The Big Idea: Mark Oshiro

Sometimes, it takes a try or two, or a rewrite here and there, to really nail down a story. Author Mark Oshiro tells us about just that as he takes us through his Big Idea, Each of Us a Desert, and shows us that we shouldn’t be afraid of reframing our narratives. It might turn out better than the original could’ve ever been.

MARK OSHIRO:

After three and a half years of work, my second novel, Each of Us a Desert, is finally released today. It is a sprawling, ambitious story about a teenage girl whose magical power as a cuentista—someone who can pull “stories” out of people’s bodies in order to cleanse them of their wrongdoings—is called into question when she discovers she may have been lied to about who and what she is. It’s my first attempt at secondary world fantasy and virtually nothing like my debut novel.

But my Big Idea? The thing I wanted to accomplish and that took four attempts to nail down?

I wanted to write an absurd narrative framing device. 

I love epistolary stories. I love wacky, irreverent, or unreliable narrators. I love books with ridiculous concepts and premises that just utterly commit to telling a story how they need to be told. Books like Railsea (China Mieville), Parable of the Sower (Octavia Butler), House of Leaves (Mark Z. Danielewski), and Room (Emma Donoghue) all left their mark on me not just for the content of the stories, but how they were written. Each has their own narrative devices or quirky premise at work to tell the story, and they’re not the same book if you remove them. They are entirely integral to the novel!

I did not get the idea for the framing device of Each of Us a Desert until draft three, which was the second rewrite. (Some day, I’ll write a novel in the correct genre the first time around!!!) While the first round of edits brought to life much of the world of Xochitl, her god Solís, and the world of las cuentistas, I still hadn’t found the heart of the story. Specifically, Xochitl’s voice was still too dry, too dark, and too detached. In hindsight, I get why! My revisions had helped craft this detailed, intimate, and frightening world, but what was the emotional core of this story? Why did it even matter that it was being told?

I was sitting across from my editor (the brilliant Miriam Weinberg at Tor) over lunch when the idea arrived in my brain and flew out of my mouth. I nearly lunged over the table as I blurted it out: What if the entire story was Xochitl’s prayer to their god, explaining why she had done what she had done? What if the way I found out the importance of this story was to have her literally tell us?

The book’s new outline for that revision took shape in a few days, and I re-wrote the entire thing—quite honestly every word of it—in less than a month. That’s not a humble brag as much as it is a sign of how infectious this idea was to me. It helped me frame this character’s arc; it helped me ground her emotions as she told this story; it helped bring Each of Us a Desert to life! It allowed me to play with language in a fascinating way, too, and there are portions of the manuscript that trick the reader into a bizarre form of second-person. Xochitl is addressing her god, Solís, so there are times when it feels as if the novel is breaking the wall between storyteller and reader. 

This framing also made it easier for me to lean into other components of the story. I wanted Spanish to be a fantasy language, and suddenly, I had a very natural means for this character’s native tongue to constantly appear in the text. Cuentistas are necessary in this world because if a person avoids sharing their story in ritual, their secrets can manifest as harmful beings called pesadillas. Suddenly, I had a wonderful way to anchor horror to the narrative, as Xochitl spends much of the story caught between her religious duty and the visceral terror of it. 

But perhaps my favorite part of this Big Idea is that I got to use Xochitl’s magical ritual to tell multiple short stories within the novel itself. I needed the reader to understand what this ritual was like for the protagonist. Thus, as Xochitl experiences a ritual in real-time, so does the reader. My goal was to add physicality to the story, but also to further complicate the many people Xochitl makes on her strange, frightening journey.

But I also don’t want this to make it seem like this task was easy. That’s the thing about Big Ideas: the execution of them is usually harder than you can possibly imagine when you first think of them. There were absolutely times when I believed that I had bit off more than I could chew. One such struggle was with something that is a requirement in secondary fantasy: exposition. How could I convey this world to the reader while sticking to the format? I think the final version accomplishes that in some interesting ways, but this Big Idea challenged my own understanding of how stories can be told.  

As Each of Us a Desert goes out in the world, I’m thankful that I got to experiment. There is the chance that fans of my contemporary debut will be bewildered by this experience. What I hope is that readers are willing to give me a chance while I take them on this ridiculous, fantastical, and magical ride. 

—-

Each of Us a Desert: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

Woman’s Weekend at Camp Willson

Athena ScalziWhen I was a kid, I went to Camp Willson, a YMCA summer camp in Bellefontaine, Ohio. I went for nine years. The first time I went, I was seven, and the last time I went, I was sixteen, and I was a counselor in training that time around rather than a camper. I had meant to be a junior counselor the next year, and become one of the legendary ten year campers, but I never did it, because I was more interested in being a camper and having fun than actually having responsibility.

Camp Willson was one of the best things in my life. I’m so glad my parents sent me to camp (even if the first year or two I got homesick and kind of maybe cried a smidge). I have always remembered my camp days fondly, and part of me always wished I could go back. Well, little did I know what awaited me at their Woman’s Weekend!

Once the summer camp season is over, Camp Willson offers a couple different programs. Usually they partner with schools in the area for field trips and whatnot, but they also have weekend camps for kids like spring, fall, and winter camp (which I also used to go to), and then for adults they have Woman’s Weekend twice a year and Men’s Weekend, as well. And it was exactly what I had been hoping for: Summer camp for adults!

My mom and I signed up and went this past weekend to Camp Willson, where we had a blast. But, how do you make something like summer camp safe during a pandemic? I’m here to say, Camp Willson did a great job of being safe and sanitary, by giving each party (for example, my mom and I) our own cabin. Cabins normally sleep fourteen, so to have one or two people staying in a whole cabin by themselves was interesting, but definitely a necessary precaution. The cabins had attached bathrooms, as well, so there was no worry over germy communal bathrooms.

Also, everyone sat six feet apart at the campfire and at meals, and instead of their usual serve-yourself style, gloved and masked staff served the food. Not to mention there were only a dozen women including my mom and I, and we rarely interacted with each other outside of the socially distanced meals, so contact was certainly limited.

My mom and I arrived Friday night, but the only thing that really happened that evening was the welcoming campfire. Oh my gosh there was the most amazing cheeseball, it was like strawberries and cream cheese and it was bright pink, it was really good. Other than that there nothing worth noting for that night, so I’ll just skip straight to Saturday.

Picture of a bucolic field of green grass.

We woke up at seven and went to breakfast. All the meals were outdoors (probably also a safety precaution), and watching the sun rise over the horse pasture in the crisp morning air while eating a fan flippin’ tastic waffle was definitely the right way to start off our activity packed day (man, those waffles… something about them was so good, they had some kind of crispy sugar crust on the outside).

First up, we did archery. It was just my mom and I and one other woman, and we all stood about ten feet apart, and the staff wiped down our bows with sanitizer repeatedly. My mom did a great job! I didn’t shoot quite as well, but I think we all could’ve guessed my mom is kind of a bad ass.

Krissy Scalzi pointing to the archery target she was shooting. She has gotten a bullseye.

We shot for about forty-five minutes before we went to our next activity, the Giant Swing. This is my personal favorite thing at Camp Willson, and something I haven’t done for roughly five years, since I was a CIT. My excitement was immense. The Giant Swing consists of three tall wooden poles, and you’re in a harness, then you get pulled to the top of one pole, about thirty-five feet in the air, and are dropped, and you swing in between the other two poles. It’s really hard to explain so I’ve provided a video of an attraction that is very similar:

This one is at an amusement park in Canada and is a LOT taller than the one at camp, but that’s basically the gist of it is you’re pulled to a high height and then dropped and swing around for a bit. It’s insanely fun and feels like flying, you feel totally weightless and free (maybe not exactly free because of the harness) and it’s exhilarating! Here’s my mom and me swingin’ away:

Athena and Kristine Scalzi in the sky, on a swing.

After the high ropes escapade, we had some lunch, and then hit the lake! My mom kayaked, and while I do really enjoy kayaking I decided to paddleboard instead, which made for a much more interesting (and carefully balanced) expedition. I didn’t fall off though, which actually surprised me, I did much better than I thought I would! It was super fun, and it’s a decently large lake. I didn’t get any pictures because I didn’t want to risk dropping my phone in the water, but it’s a very pretty lake with woods all around it.

Once we had paddled around a bit, we went horseback riding. Granted, it was only a trail ride, but it was nice to explore some of the paths through the woods and be in a saddle again; horseback riding is something I did more often in my youth that I miss a lot.

Horse in a field as clouds roll by.

These activities I mentioned weren’t our only options, by the way, the camp had a lot more to offer! There was yoga, wine glass painting, making your own bath bombs, a climbing wall, canoeing (and normally they offer massages and facials but due to COVID this year they only had manicures and pedicures, but those have like a 25 dollar extra fee). My mom and I had planned to go to a Sip and Paint (mocktails, not cocktails), but I ended up falling asleep super early in the evening and sleeping until the next morning.

Sunday morning, it was pouring outside, so my mom and I just sat on the cabin porch and read our books and drank the coffee the staff had brought to our cabin. The rain stopped just in time for brunch, where we had a really good quiche and some seriously delicious scones. One was chocolate strawberry and one was pumpkin spice, so my mom and I each picked one and then split with each other, because how could you not try both?! After brunch, we packed up and headed out for the little over an hour drive back home.

It was a seriously fun weekend, and I’m so glad I was able to do these awesome activities with my mom. There’s no one I would’ve rather gone with, and I hope we get to go again soon. And I’m so happy that places like Camp Willson exist. It gave me amazing memories as a child that will last for the rest of my life; I never expected it could give me new fantastic memories as an adult, too.

Kristine and Athena Scalzi at Camp Willson.

-AMS

The Big Idea: Paul Michael Anderson

Assassination isn’t always personal, sometimes it’s just business. And sometimes the people carrying out the business are from a different dimension and are dressed like nightmarish monsters. It’s all part of the gig in author Paul Michael Anderson’s newest sci-fi/horror novel, Standalone.

PAUL MICHAEL ANDERSON:

At the kick-off of what I’ve been calling The Standalone Promo Tour™ to my wife, writer Adam Cesare featured my new book on his Project: Black T-Shirt YouTube channel. Describing my slasher novella, he said, “Now, it’s being marketed as a horror book, it’s being marketed to horror people, but I would call this, without a doubt, a science fiction book.”

You know that meme where, in one frame, the stick figure holds up a finger as if to go, “hey, wait a minute,” but in the next frame, the finger wilts as the person reconsiders saying anything? That was me.  I couldn’t fault Adam for saying that about Standalone in a video where he gives a glowing recommendation for it. Adam, who’s written a slasher or two of his own (including the just-released Clown in the Cornfield from Harper Teen, which you should go pick up post-haste, and am I allowed to recommend someone else’s book while trying to sell my own? I hope so!), knows the genre, and Standalone…yeah, it has more than slight science-fiction undertones.  

See, Standalone is about a group of people who, once a month, jump from the Center of the Multiverse into various versions of Earth and, disguised as that location’s urban legend (think, like, Jason Voorhees from Friday the 13th), kill preselected groups of people with the purpose of maintaining the energy balance of all existence. However, something is now stalking them and it’s up to the sole survivor to figure out a solution before the Multiverse winks out.  

So, yes, it’s not a straight forward horror story. It’s also not a stereotypical science fiction story, either.  It’s a weird blend.  

But, thinking it over, I’m not particularly surprised by this, for two reasons. One, I had to think of some way of making mass murderers both evil and convincingly empathetic, as well as doing the same with the people hunting the murderers, and the only way my head could think to do that was through using blue-collar guys jumping multiple-dimensions, like Sliders and Ghostbusters by way of Scream.  

And, two, my head worked the problem out that way because of Harlan Ellison and Jack Ketchum.  

I have on the top shelf of one of my book cases a memorial, for lack of a better term, to both writers, collecting their hardcovers and paperbacks in one place, separate from my otherwise anally-organized books (genre, then last name, then chronological, and, yes, it’s exhausting). These two writers shaped the kind of writer I eventually became more than any other—more than Stephen King or William Gibson or Shirley Jackson or Octavia Butler.  

Jack Ketchum, the writer of such novels as Off Season, The Girl Next Door, Red, and (with director Lucky McKee) The Secret Life of Souls, was known for writing brutal, heart-wrenching horror of unflinching violence but also unwavering pathos. His work hurt the mind and the heart. And I don’t need to, on this website, go over Harlan Ellison’s accolades, do I? The infamous grump was at the forefront of science fiction’s new wave and, even afterwards, remained, reluctantly, its squawking Jiminy Cricket. 

Both writers affected me deeply, shaping not just the way a story could be told, but the motivations of the people within that story, and how hard the emotional truth can be not just to get to, but to put into words. It’s not unkind to say that these writers were polar opposites of each other in terms of content, mode, and execution. Ketchum, predominately a novelist, could never have come up with something as fantastic as “The Man Who Rowed Christopher Columbus Ashore” or “Shatterday”—but Ellison, who preferred to work in the short form, could never have written the heart-wrenching gray areas of Red or I’m Not Sam.

It’s in the middle of both writers and their respective oeuvre that I find myself more and more often, recently, none more so than with Standalone, which can be taken as something akin to a marriage between the two writers. I sometimes wish I was more out-and-out weird like, Harlan or Jeff VanderMeer or Kelly Link, or more hardboiled like Jack or Eddie Little or Jim Thompson, but the stories I tend to like to tell—and the stories that tend to resonate with readers—are those that shimmy between the two extremes.  It’s a tight-rope act, honestly. Will SF fans turn out for a horror story, and vice versa?  It’s cliché to say people should read widely, but the fact that we still have to tell others to do this lets you know how often people actually listen to that advice.

Standalone at the end of the day is about a single person who left behind their life and chose to commit extreme violence in a variety of realities, all in the hopes that it would somehow protect the people they left behind. Boiling away all the extra stuff—the multitude of genres, the punchy verbs I write to try and get your attention—Standalone is about that and nothing more.  

Hopefully, Harlan and Jack would’ve been happy with that. 

—-

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

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

 

“Murder By Other Means” #1 on Audible’s “Top Audible Plus Listens” List

A screenshot of "Murder" on top of the "Audible Plus Listens" chart.

John ScalziWell, this is a lovely way to start the week: Murder By Other Means, the sequel to The Dispatcher, has topped Audible’s new “Top Audible Plus Listens” chart, across all categories, not just science fiction and fantasy. This is the equivalent of topping the best seller chart, since the Audible Plus service includes access to the titles in the cost of the service itself, or, if you like, sort of the aural equivalent of being on Netflix’s “Most Watched” list. However you want to slice it, it’s pretty great.

Obviously, much of the credit here has to go to Zachary Quinto, who once again nails the narration, and to Audible for letting its subscribers know the story was there. And obviously to everyone who has been listening to it (including you, if you’re one of those folks). A little of that credit goes to me, too, however. Because I’m not gonna lie, I wrote a pretty good story this time around. I hope you’ll check it out if you haven’t already, either through Audible, or through the print/ebook edition that will come out from Subterranean Press in 2021.

In the meantime, I’m gonna enjoy being on the top of the heap. It’s a nice view! I’m happy Murder got there.

— JS

22 Years

John ScalziOnce again it is September 13 and once again I am reminded that on this day in 1998, I decided to start writing on my website on a regular basis, writing about whatever came to mind that day — thus “Whatever.” Twenty two years is a fairly long time; in fact, it’s long enough that Whatever is older than one of the current contributors to the site. That’s a hell of a thing.

That contributor is also the biggest change that happened to the site this year, and possibly ever. Whatever is now a multi-generational site, with Athena contributing a few articles a week and doing some backend work for me (including posting the Big Idea entries). We’re doing it because Athena is on a break from college — plague and all — but that doesn’t mean she needs to be on a break from learning, or from building her skills as a writer.

Having her on the site feels very much like an old-school apprentice situation, and we’re taking it seriously; we have staff meetings to plan out weekly schedules and to check on goals and progress. It’s been fun and interesting and also, and really not surprisingly, useful for me as well. If I have Athena on a schedule, I need to be on a schedule, too. Not just with Whatever, but with other writing in my life (and here I look at the manuscript for the next novel).

I don’t know how long this phase of the site will last, but I like that it’s here now, and I like the idea that the site is capable of change and growth. After 22 years, that’s a good sign, I think.

It’s also a reminder to me that although I think of Whatever as being my own personal site — because it is — it’s also become something else over the years as well. You may have noticed an relative increase recently in the number of Big Idea entries on the site; that was a decision I made once quarantine hit and a number of authors, myself not excepted, had to scramble to make alternate publicity plans because just plain showing up at a convention or bookstore wasn’t in the cards anymore. I have the bandwidth on Whatever, so, to the extent it helps other authors get the word out, why not open up the door a little wider.

But a side effect of this and Athena’s contributions is that at this point Whatever is not a majority John Scalzi site. As example, so far this September I’ve written nine entries (not counting this one), Athena has written five and there have been six Big Ideas. I’ve contributed 45% of the content on this site for September so far. I’m a plurality of the site, sure. But not a majority. Save for the rare times where I’ve taken a break and had guest bloggers, this is new.

And again, I kind of like that. Whatever’s been all John Scalzi before and probably will be again; I can see myself being 75 and using this site just to be kind of cranky all the time, I mean, more than I am now. But “whatever” isn’t just a site title, it’s kind of an ethos. This is whatever I want it to be. Right now, I want it to be more than just me. And it is. We’ll see what else happens as we go along.

And yes, we’ll keep going along here at Whatever. 22 years is a long time to have been writing anything, but that’s no reason to stop. I keep enjoying writing here, having this site and watching it become what it is. It’s gone from curiosity to next big thing to being a holdout from an earlier time, all in the space of two decades and change. Who knows what it will be next? There’s only one way to find out.

If you keep coming along with us, that would be grand. Thank you for coming to the site to see what’s here now, whenever that “now” may be.

— JS

Dude, That’s My Jam: A Review of Four Fancy Jams

Four different types of fancy jams!

Athena ScalziHere at the Scalzi Compound, we are big believers in jam. My mom and I just made homemade peach jam two nights ago, and my dad is a frequent buyer of “Frog Jam” at a local place, and it’s a general rule we don’t buy cheap jam in this household. Maybe it’s a little bougie, but we just really believe jam is one of those things worth paying a little more for, if and when you’re able.

So when I got an advertisement for Brin’s Jam & Marmalade and perused their website, I knew I had to get some. The advertisement (which I’m not entirely sure why I got in the first place…) was for banana jam, something I’ve never heard of, or even imagined was possible, which made me curious enough to click on their site. Other than their banana jam, I was also captivated by their cherry chai jam. If there’s one thing I love, it’s chai; so the idea of it being encapsulated in a jam form was definitely intriguing.

I consulted with my father about buying the jams and we decided to do a piece over it! So we bought the banana, cherry chai, strawberry lemongrass, and lemon saffron. We were originally only going to do the first three, but we decided we might as well get a fourth so we could get free shipping.

So I bought some fresh French country bread as well as sourdough from a local bakery that I used to work at, and my mom toasted some slices in a pan with butter, and we each tried the four jams. So without further ado, here’s our reviews of each of the jams!

Jams and breads, ready to be consumed.

Since the banana jam is what originally caught my attention, we’ll start with the reviews of that one. My dad said it tasted like bananas and honey, while my mom said it really just tasted like banana puree, and both of them liked it, my dad gave it a 7.5/10, while my mom settled on 6/10. Meanwhile, I absolutely loved it, it tastes like sweet banana bread. I could honestly eat it with a spoon, I thought it was so good that I gave it a 10/10. It exceeded my expectations. We all agreed it would be great on a peanut butter, banana, honey sandwich. It almost had an applesauce-like texture, definitely a more runny jam, but that makes it super duper easy to spread! Overall, the combined family score is 8/10.

Next up was the cherry chai! Upon opening it, it smelled like a candle, and you could almost mistake it for a jar of maraschino cherries with how chunky it is. In contrast to the smooth banana jam, the cherry chai was so packed full of cherry halves and pieces that you could pick out a whole cherry from it. While my mom was a big fan of the chunkiness, my dad said he would’ve liked a smoother consistency (however, when you spread it on bread, it does smooth out a bit).

The consensus on this one was also positive! My dad said it made him think of when you’re a kid and you smell a candle, and then you end up tasting the wax, this is what every kid wishes the wax had actually tasted like, instead of, well, wax. My mom said it tasted way better than she thought it would. Originally, she was skeptical of it and was pretty sure she wouldn’t enjoy it, but she ended up giving it an 8/10, while my dad gave it a 7.5/10 as well. As for me, I thought it was really pleasant, it tasted a little tart, but also tasted like a coffeehouse, soft aromatic spices and warmth underneath the fruitiness. It was an 8.5/10 for me, making the family score another 8/10.

Third on the list is the strawberry lemongrass. Unlike the previous two, this one was not quite as hard a hitter. It kind of smells like strawberry jam, but if the jam had body odor, which my dad said was an exactly correct description. As for taste, it was completely ordinary in my opinion, I didn’t even really taste any lemongrass, though my dad claims it was too lemongrassy (though he mentioned the aftertaste is better), and my mom agrees it’s really just a weak strawberry jam. My dad said that if we had no other jam in the house, he would use it for a sandwich, but it’s not great. My dad gave it a 5.5/10, while my mom only gave it a 5/10, and I gave it a 6/10, making the total family score a whopping 5.5/10.

And last (and certainly least, in my opinion) is the lemon saffron. To me, it smelled like paint thinner, while my dad said it was more of a household cleaner scent. When we ate it, I couldn’t help but make a face, it was awful. I almost couldn’t take another bite, it was so disgusting. Meanwhile, my parents said it would be good if we had it on something other than buttered bread, like it would go well on a charcuterie board with prosciutto or some kind of cheese, but I don’t think I’d like it even then.

My parents gave it a low score, my dad with a 5/10 and my mom with a 3/10, but said that its potential score — were it to be paired with the correct ingredients — would be a 7/10, or in my mom’s case, a 7.5. However, I give it a flat 2/10. It is consumable, but just barely, and I certainly will not partake again. The family score on this is inconclusive, due to the potential high scores it could have.

Overall, the jams were good! I’m sure some of Brin’s other flavors are enjoyable, as well, but I’m glad we got the ones we got. If you want to try one or two of them but aren’t ready to commit, they do offer five dollar mini versions, whereas the full size ones are ten. I definitely recommend the banana jam and the cherry chai (but especially the banana).

I’m off for the rest of the weekend. Have a great day!

-AMS

The Big Idea: Elaine Mongeon and Glen Zipper

Doing the right thing isn’t always easy, and a lot of the time, it’s easier just to do nothing. But when you decide to make a stand, are you willing to risk everything, even your life, for the cause? Authors Glen Zipper and Elaine Mongeon explore this idea of self-sacrifice for the greater good in their new novel, Devastation Class.

GLEN ZIPPER & ELAINE MONGEON:

The creative process, whatever form of expression it may take, can sometimes feel like it requires the deepest of Faustian bargains. Once you’re into it, you get to experience one of the most freeing, joyous, and exhilarating things life has to offer, but in order to get it you have to give enough of yourself to break through a six-foot thick brick wall and then climb Mount Everest. Barefoot. While juggling ferrets. And not nice ferrets. Surly ones.*

The wall can take many forms, but most of the bricks are usually self-doubt. Is my idea good enough? Am I good enough to make that idea a reality? And even if it is a good idea, and even if I am good enough to make my idea a reality, am I brave enough to share my idea with the world and risk the rejection of people not liking it? 

Everest (and the bare feet and the surly ferrets) are the metaphor for all those things big and small that stand in the way of making the commitment, day in and day out, to pulling that idea from your soul and bringing it into reality. The boss who says, “Umm, yeah… I’m gonna need you to come on in on Saturday.” Waiting for the inevitable fight when your partner says nothing is wrong, but one-hundred percent something is very wrong and seventy-five percent you’re going to be in a lot of trouble for it. The seemingly endless stream of bad news about the state of the world flooding into your eyeballs from social media (2020 please end now – thanks! Signed, Everyone). Or, most of all, the times where every one of your creative instincts seems wrong or just plain stupid.  

So how do you do it? Where can you accumulate enough speed and momentum to topple that wall, and where do you find the stamina to climb Everest, never stopping until you reach its pinnacle? For us, it’s all about that big idea. An idea that haunts us like a ghost if we dare entertain the thought of letting it be forgotten. An idea that operates like a rocket booster with an inexhaustible source of creative fuel. And an idea that helps us ask questions that deserve answers, even if we ultimately don’t find all (or any) of them. 

With Devastation Class that big idea was about being out of control, or, more specifically, how young women and men have to navigate a world with huge, increasingly existential stakes while older generations continually marginalize them or otherwise try to mute their voices.  The feeling of not being in control of your own destiny is, of course, familiar to any teenager, but the implications of their not being in control of their destinies are becoming exponentially more dire with each turn of the calendar page. 

Right now, today, those in power are making decisions that will affect generations to come. The pandemic. Climate change. Racial equality. Social justice. Why and how does it make sense that older generations, the ones with all the silver at their temples, get to make decisions about such critical issues that they are really just the temporary caretakers of? It is the generations standing behind them that are going to inherit and live with the consequences of these decisions. So shouldn’t Generation Z and soon Generation Alpha have a voice in where we are going and how we get there? And if their voice is not heard, what should they do to make sure that it is heard – even if that means challenging a norm, breaking a rule, or perhaps even breaking a law? When does the means justify the ends and when does it not? 

For us, one of our first memories of storytelling that asked some of these questions was the 1981 film Taps directed by Harold Becker – which also happens to be memorable for boasting a cast of then little-known young actors, such as Tom Cruise, Sean Penn, Timothy Hutton, and Giancarlo Esposito – all of whom would go on to enjoy much success. Taps, like Devastation Class, centers on a group of military cadets, but rather than being confronted with the life and death stakes of an alien invasion, they are confronted with the end of an institution that they love and believe in – namely a more than century-old military academy that represents an ideal that is inextricable from their identities. Instead of accepting the demise of the institution as well as the ideals it embodies to make way for the empty fate of yet another row of unnecessary condominiums, the cadets seize the campus, lock out the construction crews, and eventually have to fight the actual military to defend their position. 

If you haven’t seen Taps you should, so we’ll avoid wading into spoiler territory, but suffice it to say you will absolutely question whether what the cadets were trying to protect justified the extraordinary means they took to protect it. If they would have done nothing, if they would have just let it go, what would have happened? Sure, they may have felt disloyal to an ideal, and they might have felt shame for not trying to protect that ideal, but would life have gone on without any horrible practical consequence? Our guess is your answer will be “It probably would have.” 

The question we wanted to ask with Devastation Class was what happens when you reach the same crossroads as did the cadets in Taps, but, rather than it being a crossroads of the murky abstraction of loyalty to an ideal, it is a crossroads of true life and death? Even more specifically, what happens when you make a life-and-death choice you believe in your heart and gut is right, but making that choice also requires you to violate the most fundamental rules you are expected to obey? 

The main characters of Devastation Class, JD Marshall and Vivien Nixon, and their cadet comrades are faced with exactly this sort of situation when an alien invasion force, the Kastazi, threatens to destroy them and annihilate human civilization itself. If they do nothing, the cadets are almost positive they and everyone they love will perish. However, if they do take action there is still no guarantee they’ll survive, and, even if they do, they will instantly and forever become criminals and pariahs. 

How does someone make an impossible choice to sacrifice their future like that? Even if they feel like they have to make that choice, how do they overcome their fears and their learned, habituated instinct to “obey” those in power and their rules? And, most importantly, how do they deal with the domino effect of all the consequences of their choice – many of which they could never possibly have seen coming?

Today all you have to do is walk out your door to see choices like this being made in the real world. Whether it’s protesting for racial and social justice, or in any way espousing a just cause or view that is abhorrent to those in power, young women and men are making choices at their own risk and peril to do what they know in their hearts and guts is right. The critical question eventually becomes what do they do when the result they are trying to achieve requires taking action that could truly sacrifice their own well-being and future for the greater good of those who will continue to suffer if they don’t take action? 

Devastation Class, wrapped in the allegory of a mind-bendy YA space opera adventure, tries to ask some of these questions. While we don’t presume to offer any definitive answers other than perhaps some insight into our own POVs, the big idea wasn’t about finding any one answer. It was about asking the right questions and using the stakes imbued within those questions to drive our creative process.

And, let’s be honest… Big idea aside, our creative process was also motivated by wanting to blow stuff up in space. Like a lot of stuff. So we had that going for us. Which was nice.  

* No ferrets were harmed in the writing of this Big Idea. 

—-

Devastation Class: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Bookshop 

Read an excerpt. Visit their website. Follow the Devastation Class Instagram. Follow Elaine on Twitter and Instagram and Glen on Twitter and Instagram.

Murder By Other Means is Out on Audible + The World Premiere of “The Dispatcher” by Ted Leo

The cover to Murder by Other Means

John ScalziToday’s the day! Murder By Other Means, the second installment of the the “Dispatcher” series, is now available on Audible! Like The Dispatcher, it is performed by the estimable Zachary Quinto, and once again the story is filled with intrigue and danger, in a world where murder is a near-impossibility.

What is this one about? I’m glad you asked! Here’s the promotional text:

Welcome to the new world, in which murder is all but a thing of the past. Because when someone kills you, 999 times out of 1,000, you instantly come back to life. In this world, there are dispatchers – licensed killers who step in when you’re at risk of a natural or unintentional death. They kill you – so you can live.

Tony Valdez is used to working his job as a dispatcher within the rules of the law and the state. But times are tough, and more and more Tony finds himself riding the line between what’s legal and what will pay his bills. After one of these shady gigs and after being a witness to a crime gone horribly wrong, Tony discovers that people around him are dying, for reasons that make no sense…and which just may implicate him.

Tony is running out of time: to solve the mystery of these deaths, to keep others from dying, and to keep himself from being a victim of what looks like murder, by other means.

Pretty exciting stuff, if I do say so myself. As with The Dispatcher, Murder is novella length, which means it’s the perfect size for listening to around the house, and keeping you company on short trips and exercise.

How do you get it? Well, if you’re currently an Audible Premium or Audible Plus subscriber, all you have to do it hit up that Audible page I linked to above; it’s available to you as part of your subscription (as is The Dispatcher, the first in the series). You can download it instantly and be good to go. If you’re not an Audible Premium or Plus subscriber, or live somewhere the new Audible Plus service is not yet available, you can still purchase it from Audible, either with an Audible credit, or with actual money. Yes, actual money is still a thing!

I’m hugely excited to have this new installment of the Dispatcher series out in the world. I love writing this series and I love the fact that Zachary Quinto brings protagonist Tony Valdez and his world to life with his audio performance. I think you are going to like Murder a whole lot. I can’t wait for you to listen it.

Speaking of listening, I have a very special treat for you: “The Dispatcher,” the theme song for Murder By Other Means, written and performed by none other than indie music superstar Ted Leo. It’s having its world premiere right here and right now, for you, yes, you!

Can I tell you just how geeked out I am about Ted doing this song? I am super geeked out. I’ve been a fan of Ted’s for years, in pretty much all of his musical iterations. To have him make a song for Murder is just about the Best Thing Ever. I hope you love it as much as I do.

Happy release day to Ted, and Zachary, and me — and to you too! Come get a taste of Murder By Other Means. It’s ready for you to try!

— JS

 

The Big Idea: Dan Hanks

There’s a line, made famous from the movies, that Dan Hanks is thinking about with his newest novel, Captain Moxley and the Ember of the Empire. The problem is… that line doesn’t go far enough.

DAN HANKS:

“It belongs in a museum.”

That’s the quote we all know and love, uttered as the bad guys try to steal the priceless artifact away from Indiana Jones. And when he says it, the audience is usually cheering him on. He’s the scientist with the archaeological smarts after all. He knows how much these artifacts could benefit the world, so he’s going to risk his life to give us the chance to see them. Pretty damn noble if you ask me.

Except.

That’s not really the whole story, is it? 

Captain Moxley and the Embers of the Empire, was always meant to be a fast, fun, action-packed adventure in the Indiana Jones style. An entertaining beach read (or, I guess, ‘pandemic read’ now). However, it was also important to me to address some serious archaeological issues, in particular the colonial elements of these types of stories. I wanted to pull that aspect into the torch light and inspect it properly (while hoping it didn’t set off a trap). 

The big idea here is that the famous “it belongs in a museum” line is only half complete. In a world where archaeologists and museums are being nudged to move beyond their colonial past, it deserves a follow-up: 

Whose?

Museums are inherently collections of artifacts often obtained without permission. There’s no getting away from that uncomfortable fact, no matter how much we’ve been taught to overlook it in favour of the benefits they offer. 

Okay, yes, it’s tricky to get permission from the dead to show off their old coins, flints or ceramics. But a lot of material culture that goes on display is simply detritus and of arguably low personal significance to its past owners. (Burials and bodies are a whole other level of significance that would require a separate blog post/PhD to talk about.)

What I’m mainly concerned with here are artifacts of importance that quite clearly belong to other cultures or countries. Stolen items that continue to be displayed in usually Western collections, where the right to keep them might even be fiercely defended under some kind of weird, misplaced national pride. 

In order to tackle this much-needed conversation in my book, I felt it important to give the characters opposing viewpoints on it. To give them the knowledge to raise issues I know I’ve often thought about and have them argue the point.

Luckily, my background helped. 

I was literally old-schooled in Western archaeological thinking, studying the subject at university far too long ago, and almost venturing along the path to becoming a Doctor of Archaeology. I worked in the heritage sector in Australia, where issues of ownership and permissions were front and centre of all Indigenous archaeological projects. And, more recently, I’ve been listening intently to traditionally silenced voices on the subject – voices that must now be hoarse after talking for so long about the false romanticism of stealing artifacts from their native lands and displaying for outsiders to ogle over them. 

Of course, even with all this experience at my disposal, trying to inject it into a light-hearted, pacey action-adventure was challenging. Thankfully, readers always need a moment or two to catch their breath. It was in these quieter moments I was able to explore the topic more fully by making it a central conflict between our cynical, seen-it-all-and-killed-a-bad-man-to-get-the-T-shirt protagonist, Captain Samantha Moxley, and her younger, more blinkered archaeologist sister, Jess.

Readers will spot the theme elsewhere too. We also have an antagonist, Colonel Arif, who is a pretty awful human being, but who we sympathise with on some level because he’s right to be upset with westerners pinching things from his beloved Egypt. Meanwhile, the idea also helped bring the debate full circle at the end of the book, more closely tying the plot with the theme via a final revelation that poses a question the characters can’t answer… although maybe the reader can?

Thanks to my exploration of this big idea in Captain Moxley, I’ve come to more fully understand how possible it is to love something problematic, while also acknowledging its faults (as long as they’re not too faulty or beyond redemption). 

Some of my favourite places in the world are museums. And I will continue to champion their importance as places of learning where we can protect and study our past, learning more about ourselves and where we need to go next. BUT in certain cases they also bring with them a range of issues relating to the collections they hold. We might be grateful that they’ve saved priceless artifacts from harm previously, yet if there’s a chance to repatriate them now, why wouldn’t we? 

We can – and should – encourage them to do better. Which first means recognising the issues for ourselves. 

As for Indy… well, I’ll always love his stories. I didn’t quite follow in his footsteps and became an author instead (which is much less muddy, but with infinitely more curses). Yet being on the outside of the profession has meant I’ve been in a much better position to write a love letter to it, while tackling its less desirable elements. And I think that’s important. Because, in the end, it’s time for our thinking – and these stories – to move beyond the Western romanticism of travelling the world obtaining artifacts, and for us to realise maybe they don’t always belong in museums. 

At least, not ours. 

—-

Captain Moxley and the Embers of the Empire: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

Trying New Places: Schmidt’s Sausage Haus und Restaurant

(photo is from before pandemic, don’t worry)

Athena ScalziThis past weekend I took a stroll down to German Village in Columbus, Ohio. My pals and I perused some shops, admired the architecture, saw two super cute cats, and best of all, ate at Schmidt’s Sausage Haus und Restaurant, which from here on out I will be calling Schmidt’s.

Perhaps you’re wondering why out of all the restaurants in Columbus, I chose to go to Schmidt’s. I’m glad you asked! It’s actually a very short tale. Back in the fall semester of 2018, I took German 101 at Miami University, and learned pretty basic German, as is to be suspected when you take a class called German 101. One of the chapters was entirely about food, cutlery, how to order at a restaurant, etc. So after learning about wurst and sauerkraut and apfelstrudel, I decided I simply had to try it. I’d never had German cuisine before, so I sought out a German restaurant, and per a Google search, I discovered Schmidt’s. Somehow, it took me two years to actually go and try it, but here we are! We made it. And boy howdy was it worth the wait!

I know that venturing out and eating at restaurants is a dangerous game in these “unprecedented times”. However, Schmidt’s has taken several precautions to promote a safe environment, such as hanging up clear shower curtain-like plastic sheets in between socially distanced tables, having people wait outside so as not to crowd the waiting area inside, and having you look at the menu on your phone by scanning a code instead of handing out physical menus. My friends and I wore our masks, of course.

After thoroughly scanning the menu, I decided I simply had to go with the sausage sampler platter. When in Rome, and all that. Four different sausages, hot sauerkraut, German potato salad, chunky applesauce AND a side of bread made up this amazing plate.

The sausages were, in a word, delicious. I’m not even a big pork fan, but these sausages were seriously good. There was one of the four that had a bit of a kick to it, and normally I hate spicy stuff, but it was actually quite tasty! My friends tried a bite of each of my sausages and all of us agreed it was some truly bangin’ sausage. The sauerkraut and potato salad were excellent as well, and the applesauce was surprisingly great, like probably the best applesauce I’ve ever had. It was sweet, cinnamony, and a little chunky, as the name “chunky applesauce” suggests. Even the bread was slappin’! All around, a fantastic platter that I would highly recommend.

My friend got the Haus Saurbraten, which is marinated beef over spätzel noodles with gingersnap gravy, and mashed potatoes and green beans for the side. I got to try some of it and it was definitely good, but the gingersnap gravy was the true star of the dish, it had such a unique flavor! My other friend got the loaded potato soup, and no surprise, it was delicious.

Can you really review a restaurant if you don’t have dessert, too? I mean, probably, but it doesn’t hurt to also have dessert. So, I got their famed 1/2 pound cream puff to split with my friends, as well as their German Chocolate Cake, because, duh, it’s German! They have a couple different flavors of cream puffs, and we ordered the black raspberry chocolate chip one. It was so yummy, the cream was fluffy and light, the pastry itself was perfectly airy and golden, all around it was awesome and we devoured it. The cake was pretty okay, the frosting was probably the best part of an otherwise very normal chocolate cake.

All in all, an awesome place to eat, I definitely recommend checking it out if you’re ever in Columbus! I’m very glad I got to go and I’m hoping to go again soon. I honestly might just end up ordering the exact same thing again because it was so good. Even if I don’t eat there again next time I’m in Columbus, I’ll be sure to stop by and get a cream puff to go, because wow.

If you’ve been there, tell me about your experience in the comments! And have a great day!

-AMS

The Big Idea: Caitlin Starling

For her story Yellow Jessamine, author Caitlin Starling comes up with an interesting definition of the word “family.” She’s here to tell you why this particular definition works, in this particular case.

CAITLIN STARLING:

When I was first drafting Yellow Jessamine, I described it in meme-terms to a friend as:

“Sometimes a family is a murderous noblewoman playing at mercantile dominance and weekend gardening, her head of household staff who would scorch the earth to make her happy, a local law enforcement officer who hasn’t noticed the bodies piling up, and a traitorous soldier she blinded and locked in her spare bedroom.”

It’s a pretty thorough, if flippant, pitch for the book, and it went hand in hand with a fever dream of a cover idea that I had around the same time: our protagonist, Evelyn, draped in her mourning black and entangled with the naked bodies of her assistant, that judiciary officer, and her kidnapping victim. Grotesque intimacy, or the illusion thereof – that’s what I was trying to get at.

Yellow Jessamine is, first and foremost, a story about isolation – but unlike my first book, The Luminous Dead, that isolation is set off by a sizeable (for me, anyway) supporting cast. Evelyn is not alone because she’s stuck in a cave; she’s alone because she refuses to accept any offering of emotional support from anybody around her. 

Yes, locked-up soldier included, oddly enough.

Evelyn was, in some ways, very easy to write. Her defenses, while exaggerated, are familiar to me. It’s easier to handle grief if you refuse to let yourself care; it’s easier to work and isolate than to reach out and risk being judged, hurt, abandoned. It’s easier to avoid attachment than to handle the weight of others’ love and nurture a relationship. But detachment has consequences. Patience is not endless; push somebody away enough times, and they will probably leave for good. And when the storm comes, it can be impossible to weather it alone.

There are so many instances in Yellow Jessamine where things could have gone differently, where somebody reaches out and offers Evelyn a different path. Sometimes she notices and rejects it out of fear; other times, it’s left to the reader to see the opportunity Evelyn has entirely missed. Violetta, Evelyn’s assistant, not only enjoys her job, but is in love with her taciturn, mercurial mistress. Linden Pollard, local judiciary officer with a heart of gold, actively attempts to insert himself into Evelyn’s life in order to protect her, much to her horror. Both are willing to jump to her defense, to give her the benefit of the doubt, even to break laws and risk their lives to help her. 

And that soldier comes to Evelyn’s door for a reason.

Perhaps most importantly, though, the world that Evelyn thinks she lives in has changed, markedly, since she was a child. The rules are different now; the threats she has built her walls up against have changed form. Avenues that were closed off to her back then have now opened. She has power, power to improve her life and the lives of those around her.

But deep down, she’s still a little girl: ashamed, abandoned, defensive because without that prickly exterior, she would have suffered even more dearly. 

Writers like to talk about taking a certain amount of glee in tormenting our characters (and, perhaps, our readers), but I often found myself wanting to fix things for Evelyn. To take away those opportunities for connection instead of letting her miss them, or to allow her to be happy. To write about how terrible things had been done to her, and to erase or obscure the terrible actions Evelyn later took, influenced but not excused by her past. 

Except that wasn’t the book I wanted to write. I wanted to write a book where our protagonist was confronted with the outcome of her decisions; I didn’t want to punish her, necessarily, but I didn’t want her to be able to avoid those consequences, either. Instead, by methodically laying bare how her anxieties and mistrust and inflexibility have shaped her life and the lives of those closest to her, I hoped to give her, by the end, the dignity of understanding herself.

Evelyn is not incapable of affection; she is only incapable of acknowledging it. In another book, she might have at last found not only real companionship and support, but also a way out of the predicament her actions have led to. 

But this is still a tragedy, a horror story. Salvation is close at hand, and Evelyn will grasp it until it’s too late.

—-

YELLOW JESSAMINE: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

Armchair Quarterbacking the Dragon Awards

A picture of the Dragon Award, done in half-tone.

John ScalziIt’s now been a couple of days since The Last Emperox won the Dragon Award for Best Science Fiction novel, and thus, as we can see from this File 770 post and thread, there has been some commentary on how I and my book won this particular award (and how some other winners might have won theirs). This is of course in the grand tradition of nerds overthinking award wins, and what they mean in the larger scheme of things.

Personally, I don’t think the reason I and the book won is particularly complicated. It’s like this:

a) The Last Emperox is the critically-lauded, best-selling final book of a critically-lauded, best-selling, award-winning trilogy of books;

b) Written by a well-known contemporary science fiction author, who has won a fair number of awards in his career;

c) Who has been nominated for Dragon Awards before, including for the first book of the trilogy that The Last Emperox concludes;

d) And who also happened this year to be the Literary Guest of Honor for the convention that gives out the award, which almost certainly helped to boost his visibility amongst the voters for that prize.

Note that none of these things, individually or in combination, assure a win, particularly in a year in which the other finalists in the category include authors whose books have been best sellers, finalists or winners of Hugos, Nebulas and Bookers, or have been optioned for television or film. Nor should they assure a win! After the win has been accomplished, however, they certainly help with the armchair quarterbacking.

There are alternate theories of this win of mine, as there would be, because people are like that. But I suspect, as in most award scenarios, Occam’s Razor is likely to apply. In this case: Popular book by popular author wins popular award. Seems pretty straightforward.

(I am aware that there are some people who are fervent in the belief, against all obvious evidence to the contrary, that I am not a popular author or have popular books, and therefore any time I win a popular award there are dark and sinister social and/or corporate forces at work on my behalf. As awesome as that would be — who doesn’t want to have dark and sinister social and/or corporate forces working on their behalf? — it’s a very silly belief, and not one worth treating with any sort of seriousness.)

As I’m reasonably sure that the combination of factors I outlined above contributed significantly to my win, and also, I’m delighted to have won (I like to win awards! It’s fun!), I’m going to simply be happy with my win, and thank those who voted for me. Otherwise, I’ll let others feel how they feel about it, and theorize however they like about how it happened and what it means. I wish them joy in that. Everyone needs a hobby.

And in the meantime, I look forward to getting the nifty Dragon Award trophy and putting it up on my shelf. I’ll let you all know when it arrives.

— JS

The Big Idea: Chris Panatier

In a near-future irradiated America, blood still runs red, but its value has changed. In The Phlebotomist, author Chris Panatier takes us through a post-war world where human’s tendencies towards altruism, prejudice, and control all pivot on the tip of a butterfly needle. Read on as he explains more about its conception and evolution.

CHRIS PANATIER:

It was January 24th, 2018, and I was going to bed angry. The U.S. Government was in the midst of passing a colossal tax cut for the rich to the tune of some seventeen trillion dollars, while doing almost nothing for the lower and middle classes. Lying there on the pillow, I only grew more exasperated, to the point where I actually growled, “What a bunch of f—— REDACTED.” 

Only one of those was a curse word, but to unredact the rest would be to spoil. Nevertheless, it was in that moment of rage that the central premise for my debut novel, The Phlebotomist, kindled.

Good news: it’s not a story about tax cuts. But it is very much about power, and the lengths to which people will go to obtain and hold it. It’s happening as we speak, with the President of the United States sabotaging the Post Office to suppress the mail-in vote. 

In the near-future world of The Phlebotomist, post-war radiation sickness has led to a government-mandated blood draw. Every forty-five days, each person sixteen and up is required to give a pint at their local donor station. This is the Harvest. People can also sell extra for cash, which everyone does because automation took all the jobs. It’s all overseen by a government blood contractor called Patriot.

Not all blood is valued the same. Price is dictated by each type’s compatibility for prospective recipients. The more compatible your blood is, the more money you have. Those with less compatible types, the low bloods, have very little and live in poverty. By the time we arrive in the story, society has long been segregated by blood type.

Segregation takes many forms and occurs for all sorts of reasons, some de jure and some de facto. There can be one, or a combination, of racial, socioeconomic, ethnographic, religious, etc., justifications or reasons for it. The Phlebotomist posits another – blood type – and builds an economy on top of it. The way that patriotism can be harnessed and commandeered to do that which is antithetical to patriotic ideals is the big idea. 

Our main character, phlebotomist Willa, is forced to confront how it all came to be; How things got to the point where the government was harvesting the blood of its own people. In her world, the downward slide into authoritarianism started with a national tragedy, a nuclear bomb:

It had changed the world so drastically and all at once, that what came
after – a new way of living in the name of national defense – was expected,
embraced even. Changes came, always in the name of the Greater Good.
Changes in everyday life, like the subtle expansion of surveillance and police
powers. Like the restrictions of rights, after few had questioned it and even
fewer opposed. Incremental steps that, looking back, had amounted to gradual surrender by the people of what little freedom they’d had left. Willa wasn’t formally educated, but she was a student of her own six decades, and from that she’d identified a pattern: tragedy begat patriotism, patriotism begat opportunism, opportunism begat poverty.

We saw something like this play out right here in the U.S. with the ironically titled Patriot Act, that became a tool of the government to monitor and surveil its citizens with little or no probable cause or repercussions. Of interest to readers, the Act gave the government the authority to obtain library records and other information about citizens’ reading habits. I doubt we will ever know the full extent of how much we gave away; i.e., what the government watched and recorded. But it was the country’s rush to embrace and exhibit patriotism in the wake of what had happened to us on 9/11, that allowed the Patriot Act to go through with such little opposition. It was passed in 2001 with a four-year term. It lasted all the way until June of 2020. Once governments gets power, they are loathed to relinquish it.

The setup for The Phlebotomist is an example of how patriotism and altruism in the wake of tragedy can be redirected by those in power to leverage liberty in order to enrich themselves in both authority and treasure. 

Now might be a good time to say that The Phlebotomist is not a political screed, but actually a fun and humorous adventure with a diverse cast of characters! No, seriously. And while the story is, at its heart, a new take on the REDACTED trope, I hope that some of these themes will have readers watching their leaders with a critical eye; especially when the flag-wavers come seeking the voluntary surrender of rights under the banner of patriotism.

—-

THE PHLEBOTOMIST: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound

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

A Genuine Labor Day Miracle

As I just noted on Twitter:

John ScalziFor reference, the old “top” speed of my DSL was 6Mbps, and mostly operated at between 4 and 5. This was fine when I subscribed in the early part of this century, but has become increasingly untenable in the age of streaming. The new package boasts speeds of “up to 40mbps,” and subsequent speed tests to the one I posted on Twitter see it getting closer to that; the one I just did had the line at 29.7Mbps down as, I guess, the line gets uses to pushing more electrons down the pipe, or whatever. Honestly if I get something in the 25Mpbs range on average I’ll be happy (for now).

Ironically, the way I found out that my provider CenturyLink had finally upgraded DSL service in the area was that I was in the middle of writing a whiny post about how awful my DSL line was, and went to the CenturyLink site to confirm once again that the “high speed” internet they were pushing in my area was capped at 3Mbps (I had gotten my 6Mbps line before CenturyLink bought out Qwest, from whom I had initially gotten the line; I was grandfathered in). When I entered my address, the CenturyLink site told me they could now get me 40Mbps.

Bullshit, I thought. I’m actually going to call their service people and confirm this is bullshit. Because this is how little I trust CenturyLink’s marketing people at this point. So I called and stayed on hold for almost an hour to get them to admit that this was bullshitty bullshit they were foisting on me.

But when I finally got hold of a service representative, not only did she confirm that, indeed, a 40Mbps DSL speed was available to me, but that also if I switched over to it, it would actually be cheaper than my current tops-out-at-6-fucking-Megabits-per-second line. Would I like to switch over?

Reader, I did.

The upgrade was scheduled for Wednesday, but apparently some industrious CenturyLink worker wanted to be paid time-and-a-half on the holiday, because I was informed a little while ago that the upgrade just happened. And now I’m cruising the internet at (runs a speed test again) 38.9Mbps! Calloo! Callay!

Obviously this makes me happy, because now I suddenly have internet speeds that mean there’s a chance I may no longer need to kludge my way to faster speeds for a while. As many of you know, in addition to my (previously) shitty DSL, I also have a mobile phone line that I got expressly to be an internet hotspot. It was faster (usually between 10 and 30Mbps), but it was also data capped at 100GB per month. I originally had it as a backup for when my DSL (frequently) went out, but over time I used it as a second internet connection specifically for my office, so that I wasn’t slowing down the main line for Krissy when she was working from home, or the rest of the family when they were watching something on Netflix. Now, potentially, that second line can go back to being an emergency backup and travel hotspot.

I should be clear that “up to 40Mbps” isn’t a great, or even an actually very good, broadband speed; right now on Twitter people are posting speed tests showing their 250Mbps connections and one person from Germany just smacked down a 1Gbps connection, which is ludicrous. 40Mbps is, however, eight to ten times faster than my previous usual connection, and actually adequate for streaming and downloading things, which the previous connection was emphatically not. I will be delighted to download a video game in a couple of hours instead of having to set it to download overnight over a couple of nights, which is a thing I’ve had to do up to this point. I might be able to participate in a Zoom session and not look like a pixelated mess. I can actually now use the Internet the way it’s currently being used by people — still slower than most, but with enough speed to get it done. That’s progress, here in rural America.

So, anyway: Wheeeee! More internet speed! One less thing to complain about. Don’t worry, I’ll find something else soon enough. And this was one time, at least, where planning to whine about something actually ended up improving the thing I was going to whine about. If only it worked like that all the time.

— JS

The Last Emperox Wins the Dragon Award for Best Science Fiction Novel

The Dragon Con logo

And I’m more than a little surprised about it, because the finalist list in the Best Science Fiction Novel category was so absurdly strong. I mean, Margaret Atwood? Martha Wells? Tamsyn Muir? Chuck Wendig? Just as examples? Come on. Embarrassment of riches, there. But, you know. I like trophies. I will take it.

Thank you to everyone who voted for me. And also everyone who voted in general. I’m glad you made the effort. And thank you to Dragon Con! This is clearly the best virtual convention I’ve been to yet.

I’m dedicating this win to everyone who works on and sells my books: I don’t put them out myself, they go through quite a lot of hands to get made. And then more hands come on board to tell you about them, and get them out in the world to you, the readers. I wouldn’t be in the extremely fortunate position I am today — in general, not just winning an award today — without every single person who had a hand producing and selling my work. If you are one of these fabulous people, thank you so very much. This is your award, too. I’m gonna keep the trophy at my house, though.

Here’s the entire list of winners, on Tor.com. Congratulations to each of them as well (including some friends of mine)! It’s a good year for these awards, and I am proud to be in your company.

— JS

Behold, a Poem From My Youth

Athena ScalziSomeday (hopefully) I will be a famous author, but in the meantime I thought it would be entertaining to show you all a poem I wrote when I was sixteen, because someday these will be lost relics of my youth! Before you read it, just know it’s not actually about anyone or anything I experienced first hand at the age of sixteen. Also, at the time I wrote this I was under the impression all poems I wrote had to rhyme. Seems kind of silly now but I still kind of prefer rhyming poems.

And finally, I’m not sharing this because I think it’s good. I know it’s pretty bad, but I wanted to share it anyways because I think it’s important to look at how you used to write, and compare it to how you write now. It’s important to look at the past and be like, hey this isn’t really that good, but at least I know I’ve improved since then!

Anyway, without further ado, here’s the poem:

God, I can’t take this pain,

What do I even have to gain?

I can’t see through your lies,

From the tears blurring my eyes.

I’m sick of all this hurting inside,

And think of all the times I’ve cried.

You say you love me more than anything,

And want to give me a diamond ring.

But I don’t think I can take it anymore,

My heart is just too broken and sore.

All those nights I would’ve rather died,

All those times I’ve sadly sighed.

But, god, I love you, I love you, my dear,

But darling, love, I have this fear.

One day you’ll leave me for someone new,

And then, oh god, what would I do?

There’s a difference between forgiving and forgetting,

And you’ll mess up again, I’m betting.

Do what you want, though, I can deal,

I’ll just have to ignore what I feel.

You can lie and cheat and break my heart,

But I still don’t want to be apart.

Your words burn like fire against my skin,

But when I see you I always grin.

Darling, I love you, I just want you to know,

So please, my love, don’t let me go.

-AMS

This Morning’s Moon, 9/5/20

What it looked like from Ohio this morning. Maybe it’s the science fiction author in me talking, but one day I think people will live there, not just on a base but on a permanent basis. And as wild as that (still) is, for them, it will just be… life. That’s the interesting part to me.

Hope you are all enjoying your Labor Day weekend so far.

— JS