogy of “weird shit, modern times” novels that I didn’t even know I was writing until I started on this novel and was, like, oooooh, I see where my brain has been recently. To be clear, KPS, Villain and this book are not in each other’s universes. They, do however, vibe pretty well together.
But what’s this about another novel in 2025? I hear you ask. To which I respond with a question of my own: Hey, did you know that 2025 marks the 20th anniversary of Old Man’s War? Well, it does! And what better way to celebrate the 20th year of the existence of the Old Man’s War universe than with a new story within those worlds? No better way, I say!
And so: In late 2025, expect Old Man’s War #7.
To answer your immediate questions: No, no title yet for this either, since (among other things), I have to finish a whole other novel before I get to this one. Also, I don’t want to reveal plot details, except to say that like The Human Division and The End of All Things, there will be a time jump from previous novels. It is likely that some characters from previous novels will appear in this new one, but who they are and in what capacity I’m not prepared to share, in no small part since I’m still in “moving bits around to see how they play together” mode.
In fact, the answer to any question you might have at this point involving this particular book, other than I know I’m going to write it, and that it will be out in late 2025, is “uhhhh… I dunno, I guess we’ll see.” Except that I feel pretty confident in saying that it will fit extremely well into the OMW universe generally, since, you know, I’ve had that universe in my head for two decades now, and have a pretty good idea how it works.
So those are the two novels you’ll see from me in 2025: Another book similar to KPS and Villain, and another book in the OMW universe. In other words, a pretty good year for Scalzi books.
Third things third: So, what does that mean for me in 2024? Well, there’s likely to be a novella from me, in some form or another – I’m still working out the contractual details of that, but when those get nailed down and the thing is written I will let you know here. So you will not be entirely without new fiction from me next year. Again, no details about the novella, except to say it’s definitely science fiction (there will be aliens in it!) and it’s going to be funny. I think 2024 will need some funny in it, even if I don’t want to plant it directly on Election Day itself. Also, I have a couple of cool things coming that I can’t talk about yet but will happen next year. Stay tuned!
Aside from that? Well, I’m writing a film column in Uncanny Magazine through the next year, so you’ll see me there every other month. Plus I’ll be here and on the social media that is not the former Twitter, so you’ll not be lacking in things to read from me. To the delight of some and the annoyance of others, I never really completely go away.
Also, 2024 is a year where I plan to start the ball rolling on a number of long-term projects that won’t see fruition until later, some possibly a few or even several years into the future. I have writing to do but I don’t have a huge amount of promotional or travel commitments, like, for example, a book tour that stretches across two months. So that’s more time for working on cool things that will pay off, uh, eventually! What I’m saying is, it’s good to have an occasional year where I mostly stay at home.
(I do have events in 2024, mind you: The Confusion convention in Detroit for January, Boskone in Boston for February, the Joco Cruise in March, and so on. I’ll be updating my Upcoming Events soon. But doing one event a month is fine, in terms of time/effort, etc. It does leave me time for strategy and planning, and, you know, writing.)
There you have it: A basic precis on my literary 2024 and 2025, and what’s coming out and when. It’s nice — for me! — to know what I’m up to for the next 24 months. I thought you would like to know, too.
How is the ocean like space? Naomi Kritzer knows, and in her new novel, Liberty’s Daughter, she uses those similarities to the advantage of her tale – and for the adventure her protagonist finds herself on.
Liberty’s Daughter takes place on a seastead – a collection of micronations in human-made structures floating in international waters. I usually tell people that seasteading is real-ish, in the sense that people are actually trying to do it. I don’t usually go on to explain that I first heard the term from my sister, who went to college with Patri Friedman, the main person responsible for popularizing the idea.
Patri describes the idea as “homesteading the high seas” and the thing that’s absolutely fabulous about a seastead from a science fiction storytelling perspective is that the whole concept is just plausible enough to allow for a near-future setting that’s almost as bonkers as a space station. You can have isolation, totally dysfunctional self-governance, defiance of any and all current legal standards, and deeply weird oligarchs running stuff, and you don’t even have to go to the moon. You can stick it on a decaying cruise ship anchored in international waters.
The problem, of course, is cruise ships require a lot of diligent maintenance. Oceans are full of salt, which will corrode every surface it touches, from the bottom of your boat to the instrumentation inside. Preventing a seastead from sinking into the sea would require endless manual labor. Who would do this work? For that matter, which people on a seastead would cook the meals, wash the dishes, care for young children, scrub the toilets? If there’s a tourism industry, who launders the towels? If there’s a hospital, deals with the bedpans?
The people who fantasize about life on a seastead are mostly imagining themselves with a lot more personal power than they have as citizens of the US (or whatever country they live in) – they’re not fantasizing about scrubbing floors. I started thinking about the people on the seastead who would have much less power – because they’re living in precarcity or even debt slavery, or (as in the case of the protagonist) because they’re the teenage child of someone who can wield money and influence to control her.
As I was pondering the setting and possible characters, one of the employees at my grocery store vanished, and everyone pretended she’d never existed.
I did my grocery shopping on the same day every week, and I’d gotten into the habit of seeking out a particular checker because I liked chatting with her. Then one week she wasn’t there, and the next week she didn’t come back. And when I asked about her, the other employees acted like they had no idea who I was talking about, which was surreal. This woman had worked at that store for years. I assumed that she’d been fired, and that everyone was afraid to talk about it, and since I didn’t want to get anyone else in trouble, I stopped asking.
But that weird, frustrating puzzle fell into the world I’d been piecing together: Beck, the teenage girl protagonist, became a detective hired out of desperation to investigate a missing person case. A teenager who grew up sheltered, who felt safe because of who she was, Beck could refuse to take the hints that she’s not supposed to keep asking. Instead, she turned her curiosity and privilege towards the task of finding the missing woman, coming face-to-face with aspects of life on the seastead that she’d never looked at closely before. Everything fell into place.
About a year later, I asked again about the woman who’d disappeared – I had a new regular checker and a bunch of time had passed.
“Oh, yeah,” the guy said. “Management moved her to a different store because she had a stalker.”
And suddenly all my assumptions about her were flipped on their head. Of course I got stonewalled – they didn’t know that I wasn’t the person stalking her! Their silence was not fear; it was protectiveness. Even management wasn’t the bad guys here – they hadn’t fired her, they’d moved her somewhere she’d be safer.
In the years since I started writing this, several people have attempted to create seasteads, including a small group of crypto bros who bought a cruise ship during the pandemic (and discovered that there are actually an astonishing number of regulations for cruise ships). There’s now a book about the “Free Town Project,” in which libertarians moved into and took over Grafton, New Hampshire; the result was the town winding up overrun with bears.
The irony of the grocery store checker’s disappearance inspiring this story is that I initially assumed it was a story about capitalism finding someone disposable – instead, it was a story about a community pulling together to protect someone vulnerable. And in fact as Beck’s story continued, it also became a story about a community pulling together – the workers form a union, and when things go very wrong and the people with money and power use it to get the hell off their island, the people left behind start trying to solve things together.
I am, as you may have guessed, not a libertarian. But I have a lot of faith in people and community and that’s a big part of what this book wound up being about.
I’ve always been drawn to puzzles, to books that keep you guessing what’s really going on, that make you try to decipher the hidden currents under the surface. Fittingly, the idea of Refractions started as a simple puzzle: a colony planet gone mysteriously silent. But as I probed deeper, the story developed into a nesting doll of puzzles, each new question revealing a deeper truth about the characters and their world.
On the outside, there is the colony: after two decades of apparently thriving, Bethesda, the first human settlement in another solar system, has ceased all communication. With multiple colony ships already on the way to other planets, each carrying thousands of hibernating passengers, a volunteer crew rushes out to investigate what happened on Bethesda, lest the same fate befalls the other settlers.
But that brought me to another, more compelling puzzle. With the colony light years away, the volunteers will spend decades in hibernation. By the time they return, everybody they knew and loved will be gone. Who would volunteer for such a mission? Or maybe what they are really doing is running away?
The answer to this question was the spark that gave life to the idea: a crew of strangers, each harbouring their own secrets, each running away from their past, hoping that by the time they return their sins will be forgotten.
Now I was keen to figure out who they were and what they were leaving behind. I’ll be honest, it took several tries. I’d known early on that the story will be near-future, set in a world transformed by the effects of climate change and unchecked capitalism. But finding the right protagonist to carry the story took me several tries—until I found Nathalie.
Nathalie Hart is one of those trying to escape—her pain, her grief, and her guilt for the events that killed her family. A skilled orbital pilot, she has no trouble securing a spot on the rescue mission—especially since she is Canadian, a neutral nation in a world divided by a new cold war between fundamentalist Christian America and China, the space-technology superpower.
Her hopes for a respite are shattered when she wakes from hibernation to find the captain killed in a sabotage and the international crew descending into accusations and conspiracies. Traumatised and desperately under-qualified, she is now in command of a crew divided along the lines of national loyalties and personal conflicts. And it is up to her to bring them together before time runs out for the five thousand passengers on a dying colony ship waiting above Bethesda.
Nathalie must dig deep to find the strength and skill she will need—and in the end, it’s her pain and her guilt that help her rise to the challenge. She joined the mission to forget and atone, and she will do everything to save the lives now in her hands.
Yet there are more layers still in this nesting doll of puzzles. Why would anyone hire such a volatile crew? Was it an unlucky oversight—or were they preselected for some sinister purpose?
And with that question, I have found the kernel, the big idea at the heart of Refractions. There are secrets on Bethesda that someone is desperate to protect—and they will use the crew’s own animosities and prejudice to sabotage the mission. At its thematic core, it is a story about manipulation, about people being set up against each other so they are too busy infighting to notice the strings that pull on them. It is also a story of unchecked capitalism and weaponised prejudice, of propaganda and disinformation used as tools to divide and control.
I wish I could say this was a purely science-fictional idea, far from the realities of today’s world, but it’s enough to turn on the news channel to find the same story played out live in front of us. When I first conceived the idea, I was a Polish immigrant living through the anti-immigrant Brexit propaganda in the UK. This is a story as old as time: the powerful manipulating the populace into blaming the “other” for all the ailments of the society they control, fabricating conflict through lies and prejudice so we’re too busy fighting our neighbours to notice who really benefits from the discord.
It’s difficult to write about prejudice without showing prejudice. This is a challenging subject, especially as the national lines coincide with ethnicity—even though the same heritage may be shared by people now serving under different flags. It was important for me to show how easy it would be to succumb to disinformation preying on real fears.
In the end, it’s up to Nathalie to transcend her flaws and prejudices. Only then will she be able to see the larger truth, notice the strings of manipulation, and find a way to cut herself free. And if she manages to bring the feuding crew together, they might yet solve Bethesda’s puzzle.
I had traveling to do today, which kept me from updating earlier. To make up for it, please accept this really lovely traditional song, sung by boygenius, who are accompanied by Ye Vagabonds, in honor of Sinead O’Connor. It’s a stunner.
Good night, and joy be with you all.
Elon Musk, the most unfathomably insecure and pathetic billionaire the world has ever seen, has gone mask-off antisemite, and that means that while I had already reduced my participation on the former Twitter, now I’m off it entirely. I’m keeping the account so that no one can swoop in and take a screenname that’s been associated with me for the last fifteen years, but no more posting, and no more participation. Until and unless the service is sold to someone who isn’t Musk (and possibly even then, depending), I’m out, I’m through, I’m done.
Some quick notes:
1. If you are still on the former Twitter, this is not an implicit condemnation of you. Remember I was on it until today; I put up with a lot of Musk’s bullshit because the site still had value to me as a promotional vehicle. Others may still be on it because their communities are there or because they’re determined to outlast Musk or because it’s still an easy way to reach a mass audience, or whatever. That’s fine. It’s simply that for me, the point at which Musk’s toxicity overwhelmed any utility the site had for me was right around noon. I realized I just couldn’t shrug my way through it anymore.
Also, I’m not going to debate or argue the utility of staying on or leaving the former Twitter with anyone. This is a personal decision made for personal reasons that have to do with me and me alone. If you agree with the action, great. If you don’t, that’s fine too. If you want to give me guff for it, for whatever reason, you can go fuck yourself.
2. It does mean walking away from almost 200k followers there, but you know what, at this point I’m fine with that. I suspect a significant portion of those followers are no longer on the site (or were rarely on it) to begin with, and as for the others, at this point the chance they’re not also following me on Bluesky/Threads/Mastodon/Facebook/Instagram (or, uhhhhh, here) is pretty slim. I have thousands or tens of thousands of followers on each of those other social media sites (and here) anyway. I’m not hurting for my ability to get the word out about what I’m doing or thinking. And also, you know. When I put stuff out, I have a major publisher telling people about it. I’m not difficult to find, or to find out about. I’ll be fine.
3. Also, and vaguely related, the fact that I have tens of thousands of followers on each of Bluesky/Threads/Mastodon/Facebook makes the point that Twitter is not essential and is replaceable for the aspect of social media that revolves around self-promotion. The fact that friends are now elsewhere and I chat with them in those places also means it’s not essential and is replaceable for social interaction. For me, there’s nothing that Twitter does I can’t do elsewhere. This was always true, but it’s worth reminding myself about, and you might benefit from that reminder too.
4. Leaving the former Twitter is also at this point more than a little bit of a relief. I’ve noted above that I restricted my use of it recently to just career news and updates, but even doing that has become an increasing depressing and unpleasant chore, like having a storefront in a part of town where the windows are increasingly soaped up and the sidewalks are full of trash, and there are a bunch of Nazis on the corner, leering at cars driving by. It was no fun, in a place where I used to have fun. It was, finally, time to go. So I’ve gone.
If it’s stopped being fun for you, too, consider leaving as well. There are better places to be.
I wanted the story I was promised.
When I was a senior in college and working on my thesis, I read Patricia Terry’s Poems of the Elder Edda. It includes not only the text of the Poetic Edda, but several other Old Norse poems written in a similar style — one of which is called “The Waking of Angantyr.” It’s a dialogue between a young woman named Hervor and the ghost of her father, Angantyr, from whom she demands his cursed sword. According to Terry, Hervor “wants the sword as an instrument of vengeance.” When I studied the language for a semester as part of my thesis prop, my textbook, E.V. Gordon’s An Introduction to Old Norse, concurred: Hervor, he says, is “determined to avenge her father and her uncles.”
Awesome, I thought. I need the rest of that story.
So I hunted down the saga in which “The Waking of Angantyr” appears: no simple task, since it’s far from the most well-known of the Norse sagas. In fact, I only know of one translation, by Christopher Tolkien — yes, the son of that Tolkien. Acquiring a copy from the 2001 internet was easier said than done, but with it finally in my hands, I eagerly sat down for a tale of ghosts, a cursed sword, and bloody vengeance.
I didn’t get it.
The saga (called The Saga of King Heiðrek the Wise in Tolkien’s translation) is . . . how shall I put this . . . kind of a mess. For starters, it’s probably several unrelated texts in a trench coat, all of them newer than “The Waking of Angantyr.” Despite one of the other titles being Hervarar saga, i.e. Hervor’s Saga, Hervor only appears in about a quarter of the story. And while I did get a few cool bits from that — like her dressing up as a man and going around as a viking (raider) — what happens after she gets her father’s cursed sword from his ghost is, uh, basically nothing? She continues on for about a page, then goes home and has a kid, who is the centerpiece of the next, mostly unrelated story.
In fact, Hervor can’t really avenge her father and uncles. They were killed by two men, Hjálmar and Örvar-Oddr, and of those two, Hjálmar has already died of the wounds Angantyr gave him. As for Örvar-Oddr, he’s got his own saga to go die in, not at Hervor’s hands. (There’s a prophecy that his horse will kill him. The horse is long dead when Örvar-Oddr trips over its skull, causing a venomous snake to come out and bite him. Never let it be said that Norse sagas are unwilling to let their heroes meet incredibly ignominious ends.) What Terry and Gordon described to me is the general vibe of the poem, to be certain, but not the surrounding text.
I wrote a short story based on “The Waking of Angantyr” while in the middle of my thesis, a piece that basically just retold the poem in prose form. But that wasn’t enough. I’d been promised a cursed sword and bloody vengeance, and if the Norse weren’t going to supply me with those, then I would just have to do it myself.
You’ll find the chapter titled “The Waking of Angantyr” at the midpoint of the novel. It was my starting point, but it’s not the start of the book; instead I spun my threads both forward and backward from that central node. Much of it is wholly new cloth, but details from the saga got woven in here and there; if you happen to be one of the half-dozen people who know the text, you’ll see names you recognize. I also worked in nods to some of the other sagas, including a spurious etymology for Angantyr’s sword, Tyrfing: in my story that translates to “Serpent’s Tooth,” in homage to Örvar-Oddr’s dead horse’s skull’s resident snake.
This doesn’t take place in the world of the sagas, though. While I drew on all the preparation for my thesis in building a Norse-flavored setting, there’s no Norway or Iceland here, no Odin or Loki. I wanted a world where I could set the rules, in ways that supported the story I wanted to tell.
The Waking of Angantyr is in several ways an unusual book for me. It’s grimmer and bloodier than most of my work, and it’s also older: I wrote the original draft of this in 2003, after my thesis-induced burnout had healed. It went more or less directly onto the shelf when I sold a different novel and the agent I acquired admitted she’d be a bad advocate for this kind of fantasy, and my career proceeded in other directions, the Onyx Court and the Memoirs of Lady Trent and my Rook & Rose collaboration with Alyc Helms. But I kept casting sidelong glances at that shelf, thinking about my Viking revenge epic . . . and many years after drafting it, I took it down, dusted it off, gave it a thorough scrub with the revision brush, and sent it out into the world.
Because dammit, that poem deserves a better story around it than the one history supplied.
Usually in the second week of October I make mention that I use WordPress and that I find it extremely simple to use, easy to manage and is a thing that I can endorse for anyone who is looking to have their own space here on the Internet. However, this October I was traveling all over the place (the second week of that month I had one day at home in-between being in Wichita and NYC). So this year, my annual unsolicited endorsement of WordPress falls in the middle of November, because I am finally home.
However, do not let the relative lateness of the annual endorsement lead you to believe I am less enthusiastic about WordPress as both a blogging tool and a foundation for one’s own home on the web. Indeed, if this last year and the collapse of the former Twitter have taught us anything, it’s that having a space of one’s own online, not at the whim of a massively insecure and hateful billionaire (or, honestly most anyone else) is an essential thing. Social media sites may come and go, but your own site can, like, mine, outlast several generations of these increasingly ephemeral places.
In addition to 2023 being the 25th anniversary of Whatever existing, it also marks the 15th anniversary of me hosting the blog on WordPress. As a host for the site, WordPress has been damn near bulletproof; in those fifteen years the site has been down only for a few hours in aggregate, and rarely more than a few minutes at any one time (which have been rare enough to be remarkable in themselves). However, even if I didn’t use WordPress to host the blog, I would still use their software for the site. It’s simple enough to just bang out a post but complex enough that I can do all sorts of things with it, with hundreds of themes to skin the site, and widgets and background processes to further get the site to my liking. It has a lot to recommend it, either with or without WordPress as the hosting service.
As I note every year, WordPress neither asks for nor expects me to make this annual endorsement. I do it because I appreciate the service and the software, and think if you’re thinking about having your site, and you should, WordPress is a very good way to do it.
See you all again in a year (more or less), with another updated endorsement.
We sometimes say that someone with a talent has been “blessed,” but what happens when blessings are more real and concrete than just a note of admiration for skills? Sharon Shinn has been thinking about blessing for the world in which her new novel Whispering Wood exists, and is here now to share her thoughts.
In real life, I tend to be a skeptic. While I’ll occasionally read my horoscope or search for a four-leaf clover, I don’t really believe in astrology, crystals, soulmates, reincarnation, ghosts, or wishing on a star.
But in fiction, I love portents, prophecies, past lives, and predestination. In my own books, I’ve devised implants that light up when soulmates meet for the first time, invented a portal that takes the chosen one to another dimension, and designed solstice rites that make dreams come true.
In my newest book, Whispering Wood, I’ve created a world where the dominant ritual is based on blessings. There are 43 of them, stamped on metal coins and available at every temple. Eight each are aligned with one of the five elements of wood, water, air, earth, and fire, and three are extraordinary blessings that transcend the elements. At birth, everyone is gifted with three random blessings that in some way mold them for the rest of their lives, but they can go to a temple at any time and pull additional coins whenever they need guidance for some risky venture or troubling situation.
As an author, I love the blessings because they give me so many opportunities to illustrate a character’s personality (surely he’s going to live up to his blessing of loyalty before the book is out) or foreshadow events (there must be a reason she carries the glyph for power).
But all types of prophecies and portents are equally useful for a writer. They can set up expectations for a character arc. (Will he be sorry he scoffed at the notion of true love?) They can lay the groundwork for an upcoming plot twist. (Why is a blonde woman showing up in the cards laid out by the fortune-teller?) They can create a sense of dread. (This girl has been murdered in every former life, so how soon is she going to be facing a crazed killer?)
And they can force characters to decide what actions to take next. Do they court disaster by defying the will of the gods? Do they teach themselves to lie when they have been fated to only tell the truth? Do they try to circumvent the prophecy, outrun the curse, arm themselves with protective magic? Maybe it sounds counterintuitive, but when both the readers and the characters know what the future holds—or what it’s supposed to hold—everything gets a lot more interesting.
Another reason I like to add metaphysical components to my stories is that they illustrate something about the worlds that I’ve created. Human societies are rich with rituals both silly and solemn, and I want to add some of that richness to my novels. In real life, we might knock on wood, blow the seeds off a dandelion, consult tarot cards, plan weddings, attend funerals, or follow precise and complex ceremonies to choose a new pope or crown a new monarch. These traditions are the bejeweled and golden threads that weave through the tapestries of our lives.
Similarly, when I have my characters pray to a god or honor a superstition, I hope to make them seem more real, more relatable. I also hope to give readers a way to slide into the story—to make them feel that this imaginary place is just on the other side of a very thin veil.
The blessings have afforded me an easy way to do that. Whispering Wood is the fifth in a series that launched in 2010. For the past few years, I’ve drawn blessings every Monday morning, posted them on my Facebook page, and invited my readers to share the coins they’ve pulled for themselves. It’s a made-up ritual, sure, but there’s a sort of comfort in it. It creates a small community that bridges both the actual and the invented worlds. It gives us all a few touchstones we can use as we try to navigate the coming week.
But I suppose there’s another reason I find fantasy rituals so appealing. Humans are drawn to fiction because it imposes a rational narrative on a random and often bewildering existence. So often, life simply doesn’t make sense. As with any good story, there’s a beginning, middle, and end, but the throughline isn’t clear. How did this love affair go awry? Why did this person die so young? What was the point of this meandering detour into a career that didn’t work out? There are no obvious markers for the trails we should be following, and there are no clear lessons to be drawn from our disjointed lives. While many people believe that “everything happens for a reason,” I tend to think that, sometimes, things just happen.
That’s why stories have such power. Because they do make sense. They do create order. They take the broken, scattered stones of human experience and turn them an exquisite mosaic.
Our real-life rituals help us carve patterns from the haphazard nature of ordinary existence. Our fictional rituals do the same. They offer guidance. They provide structure. They make us believe that—even if we can’t see it—the design is there. All we have to do is make it through the rest of the story.
Last year, the band Bad Omens came out with an album called The Death of Peace of Mind, and I didn’t discover it until recently. Ever since I found it, I’ve been pretty hooked on them. I thought no song could top the one that the album is named for, “THE DEATH OF PEACE OF MIND”, but it turns out there’s a song on the album I like even more than that one. It’s called “Like A Villain”, and I’ve been playing it pretty much on repeat the past few weeks.
Here it is, for your listening enjoyment:
Honestly, it’s really the chorus and the super sick drums that do it for me. It’s just such a bop but in a metal type of way.
I hope you enjoy it, and I also recommend checking out “Just Pretend,” “Nowhere To Go,” and of course, “THE DEATH OF PEACE OF MIND”.
Let me know your thoughts on this song, or the other ones I recommended. Or have you listened to their previous two albums? Let me know in the comments, and have a great day!
In today’s Big Idea, Cory Doctorow talks about his new novel The Lost Cause, but he also talks about why so many of science fiction writers work in the genre at all. Both topics are, unsurprisingly, fascinating.
Danger is scary, but helplessness is scarier.
For the 45 years since we were first warned that climate change could render our planet uninhabitable, we’ve been strapped into a bus headed over the cliff’s edge, watching our doom draw ever-nearer as the first class passengers tell us to stop screaming, it’s all in our heads.
The cliff draws nearer, and the toffs tell us that we’ll “innovate” our way out of this, putting wings on the bus while it’s in motion. The cliff draws nearer still, and they assure us that the only alternative is to go so fast that we jump the chasm.
Our impending doom is only part of the terror in this scenario. What makes this a nightmare is the inevitability of it all. That feeling of being strapped in, patted on the head, told to sort our recycling more diligently and “shop green.”
The Lost Cause is my next novel. It’s a hopeful novel of climate disaster.
It’s a book where all the disasters that we have now committed ourselves to have come to pass: cities wiped off the map by rising seas, unbreathable air filled with wildfire smoke, punishing floods, waves of habitat-loss precipitated plagues, and millions of refugees on the march.
But it’s also a book where millions of people – the “Blue Helmets,” created by Green New Deals all over the world – have trained to weatherize and solarize houses, to care for refugees, to fight fires, to relocate whole coastal cities many kilometers inland.
It’s a world where we have broken free of our bonds, rushed the driver, grabbed the wheel, and swerved.
And, naturally, it’s a world where many people are furious that this has happened.
The protagonist of The Lost Cause is a high-school senior in Burbank named Brooks Palazzo whose parents died while serving as volunteers on the project to rescue the city of Calgary from the floodplain where it stands today.
Brooks is part of “the first generation in a future that doesn’t fear the future,” and he’s ready to spend his life being part of the solution. But an unholy alliance of seagoing anarcho-capitalist wreckers and grudge-nursing white nationalist militiamen want to strap Brooks – and all his comrades back in their seats and put the bus back into gear. That chasm isn’t going to leap itself. Ad Astra!
The Lost Cause is part of a veritable shelfful of books I wrote during lockdown. When covid struck, I climbed into my backyard hammock and wrote, and wrote.
I wrote through the heat and the rains, I wrote as the sky turned orange and wildfire ashes sifted out of the sky and stained the skin around my N95 mask sooty grey.
I wrote because that’s how I go from being life’s passenger to taking a small bit of control over my destiny. Writing isn’t just a way for me to escape to a better world, it’s a way to help conjure that world into existence.
Science fiction, after all, is a literature that says we’re not prisoners of history. It’s a way to say, “Things can be different. What we do matters. The future is up for grabs.”
Bill McKibben called The Lost Cause “The first great YIMBY novel,” adding “forget the Silicon Valley bros–these are the California techsters we need rebuilding our world, one solar panel and prefab insulated wall at a time.”
Kim Stanley Robinson said, “Along with the rush of adrenaline I felt a solid surge of hope. May it go like this.”
For me, these two quotes are the perfect summary of why writing – especially writing sf – feels so satisfying in anxious times. None of us can stop the bus on our own, but if we can break free of the frozen terror of helplessness and understand that the bonds that hold us in our seats are forged of our own constrained imagination. we can grab the wheel and swerve.
I found this rose on the hallway floor of my hotel in Austin, Texas, this weekend, clearly the residue of a wedding that had been at the hotel at the same time I was there. Naturally I had to take a picture of it before disposing it. I hope it is not a metaphor for the wedding couple.
In other news, I am back home for the duration of 2023; I have a couple other things on my calendar, but they’re a) drivable, and b) not relating to book touring. What will I do with the rest of the year? Sleep. And maybe write a couple of things. You know, like I do. From time to time. Here and there. Now and then.
Last night I went to see Depeche Mode in Cleveland, accompanied by friends of mine with whom I had not-so-coincidentally seen the band with in 1988. One of our number had earlier in the year suggested seeing the band as again as a bit of a mini-reunion, and, well, why not. The show was very good, with all the spectacle one (at this point) expects from Depeche Mode, and they played a good mix of “imperial era” hits and interesting later songs, including a couple from their latest album, the aptly named Momento Mori. A good time was had by all, or at least by me and my friends.
It also occurred to me (later, once the concert was done and I was back in my hotel room) that this was also likely the last time I would ever see Depeche Mode live. One reason is practical: They’re an arena-sized band, and generally speaking, I don’t go to see many arena-sized concerts anymore; I prefer to be able to sit for my concerts these days, and to have reasonably good acoustics (although I will admit the science of arena acoustics have gotten a lot better since I was a kid; it’s no longer just a messy wall of sound). Theaters, or at most a small outside shed, are my preference these days.
The other reason is more existential: Depeche Mode are 40 years into their career, and down to two members, the third member, Andy Fletcher, having passed in 2022 from a sudden aortic dissection. When he died, it was an open question whether Dave Gahan and Martin Gore, the other two members of the group, would continue on; Fletcher was widely known to be peacemaker and glue of the group, while Gahan and Gore were the more mercurial creatives. Moreover, Gahan had been grousing in the last few years about the fact that doing the Depeche Mode thing was a real hassle at this point in their lives — a world tour sounds sexy and exciting when you’re young, but when you’re in your late 50s and early 60s, it’s a bit of a drag, expensive to mount and disruptive of your whole life (and now you know why U2 is doing a big long residency in Vegas; if nothing else, it’s all in one place).
Gore and Gahan have apparently had a bit of a reapproachment and reimagining of their relationship to each other and their band, which as a Depeche Mode fan of long standing I find both heartening but also, realistically, something one can’t necessarily rely on moving forward. This concert tour is a bit of triumph over adversity, and the band might decide to end on this high note. Or the two remaining members might let everything drop because they’re financially set for life, pursuing their own separate interests and letting Depeche Mode fade out of benign neglect. They might get on each other’s nerves again. Or, bluntly, as they are both in their sixties now, and have led very rock n’ roll lives, one of them might die. Seeing as Gore is the band’s principal songwriter and Gahan the principal singer, it’s hard to see how Depeche Mode survives the death or departure of the either.
Or, you know, they could be just fine and keep releasing albums and touring for the next decade or more, in which case the problem is likely to be me; I could die, or, less dramatically and as previously noted, just decide not to subject myself to the sort of arena setting the band is fortunate enough to perform in. Depeche Mode, I assure you, will not miss me if I don’t show up to the show; last night’s concert was packed. They have enough fans to scrape by for as long as they can and will go on the road.
For whatever reason, it seems likely to me that last night was the last time I will see the band in a live setting. If that’s the case, Depeche Mode won’t be alone in this: There are any number of bands I grew up with who (provided they are an ongoing concern) are now either setting up their “farewell” tours, or will likely be planning to in the nearish future, or who are discovering that the hassle isn’t worth it, or that the audience necessary to tour without running into the red is no longer there. And speaking personally, I’m choosier about what I get out of the house for and in what setting, not to mention that, living in the boonies as I do, going to see any band or musician of any stature takes planning — the last several concerts I’ve seen have required travel to some degree or another. That takes effort and coordination and scheduling, and as someone who travels and tours myself (I am writing this at DFW, on the way to Austin and the Texas Book Festival), this can be trickier than it used to be.
If indeed this is the last time I will see Depeche Mode live, at the very least it was an excellent concert, in the company of good friends. There are worse ways to say goodbye. That said, my friends noted that the last time we saw Depeche Mode together was 35 years ago, and in the extremely unlikely event the band is still touring in another 35 years, we should consider seeing them again. And, well, you know what? If Gore and Gahan, by then in their mid 90s, show up, I at a relatively spry 89 would certainly consider it. Hopefully not in an arena.
The photo you see above is me in May, 1988, when I and a group of friends went off to go see the band Depeche Mode at the Blossom Music Festival amphitheater outside of Cleveland (here’s the set list, from the Depeche Mode wiki, because of course there’s a Depeche Mode wiki). Tonight, 35 years later, I and some of those same friends are going to another Depeche Mode concert, also in Cleveland, because this may be the band’s last tour (they are down to just two original members at this point) and also because hanging out with old friends is a lovely thing to do.
Then on Saturday I hop on a plane in Cleveland (I am not driving all the way across the state just to hop on a plane in Dayton) and head to Austin, Texas, for the Texas Book Festival, where on Sunday I will do a panel, a signing, and, I presume, eat my weight in brisket and/or Tex-Mex. Then on Monday I fly back to Cleveland, because that’s where my car will be, and then drive back home, perchance to sleep for 72 hours.
All of which is to say that if I’m scarce here for the next few days, this will be why. Also, if you’re in Austin this weekend, please come to see me there and say hello.
Look at this kid! He had hair! And a chin! Man, I miss that chin.
We’ve come to that time of the year again, where folks begin to think about their holiday gift giving, and at least some of you think about books as the perfect gift. Well, they are! But would make them even more perfect is getting those books signed and personalized. Every year I join forces with Jay and Mary’s Book Center in Troy, Ohio, to sign and personalize books so that you’ll have them available to give to the people you love, including yourself.
From today (Nov. 9) through Monday, December 4, you can order books I have written from Jay and Mary’s and I will come in and sign them for you, and then the bookstore will ship them to you (US only). I strongly encourage you to get your orders in early, so there are no delays in shipping the books to you this holiday season.
Here’s how to do it!
1. Call Jay & Mary’s at their number (937 335 1167) and let them know that you’d like to order signed copies of my books. Please call rather than send e-mail; they find it easier to keep track of things that way.
2. Tell them which books you would like (For example, Starter Villain ), and what, if any, names you would like the book signed to. If there’s something specific you’d like written in the books let them know, but for their sake and mine, please keep it short. Also, if you’re ordering the book as a gift, make sure you’re clear about whose name the book is being signed to. If this is unclear, I will avoid using a specific name.
3. Order any other books you might think you’d like, written by other people, because hey, you’ve already called a bookstore for books, and helping local independent bookstores is a good thing. I won’t sign these, unless for some perverse reason you want me to, in which case, sure, why not.
4. Give them your mailing address and billing information, etc.
5. And that’s it! Shortly thereafter I will go to the store and sign your books for you.
Again, the deadline for signed/personalized books for 2023 is December 4. After December 5 all Scalzi stock will still be signed and available, but I will likely not be able to personalize.
Also, this is open to US addresses only. Sorry, rest of the world. It’s a cost of shipping thing.
What books are available?
CURRENT HARDCOVER: Starter Villain is the current hardcover release. The Kaiju Preservation Society may still available in hardcover; ask. The mini-hardcover of Old Man’s War is also available and is a great format for that book. Most other books are in trade or mass-market paperback, although if you really want hardcovers of a recent book (i.e., from the last five years), they may be able to special order it.
CURRENT TRADE PAPERBACK: The Kaiju Preservation Society, The Android’s Dream, Agent to the Stars and Fuzzy Nation, Redshirts (the 2013 Hugo Award winner), Twenty-First Century Science Fiction (which features a story of mine), Metatropolis (which I edited and contribute a novella to) are available in trade paperback format. There are also probably still trade paperback editions of Old Man’s War that can be ordered if you prefer that format. Also available: Robots Vs. Fairies, the anthology that features the story of mine that was adapted for the “Three Robots” episode of the Netflix animated series Love, Death and Robots.
CURRENT MASS MARKET PAPERBACK: The entire Interdependency series (The Collapsing Empire, The Consuming Fire and The Last Emperox) are available, both individually and as a boxed set. The Old Man’s War series of books (Old Man’s War, The Ghost Brigades, The Last Colony, Zoe’s Tale, The Human Division and The End of All Things) are available individually, and the first three of those books also come in their own boxed set. Lock In, Head On and Unlocked: An Oral History of the Haden Syndrome (novella) are individually available as well. Fuzzy Nation, Agent to the Stars and The Android’s Dream have recently been moved into trade paperback, but mass market editions are probably still available if that’s your preference. Please note: If you order the boxed sets, if you want those signed you’ll have to agree to let me take the shrinkwrap off. In return I’ll sign each of the books in the box.
CURRENT NON-FICTION: Your Hate Mail Will Be Graded (essay collection, Hugo winner), The Mallet of Loving Correction (also an essay collection, this will need to be special ordered as it is a signed limited), Virtue Signaling (a third essay collection, will also need special ordering) and Don’t Live For Your Obituary (a collection of essays about writing, will also need to be special ordered).
AUDIOBOOKS: The Kaiju Preservation Society, The Last Emperox, The Consuming Fire, The Collapsing Empire, The Dispatcher, The End of All Things, Lock In, Head On, The Human Division, Redshirts, Fuzzy Nation, The God Engines, Metatropolis and Agent to the Stars are all available on CD and/or MP3 CD, and Jay & Mary’s should be able to special order them for you. Check with them about other titles, which may or may not be currently available on CD.
Two things regarding audiobooks: First, if you want these, you should probably call to order these as soon as possible. Second, and this is important, because the audiobooks come shrinkwrapped, I will have to remove the shrinkwrap in order to sign the cover. You ordering a signed audiobook means you’re okay with me doing that and with Jay & Mary’s shipping it to you out of its shrinkwrap.
If you have any other questions, drop them in the comment thread and I’ll try to answer them!
In my ‘umble opinion, we the children of the 21st century, waste words appallingly. We are rarely succinct, and often fail to articulate our true meaning. This leads to confusing emails, gibberish texts and clumsy conversations. We speak, but we rarely successfully communicate, and when it comes to storytelling, we are inclined to waffle, digress, and ultimately lose our audience. As an antidote to this sorry state, I set-out to write The Corset and the Jellyfish, a series of diversly strange tales, each with a beginning, middle and end, and comprising of exactly 100 words. In short, I began drabbling.
Why? Because they asked me if I would like to, and also, I was a professional film critic and columnist for many years, as some of you know, for various newspapers and magazine and online sites and whatnot. Plus I wrote a couple of books on film back in the day, so there’s that. So it’s nice to get back on that particular bicycle.
My inaugural column is now up on Uncanny’s web site, and is called “Speed Racer’s Long Road”; it’s how the Wachowski’s 2008 gloss on the famous animated series went from being a box office disappointment to a cult hit and a master class on digital storytelling. If this sounds intriguing to you, check it out here. And while you’re over there, check out what else is up on the site. Should keep you busy for a bit.
If you’re not up on last night in Ohio, what happened was this: Ohioans voted to enshrine the right to abortion in the state constitution (Issue 1), by a margin that qualifies as “not even close,” and also voted to allow the use of marijuana in the state (Issue 2), by a slightly larger margin. This despite overwhelming and absolutely dishonest messaging by the GOP and its allies on both issues, but most notably on Issue 1.
Wanna talk about it? Let’s!
1. The first thing I notice is that the margins to pass Issues 1 and 2 very closely match the margin with which Ohio voters turned down (a very different than November’s) Issue 1 back in August. That Issue 1 — and yes, Ohio’s numbering system for voter issues needs a little more clarity and variety — was the GOP-dominated Ohio legislature’s attempt to make voter initiatives almost impossible to put on the statewide ballot and then almost impossible to pass. The lege then scheduled that Issue 1 for an August vote date despite the fact that they had very recently passed a law to stop having August elections because no one voted in those. They were counting on the issue to slip past most voters so only their favorite selected voters would show up. This backfired on them in a real and significant way, as roughly four times as many voters showed up for that election as did for the previous August election, and (that) Issue 1 went down in flames.
It was widely understood that August’s Issue 1 was a “Hail Mary” attempt to keep November’s Issue 1 off the ballot, since abortion rights are broadly popular in Ohio, and the wholly gerrymandered Ohio legislature knew it was out of step with the general population on the matter. That said, when I wrote an August election post-mortem, I said I imagined the vote on abortion rights would be decided on a closer margin than the one that prevailed in crushing initiative restrictions. Well, it was — by half a percentage point. Otherwise, it looks like the people who showed up to slap around the Ohio lege in August came back to do it again in November. Excellent choice, Ohio voters.
2. I strongly suspect that having both abortion rights and marijuana legalization on the ballot at the same time had a synergistic effect on the success of both issues. It seems to me that very broadly, the sort of person who doesn’t want a politician in their uterus, or the uteruses of their friends and loved ones, is the sort of person who doesn’t want people to risk going to jail for toking up, and vice versa. For those folks, being able to take care of both things at the same time would be a reason to make the effort to vote, while the people who were highly partisan about one but meh on the other could still vote for both because, hey, they were there voting anyway.
Of course, the flipside was probably true as well: The correlation between wanting to control other people’s uteruses and control their ability to toke whenever they wanted is, I imagine, pretty high. And lord knows the GOP whipped its voters into a frenzy about both. But the fact of the matter is there are fewer Ohioans on that side of both issues.
3. It’s also worth noting that on the abortion rights issue, 3.86 million Ohioans voted, which is around 48% of the total electorate. That’s a pretty good turnout in an off-off election year, which had neither senators nor representatives were on the ballot (as in 2022) or a president (as in 2020). Ohio voters were clearly energized by the idea of clawing back the rights they had had a few years previously, as well they should have been.
4. As with the August election, the GOP and conservatives ran a stunningly dishonest campaign on Issue 1. They said voting “no” would protect children (it wouldn’t, unless forcing a child to carry their rapist’s baby to term is your definition of “protecting”), that voting “yes” would curtail parental rights (which weren’t being threatened), and would allow women to abort viable fetuses up until the very moment of birth (the amendment made provisions for viability issues and medical determination thereof). The “No on 1” folks even threw in some anti-trans bullshit into their messaging because trans people are their current boogeyfolk.
When none of that was working especially well, there was the breaktakingly disingenuous assertion that Issue 1 was unnecessary because abortion is currently legal in Ohio. It is: It’s legal because the law the Ohio lege passed (and the Governor signed) to restrict abortions to six weeks was placed on hold pending court cases, and it was widely expected that the entirely gormless GOP-dominated Supreme Court of Ohio would rule that the ban after six weeks is legal.
(This on top of Secretary of State Frank LaRose and the Ohio Ballot Board’s decision to have the explanatory text of Issue 1 suggest people would be, among other bad things, voting for murdering babies; this got taken to Ohio’s gormless Supreme Court, which issued an opinion that some of what LaRose did was out of bounds, but not the part suggesting one is murdering babies, so, yeah, that was great.)
The fact the GOP expected these absolutely transparent lines of crap to hold water with people not already in the tank for them shows how out of practice they are trying to craft a message to people who aren’t them. In the end, the GOP had to resort to voter flyers saying “If you don’t know what’s in the Issue, just vote no,” which elides that the other option was not to vote on it at all, which, one presumes, was what many who did not care to know about the issue did.
5. On the subject of the gerrymandered, GOP-dominated state government, don’t expect it to accept either the passage of abortion rights or marijuana legalization with a world-weary shrug and the decision to move on to other topics. On the marijuana front, what passed is not a constitutional amendment, so they can (and just may) move to invalidate it or restrict it substantially, because fuck you, that’s why. They have rather less leeway on the matter of abortion rights — the actual text of the amendment was constructed with the understanding that the Ohio GOP would do everything in its power to make its protections as constrained as possible — but that doesn’t mean they’re not going to try.
As noted before, the Ohio legislature is gerrymandered as fuck, and a previous attempt to de-gerrymander the state (via voter initiative, although not as a constitutional amendment), was roundly and illegally ignored by the state government, which rather than obeying a court order to change its unconstitutional districts decided to run out the clock until such time as it could get an Ohio Supreme Court more congenial to their bullshit. Bluntly, the Ohio legislature picks its voters, not the other way around, and doesn’t actually care what Ohio voters in general think about anything.
In 2024 there is very likely to be another voter initiative to remove the Ohio government from the district drawing process entirely, and if it’s on the ballot, it’ll very likely pass. Until and unless, the Ohio government is going to keep trying to make a mess of things. This is not going to make Ohioans happy. In the short run, there’s not too much to be done. In the long run, there are things to be done, and I suspect it’s going to bite the Ohio GOP on the ass. Which it should.
6. Ohio’s abortion and marijuana victories are part of a larger 2023 election night which saw some substantial Democratic gains and Republican embarrassments, including but not limited to Andy Beshear handily winning a second term as governor in Kentucky, the Democrats holding the Virginia senate and taking the Virginia house, stalemating Republican Governor Glenn Youngkin and putting paid to his nascent presidential hopes, and on a smaller but no less vital level, punting a bunch of censoring reactionaries from various school boards across the land.
In a week where the press and some Democrats were wringing their hands about the fact that Trump is leading Biden in some entirely meaningless polls a year out from the 2024 presidential election, the actual reality of how people are voting offers, shall we say, some interesting and possibly corrective perspectivse. One, restoring peoples’ ability to control their own bodies is a winner, and we’ve seen that over and over and over again in the time since the Dobbs decision. Two, you won’t go wrong letting people have their weed. Three, people in general are not nearly as intolerant as their gerrymandered representatives, or professional propogandists, or the people hoping to monetize their shittiness on the former Twitter.
None of this is actually difficult to understand, and I do wonder why some people, particularly nominally on the left, seem to have a problem understanding it. Hopefully they will start understanding it better soon. Today’s presidential polls don’t mean much but November 2024 will be here sooner than people think.
The circle of inspiration: The work of others inspires creators to make work of their own, which in turn inspires another set of creators. David D. Levine is here to talk about a work that inspired his latest, The Kuiper Belt Job, and how it came to make a difference in his own creation.
DAVID D. LEVINE:
My new novel The Kuiper Belt Job began at the Chicago Worldcon in 2012, where I participated in a panel in which we brainstormed a sequel to Serenity, the Firefly movie. I don’t recall who was on the panel, or who contributed which ideas, but I do remember the basic premise: ten years after the events of Serenity, Mal’s son (of course Mal had a son) shows up out of nowhere to say: dad’s in jail, and I’m putting the gang back together to break him out.
It was only a tossed-off idea at a science fiction convention panel, but for some reason that premise stuck in my head and would not let go. I kept thinking that I should file the serial numbers off and make a novel of it. So in 2017, after handing in the final edits for Arabella the Traitor of Mars, that was one of three new projects I pitched to my agent and editor. And that was the one they both liked the best.
I knew from the beginning that this project would be all about found family, and specifically about putting a broken found family back together again. But I’d never written an ensemble cast before — all of my previous projects had focused on one or two viewpoint characters. So I started by thinking about what made the characters in Firefly work as an ensemble, and also the characters in Leverage (TV series, 2008-2012, in which a crew of con artists work together to help those who have been hurt by powerful people) which I also wanted to use as a model. And the more I thought about it, the more I recognized that the two ensembles are both implementations of the same basic design.
- Mal, the leader, corresponds with Nate, the Mastermind.
- Zoe, the second in command is Parker, the Thief.
- Kaylee, the engineer, is Alec, the Hacker.
- Jayne, the muscle, is Eliot, the Hitter.
- Inara, the Companion, is Sophie, the Grifter.
The correspondences aren’t exact, of course. Zoe is much more self-confident than Parker, and Kaylee is more innocent than Alec (though Alec is a bit of a naïf in his way). But looking at the two sets of characters I began to get a sense of how their strengths and weaknesses combine to make a group that can’t help but become tightly-knit and independent.
So I came up with my main cast: Strange the mastermind, Alicia the thief, Tai the hacker, Kane the muscle, and Shweta the negotiator. Now, to be sure, Strange isn’t just Mal or Nate with the serial numbers filed off; he is his own person. But thinking about the existing characters helped me to make my own characters richer and more plausible, and especially to shape the relationships between them.
As I began drafting, my characters began to evolve beyond their origins, to become more themselves. I spotted places where they could conflict and places where they could support each other — often those were two sides of the same coin. And I realized that there were other models I could call on to help flesh out the gang.
There’s a concept in anime known as the “five-man band.” (You could look it up in TV Tropes, but I warn you, if you go in there it’ll be a long time before you come out.) The basic idea is that the main characters form a group of five:
- The Leader: the main character, the one in charge
- The Lancer: the leader’s second in command and foil
- The Brain: the smart one, often also the weird one
- The Brawn: the strong one, often also the dumb one
- The Heart: the emotional core of the group
(The Heart used to be called The Chick, obeying the Smurfette Principle that no group can contain more than one female, but we’re better than that now, right?)
The Five-Man Band concept underlies a lot of anime teams, a lot of superhero teams, and a lot of other fictional teams as well. The concept can certainly be overlaid on — or force-fit onto — an existing team, but I’m sure that some more recent teams were created with this model in mind. And why not me? So I decided to apply this idea to my own characters. Strange was obviously the Leader, Alicia the Lancer, Tai the Brain, Kane the Brawn, and Shweta the Heart.
Looking at my characters from the perspective of this model helped me to understand that Alicia, my Zoe character, was not only the Thief (Parker from Leverage) but also the Lancer — the emotional complement and foil to Strange, my Mal character. And Shweta, my Inara character, was not only the Grifter (Sophie from Leverage) but also the one who was everyone’s auntie, the one who helped everyone through the gang’s darkest places. And there were some dark places indeed.
There was one more place where my study of existing teams affected the structure of my novel, and that is that I decided to give each of my five main characters a single long stretch of point-of-view rather than repeatedly switching from one POV to another as is typical in ensemble novels. This permitted me to give each character a good long turn in the spotlight and also to showcase how the characters and their relationships change as the broken gang reassembles itself over the course of the novel. It’s a bit of a risk in terms of writing craft, but I believe it works.
Then I decided to put an interstitial between those five point-of-view sections: a four-part flashback to the moment the gang broke up, ten years in the past. And, because the gang was closer than family back then, basically one mind in five bodies, I put it in the first person plural. Yes, it’s told from the perspective of “we.” Is it a stunt? Maybe. Does it work?
Well, I’ll leave that up to you.