The Thing I Splurge On, Travel-Wise

Tomorrow I start on a week-long trip to Australia, the itinerary of which goes as such: Dayton to Houston to Auckland to Melbourne to Canberra. It will take over 40 hours, and includes an epic 11-hour layover in Houston because, well, that’s just how these things work sometimes. The length and general nature of the trip is such that it’s a good time to note my general travel policy these days, which is:

If there’s an ocean involved, when possible, buy a lie-down seat.

I should note that for domestic flights, I almost never pay for business class seats. One, what domestic business class gets you is a little extra width in the seat, some extra leg room and free booze, which as a short-legged five foot seven teetotaler is not the value proposition it might be for others. And the flight is rarely more than four hours in any event. For domestic flights, premium economy is my sweet spot. If I ever get a business seat domestically, it’s because I was automatically upgraded for some reason, or because when I got to the sign-in kiosk the upgrade was available for $50 or less. What can I say, I’m a cheap bastard.

But in the last couple of years I’ve changed my tune when it comes to overseas flights, and I splash out for a seat that reclines all the way down, which means business class at least. Why? Well:

1. Because these flights are ridiculously long. A transatlantic flight from the US is seven to ten hours. A transpacific flight is anywhere from ten to eighteen hours. The Houston – Auckland leg of my flight tomorrow is fourteen hours and forty five minutes. An economy or economy plus seat is perfectly fine for a four-hour flight. For one that’s three times as long? Well, I’d rather not, if I can avoid it.

Also, in this particular case, the flight leaves Houston in the evening, which brings us to the another point:

2. Some people can sleep sitting up, but I am not one of them. Believe me, I’ve tried. The best case scenario has me entering a fugue state that is not quite awake but also not really asleep, which means I arrive at wherever I’m going in a condition that’s best described at “full bwuh?” I’m old now and pulling out of that particular condition is more difficult than it used to be.

However, when I have a lay-down seat (or at least one that reclines significantly) I can get some actual sleep. Is it great sleep? Well, no, it’s on a plane in a narrow bunk with not-amazing padding. But it is adequate sleep; enough that when I’m done with my travels I don’t feel like I’ve been worked over with an airplane. Also:

3. Access to airport lounges. Mind you, I often have access to these already: my American Express gets me access to the Delta Sky Club when I fly that airline, and to its own Centurion Club, and I also paid for a United Club membership this year. But when I don’t already (for example, when I fly United), or when having a business class ticket gets one into a different, slightly better lounge (for example, the United Polaris lounges), it’s very useful. Sitting at an airport gate is rarely a fantastic human experience, because the seats are not really comfortable and there’s usually a scrum for electrical outlets; airport lounges are usually at least slightly more civilized.

These lounges makes a real difference for when you have, say, a ridiculous 11-hour layover in Houston. The Polaris lounge there has showers and daybeds; so does the Centurion Club. They lay out food and drink for no additional cost and every seat has its own power source. And most people in the club are somewhat less stressed and aggravated than they would be at the gate. It makes a real difference in how one feels even before one gets on a plane for a very very long trip.

(Also, to pre-empt the “you’re gonna be there for 11 hours, go out and see the city!” suggestions — well, and in fact, I may; Houston’s a nice town. But also let’s not pretend that leaving a major airport for a day trip, and then getting back in, is not without its own set of logistical challenges, and even then, I’m still going to be spending a large amount of time at the airport anyway. So the thing about airport lounge access still applies.)

4. Because people start getting weird and cranky on long-haul flights (me included). Which makes sense, most humans are not designed to stay in one position, more or less, for hours and hours at a time. It’s enervating and antsy-making, no matter how much you sleep or do the airline-recommended exercises to avoid deep vein thrombosis. Also eventually people’s sense of “I’m in a public place, I should behave myself” seems to disappear, and then comes the nose-picking or porn-watching or the furtive eating of an egregiously stinky meat pie out of a cloche hat (which I swear to god is a thing that a seatmate of mine did on a flight from Australia back to the US, when I was sitting in economy).

Having a lie-down seat doesn’t keep anyone else on the flight from doing weird shit, it just means I don’t have to deal with it. And also, when I start doing weird shit, they don’t have to deal with me, either.

(For the record: I have not picked my nose or watched porn or eaten a meat pie out of a cloche hat whilst on a plane. Honest.)

5. Because paying for the lie-down seats just plain makes air travel more civilized. The airport lounges and the getting on the plane first and the not having to fight for overhead space and the blankets and pillows and eyemasks and earplugs and the actual food and drink anytime you want it and the not wrestling someone for the goddamned armrest and the airline attendants actually being attentive and the, let’s not forget, ability to put your seat down and just maybe sleep for a change makes a difference. I’m not going to pretend that the 40-hour trip I’m about to take is going to be happy bundle of joy from start to finish, but, look. I’ve gone to Australia economy class before. I know how much the experience varies between these two states of travel. Likewise other long-haul travel.

And yeah, it does suck that the difference is as significant as it is. In a just world everyone would have lie-down seats and tolerable airport experiences. I’m well aware that I’m getting out of a certain level of travel hell simply because I have the wherewithal to do so. Not everyone has the option. It’s privilege, bluntly, and I acknowledge it.

And in this particular case, I’m okay exercising it, because the other option (I mean, aside from not doing the travel at all) is hours of discomfort and aggravation, and a certain number of hours at the end of the travel recovering from it before I am a useful human once more. At this point in my life there is a specific financial value that I can assign to not feeling that way, and most of the time, it’s one I’m willing to pay (and even more so when I’m traveling with Krissy, for whom long-haul travel is even more taxing).

It’s nice to be able to do it. I recommend it, if you can afford it, and have been on the fence about it. Splurge, it’s mostly worth it.

Sunset, 9/27/19

After the week we’ve all had, we deserve a good one.

New Books and ARCs, 9/27/19

As we head into the final weekend of September, here’s a stack of new books and ARCs for you to consider. What here would you like to close out the month with? As always, share in the comments.

And Now, To Celebrate a Haircut, We Present Two Sides of John Scalzi

The first look is one I like to call “Newly Divorced Suburban Dad Makes His First Tinder Profile”:

The second is “Man Wrongly Convicted is Finally Released, But Prison Has Changed Him”:

I don’t know, maybe I have them reversed. It’s so confusing.

Also: Hello, in addition to getting a haircut I broke a tooth and had to get an emergency temporary crown, and now my mouth feels like someone kissed it with a jackhammer, so, uuhhhhh, not a lot of writing got done today. How are you?

Well, It’s Been a Day, Hasn’t It

The working day started off with Boris Johnson’s proroguing of parliament called unconstitutional in an 11-0 decision by the UK’s Supreme Court, and finished off with Speaker Pelosi announcing a formal impeachment inquiry against President Trump, because it appears he tried to blackmail a foreign power to go after his political opponent. Which is not great.

In between all of that, I ate nearly an entire loaf of banana bread all on my own. Because it was delicious.

What are my thoughts on today’s excitement? Leaving aside the banana bread, and in no particular order:

* First: good. Both of these awful men deserve the abject humiliation they’re getting heaped on them this day, and both for the same reason — because they want to rule, not lead, and don’t actually care much for the rule of law. I like the idea that the rule of law has risen up and, like the owner of a particularly pernicious yappy dog, given them a hard swat on the nose with a rolled-up paper, that paper in each case being their respective countries’ constitutions. I’m not going to get too excited yet. But on the other hand, if we ever do get to the point to where both of these embarrassments are out of office and possibly in jail, it’s nice we have a specific day to point to as the official Beginning of the End.

* It’s a worse day for Johnson than Trump, which is a genuinely remarkable statement when you realize what a bad day it was Trump. But while both men are now firmly on the hook, Trump at least has some play in his line, and I don’t see how Johnson does at all. Johnson was given one job by his masters: Effect Brexit before all of them have to account for their offshore tax shelters. He’s bungled that one rather definitively, and at this point it seems unlikely that the UK will exit the EU on Halloween, despite Johnson’s best efforts. Which means another extension, more defeats, so on and so forth.

Bear in mind, I’m talking out my ass here, since I’m not British and there are almost certainly nuances I’m missing, and also, it doesn’t seem Mr. Johnson’s political opponents are particularly well organized or offering a better plan. Johnson may yet pull something out of his ass that isn’t immediately slapped down by Parliament or the courts. But in his very brief tenure as Prime Minister, Johnson still hasn’t managed an actual victory, and getting one as regards Brexit (or getting his opponents to let him have an election before Halloween) doesn’t seem likely for him now. He is a historic failure in the job.

* Back here in the US, folks on the left have been riding Nancy Pelosi on the subject of impeachment basically since the moment she got the gavel back, and are exasperated that it’s taken her this long to start an inquiry. I certainly sympathize, since Trump is objectively a terrible president, incompetent as balls and also corrupt in a way we haven’t seen in the White House in most people’s lifetimes (yes, even worse than Nixon). But Pelosi isn’t stupid, and she knows a thing which people on the left sometimes forget, which is that impeachment isn’t actually popular with most Americans, and also, Republicans, while institutionally corrupt, are both not actually stupid, and also really good at winding up their base about how THEY ARE UNDER ATTACK FROM THE SOCIALIST FEMINIST PELOSI AND HER ALLIES IN THE FAKE NEWS. Pelosi also knows that no president that’s been impeached has been removed from office, and that when Clinton’s impeachment trial was done, he was more popular than when it started.

All of which is to say that I suspect Pelosi recognizes, more than most people, the political hazards of an impeachment inquiry. They are significant and they are substantial, and, bluntly, if the Democrats fuck it up, they hand Trump a gift going into an election year… and we all know what the capacity of Democrats to fuck up even sure things is. She also recognizes that the Senate is in Republican hands and that in these benighted days, the chances of them removing a Republican president, even one as manifestly corrupt and incompetent as Trump, are slim approaching none. So the only realistic victory scenario here is to have an impeachment inquiry come up with something that is so unambiguously corrupt and unlawful that when the Republicans in the Senate vote to keep Trump in the White House — and they will — they slit their own political throats in the process.

Which is, uhhhhh, a lot.

So while I’m delighted that Pelosi has finally pulled the trigger on an impeachment inquiry, I am from a purely realpolitik view sympathetic regarding her reluctance to do so before now. And even now it’s far from a slam dunk. Does it feel good right now? Sure! Because Trump is objectively terrible, incompetent and corrupt. But I think people on the left really should understand how narrow the victory lane is here, and what lengths Trump and the Republicans will go to in order to keep him where he is, and their own grip on power. None of this is going to go the way you hope it will.

* For all that, I would like to believe today represents the first break in the authoritarian bullshit fever that anglosphere politics seem to have suffered over the last few years. Again, I’m not going to get too excited, and even a best case scenario has things getting rather messier before the real cleanup can begin. But I’ll take the day for what it is and see where we go from here.

The Big Idea: Annalee Newitz

Time Travel! Annalee Newitz is playing with it in their new novel The Future of Another Timeline! Or, perhaps, has been playing with it already, or will have been playing with it at some unspecified point in what might have been the future! Maybe! They’re here now to sort all the timelines out for you.

ANNALEE NEWITZ:

I’ll admit it: I’m addicted to tropes. I love to see them done well, but mostly I love to see them turned inside out, mutated, genderswapped, racebent, unraveled, or forced to wear a silly shoes. When I set out to write a time travel novel, though, I knew the tropey situation might be dire. The list of time travel tropes at TV Tropes is instructive: there are roughly a hundred of them, ranging from the Grandfather Paradox to closed time loops, and that’s not counting all the other tropes related to alternate history. 

The Future of Another Timeline (on sale today!) wasn’t even supposed to be a time travel story. It started as an alternate history that was kind of small and personal. I’ve often wondered what my life would have been like if abortion had been illegal when I was growing up, and the spectre of getting pregnant was looming over my horny high school self like a kaiju ready to barf napalm. So I started taking notes, building up an alternate reality without abortion rights. Then I added some angry riot grrls going on a murder spree in high school, killing rapists. Because obviously extreme times call for extreme measures. 

But then I started asking myself what would have led to this dire scenario. The answer I kept returning to was time travel. A secret group of feminist time travelers was in an edit war over the timeline with a group of men’s rights activists from the future. The bad guys had deleted abortion rights from U.S. history, but my heroes would go on a mission to revert that edit, trying to create a world where riot grrls could just enjoy punk rock instead of murdering people. 

I already had a pretty unusual premise, so I decided to make my time travel as mundane as possible. I chucked out the “secret time travel” tropes, and the “omg one thing in history has changed we have to change it back” storylines.

Instead, I created a world where time travel has always existed, everybody knows about it, and we all take for granted that the timeline has been heavily edited by travelers for millennia. Time machines are embedded in ancient shield rock formations on the Earth’s surface that have endured virtually unchanged since the Cambrian period half a billion years ago. Nobody knows how these devices got there, or who built them, but if you tap on the rock with a specific rhythm it opens a wormhole to the past. Humans discovered them in pre-history, and have been mucking around with the timeline ever since. In the modern era, geologists are the people who study time travel.

The idea of a heavily-edited timeline felt real to me. Plus, who doesn’t want to push the “go” button on an incomprehensible technology that’s barely distinguishable from nature?

As you might guess, this setup raises even more questions. Why isn’t everybody changing everything all the time? Are there any limits? Who is in charge of running these Machines when we discover them? What I found was that the more I set limits, the more the standard tropes could be helpful. After all, a trope is basically a narrative limit we’ve all seen before, so it doesn’t sound so damn strange when I say that of course there’s an organization called the Chronology Academy that controls access to the Machines. There’s only one timeline (and you know what that means, Back to the Future fans), and we can only go to the past. If you meet yourself in the past, as you know from Tropey McTroperson, BAD THINGS HAPPEN. If a traveler changes the timeline, or is present for a change, only they remember the old timeline. 

Then I came up with more weird rules that I haven’t seen in any trope list yet. For reasons that scientists don’t understand, the wormhole won’t open for travelers unless they’ve lived in close proximity to a time machine for roughly four years. So you have to be pretty damn serious about time travel, and willing to devote a lot of time (heh) to it, before you can jump into the past. 

Most of my characters are women and people of color, so I also played with a trope that’s become quite common recently in our slightly-more-woke-but-not really times. That’s the “scary to time travel if you’re not a cis white man” trope. You’ve seen it on TV in shows like Timeless and Legends of Tomorrow, and much further back in Octavia Butler’s novel Kindred. The idea is that everything was much worse for women and people of color in the past–and, implicitly, that things are better for us in the present.

In Future of Another Timeline, I wanted to question that idea. First of all, the present is no piece of cake, and in many post-colonial places it’s hard to say things are definitely better than past eras. Yes, there were different hardships in the past, but throughout history there have always been spaces of resistance where women and people of color and other marginalized groups could organize. When my character Tess goes back in time, she’s able to ally herself with 19th century feminists and anarchists; when she travels back to the 1st century BCE, she finds safe haven among priestesses of the goddess al-Lat. I wanted to recognize that there have always been powerful women and people of color in history; it’s just that historians have deleted our contributions.

One of the major differences between our timeline and the alternate one in my novel is that women and freed slaves achieved universal suffrage in 1870 in the U.S. As a result, Harriet Tubman became a senator in 1880. I wanted to center an event that’s rarely glimpsed in time travel stories, instead of the usual (tropey) Civil War and World War II. And the Big Bad my novel, Anthony Comstock, is trying to crush women’s reproductive rights. Only the Daughters of Harriet, a secret organization of intersectional feminist time travelers, can stop him. YES IT’S A TROPE. But it’s swerving in a new direction.

Navigating the trope obstacle course to write about time travel has been delightful and hard as hell. Still, I love that it allowed me to visit a 1992 Grape Ape concert, the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, the ancient city of Petra in 13 BCE, and the Ordovician period about half a billion years ago on a megacontinent that no longer exists. 

I think of stories as map overlays on a skeletal field of tropes. One story might be like the traffic layer in Google maps, which draws angry red lines down the freeway during rush hour. But another is like the terrain layer, which converts the cartoony perfection of an abstract map into an overhead view of mismatched houses and blobs of unexpected trees. Each new layer, like a new story, offers a fresh perspective on the same old piece of land. I hope The Future of Another Timeline gives you a new way of navigating the histories you thought you knew.

—-

The Future of Another Timeline: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

Tools, Not Rules: A Twitter Thread

Posted here for posterity: 

1. Looking at a conversation of some crankybottoms dissing me (among others) as a postmodern scribbler who has no time for the great writers of western civilization and therefore has no knowledge of the “deep norms” of genre and therefore my writing sucks. Well —

2. Being accused of having no time for the great writers of Western Civilization is amusing to me, as someone a) who went to the University of Chicago in the era of its “core curriculum,” b) has a philosophy degree from there, c) briefly had Saul Bellow as his thesis advisor.

3. (Not to mention having gone to a high school where I was made to read Cervantes, Shakespeare, Shaw, Twain, Sophocles, Stendhal, Conrad and Homer among others, and where I did a semester-long senior project on the life of HL Mencken.)

4. Likewise, the implication that I know very little about the field in which I write, nor understand the “deep norms” of the genre, is interesting. As an exercise for the reader, three titles of mine which constitute a counter-argument: OMW, Fuzzy Nation and Redshirts.

5. If my writing sucks (I don’t think it does, but I’m naturally biased), it’s not because of a lack of understanding of the Dead White Male Writers of History. In that department, I’m full up, my friends.

6. However, the point here is not to defend my bona fides, re: Dead White Male Writers of History. My point is that the Dead White Male Writers of History are not the end point, defining “proper” writing forever and ever, amen. They aren’t, and they don’t.

7. The chucklewits whining about the “deep norms” of genre appear to be under the impression that deviation from what they see as these norms is a heresy, i.e., not “real” genre writing, which is a convenient excuse to minimize and belittle anyone who colors outside the lines.

8. In point of fact an unwillingness to question and to argue against these presumed norms would doom a genre to uselessness and stagnation. And, I don’t know, maybe these dudes like their genre being “same shit, different day,” but lots of us don’t. Fuck “deep norms.”

9. These fumblethinkers believe anyone who doesn’t obey what they consider “the rules” are ignorant of those rules. Surprise! They’re not. But because they’re freely acting and thinking, they see these rules as tools: they use some, ignore others and make new ones when necessary.

10. Thus is genre and literature generally advanced and improved, and writers who follow this generation are offered more and different tools, which they can use (or ignore) in their own time. It’s a dynamic, not static, process. Which is as it should be.

11. In sum, don’t confuse lack of unthinking fealty to the past and its norms with ignorance of it. It will make *you* look, well, ignorant. And it suggests that you are interested in nothing more than “same shit, different day.” Which is on you, friend, and no one else.

/end

POSTSCRIPT:

To thank you for your indulgence whilst I did an 11-tweet thread about writing, please accept this picture of Smudge.

Smudge, looking passionately interested in something, probably food.

How I Spent My Week Away From the Internet

Me and Krissy.

Here’s what I did!

1. Wrote more in The Last Emperox. It was good, you’re going to like it, I think. Still have more to do, expect me to keep focusing on that until it’s done.

2. Went out and saw friends on several different occasions. This involved a lot of driving, so I drove rather more than I usually do.

3. Hung out with Krissy, who is my wife, and who is pretty fabulous, if I do say so myself.

4. Avoided most news, but not all of it, and what I saw: Oy. However, feel free not to try to catch me up in the comments. I can handle that one on my own, thanks.

5. Did some business. Nothing I can tell you about yet, but most of it good.

6. Petted the cats quite a bit, and also my mother-in-law’s dogs as well.

7. Ate a turkey leg at the Ohio Renaissance Festival. This is an annual thing. I need not eat another turkey leg until around this time next year.

8. Had a number of weirdly vivid dreams.

9. Took some naps. Naps are good.

10. Didn’t actually miss the Internet all that much. I think that’s a good sign.

Hope your last week was similarly groovy.

Away For a Week

Why? One, to get work done on the book. Two, because I feel like it. I’m also going to take a week off Twitter, too. Aaaaand probably won’t read news or otherwise see what the outside world is up to during that time either. I figure the planet can get along without me for seven days or so.

Here is a cat picture to sustain you until I post again.

See you all next Sunday!

New Book and ARCs, 9/13/19

It’s Friday the 13th, and here’s a very lucky collection of new books and ARCs that have arrived at the Scalzi Compound. What here would you feel lucky to have? Share in the comments!

21 Years

Oh, hey! Whatever is now old enough to go drinking. It probably won’t go drinking, because I don’t drink, and also the blog is not an actual person, but I admit it’s amusing to think of my blog suddenly ditching me to go out on a bender, then coming back and drunkenly slurring out what it really thinks of me. There would be a lot of things learned in the late hours of that event, I would say.

It being the 21st birthday of Whatever reminds me again that regularly-updated personal blogs are now something of a rarity these days, as Twitter, Instagram and Facebook handle what blogs do at least as well for most people, at the mere cost of your privacy and the privacy of every other single person you know. I use Twitter and Facebook myself so this isn’t really a complaint, just an acknowledgement.

I do miss the heyday of the blogosphere but I also admit that missing of it is more based on a feeling than the practical day-to-day reality of the social media era. What I went to blogs for — catching up with friends, seeing what they think about things — is what Facebook and Twitter and other social media offer, so no real loss there. The real difference is feel. For lack of a better way to express this, blogs are free-standing houses, designed by the occupant. Social media are apartment blocks, where the floor plan is exactly the same for everyone. I guess I miss going to someone’s house and wondering how this funky place even actually holds together.

I do still tell people that they should keep their own sites for when whatever social media site they use the most eventually sinks into the Internet’s graveyard, they’ll still have some place to be. The longer I do this, the more I realize this makes me sound vaguely like an Internet Prepper, waiting and perhaps hoping for an online apocalypse that likely won’t come. I don’t mean it that way, honest. Writers and creators should definitely have their own sites, with information about them and what they do, if only for search engine purposes. Everyone else, well. Do what you want, I guess. I do, which is to keep this place running. When Facebook falls, you’ll all still want something to read! I’ll be the last site standing! Bwa ha ha hah ha!

More seriously, Whatever exists today for the same reason it began existing 21 years ago, which is, I wanted a place to write about things. The formula hasn’t really wavered in all that time; I write about the things I want to write about, when I want to write about them, for whatever length I feel like writing about them for. Sometimes I’m ambitious and post several times a day; other times I’ll post once a day and sometimes skip a day or two (or more). When I’m writing a book, I tend to post less. When I’m not, I’ll post more. I don’t take requests, unless I do. And so on.

Also, you know: I write here because I just plain like this site. This is, in more ways than one, my house and a reflection of me. I like how I’ve built it over the years and I like what it does. I like I have a place to say what I want to say. I like that I have a place where others occasionally come by to visit. I like that those people seem to like it too.

So, I’ll keep at it some more. Let’s see what happens from here.

Declaring Hot Take Bankruptcy, Probably Through September

So, I’m waaaaaaay behind on The Last Emperox (it’s my own damn fault), and as a result I’m now clacking away furiously and also, as it happens, very happily employing my nanny software during the day until I get my writing quota done. What this means is that when I sign back on to Twitter and other social media, people are often asking me what I think about whatever the hot topic of the day is, which has happened while I was not at all paying attention.

The answer to this question at the moment is usually two-fold: One, I probably literally just heard about it right that second (because my nanny software blocks news sites as well as social media), so uhhhh, I probably don’t know; Two, it turns out that writing all day makes my brain tired, so what it wants to do after a full day of clacking away is look at pictures of cats more than try to generate informed, nuanced opinions on things. This will likely continue to be the case through the end of the writing of the book, which, remember, I am now behind on, because I suck.

This is a long way of saying that between now and the end of the writing of the book (which I hope to God will be done before I leave for a week to Australia at the end of the month), I’m declaring Hot Take Bankruptcy, meaning whatever it is you want me to opine about, I probably won’t, and even if I do, I can’t guarantee that the take will be anything more than “Ehhhhhh… ¯\_(ツ)_/¯?” I know this will be frustrating for many of you, who rely on me for your daily dose of hot, hot takes, especially online. But, well, ¯\_(ツ)_/¯? For now, I just don’t wanna.

Mind you, this doesn’t mean I won’t occasionally point to a news story of our president (or the UK’s prime minister) doing some dumbass thing or another, or things of that type. But that’s usually about me tweeting something that already conforms to and confirms an opinion that I already have rather than attempting to formulate a whole new opinion on something I’ll need to read up on and think about. One’s work and the other isn’t.

The good news is, one, you’ll get a book out of it, and two, when the book is (finally for God’s sake) done I’ll almost certainly be back with all the takes you can possibly stand, hot, cold, tepid and everywhere else on the heat spectrum. Plus, I will finally get around to doing a Reader Request Week here, which is super late this year. Promise!

But in the meantime, please don’t expect much in the way of hot takes from me, even if the issue is important to you (and even if you think I should really care about it). The outside world’s gonna have to go on without me for a bit. You go on ahead. I’ll catch up eventually.

The Big Idea: Sean Carroll

I’ve been aware of the “Many Worlds” interpretation of physics for some time — longtime readers of mine know it’s intimately connected with space travel in my “Old Man’s War” series of novels. But in the real world, how does it connect to the actual physics we know and (profess to) understand? Actual physicist Sean Carroll knows, and in his new book, Something Deeply Hidden, he delves right into it.

SEAN CARROLL:

If there’s one thing the world doesn’t need, it’s another book on quantum mechanics. I mean, who hasn’t written one? In preparation for writing Something Deeply Hidden, I searched on Amazon for books with titles of the form “Quantum X,” and was rewarded with Quantum Eating, Quantum Touch, Quantum Leadership, and many more.

The existence of these books reflects the widespread conviction that quantum mechanics, however scientists might think about it, is fundamentally profound and deeply mysterious, so it could mean just about anything. You might expect to find a countervailing stream of books by sober-minded physicists and science writers, doggedly explaining that quantum mechanics isn’t really all that inexplicable after all. It’s science, not mysticism.

That’s not exactly what you find. Sure, there are valiant attempts to dispel the worst kinds of quantum woo. But even the most hardnosed quantum books seem to agree that the subject is unavoidably murky, something so bizarre and ill-understood that it’s not meant to be grasped by mere human beings. This or that quantum phenomenon is trotted out, accompanied by an implicit shaking of the head – “Can you believe it? This makes no sense at all!”

So my big idea for Something Deeply Hidden was: quantum mechanics is understandable.

To be clear, the challenge is not just that quantum mechanics is complicated or recondite, like general relativity or the standard model of particle physics. It’s that physicists themselves, who are supposed to be experts, don’t understand it, and in their more honest moments they admit it.

Quantum mechanics sits at the absolute heart of all of modern physics; it’s the deepest, most important idea that physicists have. But what we teach our students, as philosopher Tim Maudlin has put it, is a recipe, not a theory.

We can set up a quantum system, like an electron orbiting the nucleus of an atom. And we can measure something about it, like its position. The quantum recipe tells us the probability of getting any particular measurement outcome. And that recipe has been tested to enormous precision, and has come through with flying colors every time.

What we can’t actually tell you is what happens when you measure a quantum system. What counts as “measuring”? How quickly does it happen? Do you have to be conscious?

All of these questions are, in the standard textbook formulation, left entirely vague. The resulting recipe is good enough for government work, or for building incredibly complex technologies, but it falls well short of the clarity and rigor we would expect of a well-defined scientific theory.

Thus, in the words of Richard Feynman, “I think I can safely say that nobody understands quantum mechanics.”

At least, nobody thinks that other physicists understand quantum mechanics. Some of us, including myself, think we do understand the basics. The problem is that there is more than one honest, rigorous physical theory that reproduces the textbook quantum recipe in the appropriate regime. So we have multiple approaches, and have to decide which one is the best description of Nature; but that’s what scientists are always supposed to do.

So in the book I explain my favorite approach to quantum mechanics, the Many-Worlds formulation. It has a bad reputation, as it sounds a little science-fiction-y, or at least like you’re tacking on a bunch of extra stuff (entire universes worth) just to solve an irritating problem in quantum measurement. But the truth is the opposite: the theory is lean and mean, getting enormous mileage out of very few basic assumptions. The extra worlds are predicted by the theory, not tacked onto it.

One of the goals of Something Deeply Hidden is to make all that clear. But the broader, more important message is the one above: that quantum mechanics is understandable. Maybe my favorite understanding will turn out to be the right one, or maybe one of the various competitors. But they’re all ultimately intelligible, not ineffable.

It took me a while to come to this conclusion. I didn’t start out to be a rebel, fighting against the entrenched establishment of physicists who don’t want to face up to the quantum measurement problem. But the more I’ve worked in the field, and the more I’ve thought about it myself, the more irritating and embarrassing it is that we haven’t figure out quantum mechanics once and for all, and for the most part we haven’t even been trying. I’m hoping my book does its small part in changing that.

—-

Something Deeply Hidden: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: Alexandra Rowland

Tulips, bitcoin, fantasy worlds — how to each relate to the other? Alexandra Rowland knows, and in their Big Idea for A Choir of Lies, they are happy to lay it all out for you.

ALEXANDRA ROWLAND:

Do you like coincidences? Here’s a cool one:

From November of 1636 to February of 1637, the Netherlands was gripped by the climax of tulip mania, the world’s first-ever economic bubble, and then a sudden crash of the market. At the height of the mania, a single bulb of the Viceroy tulip (which was not even the most expensive variety) sold for 2500 florins, more than $34,000 in today’s money.

From November of 2017 to February of 2018, the internet watched the rise and fall of the bitcoin bubble. There were rumors of people making their fortune because they’d bought into bitcoin years ago for pennies, and of people taking out mortgages to buy-in once the boom hit, then losing their homes when the bust followed.

And in November of 2017, I blithely started writing A Choir of Lies, a novel about fantasy tulip mania, thinking that it was going to be about something very obscure and difficult to explain to people. I wrote the fictional boom during the real boom, and the bust during the bust. To my enormous chagrin, I delivered the first draft to my editor at the beginning of February, 2018.

Yeah, I got nothin’.

Economics is a funny thing. Most people don’t understand it, so they think that it’s dull and boring. It’s supposedly about money and numbers and rules, and we hear a lot of pompous people using terms like “trickle-down” and talking about “the free market” with the same hushed reverence that some people use to talk about their god: An abstract and unknowable force to be worshiped and revered, which moves in mysterious ways and demands that we behave according to certain laws and principles or else.

But, like all the rest of our religions, economics is more about people than anything else. It’s just humans being human really, really hard at each other. We came up with “rules” of the “free market” based on simple observations of how people tend to behave in certain situations, and then we sort of… forgot that it was about them. We talk about the movements of money without thinking enough about who is moving it and why. This causes a ripple which turns into a tidal wave, and before you can think better of the whole sorry affair, you end up with late-stage capitalism and a bunch of CEOs who sweat and agonize about profit margins and, every decade, forget a little more that at the end of the day, it’s still just about people, and that people are important.

A Choir of Lies is narrated by Ylfing – if you’ve read A Conspiracy of Truths, you already know him: the sweet apprentice storyteller with a heart as big as the world. In the wake of the events of the first book (which you don’t need to have read to understand this next one), Ylfing is struggling with his relationship to his calling. He has seen stories used destructively, and he’s lost his connection to his audience. To escape having to tell stories, he takes a job as a translator to a wealthy merchant, Sterre de Wayer. However, as soon as she finds out the real extent of his skills, she persuades him to use those skills for her own ends and fan up a mania for her most recent import: bulbs of stars-in-the-marsh, an exotic bioluminescent flower. Ylfing can do what he does because he knows people. He knows that they will devour stories like a pack of ravening wolves. That’s all that marketing is—feeding your audience a story that whets their hunger instead of sating it.

The big idea for this book might seem fairly dry at first glance—a fantasy novel about economics? Really? YAWN—except that when I say that this is a book about economics, I mean that it’s a book about hunger and desire, about floods and famines, about how we determine our values (in every sense of the word—our worth, our cost, our morals). And, of course, woven through every line of it, it’s a book about… people. Just people being people as hard as they possibly can, with everything that that entails—the capacity for great kindness and self-sacrifice, the capacity for great greed and selfishness, and for the ability to hold those two contradictory impulses simultaneously in one hand.

Economics isn’t boring at all, it’s fascinating. It is as fascinating as political intrigue or comedies-of-manners or religious persecution or war, because all those things too are just people-being-people, coming up with intricate rules of a game that they’ve decided is terribly, terribly important, and then forgetting that that they can make new games with new rules, if the old ones no longer suit.

At the heart of the game of Economics (Late-Stage Capitalism Expansion Pack) is the idea that money is the most important resource. The big idea of A Choir of Lies, in one sentence, is just a question asked very softly: “But what if it isn’t?”

—-

A Choir of Lies: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

Trade Reviews for A Very Scalzi Christmas Are In

And it looks like it’s going to be a merry Christmas for my little book, as it’s gotten positive reviews in Publishers Weekly, Booklist and Kirkus. And what do they say?

From Publishers Weekly:

“Scalzi (The Consuming Fire) unleashes his wicked wit in this stocking stuffer miscellany of mostly goofs and jibes directed at the holiday season. But not all is irreverence: two of the book’s 16 selections, ‘Christmas in July’ and ‘Sarah’s Sister,’ are sweet stories that exude Christmas cheer. Scalzi fans will find something here that appeals, no matter their feelings for the holiday.”

From Booklist:

“The collection shares Scalzi’s joy of the season and reminds the reader of the importance of the holiday, without being too serious.”

From Kirkus:

“Bestselling sci-fi author Scalzi injects plenty of holly and jolly into his second short story collection, a follow-up to Miniatures(2016). You’ve finished rewatching your bootleg version of The Star Wars Holiday Special and every episode of Futurama featuring the murderous Robot Santa, the Doctor Who Christmas special won’t be on for hours yet, and you already have Jonathan Coulton’s ‘Merry Christmas From Chiron Beta Prime’ on infinite loop. How else can you fill the Yuletide season with geekiness and laughs? This slim stocking stuffer may be just what you need.”

God bless them, every one.

Also, this is your reminder that you can pre-order the signed, limited edition of the book from Subterranean Press directly, and when you do, you will also receive the electronic version of the book (DRM free!) as a throw-in. And it will arrive in more than enough time for Christmas itself.

I’m pleased the book has been so well-received by the trades — a themed short story collection is not a guaranteed hit, to say the least. It’s nice it filled them with cheer. And it’s a good way to start the week!

New Books and ARCs, 9/6/19

Oh, hey, look at the time: It’s “A stack of new books and ARCs” o’clock! As it often is on Fridays afternoons. What here looks enticing to you? Share in the comments.

The Big Idea: Steven S. Drachman

In today’s Big Idea for The Innocent Dead, a famous Muppet is revealed to be a master of teleology by author Steven S. Drachman. And that’s not the wildest idea on display today!

STEVEN S. DRACHMAN:

My Watt O’Hugh books (they’re now at long last a “trilogy”) are about a time-roaming 19th century gunman and his seemingly hopeless battle against a magical, secessionist, Utopian movement known as the “Sidonians.” The Sidonians, and their showy ruler, are responsible for the deaths of those Watt has loved, and are to blame for the shambles that his life has become. Shortly into the third book, this obsessional fight takes Watt all the way to the Hell of the Innocent Dead, the 6th level (out of a total of 18).

It is a land born from Chinese mythology, where those who die before their time go to await justice. It’s not the worst possible Hell: no one is on fire, but everything smells really bad, it’s damp and always just a little bit too cold, and the food is awful. Still, it is terribly unfair, a torment for someone who has really done nothing wrong, who simply cannot leave behind the terrible injustice of his death, who haunts the living when he sleeps.

But it is something more, too. It is not just a place, but an idea.

“Hell was invented by humans,” a long-time denizen explains to Watt. “Somebody thought of that and someone believed it. And here it is.” (He unwittingly quotes Kermit the Frog, who seems to have had a good grasp of the nature of Hell.)

The idea that consciousness plays some kind of role in the life of the universe is an old and appealing idea; and it is also an unprovable one, at least until we learn, Doolittle-like, how to talk to electrons. Still, physicist Arthur Eddington once announced, “The stuff of the world is mind stuff,” and, as the New Yorker writer Jim Holt noted in Why Does the World Exist, this opened a whole panpsychist Pandora’s box of philosophical musings (and some scientific musings as well, notably by Roger Penrose).

If the stuff of the world is mind stuff, and our consciousness comes straight out of the stardust that swirled about during the Big Bang, then you are really not an insignificant fleck of sand in an indifferent universe of two million quintillion planets. Instead, every atom is conscious, and we are all part of a single, universal thought.

So, in my tome, the 6th level of Hell still exists in the 19th century, because somebody thought of it long before, and the rest of us believed it, and it will be there until we collectively come up with a better theory, and prove this better theory. The superstitions of the past are not things we proved false and outgrew; they are things that used to be true and are not true anymore. At one time, in other words, there were turtles all the way down, and the stars in the sky were just pretty lights.

“We were eternal,” says Billy Golden, a colleague in the anti-Sidonian resistance. “At one ‘time’ you — we — were half-Divine. Then, we still danced with eternity. Beauty still existed, then. Now we are chromatids and centromeres, and our ‘soul’ is nothing more than ‘subjective experience,’ a part of evolution, a necessary survival mechanism. Look what we gave up when we rewrote the story.”

But a made-up reality that might change under your feet is a no-less deadly reality. So Watt is chagrined but not surprised to discover that the Sidonian rebellion is full-blown even in the 6th level of Hell, where he is soon designated a “general” as the battle approaches.

In the world of Watt O’Hugh, we’re all helping the universe decide what it wants to be when it grows up. And the Universe, as with any sentient, conscious creature, will either grow up to be “good” or “bad,” live a long life or die young.

Its prognosis, furthermore, doesn’t look good.

—-

Watt O’Hugh and the Innocent Dead: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Visit the author’s website. Follow him on twitter.

 

The Gunn Center Makes a Change, and Further Thoughts on the Reassessment of John W. Campbell

The Gunn Center for the Study of Science Fiction at the University of Kansas has announced that it’s changing the name of its annual conference from the Campbell Conference (named after Analog editor John W. Campbell) to the Gunn Center Conference. In the same announcement, it notes that it is discussing alternative names for its current Campbell Award, this one for best novel (yes, there were two different Campbell Awards for over 40 years; yes, this was a source of no small amusement during that time). “When a decision is made, we will announce it,” the Gunn Center said, which suggests that it’s not a question of if the name change will happen, but the timing of it.

This will no doubt start another round of anguished wailing from certain quarters about the erasure of John W. Campbell from the annals of science fiction history. The answer to this is he’s not being erased, he’s merely being reassessed. And the reassessment is: His extensive paper trail of bigotry, reactionary thought and pseudo-scientific nonsense wasn’t a great look at the time — a fact amply detailed by a number of his contemporaries in the field — and it’s even less of a great look now. As a result, his name is being taken off some things it was on before, because it staying on them means those things (and the people administering those things) would then have to carry the freight of, and answer for, his bigotry, reactionary thought and pseudo-scientific nonsense. And they would rather not.

“But why now?!?” comes the anguished cry. What is it about 2019 that suddenly makes John W. Campbell’s star fall? It’s easy for those angry to blame Jeannette Ng, who in winning what was then called the Campbell Award (the one for new writers, not the one for best novel, see, it was confusing) went up on stage and called Campbell a fascist. She wasn’t the first to say it — Michael Moorcock allegedly said it out loud and in public as far back as 1971 — but she said it while on a stage, accepting an award with his name on it.

But Ng wasn’t an errant spark that caused an unexpected explosion; she was the agitant that caused a supersaturated solution to crystallize. Generations of writers, editors, readers and fans have come up with no personal connection or allegiance eother to Campbell, or his particular vision of science fiction and fantasy. These generations include (and indeed have at their forefront) those who Campbell would have implicitly and explicitly not welcomed into the field. What was basically a long-standing whisper network about Campbell’s reputation became a shout when Ng said what she said. Ng could not have precipitated a change so suddenly if there wasn’t already something to precipitate. This was a long time coming.

Blah blah blah political correctness blah blah — Look. Campbell’s reputational demotion isn’t just because he “once said something that wasn’t nice.” Campbell was for many years the apex editor in his field. Writers aspiring to write in the field wrote to his specifications in the hopes of selling to him; writers established in the field (even Heinlein) wrote to his specifications and to his direction to continue to sell to him. If Campbell rejected a story, writers would send those stories out for submission to other places — which meant that even stories that appeared in other magazines and anthologies were written for Campbell first. Science fiction was made in Campbell’s image for decades.

Right! Which is why those awards should still have his name on them! Hold on there, chuckles. Science fiction was made in Campbell’s image for decades — and Campbell was also a bigot and a reactionary, and liked his stories just so. For some people, he was the primary market to sell to, for better and for worse. For others, he was damage to be routed around, or put up with, and an impediment to the work they could publish. Not because their writing wasn’t good or interesting or important in itself, but because they were who they were as writers and humans, and Campbell was who he was as a writer and editor.

The field of science fiction is what it is in many ways because of who Campbell was. This, however, is not an argument that science fiction was the best it could have been because Campbell was who he was. Was the field genuinely best served by having a man who was a bigot and a reactionary as its apex editor? Jeanette Ng wasn’t the first to think it wasn’t — indeed, entire branches of science fiction literature arrived at least in part as a reaction to Campbell and his editorial dictates. Today’s writers, editors, readers and fans are not inherently bound to Campbell by sentimentality, by duty, or by philosophy, editorial or otherwise. They don’t owe him deference, nor are they required to see his decades-long primacy in the field as a wholly positive thing (or indeed, positive at all).

People aren’t perfect and you take the good and the bad together — but every generation, and every person, gets to decide how to weigh the good and the bad, and to make judgments accordingly. In the early seventies, in the wake of Campbell’s passing, such was Campbell’s reputation in the field of science fiction that he could be memorialized by two separate awards in his name, and apparently nobody batted an eye (or if they did, they didn’t count). Nearly fifty years later and at the end of the second decade of the 21st century, such is Campbell’s reputation in the field of science fiction that Campbell’s name is off one award, and may be off the other soon enough. In another 50 years, Campbell’s reputation in the field may be different again, or may simply be what so many things are after a century, which is, a historical footnote.

Campbell’s current reassessment doesn’t mean he stops being a part of the history of science fiction, or an influence on the field. I’ve noted before I write science fiction in a fashion that is essentially “Campbellian” in broad subject matter and tone, and it’s done pretty well for me, and I suspect will continue to for a while to come. It would be difficult (and dishonest) for me not to acknowledge his influence on my work, or his continuing impact on the field in general. I also acknowledge that so much of the best science fiction and fantasy today is not Campbellian in subject or tone, and written by people and voices I suspect Campbell wouldn’t have deemed essential to the genre. The state of the genre today is such that it has room for all of us, and the genre has never been healthier. There’s no one editor serving as a bottleneck, either for writers or readers. This is good news.

Campbell is and will always be part of science fiction’s history. But history isn’t static, even if the facts of history stay the same. Anyone notable enough to be part of the historical record will find themselves the subject of reassessment, for however long they grace history’s record. It is, weirdly, a privilege not many people get. Campbell was never guaranteed a pedestal, or an award, or a conference in his name, even if he got them for a while. He was never guaranteed to keep them. No one is.

The Internet Sends Me Flowers

Seriously, these flowers arrived on my doorstep with a note that said “Congratulations for just being a pretty awesome person” and it was signed “The Internet.”

And, well. I’m actually touched. Whether I am actually awesome enough to truly deserve flowers from the Internet remains to be seen, but I certainly appreciate the vote of confidence and will endeavor to live up to the flowers (and when I don’t, to at least try to learn from it).

But, yeah. Getting unexpected flowers made my day. Thanks, Internet!

The Big Idea: Dominik Parisien and Navah Wolfe

Reboot, reimagine, reinvent — there is nothing new under the sun, as they say, and humans find ways of looking at old stories in new ways. This is an idea that acclaimed editors Dominik Parisien and Navah Wolfe have taken to heart in their new anthology The Mythic Dream. Here they are to go into the details.

DOMINIK PARISIEN and NAVAH WOLFE:

We’ve always known that old stories have power. And as editors and readers, we’ve always been drawn to retelling those old stories. There’s something uniquely compelling about seeing authors taking the bones of an old tale and giving it new life. There’s a certain kind of narrative truth that comes from reading a familiar story turned on its head.

Retellings are a pleasure for authors to write, and for audiences to read and fall into. They give that shiver of recognition, that thrill of having something familiar refocused in dramatic ways. They’re also a joy to work with as editors. On a commercial level, there is of course the benefit of working with stories that people recognize. But, more importantly, putting together these types of anthologies is an incredibly creative process for editors, much more than simply compiling narratives. We get to delve deep into the bones of those stories, work with our authors to help them determine which bits might be worth exploring, which might resonate in today’s world and how, to juxtapose familiar and unfamiliar tales and find the connective threads between them across time and cultures.

Our first anthology, The Starlit Wood, was born on our shared love of fairy tale retellings. It was an absolute joy to get to immerse ourselves in an editorial project that let us explore and play with the stories we grew up with, the stories that shaped our narrative, story-loving minds. For our second book together, Robots vs Fairies, we went in a very different direction, but retellings still slipped in as reimagined versions of Pinnochio, Peter Pan, The Tempest, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. We couldn’t quite leave retellings in our rearview window.

And so for our third project together, we knew we wanted to return to that same familiar territory, but like a retelling, differently. We wanted to play some more in that liminal space that comes when you retell an old story in a new way. So it was immediately clear to us what our next anthology should be.

We’ve always been fascinated by myths. Not just the two of us—the human race. And how could we not be? Myths are stories with power. They resonate across ages and cultures and help us understand the world, as it was or might have been, as it could be. Our myths define us. They’re the stories we tell and retell that shape our past, that tell us where we come from, how we got here. They anchor us into a common history, and make us feel rooted, like we belong. If our stories have been told for generations, then we’ve been here at least that long. Where stories have history, so do we. But what happens when our origin myths fail us? When the stories that define us don’t leave space for marginalized voices and identities?

When we were figuring out what we wanted this book to be about, one quote from Madeleine L’Engle kept resonating with us: “When we lose our myths, we lose our place in the universe.” We knew we wanted The Mythic Dream to use myths to reclaim our place in the universe. And so we asked eighteen brilliant writers to take these classic stories and reimagine them, to explore our collective past, examine our present, and take hold of our future.

And we couldn’t be happier with the resulting stories. Alyssa Wong imagines an Artemis and Acteon, where the hunting ground is the internet rather than the woods. Seanan McGuire puts Persephone in a carnival. Amal El-Mohtar gives Bloddeuwedd back her voice, her agency, and her vengeance. Arkady Martine’s Inanna takes command of galaxies and starships. Carlos Hernandez’s Cuban bogeyman becomes a source of hope instead of terror. Indrapramit Das asks what happens when an Indian AI become a goddess. Carmen Maria Machado’s Erysichthon gets a powerful dose of consequences.

And that’s the big idea of The Mythic Dream. Taking the stories that shaped and defined us, and shaping them in turn, in order to create the world we want to see around us. So join us in The Mythic Dream, and reclaim your place in the universe, one myth at a time.

—-

The Mythic Dream: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s