This Web Site is Free

This morning I went and opened up a SubStack account, for a couple of reasons. The first was to take “Scalzi” off the market on SubStack; I do this pretty much which every social media site, for branding consistency across the Internet. Second, at some point or another I might decide to do something I’ll want a paid subscription model for, and if I do, SubStack offers a relatively frictionless way to do that. What might that be, and will SubStack actually be the best way to do it? In both cases, the answer is: got me. Taking the SubStack account is for possibilities, not certainties.

That being said, taking the account gave me a moment to reflect on what I do here and how I do it. For the last twenty-one years and ten months, this blog has been up and has been absolutely free to visit; I haven’t charged for any content here (I have on occasion put stuff up and let people know there was a voluntary payment, usually for charitable purposes, but that’s different). I’ve done it this way because, one, it’s simpler than trying to manage either advertising or subscriptions, and two, because it’s allowed me to always post on my own terms — if I decide to take a break, or a hiatus, or stop posting altogether, there’s no harm and no foul. This web site is free, so you get what you get, or don’t get, as the case may be.

There’s another reason as well, which is that for the entire two-decade-and-change existence of this site, I have made a comfortable living doing other writing, first as a consultant and freelancer, and for the last several years as a novelist. There has never been a need for me to look at this site as something that had to make money, either passively or actively, so I didn’t. I wouldn’t trivialize this site by calling it an affectation — I have put out nine(!) books from material that was originally published here, including a novel that launched my fiction career and a short story collection that got me my first TV story credits — but it is true that its nature and character are what they are in no small part because of the thing it doesn’t have to be: Something explicitly commercial.

I think of this because so many writers have turned to places like SubStack and Patreon and other subscription vehicles and venues as part of their way of making a living. I think this is great — writers making money is a good thing — but it does generally entail a certain level of attentiveness to one’s audience that I’m not sure is in my nature to attempt, or to fulfill, here. The “you get what you get” nature of Whatever suits me, and if people don’t like what they get, they can leave, and I don’t have to worry about what it means for my bills and my bottom line. There are other places where I have to craft my writing specifically to please some specific person (or many of them). This doesn’t need to be one of those.

Still, who knows? I have sold things directly to people before, here and elsewhere; there might come a time when I decide to do it again, and it might be that a subscription model, either limited or ongoing, will be the best way to do that. I’ve been writing professionally for three decades now. I wouldn’t have made it this far if I was precious or snobby about how I make money writing. If I think up of something that would fit a subscription model, I just might do it, and see how it turns out for me.

And if it does great, well, then, it can be the thing that subsidizes this, where you get what you get, and hopefully like it, but it’s okay if you don’t. This web site is free, after all.

The Big Idea: Ferrett Steinmetz

What does your cell phone or XBox have to do with AI-laden weapon systems? Ferrett Steinmetz has an inkling, and in this Big Idea for his new novel Automatic Reload, he lays it out for you.

FERRETT STEINMETZ:

You’re already too slow for technology. You knew that the first time you used a calculator; it could multiply 6,317 x 256 before you could pick up a pencil.

Some day a computer will be able to shoot you before your brain can tell your trigger finger to fire.

That’s right; militaries everywhere are working on targeted weaponry as we speak, which is a significant problem, but not an unsolvable one. Our troops are endangered on patrols because they don’t see the dangers surrounding them; wouldn’t it be nice to have automated weaponry seated on their shoulders that scans for incoming threats and neutralizes them before of our boys can get shot?

And while it’s nice to think we’d never use such automated systems in combat, well, war has never rewarded ethics as thoroughly as it should. Which means eventually some guns will be shooting themselves.

Which leaves one big question:

Who’s programming those targeting systems?

In my book Automatic Reload, the answer is “Our hero, Mat” – a man who’s a walking weapons platform, having replaced his arms and legs with auto-targeting armed prosthetics. He gets hired as a freelance mercenary to do jobs that computerized weaponry can’t do on their own. Because as it turns out, enemy combatants are very creative, and the one thing computers aren’t very good at is reacting to new strategies. So he stomps in to rescue a hostage, his fragile human torso shielded by bulletproof armor and surrounded by four lethal limbs, reprogramming his reaction packages on the fly to shoot the bad guys, and no one else.

Mat’s also breaking down under that pressure. Because he knows what happens when his auto-fire routines aren’t tuned correctly. For him, combat is like being in a car wreck – he’s patrolling when suddenly his limbs catapult him around to shield him, airbags deploying as his guns fire, and if things go wrong he’ll be dead before he knows what happened.

Or, worse, a bystander will be dead. It’s happened before. He had lax input restrictions on the drone he was flying for the US Air Force, and the routines he programmed generated an automated approval to fire upon a group of suspected terrorists.

Problem was, one of those suspected terrorists had his kid with him. The kid wasn’t a suspect. Mat got to watch that kid blown to smithereens through hi-def streaming visuals. That was why Mat quit the Drone Corps, and why he’s been determined to program perfectly safe target-capturing routines ever since, but…

Technology is hard.

The programs that run those armed prosthetics work a lot like your cell phone does – which is to say they’re occasionally glitchy, working well until they don’t. And as much as people would like to believe that programmers know it all, unfortunately, we don’t. The programs we’re building are reliant on libraries and interpreters and drivers built by other very flawed and very human programmers, so each of those potentially harbor bugs or misconfigurations.

The scary thing about the Internet, or your smart phone, or the apps on your television, is that nobody fully understands them. You’re perfectly justified in getting mad when nobody at tech support knows how to fix your bricked XBox, but the ugly truth is there’s so many layers of programs involved that it’s often impossible to tell what precisely broke down.

At this point, “stuff bugs out sometimes and we don’t know why” is pretty much the fundamental core of all our technology – which is not reassuring when your auto-targeting glitches can accidentally headshot a teenager riding a bike.

And so Mat is reacting to his televisually-induced PTSD by trying to achieve perfection. He’s one of the top prosthetic armament technicians on the planet. He spends sleepless nights replaying old missions, running tests, fine-tuning his weaponry, determined to make sure that his routines never take the wrong shot.

Except he’s entering war zones.

Things go very wrong in war.

Automatic Reload is about a lot of things, and it’s not quite as heavy as I’m making it out to be here… mainly because at its core, Automatic Reload is actually a romance. Mat finds a woman – a woman who happens to be a genetically engineered killing machine, but a woman – who he falls in love with, because she also understands the stress of combat. They talk about old movies, they dance, they destroy the cop cars who are chasing them, it’s strangely sweet.

But Automatic Reload is also about the morality of unplanned technology. We’re charging ahead into an uncertain future, where we’re deploying computer-targeted mass surveillance using data taken from cameras to try to automatically catch terrorists, and not thinking about how all our old biases are ingrained as assumptions into our AI routines. We’re using social media to deliver personalized experiences to trusting users, without thinking how those personalized news stories can warp someone’s perceptions – or how evil people can hack those news stories to propagate misinformation.

Automatic Reload is very personal. Because Mat is on a mission to rescue this assassin (who he kinda maybe loves), and he’s willing to go to great lengths to keep her safe. And yet every battle piles on more stress as Mat is forced to bring the war straight to New Jersey, where one buggy line of code could cause an auto-generated massacre.

Yet Automatic Reload is also about the ethics of programming in a world where technology is fundamentally unreliable. Your cell phone’s far too useful to give up, so you’ll forgive it when occasionally the screen goes black.

Likewise, when it comes – if it comes – the power of automated weaponry will be such an advantage that nobody will want to give it up. But it won’t be perfect, and it won’t be bloodless.

What cost will we be willing to pay?

Automatic Reload’s got a few suggestions for you.

—-

Automatic Reload: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

Site Changes Coming in August

The Short Version: Athena Scalzi is coming on board Scalzi.com/Whatever as a writer and editor starting August 4. She’ll be taking over some administrative tasks, posting her own entries and helping me update and possibly expand the site.

The Less Short Version: Athena is taking a gap year from college, more or less, partly because she (and we) are waiting for the US to figure out what the hell it’s doing with the coronavirus. Prior to the shutdown, she’d been working out in the world, but at this point, between the rapid spread of the virus and the fact that aggressive, ignorant dipshits will scream about muh rights when they’re asked to wear masks or take other precautions on behalf of others, it doesn’t seem the risk-to-reward ratio for working in the service sector is all that great. Athena has also been wanting to focus on writing, and on building skills and knowledge that would be useful to writing and publishing, and content creation in general.

As it happens, Athena knows someone who could be useful in helping her develop all of those skills: Me, who has worked as a writer and editor for years, and knows all about publishing and content creation. And as it also happens, I’ve been aware for while that my current workload with books and other projects means this site is increasingly a last priority for the day. It could benefit from some more regular attention, and someone to handle tasks I have less time for now. Athena interned on the site a couple of years ago, so I know she understands the site, and I know I can work with her. Also, you know: I’m personally invested in her learning these skills in any event, and she’ll be at the house anyway.

So: Starting on August 4, Athena’s coming on to Scalzi.com/Whatever as a writer and editor for the site. She’ll be handling some administrative tasks for me, writing her own entries based on — yes — whatever it is she wants to write about, and working with me to plan the future of the site and to possibly create new and interesting features. You know: stuff. Don’t ask for too many details right now, we’re going to be making this up as we go along. But I’m happy both to have her here to handle some things for me and post her own things, and to be able to be useful to her as she builds up her skills and experience.

To answer some questions I know people will have: Yes, it’s totally nepotism, ask me if I care; No, I don’t know how long this new arrangement will go on, but I suspect for a bit because if nothing else we as a nation are not exactly on top of this virus thing, now, are we; Yes, this does mean I’ll now actually act like a real editor for the site, which means some formalization of what has been to this point a largely informal thing; No, I don’t know if you’ll notice any of that, other than seeing Athena’s byline on the site. There’s a bit to Athena’s new gig that will not manifest itself on the site in any obvious way. The answer to all other questions at this point is likely to be: shrug, you got me, guess we’ll find out.

I’m excited for this new chapter for Whatever and Scalzi.com. I think it will be fun and I’m looking forward to what we get to do here. I hope you’ll enjoy it too.

The Big Idea: Cindy Lynn Speer

So, what is The Key to All Things? Aside from the title of the new novel by Cindy Lynn Speer? The good news is, we have Speer here to tell you what it might be, and how it relates to her tale.

CINDY LYNN SPEER:

I came through the central driving idea for The Key to All Things in a rather circular way. I was watching Lady Hawke, and thinking about all these great love stories that seem to be so resonant. These glorious adventures and (spoiler, sorry) Happily Ever Afters.

And then I thought, what happens if the happily ever after turns false? So the original story was about a man who was once part of a Great Love Story – until she betrayed him. He needed to go and get something (A sword?  I don’t remember?) and set off on a quest. The second main character was a younger woman who had grown up hearing this story, and felt like this story set the bar for all her expectations for love and romance. It would have been a story about redemption (which the current one still is, to be honest) and love.

I liked the idea – I always like the “that’s very nice but what if…” kind of ideas, but I wasn’t sure what I was trying to say. If I even liked what I was saying. A couple times I tried to resurrect it…but I never really was sure if it was working so I let my people sleep.

And then, a snow storm happened. Which meant I was able to sleep in, and the story came back to me. I was well rested, in a great mood, and all of a sudden things came together in an almost audible click. I knew where the story was supposed to go and how to get there. New characters took the field, though they were the same basic shapes. Edward DeVere, the handsome captain of the human King’s guards still loved the wrong woman – Catherine of the Willows, who threw him aside to grab power and become the Queen of the Fae. He still fell – and his story was still loved. So loved, in fact, that variations of their forbidden love (human and fae aren’t supposed to be together) became a powerful tale. So powerful that it pushed out every other story. No more songs, unless they were about Edward and Catherine. No more poems or pulp novels or anything save about…yes. The Sapphire Queen and her lost human love.

And then, there is Avriel. The woman – about Edward’s age, this time – half human, half fae, working as a double agent in both courts. During the day the story itches at her, makes her sad, and she pushes it off, not understanding why – and then nine o’clock at night chimes, and for three hours, she knows the truth.

Edward was not Catherine’s lost love – in fact, he rather detested her. Edward DeVere was actually Avriel’s husband. Avriel, under a new name, was relegated to the back pages of the cheapest versions of the story. Avriel, a woman who is more powerful than she knows and who is determined to fix the world and get her life back.

But is one woman as powerful as a story?

And that was what I realized I wanted to talk about. The power of story itself. Also a love story with mystery, intrigue and some sword fighting scenes. Avriel and Edward both have to fight the narrative to get what they want, which is something I think we all do in our lives. We fight the story we tell ourselves about not being good enough, about – whatever. Even now we are fighting stories, fighting narratives that have been whispered and taught to us all our lives.

Because stories are power.  They are, indeed, the key to all things.

—-

The Key to All Things: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Kobo

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

I Present to You the First Cherry Tomatoes of the Season

From our tomato plants, one of which you can see fuzzily in the background of the photo.

And how were they? Pretty good! One’s own tomatoes have a tendency to be juicier and more flavorful than store-bought, because they are allowed to ripen on the vine, and these were no exception.

Soon we will be in the situation that befalls everyone who grows tomatoes, in that we will have far more of them than we will ever be able to eat or give away. But for the moment: Hey, they’re great.

Hope your weekend is also flavorful and juicy, in its own way.

The Virus Claims Yet Another Social Event

Krissy’s extended family congregates every year in early August for a reunion, an event that a few years back had its 100th anniversary — but because of the virus, there will be no reunion this year. The family skipping the reunion has only happened once before, in concert with World War II, so if you’re looking for quotidian evidence that this pandemic is in fact a history-level event, there you are. Also, obviously, it’s the right thing to do; many of the annual attendees are elderly and possibly exposing them to this thing is not a good plan. I will miss the lard cake (which is cake made with lard, but not a cake made primarily of lard, that would be weird), but as with so many things now, I can wait a year to have it.

(Or make it myself! I could do that! But it would be strange having it outside of the reunion. Those of you who regularly partake of reunions probably know what I mean here.)

Nostalgia Vu

I woke up this morning with a song from the 2001 film Josie and the Pussycats in my head, and because of that felt mildly wistful for the era in which it came out, the sort of Millennial Moment just before 9/11, with its boy bands and first Internet Bubble and all the sorts of capitalism (CDs! Malls! Print magazine and newspapers!) that were about to be buried under the next couple of decades of wrenching change. I don’t want to say it as a more innocent time, because of course it wasn’t, but two decades have passed, which means that enough time has gone out that the mental sifting has occurred and and the bright and fluffy bits seem brighter and fluffier in retrospect. It’s nostalgia I’m feeling, basically, for the turn of the century.

But it’s a little weird to be thinking of it as nostalgia, because as a card-carrying member of Generation X, my Nostalgia Era is already pretty well defined, basically early 80s to early 90s, starting with New Wave and ending with Grunge. And indeed that’s the era that gives me the full-on nostalgia feels; the nostalgia I have for the turn of the century, although real enough, is significantly less intense, more of an “oh, yeah, I enjoyed the nice parts of that” feeling than the whole “Proust eats a madeleine” wave of remembrance that I sometimes get for the 80s and early 90s.

I think the reason why is pretty obvious; I was younger in the 80s, experiencing everything for the first time, so on and so forth, while at the turn of the century I was already an adult, with some amount of life experience under my proverbial belt. This is not a complicated puzzle. Still, I find myself interested in the idea that enough time has passed in my life that I can feel nostalgia for two entirely separate eras in history, and qualitatively less nostalgia for one than the other.

I don’t imagine I am the first to feel this, nor the first to note it. So for those of you with enough water under your bridge, two questions: One, do you feel similar real-but-less nostalgia for previous eras that are not “your” eras; and Two, if so, does this phenomenon have an actual name? Second Nostalgia? Nostalgia Lite? Nostalgia Vu? I’m curious and want to know.

Also, if you’ve never seen Josie and the Pussycats, this is my recommendation of it, again, as I’ve recommended it here before, calling it “a trashy pop awesome instamatic picture of the Y2K-era music business,” which is a description I stand by. It’s also funnier and smarter than you might expect. Plus it began my now two-decade-long crush on Rosario Dawson! And the songs are great pop, too. Plus, you know. Nostalgia. Check it out.

Help, Help, I Can’t Be Published!

I don’t actually expect sense from David Brooks, but this particular tweet, to entice people into a column whining about the current state of discourse, was especially eye rolling to me:

So, let me break this down a bit.

First, as I noted on Twitter, responding to this tweet: “Implying that ‘one of the great essayists in America’ wouldn’t be smart enough to read the commercial room, and say what he wanted to say in a way that sold to the market that exists today, is going the long way around to say you don’t think he was that great a writer, my dude.” Which is to say Brooks isn’t interested in considering what Christopher Hitchens might be doing and saying if he were alive at the moment; he’s only interested in Hitchens in stasis, preserved in amber since 2011.

If your argument is “A commercial writer couldn’t write to the current market if he was writing like he was two or three decades back,” then, well, yes, and also, this would likely be an accurate statement in whatever year you might want to place it. the 2020s are not the 00s, which were not the 80s which were not the 60s and so on. As the great moral philosopher Hillary Flammond once noted, times change, people change, hairstyles change. So do commercial markets, although some faster than others.

But “great” writers are often not known to be great merely because they write well; they’re known as great because they have some sense of the market and manage to keep getting published over a long enough period time that critics and/or sycophants decide to label them “great.” This usually means being smart enough to know what acquiring editors want, and also (to a lesser extent) knowing what the acquiring editor’s audience wants. To have a career over decades, you probably have to adapt over time to new venues, new editors and new audiences. If you don’t… well, I hope you have a day job.

I was a reader of Christopher Hitchens; he wasn’t entirely editorially inflexible, and he didn’t exactly lack a willingness to go where the money was. I pretty strongly suspect that in the year 2020, Hitchens would have found a way to cast his thoughts in a manner that would be appealing to the market now. Either Brooks doesn’t understand that about Hitchens, or he thinks his readers don’t understand it, so he’s either a fool or a cynic (or both! It could be both!). Either way, he’s probably wrong.

Second, even if Hitchens had not progressed rhetorically since 2011, he’d still be perfectly employable, because — surprise! — the market is actually pretty vast, and there are certainly outlets that very profitably cater to the sort of audience who likes to wring its hands about “cancel culture,” and related nonsenseries, a concept that those very outlets have created in order to give their audiences that anxious “we’re under attack” feeling they apparently desperately crave. I mean, shit, David Brooks is still employed, for some unfathomable reason, and as far as I can tell he hasn’t switched up his particular bag of tricks since the Times hired him in 2003. David Brooks’ continued employment at the New York Times, the most establishment of publications, is its own best argument for why David Brooks’ assertion is complete horsepucky.

(Brooks then goes on to point out that so many of the writers he’s fretting about are now profitably self-publishing in any event, via Substack or other venues, which, I mean, good for them? Is this not the very embodiment of “get your own damn publishing press”? What is actually the problem here?)

I find the “[insert famous, now dead writer here] couldn’t be employed/published today” trope embarrassingly lazy in the best of times. It’s never true, to begin; in the world of books alone, publishers crank out hundreds of thousands of books annually, and self-publishing authors crank out hundreds of thousands more. You can write anything you want and set it out into the world.

It is true, for living authors, that certain publishers may decide they don’t want your book, for whatever reason; welcome to the world of publishing. Equally true, publishers may decide not to publish you for your politics or personal behavior; again, welcome to the world of publishing.

The good news is, there is often a publisher who will be just fine with your politics or personal behavior! Often run by the same overarching publishing conglomerate! In the last year we’ve seen some high profile book titles dropped by one publisher snapped up by another; this is not a new phenomenon. Or self-publish; it’s easy enough to do via ebook and print-on-demand, and you can even do presales via Kickstarter or some other venue. The point is, in fact, almost anyone can be published today.

What is not guaranteed is that everyone is published with the same status and stature as they might have had in years past, or that what they publish will be accepted with a minimum of criticism. But this is not exactly a new phenomenon either, is it? Careers go up, careers go down; people fall out of fashion and then have a resurgence, or not; others plug away for decades and never break into the common consciousness; people whose work was critically acclaimed stop being reviewed; people’s political views stop being mainstream, or they stop having mainstream views and move to the fringe, and their common appeal suffers. Yes, social media has decentralized some aspects of this process; the process itself is as old as the hills.

Ultimately David Brooks’ tweet and column are just the plaintive whine of someone comfortable with things as they were: Why couldn’t they have stayed that way? The answer is not all that surprising: Because they weren’t ever that way for long, you just came up in a moment. And now that moment’s over. Get on with it, or it will get over you.

And when it does, don’t worry: there’s always a Substack newsletter waiting.

JoCoCruise Postponed

Well, this is sad news for me and about 2,000 other nerds:

Sad, but of course necessary. While I would like to think by next March we’ll be seeing the light at the end of the Covid-19 tunnel, given how well this country has managed its response to the pandemic so far (and Florida in particular, as that is where the cruise would launch from), it’s best to assume that the Covid tunnel is long, and the light further away than we would like it to be. Nothing would ruin a cruise like everyone on it confined to quarters the entire time.

It’s still disappointing. I’ll miss my friends and I’ll miss the community that has spring up on the JoCoCruise over the years. I feel pretty strongly that this community will keep itself intact even though it will be necessary to skip over a year, however, so that when we reconvene in 2022 (knocks on wood) it will be, well, not like no time has passed, but at least that the absence will have in fact made hearts grow fonder.

As an aside, this now means that officially and finally I have no conventions or events scheduled for more than a year from today, and (equally obviously), had none scheduled since I got off the JoCoCruise in March. This is the longest I’ve gone between a convention or event since (checks calendar) 2003. That’s just wild. Fortunately I like my house, and the people in it. Even so.

Chair Life

My office chair, which was your basic Staples Special, blew its pneumatic cylinder a couple of weeks ago, and in the interim I’ve been using Athena’s desk chair, which I don’t like much because it’s not terribly comfortable and it doesn’t have arms, which it turns out are things that I need if I want to type for more than an hour at a stretch. So I have been looking at new office chairs and in doing so have visiting the realm of expensive office chairs, in which one can spend anywhere from $800 to $1,600 for various back and butt supports. The one pictured above, the Steelcase Leap, is about $1,000 if you go for customization, like “wasabi”-colored fabric instead of black.

And of course my brain goes in two directions looking at this. The first direction is: Well, you can afford it and you need a good, comfortable, ergonomically-designed chair, and over the long term this is a sensible business purchase. The second direction is: $1,000 for a friggin’ chair? Someone is SUPER high! You need that money! For stuff! Use an old barstool, it’ll be fine!

Spoiler: It won’t be fine. I’m 51 years old, and even if my body is in generally decent shape, I feel it if I’m sitting in a not great chair for any period of time now. Also, the second voice is a goddamn hypocrite, because it has no problem spending the same amount for a new phone or a guitar. I can’t (or at least shouldn’t) sit on a phone or guitar for several hours a day.

What it comes down to is that my brain is a weird thing that continually confronts me with irrational pronouncements of what is “affordable” and what is “too expensive.” A well-made, carefully designed seating apparatus with a 12-year warranty that I will use every day for years? Too much! A tiny rectangle of metal and ceramic for the same price that I will use for a year to take pictures of cats and to yell at people on the internet before trading it in for a slightly improved tiny rectangle that I will use to do exactly the same things on? Perfectly priced, get it NOW! I do not trust my brain, is what I’m saying.

I do, however, trust Krissy’s brain, which has instructed me to go ahead and get the aforementioned Steelcase Leap, albeit in basic black rather than Wasabi, on the basis that it is both $150 cheaper and will arrive in a week rather than in three. A sensible brain, that one. I’m glad it’s around.

Five Things: July 22, 2020

Having spent my morning plugging away on the web site, I now turn my attention to what’s going on (waves abstractly) out there:

Ohio’s Speaker of the House is in some deep shit: Turns out you’re not supposed to (allegedly) take bribes! Which I suspect Larry Householder probably knew, but I guess he thought that maybe just this one time either no one would notice or that they wouldn’t care. Turns out, maybe they do? Almost as a side note, the bribery scandal is about Ohio helping to prop up old and/or dirty energy sources at the expense of newer and cleaner sources. I am not so naive that I do not think Democrats cannot get caught with their hand in the cookie jar as much and as often as Republicans, but certainly the dynamics of this particular bribery scandal seem ready made for the GOP. There are calls for Householder to resign his speakership; I’m curious as to how long he’ll try to hold onto it.

Speaking of the fair state of my residence:

Ohio finally gets a statewide mask order: As of tomorrow at 6pm, if you’re out in the world, or at least the Ohio part of it, you have to be wearing a mask. I gave Ohio Governor Mike DeWine a fair amount of praise early on, and then slack later, for how he handled the plague crisis here, but honestly he should have made a mandatory mask order a long time ago. The state’s infection numbers have been headed up for a while now. I live in the part of the state where mask use has been, shall we say, spotty at best, so I’ll be very curious as to a) how this will be taken up, and b) whether there will genuinely be any enforcement of it. I’d like to think that between retail outlets like Kroger and Walmart requiring masks and the state itself backing them up, we’ll finally get more than 50% of people masking up. I guess we’ll see.

Author bulk buys his book to get on a bestseller list, gets dropped from the list: Which is not a real surprise, since the organizations that create the bestseller lists (in this case the Sunday Times in the UK) frown on people so very obviously gaming those lists for personal gain. Personally I’m mildly surprised that the bulk buy worked at all; over on this side of the Atlantic the list-makers have been hip to that tactic for years; you have to really work at it more than just buying a whole bunch of your own books from an obliging local retailer (and then talk about it in public almost charmingly guilelessly, as this author apparently did).

Back in the day, when my haters were particularly exercised about me, they liked to pretend that I got on bestseller lists because Tor bulk bought my books; aside from being wrong, it was charming how little these dudes knew about how the listmakers are on the lookout for nonsense like that.

Volcanoes on Venus, maybe: This is cool because all the smart scientific money was on Venus being volcanically dormant, but it appears that maybe it’s not, or wasn’t fairly recently (“recently” in this case being within a couple of million years of the present). This is a reminder that even now we’re learning new things about celestial bodies we already thought we knew so much about. The universe keeps throwing us curve balls, and it’s great. Venus is even more of a hellish deathtrap than we thought! How awesome is that?!?

Whatsername (Susannah Hoffs): For honestly and genuinely no reason whatsoever, this mashup popped up in my head, mixing up “Whatsername” from Green Day with “Manic Monday” from the Bangles. It’s tremendously good. And now it’s also more than a decade old, because Internet Culture isn’t new anymore, folks, for better and for worse.

Blog Changes Update

So, for the moment I’m going with the Aperitive theme, because I like it aesthetically and because it also does a pretty good job of working with different types of displays. For example, if you have a wide/large monitor or browser window, you see the side-by-side display here, but if you’re on a phone or tablet (or you shrink the browser window), the header image goes up top and scrolls away. I see some of you don’t like the side-by-side look, but I do, and since it swaps out the header image with each refresh, I think it makes it visually interesting and appealing (note: if you really hate it, append “/amp” to the end of the URL for individual blog entries, you’ll get a simpler version designed for low-bandwidth mobile devices). Also, you know, I do a lot of photography, so I like being able to show some of it off here.

There are a few issues I need to clear up via CSS or other means, which may take a bit, so be patient. Also on my end I need to make sure all the functionality I want/need is here, so if it turns out it’s not, I may swap back anyway. But for the moment, this is the look.

Note that the RSS/email/WordPress feed versions should be unchanged, so if that’s the way you primarily view the site, as in fact the majority of you do these days, then you may be wondering what all the fuss is about anyway.

The Big Idea: Ryan Van Loan

For Ryan Van Loan, unexpected voices led him to take an equally unexpected journey — one that would result in his new novel, Sin in the Steel.

RYAN VAN LOAN:

My Big Idea started with a literal whisper in the dark.

“Let a man think you weak, let him think you vulnerable, and he’ll never see the blade until it’s planted in his ribs,” a young woman whispered, ripping me from my half-asleep stupor to wide awake in the blink of an eye. It was an early summer morning and the voice made me sit straight up.

Disoriented, I looked around but there was no young woman next to me in bed except for my wife and she was still dead asleep. The voice was in my head and before you start wondering if I needed to seek psychiatric help, I should preface this with an important caveat: I’m a writer. We live with voices in our heads all the time, welcome them in fact.

That sentence set me on an adventure of discovery as I began writing the story of a young woman, Sambuciña “Buc” Alhurra, a 17-year old autodidact rogue raised on the streets that would eventually become The Sin in the Steel. I needed to understand what would make someone so young have such a Machiavellian view on the world, and to do that I needed to dig into two things: Buc’s backstory, and more importantly (for good stories anyway), what she wanted.

But it turned out those weren’t quite my Big Idea.

Buc lives in a world dominated by trading companies that pull the strings on empires, where mages walk the streets and pirates sail the seas, while undead gods fight a religious forever war with the world as their chessboard. Growing up on streets in the age of Mercantilism and Sail told me what made her, but increasingly I was interested in what she wanted, and how she intended to achieve it. What were the stakes?

Over months, she told me: she wanted to break the cycle that had created her, to give the poor and young the chance she never had. Buc knew, none better, that to do that requires power and so she set out to find a big enough lever to tip the scales weighed against her. A lever say, like the most powerful trading company in the world. Damn, that was big and it was closer, but it still wasn’t My Big Idea.

That’s where The Sin in the Steel starts: a lever. Both streetwise and booksmart, Buc built a reputation as the first private investigator in her world and with her war-weary Watson-esque partner in crime-solving, Eld, she gets that chance when the world’s most powerful trading company blackmails her into solving an unsolvable mystery: why their ships are disappearing in the far flung reaches of the world. Buc, being Buc, manages to turn the tables on them and if she can solve the mystery, she gets a seat at the table…finally the power she needs to break the cycle of power she grew up in.

Now I knew what Buc wanted, but even more interesting to me was what she was willing to sacrifice to get it. And that, ultimately was my Big Idea: what are we willing to do for power? What will we sacrifice?

I’ve never believed that we are, any of us, an island. I don’t think you can be successful in life by yourself. At some point, we all need someone, whether we realize it or not. Someone to open a door, someone who believes in us, someone who supports us when we can’t stand on our own. There’s a reason why humanity exists in society and not as individuals, each of us a society unto ourselves.

Still, there are those rare folks who seem to dominate the world by sheer will and Buc has the potential to be that type of rarity. Coming from the streets, she never really had anything to lose and she liked that. In the book, Buc talks about how need is a noose we slip around our throats, waiting for the world to pull it tight and she’s made sure to never need anything. Or anyone.

I wanted to test that notion, to test Buc’s resolve and really, that’s what The Sin in the Steel is about: one young woman’s journey to get the power she needs to change her world. Along the way everything she’s ever believed in, everyone she’s ever known will be put to the test, trod out to walk the plank. The question, Dear Reader, is Buc truly an island? Will she watch them all drown to achieve her goal or will at the end of it all, even our Machiavellian street rat need someone more?

—-

The Sin in the Steel: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

Heads Up: Changes and Updates Coming

Folks, it’s been literally years since I’ve updated the look and navigation of Whatever, and as a result the site is looking a little… dated, and also the functionality of the site is not current either for how people currently come to the site, or all the places they read the site — this site isn’t just being read on desktops like in the old (old old) days, it’s also being read on tablets and phones. That being the case, I’ll very soon be updating the site to a newer theme, which will give me better control over the look and feel of the site over a larger number of machines and browsers, and which (I think, anyway) will give the site a cleaner and more readable look without reducing its core functionality.

(That’s the plan, anyway, but if I mess it up I’ll have the current theme ready to bring back. Wheeee!)

In any event, this is just me letting you all know so that if you show up to the site and it looks different from what you’ve been used to and/or it’s in a state of questionable appearance while I fiddle with settings and code, you won’t panic. Don’t panic! It’s okay. It’ll work or it won’t, but in either case it’ll be done and dealt with in a few days. Sit tight until then. Thanks.

The Big Idea: Michael R. Underwood

For his Big Idea for Annihilation Aria, author Michael R. Underwood is examining the part of the story that usually gets skipped over — unfairly so, in Underwood’s opinion.

MICHAEL R. UNDERWOOD:

“Happily Ever After.”

A famous phrase that signals the end of many stories, from faerie tales to action movies to romance novels. Growing up, so many of the tv, film, comics, books, and more that I experienced said – implicitly, if not explicitly – that once a couple overcame whatever big trial happened in act three, the relationship itself was smooth sailing.

And depending on how you read those stories, it says something worse. It says that long-term, committed relationships are boring, or that they’re only interesting when they’re falling apart. “Happily Ever After” doesn’t prepare anyone for the lived reality of making a long-term relationship work. Sometimes the best romance works will illustrate those challenges and joys on the way, because romance writers are grand masters of characterization. But getting into my first romantic relationships, I had few fictional models for what it was like to negotiate the higher-level challenges and opportunities posed by a committed partnership. And being a storyteller by trade, that lack of narrative models became especially frustrating.

With Annihilation Aria, I set out to add to the count of works that unpack “Happily Ever After” and show that a committed couple can be exciting protagonists as well. I had some guidance, some signpost works that I could draw upon, from Evie and Rick in The Mummy Returns or Zoe and Wash in Firefly to more recent examples like Elma York and her husband Nathaniel in Mary Robinette Kowal’s Lady Astronaut series. I don’t pretend to be solving this problem single-handedly, but I wanted to push in the right direction.

By the time I started writing Annihilation Aria, I’d married the love of my life and was gaining personal experience about marriage. Speaking for myself, the relationship got more interesting and fulfilling after many films would have rolled credits. For me, being married was less a massive sea change and more the next step in an existing dynamic. The relationship was a dynamic thing with moving parts, built with care and love over time through compassion, honesty, and determination.

Compassion, honesty, and determination – excellent qualities for heroes of an adventure story.

So rather than Annihilation Aria presenting the meet-cute of protagonists Max and Lahra over the course of the adventure, we join them years into their marriage, well into the territory usually labeled “Happily Ever After.”

From page one, they’re a well-oiled team – Max the cheery scholar, Lahra the stoic warrior. It was a delight to write characters that knew themselves and one another – where I could characterize one person in how they interpreted and thought about the other, drawing on years of experience, familiarity, and affection.

Since Max and Lahra are an established couple, I got to skip the regular beats of circling and flirtation that often fill out a romantic arc in an adventure story. Instead of one person being a prize to be won, I focused on the ways that each of them is invested in the goals of the other: Lahra’s inherited quest for the lost heir to her people’s empty throne and Max’s search for a way back to Earth.

The depth of their affection is on display as they delve into ruined space temples, searching for treasures to fence in order to keep their ship fueled and themselves fed. They work as an effective team, because they know each other’s strengths and weaknesses, allowing me to go deeper with their emotional investment in one another.

An established couple can up the stakes. The characters’ investment in one another and the depth of that relationship is fertile ground for enriching the reader’s own investment. Watching your romantic interest get captured by an evil empire packs a bigger punch when they’re your spouse of several years rather than a captivating stranger you’ve only known for a few days. When two people have folded one another into their everyday lives, have learned to place their spouse at the top of their priorities list, that sudden absence hits like a pile of bricks.

Many storytellers in the Western tradition have been trained to believe that “Will They, Won’t They” is the gold standard, and that betrayal, loss, and breakups are the way to keep a character’s love life interesting. But there’s just as not if not more to be plumbed from a long-term relationship, be it the strong friendships or family relationships seen from Lord of the Rings to Supernatural. A committed relationship can gain just as much from that approach, and it’s one that more matches the set of experiences readers will bring to the story. Or it might provide the kind of hopeful narrative modeling that young readers look for in imagining what it might be like to find love and build a life together.

I’m happy to say that Annihilation Aria defies the standard wisdom of “No lasting romances” and works to normalize committed romantic relationships in stories. But maybe most importantly, I’m glad to know that I’ve written the kind of book I wished I’d found more often as a younger person – one where “Happily Ever After” is just the beginning and marriage itself is an adventure.

—-

Annihilation Aria: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

Five Things: July 19, 2020

What? A Five Things on the weekend? Sure! I’m not usually going to do them on the weekend, but today I feel like doing one, so here we are. And here’s what I’m thinking about today:

Biden’s path to victory: Do nothing — The article linked to here does a rundown on Biden’s largely low-key presidential strategy, which can basically be summed up as, “Be a moderate Democrat; don’t interrupt Trump while he’s imploding.” Which, you know what? I’m totally for! And seems to be working in any event. Biden fans, such as they are, will point out he’s been putting out a raft of proposed policy initiatives, some of which are surprisingly progressive, and they aren’t wrong. It’s just that literally no one cares, because at the moment the president is ditching doing anything about the pandemic in order to stuff secret police into rented unmarked vans in Portland. Biden could prance about naked in his basement with sparklers wedged between his buttcheeks and people would still be, rightly, more concerned about what Trump is doing, and not doing. I don’t think there’s ever been an election, certainly in my lifetime, where the argument of “I’m not that dude” has ever been more compelling.

Will a Trump wipeout change the GOP? The article here suggests maybe, but I’m not in the slightest bit convinced. I’ve been watching the GOP since the Gingrich days, folks, and the thing about the GOP is that there’s never been a time when it’s been defeated that its response has been “Oh, wow, maybe we should change tactics.” No, it’s always — always — doubled down, which is why it is what it is today: The party of white supremacists and emergent fascists, led by incurious bigot who has contempt for the same “law and order” he pretends he is rallying for. The GOP is the party which, at every point when the choice was doing to the moral and responsible thing, especially in the last four years, said, “okay, but what if we… didn’t?” and went from there. Their only real problem at this point is, having arrived at naked white supremacist authoritarianism as they have, the question of where they double down from here is not one with a pleasant answer. I’d be happy to be wrong! I don’t think I am.

(This brings me little joy; I remember having two functional major political parties. It was better than what we have now. White supremacy is a hell of a drug, y’all.)

Looking for NEOWISE: I got a picture of the comet on Friday night, I’m happy to say:

It’s not a great picture — I took it with my Pixel 4 — but the impressive thing was that I was able to take it at all. For the last several days our skies have been cloudy, which made comet hunting difficult-to-impossible; Friday was literally the only day in a week where we had a mostly cloudless sky. I’m hoping for another one before the comet fades out of sign entirely, hopefully to get a slightly better picture. But no matter what, I got to see this year’s comet with my own eyes, and so did Krissy. That’s pretty cool.

New self-portrait: Oh, look, it’s me:

Photoshop updated its RAW photo editor recently, so I spent yesterday fiddling about with it, on the grounds that in fact it would be nice to actually use more of the program to make my pictures better (or at least, more interesting to me). This occasioned me taking a few selfies with my Nikon in order to play with them in Photoshop; this was the best one. I could use a shave. Otherwise I’m happy with it. Generally I’m happy with 51-year-old me, in a photographic sense. I think I could look a lot worse.

And now, “Joey”: As part of our quarantine hobbies, Krissy and I are learning this song on guitar, because it’s one of Krissy’s favorite songs from one of her favorite bands, and also, it’s four chords, none of which are terribly difficult (G, Em, C and D, if you were curious). We practice it a bit most days. We’re not completely terrible! But, not as good as the original. Here’s the original.