The Big Idea: Leah Cypess

Sometimes stories aren’t really about the main character: it’s the side characters and their stories that make the main character’s world so vibrant. Author Leah Cypess gives one of these side characters a voice in the first novel of her Sisters Ever After series, Thornwood.

LEAH CYPESS:

Many years ago, I wrote a book that I thought had a Big Idea. The idea was this: what if Sleeping Beauty woke up after her curse, only to find that the curse hadn’t ended? Even though she was awake, she was still trapped in her castle by a forest of thorns. Somewhere in that castle was a vengeful fairy who still didn’t think they were even. Meanwhile, the prince who had woken her was super sketchy, and it seemed probable that she was actually in love with someone else. (An unsuitable but handsome commoner. I was in high school, okay?)

It was a pretty good idea, if perhaps not as original as I thought. I wrote a whole book based on it, in my typical floundering-pantser style, throwing problems and complications at the now awake princess… and then I lost interest in it. I made only a few attempts to revise the manuscript before I trunked it. It just didn’t have that spark that made me want to throw myself into it again and again.

Turned out, that was because it didn’t have a Big Idea yet. All it had was a starter idea. 

I figured that out years later. I was looking through my old unpublished manuscripts, partly out of nostalgia and partly in search of inspiration. (Not long after that, I would look through my old manuscripts much more intensely, in search of reading material for my children while all the libraries were closed.) I came across that Sleeping Beauty retelling and vaguely remembered a lot of what I had thrown into it. But my clearest memory was of one minor scene. In it, Sleeping Beauty walks into the kitchen and discovers herself faced by a group of kitchen maids who hate her. Because of her curse, they have been asleep for a hundred years. Their families are dead and their lives are destroyed, simply because they had the misfortune of being minor characters in Sleeping Beauty’s story.

In the original manuscript, I didn’t do much with that scene. But it struck me now because I had, for a while, been mulling over the question of main characters and what we require of them. What makes a person a main character? Is it just the fact that they’re the person we’re telling the story about? Is it possible to write a satisfying genre book about a side character who has no agency and no effect on the story?

And just like that, I realized why that original manuscript had never come to life. The Big Idea wasn’t about how Sleeping Beauty’s curse had messed up her life. It was how it had messed up the lives of everyone around her – the people the original fairy tales barely bother to mention.

So I invented a new character: Sleeping Beauty’s eleven-year-old sister, living in the shadow of her sister’s curse and not all that happy about it. She loves her older sister, but she also resents her. She wants to save her… but she can’t, because no one can.

In the end, I didn’t lift a single word from that old manuscript. I wrote the new book from scratch, in a mad rush, in the same floundering-pantser style that hasn’t changed much since my high school days. (Though now, as a professional writer, I don’t have to write a whole book before figuring out whether it will work. Twenty thousand words or so are generally sufficient). A lot of elements from that old book did wind their way into the new one: a castle trapped within a magical forest, a prince with secrets of his own, a creepy fairy godmother. Some of the romantic complications also came through intact, though they are much more fun when viewed from the perspective of a snarky eleven-year-old. 

But the core of the story, what made the whole thing work, what made me willing to revise it and re-read it dozens of times, was the character at its center: a powerless girl who is trapped in events not of her making, and who is really, really tired of being unimportant.

In other words: a main character.

I did not, I fully admit, overturn Western storytelling conventions in this book. My protagonist protags. She discovers that she does have agency, and in the end, it is her actions and choices that will determine her future.

And now that she’s realized the story is about her, what is she going to do about all the other people in it? The true side characters are still there: the other people in the castle – the kitchen maids and laundresses and blacksmiths – who truly have no power to affect their own fates. One of the choices that faces my actual main character is how to treat those people, the ones who don’t matter to the story. She knows what it’s like to be powerless, to be sidelined, to be a character the storyteller doesn’t even bother to mention. She’s raged against it – and now, she’s the one telling the story.

Her response to that choice is the core of my Big Idea. Because what we do when we tell stories is choose certain lives — and certain types of lives — to focus on. And in the end, as every writer knows, which person you focus on can change what the story is all about.


Thornwood: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

Second Shot Down

John Scalzi

And right on schedule, too. It’s been a few hours now and so far no side effects, not even soreness around the shot site (yet). My first one was likewise relatively symptom-free; I felt tired the day of, and went to sleep early, but otherwise no problems. Having now had my second shot, I’m now two weeks out from the full protection the shot will offer; I have not made any plans to celebrate by going to a crowd of people or anything, but, well, I still have time to plan.

I have words and thoughts for people who still see the vaccines as a political or conspiratorial issue, mostly revolving around variations of “For fuck’s sake, pull your head out of your asshole and get a goddamned shot, you mountainous pile of shit,” but I realize that is not me wearing my persuasion pants, as it were. At this point either you understand that getting vaccinated benefits you (good) and others (better) and can get us back to a more normal state of events (best), or you’ve decided that you want to make an effort not to understand that, in which case, neither I nor anyone else will be able to persuade you anyway. You’re just actively making it worse for the rest of us and dragging this thing out, and apparently some people these days don’t mind being the person actively making it worse for everyone else and dragging things out.

But, to the extent it may persuade: pretty please and with a cherry on top go get vaccinated, it would be lovely if you did. And in any event, now I have had my shots, and I feel pretty good about having it done and over with. I have a list of people I want to see. It’s long. I plan to spend a chunky portion of the rest of 2021 going through it.

— JS

A Look At the FabFitFun Spring 2021 Box

Athena ScalziWelcome to another post of me gushing about my love of subscription boxes! Today, I will be telling you about one that I have been getting for quite a while now, just over a year, in fact. It’s called FabFitFun, and it’s a subscription box that contains a variety of items pertaining to beauty, fashion, home goods, accessories, fitness, skincare, the usual wellness lifestyle box items. Specifically I’ll be talking about the Spring 2021 box, which is pictured below. 

(Image courtesy of FabFitFun)

The boxes are seasonal, so you get four a year, and each one contains between 8 and 10 items. FabFitFun is definitely more tailored towards a specific demographic, but I think the boxes contain a lot of items that could be enjoyed by all sorts of people, not just who their target audience is. 

Personally, I’ve really enjoyed getting FabFitFun, I think they offer a lot of bang for your buck, being priced at $50 a box (or $45 a box if you pay for a year of boxes up front). Eight items is definitely a good amount for that price, especially considering how pricey the individual items that can come in a box can be! Generally, the goods inside the box are worth about $200 total, so getting all that at a quarter of the price seems like a pretty solid deal. 

Not to mention, each box comes with tons of customization options, so you can actually pick some of the items that you’ll be receiving (pick from several options they offer, that is). Even though you get more customization options as an annual member, you still get three customizations as a seasonal member, which I feel like is a pretty decent amount. 

So, yeah, I really like FabFitFun. So much so that this past box I decided to upgrade to being an annual member. I figured since I’d already been getting their boxes for a year and was paying the seasonal price and wasn’t getting the annual member benefits, I might as well just upgrade and get the boxes for another year since I like them so much. 

After becoming an annual member, I tried to make the additional customizations that annual members are promised, but the window of time in which you’re allowed to make the customizations had closed a couple days earlier. Obviously, I was bummed out. Part of why I had decided to upgrade right then and there was because there was a specific customization I wanted to make for the Spring Box, but now I wasn’t going to be able to. 

I decided to email them and try to see if I could maybe possibly still make the customizations. I ended up getting some very friendly customer service, in which the person assisting me said they would manually put my choices in the system for me, if I just told them what items I wanted. So, I told them my preferred options, said thank you (of course) and was very happy with how everything turned out! 

Skip forward a couple weeks, I get my box, and literally none of the items inside are the ones I chose. I picked five out of the eight items in customizations, yet none of them were right. Obviously, I figured the choices inputted in the system didn’t go through, or some technical error like that, so I emailed them again and told them my customizations were wrong. It wasn’t something I was super upset over. After all, they’re just accessories and skincare products, y’know? But I still wanted to see if I could send back the items they gave me in exchange for the ones I wanted. 

When I explained what happened, they replied that their records showed that I never made any customization options, and that’s why every item in the box was randomly selected. They offered to send me three of the customized items I wanted. As I mentioned earlier, there were supposed to be five, but three was a damn good compromise in my opinion, since I got to keep all the items in the box and was getting the three items for free. So, basically, I got eleven items in one box. This meant I was only missing two of the things I wanted, which honestly I can live with. 

I wanted to share this customer service experience with you, because I can sit here and talk about how great a subscription box is and how cool the items are (which I’m totally going to do still), but rarely does anyone talk about how the company treats their clients. Sure, they might send awesome stuff, but if they make a mistake, or you have a question, don’t you want to be assured that you’ll be taken care of by friendly, helpful people? How a company treats their patrons is always very telling, and is something that isn’t addressed enough in reviews, I think. 

All in all, I’m super satisfied with FabFitFun’s customer service! Even if things didn’t go exactly right or as perfectly as possible, what really mattered to me was their friendliness! 

So, now that we’ve got all that straightened out, I wanted to show you what I ended up getting in the box. If you go here, you can see all the different items that could come in a box. I’m going to be going through in order of each customization on the list and telling you what I got from each one!

In the first one, I was sent the Perricone MD Essential Fx Acyl-Glutathione Rejuvenating Moisturizer. I’m actually pretty happy with this item, because I really love luxury skincare items, and this one seems pretty bougie if I do say so myself. I have not tried it yet, though, because I’m currently finishing off my current facial moisturizer, but I’m excited to try it out very soon! 

What I had actually wanted, and ended up getting after I emailed a second time, was the Monré Solerosé Watch. This watch is probably my favorite item in the box. It is just so classy looking, and I really just like the timeless, simple look of it. 

For the second one, I got the Steel Mill & Co. To-Do Planning Bundle which is pretty great because I actually needed a planner and was going to buy one right before this came! I love the floral design, plus it came with STICKERS! Which I am just so stoked about. It wasn’t what I originally chose, though.

My original choice for this option was the Josie Maran 100% Pure Argan Oil. I did end up getting this one, as well, just like the watch, it was one of the ones they sent me after figuring everything out. I’m so happy I ended up receiving this oil because it can help with split ends, which I have a ton of! 

Thirdly, I got this Joy Dravecky Chloe Ring. It is so cute! It fits me perfectly, and I love the color of it (though it is kind of color changing depending on the lighting/what way you angle it in the light). This is probably my favorite item that I received that I wasn’t supposed to get. 

What I was supposed to get, and eventually did get, however, was the Verso Super Eye Serum. This item is perfect for me because I have the worst dark circles under my eyes. I haven’t started using it quite yet because I’m using a different eye cream from another box I got, but I’m not having any luck with that one so I’m going to switch over to this new one. I’m very hopeful for good results!

For the fourth item, I received the Lark & Ives Hair Scarf Bundle. This is definitely my least favorite item in the box, mostly because I just don’t have any use for them! I literally only wear my hair down, and I don’t put accessories in my hair. Even if I wanted to put my hair up, I have no idea how to use a scarf to do that! I mean, they’re cute and whatnot, but totally not for me, so I’ll probably end up gifting them or something. 

The fifth item was the Summer & Rose Rose Tweezers with Pouch. Again, not something that’s super practical for me, since I get my eyebrows waxed instead of plucking, but it’s still pretty cute and is like, a perfectly acceptable item. 

Sixthly, these EACH Jewels Flower Hair Clips 2 Pack came in the box. Yet another impractical but totally cute item! I don’t wear hair clips! But these ones are so cute I might honestly have to start. Could I rock a flower hair clip? I guess we’ll find out. 

I actually am pretty happy with the seventh item, which is this Cali Cosmetics Islands of Italy Bath Gel (In Capri). It smells so flippin’ good, and it lathers perfectly well, so all in all a good item! 

Finally, I got these Saie Reusable Beauty Rounds. These are generally used in place of makeup wipes, but I don’t wear makeup, so while I love the whole sustainability thing and whatnot, I don’t have much use for these. But I’m sure I can find something they’re good for, like applying toner instead of using a cotton ball. 

So, there you have it, all the things I got in my Spring 2021 FabFitFun box! In terms of items, this box was not my favorite I’ve ever gotten, but this was definitely the most memorable box thanks to my experience with the customer service reps! 

FabFitFun also has an add-on shop where you can buy items at discounted prices that’ll ship alongside your box (they aren’t really unique in this feature, as I’ve seen a couple subscription box services that do this). I have never used this feature before but I did for this past Add-on Sale and I snagged this awesome Indie Lee Coconut Citrus Body Scrub for half the price, as well as a pair of Nectar Blue Light Blockers for only $12! (I also bought a ton more from the Edit Sale, but that’s probably enough links for you for now.) 

Anyways, like I said, I really like FabFitFun, it’s one of my all-time favorite subscription boxes! If it seems like something you’d like to try out, you can use this link to get ten dollars off your first box. If you want to sign up without the link, that’s okay, too! I won’t be offended. 

Do you also get FabFitFun? Do you like it? Are there any boxes you get that you think I’d like? Let me know in the comments, and have a great day! 

-AMS

The Big Idea: Nancy Werlin

Missing conventions in these unprecedented times? So is New York Times best-selling author Nancy Werlin. Follow along as Werlin takes you on a tour through her train of thought in creating her newest novel, Zoe Rosenthal Is Not Lawful Good, which began with a convention.

NANCY WERLIN:

The Big Idea: I just want to hang out at the con with my friends!

Zoe Rosenthal Is Not Lawful Good was born from love; from the memory of a con I went to a long time ago. I was planning to room with some other women I’d met online, on something called a listserv. (We later discovered our listserv was run by a fifteen year old boy on a file server in his bedroom, which is another story.)

My very first con! We called it a convention then. I’d kept my travel a secret from my parents. Sure, I was post-college, living on my own, but usually I told them where I was going—God forbid they should worry! This time I was cagey, though, because: You’re going to share a hotel room with people you met on the Internet?! (We capitalized “internet” then.) 

After that weekend, my therapist commented: “Nancy, I have to say, you sound like you’ve fallen in love.” 

“Not exactly,” I said, excitedly. “But I’ve met my people! We write books for kids! We read books for kids! We talk about books for kids! It’s—see—they’re my people! They exist!” 

It felt like a miracle then, and by now I know it really was, because those friendships are still going strong and deep. (Thanks, internet! Thanks, listserv! Thanks, Ryan, you super-competent teenage liar, you.)

I wanted to write about the feeling of that weekend and that first year with my new friends, my soulmates, my best beloveds. The shared obsession. The neurotic moments. The crazy random happenstances. The in-jokes. The sheer joy of getting to know each other and of belonging. 

“So this new book, it’s about a group of older teenagers. They’re fans of this TV show, Bleeders,” I told my editor. “They go to cons together. They stay up and talk all night. They geek out about their show, and they cosplay. They eat Twizzlers. They play Cards Against Humanity. They go to a panel about Princess Leia. They fret about college plans—some of them are already in college, but my main girl, Zoe, she’s a senior in high school. It’s going to be episodic—they meet at a different con every month. Zoe lies about it, though.” 

“She’s a liar?”

“And a sneak, but very relatable! She’s kind of neurotic. She’s ashamed of being a fan, for reasons having to do with her Lawful Good boyfriend. But she just can’t resist her show. Bleeders! The fans call themselves Bloodygits. It’s all spaceships and robots and very gory special effects. Female doctors on a ship called the Mae Jemison. Kind of a cross between MAS*H and Firefly.” 

“Go back to her being a liar.”

“Well, yeah. It’s very innocent to start with, I promise, or sort of—well, maybe not quite—she’s a control freak—but basically one tiny lie leads to another. You know how that goes? Anyway. Oh, also! There’s a cat.”

“Uh . . why?”

“I just really want to put a cat in this book.”

“I . . . see. You said ‘episodic.’ Is there a plot? At all?”

“Well, Zoe’s life gets messy because of her sneaking off to the cons—but the complications of that are offstage. I don’t really want a plot per se. They group is going to hang out and be themselves. It’s about that—hanging out, getting to know each other, talking about the meaning of life and being scared of the future, and your hopes and dreams and longing for love. Or not. And . . . just everything. They get together at con after con after con. They’re also trying to save their show from cancelation. That’s the plot, such as it is.” 

“It sounds pretty nerdy.”

“Exactly! Oh, did I mention the cat? She’s mad at the cat. Zoe is.” 

“You did . . . mention the cat.” 

Possibly I didn’t do such a great job of matching Zoe with that particular editor, but an entirely different editor, the right editor, totally got it. She laughed with me about my favorite line—a wail from Zoe’s chaotic heart: “Everything came down to this one truth: I had traded in my boyfriend for a TV show.” We started in on edits. 

Then the universe threw the Covid-19 curve ball. 

Of course, the pandemic affected my personal world, as it has affected everyone’s. As a writer, however, I was fascinated to see how it changed the way in which Zoe-the-book reads, and how it feels. The contents were the same but they had shifted in terms of emotional impact. For one thing, the thought of cramming into a hotel room with a bunch of strangers became nostalgic, wistful, a vision of the world as it used to be, and as it might still have been—on a timeline other than ours.  

Also, there’s something I didn’t mention before. The show within the book, Bleeders, concerns a deadly virus to which humanoids are uniquely vulnerable. The renegade doctors (also vicious fighters wielding stethoscope-garrotes) are trying to devise a vaccine. 

So there you have it. I wrote Zoe in one world of laughter and joy and innocence, in which such a virus was a plot point and togetherness was something I took for granted. But we edited the book for publication in an opposite world. 

Today, as Zoe publishes, the past world shimmers into possibility once more, thanks to our own medical and scientific heroes. Our new reality won’t be the same as the old; nor should it be, I suppose. And we can’t know exactly what it will be like. But I have lots of hope that it will be again be full of real-life togetherness. 

See you at the con, my friends. We’ll catch up and and laugh and cry and talk about everything. 

Fingers crossed. 


Zoe Rosenthal Is Not Lawful Good: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|BookShop|IndieBound|Powell’s| iBooks|Google Play 

Read an excerptVisit the author’s website. Visit the book at the publisherChat with the author on Facebook or Twitter.

Spoiler-Free Thoughts On Invincible So Far

Athena ScalziLook, up in the sky! It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s… an Amazon Prime original animated series about superheroes? Interesting.

I hadn’t heard of Invincible at all until my friend mentioned it, and I was shocked I hadn’t seen anything about it. Me, loving superheroes, immediately watched it. At the time I watched it, the first three episodes were out, and I binged all three in one night (even though it was like one in the morning when I started, and each one is forty-five minutes long).

Funnily enough, after I watched it, I started getting ads for it everywhere. Which I don’t mind, but it is odd. You would think the algorithm would know that I’m already super into it (haha SUPER).

Anyways, there’s only four episodes out right now, so it’s a little soon to be making calls about whether or not it’s a masterpiece or revolutionary or anything like that. However, I wanted to talk about some of the reasons I like it so far and why I think you should give it a try.

To give some context, Invincible is about a high school student named Mark Grayson, who is the son of the world’s greatest superhero. He, however, is a late bloomer coming into his powers. After finally getting them, he becomes a superhero known as Invincible.

Before I discuss the reasons the show itself is good, I wanted to take a minute to address how fantastic the cast is. Just looking at the lineup, you know you’re in for something special. Steven Yuen, J. K. Simmons, Zazie Beets, and Zachary Quinto are just a few of the amazingly talented people involved in this show. So, definitely a promising cast.

What I expected from this show and what I got were two totally different things. I can almost guarantee it will knock you on your ass within the first episode, which is something I can appreciate in a show. You think you have a standard, run of the mill superhero show on your hands, but you don’t know what you’re in for.

It’s fun, it’s colorful, it’s humorous, it’s all the positive things a superhero show should be. But it’s also dark, and mysterious, and more than a little disturbing.

The characters are relatable, and better yet, likeable. Invincible has Superman-like powers, but unlike Superman, he’s more human. I don’t just mean that literally, but in terms of character. He’s a high school kid, struggling with hormones and navigating bullies and crushes, and he can accidentally be a dick sometimes, but is all around a good guy. He’s human. Between Superman’s perfection and Batman’s unyielding brooding and moodiness, humanity is not something you see often in heroes.

On top of that, the secondary characters are so much more than just extras in the main character’s life. They’re more than the best friend that offers one liner advice, and more than the girlfriend that gets captured by a villain and becomes the “damsel in distress.” They’re their own, unique, fleshed out characters that are a lot of fun and have a lot of personality.

Aside from the characters, the fight scenes are pretty enjoyable. I really like the animation style, it’s very much like watching a comic book come to life. Seeing combat in this style is especially interesting. Fighting in comics has always been something I struggle following along with, just because I feel like a lot of the movements and punches can get lost in between the panels. To me, comic fights end up being hard to follow and it’s unclear what’s going on. Invincible does not have this problem, so you get all the pros of the comic style with none of the cons.

So, yes, I think this show is really great so far and I’m really enjoying it. But it’s important to address the issues it has, too. To be clear, this is not an issue that is specific to Invincible, but is something that seems to be an issue in almost all adult animation I see.

Not to be a total stick in the mud or anything, but adult animation consistently has the problem of trying to prove that it is for adults by being overly gratuitous in terms of gore, violence, sex, etc. Adult cartoons always seem to be trying too hard to show it isn’t for kids by putting in shocking amounts of blood and nudity, when it’s not really called for. Don’t get me wrong, I love violence and nudity! But I think there’s a line between tasteful and too much. And adult animation almost always crosses that line in an attempt to show that it is, in fact, adult.

Invincible seems to be guilty of this as well, but only in small doses. It’s not a constant or consistent problem, but it is note-worthy, at least. It’s not raunchy or full of sex or anything, but it can be gory. So much so that I was watching a scene through my fingers in shock and a bit of disgust.

So, aside from Invincible seeming to be afflicted with the usual adult animation curse of being overly graphic in one way or another, it’s really great! I do, in fact, recommend checking it out if you have Prime, since it’s free and whatnot.

I have high hopes for this show and am really looking forward to the rest of the season!

Have you seen it yet? What do you think so far? Who’s your favorite character? Let me know in the comments, and have a great day!

-AMS

Reader Request Week 2021 #10: Short Bits

And now, some of the questions I didn’t answer at length, answered briefly:

Jim Randolph:

I gather one of the things that you get satisfaction from is the work (both art and music) that you have had the opportunity to commission on your own. I’d love to hear more about how you make that happen. And are you planning a music commission for the new novel?

Most I make commissions happen by contacting the artist and saying something along the lines of “Hey, I like your work, can I commission something?” Sometimes they’re too busy, but often they’re not, and when they’re not then we figure out if what they want to charge is what I want to spend, and so on. I enjoy being able to support artists with actual money, and also getting cool work, so generally it works out just fine. With regard to a music commission for the new novel: We’ll see. I don’t have anyone particular in mind, but we have a year before it comes out, so there’s time to think about it.

Paul Wiley:

Considering the current states of society, technology, and the Earth, what are your thoughts on colonizing the Moon, Mars, and/or other possible sites in the solar system? Yay or nay?

We have the technology now to do it if we really wanted, albeit not necessarily easily or comfortably or cheaply; the question is whether we really want to and what it would entail. And while it’s not an either/or thing, I think we’re generally better off working on this planet before going off to fuck up another one.

Richard Gibbons:

In the 2028 election, you vote for Republicans for president, congress, and senate. What has happened that has resulted in this outcome?

It’s more likely I bounce to the moon on shoes made of flubber than vote straight ticket GOP in seven years, so, yeah, I don’t see this scenario happening.

Penn Davies:

Have you ever tried out or trained in any weapons or martial arts, modern or historical, as part of research for a book?

As research for a book? No.

David Border:

Are you into Historical Sites, such as Lincoln Memorial, The Mall, Smithsonian Museums and such? Have you visited them?

I used to live in the DC area, so, sure, I’ve visited the various museums and historical sites there, and also in other places. Am I hugely into them? I don’t think so, but on the other hand if I’m there and they are easily accessible to me, I’m happy to go to them.

Gottacook:

How’s the Mini Countryman holding up?

Actually very well. This month marks the 10th anniversary of me taking receipt of it, and in all that time I can’t recall a major mechanical issue. Part of that is due to me maintaining it fairly well — for eight of those years I had it under an extended care contract where the Mini dealership would pick it up, service it and detail it, and then return it, all without me having to do anything. Also it has relatively few miles on it — not quite 80k after a decade. This is because I don’t have to commute for work, and also because if I travel further than, say, Chicago, I tend to rent a car for the extended trip. I actually need to go get it serviced soon, but once I do I expect it to chug along happily. At some point I’ll get a newer car, but I’m not in a huge rush.

Gregory:

You’ve mentioned you’ve suffered a miscarriage. What effect did this have on you? Do you feel it’s something guys can talk about freely?

I wrote a piece about it when it happened, which you can find here, and which still very well encapsulates what my thinking about it is. I can’t say whether other men talk about miscarriages openly, but I think they should be able to and I think it’s okay for men, and anyone else, to mourn the loss.

Pete L:

You’ve had your fair share of haters, but have you ever had to deal with the other side of the coin, e.g. stalkers?

I had a stalker a while back and had to file a police report about them. I’m happy to say that the situation resolved itself reasonably well for everyone involved; filing the police report helped convince the person they needed to get back on their meds, and since then I believe they have continued to maintain their mental health, which makes me happy. It was really a “best case scenario” version of a stalking, and as such I don’t tend to compare it to what many other folks, particularly women, have to go through when they are being stalked.

Rick M:

I can envision you as a mischievous grandfather. What plans do you have in place to subvert your daughter’s undoubtedly excellent (yet hypothetical) parenting?

To subvert? None, since I think parenting is hard enough without some relative getting in there and messing up how one raises their kid. But I certainly plan to have fun with any potential grandchildren. I think it’s possible to be a mischievous grandparent without making my kid’s parenting duties more difficult.

BenInIndy:

It seems you have opinions on most every subject and freely share your thoughts on multiple topics all across the spectrum. What is the topic you have least background to provide an opinion and what is that opinion?

I don’t actually know! In fairness to myself, I do tend to preface opinions on subjects I don’t know a whole lot about with “Here is me talking out of my ass” or something similar, or I skip them entirely. But it’s difficult for me to say accurately what I know the least about. That’s something someone else would probably have to identify.

Colonel Snuggledorf:

I wonder if you’d be interested in sharing your thoughts on the proposals for a $15 federal minimum wage.

Mostly a) that it should be higher than that to keep up with what it should be had it been indexed to inflation all this time, b) that whatever wage they set it should be indexed to inflation moving forward so we can stop having to try to drag it forward to what it would have been and should be. And then general thought that if we really believe as a nation people have to work to live, then we should make it so they can live on what we pay them to work. That seems pretty simple.

Tim:

Any updates for OLD MAN’S WAR on Netflix?

It’s still in development and I’m still getting option payments on it, and aside from that I can’t say much. When/if I can say more, you’ll know.

William Patrick:

Given your love for movies, why don’t you have a home theater?

I mean, dude, I have a 65-inch OLED screen hanging in my living room, how much bigger and nicer do I need the screen to be? I’m doing all right on this score!

Dan S:

You are given the authority to create a new monument representing 2020. You have unlimited budget and can place it anywhere in the United States (including unlimited eminent domain powers). What in your mind does it memorialize, what does it look like, and where would you put it?

An eternal trash fire at Mar-A-Lago sounds about right.

Thank you everyone for your questions this year! Let’s do it again, oh, in 2022.

— JS

Reader Request Week 2021 #9: Short Writery Bits

In which I quickly answer some questions of a writeresque bent. Let’s get started!

Chris:

What are your views/experiences with collaborations – whether in a book, film, or television setting or other? How have you dealt with conflicts in these situations? Compromising your vision say with another writer’s vision? How flexible have you had to be? What are the challenges? And have you ever been in a situation in which you were a “hired gun” so to speak and had to write what someone else wanted you to write and how have you handled this challenge ?

I don’t typically collaborate because I find it as much work if not more than writing alone, so why not just write alone? That said, I have written things where I have had to take input from other people, and in that situation, I just make the point to myself that I’m writing for someone else and therefore the goal is to make a final product they’re happy with. When you have that as a goal, taking direction is not that difficult. Also, in the future I don’t rule out collaborating with another writer, but if I do I will be likely to be the boss in that situation, so they will write to my specification, not the other way around.

Jeffery Otterman:

What words inspire you and what words do you despise?

I like “We’ll pay what you asked for this project,” and dislike “We’d like your work, but we can’t pay for it.”

Ctein:

Dear John,

Since you’ve got movie critic chops…

What did you think of TOMOROWLAND?

I personally enjoyed it, although I think in a general sense it was a movie in search of an audience. I suspect the reason it got made was because Brad Bird had done very well for Disney on the Pixar side of things, and they were willing to throw him a live-action bone to keep him in the fold (it paid off, too, as Incredibles 2 did gangbusters business). I wouldn’t have greenlit it as it was (at least, not for as much as Disney paid for it), but I’m happy it exists in the world.

Lazysubculturalgirl:

Do you think talent is more genetics, or does it come from being surrounded by certain influences as a child? I’m thinking in particular of sports greats who also have very talented children, but there are a great many acting dynasties, as well as writers who grew up in a family of writers.

I don’t think it’s an either/or situation; it could be either or both or neither. There were no professional writers in my immediate family nor any obvious genetic predilection toward creativity, and yet I became a creative and professional writer; Athena, of course, has a professional writer in her house with whom she share genes and who actively encourages her to develop her writing skills, but she might eventually decide to do something else with her professional life, which would be fine. I do think that if you are in an environment where a certain skill or profession is part of your everyday life, it’s easier to see yourself doing it, and also you’re likely to have “a foot in the door,” as it were, because of connections and knowledge. But I also know that for every kid of an athlete or writer (for example) who becomes an athlete or writer, there are others who pursue completely different professions.

Dan:

Do you have anything in place to make sure that your works are protected in the event that you are no longer able to look after your works?

Yes; it’s called a will. The disposition of my intellectual property is dealt with there (short version: Krissy controls it if I’m dead/incapacitated, then Athena). I’m not especially precious about my work after my death; as far as I’m concerned its job will be to keep Krissy and Athena comfortable through their lives.

Cesc:

Why is there so much human totalitarianism and monarchy in the novels of not so right wing authors as yourself?

I can’t speak for anyone else, but for me: Because it’s fun to write about. It’s certainly not an endorsement of those political systems, however.

Brown Robin:

There are literally a bajillion books out there, most of which are never read. In a world of diminishing resources and a culture of diminishing returns, why do we need even one more?

Well, first, I disagree with the assertion of diminishing resources and diminishing returns, especially as regards books, and second, why not? Writing a book is an accomplishment independent of anyone reading it, and if it gives the author satisfaction to have written it, then that’s a good enough reason for the book to exist. I mean, I play my guitar and will probably never be a professional musician, but playing the guitar makes me happy and therefore it has value in itself. Not everything has to be about someone else.

dchotin:

How should book titles be printed on the spine? Vertical, so that the title is easily readable when the book is properly shelved; or horizontal, so that we can easily read it where the book lies carelessly on the side table where we tossed it 2 months ago? 

I mean, I can read both equally easily, so… either way is fine with me? I have no real preference? The only real preference I have is for consistent cover/spine design across a series. That way when they’re in a bookshelf together they look nice.

Thomas:

Do you consider there to be a difference between writing for reading text and spoken text? i.e. do you feel there a distinct between in medium between the two?

The two are very distinct, in part because spoken text is as much about the voice delivering the text (or, if viewed, the body language of the person) as it is the text itself. Text meant to be read has a very different dynamic, even when it’s dialogue (i.e., acting as speech). As a writer you can really mess yourself up if you forget these are separate modes.

Charles:

Now that Athena is working for your blog in a non-term position, have you found any difficulties in reconciling being her dad and her boss? I totally understand if that’s more behind the curtain than you’re interested in getting, but figured it couldn’t hurt to ask.

Actually I’ve found being her boss pretty congenial. It helps I had an idea of who she was prior to hiring her, so that to some extent the job could be tailored around her as much as it was tailored around the things I wanted and needed in a staff member. To that end she’s being doing what I’ve asked of her, and she’s writing things for the site that I wouldn’t write about, either because I have differing interests, or because we’re in different life stages and have different life experiences. I have really enjoyed reading her work, and also watching her develop as a writer (and helping her do so). She’s good staff. I think I made a good decision hiring her.

— JS

Reader Request Week 2021 #8: Local Favorites

srs asks:

Whenever we visit family in Ohio, they like to take us to Marion’s pizza. As an Ohio resident, can you explain the appeal?

(I didn’t think it was bad, just completely unremarkable and not deserving the enthusiasm)

We have a Marion’s near me (they’re Marion’s Piazza’s, not “Marion’s Pizza”; it’s describing a place, not a food), and I would agree with the assessment that the pizza there is perfectly fine but not particularly memorable or exceptional in any significant way. Likewise the ambiance is not especially notable; the one near me has an interior that is meant to resemble a piazza, which is doesn’t, really, but it’s their thing, so fine. You order in a line and then you pick up when your order is called and then you eat and then you leave. It’s fine! But it’s not the greatest dining experience you’ll ever experience (and if it is, get out more).

It’s not great! But it’s local, and it’s what people grew up with and establish as their baseline of what pizza (or burgers, or burritos or whatever) are and should be. It’s their version, the version that looms large in their head. And therefore, it’s the best! And therefore, they want to share it with you.

And it get it — not with Marion’s, which I did not grow up with, but with In-N-Out Burger, which I did. To me, the In-N-Out Double Double (animal style, of course) is the platonic ideal of the fast food burger, the burger all other fast food burgers aspire to be, and largely fail at becoming. It’s not that those other burgers are bad, some of them are quite good, they’re just not the Double Double. They can’t be blamed for that. The only thing that can be a Double Double is a Double Double.

Then people who did not grow up with In-N-Out try a Double Double and… they think it’s fine? But not the greatest burger in the history of fast food burgers and perhaps not worth making an actual pilgrimage for, and waiting in either In-N-Out’s ridiculously long drive-thru lines or jamming one’s self into their famously crowded (in pre-COVID times) dining rooms. “It’s good but it’s not Whataburger/Culver’s/insert regional chain they grew up with here” is their take.

Which makes sense to me, because that’s what they grew up with. That’s what’s established in their mind as the platonic fast food burger. And they are no more wrong about that as I am about the Double Double being the best fast food burger, or srs’ family thinking Marion’s is the exemplar of pizza, or anyone thinking their own particular area’s specific weird food of choice is pretty amazing and worth sharing.

The last one, incidentally, is how Krissy and I found ourselves at Maid-Rite a couple months after moving to Ohio, because locals swore their loose-meat sandwiches were legendary and we couldn’t consider ourselves locals until we had some of our own. Well, we wanted to experience the local thing! So we went! And it was fine! But also I’ve never developed a fanatical love for loose-meat sandwiches in the time since. I missed the window in which the “it’s local and therefore awesome” filter would get passed over them. This is also why I am entirely immune to the so-called “charms” of “Cincinnati Chili,” which strikes me as an abomination of the word “chili” and also of the word “food.” But other people love it. I am content to let them love it. They can have my share. More for them.

The thing about local favorites is this: when people are taking you to the local favorite, what they’re doing is saying “this is a what I love, and is a part of how I see myself, I want to share it with you.” It’s not about the food so much as it is about the experience and what it means to them. And one can certainly honor that impulse, even if one finds the actual food underwhelming. And they will do the same, when you are sharing your personal regional favorite, if you have one, which you almost certainly do.

— JS

I Got Moderna’d

Athena ScalziThat’s right, y’all, I have been vaccinated! To be more specific, I got my first dose of Moderna. I’m due for my second shot at the end of the month.

In case you didn’t see, I had corona back in early December. Though it wasn’t bad for me, I decided to get vaccinated anyways because there’s like different strains and sometimes you can get it twice and yada yada, so better safe than sorry!

While I am not the biggest fan of needles, it wasn’t that bad, it only hurt for a split second, which was when they first injected the needle. But then I didn’t even feel it when they pulled it out! Definitely worth being vaccinated over, anyways.

It’s been about four hours since I got it, and so far my only side effect is a sore arm. It’s very tender, mostly in the part of my arm I got the injection in, but I’m hoping that that will go away in a day or two.

Anyways, I’ve heard with Moderna that the second shot will really do me in in terms of side effects, but I was told I might not even experience any at all since I already had COVID! So here’s hoping, but I’ll probably update y’all when I get the second shot and let you know if it knocks me on my ass or not.

Have you had your shot(s) yet? Did it hurt? Did you have any side effects? Let me know in the comments, and have a great day!

-AMS

Reader Request Week 2021 #7: Does Money Satisfy?

Steve Calhoun asks:

Does the money satisfy? I mean this sincerely. I know it’s probably nice to be rich. And I’m personally much better off this year than I’ve been in years past but I also find that obtaining some of the things I’ve wanted while I was poor for decades don’t necessarily make me feel better. So, Scalzi, what is best in life? And what, other than 5 part guitars, do you spend your money on?

First, a clarification: It’s a six-part guitar.

Second, having been both poor and rich (in the context of being an American, and, more broadly, a member of the developed world), I can say that in my experience money doesn’t satisfy, it alleviates. In drug terms, money’s not a mood-lifter, it’s a painkiller.

What on earth are you saying, Scalzi, if I was given a million dollars my mood would definitely lift! Well, sure. Speaking from experience there is a definite short-term bump that comes from suddenly having in your possession a larger sum of money than you would experience on a day-to-day basis. But also speaking from experience, that euphoria is both short-lived (the hedonic treadmill of money moves quickly), and usually masking a wider and more complex emotional response to the money. Give most people a (to them) large sum of money — or make it possible for them to have a stable and comfortable income — and after the happy shock wears off, what they feel is often something like relief. That money can go to solve problems: rent and bills and things that can make life better and less precarious.

This is what I mean by money being a painkiller. So many of so many people’s day-to-day problems are caused by the lack of money. Lack of money causes uncertainty, anxiety and worry — causes pain. When you have money that pain goes away, and depending on the amount of money involved, that pain can go away pretty much permanently. When you don’t have pain, you don’t think about that pain, and you don’t think of all the things you have to do to manage that pain. You just… get to do and think about other things.

Generally speaking, you don’t need all that much money to avail yourself of its painkilling properties. People like to talk about a specific number — $75,000 is the number I see a lot as being the amount after which any more money doesn’t add much to your emotional happiness — but I think it’s more that when all your needs are economically taken care of, and a reasonable percentage of your wants are achievable, if not immediately at least over a not-too-onerous amount of time, then money has achieved its analgesic duty. You’re free to live your life away from a certain type of discomfort.

But it doesn’t mean all your problems are solved, and it doesn’t mean you’re happy. Money doesn’t buy happiness. It can buy material comfort, and a certain amount of security, neither of which is to be discounted. But they’re not the same thing. And like any painkiller, too much money can create problems and pains of its own, and it can be abused. If you don’t understand money and how to manage and use it, having too much of it can become a curse, especially if it is suddenly dropped into one’s lap. There’s a reason lots of lottery winners struggle with their new-found riches.

In my own personal life, I don’t notice myself being particularly happier now, when I have money, then I was when I was in my 20s and making substantially less, or as a kid when I was poor. I feel a lot less uncertainty, economically speaking, but that’s about it. I had a not great year in many ways in 2020, for example, even though financially speaking it did just fine for me. I will note that in a general sense I’m happy enough, and even in a less-than-great year like 2020 I was happier more days (and happy on average on more days) than when I was wasn’t. But money wasn’t a driver in my happiness or lack thereof. I’m not unhappy because of money issues, but not having money issues doesn’t make me happier overall.

I know people who have more money than I do, and those who have less. The happiness they feel as individuals is all over the board. There is no real correlation between money and happiness, save that the folks who have less money can be made unhappy by economic concerns. But I feel pretty sure that if everyone in the US suddenly didn’t have to worry about rent and bills and health insurance and whatever, that a year later the general happiness quotient would be about the same. It’s great not to worry about your bills! But you do find other things to be unhappy about.

So what does satisfy? I think it depends on the person. For me, I admit to finding a particular level of material possession satisfying; you could call it “upper-middle-class with weird hobby expenditures.” That taken care of, what I find satisfying in life is less tangible: good relationships with family and friends, a certain number of intellectual pursuits, the ability to write for a living. There are things I want in life, but none of them are down to money at this point. I would like to be able to play most of my musical instruments better! But no amount of financial expenditure will do that. I just need to practice more.

As for what I spend my money on: Well, most of it, I don’t spend. Inasmuch as most of our material needs and desires are taken care of within our income, and we are fortunate at this point not to have medical or other expenses that are a substantial amount of what we bring in, most of what comes in goes into savings and investments. We give a fair amount to charity on an annual basis, because we can and should. There’s the occasional splurge, like ridiculous guitars. And we improve the house a little bit at a time to make it nicer to live in. This year we’ll be redoing the master bath! I’m actually really looking forward to that.

So, no: Money doesn’t satisfy, it just can solve some problems that can make life unsatisfactory. The rest really is on the individual to do with their life what is necessary to provide satisfaction and happiness. That’s different for every person, and I wish each of us success in finding what those things are.

— JS

The Big Idea: Thomas K. Carpenter

Ever feel like “the algorithm” just knows too much? Would you trust an algorithm with something as important as space travel? In Thomas K. Carpenter’s newest Audible Original, Saturn’s Monsters, AI has the potential to make much more dangerous calculations than just advertising bizarre things to you.

THOMAS K. CARPENTER:

All data lies.

I’m an engineer by background.  I’m used to data.  But show a group of engineers or scientists the same graph, and you’ll have a dozen different interpretations.  Now take that idea and supercharge it with algorithms that cannot step back and contemplate the impacts of their decisions—and you have a recipe for disaster.

In Saturn’s Monsters, a group of scientists and engineers grow interplanetary ships in our friendly ringed gas giant’s atmosphere.  By using the materials present in the clouds, and nanobots they bring with them, they’re “3-D printing” surfaces onto a flying ship, growing it large enough to travel outside the Solar System.  But that kind of work can’t be done manually, so they release the ships into the gas giant, using algorithms to keep the ships aloft in those hurricane-like winds.  

The Big Idea is about the dangers of algorithms, and how the very data we select to build our machine learning programs have many unintended consequences.  Don’t get me wrong, algorithms can be a powerful force for good, they tease out relationships our human brains might never have seen, helping design technology that meets people’s needs, but as I said in the opening sentence, “All data lies” and those lies can get people killed, or at the very least, ruin their lives.  We’ve already seen that insurance companies or banks, using algorithms to predict safe customers, have essentially coded in the implicit biases contained within our society, and financially injured those the algorithms should have protected.

This Big Idea didn’t happen on the first go around of the story.  I wrote a shorter version about five years ago that focused mostly on the ships after they’d been grown, which was exciting, but lacked the details about the team and how they worked together on the project.  It was more Michael Bay than Michael Creighton.  So I scrapped it after a few rejections.

I started a second version of Saturn’s Monsters after encouragement from Andrea Stewart who was always asking me if I’d sold the first story, but quickly realized that the gravity was all wrong on Jupiter, where I had initially set the story.  I enlisted my teenage son, who was in the middle of his AP Physics class, to calculate the gravitationally habitable portion of the planet, only to learn that the station would have to be too far out from the cloud structure to work.  Thankfully, Saturn is significantly lighter because it doesn’t have a heavy metal core, coming in only 8% heavier than Earth, making it a much safer location for our team (Thanks Aiden!)  

During this rewrite of Saturn’s Monsters is when the Big Idea of the danger of algorithms became a part of the story.  As I focused on the team and how they managed to pull off this amazing feat—the pain and hard work of laboring under dangerous conditions—the story, and most importantly the characters, came alive.  

I won’t ruin the tale for you, I’m sure you can guess that things don’t go as planned with these AI driven ships that were named after mythological monsters (You might also wonder: why would you bother naming ships after creatures that kill humans?  But hey, the NSA named their machining learning communication network Skynet, so I guess we all think that the lessons of the past don’t apply to us).  

In an algorithm based world, the type and quality of the data we use to create this machine learning will matter, as well how much human intervention we choose to keep in the system as a circuit-breaker.  The crew of Saturn Two proves on their mission to make the human race space faring that not only does data lie—but data kills.


Saturn’s Monsters: Audible Original

Visit the author’s website.  Follow them on Twitter

Read Request Week 2021 #6: Krissy and Dogs

Krissy and Charlie.
John Scalzi

Susanpeak asks:

What is it about Krissy that dogs like so much? You mentioned that Charlie has already attached strongly to her, and I remember Kodi did so as well (and I assume Daisy?). Why?

I should note it’s not just our dogs. I honestly have yet to meet a single dog that does not more or less instantly fall in love with Krissy and swear fealty to her and her entire line. Krissy tells me that when she goes out on house inspections (she’s an insurance claims adjuster) she often meets dogs, and they almost always come up to her and are friendly and want love. And then their owner will come out and say something like “That’s Chauncy, he hates everyone and tried to eat the neighbors’ children, I don’t understand why he likes you.”

Part of it is I think dogs are pretty good judges of who likes dogs and who doesn’t, and Krissy, as a rule, likes dogs. She’s not scared of them and doesn’t project an air of uncertainty when approaching them. If Krissy’s somewhere, she means to be somewhere. Krissy is not foolish around dogs, mind you — if one was acting aggressive and angry, I don’t think she’d be heedless of what the dog was doing — and she’s respectful of animals as a general rule. But she’s also not trepidatious. When she sees a dog, she’s generally happy to see that dog, whatever dog it is. And dogs, as a general rule, like when people like them.

Part of it is that Krissy gives off “pack leader” vibes at all times. I don’t think it will come as a surprise to anyone that Krissy is the head of the Scalzi family, both nuclear and extended — she’s extremely capable and gets results, and is sensible and level-headed. We all pretty much look to her to get things done and to get us all doing what we need to do.

(I’m not running myself down here, I’ll note — I’m useful for long-term planning, creative solutions to difficult issues, and funding the whole operation. But I’m also the person who, when Krissy first moved in with me, was on third notice on all his bills because he couldn’t be bothered to get stamps, despite working literally next to the post office. Krissy is in charge of things, and I’m very happy that she is.)

Dogs are pack animals; one of the things they do is figure out who is really running the show. Any dog who is with us longer than a day figures out Krissy is the pack leader. Clearly they are going to give their allegiance to her. I don’t mind. It’s not like they don’t like or love me, or refuse to acknowledge that they should be listening to me when I tell them to come inside or to stop bothering the cats. It’s just clear they like and love and look to Krissy more. I get it! I think she’s pretty great, too.

Finally, and importantly, Krissy is super-demonstrative of her affection for her pups, which is also keeping in line with Krissy’s personality generally. Krissy is polite and self-contained with people she meets until she decides she likes them; after that point she’ll help you bury a body in the woods if it came to that, whether or not that body was still moving at the time. So when a dog becomes part of the family, they get all of that affection and loyalty.

Who can resist that? No one can resist that, that’s who. Certainly not a pup! Krissy is a dog’s best friend, basically. Again, I totally get it. Krissy is the best.

(There’s still time to get in a topic request for this year’s Reader Request Week — go here to learn how to do it and to leave a topic suggestion!)

— JS

Reader Request Week 2021 #5: American Fascism

Rick asks:

Being a child of the late 20th century, I always thought the USA was somehow immune to fascism, and I’m honestly surprised to discover recently that this isn’t the case. Is this simple naivete, or have things fundamentally changed in American politics?

Well, you know. In 1939 American Nazis held a rally at Madison Square Garden. It was very well attended! And among other things they hung a big damn portrait of George Washington between their swastikas, with full intent:

That giant portrait of George Washington was no afterthought. “One of the things they tried to do was to say that this is what America has always been and this is what the Founding Fathers would have supported,” said Churchwell. Indeed, they referred to Washington as “America’s first fascist.”

And they might have gotten away with it too, if it weren’t for that meddling World War II and Germany (and Nazism) becoming the enemy. Inconvenient for the American Nazis, that. Set the whole fascist movement back decades in the US.

At least, the part that overtly called itself fascism. But otherwise it still managed. McCarthyism? That was fascism. Jim Crow? Fascism. Definition nerds will quibble about whether America’s long-standing authoritarian, anti-democratic impulses qualify as true fascism, but two things here. One: If it quacks like a duck, etc. Two, let us recall that when actual no-shit fascists were looking at ways to codify their power and to demonize their enemies, including and specifically the Jews, where did they look for useful examples? If your answer is anything other than “Why, at the United States and its systemic suppression of its own minorities over the years,” then, surprise! Here’s a reading list to catch you up.

To be clear, the US is not (directly) responsible for the rise of Nazism and the horrors it perpetrated on the Jewish population of Europe. Hitler was fucking evil, and Europe was not exactly new to anti-semitism in the first half of the 20th century. Hitler would have found a way to get where he wanted to go, and the German nation would have gone along, as it largely did. But this doesn’t change the fact that when the Nazis were looking for pertinent examples for legally disenfranchising parts of its own population, the United States was there for it, with laws that, if not technically fascist in themselves (quibble away, definition nerds!), were certainly proto-fascist.

In a larger sense, the history of the United States is a history of Will to Power, competing neck-to-neck with what we prefer to see as our more noble and democratic Power to the People. What is “Manifest Destiny” if not Deus Vult in mid-18th century dress? Did the US not essentially pick fights with Mexico and Spain for land and political influence? Did it not ignore whatever treaties it made with the Native Americans whenever it felt like it? Did it not rise to prominence on the labor and pain of African slaves, and tear itself apart because the South decided it was better to gamble on a quick war to keep those slaves, than to imagine them as people? And then, having freed those slaves, did the US then not engage in a century-long effort to keep those slaves and their descendants as legally close to a slave state as possible? Did the US not likewise demonize and restrict the rights of Chinese and other Asians? In the end, who benefited from the United States, who still benefits from it, and how was it managed that only they received the vastly largest share of the benefit?

If you know the answers to these questions, and yet still wonder how the United States might not be immune to fascism, the likely problem is that you’re hung up on the word “fascism” rather than the conceptual, social and political elements that allow for fascism. “Fascism” is a brand. Authoritarianism is the substance inside the can. The United States has had all of the ingredients for authoritarianism as long as it’s existed, and we make a fresh batch of it whenever we feel like it.

To go back to World War II, one of its side effects was that for as long as the generation who fought it was the engine of the economy and politically active, overt fascism was more difficult to support in the US — we could manage it if we could, say, argue we were doing it to fight communism or something, but indulging in it purely for its own sake was a bad look. But the generation that fought World War II is mostly dead now, and a lot of their (white) children are of the opinion that maybe fascism got a bad rap — it’s not so bad, it’s just how it was done before that’s the problem. Creeping fascism has been the goal of the US Republican Party for a while now, what with its policy of steadily eroding and ignoring democratic norms, and its strategy of creating economic and informational insecurity to scare poor and working class whites, with the goal of inflaming their systemically-inculcated bias toward racism, for the benefit of the wealthiest of its party members, and to retain power even (especially) as the majority of US citizens have left it and its political interests behind.

And it certainly got a boost in that from Donald Trump! If someone like Mitch McConnell is the GOP’s ego, Trump is its id, a loud, proudly ignorant racist and buffoon who doesn’t give a shit about democracy, admires dictators, was enraged he wasn’t treated as a king, and who ended his presidency with an attempted putsch against his democratically chosen successor. Trump may not have come into the White House as a fascist, but he certainly left as one. His party — with some notable exceptions — gave him aid and comfort in his transformation and in his attempt to overthrow democracy in the United States. Moreover, it is now actively, unapologetically and with full fervor attempting to curtail the ability of United States citizens to participate in the democratic process, in a manner we haven’t seen so openly since the time when the Nazis were looking for a legal model for the persecution of the Jews and everyone else they found inconvenient. That is in fact actual fascism. You could say fascism has captured the GOP, but that ignores that fascism (and specifically, white christianist fascism) was always the plan, from at least Newt Gingrich onward. The Republicans meant to get here. And now they are here.

But again: We have always been here, in one way or another, here in these United States. The greatness of the US, its ability to be an actual force for good, and for hope, and for the democratic model of governance, has always gone hand in hand with its ability to be the worst of nations, and to indulge in authoritarianism, imperialism, bigotry and, yes, fascism. What we work for — what you should be working for, anyway — is to have the better aspects of our nation to be in the fore, so it may be the sort of country that fascism can’t provide: Tolerant, wise, open, diverse and focused on the common weal.

During the Trump administration I would occasionally see on Twitter: “If you were wondering what you would have done in Germany during the rise of the Nazis, it’s whatever you are doing now.” That was true! Just remember it’s always been true, in every time, here in the United States. Our nation’s darker nature is always there, and is always waiting for good people to lack conviction and to do nothing. Whatever you’re doing now, that’s what you’re doing to fight that darker nature. Or not. It’s up to you.

(There’s still time to get in a topic request for this year’s Reader Request Week — go here to learn how to do it and to leave a topic suggestion!)

— JS

The Big Idea: Michael Muntisov

Have you ever considered going vegan, or living a zero-waste lifestyle for the sake of the environment? It might be a good idea, especially if we get judged later in life for how we fought against climate change in our past. In Michael Muntisov’s newest novel, The Court of Grandchildren, the choices we make today decide our fate tomorrow.

MICHAEL MUNTISOV:

George Orwell once wrote “If you plant a walnut you are planting it for your grandchildren, and who cares a damn for his grandchildren?”

Today we witness not Big Brother, but many people in positions of authority insisting that climate change is a hoax. If that makes your blood boil, it’s because you know those people have nothing other than their own self-interest at heart. They don’t give a damn, even about their own grandchildren.

Well what if, thirty years from now, those very same grandchildren decided it was time to hold today’s decision makers to account? That is the big idea behind Court of the Grandchildren.

By then, supercomputers will have advanced enough to tell us what the climate consequences were of every past policy decision or non-decision. There will be no gray areas. The excuses for today’s inaction will seem like parodies.

In one way this may feel satisfying — those damn deniers will get their comeuppance! But wait a second. How will you, dear reader, distinguish yourself from the ‘evil-doers’ in the eyes of the grandchildren? Are you just as much to blame? After all, you watched, participated and let it happen. What if you were lumped in with the ‘burners’?

And there are further annoying questions: How would your track record survive being picked apart by an AI lawyer? How would our generation be punished? But then, what is the value in attributing blame and seeking retribution? 

These were some of the philosophical ponderings that ran through my head as I contemplated what sort of book Court of the Grandchildren would be.

One thing I already knew. Talking about climate change is hard. Harder than talking about sex and religion. Why? Because, as Rebecca Huntley says, the science of climate change is relatively orderly and neat, but people are not. 

How a person responds to climate change messaging depends on how they see the world. Their politics, values, cultural identity, and even their gender identity play a role. So I had to stop laying out the rational and start being emotional. And what better way than through storytelling.

At first, I thought my target audience would be people active in the climate movement. Secretly, I wished that climate skeptics would be interested too. It took me a while to admit that actually neither of those groups would be the core audience. The climate skeptics wouldn’t bother once they saw the reference to the ‘Climate Court’ in the blurb. And the novel wouldn’t go far enough for the hard-core activists. 

Once I was released from the bond of these fictitious audiences, I found the freedom to tell the story I wanted to tell. 

After eighteen months of work, the publisher’s acceptance of the manuscript was a gratifying moment. But as COVID delayed the book’s release, my satisfaction was whittled away. The delay tried my patience, but it provided an unexpected benefit. I took the opportunity to write a stage adaptation of Court of the Grandchildren. 

Adapting a novel demands a lot of discipline. You have to identify the core story. You have to simplify. You have to reduce the number of characters and action scenes. These necessities for the stage exposed several weak or half-hearted conflicts in the novel. The COVID delay meant I had time to rectify these weaknesses before publication. As an added bonus, The Magnetic Theatre in North Carolina has selected the play for performance in their 2022 season.

My big idea was about climate change responsibility. But as the story evolved, as it became more emotional, it became more personal. I realized that while Court of the Grandchildren questions the legacy we are leaving our grandchildren, it also questions me: Am I doing the best I can?


Court of the Grandchildren: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Google Play|Kobo

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

Reader Request Week 2021 #4: Living on a Boat

Matt C asks:

I recall in a different post you mentioned you spent a summer on a houseboat when you were young? Can you elaborate on the story of how it came about and some or all the shenanigans that ensued?

“Houseboat” is a little grand. It was a sailboat, probably 26 feet long or so, and it belonged to my mother and her (now-deceased) husband Roger. For a time they lived on it in San Diego with a couple of dogs and a parrot, which strikes me as very cramped, given that the interior was basically the size of a small RV (I mean, I guess it was a recreational vehicle, just not one you could take on roads).

Now, as it happens, right around the time that I got an internship at the San Diego Tribune (now the Union-Tribune), mom and Roger were going to pull up stakes in order to run an orphanage in Mexico (don’t ask). However, they weren’t able to bring the boat with them, and it would be several months before their dock rental (or whatever you call it) would be up. So rather than have me find a room somewhere in town, I lived on the sailboat. It benefitted mom and Roger, since someone would be there to look after the boat, and it benefitted me, because I didn’t have to pay rent. They also left me one of their vehicles, a ridiculously huge Ford F-450 that got, like, maybe eight miles to the gallon. That solved my issue of how to get about in San Diego for a summer.

I don’t know how my mother and Roger managed to live on the boat with three animals and all the accoutrement of an actual life, but for a 20-year-old kid who showed up with a small suitcase and no dependents? It was pretty great. Living in a marina is very much like living in an RV park, except on the water — I showered and did my laundry at the Marina and ate out most nights. I had enough space for me, my clothes and my guitar. I’d have friends come over occasionally, mostly long enough to go “well, this is cozy,” and then we would head out somewhere else. I was not actively dating or playing the field, so there was no rocking the boat, so to speak.

And, no, I didn’t actually take it out on the sea. I would have probably crashed it leaving the marina. I didn’t want to drown, y’all.

Otherwise I was living a storybook life for a 20-year-old dude. I was in San Diego, I was young, I had friends, and my internship was with the entertainment section of the paper, so my days were spent writing reviews of concerts that I had seen the night before. I got to interview some memorable people and learned a lot about working at a newspaper, which came in handy when I started an actual newspaper job a year later. It was, basically, a perfect summer, and I’m glad I got to have it. On a boat!

(There’s still time to get in a topic request for this year’s Reader Request Week — go here to learn how to do it and to leave a topic suggestion!)

— JS

Product Review: Craize Corn Crackers

Athena ScalziLast week, I was advertised a snack food on Facebook while hungry, and inevitably bought it. The tempting snack I am referring to is called “Craize“, a company that sells flavored toasted corn crackers. The company boasts that they are better and healthier alternatives to tortilla chips. They have seven flavors as of right now: coconut, plantain, sweet corn, seeded, everything, guava, and roasted corn. I couldn’t decide which to try so I bought the variety pack, and my parents and I tried them all.

Before we get into the review of how each flavor tastes and everything, let’s go over some of the facts. Craize crackers are vegan, gluten-free, kosher, and non-GMO. Also, their factory is allergen friendly, so they’re dairy-free, eggs-free, crustaceans/shellfish/fish-free, wheat-free, soy-free, and tree-nut-free (minus coconuts). On top of all this, they claim they taste good, so that’s a lot of hype! Does it live up to said hype, though?

Here’s what the actual crackers themselves look like, I arranged them in the same order as the bags in the top photo.

(From left to right: plantain, seeded, everything, coconut, sweet corn, guava, roasted corn)

Side note, the crackers look a bit darker in the photo than in real life. It’s not too drastic, but it is a tad different than their colors in person.

To start off, we tried the coconut ones. They smelled just like toasted coconut, and were very thin and light, which made for a great crispy bite. They actually tasted super good! I thought they’d be like, just fine, but they were better than I expected them to be. They’re so crispy and perfectly flavored, not too strong and overwhelming and definitely not too subtle. A great start to our tasting voyage.

Next up was roasted corn. This one immediately felt different to me when I held it in my hand. It felt almost like, too smooth? Kind of papery? Like something fake. These ones were thicker than the coconut ones, so they didn’t have that same crispy bite, and they were a little more dry than their predecessors. To me, it just tasted like unsalted/unbuttered popcorn. Very plain, but not bad or anything. It would be a perfect base to dip into things or put things on top of it for an hors d’oeuvres.

After that we tried the plantain flavor. I’ve only had plantains a few times in my life, and every time they taste pretty banana-y to me (which makes sense since they’re pretty closely related), but these crackers tasted especially banana-esque to me. But not in an artificial banana Laffy-Taffy way, these tasted very close to a slightly overripe banana, like the kind you’re about to turn into banana bread. Actually, they taste a lot like dried banana chips. Overall, they were pretty good. I’m not sure what would be a good topper/dipper for this flavor though.

Following the plantain flavor, we tried the everything flavor. I assume it means everything like an everything bagel, and I’m pretty sure I was right in my assumption because they tasted very oniony and very much like poppy seeds. My dad said he doesn’t understand why someone wouldn’t just eat an everything bagel since they pretty much taste the same, but I said it would be a great option for someone who is watching calories or doesn’t eat gluten. Plus, whatever toppings you would normally put on the bagel, you could just put on the cracker! This flavor was pretty okay, but fair warning it is rather strongly onion flavored.

Next, we tried the sweet corn. We all agreed it tasted exactly like creamed corn. So if that’s a flavor you like, you’d probably really like these crackers! I thought it was spot on to a sweeter version of corn, and it was definitely way tastier than the roasted corn. Not much to say about these ones other than that they were pretty good!

Guava was next in the queue. These ones had the same thinness and perfect crispiness as the coconut ones, which is fantastic, because none of the others so far had quite held up to that same bar that the coconut flavor set. The guava flavor was exactly that, perfectly guava-y! Again, not too powerful, not too subtle. I honestly really like guava, but my mom wasn’t such a big fan. If you like dried guava, like in those tropical mixes at the store with the dried pineapple and mango and whatnot, then I bet you’d like these! Again, kind of a hard flavor to think of what to put on top of it or dip it in.

Finally, we tried the seeded flavor. This cracker tasted just like sesame, probably because it’s packed with sesame seeds. They definitely did not skimp on the seeds, it’s chock-full of them! I’m pretty indifferent to this one. I like sesame perfectly fine. In fact, I love sesame balls with red bean filling and sesame chicken, so I think it’s a pretty great flavor, but this cracker was a little meh for me. Not that it was bad, I just think there were better ones in this line up.

So, after tasting them all, we each came up with a list of our favorite to least favorite flavor.

My dad’s: coconut, sweet corn, everything, guava, roasted corn, seeded, plantain

My mom’s: coconut, sweet corn, seeded, roasted corn, guava, everything, plantain

Mine: coconut, guava, sweet corn, plantain, everything, seeded, roasted corn

Obviously, coconut is the superior flavor. Sweet corn is also very highly ranked. I’m a little sad I seem to be the only one that really liked the plantain and guava, but that’s okay. Someone’s gotta eat the rest of the roasted corn flavor and it sure ain’t gonna be me.

The roasted corn was my least favorite not just because of taste but because it had the worst texture. Though coconut and guava had a vastly superior texture, none of the others were even close to as funky feeling as the roasted corn one. Again, I think that’s just a me thing, since my parents didn’t have the same complaint.

Interesting thing about the thinness of the coconut and guava, though, is that they’re more prone to breakage, whereas the thicker roasted corn, everything, and seeded flavors were much more durable. If you noticed in the picture of all the chips in a line, the guava one is broken. That’s because there wasn’t a single whole one in the entire bag.

Here is the guava.

Here is the roasted corn.

Considering the packaging shows each cracker as a full circle with toppings on it, it’s kind of a problem that all the guava ones and most of the coconut ones were broken. So if you wanted to serve them as a snack like shown on the packaging, it wouldn’t exactly work out.

So, that’s something to consider.

Overall, I think these crackers were pretty great! Or at least, I’m glad I bought them and tried them. The variety pack was only twenty dollars, and every order gets free shipping (though they only ship in the US). I would definitely recommend this cracker company, or at least giving them a try for yourself.

If you’ve tried any of these flavors before, let me know your thoughts on them! If you have any other cool snack recommendations I should check out, leave a comment! And have a great day.

-AMS

Reader Request Week 2021 #3: Teaching “The Classics”

For this one, two questions, coming at the same topic at different angles. First, this from Dominic Morton:

Should we teach “the classics” in high school? In the past I felt like the novels and plays I teach my students are a part of our cultural vocabulary, so they have common ground with other adults, later in life, but after once again slogging through Huckleberry Finn and (ugh) The Scarlet Letter I’m starting to think that what is important is practicing reading a longer work while holding details in your mind as you analyze a novel. How important do you think it is for all sophomore or junior teachers to teach the same titles from English canon?

And this from Kevin Fortier:

What do you think about classics being banned and censored in public schools (Such as 1984, Catcher in the Rye, To Kill A Mockingbird, etc.)?

For the record I’ve read all those books in question, and most of them as a teenager. I liked Huck until Tom Sawyer showed up as a special guest star and pulled focus; Scarlet seemed overwrought; Catcher made me want to roll my eyes at Holden; Mockingbird was okay and 1984 was the one that engaged me on a level other than “dutifully read.” There, full disclosure.

Books being censored or banned in schools is as American as apple pie, enough so that the ALA has an annual list of the top ten most banned and challenged books in the country, from schools and libraries. Strangely, the most challenged and banned books in recent years are not “the classics” but modern books with LGBTQIA+ content, and/or sexual themes or profanity. The classics occasionally sneak on there — Mockingbird showed up a couple of years back, as did the Bible (“Reason: Religious viewpoint,” which, I mean, yes, it definitely has that). But the focus does seem to be, shall we say, elsewhere.

I grew up with a parent whose philosophy with books was “if you can reach it, you can read it,” and that was the same philosophy that I had with my own kid, so as a matter of personal temperament, I don’t think it’s either necessary or desirable to try to ban books of any sort from schools or libraries. Also, as a general rule, within the constraints of the US Constitution’s establishment clause, I don’t think any book should be automatically excluded from public school classes or reading lists. Now, this is a very Olympian sort of attitude that falls apart where the pedagogical rubber meets the educational road, and where teachers actually have to make reading choices and then defend them to politically polarized parents of all sorts. Educators, feel free to unload on me in the comments for this (and all the other blathering that follows in this essay). But it is my overarching philosophy and I’m sticking to it.

This does mean when someone wants to have a handwring about a certain book (or a certain set of books) being banned or challenged, my first instinct is to wonder whether their outrage is situational — “It’s fine to ban those books, but these books are different” — and if it is, I admit to being less than entirely sympathetic to their pleas. A book banner is a book banner, and if your attitude is ban those but not this, then you kind of lose me. Having both been a teen and having had a child who was a teen, banning books is pointless anyway. A certain type of kid won’t give a shit one way or another; they were never going to read that book (or, possibly, any book) other than under duress. A different certain type of kid will be encouraged to seek out that book because it was banned, either from curiosity or to piss off whomever was attempting to censor it. Neither sort will be protected or comforted by a ban. It will literally not do any good.

With all of that said, I do not have any special great love for “the classics” in an educational setting, not because I’m worried about their outdated word use and attitudes, but because they’re often boring as shit, and often neither spark a love of the literature itself, nor a deep examination of the issues they are meant to help the students engage with. And that’s no good! So when we ask about whether we should teach “the classics” in school, I think the question is why are we teaching “the classics” in school?

So, for example: Are you doing a class in the History of American Literature? Yes? Fine, throw The Scarlet Letter in there. The kids who are taking the class pretty much know what they are getting into when they sign up for the course; they’re aware they’re going to spend at least some of their time reading work whose style, language and manner of storytelling is of a particular sort, and indeed, that’s part of the reason to take the class.

Are you teaching a general English class and assigning reading to help engage the students in the written word and to see how it’s relevant to their life? For fuck’s sake I beg of you do not assign The Scarlet Letter, you will smother their interest in the written word right there in that classroom. Give the kids something newer and something that they can more immediately see themselves in. Meet them on their own turf before you try to drag their ass back to Puritan New England and Nathaniel gotdang Hawthorne. It’s not too much to ask.

Well, like what? you may ask. What should we give today’s kids to read? Folks, I am not the one to ask. You know who you might ask? A young adult librarian, whose job (in part) it is to keep up with what’s going on in the world of YA, what’s being published and has been published in the last several years that could help today’s teachers achieve specific goals to engage their students. Or maybe check with an actual teacher! They often know! Ask them! Of course, be aware that what they might suggest might freak out a parent because it has a gay kid in it — please see above about what work actually gets challenged and banned in schools on a regular basis .

Which in itself might be a reason that educators often stick with “the classics” — it’s easier to haul out The Great Gatsby (An adulterous con man seeks the approval of high society — surprisingly relevant), which has passed the sniff test for high school for 50 years now, then to undergo the draining process of suggesting, defending and then dealing with the parental freakouts that come with, offering something new and relevant to the way kids live their lives today.

One other point to consider when we consider “the classics,” and not to be overlooked, is that “the classics” did not arise out of nowhere; choices were made over decades, and most of those choices were made by white folks. If there is one thing we know about white folks and their survey of American (and indeed, world) culture, it is a pronounced tendency to, how to put this, leave certain things out, and to make themselves look good. If you suggest to many of them there are other things outside the established canon of “the classics” they tend to get snippy about it. I mean, I get it, I went to the University of Chicago with its “core curriculum,” and when The Core was widened enough to consider the idea that Thought Itself did not spring only from an olive grove in Greece, there was much harrumphing. And this was from people who, from training and knowledge, fucking knew better. Your average white parent with a child in America’s various public school systems is not necessarily going to do better than a University of Chicago classics professor.

If we must teach “the classics,” especially the American ones, then we should be sure that “the classics” reflect more of the American experience than, say, The Scarlet Letter and The Great Gatsby do. Those books do not need to go away! But they sure as hell need more company.

Ultimately, and again: Why are we teaching “the classics”? If we’re doing it because it’s what we’ve always done and we like doing things the way they’ve always been done, well, that’s a shit reason, and we need a better one. There are a lot of “classics” whose putative job in the educational milieu could be done equally well if not better by different, more engaging and more diverse work. Don’t ban or abandon “the classics”; teach them in milieus where they are relevant. Teach other work elsewhere. Students, at the very least, will benefit from that.

(There’s still time to get in a topic request for this year’s Reader Request Week — go here to learn how to do it and to leave a topic suggestion!)

— JS

The Big Idea: Yaroslav Barsukov

In this Big Idea for Tower of Mud and Straw, author Yaroslav Barsukov looks at potentially-fraught relationships, and how he approached them for his Nebula award-nominated novella.

YAROSLAV BARSUKOV:

Game of Thrones may have faded from the public consciousness, but the scar tissue remains. Incest on the small screen no longer makes us drop our sodas and pizza slices—worse still, a brother kissing his sister on the cheek now creates a certain expectation in the audience.

Against a backdrop of assassinations and ancient legends and mammoth anti-airship towers, two relationships intertwine in my novella—one between the protagonist and his lover, another, in the past, between him and his sister. Both women share the same name—Lena—but the similarities don’t end there: the posture, the outlook on life, the will and the spirit are reflections of each other. In the post-GoT world, that’s tantamount to innuendo, and sure enough, it led some readers to suspect my hero of having a fetish.

To be fair, George Martin did not start this conversation: I live in Vienna, where a life-size statue of a certain neurologist graces the courtyard of the city’s Medical University. If you fall in love with a woman who looks like your mother, it must be Oedipus whispering in your ear… Yet in this tangled mesh of neurons we call the brain, nothing exists in complete isolation. And if one thing influences another, are they always one and the same?

My take on this is that we’re rag dolls woven of nostalgia and regret. The past holds a spell over us, we’re drawn to places where we were happy, to the warmth and the lights. Bikes in the sunset, rain’s white noise in the garden, the way apples smelled in summer. And if we sometimes feel the need to visit the town we grew up in, relationships should be no different. The erstwhile ones will define the future ones; in people, we’ll always look for something we’ve lost.

Tower of Mud and Straw isn’t about folks building a tower using devices brought by refugees from another world. It’s about love as a virus. Platonic, sexual, doesn’t matter: love rewires us, changes our tastes, molds us into creatures of anticipation. So no, my protagonist isn’t a weirdo, nor does he have issues. He is a man who has been happy once, unequivocally, who loved someone without the desire to be physically close. Now he’s holding a mirror shard to the right side of his face, hoping to catch a glimpse of the left.

It would’ve been easier to create two love stories, or add a dash of the Lannister dynamic (hell, the latter could’ve driven up sales for all I know). But as a writer, I was more interested in seeing a platonic relationship reflected in a sexual one. The story is built to support this simile: our hero first encounters the “tulips,” the aforementioned otherworldly technology, in a workshop he runs with his sister. After a tragedy hits, he buries what remains of his past and thinks he’s moved on—until he happens upon a giant tower “tulips” have grown into and meets the woman who bears his sister’s name.

It’s karmic, if you will, and I hope it says something true about us as human beings. All fires the fire, all moths in the dark are drawn to the same lights, and, beautiful and misguided creatures, we keep looking for the things we lost.


Tower of Mud and Straw: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

Reader Request Week 2021 #2: Book Numbers

John Scalzi

Michael Doherty has a question about publisher practices around book sale numbers. Specifically:

I’ve never understood why publishers appear to be so cagey about the numbers of books they sell. Have your publishers ever asked that you not reveal how many copies your books have sold?

No, and honestly I would be surprised if they had. Also, I would be surprised if, at any one time, anyone knew the exact number of books I, or pretty much any other established author with a sales profile similar to mine, had sold.

Which is not to say publishers’ don’t know their own numbers, mind you. They get point of sale information from bookstores, and they know how many books have been ordered, and they know how many returns they have, and so on. They also have to accurately represent those numbers on the royalty statements they are contractually obliged to give to authors (and their agents). Also, usually, if an author suspects the numbers are being underreported, they can ask for an audit, which will bring a fuller picture of sales. So, if I called my editor at Tor today and asked him for the most up-to-date sales numbers for The Collapsing Empire, he could give me a reasonably accurate count of the number of copies of that title that Tor had sold.

What he would not be able to tell me is the number of audiobook sales, because Tor isn’t my audiobook publisher; Audible is. Audible, likewise, knows the number of the audiobook version of Empire it has sold, but not the print or ebook versions, as they do not hold the rights to those. And neither Tor nor Audible has the figures for the foreign language editions of the book, because those are published by other publishers, who have their own sets of numbers.

Who has the most accurate numbers for Empire’s sales (or indeed, for any of my books)? That would be my agent Ethan Ellenberg, to whom all sales and royalty numbers go first, before they are sent on to me. But note in many cases there are lags in terms of information because (I assume) neither Ethan nor the other agents in his company are constantly calling, say, my publisher in Estonia, demanding to know how many copies of my books have sold that week. They could, I suppose? But they don’t, because by and large our various publishers across the planet are honest (and if they are not, at least have signed legal contracts requiring disclosure).

So: If I wanted the best guess in terms of my sales for any one title, or indeed overall, I would ask Ethan to put together a report on that. Indeed he and his crew did that a few years back, in the wake of my Tor deal, so we would have some idea of the figures to tell new foreign language publishers, and also film/TV companies who had an interest in optioning work. The answer, because I know you’re curious: Somewhere in the neighborhood of five million copies of my work sold, worldwide, in all formats. If memory serves this was before The Interdependency series had come out (as well has Head On). That series has done very well and my backlist keeps chugging along happily, so I would expect the number has gone up somewhat since then. I don’t know exactly how much, though, because honestly, on a day-to-day basis, it doesn’t actually matter.

(And you say “yeah, but you could be lying about those numbers!” Well, yes, I could be — I’m not, but I could be. The reason I could be is, again, no single source has an accurate count from all my publishers in all formats, except my agent, and then, though him, me. And generally speaking, it’s not something that comes up frequently enough to care. Believe me! Or don’t, it’s all the same to me.)

There’s another issue to consider, which is that these days “sales” is somewhat fungible term. So, for example, I sold tens of thousands of copies of Old Man’s War as part of a “pay what you like” Humble Bundle a few years back. Some people paid a lot for the books in the bundle, and some people paid the absolute bare minimum. Do those count as “sales” if I don’t get paid my usual royalties? Likewise Old Man’s War has been used as a giveaway by Tor to get people to sign up for the Tor.com newsletter. I don’t consider those sales, but it was popular and I gained readers and sales for later books through that. Should that count in some way?

What about the Dispatcher stories, for which I was paid (well!) but which are part of the Audible Plus streaming package, which means that people listen to them for no additional cost beyond that of the subscription. If someone listens to that, does it count as a “sale”? A “listen”? What bucket do you put that in? Both Dispatcher books have been bestsellers on Audible’s charts, so there’s that to consider as well in the formulation. Along this line, lots of indie authors are part of a subscription model — they get paid for their work, but they don’t make sales in the traditional manner. How do you count sales for them?

Now, with all of that said, there is another reason why publishers and authors alike might be, if not cagey, at least, circumspect with raw sales numbers, and that is that most books, even bestsellers, don’t sell in what a general audience has been trained to appreciate as big numbers. Generally speaking, and not counting the books for which ridiculously large advances are given, if your book sells 25,000 copies over its commercial life, your publisher will be happy with you and might put the phrase “national bestseller” on the cover of your next book. On certain weeks and depending on the chart, a couple thousand sales might be enough to be a New York Times bestseller. “New York Times Bestseller” sounds more impressive than “Hey I sold a couple thousand books,” even if, in fact, selling two thousand books in a week is still pretty damn cool, since most books of any sort sell a fraction of that, ever. In any event, I don’t think most authors/publishers are actively dissembling. They are mostly just putting their work in the best possible light.

(Also, for the avoidance of doubt, I believe there are publishers who ask their authors not to break out their sales numbers publicly. I think this is a bad policy for writers, and for publishers, and as a practical matter this admonition is ignored the moment we all start hanging out in a hotel bar together.)

In sum: I talk about numbers if I feel like talking about book numbers, but as a practical matter it doesn’t come up all that much. I sell enough to make my publishers happy, and to keep my bills paid and my pets in kibble. From a business point of view, everything above that level is gravy. I acknowledge it’s easy for me to have that particular position on things, but even so.

(There’s still time to get in a topic request for this year’s Reader Request Week — go here to learn how to do it and to leave a topic suggestion!)

— JS

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