Universal Yums: November 2022 Review

Hello, everyone, and welcome to another Universal Yums review! Every month upon receiving the snack box, I open it and ask my dad to guess what country it is. This month, he actually got it first try! It’s Italy!

An top down view of the snack box, showing the

I was pretty impressed, so I let him assist me in my review.

A top down view of all the snacks from the box laid out.

As you can see, there’s nine regular snacks, and then two candies from the Yum Bag, so eleven things to try total!

We decided to start with the biggest package, the Garlic and Parsley Bruschetta Bites:

A large package that is purple and white. The image on the front is of the mini garlic bread type snacks inside. The name says

For some reason, the bag was covered in oil that was clearly from the inside of the package. It seemed like it had somehow seeped through the package, even though the material seemed plenty thick. It was strange. Anyways, when we opened it up, I was surprised to see the parsley explosion that was the inside of the bag.

A view of the inside of the bag. The inside is covered in chunks of garlic and parsley. There's also a ton of mini garlic breads inside.

After reaching in and grabbing some mini garlic breads, I definitely had some oil and parsley covering my fingers. Not the most pleasant but here’s the snack:

A shot of the mini garlic bread.

Athena ScalziOkay, so, if you like garlic and you like croutons, you will like these, because they’re basically giant croutons. They’re crunchy, pungent, garlicky, and there’s tons of them in the bag. It felt like there should be a salad included with these, because they really are just big croutons. My dad and I agreed that they could use some dip or something, like they should be a vehicle for something else. They were fine by themselves, though, but definitely room for improvement, so I gave them a 7.5/10 and my dad gave them a 7/10.

Switching to something sweeter, we tried these Cranberry and Sesame Cookies:

A small white package of cookies, the waffle-looking cookies displayed on the front alongside some cranberries.

Four small waffle-looking beige cookies.

The flavor of these were immediately apparent to us as raspberry-esque rather than cranberry-esque, and the sesame was barely detectable. So, these really just tasted like vaguely raspberry cookies. They weren’t overly sweet, they were pretty subtle, more like a slightly sweet biscuit. They were crunchy and small, and reminded me of something you’d be given on an airplane. I gave these a 7.5/10, and my dad went for a 7/10.

I was super curious about these Pizza Flavored Corn Rings, so we gave them a shot:

A green chip bag style package, displaying the orange pizza rings on the front beneath a large red square that says

A bunch of orange rings that look like cheesy puffs coming out of the bag.

If you like stale cheesy puffs that taste like super salty marinara sauce, you’ll love these. Honestly, I’m not sure if I can fault them for being slightly stale, as they do have to travel pretty far to get to me. Regardless, they were addicting despite not being that good, and earned a 7/10 from both of us.

Going back to sweet, we tried this Chocolate Tiramisu Cream Cake:

A small yellow package containing a snack cake.

A small, chocolate covered snack cake with a drizzle of extra chocolate on top.

The snack cake, broken in half to reveal the cross section. It has a cream filling sandwiched in the middle.

I was excited to try this snack because I love tiramisu. It is one of my favorite desserts. I didn’t have super high expectations for this snack, as it is just a snack cake, but this little cake was totally lacking in all things tiramisu. It had no coffee flavor, no amaretto flavor, so it was pretty disappointing. It was pleasantly soft, though. It got a 6/10 from both of us.

Next was these Paprika Potato Chips:

Upon opening the bag, I smelled the chips, and to my surprise, smelled nothing at all. My dad also said they smelled like literally nothing. Off to a strange start, but moving on, these honestly just tasted like a not very good BBQ chip. Apparently that’s because one of the flavors in BBQ chips is paprika, so this was like that but worse. These chips were definitely disappointing, so they got a 4/10 from me and a 5/10 from my dad.

Sixthly, we had these Amarettini Almond Cookies:

A white bag of cookies, the cookies being displayed on the front underneath

A dozen or so of the little beige cookies arranged in a circle.

My dad and I had a feeling that these would be the best item in the box, and we were totally right. These tasted pretty strongly like almond extract, or like an almond biscotti, and were super duper crunchy. They seemed to have some sort of crystalline sugar layer that made them extra crunchy and sweet, and were so small and addicting. These were highly rated with a 9.5/10 from me and a 10/10 from my dad. I would gladly eat like a hundred of these.

All that was left after the cookies was candy, so we started with this Hazelnut Milk Chocolate Bar:

A chocolate bar package that is all brown and gold and shows chocolate covered hazelnuts all over it.

The chocolate bar, broken in half to show the cross section. There's a hazelnut visible.

If you couldn’t tell from the name containing both hazelnut and chocolate, this was basically a Nutella bar. It was soft and melty, and the hazelnuts added a nice crunchy contrast. The chocolate itself was pretty plain tasting, just a mild chocolate bar all around. 7.5/10 from both of us.

Next was this bag of Italian Fruit Jellies:

A big white and pink bag of individually wrapped fruit jellies.

All the individually wrapped candies spilling out from the bag.

This big bag of candy actually had four different flavors of fruit jellies, so of course I gotta tell you about each one. First, we tried the gooseberry one.

A small, rectangular shaped candy covered in sugar.

The inside of the candy, showing just how jelly-esque it is.

The last time I had gooseberry was several years ago in a gooseberry pie, so I don’t have a ton of reference for how gooseberries taste, but this candy tasted so good! The outside was covered in sugar, which was like a great textural contrast to the gelatinous, chewy candy.

After the gooseberry, we tried the raspberry and strawberry, and I only got a photo of one of them but I’m not sure which because they look the same.

A small, pink, rectangular jelly candy covered in sugar.

The raspberry and strawberry were pretty good, I especially liked how non-artificial the strawberry tasted. And here was the blueberry!

A small, dark blue/purplish rectangular jelly candy coated in sugar.

The blueberry was my personal least favorite, it had sort of a strange flavor. Overall, the candies were really good. The gooseberry was an 8/10, the strawberry and raspberry were a 7/10, and the blueberry was a 6/10. I wish I had a whole bag of the gooseberry ones.

Back to chocolate, we tried this Salted Caramel Milk Chocolate Bar:

An orange chocolate bar wrapper that says

The chocolate bar broken in half.

This chocolate bar was unlike any I’ve ever had before. It didn’t even taste like a chocolate bar. It was like a strange diet chocolate, or like a “healthy” type of chocolate where the brand’s slogan is “satisfy your cravings” but it will never satisfy your craving, it’ll just be a sad excuse of what you really want. Anyways, yeah, pretty nasty. I gave it a 4/10, and my dad gave it a 3/10.

Finally, the Yum Bag candies!

A small, circular chocolate wrapped in a white and red striped wrapper. The other candy is a small rectangular piece of taffy wrapped in white and red packaging, as well.

First was the strawberry Italian Fruit Chew, which I forgot to get a picture of unwrapped. I also forgot to get a picture of the peach one at all. We tried both, and they were both bad. They were weirdly chalky, and the strawberry one tasted like how lotion smells, while the peach one was like a nasty version of peach rings. I was disappointed by how bad they were, as I feel like they had a lot of potential. I gave them a 3/10, and my dad went with a 4/10.

Last but not least, the Milk Chocolate Popcorn Bites:

A spherical piece of chocolate.

A slightly blurry picture of the cross section of the chocolate, revealing the yellow cream inside.

Sorry for the blurry picture, I literally did not realize it was blurry until I just added it to this post, so my bad on that one, but hopefully you can still see the small pieces of popcorn in the cream! This candy was really interesting, as the popcorn pieces added some great crunchy contrast to the sweet creamy filling. I would’ve never thought that popcorn cream was even a thing, or that it would be good, but it is pretty tasty! I like the uniqueness of it. My dad gave this a 5/10 but I thought it was deserving of a 7/10.

Overall, my dad and I really liked the variety within the Italy box, there was so many different flavors, textures, and types of snacks. This was a really enjoyable box!

What looks the best to you? Do you like gooseberries? Have you ever been to Italy? Let me know in the comments, and have a great day!


The Scalzis Go Corporate

John Scalzi

I have previously and briefly noted that we over here at the Scalzi Compound have had some business reorganization going on, but now that all the applicable business licenses have been filed, paperwork done and bank accounts opened, it’s time to expand on that news a bit.

The short version is that Krissy and I now have three corporate entities to cover our various business and philanthropical interests. They are:

Scalzi Enterprises: Which will handle the development/merchandising/licensing of Scalzi-related intellectual property, both existing and upcoming;

Church of the Scalzi: Which despite its name is neither a religious endeavor nor a cult, but is our real estate holding company for The Old Church and other properties;

The Scalzi Family Foundation: Our non-profit corporation, which will be the vehicle for our charitable and philanthropical giving beginning in 2023.

Why do this? Well, because at this point it makes sense to, both for organizational and legal reasons. Krissy and I have long talked about doing more with the ideas and properties that I create and develop, and needing both space and a business structure to deal with that. This is the primary reason we bought The Old Church in the first place, you may recall: So we could have office space for the companies we planned to have. Now, as it happens, having that particular space also opens up more potential for the things we can do, which dovetails right back into having these new companies, so that’s nice too.

We have lots of plans for these new companies (well, for Scalzi Enterprises and the Scalzi Family Foundation; Church of the Scalzi is just an unsexy but useful way to organize our property), but I should stress that everything is in very early days, and basically still being built out. Do not expect vast amounts of ScalziProduct™ from Scalzi Enterprises in the near term. Also, if you start lobbying me for grants, funds and donations from the Scalzi Family Foundation any time soon, you’re going to be disappointed. Sorry. Please be patient. It’s all me and Krissy at this point, and we have other jobs, too.

(On the flip side of this, you can’t donate to the Scalzi Family Foundation, either; it operates under very specific rules, which means it’s difficult for anyone but us to put money into it.)

Also, for those of you who are now mildly worried that you will get no more novels from me as I strive to become a Content Tycoon: Don’t panic, I am not giving up my very fun and really profitable day job. It’s the basis on which all the rest of this proceeds. Indeed, if everything works out right, you will get more work from me, not less, as we build processes that let me do what I am good at (writing, selling, developing more things to write and/or sell), while Krissy, as CEO, does what she’s good at (business, did you know she has a business degree? She does!), and the business builds from there. In the meantime, however, writing books is my bread and butter and will continue to be for the foreseeable future.

That said, again, we have plans. If we can get them off the ground, it could be interesting. Stay tuned.

— JS

Experiment 111722

I got some new music software and played with it to see how it sounded; this is what came out. It is good? Meh. It’s more of a fragment than a whole composition, although I like the breakdown in the middle. Is it noisy? Oh my, yes. I think I’ve learned about myself that when it comes to my own musical compositions, I’m a fan of noisy. Or maybe it’s just that “noisy” masks many of my musical deficiencies. I wouldn’t be the first to play that card (see: the entire genre of “punk”). Anyway, enjoy.

— JS

The Big Idea: Elijah Kinch Spector

One can imagine another time and place for a novel, but the when and where of one’s life will find a way into the telling of that story. Or so Elijah Kinch Spector discovered in writing Kalyna the Soothsayer. Today’s Big Idea delves into this phenomenon.


The United States is simply too big to function properly. It always has been, really—we have states, and not provinces, because each one is, in many ways, its own little country. But the U.S. isn’t that special, plenty of countries throughout history have felt like someone slapped together disparate groups with spit and duct tape.

My debut novel, Kalyna the Soothsayer, is secondary world fantasy in a vaguely 18th century eastern and central European milieu, and I didn’t consciously write any part of it to be about the U.S. But every story is actually about the time and place where it’s told, right? I’ve always loved this bit from a Studs Terkel interview with James Baldwin, who was promoting his own novel: “Another Country. … It’s about this country.”

Soothsayer was always meant to be a book of spycraft and intrigue, so I made up a state that would lend itself nicely to internecine squabbles and complex politics: The Tetrarchia. Four separate kingdoms that stopped (officially) going to war with one another two hundred years before the novel starts, in order to become one ungainly, four-part state.

Each of the kingdoms has its own proper culture and language, alongside countless smaller peoples and traditions that the governments have tried to bulldoze in favor of singular ethno-national identities. Once a year, the four ruling monarchs meet to hammer out laws at the “Council of Barbarians,” named for how each kingdom sees the other three. Kalyna, our reluctant hero, is from a family of nomads with ancestry from every part of the country—she is extremely of the Tetrarchia, and yet outside of it, considered foreign everywhere.

It’s a tenuous arrangement that could collapse at any time, which made it perfect for the kind of suspenseful story that I wanted to tell. Planning out the Tetrarchia’s nooks and crannies also got me to think even more about what countries, borders, and ethnic groups even are, why they matter, and to whom. In 2013, I read the book Vanished Kingdoms: The History of Half-Forgotten Europeby Norman Davies, which I bought on a whim at a bookstore in Dublin on my honeymoon. (And thank God I bought it there, because the U.S. edition replaces its romantic subtitle with the deeply boring, “The Rise and Fall of States and Nations,” which… my dude, that could be the subtitle for any book in a shop’s Popular History section.)

Vanished Kingdoms dedicates each of its chapters to European countries that no longer exist and, in doing so, demonstrates just how porous and nebulous national identities and borders really are. Davies covers the “five, six or seven kingdoms” that were named Burgundy, most of which contained people we would now call French; he discusses Galicia, but not the one in Spain, the one in eastern Europe, where my family fled pogroms; and he rants wonderfully about how western scholars decided the Roman Empire “fell” in the 5th century even though it continued for another thousand years.

When I read Davies, I already knew, vaguely, that Germany wasn’t founded until the 19th century, but I didn’t know that the same was true of Italy. Both of these countries, whose national myths and cohesion are presented as being so strong, were groups of city states, fly-by-night duchies, and parts of larger empires for centuries. There were so many people we would now call German or Italian who would’ve considered themselves Prussian or Sardinian (or perhaps Etrurian, if they spent formative years in Tuscany between 1801 and 1807). But leaders want consolidation, so they speak of a monoculture; normal people are scared and alone, so they want to be part of something great and old. I don’t need to tell you where German and Italian jingoism, specifically, led in the 20th century, although they’re far from the only countries that have used nationalism to fuel atrocities.

At the same time that Davies’ thesis was swirling around in my head, I learned about the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, a country that, growing up in the U.S., I’d never even heard of. (Fun fact: they elected their kings. Well, the nobles did.) This was all a huge influence on that first draft of Soothsayer, because I finally had greater proof of something I’d always suspected: that “national identity” is crap.

I’m an Ashkenazi Jew (don’t act so surprised), which means my ancestors were kicked around eastern Europe for centuries: pushed or pulled over borders, when those borders weren’t changing around them instead. Most of them had to speak at least three languages: the local language, to get by; Hebrew, for prayer; and Yiddish to speak with one another, and probably to think in. Believe me when I tell you that almost never did my ancestors, nor their neighbors, consider them to be Polish, Russian, German, or even Galician. They were Jews. Stateless. (Not that having one’s own ethno-state is necessarily a good thing.)

Point being, Soothsayer is a fantasy swashbuckler about secret plots, duels, prophecies, and things that slither in the dark. It’s also a book about being othered, about how ethno-nationalism thrives, and about how impermanent the institutions we see as infallible often are. I’m very proud of how it all turned out, and I hope that strange mix appeals to you. (There is also a handsome guy who’s an expert on fruit.)

Kalyna the Soothsayer: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

The Kaiju Preservation Society an Amazon “Best of 2022” in SF/F, and an Opening Round Nominee for the Goodreads Choice Awards

The headline pretty much sums it up. I’m pleased on both counts. It’s nice to be appreciated here in the bottom half of 2022.

That said, if you would like to vote for Kaiju for in the Goodreads Choice Awards (or for any other nominee, if in fact you prefer them better, although if you do, you don’t have to tell me), here is the link to do so. Vote away!

This is a good time to remind people that I’m doing my holiday “sign/personalize books for holiday gifts” bit with my local indie bookstore, Jay and Mary’s Book Center in Troy, Ohio. To get in on that action, click here.

— JS

The Big Idea: Jim Ottaviani and Jerel Dye

We all know Albert Einstein — he’s the personification of “scientist” in the minds of most of us — but as always, there’s more to the icon (and the man!) than we expect. Jim Ottaviani explains what this means in this Big Idea for his (with artist Jerel Dye) graphic novel retelling of the life of the famous physicist, Einstein.


Though I put Einstein on the cover of my very first book — it was 1997 and nobody was making comics about scientists, so I figured we’d better show someone everybody recognizes! — I avoided writing about him for years.
Einstein was, at least to my mind, a cliché.
And yet he kept appearing, both in books I read and in books I wrote. First Second, my publisher for Feynman and Hawking, noticed. I think his ubiquity, his omnipresence, prompted them to have me take another look, and consider why I was reluctant to write more about him. And to no one’s surprise (except for maybe me; I can be slow on the uptake) Einstein is anything but a cliché.
Maybe my blind spot resulted from the fact that Einstein and his discoveries are almost too perfect for comics.
His theories about the inseparability of space and time? That’s Comics Storytelling 101, and as a minor spoiler, since you’ll see this on the third page of the book, Jerel and I use the space between panels, or the intentional lack thereof, to visually conflate space and time, expanding and contracting it to suit our narrative.
His exploration of how frames of reference influence what reality you experience? Storytelling 101 again, so in our book we told Einstein’s story through the eyes of his friends, family, enemies, and fans.
His life of the mind, where what’s happening in his head is just as real as the world of his senses…at least to him? Comics, again: Einstein’s are the only thoughts you get to see in the book. Everyone else only ever acts, and only ever speaks their mind.
His iconic status? Not to give away too much, but you may notice that Jerel’s depiction of Einstein at the beginning of the book differs from how he draws him by the end.
So if, like me, Einstein feels overly familiar because he’s always there, always quotable?
I hope you’ll join us in experiencing this story — and I use that word on purpose, since this isn’t a typical biography, even though it’s as true-to-life as we could make it — with your own eyes, and that it gives you a new appreciation of Einstein, both as a scientist and as a person.
When you do, I think you’ll find that he’s more than an icon but less than a saint. And you’ll see why Einstein is someone whose name has meant genius for more than a century.
Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s website. Follow him on Twitter.

A Workin’ Woman

Back in October, I told you all about a cool job opportunity I had coming up, and I’m happy to report back that I did in fact get the position at… wait for it… Twenty One Barrels!

Me, smiling at the camera, wearing a Twenty One Barrels dark grey t-shirt and matching baseball cap style hat.

If you missed it, Twenty One Barrels is the winery/cidery across the street from me that I recently did a Small Business Saturday over. When I went over there to do the interview with one of the owners, I saw they had a help wanted sign, and I asked her about it. She encouraged me to apply, and then we set up the job shadow to see if it was something I wanted to do. After the job shadow went well, we dotted some i’s and crossed some t’s, and now I’m officially a Tasting Room Attendant!

Thank you so much to everyone that wished me good luck and all that nice stuff. So far I’ve enjoyed it! You can still expect to see me posting on the blog, though, as the winery is only open on the weekends, and I’m not scheduled for every weekend, anyway.

I’m happy to have this opportunity, as I’ve always been interested in being a bartender, but sports bars aren’t really my vibe, and I never wanted to do it at a club because I want to preserve my hearing, so this seems like something much more suited for me.

So, if you’re in the area and decide to come check out the winery, I just might be the one pouring your glass!


The Big Idea: Daniel Church

Inspiration can come from anywhere. For author Daniel Church, it came from a long and scenic train ride. Read on to see how this burst of inspiration turned into his newest novel, The Hollows.


It was a beautiful summer’s day in 2014, and I was on my way to a funeral where I didn’t know anybody.

Social media does have its good side; over the previous couple of years, I’d got to know a lady called Debbie Pearson, an online friend-of-a-friend with whom I shared similar tastes in music, films, books, politics and humour. Only via Facebook and never face-to-face – nonetheless, we’d become reasonably good friends.

Debbie and her partner had been trying to start a family through all that time and, in November 2013, they learned they’d finally succeeded. By the summer of 2014, they were looking forward to welcoming their first child.

And then, on June 29th, Debbie came home and found her partner dead. 

She announced the date of the funeral on Facebook as 17th July, asking anyone who wanted to come to attend. The baby arrived on the 14th, three days before the service. 

Debbie lived – still does – in the Peak District of Northern England. If you don’t know where that is, it’s a huge area of hills and dales covering parts of the counties of Cheshire, Greater Manchester, South and West Yorkshire and Staffordshire, but mostly located in the county of Derbyshire. That was where I was heading that day, to a small village called Bonsall. 

From Liverpool, where I lived, it was a lengthy journey of four hours by rail, so I took all the essentials with me: an MP3 player (I’m old school,) a good book, a pen and a yellow legal pad. As the lush green hilly countryside rolled by, I set out to write something, but wasn’t sure what. And so I did what I usually do in such circumstances, and wrote the first word that came into my head:


I’d no idea who Ellie was, but I knew she had to be doing something, so I finished the sentence: Ellie peered down the slope at the body.

What slope? What body? What had happened here?

I only wrote a couple of pages that day, because while I still didn’t know much about what was going on, I did know that this was starting to feel like the beginning of a novel, and I already had one of those on the go at home. So I put it aside and wrote a short story instead.

But by the time I put those papers aside, I did know a little more than I had at the start. I knew, for instance, that Ellie was a rural police officer – based in the same wild, rolling landscape the train was passing through – and that while it was summer in the train carriage, it was the dead of winter where she was. I knew, as well, that the dead man was a local troublemaker and hard case. Who had, nonetheless, frozen to death in the winter night, within sight of his home, because someone – or something – had left him too frightened to move from where he hid.

Ellie had no idea what he’d been so frightened of, or what was going to happen next, and more to the point neither did I. Maybe a vague couple of possibilities, but nothing beyond that. And in those days, I didn’t like to begin anything without a clear plan. Nonetheless, that opening scene stayed with me, even after I’d lost those scribbled pages. 

By 2020, I finally felt able to try writing a book without a detailed plan. If I knew the next few chapters’ worth of the story, that would be enough to start with. Hopefully the next few chapters would have suggested themselves by the time those were done; if not, I could always sit down and plan them out.

So I wrote that opening scene again, more or less from memory. The body had to be examined and retrieved and taken somewhere – and as I learned from talking to Debbie, little villages in the Peak District could easily get cut off from the outside world by heavy snow and have to rely on their own resources and community spirit until it was cleared. And the dead man’s family – who weren’t likely to be much more pleasant company than he’d been in life – would need to be notified.

The big question I still didn’t have an answer to, though, was the question that ended up lying at the heart of The Hollows: What was out there in the night? I was seven or eight chapters in before I began to realise what it might be. But I was a good halfway through the book when the full extent of what was going on, and what was at stake, became clear.

The Hollows was a joy to write, and its characters a pleasure to inhabit – not only Ellie, but her friends like the local doctor, Milly Emmanuel and the vicar, Madeleine Lowe; the brutalised but brave Jess Harper, and her monstrous mother Liz. Many of them were inspired by women I’ve known.

The book is dedicated to my friend, Debbie Pearson, and to her son, Gus Lambert, who turned eight this year. It couldn’t, really, be dedicated to anyone else: not only was Debbie a constant source of help and advice throughout the writing, the novel quite simply wouldn’t exist without the two of them, and that train journey in the summer of 2014.

The Hollows: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

2022 Election Thoughts

John Scalzi

Now that control of the Senate has been retained by the Democrats (albeit barely), some post-mortem notes on the 2022 mid-term elections.

1. Even if the GOP takes the House — which it probably will although at this point it may be by as little as a seat or two — this was a shockingly poor showing by the Republicans generally. I was mildly depressed through the run-up to Election Day because I was worried not just about Republican success on the national level, but also on the state level: It was entirely possible a bunch of election-denying Secretaries of State would get hustled into office with an eye toward breaking the 2024 election in as many ways as possible. I stayed away from news and media on election day and into the evening, and when I woke up the next morning I sat down at my desk, steeled myself…

… and was pleasantly surprised! The Democrats did not lose horribly! Indeed, in many places rather the opposite! They routed in Pennsylvania and Michigan, did all right in Wisconsin and elsewhere, and in the fullness of time even pulled out some unexpected victories. If the voting trends in Arizona hold, victories there will be especially sweet, because Arizona really does feel like the hotbed of GOP electoral denial madness; the GOP candidate for Secretary of State was an actual “Oath Keeper” at the January 6 insurrection. The Democrats also held the Senate, and look to limit the Republicans to a bare majority in the House — which will still be a majority, don’t kid yourself, and the GOP will happily make a mess even if they only have a single seat between them and minority status. But it could have been so much worse.

Should have been so much worse! The economy isn’t great, inflation has been terrible, people are unhappy, and Joe Biden isn’t terribly popular — although, historically, not that much more unpopular than most presidents at the two-year mark; four of the last six presidents had mid-to-low forties favorability ratings at this point in their presidencies, with only the Bushes overachieving. Those low ratings are one reason why mid-term elections are the time and place for opposing parties to make substantial political gains, and Biden’s (apparent) political hand in these elections wasn’t great.

And yet here we are, with the Democrats having had a historically good midterm.

2. So what happened? Two things, as far as I can see: One, the Supreme Court told half the country that a rapist should have more control of their bodies than they should; Two (and related), the GOP finally went more fashy than a bare majority of Americans were comfortable with.

The first of these, the tossing out of Roe v. Wade, strikes me as the more important of the two. US citizens aren’t the most politically engaged people on a day-to-day basis, but they know when their rights are being taken away, and they know who is to blame for it. It didn’t escape their notice which party was the one who put Alito and all those other conservative judges on the bench; it also didn’t escape their notice which party has gone out of its way to outlaw abortion under any circumstance, including the rapes of 10-year-olds, and people potentially dying of sepsis because of non-viable fetuses rotting in their wombs. “You should carry your rapist’s child” and “We’d rather you die than have an abortion” are, strangely, not the messages on which votes are reliably garnered.

Likewise “your vote shouldn’t count if we don’t like it,” is also something of a non-starter for a lot of people! Having the GOP become the political face of US authoritarianism in a moment when authoritarianism, including sham elections for political advantage, is being actively (and popularly!) combatted in Europe is not a great look. I also think the political strategy of trying to separate out trans people for persecution, popular as it was and is with the intolerant, was not particularly smart. Trans folks really are a small sliver of the population, but everyone understood the point for the GOP was and is to start with trans folks, and then just keep going to gays and lesbians and then to other groups, including, inevitably, the Jews. It doesn’t take rocket scientists to figure this out; the GOP, particularly its fashy wing, loves to monologue.

Here’s the problem for the GOP: Half the US population has (or had) a uterus, and the rest of the population knows and loves someone who has one. A lot of the US population knows and loves someone who is gay or may be trans or non-binary. More than half the US population, I expect, wants a reasonable expectation that their vote won’t be ignored if a state governor or secretary of state or legislature finds it somehow inconvenient.

All of which is to say, a platform of actively stripping people of their rights is (thankfully) not the way to generate a “wave” election. Even if the economy is not great and the president isn’t particularly popular. Strangely, if you make people choose, they will value their own rights, and the rights of those they care for, more than the price of a loaf of bread. Yes, you have to work at it to get the average US voter to that point! But, apparently, here we are.

3. Naturally, the GOP wants to blame anyone but itself for this poor showing, and they appear to have landed on two culprits: Gen Z voters, who have broken rather decisively for Democrats, and Donald Trump, who campaigned for genuinely awful candidates and helped to get them onto the general election ballots. With regard to Gen Z voters, well, see above: Gen Z people are not happy about their rights being fucked with just as they aged into having them, and also, as more Gen Z folks identify outside the cut-and-dried gender-and-sexual binaries than any other generation before them, turns out they’re especially sensitive to the GOP attempts to go after these groups.

One should never say never about these things, but outside the I-expect-smaller-than-4chan-would-like “white edgelord gamer” demographic, it’s entirely possible the GOP has definitively lost Gen Z, which makes two generations in a row which trend away from them, as Millennials are not huge fans either. That leaves Boomers and (ugh) Gen X, which is not great for them, as Boomers are busy dying and Gen Xers are demographically smaller than other generations. These deficits have been counteracted before by Boomers/Gen Xers voting more reliably than younger demographics, but, congrats, GOP, your rights-stripping antics have brought home the idea that every election actually does count, sooooooo, yeah.

This showing will no doubt prompt some GOP folks to wonder what they can do to bring Gen Z into the fold, and the answer is: Have you considered not actually attempting to strip people of their rights and bodily autonomy? No? Well, okay, good luck with that, then.

4. As for Trump, well, look: He is in fact the very worst thing to happen to the GOP in modern times, because he doesn’t actually care about anything other than himself and his own self-image, and as we all know perfectly well, he was happy to attempt to overthrow two centuries of democratic processes just so his widdle fee-fees wouldn’t be hurt. Worst president ever! And also, now, worst ex-president ever!

That said, you don’t stay in bed with someone for two whole fucking years after he actively and explicitly tried to stage a fucking coup and then just try to say that everything that has led to an underwhelming midterm election is all his fault. No, no, my dear little GOP babies, this is on you, too. You had a beautiful window, right after January 6, to disavow the man and cast him aside, and recommit to democracy in these glorious United States. But then you said “but what if we didn’t” and spent the next two years licking Trump’s loafers and pretending he didn’t actually lose his election, as he clearly fucking did, and you purged those of you in your party who stood up for the country rather than that pathetic orange wedge of self-regard.

So yeah, actually, fuck you, GOP, don’t try to shove this on Trump. Trump gonna Trump, and it’s heartening that so many of the really awful people he endorsed went down in flames on election night. But not all of them did, and you’re just fine with that. There will now be more 2020 election deniers in the House of Representatives than there were before, and that’s okay by you. Notable Trump-tonguer and excitable nouveau-fascist JD Vance is headed to the Senate, and you’re happy to have him there. If all the Trump picks had won their races, you would have crowed about your red wave on every Sunday morning political talk show. The reason Trump was around was because you wanted him to stay.

5. On that subject, GOP, don’t think it’s gonna be all that easy to dislodge Trump, either, now that you find him inconvenient. Here in Darke County, Ohio, which went 81% for Trump in 2020 and 81% for Trump’s hand-picked boy JD Vance in the 2022 election, my anecdotal observation of the number of Trump flags and signs up before the election that have come down since is… zero. They’re still up! They’re still flying! Proudly! His people are still his people and I expect very little is going to change that between now and 2024. I mean, yes, he could be indicted (and possibly even in this next week!), but given that anyone still flying a Trump flag in the latter days of 2022 thinks he was robbed of his presidency, how little do you think that’s going to matter to them? That’ll just make them love Trump more.

Which will present the GOP with an interesting choice: Do they support the former president, who is (almost certainly) a criminal, definitely a seditionist and who absolutely belongs in jail, and in doing so alienate the general US population, or do they cut him loose, thus alienating Trump’s base, which is, also, their base? One assumes that the GOP wants to cut out Trump and paste Ron DeSantis into his spot, but if you think Trump is going to let that happen, well, bless you, my sweet summer child. And if Trump gets back his Twitter account, which seems not entirely unlikely, since Elon Musk needs something, anything, to drive eyeballs to his misbegotten purchase… well. Trump’s gonna be around, folks.

6. And what of Biden? Some people are still having the fantasy that he won’t run again in 2024; the last bit of fervent wishing I saw, from someone who staffed in the White House in the Reagan years, is that Biden will fire Vice President Kamala Harris, appoint California governor Gavin Newsom in her place, and then resign. This fellow, bless his heart, is higher than a weather balloon. Biden isn’t popular, but he isn’t popular in a very normal way for presidents at the two-year point in their terms, and unlike most presidents at this juncture, he didn’t have his legislative support entirely fall out from under him in the mid-terms. In his two years at the helm, he’s actually and quietly got shit done, including substantial infrastructure initiatives, and he’s shored up critical foreign support and alliances strained by Trump and his Putin-worshipping ways. Hell, he’s even helped to expose Russia’s military might as a paper tiger without starting World War III.

If any other president did all that, he’d be celebrated as one of the best presidents in modern history. If a Republican president did all that, and nerfed the opposing party in the mid-terms? The GOP would already be swapping out the Washington Monument with a 600-foot statue of him, and trying to figure out how to repeal the 22nd Amendment. As it is, all the GOP has on their agenda for the next two years is Hunter Biden’s laptop and stopping people from getting their school loans forgiven (another great way to make friends with Millennials and Gen Z, by the way).

Biden has had an actually really objectively impressive first two years to his presidency, and so, what people think he should do is… resign? Oh, honey, no. Yes, he’s old as fuck and just getting older. Yes, he’s boring in an era where people expect their politicians to be 24/7 celebrities. Yes, no one was ever excited about the idea of a Biden presidency. Even the right-wing attempt to make him into a supervillain — Let’s Go Brandon! — was silly and a little sad, and the “Dark Brandon” meme that has come out of it has outmeme’d it in any event.

Biden isn’t exciting! But he is actually a pretty decent president. And in an era where the options are “boring but efficient” and “rights-stealing incipient fascism,” it’s not exactly a surprise that the red wave was a ripple on 2022’s shore, and that Biden was there in his aviators, feet in the sand, smiling, eating ice cream, and probably thinking about what he wants to get done in his second term.

Is he gonna run in 2024? If you were him, wouldn’t you?

— JS

Your Creation Museum Report, 15 Years On

John Scalzi

A tweet from Cory Doctorow reminds me that 15 years ago today, I filed my report on a trip to the Creation Museum, a biblically-themed attraction about ninety minutes south of me in Kentucky. I had been dared to go to the thing by Joe Hill, and I said I would if Whatever readers pledged to donate to Americans United for Separation of Church and State, an organization which, well, you can see what they do in their title. I asked for a minimum of $250; I got over $5000. Apparently people really wanted me to go.

The report, along with the accompanying Flickr album of the trip, are among the most popular things I’ve ever posted online and will still occasionally spike up the “visits” chart when people link to it from somewhere else. I haven’t been back to the Creation Museum since 2007, but I have been led to understand by those who have visited it more recently that not all that much has changed. This makes sense to me; it’s not as if the (logically poor and factually incorrect) arguments the place offered 15 years ago have materially changed in the interim. I did know they had an exhibit refresh a couple years ago, and now have a planetarium. Good for them, I suppose.

I was going to note that it doesn’t feel like it’s been fifteen years since I went and did this, but after some thought, it actually does. I went to the Creation Museum with two friends; one of them died a few years ago and I’ve lost contact with the other. The version of Whatever I posted the piece on ran different software and looked completely different. This was before Facebook and Twitter were much of a thing, and blogs were still the new hotness. And it was three presidents ago. So, yeah, I feel the time, actually.

I any event, if you’re new to Whatever (“new” meaning “started reading around here 14 years ago or sooner”) then check it out. For everyone else: Time flies! Like a pterosaur!

— JS

Right On Time

It was 70 degrees here two days ago, and then suddenly November remembered how to November, and here we are: The first snow of the season, and no temperatures higher than the low 40s for the foreseeable future. I see that last year I posted up a video of the first snowfall of the season on exactly this weekend in November as well. Mother Nature: Weirdly consistent, at least as far as Ohio is concerned. I’m not expecting this snow to stick — the ground is still too warm for that — but it’s winter serving notice that it is, indeed, on its way.

How’s the weather where you are?

— JS

The Big Idea: Lavie Tidhar

They say a picture is worth a thousand words, but in author Lavie Tidhar’s case, a single image he thought of was worth a whole book. Read on to see how his newest novel, Neomcame to be.


For Neom, my latest SF novel set in the wider world of my Central Station universe, all I had in mind was the image of a robot holding a rose. To find out what the robot was about I started writing, and the result (during the depths of the pandemic) was this short novel, which got me through that rather awful second lockdown.

The big idea here, though, isn’t mine. A few years ago I came across a strange Saudi plan to build a futuristic megalopolis on the shores of the Red Sea. Neo-Mostaqbal (New Future, in a mix of Latin and Arabic), or Neom for short, was backed by a short marketing video and nothing much else, though it came as considerable surprise to me to see it slowly taking shape in reality even as I write this. I have been visiting the Sinai and Egypt for many years, staring longingly across the Red Sea to Saudi Arabia – now opening to the world in a limited way, but until recently firmly out of reach – and wondering about visiting.

Neom allowed me to write about places I knew, like the Sinai Peninsula or the town of El Quesir, and of things I only imagine – like those dark entities as large as planets who live in the Oort, or of the curious events that happened on Titan. In between was Neom, in my version a city already old, populated with the small lives of the people whose jobs it is to look after things – cleaners and flower sellers and mechanics, salvagers and shurta officers.

It was Robert Heinlein, I think, who coined the term “future history” to describe that common universe SF writers like to sometimes play with over years of short stories and novels that all share the same background. I have always loved them, from Cordwainer Smith’s majestic Instrumentality to Larry Niven’s Known Space, and long ago, almost by accident, I set to write my own. Every time I think I’ve run out of stories to tell, something new pops up and grabs my attention. The solar system is wide and mysterious and there is so much left for me unexplored. I get to visit the Druze ballooners of Titan and the train drivers of Mars and the strange ships like the Ibn Al-Farid out of Polyport or the Gel Blong Mota that does the Earth to Mars run…

And tying them all is Earth itself – more specifically, my little part of it, the Middle East, long unexplored in science fiction. I like to make the joke that Central Station, my 2016 novel, is the best SF novel set in Tel Aviv – with the caveat, of course, that since it’s the only SF novel set in Tel Aviv it is also by default the worst one. There are a thousand novels set in New York – a fine city by all accounts – but long ago I realised there was no point in me trying to compete with American writers to write about America when I could compete with no one and write about somewhere else.

So this is it. It was a lot of fun to go back to this world for a while, and even as I write this, new stories set in the wider world are appearing in Asimov’s, F&SF and Clarkesworld. I just have too much fun exploring. There are still the Neo-Neanderthals in the Jezreel Valley, the strange sentient trains on Mars, the junk collectors up in Earth orbit and the Boppers on Titan. The future history is the Great Game of science fiction – so who can possibly resist playing it? And, if you do want to check it out, Neom is out now and, ultimately, it just a story about a robot and a rose.

Sometimes, that’s all you need.

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

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

The Old Church

John Scalzi

A brief update on the church: Many of you were wondering what we might call the church, now that it’s no longer officially the Bradford United Methodist Church. We have seen many suggestions, including “Church of the Infinite Burrito” “The Interdependent Church,” “Scalzitology HQ” and “The Scamperbeast Seminary.”

With that said, the church building still does exist in the actual world, and we do eventually plan to have events there, both private and public. We decided we needed to call the place something catchy, and not likely to get us ridden out of town on a rail.

So, folks, please say hello to: The Old Church. Or, if more specificity is needed, The Old Church of (or in) Bradford.

This is a good name because it is literally accurate, non-controversial, and something that can slip into public memory without undue difficulty (“We saw a musical performance at The Old Church”). It’s a good name, I think. Not flashy! But, look, it’s a solid midwestern church building, it could do with a solid midwestern church name.

Note that the real estate corporation we’ve established to handle The Old Church and other holdings is Church of the Scalzi, LLC. That’s a company name, however, not a religious endeavor. We’re not going into that line of work. Just so we’re clear. Again.

— JS

How to Get Signed & Personalized Books From Me For the Holidays, 2022 Edition

John Scalzi

We’ve come to that time of the year again, where folks begin to think about their holiday gift giving, and at least some of you think about books as the perfect gift. Well, they are! But would make them even more perfect is getting those books signed and personalized. Every year I join forces with Jay and Mary’s Book Center in Troy, Ohio, to sign and personalize books so that you’ll have them available to give to the people you love, including yourself.

From today (Nov. 10) through Monday, December 5, you can order books I have written from Jay and Mary’s and I will come in and sign them for you, and then the bookstore will ship them to you (US only). The last couple of years were beset by COVID and/or supply chain issues, but fortunately this year most things seem to be running smoothly. Nevertheless, I strongly encourage you to get your orders in early, so there are no delays in shipping the books to you this holiday season.

Here’s how to do it!

1. Call Jay & Mary’s at their number (937 335 1167) and let them know that you’d like to order signed copies of my books. Please call rather than send e-mail; they find it easier to keep track of things that way.

2. Tell them which books you would like (For example, The Kaiju Preservation Society), and what, if any, names you would like the book signed to. If there’s something specific you’d like written in the books let them know but for their sake and mine, please keep it short. Also, if you’re ordering the book as a gift, make sure you’re clear about whose name the book is being signed to. If this is unclear, I will avoid using a specific name.

3. Order any other books you might think you’d like, written by other people, because hey, you’ve already called a bookstore for books, and helping local independent bookstores is a good thing. I won’t sign these, unless for some perverse reason you want me to, in which case, sure, why not.

4. Give them your mailing address and billing information, etc.

5. And that’s it! Shortly thereafter I will go to the store and sign your books for you.

Again, the deadline for signed/personalized books for 2022 is December 5. After December 5 all Scalzi stock will still be signed and available, but I will likely not be able to personalize.

Also, this is open to US addresses only. Sorry, rest of the world. It’s a cost of shipping thing.

What books are available?

CURRENT HARDCOVER: The Kaiju Preservation Society is the current hardcover release. The Last Emperox may still available in hardcover; ask. 2018’s hardcovers Head On and The Consuming Fire may be available if you ask for them specifically. The mini-hardcover of Old Man’s War is also available and is a great format for that book.

CURRENT TRADE PAPERBACK: The Android’s Dream, Agent to the Stars and Fuzzy NationRedshirts (the 2013 Hugo Award winner), Twenty-First Century Science Fiction (which features a story of mine), Metatropolis (which I edited and contribute a novella to) are available in trade paperback format. There may be hardcovers of these still around if you ask. But each are definitely in trade paperback. There are also probably still trade paperback editions of Old Man’s War that can be ordered if you prefer that format. Also available: Robots Vs. Fairies, the anthology that features the story of mine that was adapted for the “Three Robots” episode of the Netflix animated series Love, Death and Robots.

CURRENT MASS MARKET PAPERBACK: The entire Interdependency series (The Collapsing Empire, The Consuming Fire and The Last Emperox) are available, both individually and as a boxed set. The Old Man’s War series of books (Old Man’s War, The Ghost Brigades, The Last Colony, Zoe’s Tale, The Human Division and The End of All Things) are available individually, and the first three of those books also come in their own boxed set. Lock In, Head On and Unlocked: An Oral History of the Haden Syndrome (novella) are individually available as well. Fuzzy Nation, Agent to the Stars and The Android’s Dream have recently been moved into trade paperback, but mass market editions are probably still available if that’s your preference. Please note: If you order the boxed sets, if you want those signed you’ll have to agree to let me take the shrinkwrap off. In return I’ll sign each of the books in the box.

CURRENT NON-FICTION: Your Hate Mail Will Be Graded (essay collection, Hugo winner), The Mallet of Loving Correction (also an essay collection, this will need to be special ordered as it is a signed limited), Virtue Signaling (a third essay collection, will also need special ordering) and Don’t Live For Your Obituary (a collection of essays about writing, will also need to be special ordered).

AUDIOBOOKS: The Kaiju Preservation Society, The Last Emperox, The Consuming Fire, The Collapsing Empire, The Dispatcher, The End of All Things, Lock InHead On, The Human Division, Redshirts, Fuzzy Nation, The God Engines, Metatropolis and Agent to the Stars are all available on CD and/or MP3 CD, and Jay & Mary’s should be able to special order them for you. Check with them about other titles, which may or may not be currently available on CD.

Two things regarding audiobooks: First, if you want these, you should probably call to order these as soon as possible. Second, and this is important, because the audiobooks come shrinkwrapped, I will have to remove the shrinkwrap in order to sign the cover. You ordering a signed audiobook means you’re okay with me doing that and with Jay & Mary’s shipping it to you out of its shrinkwrap.

If you have any other questions, drop them in the comment thread and I’ll try to answer them!

— JS

The Big Idea: Steve McHugh

Author Steve McHugh was in the middle of writing a novel when his newest novel, The Last Raven, decided it needed to be written, instead. Follow along in his Big Idea to see how it started to take shape, and what it ended up becoming.


I wasn’t meant to write The Last Raven.

In 2020, I finished an urban fantasy story I’d started in 2012, consisting of 13 books across 3 series. It had been a lot of work done in a relatively short period of time. I was proud of my work, but I was done with urban fantasy—at least for now. 

I was out of contract for the first time in ten years, a completed story behind me, and was utterly unsure what I was going to do next. I originally settled on an epic fantasy that I’d been working on for years. 

My brain disagreed. 

There are two parts of writing that over the years I’ve come to believe are important to actually getting anything done that’s worthwhile: 

  1. Write what you love. If you don’t care about the book, why should anyone else?
  2. When you’re writing, your brain will tell you about the new shiny thing. Don’t ignore it, but don’t allow yourself to be sidetracked for too long.

After writing over a dozen books, these were rules that I found necessary to write. 

I follow the first in everything I’ve ever written, but on this occasion, I ignored the second one completely. 

I was writing my epic fantasy when my brain kept telling me about this new idea. I knew it was going to be urban fantasy, but apart from that, it was just an idea about a man who had been tasked with protecting the people he cared about. A man who had failed in that endeavor leaving him the only surviving member.

Lucas Rurik was the man’s name. 

As I usually do, I made notes about the new shiny thing, meaning to get back to the book I’d been working on as soon as I’d gotten the new shiny thing out of my system.

A month later, I had 20,000 words written on The Last Raven, and had extensive notes on world building and character arcs. I had a spreadsheet detailing characters, places, magical abilities, anything I needed—trust me, it’s a lifesaver. 

By this point I was officially all in. This was what I was going to work on: Lucas Rurik, a man who had died during The Second Punic War and had come back as something much more than human. One of the riftborn. The rift, a place of incredible power and beauty linked to our own world. These were the two central parts to the story I wanted to tell. 

Lucas needed redemption more than revenge. He needed to feel like he was capable of doing the right thing. A man still confident of what he could do, but not confident that he could do it and keep people safe.

Lucas was, and don’t tell anyone else this because I get the impression that writers aren’t meant to find any part of writing easy, really easy to write. His story, his personality, they came quickly with very little hair pulling out on my part. It was like he’d always been in my brain and just needed the excuse. 

The rift… well, the rift was different. It was a place where people all through history lived together in something approximating harmony. But it was also a place of great danger of monstrous creatures that roamed the lands, and very human desires for riches and power. 

And Lucas could move between the rift and earth at will. 

The rift required history, it required a story of its own, it was, in many ways, its own character. That was somewhat new to me. In previous books they’d also been set on earth, or in mythological realms that were known to many. Creating a place from scratch with thousands upon thousands of years of history, with its own religion, its own politics, its own currency, was… actually it was awesome. 

But as I wrote more and more worldbuilding, it did something quite unexpected, it changed Lucas too. It was like pulling on one stretched the other. Relationships were forged, and broken, which in turn gave me more history about the rift, more places, more people. I’ve never quite had anything like that before with a person and a place. Normally it was a person’s relationship with other people, but this was that and also with a place. 

I think at this point, I restarted the book with all the knowledge I now had about the people and world. About how they interacted with earth and the rift, about how the riftfused—anyone affected by the power of the rift—remained hidden from humans for so long, and why they had revealed themselves. About how that changed everything. There was so much new stuff that I’d worked on that restarting was necessary, if a little daunting.  

Anyone who has ever gotten tens of thousands of words into a book and then restarted, knows the pain that decision comes with. But while it can be painful, from the ashes of that original story came The Last Raven, the first book in a series, and a story I loved to tell. And all that from an idea I’d originally dismissed. Turns out my muse—whatever that is—knew better. 

The Last Raven: Amazon | Barnes & Noble  

Visit the author’s Website Twitter | Facebook

A Week of Working Out

Athena ScalziLast week, my dad and I got Planet Fitness memberships. I have never been a member of a gym before, unless you count the YMCA, but I never actually worked out at the YMCA, I mostly just accompanied my grandma to go swimming sometimes.

Anyways, we got our memberships, and today marks one full week of going and working out together! So I wanted to write up my impressions on the gym so far and my experience with working out for the past week. Not necessarily like a review of Planet Fitness specifically, but just how it feels to go to a gym and be in that sort of environment in general. Because it’s pretty unfamiliar territory for me, and I’m willing to bet it’s a daunting place for many of you, as well.

I knew upon getting my membership that I wanted a professional to make me a workout plan. I wasn’t about to go in there and pretend like I knew what I was doing on those machines, and I definitely wasn’t going to just go grab some dumbbells and go right for it. The good news for me is that having a membership means that you can talk to their trainer and consult with them about your goals and they’ll put together a regimen for you to follow.

The way I thought the consultation would go and the way it actually went were pretty different. I was expecting to express my goals to her, and then she would just tell me what machines I should be using or if I should be doing more cardio than weights, yada yada. But it ended up being more than that. After I told her my goals, both long term and short term, she started by creating a five day regimen for me and wrote everything down in a packet.

Day 1, upper body. Day 2 and 4, core + cardio. Day 3, lower body. Day 5, total body workout.

Each page of the packet is a different day, and then all the machines/exercises I’m supposed to do are listed alongside how many reps and sets to do. Then, she took me around to every machine and not only showed me how to use them correctly, but helped me figure out what weight I should be doing on all of them, and wrote that weight down in the packet alongside the reps and whatnot.

She was immensely helpful, and I had previously been worried that I wasn’t going to know how to use the machines she recommended, so I was pleasantly surprised when she showed me how to do every single one. It made me less afraid that I’d look like a fool doing my exercises. I’m sure we’ve all seen photos of, and probably laughed at, people using gym equipment wrong, and I did not want to be one of those people.

So, that took care of a large chunk of my anxiety regarding exercising in front of others. It’s still pretty difficult, and I know it’s a big reason why a lot of people don’t go to the gym. They feel like everyone is looking at them, or they don’t want others to see them sweat, get red in the face, breathe hard, etc. I know that’s how I feel, at least. But honestly, this past week has proved that what they say is true, no one is looking at you. I never once felt like anyone was looking at me funny, or judging me, or doing more than just barely glancing my direction because human eyes are naturally attracted towards movement. Everyone is honestly just focused on themselves and their workouts.

I say all this as a person that looks around a lot. I don’t know why I look around so much. When I’m walking on the treadmill, I just glance all over the room constantly, and this has led me to see that literally no one is looking at me. People don’t care about you as much as you think they do.

All in all this first week, I was definitely nervous to be in a gym environment and afraid of being judged and all that, but that’s really not the case and I feel a lot better now.

Aside from the anxiety, how does the first week feel physically?

The answer is: not amazing.

Getting started can be demoralizing. When you realize just how out of breath you get from running, or the fact that you can’t even do one push-up, it can make you want to never try again. I can’t hold a plank or a wall sit for longer than ten seconds, I do the lowest weight possible on the shoulder press machine, I feel my heartbeat in my ears when I run for all of two minutes. It makes me feel bad about myself, and about my limitations.

But I won’t get better unless I try. I have to try to do a push-up if I ever want to be able to actually do one. I have to try to hold a plank for as long as I can, and try to complete all three sets of triceps curl. I can’t just sit around and hope that one day I will magically be able to go up the stairs in my own house without dying, I have to work to make that true. And while it sucks, waiting for that magic day sucks more.

So here’s to many more weeks of crunches and planks, many more weeks of bicep curls and leg press, and many more weeks of trying.


The Big Idea: Emery Robin

It is not what we take with us when we die, but what we leave behind. Author Emery Robin goes into some detail about this in their Big Idea for their newest novel, The Stars Undying. Read on to see what kind of things end up getting inherited by those we leave.


What if someone was going to live forever?

Many religions hold that, in some form, people do: that the soul is immortal, and lives after corporeal death in another world. Other stories suggest that some piece of the dead continues on this plane—ghosts and shades, preserved in spirit while their bodies decay. Others describe how the dead can become more powerful than they were in life: cursing descendants, interceding with God or gods for aid, or even becoming objects of worship themselves.

Alexander the Great ordered that, after his death, his followers should bury him in a temple of Zeus Ammon. Already, in life, he had begun demanding that people prostrate themselves before him as the Greeks did before gods. In death, he intended to be known as Zeus Ammon’s divine son.

When he died, his friends disobeyed him. On its journey to Macedonia, Alexander’s corpse was hijacked by his general Ptolemy and brought to Egypt, where Ptolemy founded his own kingdom over the bones of Alexander’s conquests. Under the Ptolemaic dynasty, Egyptians worshiped Alexander for centuries. But Ptolemy and his descendants were also worshiped: as chief priests to the Alexander-god, as Alexander’s heirs, and eventually as gods themselves. A cult arose around Alexander—a cult whose beliefs were only possible because Alexander himself was not alive to stop them.

Everyone is going to die. The world is built on this. Human histories, from the military to the marital to the economic, construct themselves around questions of who will inherit the world when its current owners are gone. Even nations rely on it: monarchy, in its most basic definition, is a government in which changes in power can only occur through human death. No tyrant or dictator, no matter how terrible, will ever outlive all of the people he ruled.

Cleopatra VII, whose story I retell in my space opera The Stars Undying, was the last queen of Egypt. She was also its last Ptolemaic ruler, its last Greek ruler, and the last heir to Alexander the Great. It is said that her first lover, Julius Caesar, once wept at a statue of Alexander. By age thirty-three, he said, Alexander had conquered the world. Yet he, Caesar, had done nothing yet that would make him so glorious—so famous—so immortal in human history.

In The Stars Undying, my world’s Alexander the Great invents a miraculous new technology: an artificial intelligence which replicates the brain-pattern of a human being so thoroughly that, at the moment of his death, he can upload his soul into its circuits. He calls this computer the Pearl of the Dead. When he dies, this universe’s Ptolemy proclaims the Pearl a god, and himself its Oracle. He passes it on to his children, down and down for three hundred years, until it reaches Gracia, my Cleopatra.

The Pearl of the Dead fascinates my Julius Caesar, Commander Matheus Ceirran, himself already a galactic conqueror. What power did it bring that past conqueror, he wonders? What power could it bring him? But for Gracia, the Pearl is not just a symbol of strength. It is an ancestor and an object of faith. It is something she must struggle for, and then struggle with. It is an inheritance, and when she chooses to bear it, she is confronted with a decision we must all make: how to shape the world through the way we carry our ghosts.

What we inherit from our dead is never only material. It is names, languages, religions, values. It is expectations, responsibilities, fears, dreams. We inherit trauma; we inherit memory. We inherit the consequences. We inherit the stories of who we are, and the stories of what we may be. We cannot choose what they are made of, our inheritances. We can only choose whether to accept them.

I wanted to retell Cleopatra’s story because I adored Cleopatra herself: her brilliance, her charm and humor, her determination, her refined taste, her impeccable sense of mess and drama. But I wanted to tell it as science fiction because, in Cleopatra, I saw a person who had spent her life living with a ghost on her shoulder. 

Alexander was Cleopatra’s god. He gave her glamour and legitimacy; he gave her a cult representing her family and her kingdom. But he was also a man, and a man her ancestor had already betrayed. He was a conqueror who the growing Roman Empire respected more than it respected her. Caesar longed to live up to Alexander’s shadow, but Cleopatra needed more. She had to shape that shadow—to transform Alexander’s ghost—into something entirely her own.

In telling Cleopatra and Caesar’s story, a story about the famous dead and about a very famous death, I needed to deal with immortality, and I needed immortality to be magnificent. Death is the worst thing there is. It is the unbearable rift in this world. It is not forgivable, and to end it would be something spectacular. And immortality is terrible, too. In The Stars Undying, immortality could not flinch from this. It could not equivocate. It could not be half-good or half-evil, any more than death itself. It needed to be all horror, all miracle, all tyrant, all god.

What if someone was going to live forever? What would we inherit from them? How would it force us to carry our ghosts, dead and living? If, under a monarchy, death is the only way the world can change, what would you do if you were made to live with a king who never died?

The Stars Undying: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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


Good Morning, Lunar Eclipse

I actually got up early for you!

And apparently it’s going to be the last lunar eclipse until 2025, and who knows what will happen between now and then, so, happy I woke up for this.

In the US, it’s election day. US citizens, please vote if you have not done so already. Thank you.

— JS

Sunset Clouds, 11/7/22

I missed the actual sunset, because I was busy not looking out a window, but these clouds immediately after are still something else.

Big day in the US tomorrow, folks. If you haven’t already voted early, remember to vote. It matters. It actually always matters, mind you. But this year feels pretty significant. Don’t worry, I’ll remind you again tomorrow, too.

— JS

%d bloggers like this: