The Big Idea: Dan Koboldt

Have you ever wanted a pet dragon? If the answer isn’t yes, is it because you never thought it was possible? And now that the idea’s on the table, hey, do you want one now? Author Dan Koboldt shows us a world in which that’s possible in his newest novel, Domesticating Dragons. Read on to see how man’s best friend could end up breathing fire.

DAN KOBOLDT:

It’s no secret that genetic technologies have rapidly advanced in the past few decades. The initial draft of the human genome sequence was published in 2001. It had taken an international team of scientists ten years and about a billion dollars in research funding to reach that critical milestone. Now, we have instruments that can sequence a human genome in three days for two thousand bucks. Hundreds of thousands of human genomes have been sequenced. Genetic testing is increasingly used to diagnose diseases, guide cancer treatment, and catch serial killers. Even you, the average consumer, can buy a test that tells you your genetic ancestry, how much Neanderthal DNA you’ve got, and whether you really are part Native American like Grandma claims. 

That’s all well and good. Some of it is part of my day job as a genetics researcher. At the same time, I wondered how soon we might be able to apply genetics to something really exciting, like making dragons. 

Genetic engineering technologies have also improved considerably in recent years, notably with the discovery of CRISPR-Cas. This system, which was discovered in bacteria, allows us to make precise “edits” to the DNA of living cells. Both of these features – the precision and the part about living cells – represent major advances, which is why the scientists who discovered CRISPR-Cas recently won the Nobel Prize. We can also synthesize DNA molecules – write the code, in other words. 

Put all of that together: vastly improved knowledge of the genome, custom synthesis, and precision editing tools for the code of life. It doesn’t take a significant leap to begin designing organisms from scratch. The sensible approach would be to start with single-cell organisms. I say screw that. Let’s go for something big. While there are countless creatures of myth to choose from, nothing simultaneously fascinates and terrifies humans the way that dragons do.

When I started writing a book about a genetic engineer who designs dragons for a living, the same issue kept coming up. Why dragons? When some of my early readers asked this, I had trouble understanding the question. Dragons are awesome. I’ve managed to insert some form of dragon into every book I’ve written. Why not dragons? My friends gently pointed out to me that not every reader would accept dragons no matter what. They need some reason to exist in the fictional world.

Many of the authors I admire have accomplished this with particular style. The dragons of Pern (Anne McCaffrey) were created to fight the falling of Thread, an alien invasive species. The dragons of Naomi Novik’s Temeraire have been trained for war in the Napoleonic era. And in The Priory of the Orange Tree (Samantha Shannon), ancient dragons exist to bring chaos to the world.

So yes, I had to justify dragons. I decided that in this book, the world needs dragons because a canine epidemic has all but wiped out the dogs (believe it or not, a global pandemic affecting the population seemed like science fiction in 2018). Think of all the roles that dogs play in our modern society. We raise them to be pets, outdoor companions, security guards, and emotional support animals. Without dogs, we’d need some other animals to fill that role. And I think we all know that cats wouldn’t step up. 

The company in my book, the Build-A-Dragon Company, designs dragons to fill some of the voids left behind by canines. Hunting dragons. Junkyard dragons. Pink-and-purple birthday dragons. Developing these models requires sophisticated laboratory equipment and computing infrastructure. That’s why the main character truly wants to work there. He has a brother with an as-yet-incurable genetic disorder, and with resources like these it might be possible to find a cure. 

In case you hadn’t guessed, this is where the events in the book begin to intersect my life in the real world. My colleagues and I sequence the genomes of children with undiagnosed disorders in hopes of discovering new disease genes and eventually providing a diagnosis. I’ve gotten to know a bit about the patient experience as a result. By the time they enroll in my research program, patients have usually undergone extensive testing, all of which failed to reveal the underlying problem. We call it a “diagnostic odyssey” because it can be a long and arduous journey for the patient and his or her family. We only find an answer (a likely diagnosis) for about one-third of families, but each time it brings about a profound sense of relief. 

There are absolutely parts of Domesticating Dragons that draw on my experiences in genetics and in academia. It was hard for me not to inject a lot of hard science into the book. After all, I spend my days thinking about genes and genetic conditions. However, I’m keenly aware – mostly from my experiences in social situations – that the science is more interesting to me than it is to anyone else. So I tried to strike a balance between realistic hard SF and a story that anyone can enjoy. 

As long as they love dragons. 


Domesticating Dragons: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|IndieBound|Bookshop|Baen Books

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

 

WW84: WTF?

Poster for Wonder Woman 1984

NOTICE: This review contains lots of spoilers.

Athena ScalziGreat Hera! Wonder Woman: 1984 was terrible! I am distraught over this, and must complain to all of you accordingly.

It didn’t have to be this way. Wonder Woman (2017), for all its flaws, was still an enjoyable, fun movie for me, in part because of my love for Diana (and Steve Trevor). They’re both (yes, both) back for this one, and yet Wonder Woman: 1984 was is so awful that I found it completely unenjoyable to watch.

Why? Let me count the ways!

1. Let’s start with the first fight scene, in the mall. It’s clear that it’s supposed to be the introductory scene where the hero swoops in and saves the day, and is established to the audience as the awesome main character. But the “fight” itself can hardly be called that. It’s basically just Diana swinging around and tripping bad guys. It seemed lackluster; the choreography seemed erratic and didn’t really flow well.

I was talking with my dad about the mall scene and how it didn’t seem to really do anything for the movie. He reminded me it actually did play a part: the jewelry store the thieves robbed was a front for stolen artifacts, one of which was the Dreamstone, which would become a major element of the story. I had completely forgotten about this plot point entirely! Here was a scene that was supposed to be important and practically set up the rest of the movie, but the way it was executed made it completely forgettable. The scene was disposable, and the important information it was trying to give us felt glazed over as a result.

2. Another issue I had with this movie is a problem I had with the first one, as well: DISAPPOINTING VILLAINS. In WWI, General Ludendorff was the most boring, unmotivated villain I had ever seen. He was literally just a dude who liked war and killing people. There was room to improve!

WW84 does better, but not by much. Maxwell Lord is the second most boring, unmotivated villain I have ever seen. His motives make no sense to me. He wanted to be the Dreamstone, so he could take whatever he wanted from people, so he could… what? Be more powerful? Be more successful? Power, success, fame, fortune. All classic things that villains want. And Max Lord kept saying he wanted “more”. Okay, but… why? Like Ludendorff, Lord was completely two-dimensional, an uninspiring villain who you can’t even bring yourself to sympathize with when the movie shows flashbacks to his traumatic youth and abusive father.

3. Also, nothing happened to Max Lord after his egregious deeds. He reunites with his son and gets a hug and his son tells him he loves him and whatnot. It’s a nice ending for a bad man. But where is the justice regarding Max Lord? At least Ludendorff died! Lord wasn’t even arrested! Why does he get a good ending, with forgiveness from his son, and no consequences for his dastardly acts? Is it just because everything that happened as a result of the Dreamstone wishes got “reset” or “erased”? He’s not really responsible for anything bad that happened if technically nothing actually happened, right?

Steve Trevor, in WW84.

4. Speaking of things that didn’t technically happen but still totally did happen and are fucked-up things, here’s one with WW84 that I have seen widely discussed: Steve Trevor having sex with Diana after she wished him back to life in someone else’s body. And aside from the obviously enormous problem of using someone else’s body nonconsensually for sex, Steve could’ve gotten that guy killed — Constantly fighting baddies and being in harm’s way is fine if it’s your body that you’re harming, but Steve was literally piloting (no pun intended) a normal guy who did not deserve any of this to happen to him.

Diana and Steve’s reaction to him being in a random body is rather odd. Sure they’re shocked that Steve is back, and they’re in awe that he’s alive again, but neither of them seem that concerned he’s in someone else’s body. Of course they say they want to get to the bottom of it, like how it happened and why, but they don’t actually seem to care about the person involved. They don’t even know his name. We don’t even know his name. If you go to IMDb, his character is literally listed as “handsome man”.

Is that all he is? Is he not worthy of even being given a name? They go to his apartment, rifle through his closet, use his body in multiple ways, and he can’t even have a name? Did he not have any family or friends who were concerned where he disappeared for a few days? Was a missing persons report filed? Did he have plans for those days he wasn’t in his body? Maybe he was supposed to go see his dying mother in the hospital, but didn’t get to because Steve was busy flying an invisible jet through fireworks.

All of the wishes made with the Dreamstone were revoked, resolving the conflict of the movie and setting things back to normal. None of it technically happened. But how does that make sense when there is a man out there with no memory of the days when someone else inhabited his body? He doesn’t get those days back. Yes, Steve disappeared when Diana revoked her wish, but that doesn’t mean he wasn’t in the guy’s body at all. He was. It happened.

I know it’s not fair to, like, a hundred percent blame Steve for what happened. Diana is the one who made the wish, and Steve didn’t ask to be put in a stranger’s body. It’s not his fault he possessed someone, and it’s not like he could leave the body unless Diana revoked her wish, which he had to eventually convince her to do. Some of Steve and Diana’s actions were selfish and morally questionable if not just outright terrible, but Steve isn’t necessarily at fault for everything. Diana has some things to answer for, however.

5. Aside from the morality and logistics of Steve coming back to “life”, can we talk about how the filmmakers nerfed him a SECOND TIME? Killing him once wasn’t enough, huh? Our self-sacrificing pilot blew himself up in the first movie. He truly went out with a bang. Seeing him die gave Diana that essential burst of anger, that rage that gave her the strength to defeat Ares. It was inspiring!

And then… they just did that again?

Of course it was sad that Diana had to lose Steve a second time, but why did they do it like that? It seems to me like they wanted Steve to die again so Diana could get that classic “grief empowerment”, but didn’t want to actually kill him again. So they put him in someone else’s body specifically so later on in the movie they could have a reason for him to disappear. It would have been unoriginal to make him die again, but making his soul that’s possessing someone else’s body vanish back into the void? Ugh.

6. Okay, so, this next issue is more random and not as essential to structure or plot or anything, but I got so tired of seeing Diana save children. I know that sounds weird, but: how many times did she have to swoop in with her lasso and grab children who were in danger? The first time in the mall was fine; she saved the kid from being dropped off the ledge and put her down safely. Nice, cool, whatever.

But then there were those kids in Egypt playing in the street despite the very obvious onslaught of vehicles speeding towards them? It made no sense they’d be playing carefree in the road while there were literal tanks exploding down the road from them. If Diana was close enough to the kids to swing in and save them, the tanks were close enough that the kids would’ve seen them a long time before.

It just doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. Not to mention Diana fell so fucking hard when she lost her grip on the lasso that even if she had been shielding the children with her body they for sure would’ve gotten hurt anyways.

7. One more seemingly random yet actually not thing: WW84 has one of the most eye-capturing posters I’ve ever seen (see above). It’s bright, it’s colorful, it’s intriguing. The gold armor is the new iconic look, one I’m personally not a big fan of, but it was still enough to make an ad campaign around it.

In the movie, the gold armor is revealed to be Asteria’s, a legendary Amazon warrior. And somehow Diana just… has this incredible armor leaning against the wall in her apartment. Just chilling there. It’s not entirely implausible that Diana would be in possession of the armor, sure, but the movie doesn’t even bother to tell us how she got it. You can speculate that perhaps she acquired it while working at the museum, but that doesn’t explain how she got it from the museum if that’s the case. There’s no mention of anyone from her homeland bestowing it upon her. She just… has it. And then destroys most of it in her fight with Cheetah. Seems like just a meaningless thing they threw in to make people look at the poster and think, “ooh, shiny”.

The thing that bothers me the most about this movie is that it didn’t have to be this way. All the problems above were fixable! Some simple redrafting would’ve done the job. These are good filmmakers, so why did they fall short here?

So, yeah, Wonder Woman: 1984 was kind of a bust. My disappointment is immeasurable. A third one is in the works and I totally plan on seeing it. But this one certainly wasn’t good.

However, if you liked it, I would love to hear why! What worked for you? Tell me your thoughts in the comments. And have a great day!

-AMS

2021 Awards Consideration Post

Each year at the beginning of January I let folks know what things I have available for consideration for annual awards, and for 2021, today’s the day! If you’re in an award-nominating mood, this is what I have for you this time around. I’m using Hugo categories here unless noted otherwise; other organizations may have similar/equivalent categories.

Best Novel:

The Last Emperox (April 2020; Tor Books; Patrick Nielsen Hayden, editor)

Best Series:

The Interdependency Series (The Collapsing Empire; The Consuming Fire; The Last Emperox) (Tor Books; Patrick Nielsen Hayden, editor)

Best Novella:

Murder By Other Means (September 2020; Audible Originals; Steve Feldberg, editor)

Best Dramatic Presentation (Long Form):

Murder by Other Means (September 2020; Audible Originals; read by Zachary Quinto)

John Scalzi

The Last Emperox is straight-up sf/f; Murder is also sf/f and additionally could be considered in the mystery/crime genre, so if you nominate for mystery/crime awards and like the novella, keep it in mind there.

The song I co-wrote last year, “Another Christmas (Until I Am There With You),” is probably not eligible for science fiction awards (except, if you stretch, maybe the Best Related Work Hugo, and I don’t encourage that particular stretch), but it’s certainly eligible for music-related awards. I co-wrote the song with Matthew Ryan.

In addition to these works of mine, some other people to keep in consideration this year, for work in conjunction to my own:

Nicholas Bouvier (aka Sparth) did the cover art for The Last Emperox (and the Interdependency Series as a whole), and is eligible for Best Professional Artist and equivalent awards in the art sphere.

Patrick Nielsen Hayden was the editor of The Last Emperox and indeed all of my novels for Tor, and is eligible for Best Editor (Long Form). Likewise, Steve Feldberg was the editor of Murder By Other Means, and would be eligible for Best Editor (Short Form)

Zachary Quinto is the narrator of Murder, and would be eligible for various audiobook awards therein.

Athena Scalzi is eligible for the Best Fan Writer Hugo this year, on the basis of her genre-related work here at Whatever. Examples of that work: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6.

As always: I am pointing out these works are eligible, not asking you to nominate them over other work you might like more. As always, if you like my work enough to nominate it, that’s wonderful, and thank you. But if you don’t — don’t. Vote for the work and people who you feel are deserving in any award year. That’s how it’s supposed to get done.

— JS

Welcome to 2021

Sugar, in full nap mode.

Sugar has the right idea on how to spend the first day of the new year, I think. As for me, I’m spending it doing a little housekeeping on the site and elsewhere (as, actually, I do most firsts of January), and otherwise not doing a whole bunch. For that matter, Whatever is probably going to be a bit sleepy through Monday, January 4; we have nothing on the schedule until then, at least. I’m not saying Athena or I won’t post before then, I’m just saying be pleasantly surprised if we do.

Otherwise, have a good New Year’s weekend and we’ll see you next week.

JS

The End of 2020*

John Scalzi

Wait, why the asterisk? Because 2020 is not a normal year, my friends! For me, 2020 began on March 11. That day I was on a cruise, avoiding news, when people started rushing up to me saying “Did you hear about Tom Hanks?!?!?” This was due to me actually knowing Mr. Hanks and therefore everyone on the boat wanting to inform me of his fresh COVID-positive status (and also, I had lunch with him in February, juuuuuuust outside the generally accepted infection window). Then I got back to my cabin and there was an email from my editor, begging me to call him, which was difficult because, you know, boat in the ocean. He told me my book tour was being cancelled and that it was basically the end of the world out there. So I reluctantly checked the news.

He wasn’t right about it being the end of the world. We still had another ten months to go.

Likewise, 2020 won’t end in a few hours. It will end at noon on January 20th, when Donald Trump is no longer president and we don’t have an administration that is staffed with incompetents and/or bigots and/or grifters. Once that crew is punted then the year can actually get underway. So like 2020, there will a brief interregnum before the year can truly get going. Even briefer than 2020’s, which included nearly ten weeks of the year.

For all that, January 1, 2021 will represent the light at the end of the tunnel. We see it coming, it’s inevitable and all that’s left to do now is to get to it. I will take it, appreciate it and celebrate it for what it is. I hope you will, too.

Happy new year*, folks. May it be a far sight better than the one it replaces.

— JS

My Top 5 Posts of 2020

Athena ScalziSeason’s greetings, everyone! I kind of accidentally went on a hiatus for the past week, with it being my birthday and Christmas and all, but I thought I’d post one more thing before the New Year. I want to share with you my top five favorite posts I wrote this year.

Overall, I think my writing on here this year is vastly improved from my blog writing in 2018, and I’m glad for it. I’ve had so much support from all of you that has really made me enjoy doing this, and I want to continue providing quality content for your entertainment. With that being said, here are my personal favorite pieces of mine (not in alphabetical or chronological order):

  1. I Regret To Inform You All That I Miss High School
  2. This Vacation Blows
  3. Understand That You Can Never Understand
  4. The Art VS The Artist
  5. Saved (?) By The Bell

These aren’t really in any particular order, just kind of the order that felt the most right to me? I’m not sure.

Out of this list, I would love to know which is your favorite! And/or if your favorite of mine isn’t on this list, I’d love to hear which is your favorite. Let me know in the comments, and have a great day!

And thank you all for reading! Your support means the world to me.

-AMS

So, Scalzi, What Are Your 2021 Goals?

Honestly? They’re my 2020 goals, but this time, I will totally follow through, I swear.

Or not! Look, I don’t feel bad about falling down on my 2020 goals, because, well, 2020 — one of my goals was to see more friends, for example, and the pandemic made that very difficult to do. It won’t be one of the immediate things I get to do in 2021, either, although I feel optimistic about the second half of the year, and enough people getting vaccinated (and the culture of country changing a bit because the president won’t be a pissy mask-avoider) that actually seeing people might be a thing we start to get to do again. But I’m not going to rush it. I’ve been patient for nine and a half months, I can be patient a while longer. My friends are worth the wait.

The rest of the goals we’ll take as they come. I will say that of the goals I outlined a year ago, the one I made the most progress on, and the one I want to keep progressing on, was playing more music. I did! I even managed to co-write a song, and it’s a song which I think is pretty good. I need to finish this novel I’ve been wrestling with before I do much of anything else, but after that I think I’d like to try to write (or co-write) some more songs.

The thing I think I failed the hardest on — which is no surprise either to me or anyone else, I think — is maintaining structure. Again, I’m not going to beat myself up too much for that one, since 2020 was the focus puller to end all focus pullers, and I’m not the only one who had this problem this year. But not beating myself up about it is not the same as being happy about it. I’m not. The older I get the more I realize that if I want to get things done, I really have to build a schedule and stick to it. Schedules in themselves don’t make me happy — if I were inherently a schedule-oriented person I wouldn’t have this perennial problem — but the results of scheduling (more work done, more time to actually do things) make me happy indeed. So: back at it for 2021.

The one thing I think I’ll add to the goal list for 2021 is prioritize my own contentment, and conversely, to minimize the things that leave me discontented. I like to think this is something I do more or less automatically (I do not live a hugely discontented life in general), but again, 2020 reminds us all that it’s easy to get caught up in the whirlwind of suck. To work on my own contentment I don’t think I will need to hide from the world; I think I might need to better understand and prioritize how to the world affects my daily life and business. I’m pretty sure I’m not going to nail this one down in 2021, but one does have to start somewhere.

So, yes: Goals for 2021, same as for 2020, plus one extra, and hopefully with an at least slightly less explode-y world. I feel optimistic. Let’s see if it’s warranted.

— JS

The Big Idea: Michael Mammay

The cover to "Colonyside"

We view ourselves in a certain way, because we live with ourselves on a daily basis. What happens when people see us differently, and can those differences fuel the plot of a book? This is one of the questions Michael Mammay asked himself for his novel, Colonyside.

MICHAEL MAMMAY:

The concept of a Big Idea can have a lot of different applications when it comes to writing a series when compared to a single book. Almost certainly there was a big idea that kicked off the series, but when you’re on book three, as I am with Colonyside, it’s different. For some writers, it’s probably less important, as perhaps they had the big idea for the series figured out ahead of time. My series wasn’t originally a trilogy, so every book has its own big idea. So for me, I’d argue that in book three, the big idea is actually more important than it was in book one. I say that because before I ever started writing the third book, I already had the characters, and I had a lot of the world building. Readers had already gone through two full novels with Carl Butler and seen him change. For the third book to be interesting, I had to have something new.

For Colonyside, I came up with the whole thing starting with only a big idea. After all, I was on a two book deal, and to sell book three, I had to sell that big idea to the publisher. For those who haven’t read the first two books, without spoilers, I’ll provide a bit of context. In book one, Planetside, a big thing happens, and as you would expect, the main character is in the middle of it. Book two, Spaceside, is his reaction to that thing—how he deals with it, and how he tries to change from it. In Colonyside, the third book, he has moved past that phase and is into acceptance. The things in the past have happened, and he has mostly come to grips with them. But not everybody sees him the same way he sees himself.

And that’s the big idea behind Colonyside. What happens when things have happened in your past and you see yourself one way, having learned from those things and moved forward, but others see you only how they know you from that past incident? And I think it’s a timely subject. In our current environment, we see things pop up from people’s pasts—usually bad things—and there comes a public reckoning. And in that discourse, inevitably questions arise as to how much we should hold something against someone from their past.

And I’m not going to dwell on that here, because everyone has to come to their own decision about that on a case-by-case basis. Make your own call and forgive or don’t. But that’s what makes it interesting to me as a fictional situation—the fact that people can see it very differently, and more than one of those opinions can be valid.

But regardless of an outsider’s opinion, the almost universal truth in it is that the person who did the thing in the past sees themself differently than other people see them. Because assuming that person is honest with themself, they have the best possible information on how they’ve truly changed or haven’t. Others can’t always see that change, as their information is often filtered through the media or public relations. So there’s an inherent conflict in that. A person who has changed sees themself one way and other people see them another.

And that’s the story of Colonyside. Carl Butler has changed from the person he was in the first book, but those book one events were very public, and his change has come mostly in private. Let me be clear: Carl Butler is not a victim. He was a willing participant in the bad things that happened in Planetside, and he deserves all the ire of people who still hold it against him. He struggled with that in book two, trying to find redemption. But by book three he’s past that. He has come to accept that it is what it is. He’s both the person who did those things in the past, and he’s also the person who has changed. Other people see him however they see him, but he no longer lets their opinions define him.

And that becomes the conflict of the book. When other people expect him to act as the person he was in the past, it clashes with the person that he actually is in the present.


Colonyside: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s|E Shaver Books

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

The 2020 Experience: A Personal Reflection

If there was ever a year that showed the difference between “on paper” and “in reality,” 2020 was it.

How so? Well, here is my personal 2020 on paper:

* My novel The Last Emperox was a New York Times bestseller, got three starred reviews from the trades, was named one of the best books of 2020 in a number of places, and won the Dragon Award for Best Science Fiction Novel;

* My audiobook novella Murder By Other Means also topped the charts for Audible Plus and was in the audio book fiction bestseller list for several weeks;

* Love Death and Robots, which featured three episodes based on my short stories, won Emmy and Annie Awards, the latter for one of my episodes — I didn’t win the award, to be clear, but it’s still pretty cool;

* I wrote two television screenplays which are currently in production (and that’s all I can tell you so far);

* I was Guest of Honor at DragonCon;

* I co-wrote a Christmas song that actually got some radio airplay.

Plus this site had its best year in a couple of years in terms of readership, plus my family is largely doing well, plus I was not consumed by a bear or other large woodland creature, etc. 2020! Pretty great! On paper!

In reality, of course, things were a lot different.

On a purely business level, from mid-March through mid-December I found it very difficult to write worthy pay copy. In the first half of year I was busy promoting Emperox and myself, which was not a problem. I knew I would be doing that with my time and had budgeted for it, because I had assumed that in the second half of 2020 I could focus on the novel. Then the second half of 2020 happened, and… well. You were there, you know how it went. Plus in my case there was the pretty-sure-it-was-COVID that turned my brain into jelly starting in November.

As I’ve noted elsewhere, I wrote tens of thousands of words on this novel. The likelihood of you seeing any of those particular words without a substantial overhaul is low. The book will get done, and it will be good. But, yeah. When it does get done, it won’t be because 2020 made it easy.

I’m frustrated, angry and annoyed about this. These last few years were hard on my focus, as the various acknowledgement sections of each novel since The Collapsing Empire have made clear. But going into 2020 I genuinely thought I had acclimated to the chaos. I thought I might be able to keep my head down and do some solid work this year, not just on this novel, but on some other projects I wanted to do.

And in January and February, I did! Finished Murder, wrote those screenplays, whomped up a novel synopsis so I would have something to work from instead of just winging it like I usually did, had some meetings in LA about current and future projects and prepped for my book tour. Then with all that accomplished and feeling pretty damn smug about it, if you want to know the truth, I went on the JoCo Cruise in early March, with the assumption that the momentum would keep rolling when I got back.

Then I got back and, oh boy: Pandemic and quarantine and economic collapse and George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and anti-maskers and the election and the Stupidest Attempted Coup in Modern World History and 300,000 people dead, and so on and so forth, and think about what that and so on and so forth means, since any one of the things that might be in there would be a major event in a more sane year. 2020 was the year I had to go onto Amazon to buy emergency fucking toilet paper. Plus people I know got sick, and at least a couple died. And then I got sick, and while I didn’t get anywhere close to dying, thank goodness, I wasn’t in a good place for a while there to do meaningful work of the sort I usually do.

I thought I had acclimated to the chaos, and 2020 was all, lol, y’all watch this.

Like I said: frustrated, angry and annoyed. But not, I should note, feeling like I should beat myself up about not being able to focus for much of this year. 2020 was a king tide of terrible. It swamped me and nearly every other person I know, whether they were someone working in a creative field or not. I suppose there are some people who were able to function close to their normal this year, but I think they would either have been apolitical hermits to begin with, or sociopaths who think the chaos of this year is civilization living its best life. In either case that’s not a “normal” I would care to emulate.

Between March and December of 2020, the sum result of my public creative output is: one song. And know you what? For 2020, that is a complete and unambiguous win. I will take it, thank you. You know what else? If you were able to do anything this year above the level of “just get through this,” that’s a complete and unambiguous win for you, too. Feel good about it. And if “just get through this” was all you did for 2020, guess what? Another win! 2020 didn’t make it easy for you to do that, and you did it anyway. Well done, you. Basically, getting to this point in 2020 feels like a monumental achievement. Take a damn bow. You deserve it.

I will note that while this was a terrible year, objectively and subjectively, for me it was not as terrible as it was for many. Aside from the professional highlights above, the day-to-day experience of my life was as good as it could have been. My family was at home with me so the quarantine was not hard to endure. We were and are financially secure and never had to fear losing our home, or worry about whether or not we could pay our bills. We were mostly healthy and when I and Athena got sick, neither of us were seriously physically incapacitated. I missed people but I was also able to stay in touch with them online and through other means. We were and are both fortunate, and lucky. It’s perhaps strange to say that 2020 reminded me that I and my family have the luxury of a margin between us and the gulf. But it did, and I will go ahead and say it.

In spite of 2020, I have hopes for 2021. We will have a new administration and we have a vaccine. Neither means a hard reset of the damage that 2020 did, but they do mean some problems are on their way to being solved, or at least being managed better than they are now. I won’t say 2021 is going to be easy. But I can hope that it will be different, and that this level of different makes it easier for me to get back into my own head. We’ll see.

As for 2020: On paper, a good year for me. In reality, I would have traded all of the “on paper” for a better year than we all got. Every day, and twice on Sunday, of which there are no more for this year. Come on, 2021. Can’t wait to meet you.

— JS

And Now, My Favorite Photo That I Took in 2020

It’s this one:

A bouquet of flowers viewed from above.
John Scalzi

Why this one? For several reasons. One, it’s a whole mood; they’re beautiful flowers, but they’re already beginning to fade and wilt, a reminder that beauty is transient. Two, the light and shadow here is almost painterly, which is partly due to how it’s shot and partly the magic of Photoshop. Three, the photo is well composed. Four, I took it with my phone camera and feel pretty smug about coaxing a photo like this out of it (again, Photoshop helped). Five, as soon as I took it this song started playing in my head, no doubt due to the similarity of this photo and the cover of the album the song is on:

So, yes. All of those reasons. I hope you like it too.

As long as we’re on the subject of photos, here are some other photos I took this year that I believe have not previously showed up on Whatever this year. Enjoy.

— JS

Technical Test Follow-up

John Scalzi

Basically, Google Chrome changed the way it caches images and information from the internet, which is generally a good thing — it means the browser is marginally more secure — but as a result using web fonts is kind of broken. Pages don’t necessarily show up in the typefaces I’ve chosen for them, even after I clear the cache and do a hard reload of the page. I was checking to see if changing the typefaces would have an effect one way or another, and the answer is: No, not really. What the actual solution is: Downloading the typefaces I’m using as my headline and body typeface and putting them in my local font folder so they show up every time.

If you have noticed that the typefaces on Whatever have been a bit erratic in the last month, here are the ones I am using so you can download them for yourself and have a more consistent experience: Abril Fatface for the headline typeface, and Libre Baskerville for the body text. Both are available for free at Google Fonts.

Also, on the mobile side of things, and as a response for the folks who were having difficulty posting comments, I’ve reverted the mobile theme back to a variation of the desktop theme, which is AMP compatible in any event. I may change this again at some point in the future but for now everything should be functioning just fine.

That concludes site tweaking for now. More updates when necessary and/or inevitable.

— JS

Whatever 2020: Top Posts and General Notes

John Scalzi

This was a pretty good year for Whatever in terms of visitorship. Not only that, but for the first time in a couple of years the majority of the most popular posts on the site were posts that were written in the calendar year. And not just posts by me! Athena has made her presence known in the traffic department. Let’s talk about all of this, shall we?

First, here are the 10 most popular posts on Whatever in 2020, in terms of total readership, in descending order:

  1. When Friends Fuck Up, and So Do I
  2. Straight White Male: The Lowest Difficulty Setting There Is
  3. Thoughts on Pixel Buds 2: The Buddening
  4. Heartbreak is Not a Joke, or, The Tragedy of Kristoff
  5. Generation X and Trans Lives
  6. How to Make a Schadenfreude Pie
  7. My Thoughts on Red Dead Redemption 2
  8. Internet Speed Update
  9. The Sound of a Landslide Not Happening
  10. Oh, Christ, Not the Science Fiction Canon Again

So, eight out of ten posts were written in 2020. “Straight White Male” is a perennial in the Top Ten — it’s assigned a lot in college these days so at least some traffic for it comes from academia — and I imagine the popularity of the Schadenfreude Pie post was tied in with the election and Trump losing it. So that would explain those two.

But there is another, interesting factor coloring this popularity listing: Whatever is on the Google News list of sources it serves up to folks, and when we’re writing about media or technology in particular, we seem to get a bump. This would explain the high rankings of my Pixel Buds review and my observation on (finally) getting not-terrible internet access, which are things that might not otherwise have ranked highly. Also Athena’s pieces on Frozen 2 and Red Dead Redemption 2.

It’s interesting to me that these are the pieces that see the most flow-through from Google News, and not, say, stuff on science fiction; if I were to remove the two archive pieces from the “Top Ten” list, the next two top posts would be my thoughts on cameras in the age of cell phones, and then my talking about how my Google Chromecast puts my Dish Network subscription in doubt. Perhaps my future is as a tech pundit, with Athena doing entertainment reviews. Who needs any new novels from me, right?

Oh, stop looking at me like that. I’m gonna keep writing novels, I swear. Likewise, Whatever will not be turning into solely a tech/entertainment site; Athena and I will still be writing on whatever we feel like writing about. It’s right there in the title. But I do think the new mix of what is bringing people to the site is intriguing, and worth noting for future reference and planning.

In a more general sense, 2020 has been a pretty decent year for visitorship to Whatever. Indeed, for the first time in several years, the site gained on-site readership, which is an encouraging thing. The site’s high water mark for direct visits was 2012, and since then the on-site readership has declined precipitously, following the general trend for blogs in the social media era, down to about a third of that traffic in 2019. This decline in direct views been compensated for somewhat over the years by readership through RSS, email and WordPress’ own newsfeed feature, and I can drive traffic to the site via Twitter for particular pieces. That said, there’s no arguing that there’s been a downward trend on the site from eight years ago.

2020 saw the first uptick in on-site visits in years, to about 3 million visits; in fact, 2020 posted better on-site viewership than either 2019 or 2018. Which, again: Encouraging! I don’t want to overstate the bump — on-site traffic is only barely above 2018 levels, and well behind 2017. And in terms of real world practicalities it doesn’t change much in how the site works; the site doesn’t take advertising and I’m not dependent on it for income, and I write on the site because I feel like it, not because I get paid (Athena does get paid, mind you, but she generally also picks her topics). It doesn’t matter for the existence of the site whether on-site visits are up or down on a yearly basis. I still like that’s gone up this year, however.

What explains this upward tick? Among several factors I’ll highlight three. One, it’s an election year, and I get a fair amount of traffic writing about political topics. Two, the aforementioned being picked up occasionally by Google News helps. Three, I give a fair amount of credit to Athena’s work here. There was a solid bump in traffic in August, when she came on board — it’s our highest-trafficked month, in fact — and generally speaking the traffic on the site has been significantly higher in the second half of the year than it was in the first. Basically, I look really smart for hiring my kid.

(Also not insignificant: The site had 558 posts this year (not including this one and any additional posts we write in the next week). This is significantly up from 2019 — 374 posts then — and the most for any year since 2015. Some of this is due to me boosting the number of Big Idea pieces I post here, to help out authors in a year where many traditional publicity avenues were shut off for us. But some of it was just writing more here, and bringing Athena on board, which added two to three additional pieces a week. More posts, more traffic — the correlation is there.)

Speaking of Athena, one of the things that bringing on staff has done is make the putting together of Whatever a little less informal. We have staff meetings, for example, where we go over the plans for the week and what pieces are definitively on the schedule. Spontaneity can and does still happen — we’ve both posted pieces because we’ve felt like it, not because they’re on the article budget for the week (you’re reading one right now!) — but I’ve found the schedule to be useful, and it helps to make sure there’s something on the site most days.

It also means we can indulge in a little long-term planning and possibly work toward things we might have otherwise not been prepared to do. We dipped our toe into this a little bit in 2020, although cautiously, since we also had to factor in pandemic issues and the general “figuring out how we work together” thing. 2020 has been the shake-out cruise in terms of our collaboration. I’m hoping 2021 lets us try a couple of new things here. We’ll see!

In the meantime, I think against all odds 2020 was a fine year for Whatever. In a year in which you take your wins when you can, this counts as a big win for me. Thanks for being part of it, folks.

— JS

Come Gather ‘Round, Children, as Uncle Egor Tells You Stories of Famine in the Old Country

Me in a sweater and flat cap.

I think my Christmas gifts of a sweater and a flat cap lend me a certain continental charm. Once I am done terrifying the younger generation with stories of eating shoes to survive in the Great Starving of ’98, I will go out to the foothills to check on the goats. As one does.

In actuality Christmas has been lovely and I hope yours has been too. And if you don’t celebrate Christmas, at least it’s Friday, and that’s not nothing. Enjoy your day!

— JS

Whatever Best of 2020

Text says "Whatever Best of 2020: Can We Be Done Yet?" and the photo is of Smudge mashing his face into a blanket.

Happy Christmas Eve! As is now tradition here at Whatever, I have once again on this day gathered what I think are some of my strongest posts of the year into a handy list for you to peruse at your leisure — to experience again, or to read for the first time. 2020 has been, as the expression goes, twenty pounds of manure in a five pound sack; nevertheless I got some decent writing out of it here.

This year the list of “Best Of” entries I’m presenting comes with a necessary caveat: these are only culled from the pieces I wrote; Athena, who joined Whatever in August, who has written a number of really strong pieces, will have the option of presenting her own “best of” list before the end of the year if she wishes.

With that said, here are my favorite pieces of the year, presented in alphabetical rather than chronological order.

Not bad for a terrible year. Thanks for reading what I wrote this year. I do appreciate it.

— JS

22

Athena, at 22 years old.

Athena’s 22 today, and while she can (and may!) give her own thoughts about being that age to you, on my end I think this last year has been an eventful one for her. As it has been for most of us: 2020 was not so much a curveball as it was a fastball aimed at the world’s collective face, and it’s fair to say that most of us didn’t duck in time. In Athena’s case, a semester she took off from college became a whole year, and possibly more, as a pandemic basically rewrote the university experience worldwide.

As a parent, I wouldn’t have thought I’d’ve been okay with such a long hiatus from school, but Athena has not let the time go by idly. Most notably, of course, she’s been working for me here, both writing pieces and taking care of some back end stuff for me. Working with my kid has been, by and large, a joy for me, and seeing her develop as a writer — and being able to help her do so — has genuinely been one of the most satisfying things I have gotten to do as a father. I am really proud of her, and her work.

We will see where this next year takes all of us, but I have confidence in my kid. None of us, I think, are currently walking the road we expected to this year, or have necessarily arrived at the milestones we expected to reach. But this is not necessarily a bad thing. The path we’re now on can still take us to where we want to be, or to someplace else we didn’t know we wanted to be before we got there. I’m looking forward to seeing where Athena’s path takes her in the next year, and I love that I get to walk that path with her, at least some of the way.

I love you, Athena. Happy birthday.

Technical Note on the Site’s Mobile Theme

Which is that for some people there’s a UI bug that puts the “Exit Mobile Version” banner over the “Post” button when you want to leave a comment. I verified it being an issue on Android; I haven’t checked it elsewhere. I’m looking into it to see if I can fix it.

In the meantime, if you experience this bug in mobile, the simplest workaround is to exit the mobile version, and then leave a comment using the non-mobile theme. The non-mobile theme should still format to look legible on phones and tablets, and the comment functionality is not obscured by poor placement.

— JS

“Another Christmas (Until I Am There With You)” Out Now

The cover to "Another Christmas (Until I Am There With You)", which features a Christmas tree, with a moody art filter.

Short version: I co-wrote a Christmas song with the musician Matthew Ryan and through New Year’s Day we are offering it free, as a gift to you (yes! You!). You can download it now from Matthew’s Bandcamp site, and you can listen to it here through the lyric video I’ve embedded at the bottom of this entry. Merry Christmas, and happy holidays.

(If you’re just interested in the song, you can stop reading here and either go to Bandcamp or scroll down to the song video. Indeed, I might recommend that you listen to the song first, without additional context; it’s beautiful and stands on its own. But if you’re interested in how I, of all people, came to co-write not only a song, but a Christmas song, then the next section is for you. It’s full of process and overthinking!)

The not-at-all short version: This song is, shall we say, a surprise to Matthew Ryan and me as much as it is to any of the rest of you. It didn’t exist before Friday night; Matthew and I have never thought about collaborating before this; and it came about in no small part because I got sick, and because of that, got stuck.

Let’s take that last part first. I spent much of November and the first half of December in a brain fog. I strongly suspect it was due to COVID; my daughter Athena had it and I had symptoms very similar to her, and although my own COVID test came back negative, it’s also a test with a high error rate, and I think I got one of those errors. Whatever it was, while I was fortunate to have relatively mild physical symptoms, my brain wasn’t doing a very good job of thinking for a while there. I described this to Matthew as “feeling like I was up for 36 hours, for three straight weeks.”

This wasn’t great for my job, which is writing novels, including the one I’m currently writing. I could write words — and did — but while they might make sense on an individual sentence level, everything above that was, well, wobbly. I currently have tens of thousands of words that don’t really go anywhere. Don’t worry, I’ll fix them before any of you see them. But in the short run, what it meant was that I was struggling to do a thing that normally I don’t struggle to do at all. I don’t want to say I was freaking out about it, but it’s totally fair to say I was frustrated by it.

When I get frustrated by something, one of the things I’ll try to do is come at it laterally, which is to say, approach the problem in a way that my brain isn’t used to (and therefore, isn’t expecting). I was having problems writing words, but I was writing words for a novel, a form that my brain knew about (I’ve written fifteen so far) and had expectations for, and therefore could get balky about if everything wasn’t going like it was supposed to.

So: Why not write words for something I had no real process for at all? Maybe the words would come easier that way.

This entailed two things. First, I decided to write longhand, on a yellow pad. I never do this (this will not be a surprise to anyone who has ever seen my handwriting), and the fact is that changing your physical medium of writing will change how your brain handles it. I have been writing on computers since I started writing at all; those pathways are well established. Hand writing words? Much less so. Second, I changed the conceptual medium of my writing: I chose lyric songwriting. Which I don’t do much of at all, and which my brain doesn’t have a plan for.

I should be clear at this point that in doing both of these things, the result I was focused on was jumpstarting my brain out of its rut and seeing if my brain fog had lifted enough that I was able to do something purely creative. I had no other considerations in mind. This was good; it meant I didn’t have to think about any second-order issues. No one was wanting or indeed even expecting songwriting from me, so I could do whatever I wanted.

What I wanted to do was write a Christmas song. Because it’s the holidays, and I was listening to holiday music, and because it’s a form I’m familiar with after a half century of concentrated annual exposure. Also, I’m a Christmas guy, and have become more so over the years. I like this part of the year and the general sense of it. A Christmas song seemed the right thing to try.

I had no interest in writing a snappy, funny, wink-and-nod Christmas song, possibly about robots or aliens. Not just because that’s what people would expect from me (although they would, and with good reason), but because, bluntly, 2020 doesn’t have me feeling snappy, and funny, and winky-and-noddy. Among many other things, it’s made me miss friends and people I care about, and it’s made me long for a time when we can be together again and feel joy in each other’s presence. What I want for Christmas in 2020 is the people I love, with me, after so long. I am fortunate to have Krissy and Athena here. But for everyone else, this year is for missing them. And for hoping for another Christmas, and another year with better days.

That’s what I wrote about, last Thursday night, scribbling words onto a legal pad with my genuinely awful handwriting. When I was done writing them out, I had two thoughts:

1. Writing the lyrics was actually useful — I got myself into a creative flow where the words were coming out and my brain was simultaneously problem-solving issues. For the first time in about a month my brain felt like my brain, and not just a wad of wet cotton that somehow allowed me to be fitfully bipedal. This was kinda huge for me after a few weeks of its complete and utter uselessness, thank you very much.

2. These lyrics were not bad at all. Which, again, was not the point — I would have been happy with them being terrible, as long as they made my brain feel like it did in the previous paragraph. The process was the goal here, not the outcome. But as it turned out, they were all right. They had an internal structure and rhythm, and I could almost hear a melody. It felt kinda like an actual song to me, and not just a generic song, but a little bit like a song from an artist I already knew of and whose work I admired.

Now, a few words about Matthew Ryan here. I’ve been aware of his music for years now, first through the good graces of our mutual friend John Anderson, who had been a fan of Matthew since his debut album Mayday, and then later of my own accord. Matthew’s music has been widely described as alt-country, blue-collar rock or Americana, but I feel that’s both limiting (not in the least because the range of his work extends into electronica and even ambient) and not specific enough to what I think makes Matthew’s songs fly.

Specifically, this is how Matthew’s music makes me feel: In his work, Matthew offers his great cracked and wounded heart, and in listening to him, both of you get a chance to heal. Which I realize after typing it is a lot to put on Matthew, on a song-by-song basis. Sorry, Matthew. But that’s where I am with him, and why I come back to his work, album after album, and song after song.

The lyrics I wrote feel of a piece with what I come to Matthew Ryan’s work for. The two of us have been friendly online for years, and we’ve both cheered each other’s various successes. So I sent him a message, which was, more or less, hey I did some words, can I show them to you? And he said, more or less, yes, I like your words generally, show them to me. And then on Friday night, he said, more or less, hey, I worked on your words some and here’s what they sound like now, what do you think, and enclosed a demo.

Which I listened to, and got teary over. And then I played the demo for Krissy, and she got teary too, at which point I said, oh by the way, I co-wrote that with Matthew, because, uhhhhhhh, I hadn’t told her about it before that moment. Because, remember, I originally hadn’t planned for anything other than to use the songwriting to get out of my own head. This — an actual song — qualified as a real bonus.

And it’s a really good song, too. I will take a little credit for that, thanks, but the lion’s share of the credit here properly goes to Matthew. As a craftsperson, what was fascinating to me from a process point of view was how Matthew took a bunch of words that I wrote, trimmed, recast and added to them, and as a result made them a better version of what they had been. And then put them to music! I am not, shall we say, a generally collaborative person, artistically speaking, but this experience does make me understand how collaboration can work at its best. One of the great joys of getting older is the realization that working with people who are differently competent than you is a pretty great thing. Matthew is, of course, more than competent.

By Monday morning we had a completed version of the song, and then the question was: What now?

The answer to “what now” is: Here, have a song. This song was a surprise to the both of us, our sudden and previously unthought-of collaboration was a late-breaking bit of joy we got to give to each other, and 2020 has been a real motherfucker of a year. We could all use something unexpected and hopeful here at the end of it. Also, it’s the holiday season, Christmas is coming for those who celebrate it, as well as a new year. In all of these cases a gift is not out of order.

Here’s ours, to you, with love. We hope you like it.

— JS

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