The Big Idea: Joshua S. Levy

Cover to Eighth Grade Vs. The Machines

For Eighth Grade Vs. The Machines, middle grade author Joshua Levy decided that there was a certain concept that he wanted to put at the core of his middle-school-in-space tale. Was it action? Adventure? Laser Hamsters? (Also, how cool would laser hamsters be?) No, something even more fundamental than that, from which those other concepts could flow. Here’s Levy to tell you what it is.

JOSHUA S. LEVY:

Fun.

Is that a “big idea”? Fun? It’s certainly what drove me most as a kid reader. (Still does as a grown-up, here and there.) And, from the beginning, it’s been the guiding light for my wacky middle grade sci-fi series, starting with Seventh Grade Vs. The Galaxy (first published in 2019; paperback out now) and continuing in its sequel, Eighth Grade Vs. The Machines.

When I first got the nugget of the idea that would morph into these books, I was a flailing middle school teacher. (By far the most difficult job I’ve ever had.) I was presiding over a mock social studies debate relating to the “classroom community.” I can’t quite remember the topic. Something like: “For and against hand raising.” Or maybe: “What is the best color of whiteboard marker?” But I do remember how it felt—hilarious. The room was bursting with rowdy, funny, creative, frenetic energy. (This is possibly why I didn’t make the best middle school teacher.) And the aspiring writer in me thought: this. My book needs to feel like this.

So I took a bunch of (fictional) rowdy, funny, creative, frenetic middle school kids and threw them onboard a “public school spaceship” in the future. (The PSS 118. Ganymede District. Unfortunately, not the most well-funded PSS in the solar system.)

Like any school, the PSS 118 has classrooms (head aft from the command bridge, can’t miss ‘em), homework (Language Arts, math, intro to thermonuclear physics), and a gym (zero-g dodgeball is a school favorite, and not only because you can’t always count on the ship’s spotty gravitometric field generators—down the corridor from the teachers’ lounge).

Eighth Grade Vs. The Machines picks up right where the first book left off, galaxy-wide alien conspiracy in full tilt. I don’t want to spoil anything here (not when the stakes are SO HIGH!). Suffice it so say…the stand-up comedian robot (Chucklebot 7) who the kids and teachers meet early in Book 2 is not who you think it is! And while the stowaway pet hamster (Doctor Shrew) has a new semi-autonomous exoskeleton—it’s not just for catching carrots. (Okay, fine. It’s just for catching carrots. But, like, really hard-to-catch carrots. Guy can jump fifteen feet in the air now, so.)

It’s a series about people on a spaceship, having high-stakes adventures across vast distances. So sometimes, I’ll get a review that tags the books as “Space Opera.” But applying that term to Eighth Grade Vs. The Machines (and Seventh Grade Vs. The Galaxy before it) is a pretty good joke in and of itself. (Someone tell Chucklebot 7.) The books are not so much “opera” as they are…the last hour of a middle school talent show? So maybe “Space Recital” is a better label.

Anyway: fun. Action. Adventure. Humor. More all-school assemblies than the kids would prefer, given that THE FATE OF THE GALAXY HANGS IN THE BALANCE. But hey, at least the cafeteria food printers have a pizza option this year.

I’m not sure I’ve got enough (or any) authority to declare this The Golden Age of Middle Grade. But from my perspective, there’s little question that the category is currently producing some incredible books. Inarguably important books. Mirrors and windows for kids across the astronomical spectrum of readers. Eighth Grade Vs. The Machines …is not one of them. It’s a little escapist fiction, which I think there’s still room for (despite the times) and which I’m so delighted to be putting into the world (solar system, galaxy, universe).

A friend of mine gave Eighth Grade Vs. The Machines the following (100% biased, very possibly made up) review: “My kid was reading it after he was supposed to be asleep, laughing the whole time.” That’s about the best a Space Recital author can hope for.


Eighth Grade Vs. The Machines: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|IndieBound|Powell’s

Visit the publisher’s site or the author’s site. Follow the author on Twitter.

The Great Facebook Collapse of October 4 2021 and What It Can Teach Us

Facebook and its associated services Instagram, Whatsapp and Oculus went down for several hours yesterday, coincidentally after a damning 60 Minutes interview with a whistleblower on the service. While this afforded a few hours of schadenfreude for many, myself included, others noted that there are lots of folks who actually rely on Facebook and its other services for day-to-day connection with family, friends, and community, and being locked out of that connection for any period of time is no laughing matter.

My thought about this is, these folks are not wrong, and also, this is not a state of affairs that anyone who can avoid it should put themselves into. Schadenfreude and joking aside, any single point of contact with the Internet is vulnerable to what happened to Facebook yesterday. Sites go down, DNS assignments get scrambled, servers get Fresca spilled onto them, and so on. Arguing that people rely on Facebook services is neither here nor there to the point that Facebook services will fail at some point (and have before), as will Twitter and Google and Apple and Microsoft services, and, really, any other site or service you can name. Everything goes down on the Internet. Usually not for long, and usually not with permanent repercussions. But long enough to mess with your day for sure.

The solution to this problem is (fairly) simple: backup systems and multiple points of contact for communication. You may notice you’re reading this on (or at least from) Whatever, which is on Scalzi.com, my personal site which has existed for 23 years. It’s outlived several social media giants, from AOL to MySpace, and hundreds of other lesser sites. No matter what happens to Facebook or Twitter or Instagram or TikTok in the future, Scalzi.com will persist as long as I continue to pay an ISP to house it. But if it goes down temporarily — I’m on Twitter and Facebook and Instagram. I can be found. I have backup.

I think everyone should have their own space not reliant on a rapacious social media giant intent on commodifying one’s existence to house it, and I happily pay to have my own. But I understand that’s not feasible for everyone. But almost everyone (and every business/group/association) can have multiple points of access, and — importantly — can let others know where they be contacted/where the group can go when the primary access point goes down.

So: If you’re a group who mostly connects by Facebook, also have a community space on, say, Discord, or a dedicated Web site that allows comments. If you have email via Gmail, have a backup email address via an ISP (or, in my case, the other way around), or through another service like Outlook. If you rely on Whatsapp, keep Skype or Google Meet in your pocket for emergencies (or, you know, text and phone).

Point is: whatever it is that you do on the Internet, have a second way to do it when the first goes down, and make sure people who need to, know how to get to it. No, it’s not necessarily going to be a 100% equivalent experience, but then, Facebook or Google or Twitter aren’t likely to be down forever (or if they are here in 2021, we’re likely to have larger issues to worry about). They don’t have to be equivalent, they just have to provide access and connection for a little bit of time, even if all one does with it is send a “don’t panic, I’m fine” message to others.

What having multiple redundant points of contact on the Internet does require is effort, which people don’t like to do — the whole point of social media and especially Facebook is that it is mostly frictionless (which is why your grandmother uses it, and why terrible political memes are so easily spread on it). But these are the breaks: You can make an effort, or you can be locked out for however long it takes your favorite social media provider to break into their own data services and remove the squirrel that has electrocuted itself in one of the servers, knocking out the service worldwide. Your choice.

— JS

The Big Idea: Caitlin Starling

Cover to "The Death of Jane Lawrence."

There’s a central, motivating emotion at the heart of The Death of Jane Lawrence, and despite what the title may imply, that emotion is not “fear.” No, it’s something that, under the correct set of conditions, can be much worse. Here’s author Caitlin Starling to reveal and explain.

CAITLIN STARLING:

The Death of Jane Lawrence is a book about shame.

The shame of not fitting neatly into society. The shame of losing a patient who might have been saved, if you’d only been faster, more clever, more ruthless. The shame of surviving a devastating attack which claimed the lives of many more. The shame of making decisions from a place of perceived strength and mastery, only to realize that all the strength and mastery in the world can’t cheat death.

There’s a difference, you know, between shame and guilt. Guilt is over something you have done; shame is over something that you are.

Shame is heavy. It collapses. It constrains. It suffocates.

Shame is the cornerstone of gothic horror; secrets are its mortar. Shame doesn’t require secrecy, but it thrives in its embrace. Shame begets secrets to hide the source of that shame, and secrets create shames of their own, hidden things that must not be mentioned – or what will the neighbors think?

(It is both very challenging and very easy to write about shame. We’ve all felt it. Sometimes it feels like my life is governed by it. It’s familiar and raw, and putting it on display, even through the lens of fiction, feels like being flayed alive.)

From the beginning of the book, Jane knows she’s strange. She sees and moves through the world differently. She’s the adult ward of two friends of her long-dead parents, reliant on them for her survival. When at last she decides to marry, she does so out of the crushing conviction that she is, and always has been, a burden.

The man she courts doesn’t see her that way. But he coaxes something else out in her: a revelation of her capacity for coldness, her desire for control over everything and everybody around her. She sees in herself a monster, either born fully formed or forged in the wreckage of a city she barely remembers, in the deaths of parents she blames herself for having survived.

And her husband? The dashing, compassionate surgeon willing to go heroic lengths to save his patients? He carries his own humiliations, his own dark stumblings. A doctor is not a god, after all; he has a body count of his own, of those he failed to save, and those his interventions likely killed. Those he has lost cling to him relentlessly.

And then there are his private shames. A woman buried in haste two years ago. A crumbling manor outside of town. A cellar with four heavy locks. There are rules: Jane must not visit Lindridge Hall. Jane must never spend the night there.

And Augustine must always return.

But when they wed, despite their best efforts at strictly defining the path of their life together, the careful winding between dark holes in the floors of their selves, they begin to mix. To blur. The paths wander off, the walls come down. His secrets become hers, staining her life before she even knows what horrors they hide. And her shame, when planted in the wreck of Lindridge Hall, flourishes. It threatens to tear her apart.

And something in the rooms of Lindridge Hall is hungry for all of it.


The Death of Jane Lawrence: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

The End of a Tree

I mentioned before that the crabapple in front of our house had reached the end of its life this year; today brings the actual end as its (mostly already-dead) body is taken out and a new tree is brought in to take its place. I’m sad to see the crabapple go because for many years it was a lovely tree and a joy to see blossom and thrive; nevertheless its time had come and there was no way to save it. I’ll remember it in its beauty and wish it well in whatever afterlife awaits a good tree. The new tree has a lot to live up to, I’ll say that much.

— JS

Get Signed, Personalized Copies of “Kaiju” Through Subterranean Press

First: Hey, look, I got an ARC of The Kaiju Preservation Society today. Here it is with cat for scale. It’s always cool to get ARCs of one’s book, because it’s a nice physical representation of it. It’s convincing proof it doesn’t just exist in your head anymore. And yes, I’ll probably do an ARC giveaway soon. Just not this very second. Give me a few days.

Second: I’m working with my pals at Subterranean Press to get signed, personalized copies of Kaiju to folks when it comes out in March. Order the book through Subterranean, let them know what personalization you want if any (if you don’t it personalized, it will still be signed), and then just before the book comes out, I’ll go to the SubPress warehouse and sign all the things. Then they’ll ship them and they’ll show up at your door. Easy. Also, for those of you not in the US, SubPress will ship to your country, provided it’s currently accepting mail from the US (some places are not due to the pandemic or other reasons; check with your country about that).

This is, at the moment, the best and only way to get signed/personalized copies of Kaiju. In the future, and world events permitting, I’ll likely tour and/or do convention events, so there will probably be other opportunities. But then, we thought we’d be able to tour in 2020, too, and look where that got us. So, if you really want a signed/personalized copy of Kaiju, here you go. Get to it!

Here’s that link again. It’s to the SubPress announcement of the signing; the pre-order link is on that page.

More Kaiju news as it happens —

— JS

The Big Idea: Stephanie Burgis

The cover to Scales & Sensibility

With a title like Scales and Sensibility, you might be forgiven if you thought that you knew the primary influence on Stephanie Burgis’ new novel. But, as it turns out, you’d only be scratching the surface. Burgis is here today to help you dig deeper.

STEPHANIE BURGIS:

It is a truth universally acknowledged that Regency romances are even better with pet dragons involved…or at least, I had an awful lot of fun mixing up those ingredients in Scales and Sensibility, my new Regency fantasy rom-com! But it all began a very long time ago with my parents’ wonderfully over-full bookcases.

There are so many advantages to being raised by voracious readers. For one thing, every time I ran out of books from the library (despite our weekly visits!), I had a whole house-full of interesting options to devour. I discovered SO MANY major f/sf writers on those bookshelves, from Roger Zelazny and Lord Dunsany to Emma Bull, Terry Pratchett, and Ellen Kushner.

Maybe best of all, though, before I had even hit the age of ten, my dad had already read me The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings and Pride and Prejudice as bedtime stories – and really, that statement explains so much about all of the books that I’ve written as an adult!

I’ve been a huge fan of dragons, fantasy novels, and comedy-of-manners historical romances ever since. Scales and Sensibility combines all of those personal obsessions into one sparkly Regency romp. Despite the title, it’s as much an homage to Mansfield Park as it is to Sense and Sensibility (with my poor heroine – the sensible oldest sister – stuck in the home of thoroughly unpleasant wealthy relatives) – but it was also heavily influenced by my love for Terry Pratchett’s Guards, Guards, for all of Ellen Kushner’s Riverside books, and even for J.R.R. Tolkien’s Smaug, who first made me love dragons with all my heart (even though Smaug would look with disdain upon all of the tiny – but surprisingly magical – dragons in this book).

There are some books that break my heart as I write them – and then there are the books that fill me up with joy just when I most need it. I laughed so much as I wrote this story, throwing my perfectly sensible and practical heroine into the most outrageously impractical and desperate situations. I loved forcing pragmatic Elinor into a dangerous magical masquerade at a house party of doom, with the perilously unpredictable “help” of her mischievous new dragon causing even more trouble along the way. But I also loved writing Elinor’s way through all of those challenges to discover just how bold, strong, and daring she could be. I had so much fun as I surrounded her with an eccentric cast of characters that pushed her to her limits.

Then I had even more fun sharing this novel, week by week, with my subscribers on Patreon as I serialized it across 2021 in what turned out to be the sweetest part of my year. Every week, my patrons’ comments and reactions – and even, from time to time, their passionate arguments over the ethics of different characters’ actions! – filled me with the delight of a truly shared adventure. In a year where our family was dealing in real life with long covid and other hard, draining health issues, I really can’t over-emphasize just what a difference it made to be able to escape into that frothy world of fun and magic and share that kind of reading joy every week.

Now, Scales and Sensibility is officially out – today! – as both an ebook and a paperback, so I’m looking forward to sharing it far more widely. Nearing the end of another pandemic year, I think we can all use some frothy escape-reading and comfort – and let’s face it: dragons just make everything better. :)


Scales and Sensibility: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Apple Books|Kobo

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

View From a Hotel Window, 10/2/21

Construction site outside my window

I don’t necessarily post hotel window picture when I’m doing personal travel (because when I travel for myself, it’s not the Internet’s business), but this one is kind of fun: A full-blown construction site, with people working industriously and everything. Actually not all that loud — I suspect the windows here are well-insulated, and that dampens sound somewhat — and interesting to watch. In a year, the window I’m looking out of will have a view of a building wall, which is kind of a shame. But for now, I’m watching the digger pick up piles of dirt and move them around. Neat!

— JS

“Whaddya Mean September Is Over?!?!?”

I am disbelieving of the news that Spice is delivering to me, about the status of the month of September, 2021. And yet, here we are, at the end of it nonetheless.

In other news, I am likely to be scarce here for the next few days, as I take some personal time to visit friends. I’m not saying you absolutely won’t see me here again until next Monday, but if in fact you don’t see me here until then, try not to be too surprised.

Whenever it is that I see you again here, be well and happy until then, if you can (I mean, be well and happy if you can once I am back, too. But you know what I mean).

— JS

The Big Idea: Steven Leonard

The cover of "To Boldly Go."

If you like your Big Idea pieces full of science fiction metaphors and similes, I’ve got some good news for you: Today, editor Steven Leonard has jammed this essay full of them. And for good reason: Science fiction, and its lessons for power, projection and conflict, are at the heart of his anthology, To Boldly Go.

STEVEN LEONARD:

For many of us, some of life’s enduring lessons often come with a seemingly random pop culture reference. For me, those references were never all that random and they always circled back to science fiction. How many of us have invoked SkyNet or the three laws of robotics when cautioning the emergence of artificial intelligence? Or maybe quoted Darth Vader as a reminder of the seductive nature of unchecked power? And who hasn’t pondered the possibilities of time travel without considering the broader ethical implications of tampering with history?

For me, science fiction was the glue that cemented those lessons in my mind.

The Big Idea behind To Boldly Go evolved from a dinner conversation with Australian Major General Mick Ryan at West Point in 2018. Mick, who contributed the book’s foreword as well as chapter on grand strategy and Old Man’s War, pondered like The Watcher, “What if… we used science fiction as a metaphor to capture those lessons?”

It made perfect sense to me. My mental image of a bold leader had always worn a gold tunic, led from the front, and fought with a singular, distinctive style. Kirk Fu? Yeah, it’s a thing. Since boyhood, my concept of strategy had been framed around the science of psychohistory in Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series. Citing Hari Seldon during planning meetings was always a sure way to get weird looks. From The Twilight Zone to Planet of the Apes, science fiction defined much of how I perceived and interpreted the world around me.

However, this Big Idea was bigger than two people. A lot bigger.

If we wanted To Boldly Go to achieve the promise of the opening monologue of the original Star Trek series, then we needed to seek out other perspectives, other ideas. We needed to take The Big Idea where no one had gone before. Our efforts reached for the final frontier: a diverse, global collective of writers whose shared love of science fiction forged a common bond that transcended, well… a pandemic.

If you thought contending with amorous tribbles in deep space was challenging, imagine coordinating an anthology project during a viral outbreak with writers spread from one end of the world to the other. That was fun.

But the end result was phenomenal. The writing came surprisingly easy, the words seemed to flow effortlessly. For me, the lessons I wanted to share had been a part of me since my father let me stay up late to watch reruns of Star Trek and Lost in Space. I didn’t just quote those reruns; I framed my thoughts around them. And, it turns out, so do a lot of other people.

As Jonathan Klug – my fellow editor and author – and I began to pull the threads together that would eventually form the tapestry of this anthology, I rediscovered my childhood obsession for science fiction. I found myself contemplating the burdens of Captain Avatar, leading an impossible mission with an imperfect crew aboard an improbable vessel. I was back aboard the Battlestar Galactica, re-exploring Adama’s interactions with President Roslin. And, appropriately enough, I was reconsidering the lessons drawn from Captain Trips, the manmade virus that killed nearly all of humanity in The Stand. As pandemics go, that one was brutal.

In the end, good writing – really good writing – draws you back to the source material. To Boldly Go is more than a pandemic-fueled labor of love. Every chapter had me re-watching or re-reading a classic work of science fiction, seeing it again for the first time through a different set of eyes. That’s an indescribably feeling. And a lot of fun.


To Boldly Go: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|IndieBound|Powell’s

You can follow Steve Leonard on Twitter @Doctrine_Man.

“Kaiju” Gets a Starred Review in Booklist

We’re still about six months out from the release of The Kaiju Preservation Society, but that doesn’t mean reviewers haven’t been getting their hands on it already — and loving it. I’m delighted to announce that Booklist has given Kaiju a coveted starred review, flagging it as being a book of particular note. The full review will be out in a couple of weeks (I’ll link to it when it goes up), but in the meantime I can say that it says the book is “wonderfully inventive” and that “this is Scalzi having a lot of fun.” And it’s true. I did have a lot of fun with this book. I hope you will have the same amount of fun — maybe more! — when you read it.

Remember also that you can pre-order Kaiju now so that when March 15 rolls around, you can start reading right away. Your local bookstore will almost certainly be happy to take your pre-order, as will any of the major online book retailers. Don’t wait! I mean, you can wait if you really want to. It’s fine. But if you don’t want to wait, then pre-ordering is the way to go.

More Kaiju news when it happens. Stay tuned!

— JS

A Girl and Her Stick

Charlie with a dead branch three times as long as she is.

This branch from a dead tree fell into the yard today, and Charlie was very very very excited, because there are very few things in the world she likes more than a really big stick. Sadly for her, it was a little too unwieldy for her to pick up and trot around with. I broke it into manageable pieces, tossed one over to her for her recreation, and took the rest to the fire pit in the back yard for future bonfires. Even so, for a brief shining moment, Charlie had the biggest stick ever. It was a good day.

— JS

The Big Idea: Charles Dellheim

For today’s Big Idea, Boston University history professor Charles Dellheim delves into Nazi stolen art — and from whom it was stolen — as an introduction to his book Belonging and Betrayal: How Jews Made the Art World Modern.

CHARLES DELLHEIM:

After more than two decades of intensive scrutiny, it would stand to reason that the resurgence of concern with the fate of Nazi stolen art would fade. Nothing of the sort has happened, however. Family ties, Jewish pride, love of art, and material interests all come into play in battles to regain, or retain, disputed works. Nearly eight decades after the end of the Second World War, we continue to struggle with the tension between remembrance and restitution, between honoring stolen lives and returning stolen art.

New cases and new controversies continue to surface. On September 2nd, an unusually controversial exhibit opened at Stadtmuseum Dusseldorf.  “Deprived of Rights and Property, The Art Dealer Max Stern.” This title politely omits the fact that its subject was Jewish. In 1929, Max Stern, who was trained as an art historian, entered the Galerie Stern. Founded by his father, Julius, an erstwhile textile manufacturer in 1913 in Dusseldorf, the Galerie Stern specialized in 19th century painting, including renderings of Europe’s royal courts, as well as in Old Masters.

Foregoing an academic career in favor of art dealing, Max Stern dreamed of opening new galleries in London and New York. When he took over from his father in 1934, this was out of the question. Already hard hit by the economic turmoil of the Depression that stalled, and threatened to sink, the art market, the very survival of the business (to say nothing of the family Stern) was in question. Banned by the Nazis from practicing his profession, Max Stern was forced to liquidate his collection. He had the good fortune to escape to Britain in 1938.

Even so, his travails were not over: He was interned as an “enemy alien” in Britain and then in Canada. Knocked down but not knocked out, Max Stern started over in Montreal and eventually flourished. He joined the Dominion Gallery, which under his direction became Canada’s finest. Max Stern and his wife Iris bequeathed the bulk of their assets to three academic institutions in Canada and Israel: McGill University, Concordia University and the Hebrew University.

This is only a bare sketch of a life and work, which more than merits an exhibit. Why, then, the controversy? Any  such exhibit taking place in Germany inevitably raises explosive, unresolved issues about the memory and history of the Shoah. As a result, who is allowed, or not allowed, to tell Max Stern’s story, what they focus on and what they screen out, what motivates them and what they hope to accomplish, are fraught questions.

The immediate origins of the controversy go back to the end of 2017. Organized by curators in Canada and Germany, “Max Stern — From Dusseldorf to Montreal,” was slated to open in the Stadtmuseum Dusseldorf in February 2018 and then travel to Haifa before finally arriving, as its subject did, in Montreal. After three years of preparation, Dusseldorf city officials led by then Mayor Thomas Geisel abruptly announced that the show would not go on. This had nothing to do with lack of funding or enthusiasm. It had everything to do, as Mayor Geisel put it, with “current demands for information and restitution in German museums in connection with the Galerie Max Stern.”

Geisel’s limp bureaucratic statement appears to have ensured that the exhibit did not aid or abet claims for contested works of art. Geisel’s unbelievably inept about-face led to sharp slaps in the face from various parties, among them the local Dusseldorf Jewish Community, the World Jewish Congress and the German Culture Ministry.  Consequently, Geisel reversed himself again and announced that an expanded Max Stern exhibit would take place in a revised “form” at a later date. This turned out, for various reasons, to be September 2, 2021. “Deprived of Rights and Property – Max Stern” also was deprived of the participation of the original group of Canadian and German curators, who refused to take part in the new exhibit.

The Max Stern exhibit is more likely to end up as a cautionary tale in a Harvard Business School case-study than in a new version of Profiles in Courage.

What this sorry saga demonstrates above all is the danger of choosing between remembrance and restitution. Honoring dead Jews who were victims of Nazi persecution “looks good,” particularly in Germany for obvious reasons. But honoring victims is no substitute for rectifying crimes. At the same time, the restitution of Nazi pillaged works of art, crucial as it may be, is no substitute for deepening our understanding of, and sympathy for, the Jewish dealers and collectors who loved and lost them.

In my new book, Belonging and Betrayal: How Jews Made the Art World Modern, I turn the story of Nazi stolen art on its head by showing how certain Jewish art dealers and collectors acquired so much great old and modern art in the first place, how these outsiders came to play a pivotal role in the art world, how they joined the ranks of the old masters’ new masters and, above all, became the modernists’ champions, and how their sudden prominence further antagonized antisemites and fueled a violent onslaught by Nazis, who denied their humanity by denying their ability to appreciate, and their right to own, beautiful works of art. I explore these themes in a narrative of the rise and fall of an extraordinary circle of individuals and families – dealers, collectors, and artists

I hope that readers will come away from Belonging and Betrayal with a deeper understanding of, and sympathy for, the fortunes and misfortunes of the people that I write about. But this should not be the end of the story. Remembrance without restitution is futile; restitution without remembrance is hollow. Recapturing stolen paintings cannot redeem lost time, let alone restore stolen lives. But for Max Stern, as for other Jewish victims of the Nazis, it should be a spur to rather than a substitute for scrupulous consideration of claims to Nazi stolen art.


Belonging and Betrayal: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Bookshop|Indiebound

Read an excerpt.

Today’s Musical Interlude: “Ode to Somewhere”

This is a song from “Deathloop,” the video game that’s caused me immense frustration recently by being awesome and yet not wanting to play nice with my computer. That said, this song is the bomb and has been running through my head for a solid week at this point. The video title calls it “City Lights” but the composer (Erich Talaba) has titled it “Ode to Somewhere,” and I figure he probably knows. Enjoy.

— JS

My College Essay

Over on the University of Chicago Class of 1991 Facebook page, one of my classmates asked if any of us could remember what essay questions the College asked of us when we were applying (there were several and you got to choose). As it happens, not only do I remember the essay question, I also — perhaps not surprisingly for me — still have the essay that I wrote about it.

The question was, paraphrasing, “Name a piece of art that profoundly affected you and explain why it did.” Below is the essay I wrote. Note: to best provide you an accurate glimpse of my 17-year-old brain, I have resisted copyediting the piece, so it contains all the tense mismatches and other copy/grammar errors present at the time. Also, I’ve appended at performance of the piece of art in question so you can have that as context. Please be aware it is not my high school choral class singing it.


My College Essay:

It is not very difficult for me to pinpoint the one work of art that I feel has affected me the most. It is a composition by Felix Mendelssohn, the title of which I am not entirely sure. The opening lines were “Jauchzet dem Herrn, alle Welt” and I believe that is also the title. While it is easy for me to say which work of art has affected me, it is a little harder for me to explain exactly why. 

I have never been conventionally religious. Although I was baptized Lutheran, I have never to my knowledge attended a Lutheran service. As it is, I have not been voluntarily inside of church for the purpose of worship since I have been able to make decisions for myself. This is not to say that I think religion is not a good thing. It is just that because I was never registered in a religious atmosphere at home. I did not feel the need for it in other parts of my life. Actually, I feel this lack of bonding to a religion has been a helpful thing for me. I like to thank that it has allowed me to be more objective in my own personal pursuit of what I feel is the truth. It has also allowed me to enjoy what I’m doing with whomever I’m with, without worrying about repercussions in another world. This may or may not be a good thing. 

So when I was presented in my singing class last year with this medicine piece, I really thought nothing of it besides noting that it was in German that it was a piece praising God. And to me it was just another piece of music to sing. 

It didn’t remain that way for long. 

Why? Two reasons. First singing in German is no small feat. I am presently taking German as a class, and one of the things that has been noted about me in the class is the way I can take an innocent German word, and twist it through my hideous pronunciation into a seething mess of verbal slag. My attempt at singing German was for a time an exercise in language mutilation. 

Second, I was, along with the rest of my vocal section, having a bit of trouble hitting some of the high notes in the piece. One of the reasons I found out later was the fact that I was singing tenor when I am actually a bass. I did not know this at the time and was therefore at a loss to explain my inability to hit those notes. It got to a point where my choral director had decided that she would just have a certain few members sing the section that contained all the inaccessible high notes and I was certain I wasn’t going to be one of them. 

This annoyed me. Not only because I didn’t like the fact that here was something I couldn’t immediately do, but because that part I that I would be excised from was my favorite part in the whole piece. 

I sat down to work. I stretched my voice until I thought my vocal cords would snap. I worked on my pronunciation until I could recognize words intelligently. I sang loudly and even if I couldn’t comprehend the words I was singing or the meanings behind them, the least I could do was make it look like I was having a swell time anyway. I did all of this and it worked. I was allowed to sing the whole piece when we performed our choral concert. 

Now, being able to sing this piece at this point meant simply that I had overcome the obstacles that had stopped me before. It wasn’t that I wanted to sing the song because of the song itself, other than I like the tune and I thought it sounded good when the whole choral group sang it together. We had had the words explained to us at one point by our German teacher. I wasn’t terribly impressed. There was one line in the song that translates into “we are sheep in his pasture.” I didn’t usually compare myself with a sheep and when I do I usually come out favorably. 

So as a piece of religious and personal expression, I wasn’t interested in it. I must truthfully say, then, that I was surprised when as we sang this piece during our coil program the most wonderful feeling came over me. And I must say it wasn’t just me; when I looked at one point at the rest of the choal group. I remember the thinking that I had never seen a happier group of people. And it wasn’t just happy. It was joyful

This feeling continued through the piece, climaxing for me at this section with all the high notes. Usually, I worried about hitting those notes, but when I sang them, they were right there, right where they should be, and I didn’t have to strain, or worry or anything. They were there, and I sang them, and everyone sang them with me, and I can honestly say I don’t remember a time when I have felt more content. 

In the movie Chariots of Fire there is this scene in which Olympic runner Eric Liddell is talking to his sister in the Scottish Highlands. Eric’s sister is worried about her brother’s ambitions in the Olympics interfering with his plan to go to China and become a missionary. 

Eric soothes his sister by telling her that God had made him for a purpose: China. “But He also made me fast,” he says, “and when I run I can feel his pleasure in me. Not to run would be to dishonor him.” 

I think that when I sang that song, I felt His or Her or Its pleasure in me. Not in me personally, although I like to think that has something to do with it, but His pleasure going to me, through me, and out of me. The hard part about this is explaining just what that feeling is like, but I have felt it before then, and I realized that I feel it when I am doing those things which are important to me: singing, acting, playing my drums, or writing, and most definitely when I am with my friends and we are laughing and having a good time. 

I feel that when I’m doing these things, and I think it is because this is what God, for lack of a better term, wants me to do. The ultimate aim of my life is eventually to make the world better place than it was when I came in, and when I do those things through which I intend to do that, I can feel His pleasure just as I can feel my own. 

I’m still not conventionally religious. I do not go to church and I do not pray or ask for guidance. I do worship, however in my own way. The important thing about the Mendelssohn song was that it showed me how.

— JS

Questionable Foodstuff Review: Cheetos Bag Of Bones Snacks

This is the first time I’ve ever seen these things, although a quick visit to Google suggests they arrive seasonally and have done for the last couple of years. In this particular case, despite the Cheetos name, there is no cheese flavor; instead the vaguely buttery extruded corn in vaguely skeletal shapes is dusted with cinnamon and sugar. It would remind you of a churro if your only contact with churros was the churro cereal that’s now available. These things are terrible, and also, I can’t stop eating them, which makes them an almost perfect exemplar of “junk food.” Would probably not buy again, but if I did I would consume the whole bag by myself in about five minutes flat. You have been warned.

— JS

The Big Idea: J.D. Moyer

We remember our own lives, mostly… but what if we had access to memories beyond our own lives, and not just in the form known as “books” and “recorded media”? J.D. Moyer offers a vision of how that might work in The Last Crucible, and also touches on writing about memory in such memorable times.

J.D. MOYER:

The Last Crucible’s big idea is the Crucible technology, an artificial parasite that has survived the fall of Earth-based civilization into the 28th century. The Crucible integrates with its host’s nervous system, slowly emulating and enhancing consciousness via a quantum supercomputer. When the Crucible passes to the next host, the simulated mind of all previous hosts survives.

The first two books of the Reclaimed Earth series explored how the Crucible technology could go wrong, but in The Last Crucible, the technology works as intended, creating a powerful community of minds that operates more-or-less harmoniously. When Jana accepts the Crucible into her own body, she also takes on the responsibility of protecting her village, which has survived the centuries only because of the vast knowledge and experience carried on through the Crucible hosts.

The Crucible allows a kind of immortality, but at a price: the hosts must share a physical body, and negotiate who gets to control that somatic form. Jana allows her previous hosts to perceive through her physical senses, thus losing any semblance of privacy (and subjecting herself to ceaseless advice and commentary). But she gains access to knowledge and experience stretching back centuries, including a host who personally witnessed the environmental havoc that ushered in the fall of civilization and the construction of the ringstations that still orbit the Earth.

I wrote The Last Crucible in 2020, a year of historical events so outrageous that I wouldn’t have believed them had they been described to me five years earlier. A real-estate conman in debt to the Russians as president (with a very good chance of four more years — or more), the KGB’s ideological subversion plan to destabilize the United Status coming to fruition, a global pandemic, the global rise of neofascism, religious extremists and conspiracy kooks gaining real political power within the US government, catastrophic wildfires and flooding; it was as if every dystopian novel ever written was manifesting in reality, simultaneously: 1984, Brave New World, The Handmaid’s Tale, Parable of the Sower, Fahrenheit 451, and Kim Stanley Robinson’s cli-fi series, but all at once in a jumbled mess, straining credulity.

And yet everything (pandemics, fascism, religious extremism, climate disruption) has happened before, in one way or another, and humanity has found a way through. Not unscathed, not whole, but still evolving and developing. That was the thread of optimism I clung to while writing this book, that wisdom and the close examination of past experience might ultimately guide us to a better, saner, more compassionate future. Jana’s communal mind, her consorteria of past hosts, provides her with this wisdom, even though the Crucible extracts its price.

Anyone who is paying attention knows that human life in the 22nd century will not be “business as usual.” Fascism and religious extremism are both symptoms of false nostalgia, a longing for an idyllic past that never was. The way of life considered culturally and economically “normal” for centuries (externalizing environmental costs, treating finite natural resources as infinite, economic exploitation of non-whites and labor in general, male control of female bodies, systematic/industrial cruelty to animals) has led us to climate chaos, worker revolt, endless war, and renewed demands for equity. Change is the only option.


The Last Crucible: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

Today’s Big Event on Horatio Harris Creek Road

A big-ass load in the middle of my road

Our neighbor Bob texted Krissy and told her to tell me to get out my fancy camera because something big was about to come down the road. He was right; about twenty minutes later, and preceded by the Ohio Highway Patrol blocking off the road and providing an honor guard, this big damn truck rumbled down the pavement, carrying… well, I think it’s probably part of a wind turbine, but honestly I don’t know.

Why our road? Probably because it’s rural and there’s not a huge amount of traffic, so shutting it down won’t inconvenience too many people, and because from where the road connects to the main street of Bradford, about a half mile down, the road is one long straight shot west all the way to the Indiana state line. Which is good because I can tell you, watching this thing turn onto our road for ten minutes, this rig is not exactly good on curves.

And that’s our excitement today! Welcome to rural America, folks. You never know what’s going to happen next.

— JS

The Big Idea: Jason Sanford

Fantasy and science fiction are often considered two sides of the same coin, but Jason Sanford has another theory about both, and in today’s Big Idea, he shares that hypothesis with you, and why it’s important for his novel Plague Birds.

JASON SANFORD:

Is fantasy the end result of all science fiction?

I’m not talking about the marketing categories separating those two genres, both of which I deeply love. Instead, I’m talking about how people approach our world’s advanced technologies even as these technologies change who we are as humans. I’m talking about the anti-science attitudes that are spreading across our world using the very tools resulting from our understanding of science.

It is impossible to separate humanity from our tools and technology. Our species has been shaped by our tools for countless generations. Fire, stone tools, agriculture, written and printed language, metal smithing — these are merely a few of the tools and technologies that altered humanity to massive degrees. And some of these tools were used by humans for incredibly long periods of time. For example, various species of humans used Acheulean stone hand tools with relatively few changes for well over a million years.

And just as these earlier technologies helped shape who we are as humans, today’s technologies will do the same.

I’ve long been fascinated by Arthur C. Clarke’s third law, which says that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” While Clarke’s law is frequently used to discuss possible futuristic technologies such as the teleporters of Star Trek fame, the law actually has greater relevance in how we approach the impact of current technologies on our lives.

I fear we’ve reached a point in our history where technologies have outpaced humanity’s desire to understand them. Many people in our world don’t seem to understand or care about the science behind how the touch screen on their smartphones works, how blockchain technology enables bitcoins, or how algorithms decide what they see on social media. Yet these are merely three of a number of technologies that are now reshaping our lives.

All of these technologies started out as science fiction, but they may as well be fantasy — may as well be magic per Clarke’s third law — based on how many people today approach them. If the technologies powering our modern world were actually based on magic instead of science, I suspect far too many people wouldn’t care as long as their cell phones and other gizmos worked.

This returns me to my thought experiment that perhaps fantasy is the end result of all science fiction. By this I mean that even though people accept the advanced technologies and tools reshaping our world, they approach these technologies as if they were some type of magic instead of actual science. As if the science behind these technologies is merely opinion, or wrong belief, or fake news that can be argued against.

This results in two problems for humanity. One, it makes it more difficult for people to understand how new and emerging technologies might deeply change our societies and lives. Second, this lack of understanding also appears to be spawning an anti-science attitude around the world, a belief that it doesn’t matter how science actually works or what the results presented in scientific studies actually say. That the science behind our modern world can be ignored or discarded if you simply disagree with it.

You see this attitude in how many people are refusing to get the life-saving COVID vaccines because they don’t trust the science behind them (even though they also believe an unproven horse dewormer is an effective treatment). All of this is happening despite humans knowing about and practicing forms of vaccination for centuries and the science around vaccines being extremely solid and relatively easy to understand.

You also see this anti-science attitude in how the severe threat of global warming is ignored or discounted by far too many people, merely because what needs to be done to save our planet may not be politically expedient to them.

In my writings I’ve continually explored the conflict presented when people are surrounded by advanced technologies yet don’t attempt to truly understand them. This is also the big idea around my novel Plague Birds, which is set in a science fiction world where artificial intelligence and genetic manipulation are not understood by most people even as that world’s societies resulted from those very technologies.

While Plague Birds is science fiction, it reads like fantasy and is weird and dark because I fear that’s the future we’re rushing toward.

I don’t know what the answer is to people not understanding the technologies reshaping our lives. Obviously education is part of it, especially science education. But I’ve also seen engineers and physicians and other highly educated people who fail to understand the technologies around us, or who practice science with one hand and discount it with the other. After all, just because you understand one aspect of something doesn’t mean you understand everything.

Perhaps there is no single answer. Perhaps all we can do is try to be humble. To accept that none of us understands everything. To listen to others but also remember the vital difference between sharing opinions and facts. To remember that just because we can do something doesn’t mean we should.

And most importantly, we need to always remember that the science behind the technologies shaping our lives doesn’t care if we fail to understand it. But we may end up caring a lot about what our lack of understanding science eventually does to both humanity and our world.


Plague Birds: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s|Apex Books

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

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