After the Pandemic

Illustration by Mark Pernice

The folks over at the Washington Post have put together a piece on how the world will change after this pandemic — not in the huge ways, but in the smaller, day-to-day ways — and they asked me to write something for it. I did a piece on personal greetings, because, as it happens, it was a matter of some discussion on the cruise I just came back from. My piece, and the whole package, is here for your reading. Enjoy.

The Big Idea: Eeleen Lee

Travel delays are rarely the raw material for novels, but as Eeleen Lee found out, sometimes a little time — and a new obsession — can lead to inspiration, and eventually a novel, in this case, Liquid Crystal Nightingale.

EELEEN LEE:

In late 2005 I was stuck in transit at Charles de Gaulle airport, and to pass the time I bought a notebook and made myself do a few writing exercises.

“Write what you know” goes the clichéd advice. I had just begun collecting rocks and minerals as a hobby and was eager to use this new knowledge. As the novel took shape over the next several years it deviated from the original plan: I had envisioned a collection of science fiction short stories, in the style of Primo Levi’s The Periodic Table. Each chapter was to be inspired by a mineral or some aspect of gemmology.

The second story I drafted was about a city called Chatoyance. It looked like a giant cat’s eye when seen from space, and this trait was inspired by the interplay of bands of reflected light on the surface of certain minerals such as tiger’s-eye.

In collecting specimens I also collected myths, superstitions, and legends. Diamonds are a girl’s best friend and allegedly, they’re forever. The ancient Chinese believed when a tiger died its soul entered the ground and became amber. Opals are the captured interplay of fire and oil on water, according to Pliny the Elder. Diamond and opal are the birthstones for April and October, respectively.

Out of all this extensive lore and romance a universal recognition of eternity emerges, albeit bookended by birth and death. Gems⁠—and humans⁠— are shaped by and subject to the forces of time.

What is associated with power, magic and romance, is unfortunately also connected with ongoing exploitation, corruption, and the plundering of riches. In a few surreal instances, when my hobby transmuted into obsession, it has granted me unexpected glimpses into corridors of power, if not movement within them. It is supremely disconcerting to view scintillating jewelry pieces up for auction in a hotel ballroom, surrounded by traders and VIPs, and the next minute read about the latest embargo on conflict stones on your phone. These experiences inspired the creation of the wealthy Tier Dwellers in my novel.

Gemstones also remind us that we live in a universe subject to extreme forces of nature. To extract treasure from the rocky layers beneath our feet, is to enter the realm of various chthonic deities, and tempt fate. The mining company in my novel does not respect such forces. Which is why the asteroid miners in my novel conduct rituals and name their children after rocks and minerals as a form of appeasement. But the miners pay for their employer’s hubris when tragedy strikes.

I also highly recommend a visit to the Earth Gallery of the Natural History Museum in London or to the Smithsonian in Washington, DC. The most striking exhibits are the ammonites and amber specimens. The amber evokes raw honey with its trapped insects, grit, and pollen, and the ammonites are timeless and self-contained in their Fibonacci-sequenced spirals. Gemstones are also artefacts, bringing us into contact with our past and the planet’s deep past.

A writer working in a certain genre is all too aware of its past. The dazzle of preceding works is so bright as to outshine but she sets herself a Sisyphean task to improve on or at least match these past glories. The major sci-fi films hanging over my novel are 2001, Solaris, and Alien but I tried to avoid any throwbacks to my favourites. The goal was to throw-forward as far as possible: via an invented martial art, a sprawling yet claustrophobic urbanscape, and new spins on the science fiction staples of cybernetic implants, forcefields and guns.

In a genre that tends to feature action and explosions, I was seeking to reintroduce a sense of quiet, or disquiet, and a plot that prompts audiences to absorb its implications rather than merely following it. But there’s still action and explosions because it would be strange to not include these in a space opera. It’s all part of the experience and immersion. In gemmology you immerse your eyes and hopefully, in reading you immerse all of yourself.

—-

Liquid Crystal Nightingale: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

Till the Heart Caves In: An LP-length Mixtape Playlist

I felt like making a mixtape today! Which I did, and it turned out exactly as long as an LP, with five songs on each side. Here it is, in YouTube video form. I also have it on Spotify, here.

SIDE ONE

SIDE TWO

The Big Idea: S.A. Jones

It’s not every day that your book is the debut novel for an entire publishing line, but S.A. Jones has that honor with The Fortress, which is the first release from Erewhon Books. It’s a big responsibility, but as you’ll see below, Jones has a big idea to match.

S.A. JONES:

I began writing The Fortress when I was twelve, although I didn’t know it then. At the time I was a competitive swimmer and had the occasional dream of Olympic glory. But I also wanted to be Prime Minister of Australia and David Attenborough, so I was keeping my options open.

Along with four others in my swim squad, all boys, I had achieved the qualifying time to try out for the state team. This meant travelling from our tiny island in the Buccanneer Archipelago in Western Australia to the “big smoke” of Port Hedland in the Pilbara region.

Being four boys and me in the 80s, our squad was called “SJ and the Meaner Machine,” after the formidable Australian freestyle relay team “The Mean Machine.” My initials are “SJ.” We had shirts made up and everything.

We were chaperoned by the coach and his wife and billeted with a family in Port Hedland. A roster of chores was drawn up for us five kids while we were there. This was a sensible thing to do given we ate constantly and created mountains of chlorinated washing.

When it was Jeffrey’s turn to do the dishes, he refused. This put my coach and his wife in an awkward position, because Jeffrey was their son. His parents insisted.

Jeffrey refused and began to glow red around the ears. This was a warning sign we were all familiar with. Jeffrey’s tantrums were epic: a loud, kinetic spectacle that he claimed to have no memory of afterwards.

The embarrassment in the room at Jeffrey’s refusal became a palpable thing, another presence.

As the redness spread from Jeffrey’s ears to his temples and a high pitched whine began to escape his mouth, Jeffrey’s mother announced that I would do his dishes.

His dishes. As well as the dishes I was rostered to do.

“That’s not fair,” I pointed out.

But the desire to avert a scene was stronger than the inclination for fairness, and my protests fell on deaf ears.

As I stood by the sink doing Jeffrey’s dishes, my face burning with humiliation, Jeffrey smirked at me from the doorway.

For the few days we were billeted there, I had to do all Jeffrey’s chores as well as my own.

As injustices go it was trifling. It probably doesn’t even rank in the top ten most sexist experiences of my life. What is significant is that during those few days my consciousness of girlhood, and what that means in relation to boyhood, was born. Even setting aside the gross error of judgement in releasing Jeffrey from his chores, there were three other kids in that team that could have shared the load. But they were boys.

Housework was girl work. I was the girl. The SJ in the Meaner Machine.

I’ve given a lot of thought to what it is to be a girl. In some ways, Jeffrey has always been smirking at me from the doorway of that kitchen.

I’ve read wonderful, powerful books about the female experience. Kate Grenville’s Lilian’s Story. Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. Charlotte Wood’s The Natural Way of Things.

But where was the book about Jeffrey? About what happens to a boy who learns early in life that the world will bend his way. Who is not taught to discipline his emotions and appetites. Who expects that handmaids will clean up when he won’t.

And more importantly, what does it take for this man to change?

The Fortress is my answer to that question.

What is evident is that empathy is not enough. If it were, we would have no difficulty entering into the reality of other people’s lives and changing ourselves to better their reality. Fathers would discard sexist expectations as they raise daughters. White women would unpack their colonialism as they understand how it distorts the lives of their friends of color.

Clearly, some people do work from empathy to change.

But if empathy were sufficient in itself, our world would not look like it does. That is why The Fortress is so carnal. I could have told this story while being coy about the sexual elements in the way of “serious” literature. But I want the reader to be physically discomfited. The aroused and feeling weird about it reader is the reader I want. The reader I designed.

The Fortress is supposed to get under the skin because imagination – the gateway to empathy – isn’t enough. Change is not an intellectual exercise. It is gritty, visceral and awkwardly physical. Like shame (which often pre-empts change), it happens in the body.

—-

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

Visit the author’s site.

Great Scott

I noted this on Twitter yesterday but it bears a retelling and an archiving here: The folks at Jay and Mary’s Book Center, my local bookstore, knew that I and my family were away on a cruise the week that the coronavirus started to bite down hard, and people started freaking out and hoarding toilet paper. So out of their own purchases (which I can only assume were moderate and responsible), they saved us this 4-pack. Athena went and picked it up the other day.

As it turned out, we were not in want of toilet paper — we have an ample supply to get through the next two or three week at least — but I very much appreciated the neighborliness the act represented. That sort of simple kindness and consideration of those near us is the thing that’s going to get us through the next couple of months, and may hopefully set a pattern (or reset it) that we can continue on after this.

Also this is a fine reminder that I do sign stock at Jay & Mary’s on a frequent basis, and will be signing The Last Emperox for them when it comes in, so if you don’t have a local bookstore you already support, and you feel like splashing out a little extra in shipping in order for me to scribble in your book, you can give them a call and they will be happy to help you out.

The Big Idea: TJ Klune

In the writing of The House in the Cerulean Sea, author TJ Klune looked a little history north of our border — and current events right here in the US — to inform his world of magic, and bureaucrats who seemingly trudge through it.

TJ KLUNE:

When an author gets an idea in their head—one with legs that isn’t just a fleeting thought—it tends to worm its way into our brains and won’t leave us alone until we either write it down or kill it with fire.

Before I started The House in the Cerulean Sea, I had the pieces of an idea, these little shards that didn’t quite come together into a clear picture. It had to do with magical people dealing with fear and discrimination. Specifically, it would involve magical children, those who should have been protected at all costs, but instead were shunned for simply existing at all.

It helped (maddeningly so) that I could already hear the main character’s voice in my head, a fussy fellow named Linus, who was a stickler for the rules. He would be a caseworker in an Orwellian world, where the government sees all, knows all, and controls everything. Linus would work for said government with the bureaucratically gloomy name of The Department in Charge of Magical Youth (DICOMY), a drone who did as he was told because it was expected of him. And he’d be queer, because that’s what I write: queer people from all walks of life.

The pieces were there, but the picture was still fuzzy.

It remained fuzzy until I stumbled across the Sixties Scoop, something I’d never heard of before, something I’d never been taught in school (I’m American, by the way). In Canada, beginning in the 1950s and continuing through the 1980s, indigenous children were taken from their homes and families and placed into government-sanctioned facilities, such as residential schools. The goal was for primarily white, middle-class families across Canada, the US, and even Europe—to adopt these children. It’s estimated that over 20,000 indigenous children were taken, and it wasn’t until 2017 that the families of those affected reached a financial settlement with the Canadian government totaling over eight hundred million dollars.

I researched more, and discovered instances the world over, in my own country and abroad, of the same thing happening: families being separated because they were different, because of the color of their skin, because of their faith, because those in power were scared of them. I wrote The House in the Cerulean Sea in the spring of 2018, months later, in the summer, news exploded from our southern border about families searching for a better life being separated and put into government-sanctioned facilities.

History, as it does with terrifying consistency, was repeating itself once again.

Let me be up front about something: I’m a white dude. There really isn’t much I should be preaching about. I’m queer, and a loud one at that, but the marginalization I’ve faced because of this isn’t to be compared to others facing bigotry. It’s not a contest. It sucks across the board, but I’m a mid-thirties cis man in America. I’m privileged in ways others are not. I know this, so when I wrote Cerulean, I knew I had to do so carefully, to make sure that what I’d decided on to be the central theme of the story wouldn’t be lost.

That central theme?

Kindness.

Look, I get how that sounds. I’m sure more than a few of you reading this rolled your eyes at the word. It’s trite, isn’t it? Sure it is. But stick with me for a moment.

As I write this, it’s 2020, and we’re so divided, I don’t know how we’ll recover from it. Those in power fling insults as easily as they breathe. People take to the streets in masks and hoods, spreading their hate as if it were gospel. We’re all so angry almost every second of every day, and we have a right to be. We should be angry. The world is on fire. The news grows more dire with each new breaking broadcast. People are hurt—or worse, killed—because of who they love, what they believe, or the color of their skin. We’ve lost our way, and I worry that this has become our new normal.

I can only do what I think I do best: write. And so I began writing The House in the Cerulean Sea, imagining a world not so different from our own, where people who are different than the majority are controlled by those in power. The smallest of us—the children—are taken from their homes and placed into euphemistically named orphanages, overseen by caseworkers in DICOMY. Linus is sent on a top-secret assignment to investigate a special orphanage, one hidden away, housing what the world considers to be the most dangerous of children.

What he finds there changes him. How exactly, you’ll have to read for yourself, but I never strayed away from kindness as a theme. It was—and still is—important to me. To offer a hand in compassion rather than a fist raised in anger seems like it should be common sense, but many appear to have forgotten that. We, like Linus discovers, need to use our voices for those who can’t speak for themselves, those who should be allowed to be small in this great, wide world. But sometimes we also need to shut up and listen to those small voices, because if we don’t, we run the risk of drowning them out.

We are better than what we currently seem to be. I know we are. And I don’t believe it’s too late for us to course correct. It’s going to take time, and a hell of a lot of hard work, but we’re capable of it. The House in the Cerulean Sea is my great wish into the universe, a fable about the goodness in us all, if only we can believe in it. Hope is a weapon, kindness our battle cry. As long as we stand together, I know we’ll shape this place we call home into something we can all be proud of.

—-

The House in the Cerulean Sea: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

A Bunch of COVID-Related Thoughts

The front page of the Dayton Daily News, 3/17/20.

I’m awake at an absurdly early hour and can’t get back to sleep! A perfect time to post a bunch of musings on the current apocalypse! These aren’t in any particular order because see above, re: absurdly early hour.

* First off, this is an apocalypse that I have to admit seems uniquely suited, on a day-to-day basis, not to inconvenience me all that much. Let’s recap: I’m an introvert writer who works from home, rarely goes out, does almost no local socializing and who has over the years developed long and fruitful relationships with people he mostly hangs out with online. What we’re all doing now? This is my actual life. Staying at home for weeks at a time without outside human contact is what I do anyway. I know this current situation is difficult for a lot of you, and you’re struggling with this enforced isolation. I do sympathize, and I mean that entirely without irony or sarcasm. But for my own self, well. I got this.

* Also, on a slightly more serious note, this current apocalypse is one I and my family are fortunate to be equipped to handle. We live in a small town on some land so “social distancing” is not exactly difficult. My wife’s job already let her work from home two days a week, so she already had her infrastructure and habits set and we already have a “both of us working from home” routine set. Her working from home five days a week (as she’ll be doing for the next several weeks) will not be a problem. As already noted, I work from home anyway. Our kid is back at home right now, but we like having her home, and she likes us too, so that’s great. We have health insurance and we can cover our deductible without a problem, and we are all generally healthy. We have money in the bank and no debts or immediate financial concerns. We have satellite TV and streaming services and internet and musical instruments and, of course, thousands of books. We have cats. We’re fine. Mind you, if civilization collapses entirely we’ll be just as fucked as everyone else. But until then: We’re fine.

* However, I’m well aware that not everyone else is fine. Even leaving aside those who are ill or taking care of the sick, there are millions of Americans who are not in a great position to weather weeks at home, and whose jobs and lives and incomes and health are threatened by the Great Stop of Everything we’re seeing now. I am worried about friends and family and I’m worried about local businesses. We are giving thought to how best we can help, locally and with the people we care about. There’s a rush to do everything up front, but this is something that’s going to be with us for a while, both in the immediate crush of crisis, and the long follow-up of reconfiguring our lives to what comes next. We’re thinking about both, and what we can do.

* And it’s not as if the current situation isn’t affecting me, either. I just had a book tour cancelled, because it’s unlikely things are going to take a sudden magical turn for the better in less than a month. That’s going to have an effect on how the book does in the short run — as will the fact that people are at home rather than out at bookstores, and that they’re worried about their finances, so book purchases may (understandably) be a lower priority for some. Long-term, I think it will be fine; one weirdness of my career is that I frontlist well but I backlist like a friggin’ rock star, so in time any hiccup with the launch will probably be smoothed over (EVEN SO pre-order The Last Emperox right now, if you can, please and thank you). But yeah, I’m going to take an early hit on this, possibly a real big one. It is what it is.

Also, that portion of my retirement account that’s invested in the stock market has, uhhhhhh, taken a bit of a haircut — the stock market is down a third from its highs, and much of that has been in the last couple of weeks, while our incompetent national government has been saying and doing exactly the wrong things, frequently and in sequence, and the repercussions of our economy shutting down have hit the markets. The “good news” here, for me, anyway, is that I’m not retiring for 20 years anyway (if writers ever retire at all), and this isn’t the first massive market correction I’ve weathered as an investor. You may recall the 2008 unpleasantness, for example. But it’s still rather emphatically not great.

Again, I’m fine, my family is fine and short of a complete collapse of civilization we should get through this okay. We are affected less than others, and you really should not feel sorry for us. But we’re still being affected.

* Let me talk a moment here about the president and the federal government and their response to this crisis, and let me begin by noting that no matter who was in power, this global pandemic would have happened and it would have been horrible for people and the economy. This is a tsunami that feels almost specifically designed to swamp the way we’ve designed our global systems and the way we move around in the world, locally and internationally. This was always going to be bad; the role of national governments in this case was always going to be how to mitigate the awfulness as much as possible.

With that said, let’s not pretend that we did not have the absolute worst president and administration possible for the circumstances presiding at the moment (and yes, this is a recurring theme). We did and do, and we and our economy are currently suffering for it. The president and the administration lied and minimized and denied responsibility while all of this was happening, and wasted billions trying to prop up markets that collapsed regardless. I mean, I know why they did that: one of the great “justifications” for the incompetence and malign nature of the Trump administration has been a smug “how’s your 401(k) doing?”, as if one’s retirement account excused the vast corruption and incompetence.

Well, the answer now to that smug question is: Terrible, actually, it’s lost every single gain it’s made in the last three years, and it lost it in just under two weeks, in no small part to how the administration bungled the response to this. Now everyone is at home and lots of people won’t have jobs or money after all this is over. What’s the excuse now for this awful, terrible, incompetent regime, now that the nation’s 401(k)s are well and truly screwed? There is none, except, basically, racism, bigotry and “owning the libs.” Enjoy your MAGA hat, folks. That’s all you’re getting out of this presidency.

At least our response (now) isn’t “Get them all sick, let God sort them out,” which I understand is the current UK government response — or was until I think yesterday evening, when the Tories figured out they were going to end up slaughtering mostly their own voters. Congratulations, US, for not having the absolutely most heartless national response to a global pandemic!

Also, for fuck’s sake, people, stop voting for rich, ignorant, venal white men (and their quisling lackeys) who don’t care about you unless you’re a goddamn billionaire. Just fucking stop, already.

* This would also be my cue to slam US conservatives in general for their “let’s pretend this isn’t happening because if we say it’s not happening then it won’t happen” mode of thinking and responding, and generally speaking I would not be wrong to do so — except for the actually conservative government of the State of Ohio, in which I live, which has been doing an overall very decent job of recognizing there’s a crisis. It’s been shutting down the state in an orderly fashion so that people will just stay the hell home, already, and coordinating with local governments to stay on top of things. They were doing these things at the same time or even before more liberal state governments in places like California and New York were doing their things. Apparently, conservatives in Ohio may be conservative, but they still have some relationship to a reality that’s not been entirely crafted by Sean fucking Hannity and Fox News. So thank you, Ohio conservatives, for generally being in the same world as I am, at least for this bit. It’s heartening.

(EXCEPT for this complete bullshit, closing down the polls as a health hazard at ten fucking thirty the night before the Ohio primary, with no prior notice and with no actual plan to reschedule the primary aside from “oh, we’ll move it to June, except that I, the governor, have no legal right to do that, so, uh, yeah [Jedi hand wave].” I usually vote early in Ohio, but didn’t this time, and now I’m kicking myself. Never again. Also, hi, folks, do your voting early/by mail this year if you can, because you just know this bullshit is going to pulled again come November. There is literally no excuse for this last minute rug pulling, and everyone of every political persuasion should be waving red flags about it.)

* To come back to me for a moment, and I think for the duration of this (at least), one of my plans will be to write more here, and to do what I can to support other writers and to give people things to read and do to occupy their time. What that means at this point I’m a little fuzzy on, other than probably writing more posts. I’m figuring this out as I go along like everyone else. But again, I know this isolation thing is tough for folks, for all sorts of differing reasons. I’d like to do what I can to make it a little more bearable. All which is to say: I’m working on it, folks. We’ll see what comes of it.

(Note, because I see some of you hovering over your keyboard, I’m not looking for suggestions on what to do. I’ll figure out what works best for me. If I do want suggestions, I will specifically ask. But thanks!)

* We’ll get through this, most of us. Wash your hands, stay home, take care of yourself and your family and look out for your neighbors and friends. Don’t hoard toilet paper or milk or whatever other saleable good everyone seems to be panicking about today. Stick to actual reputable news sources and don’t forward bullshit you see on social media. Support your local businesses now so they will be around when all of this is over. If you can, buy a book (waves) or subscribe to a Patreon or otherwise give support to the creative people you know who are low-key panicking about how they’re gonna eat for the next month or two.

Finally and for the foreseeable future: Let’s be kind when we can. I bet we can be kind most of the time. Let’s all try it and see.

Important News About The Last Emperox Tour

So, let’s get right to it, folks: The book tour for The Last Emperox has to be cancelled.

Why? Well, I’m pretty sure you know why:

1. There’s a global pandemic going on as we speak.

2. Gathering in groups is not a great idea.

3. In a lot of the places where my tour stops are, gathering in large groups is currently not allowed.

4. A number of the events and festivals that I was going to as part of my tour have already been delayed or cancelled.

5. Neither I nor Tor can in good conscience ask people to risk their health — or the health of others — just to come see me do my thing. These are extraordinary times and circumstances, and we want you all to be safe and healthy, today and in the future.

I want you to know that neither I nor Tor have come to this decision lightly. If you’ve ever seen me at an event then you know how much I genuinely enjoy them. I love coming to town, seeing all of you, and supporting booksellers in their communities. I am as unhappy about this as you are. But! This is just one tour. There will be other books, other tours and other opportunities to see each other. Let’s keep that in mind even if things are disappointing right now.

Also and this is important: If you have pre-ordered The Last Emperox from your local bookseller in anticipation of my upcoming tour event, please keep your pre-order with your local bookstore. The next couple of months are going to be very difficult for local business, bookstores included. They will need your help to make it through what is going to be a very tough time. On my end, I’ll be doing what I can for the bookstores where we had announced tour events to get signed copies and/or bookplates to them. We’ll try to do right by them and you on that score. That’s another reason we’re announcing this now — so we’ll have enough time to work with these stores.

So, please, please, please: Keep your pre-order at your local bookstore, or make that pre-order at your local bookstore. Your local bookstore needs you right now. The more you support your local bookseller today, the more likely it is to be around in the future, when I and the other authors you like are able to go back on tour. I want to be able to see you and scribble in your book face-to-face, the next time I have a book out. And the way for that to happen is for you stick by your local bookstore today.

Also remember that I am signing and personalizing copies of The Last Emperox through Subterranean Press (get your orders in there soon; I’ll be signing those at the end of the month), and that you may also order signed books through my own local bookseller, Jay and Mary’s Book Center of Troy, Ohio — and that’s any of my books, not just Emperox.

Finally, and just to be clear about this, I will be promoting the crap out of The Last Emperox. Folks, I’m not bragging when I tell you this book is really good; I can’t think of a book I’ve written before where I’ve been this excited to have you all read it to find out what’s happening with the characters and the universe. I want to share it with you and talk about it with you and geek out about it with you.

That being the case, just because I’m not going to be able to do a physical tour doesn’t mean I won’t be around to talk it up and to get with you all. I had a long phone call today with the folks at Tor where we thought about what to do for the book and how we can get people excited for it. We have plans. Oh so many plans. You will find out more about them soon. This will be fun. Stay tuned.

In the meantime: Wash your hands, be kind to each other, support your local businesses including your local bookstore, and above all be ready, because in less than a month The Last Emperox will be out. It will be worth it, and I can’t wait for you to get your hands on it.

The Big Idea: Ann VanderMeer

And now for something a little different: A Big Idea about a Web site, not a book: Avatars, Inc. But it is an anthology, and it’s something I think qualifies here, because as editor Ann VanderMeer explains, it’s got quite a big idea behind it.

ANN VANDERMEER:

The XPRIZE Foundation has been around for over twenty years, doing great work by incentivizing breakthroughs in science and technology. In 2018, XPRIZE produced Seat 14C, its first fiction anthology, followed by Current Futures in 2019, and now Avatars Inc. The goal: To use storytelling to intrigue and inspire the public about our possible futures, brought about by the work XPRIZE is doing today.

There has been a big push in the last several years in current STEM programs around the world to add in the “A” for Arts and have STEAM. And why not? Including the arts into any science and technology program will only expand your reach and include more people. It’s much easier to get the point across in a story than in a bland, jargon-filled article. Which is why you are seeing more and more fiction writers invited to speak at science conferences.

We face many challenges in the modern world, what with climate change, health issues, global conflicts, access to education, and poverty. At XPRIZE, people are working together to find solutions for the future. And the stories being expressed with the XPRIZE anthologies give rise to the imagination. Indeed, storytelling is often used for applied creativity in problem solving.

The relationship between science fiction stories and actual science has always been there. Many scientists who became involved in the Space Program at NASA were early readers of science fiction and were inspired to make a career of science. It’s not just that certain technologies and ideas that originated from science fiction stories become real in our modern day, but also that some SF readers go on to pursue careers in the sciences and make an impact in the world.

I was first approached last year to edit the Current Futures anthology to promote World Oceans Day. I had the opportunity to bring in new voices and work with other writers that I knew and admired. It was a dream project and I was thrilled to see writers like Rochita Loenen-Ruiz, Deborah Biancotti and Karen Lord get excited about stories and work with them again. I was also thrilled to work with other writers for the first time, including Malka Older, Madeline Ashby and Gu Shi.

When I was later asked to edit Avatars Inc, I immediately said yes, and what a wonderful venture it has been. I love working with writers from all over the world and seeing what they can come up with. In this case, they were asked to imagine the uses of avatars in the near and far future. This idea expands on the real-life ANA Avatar XPRIZE competition underway with teams all over the world competing to develop avatar technologies. As innovators work together to develop uses for real avatars, the writers work to imagine what could be. And one of the things that science fiction writers do best is explore the possibilities of “What If?”

Pat Cadigan’s story “The Final Performance of the Amazing Ralphie” imagines the avatars entertaining those consigned to off-planet hospice care. People struggling with health care issues need more than medical attention and this story shows how technology can step in and enhance the lives of those that may have been forgotten.

Avatars are often used in places where it is tricky for humans to navigate. In “Uma,” by Ken Liu, avatars move high up in the power lines to fix and maintain the electrical power structures that we all rely on so heavily. But in this story, their use is pushed beyond the original mandate when life is threatened. Their original purpose is questioned and new uses are discovered.

In both of these stories we can see the typical uses for avatars expanded beyond the original ideas and that’s what gets me so excited about these narratives. Yes, medical and mechanical uses are abundant, but these writers take this a step beyond and imagine what would happen if the avatars (and the humans operating them) are pushed further. Indeed, some of the best inventions have come about when an original idea paves the way into something else. For example, something as simple as the Post-It note, or more complicated like the pacemaker, were both discovered as a result of other pursuits.

After spending the last couple of years fully invested in fantasy while I worked on two mega-anthologies (The Big Book of Classic Fantasy and The Big Book of Modern Fantasy – a combined total of over 2000 pages!), it was refreshing to dive back deep into science fiction. And it reminded me that there are so many highly intelligent creators out there, both in the arts and in the sciences, who continue to create and innovate fearlessly and without slowing down. It brings me much hope for the future that even as we seem to be facing dark days ahead, there are others who show us what opportunities can be achieved and how far we are willing to go to ensure a better future.

—-

Find the AVATARS INC anthology here: www.avatars.inc

Visit the ANA Avatar XPRIZE website

Follow AVATARS INC on Instagram

Follow XPRIZE on Twitter and Instagram.

Follow Ann VanderMeer on Twitter and Instagram

My First Associated Press Photo Credit

I snapped a picture at the Ft. Lauderdale airport yesterday while I was trying to head home and posted it on Twitter with the requisite snarky comment, and then it went viral (so to speak). One thing led to another and now the AP is distributing the photo. Now I have an AP photo credit to my name, which as a former full-time journalist, is kind of neat. I also talked to the AP’s local reporter (Terry Spencer of the byline you see above) of the mood, etc of that very packed airport.

When he asked me my occupation, I noted I was a science fiction writer who had, in fact, written books about a future plague, so the unfurling of current events was not exactly surprising to me. We’ll see if that quote gets in any future updates to this particular story.

If you’d like to see the story to which the above photo was appended, it’s here.

Also, hello! We’re back home. We’re feeling fine. I for one don’t plan to leave the house for a while. Not only best practices at the moment, but just, you know, what I do anyway.

Life at Sea, Thursday Edition

It’s nice. I’ll be sad to be back on land.

Hello From a Boat Next to an Island in the Caribbean

At the moment, we’re visiting the Dominican Republic. The temperature is 76 degrees and the humidity is perfectly bearable. I’m in a bathrobe and about to head to the spa to soak in the “hydro-pool,” which strikes me as a redundant term, but, hey, whatever makes them happy. I’m sure wherever you are is perfectly nice, too. But I have to say, I’m enjoying being away.

That’s it, that’s the post, have a lovely Tuesday.

The Big Idea: Myke Cole

In Sixteenth Watch, author Myke Cole wants to bring your attention to a different sort of military branch — one whose remit is different, but no less vital, than any other, and how that differing mission is vital for his novel and the story he’s telling within.

MYKE COLE:

When we hear the word “military,” we’re rightly put in mind of its core connotation – bombs exploding, bullets flying, bodies hitting dirt. We picture Baghdad during the opening phases of “shock and awe,” drone feeds from Afghan mountainsides just before they evaporate in clouds of superheated grit blown out by the overpressure. That’s a military, that’s what a military does. “We put warheads on foreheads” was an axiom I heard all the time. “Our primary role,” an enterprising 1SG (First Sergeant) told me in Camp Liberty, “is to kill people and destroy property.”

She wasn’t wrong. Militaries exist to fight and warfighting is an ugly business. It is, no matter how we dress it up, an exercise in killing – inflicting as much egregious harm on other human beings as quickly as possible in the hope that they will cry uncle and comply with our policy objectives.

A core function, sure, but not the only function.

In my years in uniform I saw military engineers build infrastructure that would benefit civilian populations for years to come. I saw the attache corps foster relationships with foreign governments that would further diplomacy so that we could avoid future fights. I saw sports teams and gaming clubs. I saw research centers and scientific ferments. The military gave us the Internet. The military (or military contractors) gave us handheld radios, superglue, duct tape, GPS, and nuclear power.

When I decided to join up (ironically after I had already done two tours in Iraq as a mercenary) I wanted the branch that was the most elite, the hardest to get into. I thought, as most do, that was the US Marine Corps.

It wasn’t.

It was the US Coast Guard.

Like most of you, I didn’t realize the USCG was part of the American military, but they have fought in every American war since the service’s creation in 1790. The Coast Guard has an undeserved reputation for being soft, more cops than warfighters, and as a member you are far less likely to deploy overseas than in the other four branches. This means that everyone who wants to join the military, but doesn’t really want to join the military, thinks the Coast Guard will be a nice smooth ride (they get a rude awakening when they report to New London for OCS or Cape May for boot). They have an insane glut of applicants and the smallest budget of all the branches. Therefore, they are selective as hell. It is really hard to get into the guard.

The Coast Guard are warfighters. They kill people and destroy property. They put warheads on foreheads.

But unlike the other four branches, that isn’t the why of the service. This difference is why the guard alone is under the Department of Homeland Security rather than the Department of Defense. It is why the guard alone is governed by its own special title of the US Code – Title 14.

Because while all other military branches were chartered first and foremost to take lives, the guard alone were chartered to save them.

And that’s the big idea behind Sixteenth Watch.

Military science fiction is an incredibly popular genre. It has a guaranteed audience of rabid fans who scarf down book after book from names you’ve probably heard – Jack Campbell, John Ringo, Karen Traviss, Linda Nagata, Orson Scott Card, Joe Haldeman, David Drake, Elizabeth Moon, Tanya Huff, Robert Buettner, and plenty of other big names that are no longer with us. But one thing all of this vast body of work has in common is its focus on the core of the military’s mission – killing people and destroying property. Military SF has always centered around the warfighting aspect of the military experience.

But while the Coast Guard certainly fights wars, that isn’t the heart of what they do. The guard’s core 11 missions are marine safety, search-and-rescue (SAR), aids to navigation, protecting living marine resources, marine environmental protection, ice operations (ice breaking), PWCS (ports, waterways, and coastal security), drug interdiction, migrant interdiction, defense readiness, and maritime law enforcement.

Only one of these – “defense readiness” is a warfighting component. The guard is a military service dedicated almost wholly to environmental protection, life-saving, and the enforcement of maritime law.

The guard’s story, the story of these other missions, is absolutely a military story, and it is a story that has not been adequately told in military science fiction. Some of the greatest authors in the genre have extrapolated every military service in the country out into the stars. We’ve seen Heinlein’s Mobile Infantry, Buettner’s army of orphans, the Adeptus Astartes of Warhammer 40,000, the Federation fleet and the Imperial navy. We’ve seen iteration after iteration of futuristic imaginings of the warfighting.

But not the Coast Guard. We haven’t sufficiently imagined the rigors of search-and-rescue missions on the moon, haven’t speculated on the challenges of customs enforcement along an interstellar border. We haven’t sat down and taken our best guess at how Title 14 of the US Code would stretch and bend and change to accommodate the new frontier, how the challenges that face the Guard in 2020 – fighting for respect and the budget allocations that come with it – would play out as humanity expands into the stars.

We haven’t and I’m proud to take my shot at changing that.

Captain Jane Oliver of the United States Coast Guard has been through some tough times, and emerged changed by them. A combination of her unique abilities and wild circumstance have placed her on the moon in a unique position to both propel the Coast Guard into the future and prevent the first lunar war with China, a war that, should it break out, surely won’t stay on the moon.

I can’t wait to share Jane’s story with you.

I can’t wait for her to get the chance to show you that there is so much more to warriors than war.

—-

Sixteenth Watch: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: Premee Mohamed

For the Big Idea about her novel Beneath the Rising, author Premee Mohamed considers the nature of one of the most important types of relationship we have, yet also the one that is many ways the least understood by those who participate in it. Which type of relationship is this? Read on.

PREMEE MOHAMED:

The main thing you need to know about fruit fly research is that it stinks.

It is not glamourous. Their jellied slops are composed of sugar and yeast and malt. A fly lab does not smell (as you’d expect) like a hip new brewery, but stale or even recycled beer: a dive bar bathroom. Fabric and hair soaks it up and when you get home you have to segregate your clothes from the family wash. Such was my state in early 2002, when I was finishing ‘Beneath the Rising’ and an honours project on Drosophila chromosomes and a genetics degree. And, messily, visibly, also the tail-end of a depressive spiral. I was twenty years old and I did not know what I was supposed to be doing for the rest of my life.

Depression, as I was dimly beginning to guess, makes you wonder whether you are worthy of many things. Notable candidates included attention, respect, and love. I often wondered why my friends didn’t leave me, as I felt they should. Why they stayed, checked up on me, gave me their notes, took me to appointments. Listen, I’ve been writing this book, I wanted to tell them deliriously sometimes. It’s about knowledge and power and prestige. The keeping of the gates against disaster. I mean, more than one type of gate. But other things. You don’t even know.

It was an adventure story, heroes in a race against time: a teenaged genius, her loyal friend. It was about evil awakening, sniffing, shrugging off its long sleep. Labyrinths, ancient books, magic, secret societies. Responsibility. Guilt. What it meant to want to save the world, and have it backfire. What it meant to save the world at all.

It did not occur to me that below these grand and worrisome things I was really writing about the relationship between the two kids. Reproducing my own life, and my friendships, and how my breakdown was causing a re-evaluation of what friendship meant to me. That friendship was not lesser than romantic love, only different, and the unfairly short shrift it got had to do with how we, as a society, construed its necessity.

Friendship was easy; it was the love you learned immediately after learning to adore the people who kept you alive. Easy to pick up, easy to feel, easy to calibrate against other loves as you got older. Easy to fence off from romance, which existed absolutely on its side of the electrified wires.

Romantic love seemed animal. Was me shouting at my flies “Mate, dammit!” when I threw them into a vial. Platonic love seemed rational. A calculated weighing of what was owed, what was deserved, what was earned. Under this framework, it seemed even worse to me that my friends were my friends. What had I done, depression wanted to know, to retain their friendship?

In ‘Beneath the Rising,’ the narrator, Nick, struggles with this just as I did; we could not articulate it, especially under duress (admittedly, mine was not due to fighting actual monsters). In fiction, we are told, character is destiny. Plot derives from characters’ desires: they want something, they make choices to get it, they are thwarted, boom. But I had begun to ask myself: Aside from those, what if there are choices made not to achieve your own goal, but in order to keep a friendship intact? What would you do to preserve a relationship that is not romance, especially if you want it to be?

And these are difficult questions for him, they are not easily answered. The friendship is uneven in many ways; how can you be friends (he wonders) with someone who will not even acknowledge the imbalance, let alone the other elephants in the room? What does it mean to give up your own desires, or more noble ones, for that?

People ask me: Would the book end the same way if you wrote it today? I am not sure. It seems crucial that I have had eighteen solid years of brain development (and avoiding quite so many solvent fumes), true. But I have also had years of watching who stayed with me and who left when things were at their worst.

The friends who got me through 2002? Are all still with me. I could not drive them away by being so consumed by my degree that I neglected them, ignored emails, constantly showed up to things fresh from the lab with flies in my hair or covered in radioactive markers (and always smelling like regurgitated beer). And I have patiently waited out unrequited love many times in those years as well. I, the grown-up reader, am angry at Nick for being the way he was; but I, the teenaged writer, did not want to leave it out. I wanted them to make bad choices. I wanted the exhausting exorcism of writing a one-sided romance buried in a friendship like a shard of glass in a soft fruit. I don’t know that I want that any more.

Now, I wonder about who gets driven away and who doesn’t, and who comes back. I wonder about conditionality. It’s a theme reprised (now that I look at it) in everything I write, in which no one is loved romantically, or everyone is loved platonically, and every relationship lives in the blurry grey area that I used to think was neatly separated. I look forward to frustrating readers with it just as I continue to frustrate myself; because none of this, it turns out, is science.

—-

Beneath the Rising: Amazon|Barnes and Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

On the Boat

Another year, another JoCo Cruise! I’ll be updating the site while I’m on the boat… but not a whole lot. Because I’ll be busy, you know, having a vacation. And before you ask, don’t worry, I’m washing my hands and the whole ship is sanitized. We’ll be fine. It’s you all who should be careful. I want there still to be a country when I come back, please. Thanks.

The Big Idea: Chris Kluwe

There aren’t a lot of people who are both a published science fiction author and also a pro-level athlete — but Chris Kluwe is one of those, and more besides. But in addition to the things he is, there are the things he is not. Both of those matter for his new novel Otaku, how it’s written, and who its protagonist is.

CHRIS KLUWE:

Today I’d like to tell you about the big idea for Otaku, my first traditionally published sci-fi novel, which I began as a love/hate letter towards gaming, but eventually turned into so much more.

More specifically, Otaku started as a middle finger towards Gamergate, in that I wanted to write a Gibson-esque thriller that “Pepes4Trump69YOLO420” would start reading as a firmly established cis-het white male power fantasy that they immediately identified with, and then once the protagonist was revealed as a half-black half-asian bisexual woman with a lock of dyed blue hair, their brains would recreate the scene from Scanners so quickly that their brain matter could coat a ten block radius.

What can I say, I like to piss regressives off.

After writing a couple chapters, though, I realized that there were many other things I wanted this story to be.

I wanted Otaku to be a story about climate change, and what that actually means to the social fabric, because that’s the reality of the world our children are going to inherit. Ever since reading Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl, I realized that any future story set in our reality had to take into account the fact that we’re changing our environment, and not for the better. Otaku is set in Miami, and the reason why is that if you talk to any sort of risk assessor, they’re going to tell you that Miami is absolutely fucked. Like, 100%, the-water’s-coming-and-there-ain’t-shit-you’re-gonna-do-to-stop-it-fucked, and to me, that’s an interesting setting because there are so many places in the world that humans live that we shouldn’t, yet we persist anyways. If Miami goes underwater, I don’t think the human reaction is going to be to leave, because we never leave.

We adapt.

We built levees in New Orleans, and skyways in Minneapolis, and tornado shelters in Oklahoma, because we don’t care if the planet is trying to kill us, our desperate will to survive in even the most inhospitable conditions is a constant throughout human history. When the waters rise, we aren’t going to abandon the coasts, at least not at first. We’re going to fight it as long as we can (because a lot of rich people like their beach houses), and it won’t be until way after the fact that we realize fighting the sea is a losing proposition that the wealthy will retreat inland.

Miami’s skyscrapers won’t last forever, their gleaming steel frames looming out of the sparkling blue, but they’ll last long enough for generations to grow old and die in them.

I wanted Otaku to be a story about inequality; the rich staying dry while the poor scramble not to drown; the majority oppressing the minority because that’s the way it’s always been; the woman being told her place via violent misogyny because games are a man’s world and how dare you challenge that. The grinding, brutal inequality that pervades our world at such a granular level that it takes an effort of will not to burn it all down in the hopes of finding a single ash of justice, the voice of the priest who tells you to suffer while you’re alive because everything will be better once you’re dead.

“But Chris,” I hear you say, “you’re a cis-het white dude who made a bunch of money playing football! What the fuck do you know about inequality?”

That’s a valid concern. I don’t know a lot about inequality vis a vis personal experience and it would be wrong to claim otherwise. As John has written about on this site before, I have the world on the lowest difficulty setting.

However, I can talk to other people, those who have experienced the shittiness of being a woman online, of being a black queer gamer, of trying to navigate a dick-centric world, and when they tell me I’m wrong about something, that a character wouldn’t react that way, I can fucking listen.

Then I can make sure my story reflects their truth, because it is the truth.

I wanted Otaku to be a story about obsession, because having been both a professional athlete as well as a top-tier gamer (World of Warcraft, 3rd in the U.S. for Burning Crusade, Flying Hellfish represent), there isn’t actually a lot of difference between the two. Both demand hours of preparation, menial tasks that no one on the outside cares about (practicing punt drops; grinding consumables) yet are essential to the final product. Both reward those who can focus on a task to the exclusion of all else, even if it means broken friendships and families, because the willpower to shut out the world is what separates the champs from the chumps.

Both are merging, slowly yet surely, as we strive to recreate the real in the digital with perfect 1:1 fidelity. Pong joysticks gave way to N64 rumble packs gave way to Beatsaber wands and the future just keeps rushing towards us like a freight train. Ten years from now, who knows how we’re going to play.

Above all, I wanted Otaku to be a story that I was proud of, and I am. I think it’s a story that reflects where our society is now and where our society might go if we’re not careful (minus the swordfights against killer robots, but hey, you never know), and it would be an honor to me if you’d consider reading it.

See you in the real, chummer.

—-

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

Read an excerpt. Follow the author on Twitter.

The Upgrade Value

I’m learning a song on guitar because I’m going to play it on the JoCo Cruise, and I’ve been practicing it both on the Acoustasonic I got for Christmas, and on a travel-sized Washburn guitar that costs roughly a tenth of what the Acoustasonic costs. If you think this is going to go “and I could barely tell the difference between the two!” boy, are you ever wrong, because, wow, is there ever a difference, in terms of tone, feel, and ease of fretting.

There’s nothing wrong with the Washburn, to be clear; it’s meant to be a cheap and cheerful little guitar you can haul along with you on your adventures and not worry about banging up. It’s why I’m taking it on a cruise. I like it a lot and I’m glad I have it. It’s simply that, because I was practicing the song on both guitars, this is the first time I really had reason to make a side by side comparison of the two, and could observe the adage “you get what you pay for” is sometimes accurate. Is the Acoustasonic ten times better than the Washburn? Probably not, for whatever values you might assign to being better. But is it noticeably of higher quality? Yup.

Incidental to this is the question of whether I’m a good enough player of either instrument to make an accurate assessment — it’s possible that if I were a better player, I could make the Washburn sound better; it’s it’s very likely that at least some of the gulf between the two instruments is that the Acoustasonic is far more forgiving of my mediocrity. I remember watching a YouTube video where an expert guitarist is playing a toy guitar in a Wal-Mart and shredding on the thing; it’s a reminder that it’s the player as much and even more than it is the instrument.

I’m not an especially fancy person and there are a lot of places in my life where I’m not convinced that the upgrade value is there — I’m deeply unlikely to ever pay more than $25 for a t-shirt, as an example, because while a $100 t-shirt may be a joy to wear, I’m hard pressed to see that joy being worth $75 extra. Likewise, having ridden in very expensive cars, I recognize there is a material difference between a $100,000 car and a $30,000 one, but generally speaking the differences aren’t things I personally care much about. Guitars, it appears, are a place I’m willing to pay a little extra for that upgrade. If you have places where the upgrade is worth it to you, I’m curious to know what they are.

In the meantime, I’ll keep practicing the song, on the Washburn, because I’ll be traveling. Hopefully I can make it sound good, or at least better, before I have to perform it. The song, I mean. I’m not going to blame the Washburn if it doesn’t get there.

 

The Big Idea: K.B. Wagers

Sometimes the world’s not easy, and sometimes the world’s imperfect. But uneasy, imperfect worlds can make for good stories, as K.B. Wagers explains in their Big Idea for A Pale Light in the Black.

K.B. WAGERS:

Like nearly everyone else, I suspect, I’ve weathered the last few years like a hero in the final fight of a kung fu film. I’ve been feeling more than a little battered and bruised, swaying on my feet, trying to track where the next hit is coming from. Everything has suffered—my health, my writing, my relationships—in this onslaught of what so many of us joke is the darkest timeline.

It isn’t though. It’s just life, our lives, our futures at stake. And there have been bright spots in the last few years. My friends seem kinder despite our troubles. We’re all more willing to pitch in and help, to offer hands to those who need it. I’m not trying to make a silver lining out of all this horror going on, only pointing out that there seems to be a collective hope that we can weather the storm.

In one of my favorite movies, Mad Max: Fury Road, Max insists, “Hope is a mistake. If you can’t fix what’s broken, you’ll go insane.”

I don’t believe it.

Do we need to fix what’s broken? Yes. But hope is what gets us up in the morning. It’s what gets us through the bad days and the worse nights. It’s what keeps us on our feet long after our opponents should have beaten us down.

When David Pomerico at Harper Voyager approached me about creating the world of the Near-Earth Orbital Guard, the one thing I knew I wanted to do was write a world that had been through the fire and still survived. A world that wasn’t the same but was still standing. I knew that I wanted a hopeful story full of family and love and people who looked out for each other, not a dark and gritty future where it’s everyone for themselves.

There are some folks in the NeoG world who are out for themselves, but our heroes know that their strength lies in one another. They know that the person at their side is the one who will save them in times of trouble and will never ever let them down.

A Pale Light in the Black ended up being one of the easiest stories I’ve ever written. It seemed to just appear on the page and even when we had to restructure the entire thing during edits, that too was easier than I could have guessed. The hope of the characters and the world they lived in was the best possible feeling I could have experienced after these last few years and in some ways it’s not a stretch to say I think this book may have saved my life.

Because in times like these it’s hard to find hope, but this is when we need it the most. It keeps us fighting. Keeps us kind. It is not a mistake to hope but a fire to keep us warm in these cold days. A Pale Light in the Black is all about hope—the hope that happens when we agree to trust each other, when we don’t abuse that trust, and when that trust in turn can save all of humanity. I hope you’ll come meet the folks at the NeoG and let them give you a little bit of that hope with their story.

—-

A Pale Light in the Black: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound

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

The Big Idea: Katie M. Flynn

Author Katie M. Flynn took a journey to bring you her new novel The Companions, a journey where so much of it was simply experiencing the town she called home, and how it has changed over time.

KATIE M. FLYNN:

First the fear: In grad school at UCLA, my advisor was a German ornithologist with a dry sense of humor who loved to throw me off balance with facts I couldn’t always tell were true.

Example: We’re having lunch in the quad, lovely day, cute but slightly aggressive squirrels are daring closer, closer to us and our vegan feast courtesy of the $3 on-campus Hare Krishna buffet. “Aww,” I say because up close they remind me of the gerbils I kept as pets when young. “You know,” my advisor says, “these squirrels could be carriers of the bubonic plague.”

His amused smile, sort of self-satisfied and mischievous—I never knew whether he was messing with me. In retrospect, I know he was always messing with me while simultaneously telling me the truth, a rare talent.

I went home and consulted the Internet like a true academic, and sure enough, I read that the plague had become endemic in squirrels of the American West. Flare-ups of old infectious illnesses occur from time to time, new ones too: H5N1, Ebola, SARS, MERS, COVID-19. Our catalogue of deadly outbreaks is ever growing, and once they’re loose in the world, they don’t ever really go away.

Then, the stories: I can trace the origins of The Companions back to a file on my computer created in 2009 and ominously titled, “Airborne illness.” I had by then developed an unhealthy fascination with outbreaks. I wrote a couple stories about characters living in quarantine conditions, one about a girl who was a super spreader, an asymptomatic carrier of an infectious illness, a “Typhoid Mary 2.0.” The original, Mary Mallon, died in 1938 on North Brother Island, New York, where she was confined for nearly thirty years. I was taken by this isolation, by the idea of a prolonged quarantine, the loss of basic rights, an authoritarian control of a body deemed dangerous in the name of public safety.

That same year, I started drafting another story about a scientist working out of his garage who may or may not have figured out how to upload his soul. But I couldn’t decide whether he had in fact succeeded, so the story turned into a very Waiting for Godot kind of thing, and I grew weary and abandoned the project.

Followed by the failures: From 2009 to 2013 I wrote two novels, both of which fell apart by the time I got to the ending. These failures made me skittish of novel writing, but they also taught me about the pacing and plotting and structure of a longer work. They taught me to be careful.

And the breakthroughs: Meanwhile, the two tropes I was playing with in those 2009 stories—outbreak-induced quarantine and mind upload—seeded. I thought about them enough over the next many years that the networks in my brain finally made the connection, synapses fired, and in 2013 I started a new story in which a teenage girl is murdered and brought back decades later as a product, a companion to a bored, homeschooled child living in a quarantined San Francisco.

I love short stories in their own right, of course, and most stories are done when I’ve finished them. But some live on, I can’t shake them, and then I start to think longer, bigger, wider; I go underground.

And finding out you’re not done: Living in San Francisco since 2002, I have witnessed the latest tech boom firsthand. It’s been hard on the city I call home, on my friends and neighbors. Lots of people have moved—some of the best people, our teachers and artists—and I’m left feeling alone at times, always having to adapt to a new reality, with new actors coming in and out of my life, and cynical—the city isn’t getting better because of tech; in many ways it’s gotten so much worse. While there are more billionaires per capita than in any other city in the world, homelessness in San Francisco is surging. When I think about my city, it’s a little like a superimposed image—one picture of the city I love situated atop another, the city I live in.

In The Companions, the towers, where the wealthiest live—and are confined under quarantine—became my entry point for exploring these themes of class, technology, and isolation.

And in the case of Lilac, I knew I wanted to capture this feeling I had of superimposition. One dimension is her journey to find her murderer and to figure out what happened to her best friend—these characters still out there in the world, albeit elderly. Another dimension is Lilac’s journey as a product, from release to recall, and the people she touches along the way. Another dimension still is Lilac’s trajectory from that of a privileged teenager in Laguna Beach to a type of violent outlaw. In tracing these threads I had fun crossing genre lines, hoping to create a literary mystery-science fiction-thriller-bildungsroman set against a backdrop of a world changed and changing by climate change.

What happens to places lost to rising seas? Who is there to remember them, and for how long? I’m forever fascinated by the plasticity of the human brain, by our ability to tell and retell ourselves stories, to rewrite our memories, our histories. Somewhere in the center of all of this is the question: what does it mean to live forever in a world that is dying?

To counter the darkness of this question I stayed focused on the connections between characters—human and companion—despite differences. As I write presently, dear friends are entertaining my kids so I can finish this piece, and it’s in these connections both imagined and real that I have found—dare I say it—something akin to hope.

—-

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

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

Super Tuesday Thoughts

Original photos by Gage Skidmore, used under Creative Commons.

Because I don’t want to let the moment pass without noting it, some thoughts on Super Tuesday.

1. Clearly now it’s a two-man race, between the 78-year-old man with a heart problem and the 77-year-old man with some clear memory issues. This is, I will say, not optimal from my point of view. I will be voting for whoever becomes the Democratic nominee, to be clear. But neither of these two men fills me with great enthusiasm, and at this point I very much want to see who they choose for their vice president, because I have a strong suspicion whoever it is will be finishing out the term.

2. I think some people are surprised that Biden was this strong on Super Tuesday, and commensurately that Sanders was (relatively) underwhelming given his supporters’ enthusiasm, but I’m not. As we saw in 2016, Sanders is strongest in states with caucuses and in the northeast, and the early contests were mostly caucuses and in the northeast. He’s less strong in actual primaries. He’s stronger this year, certainly — let’s not pretend his likely (as of this writing, undeclared) win in California doesn’t mean anything — but this seems to be a structural issue for Sanders support. Likewise Biden has always been a safe vote and a known quantity, and that’s reassuring to a lot of Democratic voters, particularly the ones who are older, of which there are many.

3. My own prediction — and recall that my political crystal ball is more than intermittently cloudy — is that Biden and Sanders are going to go at it for a while but that Biden will inexorably pull away as we move along through the year, which will no doubt enrage no small number of Sanders supporters. #NotAllSanderSupporters, but it’s clear at least a vocal percentage of them don’t plan to support anyone but Sanders, should he not get the Democratic nomination, and, well. Fuck those dudes (and to flip it around, the same to any Biden supporters who might do the same if he doesn’t make it through, but you don’t exactly hear much about BidenBros slipping into people’s Twitter mentions to harass them).

4. Of the Democratic candidates, my preferred candidate is Elizabeth Warren, but even though she says she’s still in it, I think Super Tuesday effectively put a nail in her campaign’s coffin. She hasn’t managed better than a third place finish in any primary contest, and that includes in Massachusetts, her home commonwealth. If you can’t win at home, where can you win, is the question here. Barring Biden and Sanders having an actuarial moment and keeling over on the campaign trail, I don’t see her doing any better moving forward. We can list all the reasons why the smartest and best-prepared candidate the Democrats have isn’t their front runner, but at the end of the day so far she’s an also-ran, and it doesn’t seem likely that’s going to change. It’s disappointing.

5. Meanwhile, Mike Bloomberg has spent, what? A half a billion dollars on his campaign? And he got American Samoa out of it? To put this in perspective, the entire annual gross domestic product of American Samoa is $658 million. Don’t feel too bad for Bloomberg; given his personal wealth, him spending $500 million is like the average American spending about $465; or, in more concrete terms, he spent an equivalent amount of his wealth on his presidential campaign as the average American might spend on a Chromebook. He’ll be fine. But maybe he should stop trying to buy a thing he’s not going to get. If he really wants to spend his money to defeat Trump — which, you know, I personally find a questionable proposition given their personal history — there are better ways to do it (likewise, if he’s spending his money to defeat Sanders).

(Update, 11am: Bloomberg is out. It’ll take him a couple of months at most for his wealth to generate the amount that he spent on his campaign. Again, he’ll be fine.)

6. It does seem to me that every four years a lot of people forget that the Democrats, far more than the Republicans, are a coalition party. The current GOP is an irrational authoritarian cult of personality, which means that anyone who doesn’t want to hang with that has to deal with the Democrats, whose party spectrum now ranges from Democratic Socialists all the way over to lightly refurbished Reaganites. Biden and Sanders pretty much exemplify either end of this coalition spectrum, and neither of them is exactly what you would call a perfect candidate even before you get to the age issue. This sucks, and also, at the moment it’s what we have to work with, because the alternative is grim.

I don’t have any problem with Biden and Sanders duking it out all the way through the last primary and even possibly to the Democratic convention itself; that’s what primaries and conventions are for. I do think when the dust settles and there is a candidate, that everyone needs to get with the program, because the alternative is four more years of an irrational authoritarian cult of personality, and all the damage that brings to our country, both now and long after. The danger is real, and in the reality of the effectively two-party system that we have (Sanders, who is not a Democrat, is running to be the Democratic candidate for a reason, you know) anyone who won’t vote for the Democratic candidate because he isn’t their own preferred candidate is casting a vote for the irrational authoritarian. Don’t be that person, folks.