My New Current Favorite Picture of Krissy
Posted on March 15, 2023 Posted by John Scalzi 7 Comments
Taken last week during the JoCo Cruise. Don’t know if you know, but I think she’s pretty great.
Appearance News: Cabinet of Wonders, April 7 8pm, City Winery, NYC
Posted on March 15, 2023 Posted by John Scalzi 6 Comments
If you live in or near New York City and have a hankerin’ to see me live and in person, oh, boy, do I have news for you: I’ll be part of Wesley Stace’s monthly variety show, the Cabinet of Wonders, this April. I will be appearing alongside (deep breath): Chris Collingwood (Fountains of Wayne), Dave Hill, Bill Janovitz (Buffalo Tom), Vicki Peterson (The Bangles), Queen Esther, Kim Richey, and of course, Wesley Stace himself, plus possibly some surprise guests along the way. I’m mildly croggled I get to hang out and perform with these folks for a night.
If you want to get tickets for this very fine show, here is the link. I suggest you get them as early as you can because as I understand it these tickets have a tendency to go fast, and also, as of this second, this is the only time I’m confirmed for an event in NYC this year. That could change later (we haven’t figured out any touring yet for Starter Villain), but right now, this is the only sure thing for me. Plus, you get so many other fabulous performers, for an absurdly reasonable price, I might add. See you there, perhaps!
The Big Idea: Mia Tsai
Posted on March 14, 2023 Posted by John Scalzi 4 Comments
Victories are dramatic, but victories don’t have to be the end of the story. In today’s Big Idea for her novel Bitter Medicine, author Mia Tsai looks beyond the usual climax of a tale to find another part of the story.
There are a lot of hooks floating around in Bitter Medicine: xianxia-inspired magic, the blend of mythologies and cultures, the romance, even its plot structure (it’s a two-act, not a three-act), but what often remains in the background is, for me, the biggest idea of all.
Today, I’d like to talk about Asian American women, mental health, and fantasy.
Bitter Medicine, being set in a contemporary world but with a hidden magical world, offered me opportunities to comment on real-world issues while retaining the elements of a fantasy. While contemporary fiction can and does explore the immediate reverberations of critical plot events, oftentimes, in fantasy, we don’t get to see what happens immediately after those events. Climaxes such as confrontations are usually the end of a story or an arc, and if there are lasting effects, they play out in the long term. In a genre like fantasy, it’s not particularly heroic nor propulsive to have a hero laid up in the hospital, spending most of their day in a medicated haze. It’s especially not propulsive for an author to shine a light on those moments.
But I find myself curious about them all the same. The character who triumphs in battle still needs to count the dead the next day. The ferocious joy of winning can be quickly and easily eclipsed by pain and loss, by a body and mind reacting to its situation to protect itself. And that was the part I wanted to highlight in Bitter Medicine, especially with an Asian American woman carrying the loneliness of being diaspora and the burden of family trauma.
What did I do? I granted my character a pyrrhic victory, then trained my lens on her in the ringing hollow after the thunderclap, during the frozen, shocked stillness post-trauma. It’s in these moments where pure emotion carries the story. I wanted to see what happened next, because so rarely are we shown it.
So I wrote toward that. I wanted, more than anything, my character’s friends and family to step up for her, to have community care be the most effective treatment in a reality where mental health services were unavailable. I wanted to know what the other characters would do when one of their own was suffering quietly; I wanted to witness what they would do because they knew she’d back herself out of the spotlight and pretend everything was fine. I wanted to see her loved ones fight for her the way she fought for them. I wanted her to have a group of people who cared for her look at her and it’s tell her it’s their turn, now. It’s okay to rest. It’s okay to grieve what was lost.
Fantasy is, like any other genre, about human emotion. Of course, the allure of the setting beckons—anyone who reads this genre and says they hate magic and wonder is lying. But fantasy is, at its heart, about connections, needs, desires. And that’s the kind of fantasy that draws me the most—stories about people and communities that are wrapped in genre trappings.
This doesn’t appeal to everyone, and I’m sure there are readers out there who would rather the book not slow down in parts to deal with something deeply internal and sit with someone who is so clearly grieving. It can get ugly. Actually, it did; I had to revise to strip out parts that made people too upset. Sometimes, too much verisimilitude is detrimental. Regardless, there is grief and depression in this book, viewed through an unflinching camera that keeps rolling during my character’s worst, most vulnerable moments, and a community that comes together to get her through it rather than demand more of her. And that’s the big idea.
Bitter Medicine: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Bookshop|Powell’s
Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s site. Follow her on Twitter.
Quick Note On JoCo
Posted on March 13, 2023 Posted by Athena Scalzi 10 Comments
Hey, everyone! I’m back from my amazing week aboard the JoCo Cruise. And what a week it was! Per usual, it was full of friends, fun, and sun, as well as fantastic events and interesting ports.
This JoCo was my sixth, which meant I already had so many friends from previous years onboard to reconnect with, but I managed to make even more new ones, as well! Also, this year, I brought my cousin. It was her first cruise ever, and she totally loved it! It was awesome to see some of the same performers as last/previous years, but there were also some really awesome new additions that I was so totally stoked to meet. So my time was pretty full up with late nights of talking to friends, new and old, and my cousin, of course.
I honestly don’t have much else to report other than that I had a great time, and that I can’t wait for next year. But I did want to say an extra special thank you to those of you who came up to talk to me to tell me that you like my writing. Getting to chat with you all was really awesome, and I appreciate your readership and support so very much!
I almost wish I had some photos to post, but I generally never take photos on JoCo. I did manage to get this one, though, of a Shirley Temple on my favorite beach.
Anyways, if you were on JoCo, tell me in the comments what your favorite thing was this year! And have a great day!
Everything Everywhere All At Once, and the Gen X Oscars
Posted on March 13, 2023 Posted by John Scalzi 29 Comments
One, I’m delighted that it won, it was my favorite film of the last year, and more widely, it was the most “this story could only be done as a movie” movie of 2022, so a win at the awards that are meant to celebrate the singular nature of the medium is pretty great. And I’m especially delighted by Michelle Yeoh’s Best Actress win. She has been terrific in so many things for so long.
Two, I’m also delighted that we’re in a place in the multiverse where a film like this – indie, genre, Asian, immigrant and queer – could win. Not too long ago, this film would have nailed the Film Independent Spirit Awards (and, in fact, did), but would have been kept to a couple categories (mostly technical) at the Oscars at best. Here in 2023, a film like this wins seven Oscars, including three acting categories. Good job, multiverse!
Three, by being its own weird and authentic self, this film stands as a rebuttal to the wave of racist, nativist and homophobic hate that’s sweeping this country, packaged as politics. As Ke Huy Quan suggested as he picked up his own Oscar, after having been away from acting for 20 years, this is the American Dream. It’s a far better American Dream than the one so many right-wing politicians and professional propogandists are trying to shove the country toward, in their own fear and hate and ambition.
Four, hey, Academy, give James Hong an honorary Oscar next year, okay?
Beyond but including EEAAO, this felt like a real Gen X Oscar night: Quan, Michelle Yeoh, Jamie Lee Curtis and of course Brendan Fraser are either part of or icons beloved by that generation. This is not to take away from the Millennial-ness of Daniels (who won screenwriting, directing and producing awards, damn), but the night was infused by the pasts of these actors in particular, who Gen X grew up seeing in The Goonies and Encino Man, and in Indiana Jones and slasher films, and in Hong Kong action films that felt like secret knowledge until, suddenly, they weren’t. There was also the fact that these actors were all ignored, minimized or underestimated for large portions of their career, which, well. Feels pretty Gen X, too. I did not expect this collection of actors to ever hoist their Oscars in triumph, much less on a single night. It’s, again, delightful. I’m glad to have been able to see it.
(Edited to add: Oh! And! Sarah Polley! Screenwriting award! GenXer! Who also did a stint as an actress in formative Gen X films and came back on the other side of the camera! Hooray!)
The only miss for me on Oscar night this year is that my pal Pamela Ribon did not get the statuette for her terrific animated film My Year of Dicks. But you know what? She was in the room, and appreciated and celebrated all the way into that room. As someone who was nominated for a major industry award several times before getting to go up on the stage to hoist it and thank people, I can tell you being in the room is a win in itself. I’m pretty confident she will be back. I will cheer for her again when that happens.
Back in the World
Posted on March 12, 2023 Posted by John Scalzi 37 Comments
Have returned from the 2023 edition of the JoCo Cruise, which was in many ways one of my favorites of the several I’ve been on. A longer report later, until then enjoy this photo from Half Moon Cay in the Bahamas (the young lady you see in the photo is my niece, who came with us on the cruise and attests to having had a wonderful time).
And yes, I know you’ve all been having an exciting time whilst I have been away, what with bank failures and other wacky events. Don’t feel you need to catch me up in the comments. Tell me about your cats and other happy personal news instead. That would be nice, honestly.
The Big Idea: Elle Marr
Posted on March 7, 2023 Posted by John Scalzi 3 Comments
You think you know family, but maybe your family isn’t quite like the family in Elle Marr’s novel The Family Bones. And maybe that’s a good thing, but as Marr explains, this family here makes for interesting reading.
Who among us has never returned from a family event, and wondered at their good fortune—or bad? We all have our “chosen families”—the amalgam of friends, coworkers, and followers with whom we share our deepest thoughts—but none of us has the luxury of choosing our actual relatives or the common traits that we share. We don’t know what dominant or recessive alleles in our genes will determine whether we can make that half-court jump shot or enable us to become the world’s foremost authority in basket weaving.
Perhaps more concerningly, if someone belongs to a family like the Eriksens, no one can predict if they’ll be born with a predisposition toward Anti-Social Personality Disorder—which includes sociopathy and psychopathy—or otherwise gifted with benign normalcy. How much does nature in the “nature versus nurture” debate determine our trajectory?
The Family Bones begins with this big idea, as readers are introduced to a notorious clan in true crime circles: the Eriksens. Given a legacy that includes hidden basement chambers dating back to the Great Depression, Olivia Eriksen confronts her heritage by studying psychology in graduate school. When Olivia receives an invitation to an upcoming family reunion and learns the entire—non-incarcerated—Eriksen family will be there, she must choose whether to attend with her fiancé, or take the proverbial blue pill and continue on in the safety of academia. I know I would down the blue option faster than you can say “neurodivergent,” but for Olivia—and the reader—that wouldn’t be nearly as interesting.
Another big idea behind The Family Bones is rooted in our latest shared obsession: true crime. I grew up leafing through magazines in the checkout aisle, captivated by the stark headline du jour, and that piqued interest transferred to the small and big screens when fictionalized non-fiction became common to marquees. True crime is a newer genre of fiction, relatively speaking, that has exploded over the last decade. And while books that could be shelved under that category have existed far longer, true crime podcasts have seen their birth and proliferation within the last ten years, starting with the now famed “Serial.”
This phenomenon drives a different storyline in The Family Bones. From the perspective of a stay-at-home-mom—much like the author of I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, Michelle McNamara—my podcaster, Birdie Tan conducts her own investigations after her family goes to sleep. Birdie zooms in on Google Earth images and partially photocopied police reports to form new conclusions on cases of minority victims whose murders were never solved. Her passion draws inspiration from real-life examples of armchair detectives, such Michelle McNamara, and podcasters Sarah Koenig and Kate Winkler. These innovators are all examples of the latest big idea to capture our cultural consciousness: we are capable of more than consuming the checkout stand headlines. We can affect them for ourselves.
As a consumer of crime fiction and a former teacher of psychology to university students abroad, I sincerely hope readers sense my love for both in The Family Bones. And, the next time readers attend a family gathering I hope they think of the Eriksens.
The Family Bones: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Bookshop|Powell’s
Visit the author’s website. Follow her on twitter and instagram.
Happy 25th Birthday Scalzi.com
Posted on March 4, 2023 Posted by John Scalzi 17 Comments
Fun fact: 25 years ago today, I registered Scalzi.com as domain. Why? Because I was about to get laid off from America Online and I needed a new email address, and I figured, what the hell, get my own domain because that way I would never have to change my email again. And guess what? I never have! Well done, me.
Also I figured having my own domain would be useful to point potential freelance clients at, to show them various writing samples I had from the time: Humor and opinion columns from my time at AOL and the Fresno Bee, movie and music reviews and other stuff. It was a real hodgepodge (not like today, harumph, harumph), and all present in grand, hand-rolled HTML. Web 1.0 at its finest! No tables, however. I wasn’t a monster.
This also worked; I started getting freelance work almost immediately after being laid off from AOL, much to my relief. A lot of that work was from AOL, mind you; I was laid off and then people there started wondering how they were going to get the writing they needed done. But some of it was from outside people, too, and the site came in handy for that.
Whatever itself started in September of ’98 and once it got going, the rest of the site became sort of an afterthought to it, enough so that at the moment Scalzi.com goes directly to Whatever rather than having its own landing page. As this is where nearly everyone was coming anyway, it seemed to make sense. Be that as it may, Scalzi.com was and is its own entity, and it’s served me very well for a quarter of a century. Securing that domain name way back in 1998 was one of my smarter professional decisions. Good job, 28-year-old me! You did all right by us both.
The Big Idea: J. Dianne Dotson
Posted on March 3, 2023 Posted by John Scalzi 1 Comment
In The Shadow Galaxy: A Collection of Short Stories and Poetry, author J. Dianne Dotson explores spanning multiple genres and styles within a small package.
J. DIANNE DOTSON:
Back in the 1980s, I moved to a place called Gray. Its name essentially summed up my initial ambivalence for it, until I fell in love with the slender train tracks close to my home, the expansive dairy farm next to those tracks, and the strange and tangled little path between them. This was my own private universe, full of mystery and wonder and unsettling shadows, cave-ins, wizened neighbors, and strange tiny tunnels hinting at other realms.
As I explored this rural wonderland, I took note of every leaf and stone and bird, and I came home nicked by briars and stained by vivid purple pokeberry juice (smeared with sticks on everything, marking my territory). I pelted upstairs to a little loft room and began to write. But in that same room, I also began to read more, and some of that reading included Ray Bradbury and a gold-edged book of classic fairy tales. I had a big idea, a grand one, to write an epic space opera. And I did! But I kept coming back to smaller stories.
In a way, living in the country is a collection of short stories. You live at the mercy of seasons, of neighbors either nosy or intimidating in their mystery, of quickly spread rumors, of being thought of as a weird kid (which I was). Gray was in many ways my version of Bradbury’s Greentown, and I felt a kinship to his many tales, some terrifying, some wondrous. In my boredom, I imagined magical realms and creatures, owing to the literary backbone of my book of fairy tales. (Many of L. Frank Baum’s Oz stories also seeped in.)
So in between the metaphorical margins of my space opera, I began writing stories and poetry. Some were long and ponderous, some were as maudlin as treacle, some were sharp, like a slammed door. Many of these never saw the light of day, but some of them evolved. Some of them were lost forever in my moves around the country, but I uncovered others tucked away in old college-ruled notebooks also.
I combined some of these with new stories and poems into The Shadow Galaxy: A Collection of Short Stories and Poetry. With this book, I shamelessly blurred the lines of genres. Hey, if Bradbury could do it, why couldn’t I? I wrote about fog-realms, robots awakening to love, deep-space mining horrors, an inter-dimensional mage dropping out of the sky onto, yes, a train track, and more. Some of the stories I deliberately made epiphanic. Others glide to a soft landing…or a hard one.
Short fiction seems to be undergoing a renaissance, and I relish it. It provides expansion and contraction in equal measure. It both forces you to constrain your verbosity and it engages your nimble mind to world-build within a tighter boundary. Bradbury, Baum, the brothers Grimm, and many others before me knew the power of the smaller tale. Pirouetting between and over and around genres only makes such short stories more visceral, more real. There is an entire galaxy of genres to write within, and it makes sense to write short stories to capture them all.
The Shadow Galaxy: A Collection of Short Stories and Poetry: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Powell’s Books|Mysterious Galaxy Books
J. Dianne Dotson’s website. Follow Dianne on Twitter and Instagram.
What AI Is Good For
Posted on March 3, 2023 Posted by John Scalzi 19 Comments
At the moment we’re all sort of freaking out about the uses of “AI” in text and art, because even as overhyped as it is, it’s still exhibiting some genuinely transformative skills it didn’t have even a year or two ago, and those skills will only get more refined as we go along. People should be curious, and concerned, about where this all goes and how it will affect them, even as they (hopefully) look beyond the hype, good and bad, about it.
With that said, I will say that one area where I am frequently delighted about the advances of “AI” and machine learning is in the realm of photography, where the current level of tools is working to make my photography better. Not by slathering TikTok/Snapchat-like filters on people, but by working to mitigate and minimize hardware issues with my camera.
For example, the picture above of Spice, which I took with my Nikon. I took the photo in low, natural light without a flash, and with my camera set to “auto.” The picture out of the camera has a lot of sensor noise to it, i.e., the speckles especially noticeable in solid colors that is often called “grain.” Grain is not a bad thing in itself — photographers often choose to have it for aesthetic effect — but when you don’t want it, it’s in the way. This picture of Spice does not benefit from it. There are historically a number of ways to mitigate grain in a photo, but if poorly used they will end up making a photo look plastic-y and featureless, which is the say the solution is just as bad as the problem.
But now there’s a new generation of photo plugins that use machine learning and “AI” to wipe out grain and have it look… pretty darn natural, by which I mean, like you took the photo with the correct amount of light to avoid sensor noise. It doesn’t add anything to the photo, and it doesn’t call attention to itself, it just helps make the photo look closer to what you hoped it would be when you took it.
Which is great! It means as a photographer, I have a little more flexibility in taking shots that will eventually look good, and it also means that I can extend the use of the camera/lens/etc that I use for photos before having to upgrade, which is awesome, because cameras and especially lenses aren’t cheap. Like any tool, these plugins can be misused and abused, and you can still go full plastic if you make an effort. Moreover some pictures still can’t be salvaged no matter how hard you try, even with plugins that also upscale and color correct and get rid of JPEG artifacts and so on. But in general, these sorts of tools make life better.
Which is the upside of “AI” and machine learning tools: Not to replace human creativity and effort, but to work with it and make it better, i.e., just like any other tool. I like that and want more of it across all my creative endeavors. I like tools that let me do more, not do it for me.
The Big Idea: Karen Katchur
Posted on March 2, 2023 Posted by Athena Scalzi
Most people say that humor is subjective, but for author Karen Katchur, it was a craft that needed to be studied. Come along in her Big Idea to see how she studied comedy to write her newest novel, The Greedy Three.
When I was a kid in the late 70s, we played a lot of games outside. While most kids picked who was going to be “It” by using the method of “one potato, two potato,” where I came from, we said, “My mother punched your mother in the nose. What color was the blood?”
So it’s no surprise that when I started writing years later, my stories would lean toward the darker side. When I came up with the idea for The Greedy Three, I knew I wanted to make it funny, and of course, it would have to be darkly humorous. The problem was I never wrote anything comedic before and I had no idea how to do it.
I would like to preface here by saying that I was not under contract when the idea came to me, and this gave me the freedom I needed to try something new. At the time, I was struggling creatively. I wasn’t even sure if I wanted to continue writing at all. But I started watching rock-n-roll documentaries on streaming services, and I found myself inspired. I listened to musicians talk about the ups and downs of their careers, and I was in awe of their talent and perseverance.
Then I stumbled upon a book written by Questlove called Creative Quest. In his book, he talked about what it means to live a creative life. I finally understood what that meant, not only in terms of my own life, but also how it translated not just for musicians and writers, but for all creative types. I bring this up only because I’m not sure I would’ve written Greedy if I wasn’t in a mindset to embrace my own creativity and run with it.
I always wanted to write a novel with the central theme being greed, and the timing felt right. On the surface, the definition of greed is simple. It’s an insatiable desire for money. If you believe the Gordon Gekkos of the world in the famous line from the movie Wall Street then: “Greed is good.” But is it really? On a subterranean level, the addiction for wanting more money is a never-ending quest that can’t be satisfied. It’s a relentless need to fill a void in a person’s life of which they may not even be aware.
This is the part I can’t entirely explain, but it’s in these voids that the characters in Greedy revealed themselves to me. I suppose they were there at the inception of the idea, percolating somewhere in my subconscious. By peeling back the layers of each character, I learned their greedy nature wasn’t about money at all, but about grief and loss and needing to fit in. And for one character, it was about freedom.
Greed and humor became the tools I utilized to tell the true heart of the story. What could be funnier than a cast of characters who will stop at nothing to get what they want, even to their own detriment and potential demise?
But like I said, I had never written anything funny before, let alone darkly funny, but I wanted to try. Since I had to start somewhere, I began at the beginning where my love for dark humor originated. I rewatched some of my favorite crime dramas like Fargo and Ozark. Some of the funniest scenes came when I was surprised and shocked by the characters actions. I found myself shouting at the screen. They did not just do that! That did not just happen! Until ultimately, I laughed.
Watching dark humor unfold on the screen isn’t the same as writing it. I did more research and purchased a couple books about how to write jokes and satire. They were helpful, and I found a whole new level of respect for comedic writers. They are brilliant. I’m not a joke teller by any stretch and I never will be, but as with any project, at least for me, the best way to start is by jumping right in.
I kept two quotes on post-it notes on my computer to keep me on theme. One quote made the book. (The funny one!)
“To be clever enough to get all that money, one must be stupid enough to want it.”
~ G. K. Chesterton
The other didn’t.
“Indeed, greed, by any name, is the mother and matrix, root and consort of all the other sins…”
~Phyllis A. Tickle, Greed, The Seven Deadly Sins
Every book presents its own challenges, and Greedy was no different. I had to write several drafts and sometimes different versions of the same scene so that every action by the characters not only aligned with their internal motivations and goals, but also met the criteria of being weirdly offbeat. There was one chapter ending with two characters speaking no more than ten words to each other that took me months to get exactly right. Months!
After several more drafts and restarts, I listened to the book using an AI voice on my Mac, and I understood there were more changes that needed to be made. This time I concentrated on rewriting the scenes specifically for audio. I could hear the nuances in the characters’ voices and how a real-life narrator could play up each character’s quirkiness and infuse the black comedy for which I was aiming.
I can honestly say that I had the best time writing Greedy. It was the most fun I had writing anything ever.
The Greedy Three: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Bookshop|Indiebound
Visit the author’s website. Follow her on Twitter and TikTok.
The Alex Award Arrives
Posted on March 1, 2023 Posted by John Scalzi 21 Comments
When I won an Alex Award in 2015 for Lock In, what that consisted of was an email from my publicist saying, “Hey, you won this award,” and a some congratulations from around the Internet. This year, when I won it for The Kaiju Preservation Society, I got a surprise phone call set up through my publisher so jury members could tell me I’d won, and a medallion, which arrived just today. It’s a big ol’ pretty thing, and nicely heavy. I like this upgrade! Perhaps physical representations of awards shouldn’t matter, but I have to say I enjoy them, and this medallion will now live happily on my brag shelf. Thanks, ALA!
The Big Idea: Michael Berry
Posted on March 1, 2023 Posted by Athena Scalzi 3 Comments
What is described by translator Michael Berry as a sci-fi dystopian novel may actually be somewhat of a familiar tale to you. Come along in his Big Idea to see how Hospital, by Han Song, ended up being a perfect representation of his own life.
During a recent podcast interview about Hospital, the host asked “Let’s find out if it’s even possible to summarize the plot?” It isn’t an easy question to answer, even for me, the translator of the novel. Even after spending more than a year living and breathing every word of the book, I feel like I am still figuring it out.
Hospital starts off with a fairly straightforward, plot-driven narrative: Yang Wei goes on a business trip to C City, drinks a bottle of complementary mineral water in his hotel room, is almost immediately struck down with unbearable stomach pain, and after passing out for three days, is taken to a local hospital by several members of the hotel staff. And then things gradually start to get strange…flourishes of the uncanny begin to appear and the reader is quickly transported further and further away from the book’s early realist setting into a strange, dark, and increasingly unsettling universe.
As Yang Wei descends deeper into the hospital, undergoing a seemingly never-ending series of tests, examinations, and procedures to treat a mysterious unspoken ailment, the narrative itself also gradually begins to go off the tracks, taking us down a fictional rabbit hole that is uncompromisingly experimental. Gradually, we also realize that the hospital is not what we originally thought, but rather a massive all-encompassing structure that has taken over all of C City, the nation, and the world.
But, in some sense, summarizing the plot is the easy part. The real question is: what is the book about? What is the “big idea”? That proves to be an even more challenging question because I’m not sure if there is a single overriding big idea driving Hospital; instead, it is more like an explosion of ideas – a chronicle of human suffering, a meditation on the institutional violence that has become a part of our daily lives, a dystopian political allegory, an encyclopedic history of medicine, a think piece about the future of AI technology, a literary web spanning classical Chinese literature, western classics and Japanese anime, and a philosophical exploration of the nature of the universe. That’s a lot. And it barely scratches the surface.
In a recent blog post, the author, Han Song, described some of the main ideas in the book:
“This month the English translation of my novel Hospital is scheduled to be published in the United States. In this science fiction novel that was originally published in Chinese back in 2016, I wrote about an entire society that transformed into a massive hospital. In that world every citizen living in the Age of Medicine must uphold the common beliefs of their era: 1) Everyone is sick; 2) the sick are useless; 3) illness is untreatable; 4) all illnesses must be treated; 5) to be disease-free is itself an illness; 6) those suffering from serious illness are akin to be being free from illness. “
Riddled with absurdity and contradictions, the six tenets described by Han Song also speak to the contradictions and absurdity of our age. Hospital may very well be an “ideas book” but it is certainly not a place to look for answers. In fact, as many crazy plot twists and unbridled ideas there are that populate the Hospital, at times I think it is more about the experience of reading. To enter Han Song’s world is to let his unconventional ideas, wild imagery, impossible descriptions, and contradictory logic wash over you.
As unhinged from reality Hospital seems, as the book’s translator, I actually came to the book from two very concreate reference points. Roughly a decade ago, I was struck down with a debilitating auto-immune disorder, which took more than a year to diagnose. It was during that year that I lived in the world of the Hospital – endless appointments, tests, and procedures, months of waiting to get in to see “a specialist,” painful unnecessary surgical procedures, a bureaucratic maze of insurance company inquiries, applications, exemptions, co-pays, out-of-pocket charges, and, ultimately, no answers.
When I first read Han Song’s Hospital, even though the novel starts on Mars, for the first time, I read a work of fiction that fully captured the absurdity, cold violence, and impersonal brutality of what modern medicine can be. And then came COVID-19. Although Hospital was originally written in 2016 and the entire trilogy was completed in 2018, more than a year before the dawn of the COVID-era, Han Song’s words speak even more powerfully to the era in which we all now live.
As Hospital makes its English-language debut, China has just ended its Zero-Covid policy and infections throughout China are at an all-time high, not only has the first tenet of Hospital, “everyone is sick,” seemingly come to fruition, but so too, the entire nation, or world perhaps, has been transformed into a massive, all-encompassing hospital. It is against this backdrop, that Han Song’s nightmarish parable takes on new meaning, serving not only as a wild literary labyrinth, but also a prescient, if not predictive, book of our current Age of Medicine.
Hospital: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Bookshop
Is It Ethical to Be On Twitter In the Musk Era? A Personal Answer
Posted on February 28, 2023 Posted by John Scalzi 67 Comments
As most of you know, very recently Scott Adams, the creator of the “Dilbert” comic strip, went full racist – or more accurately, went full racist again, just in a way that was entirely unignorable – and as result had his comic dropped by hundreds of newspapers and then by his syndicate, which cut the comic strip off from every other newspaper that had not already dropped him. Adams whined about this in the way that racist people do when their racism finally crosses a line other people can’t pretend they didn’t see, and found an ally in Elon Musk, whose tweets on the subject are of the general “it’s the white people who truly suffer under racism” variety, because of course they are, Elon Musk is hot racist right-wing trash.
Elon Musk being hot racist right-wing trash prompted a question to me in email, which, as it was long, I will paraphrase thusly: Given my position in 2016 that people who voted for Donald Trump gave their assent, implicitly or explicitly, to Trump’s racism and other bigotry and couldn’t pretend they had done otherwise, to what extent do I or other people who use Twitter give assent (and, let’s be real, money) to the practices and policies of Musk, who is, again, hot racist right-wing trash?
This is a reasonable question! Musk is indeed trash! He owns Twitter! And certainly a fair number of people appear to have said “buh-bye” to Twitter once its sale to him closed; anecdotally, I lost close to five percent of my followership from just before the sale to the end of 2022, and I’m still a few thousand followers down from my pre-Musk numbers. What does it mean for the rest of us who stuck around? Is continued use of Twitter an implicit or explicit endorsement of Musk’s personal bigotries and/or patently crappy corporate practices and policies?
My smart-ass answer to this is, “I was on Twitter before Musk was and I will be on Twitter after he sells it for a multi-billion dollar loss.” The first of these is entirely true (my account on the service predates his), and the second I expect will be true within a few years, possibly in 2025, depending on whether or not he’s managed to help trebuchet Ron DeSantis (speaking of hot racist right-wing trash!) into the White House. This smart-ass answer is fun to offer up, and is true as far as it goes.
But it also evades the question, and additionally, it elides the point that prior to Musk taking control of Twitter (or perhaps better to say, having somewhat stupidly overvalued Twitter on a basically facetious offer for the service and then rather begrudgingly taking delivery on it when Twitter’s board didn’t let him out of his entirely self-inflicted sucker deal), the ownership and leadership of Twitter was not, shall we say, a 100% super liberal dream team. Jack Dorsey, who appears to think a really excellent mediation sojourn in Myanmar counter-balances some ham-brained laissez-faire pronouncements and policies over the years, is no great prize, a fact that was reflected in the service’s generally atrocious approach to moderation and enforcement over the years, which was “let shitty people be awful as possible as long as possible, and then only begrudgingly do anything about it, and do even that half-assed.”
Twitter wasn’t and isn’t the only problem child in the social media space — oh, hello, Facebook, aided and abetted any genocides today? — but it sure as hell wasn’t great, frequently was not good, and occasionally, through intention or omission, allowed awfulness and, yes, even evil. If we’re going to ask what the implications of my using Twitter are under Musk, we might as well also ask what the implications are of my having used Twitter before Musk, and to what extent I was aiding and abetting those policies, as well.
And while we’re at it, let’s also look at some other things. Hey, do you know I have (and do!) take money from Rupert Murdoch? Since the 90s at least! I wrote stuff for the Delphi internet service, a company that was owned by News Corporation when I freelanced for it, and more recently, both the pre- and post-Disney Fox entertainment studio has optioned work from me. I like to think that every dollar Murdoch gives me is money that can’t go to, say, Tucker “I’m a bigot helping to sell gold and pillows to other bigots” Carlson, but let’s not pretend we don’t know what Murdoch’s focus is, or that I’m doing the lord’s work keeping my relatively paltry sums from Carlson.
Oh, and on the subject of the lord’s work, you know that church I own now? The money I used to buy it goes directly to a denomination that does not condone or allow same-sex marriage or the ordination of gay people to its clergy. Now, to be fair, many individual churches in that denomination either ignore or actively defy that bit of doctrine, and the whole denomination is in the middle of a doctrinal shift that will likely see it move away from that position, at the cost of shedding a not-insignificant number of its churches in a schism. But that doesn’t take away from the fact that my money went directly to an organization that does not currently share the same deeply-held moral and ethical values that I hold when it comes to people I personally know and love.
Other companies who I regularly get money from include Amazon, which publishes my audio work and also has appalling labor practices in its warehouses, and Netflix, which has several properties of mine under option and also gives money and promotion to active transphobes. Indeed, here’s a list of every US/UK company I do or have done business with; almost of all them have been lovely to work with, and almost all are (or have been) problematic to a greater or lesser degree, across whatever axes people find companies problematic.
Oh, God, this isn’t where you hit us with “There is no ethical consumption under capitalism” is it, Scalzi? It’s not! For one, I’m not describing consumption in general, I’m describing my business associations, temporary or long-term, which are a different if related thing. Nor am I going to argue that there is no ethical association under capitalism, either; there might be, although I suspect these days it’s really really hard to do.
What I am noting here is that with each associative opportunity, I have to do a personal calculus of whether the commercial/personal benefits outweigh the moral and ethical costs. Sometimes that decision is easy for me to make, sometimes it is not, and sometimes the answer is “no,” in which case I don’t accept the offer or otherwise do business with that particular person, group or corporate entity. Whether anyone else agrees with that calculus is another matter entirely, and it’s possible that people won’t, or don’t, and that’s fair. We all have different standards.
So, now back to Twitter. I would not consider my use of the service to be a business association, precisely; I don’t take money from Twitter, nor, since I stopped subscribing to Twitter Blue since it’s not worth $8 a month to me, does it directly take money from me. But I also won’t pretend, with nearly 200,000 followers there, that Twitter does not offer me a benefit, in terms of awareness of my work and my own self. If the Twitter servers were repossessed tomorrow (and they might be!), or if I otherwise parted ways with the service, I would miss it. Would I lose sales or career opportunities? Meh — experience teaches me that day-to-day Twitter isn’t a huge mover of books (which IS why I said “awareness” rather than “sales” back there), and my career was doing perfectly well prior to Twitter. I would be fine. But there are both personal and professional intangibles that give Twitter value for me, not (yet) easily replicated elsewhere.
Twitter is, definitively, owned by a piece of hot racist right-wing trash. No getting around that, and if I continue to use the site I have to accept that a) he won’t change, and indeed will probably get worse, because billionaires in general do not surround themselves with people who can haul them back to the path of ethical non-horribleness, and this one in particular sure as hell doesn’t, and b) his practices and policies, both technological and social, aren’t going to make it better, ever.
1. Musk will never, ever, ever make money off of Twitter. He paid too much, has too much debt to service, and no way to ever claw a path to profitability. His best option will be to declare bankruptcy, restructure his debt, take a write-down and then eventually sell the cheaper company at a fire sale price. So I honestly don’t worry too much about him making money off of me, especially since I stopped subscribing to Twitter Blue.
2. Indeed, if anything, my presence on the service represents a net financial loss to Musk, since he has the burden of the (admittedly infinitesimal as an individual but a large as part of an aggregate) costs associated with my being on the service, and none of the benefits, i.e., making a profit off of me. Pre-Musk Twitter had the same problem, I will note, which is why it would absolutely not let him out of the foolish deal he had made for the service — finally, Twitter was profitable for the shareholders! — but now the problem is worse, not better. And I must admit, costing Musk even a teeny-tiny bit of his (and his creditors’) money every time I tweet brings a smile to my face.
3. Every attempt by Musk to monetize Twitter, or to make it a temple to and for his own self-aggrandizement, reveals him to be a vain, confused man-child of little sense and an even smaller amount of business acumen. His personal further slide into right-wing shittiness, while certainly signaling his virtue to an audience of virtue-free sycophants, isn’t helping his reputation, either as a businessman or as a human. Whether this matters to Musk is an open question — he’s the richest person in the world again, thanks to a surge in Tesla stock that has almost nothing to do with him, weird how his companies do better when he’s busy playing with a different toy — but it does make clear to everyone who is neither a sycophant nor beholden to him for a wage that his companies do well not because of him, but in spite of him.
4. The good things of Twitter, all of which pre-date Musk — the communities sharing experiences, the journalists and writers talking shop, the thrill of being able to chat directly with people whom you admire — are still there, to a greater or lesser extent, still have value, and would suffer or disappear in the absence of the service. Some of these might transfer elsewhere if Twitter disappears, but some might not. To the extent that these self-organizing communities and aspects of Twitter remain, they’re worth supporting and participating in.
All of which is to say, the good aspects of Twitter are still there, for now, and the less good aspects of Twitter are actively hurting Elon Musk, or at the very least, not doing him any damn good. He’s trash, and a racist, and a bad business person, and every day he’s on Twitter reveals all of that further. Every day I’m on Twitter, on the other hand, I can still reach people who like me and who I hope benefit from my presence there, and there are people whose presence I like and get benefit from. All of this inclines me to believe that, at the moment, there’s still more value to me staying on Twitter than leaving it.
This could change! Musk might decide that only Twitter Blue users get to thread tweets, or use 280 characters, or embed outside URLs or use the block/mute functions, or some other damn fool “business” decision that eats into the actual functionality of the site, or he himself might finally reach a state of petulant bigoted toxicity that I can no longer abide. And then I’ll be gone, to here, where I’ve always been, long before Twitter, and to the other various social media I am on, some of which also have questionable ownership/leadership, and for which another calculation of value meriting participation must be made. I’m not yet to this point, however.
There’s another thing, too, which is this: When Trump was elected president, it was without my vote. He was elected by people who knew he was a bigot, but for various reasons, didn’t care (or didn’t care enough). When he became president, I didn’t leave the United States for somewhere else. Trump might have been my president, but it was my country, and worth spending the time and effort to counter his personality, policies and plans. Then one day — not without effort, if we all recall — he wasn’t president any more. He did his damage and it was not trivial, but we were around to try to make it better.
The analogy here is far from perfect, companies are not countries (yet), but it will work well enough: If it had been up to me, Musk would not be running Twitter. But it wasn’t up to me, and he was put in the seat by people who didn’t really care what he would do to the service, because they were going to get paid. It’s Musk’s company now, but all he owns are the servers; everything else that Twitter is comes from the users. At the moment it’s still worth it to counter Musk’s querulous, grasping venality. Because one day — perhaps sooner than later — it won’t be his company any more. He’ll have done his damage and he’ll have moved on. Perhaps we’ll still be around, to see if it can’t be made better, too.
The Big Idea: J.A. Tyler
Posted on February 28, 2023 Posted by John Scalzi 2 Comments
Sometimes, when you start writing a novel, the book is about one thing. As the writing and editing process goes on, however, the book will reveal itself as being about, if not something else entirely, at least, something more. What was that “more” for J.A. Tyler in his novel Only and Ever This? Come find out.
At the onset, Only and Ever This was built on a simple conceit: fit as many old-school type monsters as I could into a single novel, into one town, a town akin to the 1985 film The Goonies, where it was perpetually rainy and kids roamed on their bikes, getting into adventures. This was enough to set me off. The images exploded from that central idea. With it came ghosts and pirates and vampires and mummies.
More though, was at stake, only I didn’t know it yet.
I started this novel almost a decade ago, when my son was ten and my daughter was six. And while I whittled away at the scenes of bloody mummifications and the pirates in their rowdy ports, carving out the ghost of a girl up the street for twin sons to fall in love with, I was busy watching my own kids develop. It was tremendous and hard. It was amazing and scary. It was the terror and beauty Rainer Maria Rilke wrote of. What if I messed them up by shoddy parenting? What if I dented their natural, childhood armor with my adult cynicism? What if the world got there before I could help them make their mark? These questions were eating at me throughout the drafting process, because as much as I intended Only and Ever This to be about monsters and kids, it became more about parenting and growing up than I ever thought possible.
Over time, through the revising and editing, as the book began to take its final shape, I saw through the monsters, through the ghosts and mummies and pirates. Underneath it all, this book had become about me, about my kids, and about how frightening it can be to watch your children grow. The mother is attempting to mummify her boys because she’s afraid if they continue to mature, they’ll become what she can’t control or guide. The father is constantly sailing off because he’s scared that if he stays in the house, he’ll do the wrong thing for his kids, and it’ll push them away. Meanwhile the twin sons are busy in their own entanglements, falling in love, seeding jealousy, pretending maturity, eschewing guidance. Growing up.
They are me. They are my own perceptions of what it means to parent, to age, what it means to become whoever it is we are already, at heart. I went out to write monsters, to soak them in rain, to let them stand beside arcades, to ride bicycles, to witness the shore in a gray town, but what I ended up with was me, skinned and vulnerable, hung out for everyone to see.
Only and Ever This: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Bookshop|Powell’s
Visit the author’s site. Follow him on Twitter.
Close To Home: Crafted & Cured
Posted on February 27, 2023 Posted by Athena Scalzi 14 Comments
Hello, everyone, and welcome back to my “Close To Home” series, where I feature local eateries that are totally worth checking out! For today’s feature, I’m so excited to be sharing Crafted & Cured with y’all, because they just opened earlier this month right in the heart of downtown Troy.
Crafted & Cured specializes in decked out charcuterie boards and craft beers, making for the perfect Friday night hangout spot. It’s located inside of what used to be a bank, so there’s high ceilings, grand arches, ornate detailing, and an overall elegant and classy feel to the place, while still being casual enough for jeans and a couple of cold beers.
Make no mistake, though, the charcuterie boards will have you feeling like a sophisticated adult that definitely doesn’t just eat shredded cheese out of the bag at 3am in front of the fridge.
I went with my friend and we sat at the charcuterie bar, which was a great idea because we could actually see them make everything right in front of us.
After perusing their detailed menu, we decided to go with the “Best of the Best Board” and added smoked scallops to it, because why not?
And here it is in all its glory:
Now that is a damn good lookin’ board. After setting it down, the board-maker explained everything that was before us. Freshly sliced baguette drizzled with olive oil and herbs, Manchego, Serrano (which was explained as prosciutto’s cousin, but the nice cousin that you invite to be in your wedding and not sit in the back), “ubriaco pinot rosé” aka drunken cheese, cured egg, kimchi, cactus salad, cornichons, almonds, berries, figs, the works! Needless to say, my friend and I demolished this board.
After experiencing such a great board, we decided we had to try the “Smokey Waves Board” as well, which looked just as good:
Aside from the pecan smoked trout and smoked scallops, it came with two different semi-soft cows cheeses, and all the yummy accoutrements from the other board, like the cactus salad, cured avocado, figs, Peruvian sweety drop peppers, bacon jam, olives, almonds, and all that good stuff.
Both boards were absolute bangers, but if I had to recommend one, I would say the “Best of the Best Board” is the way to go. You can’t beat a good Manchego paired with prosciutto’s fancy cousin.
After leaving this place, I couldn’t stop thinking about it! I knew I had to go back for their “Dessert Board”. Before getting such a sweet treat, though, I decided to try something on their menu that wasn’t a board. I got these stuffed olives:
There were three different kinds: roasted garlic, bleu cheese, and onion relish. The roasted garlic was my favorite of the three.
Also, this place carries Twenty One Barrels cider! Obviously I had to get my favorite flavor of theirs, Frosted Cranberry.
And now, the moment you’ve all been waiting for, the Dessert Board:
Macarons, honeycomb, house-made chocolate bark and peanut brittle, chocolate thimbles filled with blackberry compote and mascarpone, lemon goat cheese, a creampuff with hazelnut filling topped with balsamic pearls, almonds, and strawberries, all drizzled with chocolate syrup. This thing was a beast, and even with my insane sweet tooth, I had to put some in a box to take home.
It was amazing though, so if you check this place out, make sure you save room for the dessert board!
I ended up bringing another friend just a couple days later and getting the Best of the Best Board again, as well as the Ploughman’s Board, but I didn’t get a picture of that one because we got it to go and had it later on. The Ploughman’s board had this really unique cocoa Cardona that was pleasantly sweet, as well as some great prosciutto, which is actually my favorite charcuterie-type meat. Overall another win!
Aside from these extravagant and delicious boards, the service here is top notch! Everyone is really friendly, whether you’re ordering from the charcuterie bar or the actual bar, you’re sure to get a kind person willing to explain everything to you (like what the heck scamorza is).
This place is for sure one of my new favorites, and one I plan to show to all my friends (individually, of course, so I have more excuses to go). I highly recommend Crafted & Cured!
Which board looks the best to you? Do you like bleu cheese? What’s your favorite wine to pair with a board? Let me know in the comments, be sure to check them out on Instagram, and have a great day!
New Books and ARCs, 2/24/23
Posted on February 24, 2023 Posted by John Scalzi 17 Comments
Have a hankerin’ for some fine new reads? This week’s stack of new books and ARCs has you covered. What here piques your interest? Share in the comments!
OMG is the AI Coming For My Job?!???!??!!!?!?!?
Posted on February 23, 2023 Posted by John Scalzi 59 Comments
Technically yes, as this New York Times story about people flooding science fiction magazines with AI-generated story submissions makes evident. But realistically, no, because all these generated stories are kinda trash, and anyway, it’s not the AI that’s flooding the submissions pile with crap, it’s people — scamsters looking for a quick shot of money, if Neil Clarke of Clarkesworld’s general supposition is to be believed. AI is not in itself to be blamed for scammy people who otherwise have no relationship with science fiction thinking what the AI is churning out is going to be sufficient to extract payment from a serious magazine.
Why are science fiction magazines getting hit so hard by this? I offer the supposition, in line with Neil Clarke’s, that it’s not about the subject matter, it’s the fact that science fiction magazines still actually pay for short fiction. The amount is small relative to costs in what we are now calling The Global North, but attractive enough for other places. And it’s more than other fiction venues often pay; fiction outside genre is now often paid in contributor’s copies. It makes sense that people trying to cadge a quick buck with this technology might try at these venues. I’m curious to know if The New Yorker’s fiction editor is getting this sort of nonsense as well.
If this is indeed mostly scamsters trying to shake money out of magazines, I expect the flood will lessen soon, if not ever go away entirely. The scamsters will see they’re getting no traction with the ploy and will head off to new cons, and the magazines will also employ some new filtering processes to punt out a lot of this nonsense. There will likely continue to be new attempts with each new iteration of AI text generators, but I don’t see them being any more successful then, either. As I noted on Twitter, if you’re prompting an AI to vomit out text, that one exposure you have to it might make it seem like it’s generated something sufficiently original, especially if you otherwise know very little about the genre. But if you’re an editor, you’ll see the current AI tropes dozens of times with each new iteration. Leaving aside the quality of the prose entirely, the sheer repetition of elements will remove the material from serious consideration.
(Plus the prose will suck.)
I asked ChatGPT if it was here to take my job as a novelist, and this is the response it generated:
No, I’m not here to take anyone’s job as a novelist. As an AI language model, my purpose is to assist and provide support in various tasks related to language and communication. While I am capable of generating text and even writing stories, my abilities are limited to what I have been trained on and the quality of my output is determined by the input and instructions provided to me.
Furthermore, writing is a creative process that involves imagination, emotion, and personal experience. As an AI language model, I lack the capacity for creativity and original thought that is essential for creating compelling stories. Therefore, while I can help you with your writing tasks, I can never replace the unique voice and perspective that you bring to your own writing.
Of course, that’s just what an AI intent on taking my job would say to lull me into a sense of security and complacency, wouldn’t it.
But, as it happens, I agree with the text here. AI isn’t sentient or conscious, its output is the result of what it’s trained on, how it’s been programmed, and how it’s been prompted. It can string sentences together but, as the bosses at CNet and Men’s Health discovered when they set AI programs to write informational articles and then had to pull and correct them, it has no ability to differentiate between truth and nonsense, and “knows” only what it’s been trained on. If you want a fast, infinite generator of competently-assembled bullshit, AI is your go-to source. For anything else, you still need a human. AI models will get better and more efficient at many things, but I do suspect writing a truly satisfying piece of original prose, short or long form, will elude it for some time.
This estimation, mind you, rather conveniently elides the fact that humans are already using AI to generate stories, articles and books, and are rushing to get them published, either through submission to established media outlets, or through self-publishing. But, and here’s the thing, those AI-generated text products aren’t particularly good, and absent significant human intervention, are unlikely to get better anytime soon. The amount of work required by a human to make AI-generated text go from “serviceable on the sentence level” to “actually good” is enough that one wonders why one wouldn’t just skip the AI-generating text part entirely. It would be less work. But then, I can write, so I see that part as extra steps. Someone else might not.
In my line of work, I don’t think AI-generated prose put into the stream of commerce is going to significantly impact the highly curated end of the book market, i.e., the books put out by established publishers. This end of the publishing world is populated with known quantities, i.e., already-known authors, series and franchises, and get their work into bookstores, which adds another level of curation, with respect to what books show up. On the other hand, I suspect AI-generated prose is going to offer a real challenge to indie and self-pubbed folks. They are inevitably going to share the same market spaces as AI-generated prose, and will have to work extra hard to differentiate their work from a flood of AI books. There’s also the added complication that in programs like Kindle Unlimited, where payouts are from a communal pool of cash provided by Amazon, an already crowded field of titles will have their presence and payouts further diluted by a rush of quickly-created AI dreck.
(Unless Amazon and other such vendors work to limit AI-generated work, which they should, as its presence will drive down the value proposition of their all-you-can-read programs. What benefit are they, if it becomes too hard to find actual, readable work? But we’ll see if Amazon, et al actually agrees with that assessment.)
Because of who I am and what I do, at the moment I’m not especially worried that an AI is coming to take my job. They can’t do my job, yet or possibly ever, and also I am well-established enough that, so long as I keep writing entertaining work, there will still be people who will seek out my titles. A fair number of authors are in my shoes, across all genres — established enough, and with enough of an audience, to keep doing what they do for a while yet.
I also suspect newer authors will continue to come up, in part because editors will want what they offer: Good prose that will connect with other humans. It’s why the AI-generated stories aren’t making any headway with the editors of the science fiction magazines. They just don’t have what it takes, and short of actual consciousness in the AI, may not ever. That’s good for humans, writers and readers both.
The Big Idea: Susan McDonough-Wachtman
Posted on February 23, 2023 Posted by John Scalzi 7 Comments
They say good things come to those who wait. They also, however, say that the waiting is the hardest part. In both cases, Susan McDonough-Wachtman has reason to understand each aphorism, and in this Big Idea for the aptly-named Snail’s Pace, she explains why.
I started writing Snail’s Pace in 1984. 1984!
I typed the first draft on a word processor I bought when I was working at Montgomery Ward — it used thermal paper. I’d like to say I was inspired by Orwell, but I know I wasn’t. I don’t think I had read any Orwell at that time. I had read Heinlein and Asimov and watched classic Star Trek over and over. But my true delights were romantic suspense novels ( I was 24-years-old). I was inspired by Elizabeth Peters’ Amelia Peabody, intrepid Egyptologist, and by Mary Stewart’s The Gabriel Hounds which introduced me to Lady Hester Stanhope, the British “Queen of the Desert.”
I thought: What would happen if one of those fearless, sanctimonious, oblivious British women went to space and met aliens from other galaxies? Wouldn’t she be just as charming and aggravating and self-righteous as ever? And I came up with Susannah McKay, British orphan stranded in Hong Kong and looking for a job.
Susannah jumped at the chance to tutor an alien aboard a ship — she naturally assumed the child was Chinese and that the ship had sails. She considered it a great adventure to take this job — and also her duty as a “civilized” person. She did not anticipate snail aliens on a humid spaceship. The hardest plot problem I had was to come up with a reason for the aliens to want Susannah. This is part of the explanation I created for myself:
“Simtlack admired Queen Victoria. She had longevity —unusual in an Earth ruler. She also had self-discipline and a very strong sense of right and wrong. Just the things his son most needed to learn… Simtlack’s tentacles wove thoughtfully. Yes, she sounded quite smooth. He directed the Captain to set course for Earth, then oozed his way out of the communications center. The slimer had to clean up after him.”
I wanted to pit Susannah’s innate sense of superiority against an advanced alien civilisation with shocking table manners. I had a lot of fun creating shocks for Susannah’s sensibilities. Unfortunately, my “quirky” premise has never appealed to any traditional publisher.
I was a veteran of the short fiction trenches then. I had spent a considerable amount of time and money sending out typed paper manuscripts in their SASEs. I got some very nice rejections from George H. Scithers and others, but the only story I actually sold was to a publication which went out of business before my story went to print.
I got an agent for Snail’s Pace in fairly short order (so exciting!), but these were the sort of responses we got:
(ALT TEXT – “Dear Mr. Rhodes,
Thank you for sending SNAIL’S PACE by Susan Sanchez. While I found some of the protagonist’s alien adventures quite amusing, the story was so far-fetched that it was difficult to develop an emotional interest in the characters. In general, we prefer science fiction with a real grounding in science to this type of satire.”)
(ALT TEXT -“Dear Mr. Rhodes:
Enclosed is SNAIL’S PACE, by Susan Sanchez. We publish few science fiction stories, because there does not seem to be a large market for them among young adult readers.”)
(ALT TEXT -“Dear Mr. Rhodes:
I’m returning SNAIL’S PACE, which came to me as I’m the new editor-in-chief of Four Winds Press, and am sorry to say that I won’t be making an offer for it. It’s an imaginative story, but I was concerned that its quirkiness might make it difficult to sell.”)
My agent gave up. I gave up. I spent the next ten years raising children and writing stories for and about them. The computer age arrived. I got an Apple with 8 inch floppies, typed stories in Appleworks, and created a homepage on Netscape. When I read about PublishingOnline.com’s $10,000 writing contest, I dug out Susannah’s story, typed it anew, revised, and sent it in. I went to Seattle’s Hugo House where I was awarded $5,000 for second place and Snail’s Pace was published!
I was given a wonderful review by Lisa DuMond at SF Site, who suggested the title “Anna and the Snail of Siam.” She liked the quirkiness of Snail’s Pace! I thought I would soon have tens, if not millions, of readers! But PublishingOnline was not Amazon, and my story was the death knell of another publisher. That’s how it felt, at least, when the company disappeared a few years later.
So here I am again, trusting Susannah’s “quirkiness” to another publisher. I cried when I read in their acceptance that Water Dragon’s Acquisitions Editor said, ““Love it, read the whole thing, already want a sequel.” I did warn them about my track record.
It seems appropriate, in retrospect, that Susannah’s fraught journey, begun with confidence and not a little hubris, should mirror my own. She faces her challenges with courage, as I hope I do, and she weathered her dark night with the help of her friends. (I had an online women’s writer’s group through Netscape, and later joined OnlineWritingWorkshop.com.) Susannah is inspired by her dead parents, as I am, and in particular her father. My father, Francis Michael McDonough, was a big fan of Susannah’s story. It was he who named it Snail’s Pace. My first grandson, Chaol Francis Michael, was born February 4th. It feels like the perfect timing to send Susannah out into her quirky universe again.
Snail’s Pace: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Google Play|Kobo
Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s site. Follow her on Twitter.
Oh, God, He’s At It Again, or, Hey, Look, I Covered Another Song
Posted on February 22, 2023 Posted by John Scalzi 9 Comments
If you been saying to yourself “Boy, I wish I could hear John Scalzi mangle an English accent while massacring one of Depeche Mode’s few cheerful songs,” then, boy oh boy, is today your day! Here’s me taking a whack at “But Not Tonight,” off of the band’s Black Celebration album. This was produced mostly to give myself an excuse to dig further into the nooks and crannies of my digital audio workstation, and also to let me (bluntly) get a grip on the various things I need to do to improve my production skills, which at this point are strictly amateur. Which is fine! I am strictly an amateur at making music and this will take me a while to get good at. But when I do… well, I will still probably keep my day job, it’s hard out there for musicians these days. Anyway, enjoy, or be horrified, or both! Both is good.
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