Nerds! On a Boat!

In the New York Times today, a story by reporter John Schwartz about the JoCo Cruise, which is the “nerd cruise” I and roughly two thousand other people go on every year, hosted by musician Jonathan Coulton. It does a pretty good job of figuring out what’s pretty great about the cruise, namely, its ability to turn “oh, shit” moments — like the They Might Be Giants concert slot at a land-based concert being rained out by a sudden downpour — into something magical and even more memorable. You don’t get that on just any cruise. Check it out.

Review: Avengers: Endgame

(Note: No specific plot spoilers in the review, but I’m going to allow people to post spoilers in the comments, so if you’re one of the three people in the world who haven’t seen the film yet, you might want to skip the comments until you do.)

Avengers: Endgame is a once-in-a-lifetime cinematic experience, and I mean that in two very specific ways. First, it’s a film that (generally) effectively, (mostly) competently and (sometimes) ingeniously serves as a capstone to a series of films spanning twenty-two installments, which is a species of cinematic beast that’s never really been managed before and seems unlikely ever to be pulled off again; Second, that having seen it, I don’t feel like I ever need to see it again in this lifetime.

I feel the second, because Endgame is the first. Endgame has an immense amount of ground to cover: It has to follow the cliffhanger of Infinity War, try to wrap up plot threads left dangling from every Marvel film since the original Iron Man in 2008, leave a bunch of plot threads that can be taken up in the upcoming “Phase Four” of the Marvel film universe (and the various TV series that are coming to Disney’s long-expected streaming service), and adequately shuffle off the stage the several major stars whose long-term Marvel contracts are up. With all that as its remit, it’s a miracle that Endgame is watchable at all, much less actually entertaining in the moment. That it is means that major props are due to Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, the screenwriters, and to the Russo Brothers, who, with this and Infinity War, and the two Captain America films they’ve directed, make an argument for being the pre-eminent cinematic field marshals of our time.

With that said, “watchable” and “entertaining in the moment” are not precisely the same thing to me as “fun” and “enjoyable.” Watching Endgame to me felt like being on a forced march through a checklist of plot points and character moments, and after a (very short) time I began to be rather conscious of all the scenes that existed not to be an organic moment of story but to be fanservice for a particular character (or set of characters), or to make sure some barely-remembered loose end was tucked in. By the third act and its climactic and overstuffed battle scene, it stopped being clever and started being exhausting. I felt like a kid on vacation being dragged to all the sights on a tour, with no time to really enjoy any of them because look, we’re on a schedule here.

“But that’s why you see it a second time!” Well, and to quote Thor here:

I should be clear that I don’t think I missed any significant moments in the film — I got them, because the design of the film was such that I was meant to get them, and Disney (and its attendant cinematic technicians) make it their business to make sure they are gotten. Endgame’s charms are all on the surface, and they are all very brief. The thing that makes me want to rewatch a movie, in most cases, is the ability to linger: With the characters, with the world, with the entire milieu that the film creates.

And that’s the thing about Endgame — there’s just no lingering. Not with the characters, not with the world, not with any part of it. It’s not meant for lingering; it has no time for it. We have a timetable, and it has to be made. Now, it does make want to rewatch other Marvel films, where I do get those character and world moments: Thor: Ragnarok. Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Guardians of the Galaxy. Spider-Man: Homecoming. Iron Man 3 (yes, Iron Man 3. Fight me). But Endgame? Meh, not so much.

Mind you, my opinion that Endgame merits only a single watch is being amply refuted by the large number of folks who have gone back to watch the film twice or three times or more. Good for them. I’m glad and not in the least surprised that they have been entertained; as I noted, moment to moment, the film is entertaining, and savvy enough as popular entertainment to give their characters, especially the ones whose actors are at the end of their contracts, moments you can cheer and cry for them. This is Disney, folks. They know popular entertainment.

The point I’m trying to make is that stringing individually entertaining moments together does not in itself a substantive cinematic experience make. Endgame isn’t a sumptuous meal; it’s a bunch of tasty canapes fed to you on a conveyor belt, with no time to savor one before the next one comes along. I like canapes! And I enjoyed Endgame, which is in its very specific way a marvel, pun entirely intended. But I’m not sure I need to have this cinematic canape conveyor belt experience more than once in my life.

Happy Birthday(ish), Smudge

We’re pretty sure that when Smudge scampered his way into the Scalzi household last year, he was around eight weeks old. Which means that he was very likely born today a year ago, give or take a few days on other side. That’s close enough when it comes to cats, so I’m just going to go ahead and say May 4th is officially Smudge’s birthday, that he is now a whole year old, and thus has graduated from being a kitten into being a cat.

Therefore: Happy birthday, Smudge. You’re a pain in the ass, and also adorable, and we’re happy that when I tried to get someone from the Internet to claim you, on the basis we already had three cats and didn’t need any more, the whole Internet rose up and said, “nah, bro, that’s your cat now.” Here’s to many more years of your adorable pain-in-the-ass-ness.

New Books and ARCs, 5/3/19

I was traveling for two weeks, so it’s no surprise that we have a double load of new books and ARCs here at the Scalzi Compound this week. Which of these books is especially appealing to you today? Let me know in the comments!

New Books and ARCs, 5/1/19

First of May, First of May, outdoor reading starts today! Anything in this stack you would take with you for a little outside book enjoyment? Share in the comments, please!

This Week’s Interesting Personal Achievement

When I was in Budapest, one of the folks standing in line asked me to sign his arm so he could go get it tattooed. Well, okay; I used a blue sharpie to do it. A day later I got a picture of the above tattoo, in black. And there you have it — I’m now an author whose signature has been permanently inked into someone else’s body. Which is an interesting group to be in! Thanks, István, for putting me in this particular club.

Somewhat related, I understand there was a thing where someone — Netflix? Blur studios? Someone — was subsidizing “Love Death & Robots”-related tattoos, so now there is at least one human being out there with a tattoo of K-VRC, i.e., the little orange robot from the “Three Robots” episode of the series. I predicted this would happen (K-VRC is cute as a button), but it’s still cool to see that.

So, yeah, it’s been a tattoorific last few days for me.

Speaking of K-VRC, I did not get a tattoo, personally, but I did get these:

Custom K-VRC Vans! Turns out that Vans will make custom shoes, if you provide the art. So I did, and here we are. And before you ask, no, you can’t have a pair, too — these are one of a kind. You want “Three Robot”-based shoes of your own, please take it up with Netflix’s merchandising arm. In the meantime, however, you can be jealous of my personal shoe style.

The Big Idea: Clark Thomas Carlton

In the immortal words of Steve Martin, “Let’s get small.” How small? Well, in Clark Thomas Carlton’s latest novel, The Prophet of the Termite God, it’s going to be very small indeed.

CLARK THOMAS CARLTON:

Yep, it came to me in a dream, the Big Idea about a far-flung future where mini-humans live as the parasites of insects.

I was exploring the Yucatan, climbing to the top of an ancient pyramid where the hearts of human sacrifices had been plucked and offered to bloodthirsty gods in return for rain and a good crop of corn. The skins of the sacrificed might be flayed and worn by Maya priests to express their piety: the equivalent of a monk’s hair shirt. The first Spaniards were appalled by this gruesome misuse of religion and then misused their own to conquer and enslave the natives.

In the place we now call Mexico, the Spanish instituted a repressive caste system similar to the one in India and the American South where a person’s status was and is still determined by skin color and race. In the face of my tour guide, I saw the brown skin of his Maya ancestors, but his mustache spoke of some Castilian blood.

Unlike the sacrificed humans, I was able to descend from the pyramid in Tulum with my heart intact. I was sipping a watermelon margarita by the hotel pool while munching on Spanish peanuts when one of them fell under my lounger. A minute later, I witnessed two different kinds of ants locked in a furious tug-of-peanut. The peanut split in two which should have provided a peaceful solution, but the ants did not stop fighting. I watched this battle until we were called to dinner.

That night I dreamed I was a captain riding into war. I was not charging from atop a horse but on a saddled black ant. From under the shade of a golden poppy, I looked over my army: thousands of tiny men, astride their own ants with bows and arrows and lances at the ready. Before us was a battlefield of massive, glistening sand grains. In the distance, our hated enemy was racing towards us on mounts of red ants. Arrows flew at us when one pierced my cheek. I tasted blood and was spitting out broken teeth when I woke with a start and realized I was safe between sheets of 400 thread count. I hastily wrote the dream down on the back of an envelope and knew it was the premise for a novel … an exciting premise. I told the dream to my partner who gave me an Uncle Milton’s Ant Farm for Christmas.

The Ant Farm brought me back to my childhood fascination with insects and ants in particular. My fourth grade teacher, Mrs. Eckhart, encouraged us to make crude ant habitats by digging up colonies with a spade and inserting them, as best we could, into a mayonnaise jar with a little bacon grease as nourishment. But I suffered as I watched these ants. Their home had been upended, and they struggled to remake their tunnels and find their way to each other. Their queen had likely been crushed or suffocated or was left behind in the wreck of her tunnels.

I chose a more humane observation of ants on a stretch of orange sand behind my house. Colonies were plentiful and black ants were building their mound just a few dangerous feet away from a mound of red ants. I tried to incite them into war by leaving bread crumbs on the sand but they ignored my provocation and kept a truce.

One morning I found the black and red tribes at war — an inevitable, territorial conflict — and it was something that lasted an entire, apocalyptic day. The ants had no weapons, but through a magnifying glass I watched in horror as they sliced each other into pieces. Their legs and severed heads were strewn across the sand. It struck me that these tiny, six legged creatures were so unlike humans and yet they were a kind of mirror.

“(The) foreign policy (of ants) can be summed up as follows: restless aggression, territorial conquest, and genocidal annihilation of neighboring colonies … if ants had nuclear weapons, they would probably end the world in a week.” That is a quote from Dr. Edward O. Wlson, the Second Darwin, the father of evolutionary biology and the world’s foremost myrmecologist. If I was going to write convincingly about tiny people living among ants, I would need to read Wilson and Holbdobbler’s The Ants, the bible of myrmecology.

I plunged myself into the study of ants.  I learned they had stratified societies with a division of labor. They built functional structures with compartments that included nurseries, water storage and trash dumps. Some of them were farmers, some were raiders and slavers. And they waged wars with specialized soldier ants, the “old ladies” they sent to war, that fought together with astonishing coordination.

I avoided movies and pop-culture books about human and ant interactions. When the miniaturized children of the movie Honey, I Shrunk the Kids meet an ant, they befriend it, make it a pet and name him Antie. In reality, ants would use their antennae to sniff out the kids as ‘other’ and then flee … or attack. I learned that ants have parasites — beetles, butterflies and spiders — who can infiltrate and exploit them by replicating or stealing their colony odor. This is what my mini-humans, the extreme result of island dwarfism, would do to parasitize ants: steal their kin scent as a disguise. This would allow humans to live safely in an ant colony to harvest them as food, yoke them to labors and ride them into war.

But what about a plot?

I do not in any way encourage writers to take hallucinogenics in hopes that it will bring them a talent for invention. That just won’t happen, and there are dangers in taking unregulated drugs.  But I would be lying if I didn’t admit the narrative and imagery and — most importantly — the feelings for my novel came to me on the sixth night of Burning Man.

Before the effigy went up in flames, I licked a brown splash of something off the back of my hand. Immediately, I felt as if the top of my skull had been opened with a rotary saw and the world was pouring in. Only later did I learn I’d consumed between 20 and 25 hits of acid.

Do not try this at home without the supervision of a qualified professional. Do not. LSD isn’t for everyone.

I drifted through a costumed crowd and art installations as multiple movies of what had been and might have been my life played in my head, some of them running backwards. As I dodged mutant vehicles, harsh truths erupted about myself and my own limitations as well as regrets about some Big Decisions. It was ten years of psychoanalysis in a single hour.

The stimulus of an instant city dedicated to radical self expression was too much while I was under so much influence. I wandered out to the blackness of the playa until I could no longer hear the clashing music. After taking what seemed like the longest pee of my life — the draining of the Tigris and the Euphrates — I sat and stared into a cloudy sky of turbulent ink to watch the movie that would become my book. The scenes were loosely pieced together and in need of a massive edit. What I saw was an exciting, sensuous adventure and an immersion into man’s inhumanity to man … and woman. The next two years was devoured by unraveling that vision, writing it down and then shaping and shaping and shaping it some more.

My acid trip at Burning Man was a spectacular yet joyless mega-bummer but it exposed a wealth of raw feelings I had repressed in order to function. And emerging from those feelings, I saw the journey of my flawed and wounded hero: an outcast boy who refused to accept the catastrophe of his existence.

I wanted to write a story that reminded other white, middle class Americans like me that what we have is not the norm. Most of the world does not enjoy our medicine, our schools, our electricity and our indoor toilets. Billions of human beings today would be astonished by the hundred kinds of ice cream in our local grocer’s freezer. I wanted to write about my frustration with the human tendency not to share and uplift but to horde and exclude. For so many at the top, it’s no fun to be rich if you can’t lord it over the poor.

The idea of humans living intertwined with ants allowed me to attempt a grand analogy, one that showed how both species were slaves to their instincts for war and territorial expansion. In the world of the Antasy series, humans justify the cruelties of their caste system because they see it in their ants, the order created by their gods.

The best work I’ve ever done starts with feelings and the need to express them. I’ll stop writing when I stop feeling.

The sequel to Prophets of the Ghost Ants did not come out of a dream or a chemically enhanced vision. The Prophet of the Termite God burst from my crushing disappointment in the 2016 presidential election. My alarm, sadness and depression were a strange and powerful fuel as I watched the values of fairness, inclusion and concern for all shift to exclusion, nationalism and the celebration of greed and treachery. I got no sleep that night, but for weeks afterward all I wanted to do was sleep … to sleep perchance to dream.

The dream that inspired my novel wasn’t a gift from a god or a magic message. I worked for it. Countless scientists, musicians and writers have had dreams where they received an important idea, but it was something they were already working on, something that resolved in their unconscious and emerged in a dream. I was looking for this story and doing research for it as I traveled and read about human social systems and the nature of hierarchies.

So dream big, everybody. Or, in my case, dream very, very small.

—-

The Prophet of the Termite God: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound

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

The Last of the April Blossoms

One small regret I had of spending half of April away from the house is that the crabapple tree in the front yard had not yet blossoms, and I thought it was likely that I would miss them this year. Fortunately, the tree was still blossoming when I came back yesterday. They’re past their peak — the flowers have already been visited by the bees and the petals are beginning to fall — but they’re still pretty, and I’m glad not to have missed them.

Today is going to be a busy day for me, in terms of catching up with things and doing some housekeeping, literal and figurative, before April ends. But it’s nice to be home, and to see my cats, and to have nowhere to go for at least a couple of weeks. It’s the beauty of domesticity.

Hello From Budapest

Having a great time, wish you were here (this particular here is the Parliament of Hungary, which is very ornate).

Tonight is for packing and tomorrow is for traveling, and I’ll have a fuller update of my adventures once I’m home. The short version is that our trip to London and Budapest was everything we wanted it to be, and really could not have gone better.

That’s it, see you again once we’re back to Ohio.

View From a Hotel Window, 4/26/19: Budapest!

Today’s picture taken at a later hour than usual because we got in late and went to dinner with my Hungarian publishers and translators straight from the airport. It was a fabulous dinner. I ate quite a lot. It seems  unlikely I will remain awake much longer than it takes to write this post. Good night, all. PS: I know it’s still day where most of you are, because of that whole “curvature of the Earth” thing. Even so.

The Big Idea: David Quantick

For his novel All My Colors, author David Quantick had his protagonist do a very bad thing. No, not murder. No, not assault. Something much worse: Plagiarism! Of a sort

DAVID QUANTICK:

There was this short story. I could remember how it began and how it ended, but that was all. I forgot the name of the story and the name of the writer. I knew it was in a sci-fi anthology because that’s how I’d found it, in my local library when I was a teenager and all I read were sci-fi anthologies. I went online and I bought old sci-fi anthologies, but it wasn’t in any of them.

One day I got so frustrated by not being able to find the story that I lost my mind slightly and considered writing it myself. I talked myself out of this insane plan quite quickly – as well as being a rip-off, the story would just be a mess – but something stuck in my brain. What if someone did that for real? Wrote a story that already existed and passed it off as their own? And what if the story was more than a story, it was a classic novel, like Catch-22 or Lord Of The Rings, and somehow it had been erased from everyone’s memory?

And wouldn’t the person who wrote that book deserve to be… punished?

When you have an idea, it can go lots of different ways. This idea was not just a book idea, but it was the basis of a horror novel. I don’t know why I thought that, but it just worked that way for me. I’d never written a horror novel, but I love Stephen King and Neil Gaiman and I could see this being like Richard Bachman’s Thinner – not the same plot at all, but the same working-out of the plot. Thinner is one of the most relentless books ever written. A man upsets someone, they curse him, he gets thinner, and that’s it. The same with All My Colors. A man steals an idea, writes it, there are consequences and that’s it.

Except obviously that’s not it. I wanted to make my writer – Todd Milstead – an asshole. I thought that would be more fun, especially when bad things are happening to him, and there was something about the way he treated women in the story that was interesting as well. So the consequences of him stealing the idea – and he has an eidetic memory, so when he writes the book, he literally does that, copies it out of his asshole brain – would be fun, for me if not for him, and they would be something to do with Todd and women.

After that, the other decisions fell into place. The Bachman aspect of the book made me want to set it in the late ‘70s, like a real Bachman book, and to set it in America. In my first marriage, I’d spent a lot of time in Illinois, near DeKalb and Aurora, and I thought it would be more interesting if the book was set there, rather than New York or Los Angeles (although New York does turn up). And also I could have fun making a soundtrack.

I love American ‘70s rock, FM or AOR or whatever it’s called. The logo bands. Boston, Kansas, Styx, Toto… they somehow suited Todd, who wouldn’t be a music obsessive like me, but would do a lot of driving with the radio on, singing along to songs by bands he didn’t know the names of. And when I thought about Bat Out Of Hell, the insane vampire Springsteen anthem written by Jim Steinman and sung by Meat Loaf – it’s one of my all-time favourite albums – I had a lot of new ideas.

That said, the book could have been set almost anywhere at almost any time because the core of it – the central theme – is nothing to do with Meat Loaf, or Illinois, or even jerks, but men and women, and men being jerks to woman – and other men – and, to some extent, about creativity and writing (Todd enjoys all the trappings of being a writer but he can’t write at all). It wasn’t actually meant to be a funny book but people have seen humour in it, which is fine (I have written on TV shows like Veep and The Thick Of It) and some of it is meant to be scary, and people have also said it’s scary, which is very much fine. Mostly, though, I think it’s about making a morally wrong decision, and discovering that what you thought was going to be a dream is actually a nightmare.

Which, now I remember it, is what that short story that I could never find was about.

—-

All My Colors: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|IndieBound|Powell’s

Follow the author on Twitter.

Meanwhile in London

There are massive skeletons floating over crowds of humans while Charles Darwin looks on approvingly. As he would.

Also, I have an event tonight at Forbidden Planet here in London at 6pm which you should come to if you happen to be in the area.

That is all. Tomorrow in Budapest!

The Big Idea: Meg Elison

Today in The Big Idea, author Meg Elison delves into her latest novel The Book of Flora, and radical power of a single, very short, word.

MEG ELISON:

It’s impossible to talk about the third and final book in a series without talking about the whole thing. The big idea of the third book rests squarely on the base laid by the first two, and the idea of the whole series changes as the last part is written.

The Big Idea of The Book of the Unnamed Midwife was that women are people.

The Big Idea of The Book of Etta was that ideals are difficult to maintain when they compete with survival.

The Big Idea of The Book of Flora is that every person has a body that belongs to only them.

This is another idea that strikes as radical when it should not. The characters in the Road to Nowhere series cope (as we all do) with the way other people sometimes think they have the right to define our bodies, to control them, to legislate for them, and to name them. Flora in particular is vulnerable to these desires; as a trans woman (or Horsewoman, as her culture is called in this world) she is often concerned with the way different cultures will perceive and define her. The world of this book prizes femininity but subjugates it all the same. In some places, she is regarded as powerful and valuable. In others, she is afforded the disgust reserved for people who fail to perform womanhood in the culturally correct manner.

Other characters struggle with the same problem, but in different ways. How often is the “preservation of the species” trope invoked to get people breeding in an orderly fashion in a dystopian novel? My characters are queer. Their expectations of childbirth are bloody and bleak. Their insistence on ownership over their own bodies invokes discussions of birth control, abortion, and reproductive behavior in a way that post-apocalyptic novels often treat as a settled idea. If the human race is in danger, surely people with uteruses will simply give up on the idea of self-ownership and submit to their fate as vessels! This entire subgenre takes for granted that if imperiled enough, people will accept compulsory heterosexuality and forfeit basic autonomy.

My characters stay queer and say no.

Flora says no to a lot of things. She says no to the all-women city of Shy (Chicago), despite its wealth and welcome. She says no to the people who try to talk her out of adopting her child, Connie. She says no to anyone who tries to possess her, or define her. Flora knows exactly who she is. Those of us who had to earn our identities the hard way will recognize how powerful that NO really is.

As your body belongs only to you, so too does your story. Characters in these books keep journals and decide what they want to reveal and what to keep. They decide rather to pass their story on or let it die with them. They decide whether to perform their trauma in order to be believed, or to protect themselves and go without whatever that belief might proffer. These are choices that you might face, too. These are all questions I’ve had to answer for myself, revisit my answers, and allow my understanding of myself to change based on them.

Flora is a book about choosing your story, rewriting it and making changes until you hear your own voice. It is about being in your body, being one with it and making peace with it, revising it until you recognize yourself. It is about Flora, who is better at both of those things than most people who have not faced down one apocalypse after another.

We have come to the end of the Road to Nowhere. Thank you for walking with me and reading all my big ideas, strange as they are. This final book is dedicated to all the radical queers in my life, and I am grateful and proud to have put more queer art into the world.

Rage on!

—-

The Book of Flora: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s website. Follow her on twitter.

View From a Hotel Window, 4/23/19: London

We’ve moved into town and are staying at the hotel we were at for our 20th anniversary, and which also happens to be reasonably well located for the meetings and meet-ups I have planned over the next couple of days. Ytterbium, this year’s Eastercon, was lovely and everyone involved was also lovely, and we could have not asked for a better time.

Remember: This Thursday at 6pm, I’ll be at Forbidden Planet in London, signing books and being visible. Come on down and see me, and maybe get a book or two signed.

And now, off to lunch with a friend.

New Books and ARCs, 4/19/19

I may be in London right now but that doesn’t mean I can’t still show off the new books and ARCs that came to the Scalzi Compound this week! Here they are. What here intrigues you? Tell us all in the comments.

Happy Birthday, Kristine

This fabulous person who also happens to be my wife is celebrating a birthday today, and in the UK, no less. If you wished to convey your birthday felicitations to her, I would not look askance upon it. She’s the best person I know.

View From a Hotel Window, 4/18/19: Heathrow

It’s a parking lot, not only in an entirely different country, but in an entirely different continent! And Heathrow Airport is in the background, which is actually cooler than it sounds.

I’m here for Ytterbium, this year’s Eastercon, where I am a Guest of Honor, and everything is lovely so far. The convention begins properly tomorrow — today we relax, get some sleep in and prepare for the weekend. Three cheers for a lovely spring day in the UK.

How are you? Please describe in words that do not include “redacted Mueller report” in any way, shape or form.

The Big Idea: Lara Elena Donnelly

When, as a writer, you find yourself caught between two tropes, what do you do? And is it a bad thing that you’re confronting two separate writing tropes in the first place? In her series that began with the book Amberlough and continues now in Amnesty, the third book, author Lara Elena Donnelly confronts her tropes and finds a way through them.

LARA ELENA DONNELLY: 

For a long, long time, Amnesty was nothing but a big idea.

My debut novel, Amberlough, was meant to be a standalone. A tragedy with a bitter ending, the only hope in a burgeoning resistance driven by death and loss. A story about people who fail, over and over again, to communicate with each other. Who fail to stake a moral, political, or emotional claim early enough to make a difference.

The character who fails biggest is Cyril DePaul. Already back-benched when the book starts, after a botched mission that’s left his confidence shattered, every decision he makes has his own interests at its heart. Nobody else’s enter into it. Even his gambit to save the life of his lover is self-centered; who wants to save their own skin only to live on lonely?

When I first wrote Amberlough, Cyril perished on the page. I had read enough spy novels to know that the bad spy usually dies. It’s not a job you can half-ass or bumble around in and still expect to avoid a bullet in the back of the head.

But I had also read enough fiction to know that being queer is another way to end up dead by the end of the novel. Cyril’s death fell pretty neatly into the trope known as “Bury Your Gays.”

I was caught between two tropes: one I wanted to lean into, and another I had frowned over in many other media properties. And I had gotten myself there by thinking how satisfying it would be to queer such a macho genre as the spy novel (though let’s be honest: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy had already done it, and done it well).

But all of this isn’t my big idea. My big idea came when feedback from my editorial team poked at the ending–both my agent and my editor earmarked the potentially problematic death. Could we not just make it a little more open-ended? Not quite so…death-y?

I was torn, and also confused and kind of angry. I had written this ending knowing full well the risk I ran, and chosen to keep it during submissions because it felt right for the story and the character’s arc. I also didn’t think I would have been urged to unkill a straight character.

I have a lot of complicated feelings about tragic queers. But as several friends have said to me lately, “complicated is good. Complicated means it’s worth discussing.”

I felt then–and still feel, a lot of the time–that often there is a pressure on queer characters and queer stories to combat the “Bury Your Gays” trope, or the gay villain trope, or any number of other tropes, by telling stories without death, without tragedy, without detestable people. And yes, the world deserves happy, heroic queer characters. But it also deserves nuanced stories about flawed and fully-developed queer characters who sometimes hurt others and are hurt themselves.

Queer characters have been dying in fiction for a long time: as moral censure, as motivation for straight characters, to lend tragic savor to the story of straight heroes. Often the queer character who dies is the only queer character in story, and death is the only end we see for them. And obviously that’s a problem.

Unfortunately, nowadays the labor of undoing the harm caused by these tropes usually falls on stories that center queer characters–often on stories by authors who are queer themselves. Many queer authors hesitate to write stories based in their own experience, wondering if they are too dark, if they perpetuate the tragic queer narrative. And many times, straight authors including queer characters in heroic, happy narratives write versions of queer people that feel disingenuous or flat; that don’t engage with the nuances of living with a queer identity, some of which can be complicated and yes, painful.

I don’t like the idea that tropes–even Bury Your Gays–should be avoided at all costs. It’s not only simplistic, it’s impossible. If you write fiction, you’re going to write a trope someday. My take on tropes is that when they show up in a story they shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand, but interrogated, turned on their head, and shaken down for their milk money.

So, I wrote two more books. And here we come to my big idea. There are spoilers ahead, so be wary if you mind that kind of thing.

Removing an explicit death scene and replacing it with a much more open-ended culmination felt strange to me, as an ending for a standalone. And the idea that this simple elision addressed the tragic queer trope didn’t quite scan for me; the book is still a tragedy. It still features queer characters. Changing that final scene with Cyril was symbolic, yes, but felt hollow somehow–like it lacked the intended resonance of the original ending. It felt like avoiding a trope on a technicality.

Still, given the feedback, I began to envision a further arc to the story; if Cyril didn’t die, what would his life look like? As a bad spy, a poor communicator, a child of privilege, and a fascist collaborator burdened by guilt, where would he go in this world turned upside down by political upheaval? And, if he ever surfaced again, how would he be treated by his friends, family, lovers, and public opinion?

Essentially: if death was not the final note in a tragic character arc marked by personal failures, what could I replace it with? What was a fate worse than death, to and for Cyril DePaul?

Facing the music, of course.

In Amberlough, death was a consequence for a long string of bad decisions made by a desperate man with flexible morals. I started thinking of the stack of consequences Cyril would have to face if he lived. There were a lot of them, ten times more complicated than a clean death might have been. And they were harder for Cyril to take, as a character, which as any writer knows makes for rich material.

In essence, my big idea was, “If I avoid this trope, it won’t be on a technicality. It will be on my own terms. And those terms will be devastating.”

In the actual writing of the book, things turned out differently than I had envisioned when I set out. But I hope I still succeeded in turning the simple evasion of a trope into something much thornier, that has readers asking themselves questions about guilt and redemption and who is forgiven for what, by whom, and why.

—-

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

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

Sunset, 4/16/19

Enjoy it because it’s the last one I’ll probably post for a bit — I’m traveling for a couple of weeks to places where buildings get in the way of sunsets. But this is a pretty one at least. It should hold you.

The Big Idea: Ashok K. Banker

For this Big Idea, Ashok K. Banker writes an epistolary essay to someone who is not me, about his new novel, Upon a Burning Throne. Who is the recipient of this letter, and why is sent to them? Read on.

ASHOK K. BANKER:

Hey there, Effie.

We’ve known each other a while, you and I.

That’s why I get to call you Effie. I know you don’t let anyone else call you that. It’s our special thing.

The folks reading this are wondering what I’m on about. Who the eff is Effie, they want to know.

John, whose blog this piece is appearing on, also wants to know What’s the Big Idea.

I’m getting there.

First, let me introduce y’all to someone who needs no introduction.

Epic Fantasy.

EF, in short.

But she’ll always be Effie, to me.

Effie and I have been close for a very long time.

In a sense, she was my first love.

I first discovered her in an encyclopedia called The Book of Knowledge. It was this set of oversized hardcover volumes bound in midnight blue cloth. In the articles on Mythology, I first came across the world of fantastic beings, demi-gods, legendary heroes, amazing quests, epic battles, incredible worlds.

Sure, it was called Mythology.

But even back then, I saw it for what it really was.

Epic Fantasy.

I devoured all those articles over and over. I tried tracing out the wonderful illustrations (mostly classic paintings reproduced) and coloring them so I could pin them over my bed. I was really young at this point, so young I don’t even want to admit how young I was, and reading those articles in that encyclopedia also made me aware of how easy and enjoyable this thing called reading could be. So much so, that it got me hooked to reading way above my age level, a practice that continued throughout my childhood and adolescent years. So in a sense, Effie was the one who got me hooked on reading for life.

Soon, I graduated to entire books about mythology, myths, fables, fairy tales, and inevitably, science fiction and fantasy.

You have to remember that back then, Epic Fantasy as a publishing label didn’t really exist.

Back then, people like Isaac Asimov were still arguing that all imaginative fiction was really fantasy, a view which (as I recall) didn’t go down well with many die-hard conservationists of “hard” science fiction. Tolkien was only just starting to be rediscovered by a whole new generation of readers in America. And most epic fantasy books tended to be really short standalone paperback novels a couple hundred pages long at most. They were put out by the same imprints that published SF and there was often an apologetic air about them, almost as if the publishers and editors were saying “Hey, here’s a side order of fantasy to go with your SF. Now, let’s get back to talking about our main course, Science Fiction, the big granddaddy of all genre.”

But I could always recognize you, Effie, even when they covered you up like a nun with a bad habit.

You went by many names, like a secret agent donning multiple disguises for a variety of undercover missions.

You were Mythology. You were Legend. You were Science Fiction. You were Adventure. You were Historical. You were Superhero. You were Speculative.

And always, you were Epic and Fantastic.

Effie, forever.

As time went by and Tolkien became a rage in America, setting off a feeding frenzy among readers, publishers, authors, all hungry for “more of the same but different”.

A rumbling army of writers went to work. Reprocessing Tolkien but with more American-friendly prose and dialogue. Reworking the tropes but tweaking them just enough to make them their own, but also undeniably more…American.

The Americanization of Effie began, even as people acknowledged that Effie herself existed.

The gatekeepers processed you through the Ellis Island of US Publishing and turned you into an Apple Pie version of yourself.

A lot of terrific books came out of it.

Some better than others, some truly awesome, others…not so much.

Always readable, occasionally brilliant, but always… American.

Even when there were orcs and trollocs, goblins and elves, stone castles on high mountains, sieges and battles, great roaring armies of the undead, dark lords and white knights, somehow it all read like it had been processed through a machine that marked everything with a “Made in USA” tattoo.

American hero in a strange land. Fantastical worlds that looked different at a glance, but were really just American versions of what were supposed look to like “other” worlds.

Gone were the inscrutable mysteries of cultures and minds that were so far removed from our own present day that they were truly different.

Gone was the magic of bygone eras that had never existed and probably never would.

Gone was the sense of wonder that came from discovering fantastical worlds perceived through genuinely alien eyes.

In their place were now the familiar characters, personalities, ways of talking, acting, responding, behaving, as any of the equally familiar puppets that moved their lips and hips in American TV shows and movies.

Everything was “relatable”.

The fascination of the unknown, the shock of the unseen, the delight of the never-before-experienced was gone.

Replaced overnight by doppelganger tropes that simulated the original ones but were really just super chain franchise product.

They pretty much effed you up, Effie.

Turned you into something that went against the very grain of what you were.

Even at its most diverse, its most inclusive, its most genre-bending, globalizing, all-embracing best, American Epic Fantasy was now painfully…American.

So here’s my Big Idea.

(Yeah, finally.)

I took this epic poem called the Mahabharata, composed in Sanskrit some thousands of years ago. Some say, it’s the oldest story ever written. Whether or not that’s true, it’s certainly the biggest, and the most audacious, ambitious, mother of stories you’ve ever read. It’s truly a mothership of Epic Fantasy. Every genre, every trope, every plot, every character, every twist, every scene you could possibly think of, is in there, and then some.

There’s a line in the Mahabharata itself about itself – yes, this is an epic that spends a lot of time talking about itself, the ultimate self-aware sentient story cycle – that says “Everything you seek is here. What is not here, is nowhere else.” After decades poring over it time and again, I can pretty much confirm that with two thumbs up.

But I didn’t just take this epic and Effie it up.

No, sir.

I set out to write an original Effie that would not reference anything, anyone, or be in any way, American.

A genuinely “other” Epic Fantasy.

The result, Effie, is my love song to you.

It’s called the Burnt Empire Saga.

Like the title, it’s just a tad bitter at first taste, because, well, it’s not the usual fare served in America.

It’s spicy, as in, real Indian spicy – not the stuff that they serve up in (the wonderful) Indian restaurants here in the USA – the kind of Indian spicy that has sweat pouring down your face and all your mucus membranes (and I do mean, all) on fire for several hours, but is goddamn awesome. It sets your hair on fire and you will never again be able to settle for sugar-laced American chain food once you acquire a taste for it.

The first book is called Upon a Burning Throne.

It sets bookstores on fire on April 16, 2019.

And just to prove how un-American it is, Effie, let me give the readers of this piece a teensy-weensy example.

The main protagonist of the entire series only appears very briefly in this first book.

And she’s just a baby in that one chapter.

Her story actually begins in Book 2, A Dark Queen Rises, which comes out next year.

Because this is not an American Epic Fantasy.

It’s not even an Indian Epic Fantasy.

Sure, it’s inspired by Indian mythology, and the DNA of the Mahabharata is all over it.

But that’s like saying I’m Irish because my grandmother was Irish. (True.)

Or that I’m Portuguese because my grandfather was Portuguese. (Ditto.)

Or that I’m Sri Lankan. (Ditto.) Or Indian. (Ditto.)

I’m all those things and then some.

And the Burnt Empire Saga is a lot of things too.

But one thing it’s not is American.

Check it out if you want to see what that’s like.

As for me, I’m happy to take back Effie to her roots.

The unknowable, inscrutable, not-quite-human-yet-intensely-humanistic mythopoetic mystery realm of the forgotten, the never-was, and never-will-be.

That’s where you belong, Effie.

That’s my tribute to you.

Accept this offering with all my love and humility, Effie.

It’s yours now.

—-

Upon a Burning Throne: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt (scroll to the “excerpt” button). Visit the author’s site. Follow him on Twitter.