The Big Idea: Brandie June

Ah, yes, a damsel in distress. Or, perhaps, a con artist in distress? Author Brandie June has taken a classic we all know and love, and spun it on its head in her newest novel, Gold Spun.

BRANDIE JUNE: 

Fairytales are simple. The bad guys are wicked. We know them by their cruel sneers and ugly faces. (In later forms of media, they will twirl mustaches and sport evil goatees.) They will be punished by the end, often in an especially grisly way if you are reading the classic fairytales transcribed by the Grimm Brothers. Evil queens dance themselves to death on heated iron shoes and mysterious little men rage until they split themselves in half and die. The good are pure, innocent, and rewarded handsomely. The sweet commoner toils without complaint and marries the prince. The imprisoned princess patiently waits for true love’s freeing kiss.

But what if we reverse that?

And not even a full reversal. I never intended to make the evil queen an angelic, pious one, nor the sweet commoner a bloodsucking villain, but wanted to find the magical place where the characters met somewhere in the middle. The morally gray heroes and villains that would have readers questioning who was the ‘good guy’ versus the ‘bad guy’ and hopefully even shift allegiances throughout their read of Gold Spun.

My novel started as a short story with the single challenge of making Rumpelstiltskin the hero. I imagined this mysterious character not as a menacing force, but instead as a quiet, hidden presence that fell in love with the miller’s daughter, wanting to aid her, even if it means losing her. I had fun writing that story, but it wasn’t enough.

Instead of creating the complex, morally gray, deliciously juicy characters I love, I had only flipped the script on Rumpelstiltskin, turning him from villain to hero. I needed to pull him back from the side of good, strand him somewhere in the in-between realm. So I gave him a few more secrets, a few things that like a spool of golden thread, only unravel with time. And I focused on developing the character of the miller’s daughter. In the original tale, she is passive and pure. Sweet and almost silent, she is practically batted between irritating men, as the king demands she make good on the ridiculous claim that did not come from her, but rather her father. She doesn’t even get a name! In a story ALL about the importance of knowing a name!

So I gave her a name. Meet Nor.

And I gave her agency. Nor was now allowed to drive the action in her own story. Gone is the pompous father, replaced by Nor’s own cunning plan to trick villagers into buying straw she claims will turn into gold. Nor became a con artist I could root for, even while seeing her flaws and follies. She deceives people, but only so she could provide for her family. It’s not honest work, and we all know it will land her in a heap of trouble when word gets to the prince that a petty criminal is attempting to swindle his subjects. I knew I was on to something when I both rooted for Nor to succeed and felt it was completely justified that she winds up locked in a room full of straw with a dire warning should she fail to do the impossible. 

Fairytales are simple. Real life is not. Life is a murky mess of us trying to do the best we can given our circumstances. The characters in Gold Spun really came together for me when I pulled enough of the fairytale setting to feel familiar, but created characters who were not simple, not pure good or pure evil, but a delicious, tempting, blend of both.


Gold Spun: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s  

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

The Cicada Tree

For your entertainment: 20 seconds of the very loud cicada swarm loitering on the crabapple tree in our front yard. They’re definitely swarming right now. Also, enjoy the crabapple tree while you can, it’s mostly dead at this point and we’ll be replacing it soonish. All things must pass, some quickly, like cicadas, and others in a more deliberative fashion, like the crabapple tree. Sorry, that got dark, didn’t it.

— JS

I Went On A Donut Tour In Chicago And It Was As Awesome As It Sounds

This past weekend when I visited Chicago, I did all the usual things such as visit the aquarium, go to the top of the Willis Tower, and ride the Navy Pier Centennial Wheel. Though I’ve done these things a few times before, it was still enjoyable. There was one thing, though, that was new to me, and it was amazing. I’m talking about Chicago’s Underground Donut Tour.

What is a donut tour, you may ask. It’s a roughly two mile long walking tour where you get to not only see four of the best donut shops the city has to offer, but try several different donuts along the way! The donuts you receive on the tour are included in the cost of the ticket. You get to try either one or two pre-selected types of donuts per stop on the tour. If it’s one type, you get half the donut, and if it’s two types, you get a quarter of a donut (so it still equals a half after you’ve had both kinds). The guides that led our tour also provided historical, architectural, and donut related fun facts and stories, so that was a bonus.

On the tour I went on, we went to Doughnut Vault, Firecakes Donuts, Stan’s Donuts, and Do-Rite Donuts & Chicken. I had never heard of any of these places before, but after trying one (or more) types of donuts from their establishments, I can see why they’re on the tour.

First up was Doughnut Vault. We were told that they have a different specialty donut every day, and they change the lineup of specialty donuts every week. What I would give to try every flavor! Alas, I must be satisfied with the one flavor we got to try on the tour, which was Chocolate Hazelnut.

This bad boy started off the tour strong! If you like Nutella and Ferroro Rochers, you would love this donut. It was the perfect amount of decadent without being too much. This one was in my top three for sure, I’d even say it was the runner-up for best donut.

After walking for a bit and crossing a bridge along the way, we arrived at Firecakes Donuts, where we were provided with two different types of donuts: Tahitian Vanilla Iced and Churro.

The Tahitian Vanilla Iced was a smidge subtle, but delicious nonetheless. It was like, almost delicate in terms of the vanilla flavor. The Churro on the other hand was a little more meh, but still perfectly enjoyable overall. We were told that Firecakes Donuts also sells ice cream donut sandwiches, so that’s super cool!

Next on the list was Stan’s Donuts. I actually didn’t get any pictures of the two we tried from there because I was busy drinking the bottle of water the guides handed out (that was our second bottle, both bottles we received were included in the ticket cost).

Honestly, I’m not too torn up about not getting pictures of the Stan’s Donuts donuts, because it was my least favorite stop on the tour. We tried a Biscoff Cookie Spread Donut, and a Red Velvet Donut. As much as I love Biscoff Cookies and Biscoff Cookie Spread, the donut was just okay, and the Red Velvet was fine, as well, but nothing special.

The last stop was the real show-stealer. Do-Rite Donuts & Chicken. You wouldn’t think a place that sells chicken sandwiches would have the most incredible buttermilk old-fashioned donut you’ve had in your life, but you’d be wrong, because they absolutely do.

Honestly, they look a little weird, but trust me when I say this donut is a game-changer. This donut was the single best donut I’ve ever had, and I’ve had a lot of donuts in my day. I’ve even tried several kinds from Voodoo Donuts! This old fashioned really takes the cake, and was by far my favorite on the tour.

There was another donut we got to try at this location, but I was so completely donut-ed out that I couldn’t bring myself to eat it, and I don’t even remember what the flavor offered was. Sorry about that! I’m sure it was good, though.

Anyways, the point of this post is not just to make you jealous with photos of incredibly delicious donuts (that’s just a side benefit). The point of this is to recommend the Underground Donut Tour to you! Not only do they do two different tours in Chicago, but in several cities across America as well! You’ve got an Underground Donut Tour in New York City, Boston, Seattle, Portland, and Philadelphia!

I don’t know if all the guides are as awesome as the two from my tour were, but if they are, you’re in for a real treat. The donut tour was one of the most fun things I did in the city, and I’m so glad I gave it a shot. It’s something that’s different and interesting, but won’t break the bank. Tickets are only $30 a person, and kids tickets are even cheaper! They also accommodate to dietary restrictions and allergies! Honestly, what’s not to love?

The next time I’m in Chicago, I’m hoping to get a chance to take their other tour. I did the Downtown one, but they also have a West Loop one, so that’s pretty neat.

Have you ever had donuts from any of these locations before? What did you think? Have you done a donut tour before? What’s your favorite kind of donut? Let me know in the comments, and have a great day!

-AMS

The Big Idea: Stuart Jaffe

If you want proof that good ideas — indeed, big ideas — can come from anywhere, well, Stuart Jaffe’s got you covered with his tale of how his latest novel, The Water Blade, came into being.

STUART JAFFE:

Like most of my books, the Big Idea for The Water Blade (indeed, for the entire trilogy it kicks off) grew out of a small idea. In this case, a joke. A stupid joke, at that.

I was helping my son move across the country from California to North Carolina. Knowing we had several days of driving ahead and that I had agreed to put together a trilogy proposal for Falstaff Books, I thought this was a good time to think through ideas. John Hartness, founder and publisher, wanted a high fantasy/mystery hybrid, so I decided to start with some world-building and finding a good magic system. My son, drawing upon our many years of childish scatological humor, said to me, “You know what you should do — poop magic.” We then spent too much time expanding that idea in all of its ridiculous silliness to our road weary amusement. 

But then my writer brain thought — I wonder if I could actually pull that off.

Obviously, I couldn’t use the word poop. Much too giggle inducing. But when you step out of the silly side of it and think of it as a practical catalyst for some kind of magic, suddenly it becomes dark and disturbing. A bit disgusting. A bit scary.

I could work with that. And I did. I took this one aspect of a people and explored how it bloomed throughout their entire culture. Because that’s what cultures do. One tiny event will ripple through a culture changing big things and small.

In The Water Blade, I created a world with three major countries, each with its own culture, and pitted them against each other. In the western Feral Lands, the Dacci witches use waste matter of all kinds along with bones and teeth to cast their magic. Cultural shifts included an entire religion around what bestows upon them their power to the way a village is shaped (to collect as much waste as possible) to what people wear.

On the eastern coast, a country exists that is having a technological revolution. Guns are replacing swords. Electricity is becoming controllable. Horseless carriages are a reality. Magic is no longer needed. These technologies are shifting the cultural norms, changing the power structure of who is valued and why, as well as bringing pressure on the old religions who can no longer be the sole source of miracles.

Caught in the middle of these two divergent cultures is the Frontier. This land is, on the surface, a typical high fantasy world complete with a King, his knights, and of course, horses. But the pressures from the magic-wielding witches on one side and the growing technological might on the other is fraying away the Frontier’s desire to remain neutral. The kingdom is caught between making alliances and cautioning enemies — never entirely sure which is which and trying not get crushed by the tension.

All of that, of course, could have been nothing more than world-building, but like real-world cultures, these weave throughout the lives of our adventurers. Their actions — big or small — often trigger ripples through the world. And like all books, we see the truth of the idea in our own reality.

When I started writing The Water Blade, nobody had ever heard of COVID. But that small virus has altered everything. And the depths of those changes will be felt for well over a generation. Whether through small things — that wearing masks by some will probably be commonplace for the rest of my life — to much bigger things — the demise/rise of many companies as people shift to online retail and never shift back.

The political fallout is enormous. Worldwide. While there’s a good argument to be made that Trump might have won re-election if COVID never happened, the fact that he lost puts a very different man in the White House. That changes the way the US deals with other countries in the world. And that changes the stability of the world as a whole.

All because of a virus.

Little things grow into big things. And little ideas grow into big ideas.


The Water Blade: Amazon|Barnes & Noble

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

Ohio’s Maxfield Parrish Skies

It’s been an unusually rainy June here in Ohio so far this year, but the one silver lining, as it were, to this is that come sunset, we get some pretty gorgeous clouds going on. Here are a couple of examples of what I mean. It’s pretty good compensation for a slightly soggy yard.

— JS

The Big Idea: Benjamin Rosenbaum

For The Unraveling, author Benjamin Rosenbaum discovered in the writing of the novel that the tale he wanted to tell was not necessarily the tale he was then telling — and to tell the true tale, someone else in the story would have to step up.

BENJAMIN ROSENBAUM:

The Unraveling didn’t begin as The Unraveling

It didn’t begin as a far-future social comedy coming-of-age story, or a reductio-ad-absurdum satire of parenting anxieties and teenage frustrations in an age of universal surveillance, instant fame, and algorithms determining everyone’s status. It didn’t begin as a book about a quasi-utopia where hunger and murder and war and environmental irresponsibility are distant memories, about who suffers in such a utopia and what they do about it. about social unrest and cultural change. It didn’t begin as a story of young love and embarrassment and hope and defiance.

Okay, well, except for that last bit, I guess. It did begin with hope and defiance. 

The book I was trying to write was called Resilience. It was a book about the deep future and epic time, about the strangeness and malleability of human being. It was a book about trying to save the world, and failing, again and again and again.


The human cultural diversity in Earth’s history is immense, but it’s just the beginning: we’ve only begun to find out what human societies could be like. Human cultures are shaped by the environments they’re in, and then they go on to shape those environments, in a chaotic feedback loop — new technologies creating new constraints and desires and social practices, which create new environments. Human societies evolve, and evolution isn’t linear. Evolution isn’t a great chain of being, a Hegelian ladder in which more “advanced” stages replace more “primitive” ones. (Crocodiles aren’t more “primitive” than ostriches: they’re optimized for a different niche.) Evolution is an explosion, life diversifying ever outwards into ever more multitudinous forms, filling all the niches.

So, I thought, I’d write a book about the Dispersal of Humanity: humans (broadly defined… not everything that considers itself human is made of meat) spreading from star to star, and to the spaces between. No faster than light travel: like Earth in the Paleolithic, the Dispersal would take tens of thousands of years for a voyager to cross. Room for vast diversity.

I figured I’d need a protagonist long-lived enough to visit these worlds, and powerful enough to affect them, a protagonist with a problem suitable to this grand scale. This protagonist was Siob the Interpreter: a durable polymorph manufactured and abandoned by the Margin, a hyper technical civilization that became so hungry for knowledge, it turned itself into supercomputing black hole, becoming in the process a rapacious kind of math, instead of people. Traumatized Siob would spent hundreds of millennia trying to nurture civilization after civilization towards resilience, watching them collapse, one by one.

These aren’t spoilers, by the way. None of this is actually in the book.

In the opening of the book I started writing, Siob fails to save another world, then travels for a few centuries to debrief with another quasi-immortal friend, Thavé. I figured the fate of this new world would hang in the balance, too, and Siob and Thavé would come into some kind of epic conflict about it, somehow. I don’t write outlines, so I didn’t know how this would all happen. But I liked what I had so far. Siob was a tragic and compelling protagonist. This whole “can-worlds-survive?” drama seemed like a good angle.

There was one problem, though, about the drama hinging on the fate of this particular planet, and this problem was: who cares?

Everything I had so far was up at this titan-like level of immortal world-manipulators, superhero polymorphs. Who even lived on this planet? Why should we care what happened to them?

Clearly I needed a ground-level view. So I wrote a chapter about an ordinary teenager named Fift, with overprotective parents and teenaged temptations and embarrassing shenanigans. It was super fun to write. I wanted to make it instantly relatable, but also full of that deep cultural dissonance and familiarity-in-estrangement that was the whole point of the project. So: different genders, different family structures, different economics, everything I could think of. I threw in the kitchen sink. it was just an illustration, after all.

But it grew. I started alternating chapters between Fift and Siob. Like A Midsummer Night’s Dream, with Siob and Thavé as Oberon and Titania and Puck, up to mighty magic, and Fift and zir friends and family as the human lovers and rude mechanicals, romance and comic relief.

Then a funny thing happened.

The Siob chapters got harder and harder to write. Siob had a serious case of depression, for one thing, and ended up self-buried deep under the polar tundra, brooding over millennia of failure. I dragged Siob out – I am the author, dammit – but Siob really did not want to play ball.  Nor did the plot of dueling immortals really work. A macguffin never cohered. The stakes were obscure. The scenes fizzled.

The fact is, I don’t actually know anything about saving worlds. I do know Siob’s feelings of loss and exile and mourning and remembrance (Siob is, of course – this occurred to me much later — the Wandering Jew). But I don’t know how to solve them. I don’t know the answer to Siob’s question.

But Fift? Fift was a joy to write. Fift’s very human struggles — zir frustration with zir nine parents’ meddling and fussing and worrying, zir unease with the gender roles prescribed by zir society, zir restless feeling of being out of place in the world — that was all super close to my heart. To reflect it through a kaleidoscope of deep-future culture weirdness was natural to me: as a Jewish kid growing up in a goyish suburb, a closeted-to-myself bisexual teen terrified by the world’s insistent dictates about what kinds of desires were acceptable, an immigrant for most of my adult life, I come by a sense of anthropological alienation naturally. Everyone around me insisting that certain things are natural and given, when I can easily see how they might be differently arranged…

So I fired Siob. I cut 40,000 words. I made it Fift’s book. 

It turns out, to write about the deep future and the marvelous weirdness of human cultures, I don’t need a tour of many planets. I don’t need a supercapable protagonist deliberating Weighty Matters of Destiny. I don’t need a macguffin or a quest. 

I don’t need saving the world.


It’s enough to write about trying, really hard, to be a moral person in a complex universe. Trying to love your friends, and gather the courage to be honest with them. Being torn between your heart’s desires and your family’s expectations. Trying to make a difference, not as some kind of superhero or chosen one, but just as an ordinary person on a big, confusing, messy planet…who maybe gets handed a megaphone, and has a shot at being heard, maybe just once, maybe at the most awkward and overwhelming moment possible.

To illuminate how strange and rich the future might be — how it might seem like a utopia from one angle and a dystopia from another, how it might challenge our assumptions about gender and class and family and social order — it’s enough to just write about someone from that future, someone I care about, someone I’m rooting for. Someone like Fift.  


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

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

Cicadas Have Arrived, Part 2: The Loitering

The cicadas are single and ready to mingle, as you can see by this trio of them hanging out on our backyard pear tree. There certainly are a lot of them all of a sudden. I hope they find love and that their kids will pop by in 2038. You know, like you do.

— JS

A Quick Look At My Trip To Chicago

This past weekend, I took a weekend trip up to Chicago. Also known as my favorite city! I absolutely love Chicago, despite only having been a handful of times over the past decade or so. This time was no different, I had an amazing time, saw lots of neat stuff, had lots of great food, and overall had a really great trip.

For this trip, I tried to live more in the moment than I usually do, so I made an attempt to not be on my phone so much. But of course I had to take a few pictures! So for this post, I’ll be sharing a couple shots I got of the city with y’all. I won’t be going into too much detail about the trip, but I will mention a few highlights. I’m also planning on doing a post in a day or two all about a super fun donut tour I did!

For now, please enjoy this handful of shots I got! And I know the website is going to nerf the quality of them, but let’s just pretend they’re not grainy, okay? Okay.

I took this on my walk to the aquarium. There was something about the rusty tracks and the contrast of the sleek, shiny, modern buildings in the background that really spoke to me.

In fact, here’s one of those shiny buildings close up!

Personally, I really like the design of this building. I quite enjoy modern architecture and how everything is just always glass. It’s pretty, if not blinding (though when I took this picture the sun was behind the building, but it definitely blinded me at different angles).

As previously mentioned, here is the aquarium! It took about fifty minutes to walk to it, but it was so worth it! The view of the skyline is incredible from the aquarium, and the water is so pretty. Plus, the fish inside are super neat, too! So, lots of pros to visiting the aquarium.

While I was visiting, I stayed at the Royal Sonesta (the one on the riverfront) so I was right next to this awesome view! The water is such an interesting color, don’t you think?

And of course, what trip to Chicago is complete without a trip to the Willis Tower? Here’s a view from the bottom.

And here’s the view from the top!

I really love how the buildings seem to go on forever, but then you look over at the vast expanse of water and see how that goes on forever.

So, yeah, these are just a couple shots I got that I particularly liked, and I hope you enjoy, too!

Have you ever been to Chicago? What’s your favorite thing to do there? Any good restaurants you think I should check out on my next visit there? Let me know in the comments, and have a great day!

-AMS

The Big Idea: Stephen Aryan

Author Stephen Aryan has taken extra care in his newest novel, The Coward, to bring you a realistic main character. Follow along in his Big Idea as he tells us of the research that went into crafting a hero who perhaps isn’t as heroic as everyone thinks he is.

STEPHEN ARYAN:

I’ve been reading fantasy novels all my life. I’ve seen countless farm boys go off on epic adventures only to return home with fame and fortune. I’ve seen numerous groups of plucky heroes vanquish the forces of darkness. I’ve seen armies and demons and monsters. And usually the good guys win. And then all is well and everyone lives happily ever after, right? Well, no. Not if we’re being realistic.

While lying awake one night during a bout of insomnia, with all of this swirling around my brain, I came to one question. What does it take to be a hero? This is the core of the Big Idea for The Coward

Although members of my family have served I’ve never been in the military. I’ve never seen real war. Most likely, I never will. But as a child of the 1970s I’ve seen countless news reports about wars and the people who fought them. Then came stories that featured a new acronym; PTSD. In the last few years I became more interested in it. More specifically I wanted to find out about the people involved and how they coped with what they’d seen. 

Some of it I picked up from pop culture. For years TV, films and comics have featured characters who were former soldiers, but I wanted to get closer to the truth. And in reading some non-fiction books about first-hand accounts, and meeting someone who saw it himself, I realised something else. It’s not just people in the armed forces who are affected and can suffer long-lasting side-effects that take years to come to terms with. It was doctors, nurses, and other front-line individuals like reporters. These are people who head towards danger. They volunteer to go into the worst places on Earth to bring us stories. They seek the truth even though it could cost their lives.

This led to The Coward and to Kell Kressia. A cocky teenager who, like many others, idolised the most famous heroes in the Five Kingdoms. When he heard they were going on an epic quest to the Frozen North to slay the Ice Lich he tagged along, seeking fame and fortune. They defeated the great evil and saved the world, but only Kell came home. All of the heroes died and he saw all of it. I’ll repeat that point because it is critically important. He witnessed terrible things that no one else alive can fully understand because they weren’t there. The person who came home from the epic quest was someone completely different to the one that left.

The story begins ten years on from these dramatic events. Kell is famous for what he did and stories about his heroism are told in every tavern across the world, but he wants nothing to do with any of it. He shuns all of the attention and lives a quiet life as a farmer. He avoids people. He finds solace in the quiet. But a new terror is rising and he is called upon by the King to vanquish the new threat. 

The story is about a broken man trying to come to terms with the demons in his past. There is the perceived version of events that everyone knows, and then there is the cold, harsh truth. But no one wants to hear about that. They want the glory not the gore. The victory not the terror. The story is about fame, celebrity, hero-worship, faith and courage.

As part of my research I came across charitable organisations that help military, armed forces and medical staff. I have always held people in all of these positions in high regard but, after the last two years, I’m in awe of the medical profession. Organisations in the UK such as High Ground, Veterans in Action and the Farm-Able Foundation provide long-term, non-clinical support to veterans that use the outdoors and related activities to help them cope with the traumas they’ve experienced. The outdoors can have enormous healing effects on an individual’s physical and mental health and this is something I’ve tried to incorporate into the story to bring an extra layer of realism.

With every novel I obviously want the reader to enjoy the story but with this one I felt a certain amount of responsibility. It’s self-imposed and I know that no one is going to come after me with pitchforks, but I still want to get it right. This was undoubtedly my biggest challenge and concern when writing this novel. 

I hope that by going the extra mile the character of Kell feels like a real individual who has seen things other people will never fully understand, and he can never really explain, because they weren’t there. I hope that while being an exciting adventure story full of monsters, it also makes the reader think about the true price of heroism. And I really hope that if anyone who has suffered from PTSD reads this book, or indeed this article, they realise there is help out there for them and a way forward.


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

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

The Turtle in Our Hedge

It’s a snapping turtle, which is not great, as they are mean and also can take off your finger (or a chunk of a pet’s nose) if they feel like it. However, it’s currently the size of a half-dollar coin, which lessens the danger somewhat. It was on our walk as I took this photo, and after I snapped a few shots retreated to the hedge just out of frame.

I don’t expect it will stay in the hedge for any period of time; that’s not the species’ usual habitat. But it’s there at the moment. Why? Who can say? Snapping turtles do show up in the yard from time to time, because there are both a pond and a creek nearby. I expect this little turtle will find its way to one or the other.

Until then: Look, a turtle in the hedge.

— JS

The Big Idea: Craig Alanson

It is, in simplest terms, our humanity which makes us human. But what’s in our humanity that makes it tick? New York Times best-selling author Craig Alanson gets into that, in his Big Idea for the latest novel in his Expeditionary Force series, Breakaway.

CRAIG ALANSON:

What’s funny about an alien invasion?

The notion that we might survive one, without a lot of outside help.

Many people who read/listen to my books, might be surprised that there is a Big Idea behind my writing. Wait, they might say, aren’t your books all about snarkasm?

Yes and no. Humor is the means I use to convey a Big Idea.

The Big Idea behind the first book in my Expeditionary Force series, came from watching fun but ridiculous “plucky band of humans with rifles/laptops defeat alien invasion” movies like Independence Day and Battle: Los Angeles. Those movies are certainly fun, and it’s great to fist-pump when the alien bad guys get the beat-down from righteous humans. But, Dude, get real. Any alien species capable of crossing the vast gulf between stars will have technology capable of squashing us like bugs. Their ships can park comfortably in orbit, and simply drop rocks on our stupid heads. Or use nukes, or whatever Death Ray the lowest-bidder defense contractor equipped their starships with. If we try to send a nuke up to attack the aliens, they will have plenty of time to target and destroy the bright, hot-burning rocket pushing that nuke up the steep hill into orbit. 

Wait! You might say. OK, aliens have invincible technology. But we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds- No, wait. That was a different war. After an alien invasion, we shall hide out in the hills, or caves, or abandoned dollar stores, and humanity will survive to fight on!

Uh, well, maybe? Until, you know, the aliens flood the lower atmosphere with nerve gas, or genetically-engineered superviruses, or killer nanobots.

I chose Columbus Day as the title of the first book in my Expeditionary Force series, to make the point that an encounter with advanced aliens will be as traumatic for all humans as the encounter with Christopher Columbus was for the peoples of the Americas in 1492. 

OK, so I had a Big Idea. How could I write an alien invasion story about it? Must it be totally gloomy and hopeless?

No.

We can get by with a little help from our friends. Maybe there will be aliens who question whether conquering and exploiting another culture is really a good idea. But I’m not counting on it. Given the enormous effort required to travel between stars, the shareholders back on the alien homeworld will want a solid return on their investment.

How, then, could we be useful to aliens, so we don’t get bulldozed to make way for a luxury housing development aliens will build on the rubble of our civilization (with a pretentious name like ‘Tranquility Estates’)? A story where humans go offworld to fight as mercenaries has been done many times, so I add a twist. In Columbus Day, human soldiers do go offworld to fight, only to discover too late that our new ‘allies’ are the real bad guys, and our troops are stranded thousands of lightyears from home. That’s when it gets complicated.

Being at the bottom of the technology ladder, what can we offer advanced aliens other than boots on the ground, since we have no hope of surviving without outside help?

Friendship. Loyalty. A sense that no one has to be alone in an uncaring universe. It is our humanity, for lack of a better word, that is our best asset. Even a desperately lonely, immensely powerful and immensely clueless alien AI can find a friend, after a whole lot of swiping left on one species after another. Our history shows it is easier to demonize and dehumanize ‘them’ when ‘they’ are a faceless group, but harder when the ‘they’ is one person, asking for help. Or just asking for mercy. A friendship, between one human and one alien, is a good start.

Yes, my books tend to have a lot of snarkastic humor, in between the furious space battles and tense special ops missions. Using humor to convey a Big Idea doesn’t make that idea any less serious. It may allow that Big Idea to reach a broader audience.

So, you now know one way to survive an alien invasion. Make a friend. You’re welcome. If aliens do invade, let me know how it works.

I’ll be hiding in my garage.


Breakaway: Amazon|Podium 

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

Phone Thoughts in 2021

Not too long ago, I mean, like, in the last couple of weeks, a professional colleague emailed me to tell me some good news and to ask me about something related to our shared venture. I emailed back that he should call me because what I had to say was easier communicated through talking than text. Then three days later I emailed again asking why he hadn’t called. He called then and apologizing saying, basically, that he assumed the comment about calling was sarcastic.

This illustrates, I think, the state of making phone calls in 2021.

For the record, I was not being sarcastic – I did actually want to speak to this fellow. But I couldn’t entirely blame him for having that thought. At this point in turning of the world, voice communication, i.e., using one’s phone as a phone, is an increasingly rare thing. Speaking personally, more than 90% of my business communication is through email. Speaking on the phone is reserved for rare occasions that are on opposite sides of the communication spectrum: Either short congratulations on good news, short commiserations on not-great news, or long strategy calls that are essentially not-in-person business meetings. Everything else is email.

Personal contact is perhaps even more lopsided; there are friends I’m in almost-daily contact with through text, email and both public and private social media who I don’t think I’ve had a phone call with in years. Some of them I don’t think I’ve ever had a phone call with at all. I’m happy to talk to friends on the phone, I should note; my phone conversational skills have not so atrophied that I’m incapable of blathering away about nothing for twenty minutes or a half hour. But I’m also not sitting in my house wondering why no one calls anymore. I know why they don’t call — because they’ve already shared the news about what’s going in their life on social media, and I’ve probably already responded by hitting the “like” button at the very least. We’re already all caught up.

And this is fine. The phone had its nearly-century-long primacy as a communication medium because there was nothing better, faster; its primary competition was letter-writing and postcards. Now the primary competition is social media, which is generally better for saying things to a bunch of people all at once; text, generally better for saying something to a particular person; and email, which does both. Even the (ugh) conference call has been supplanted by the (ugh) Zoom call. The phone call is now specialty communication: For when, for whatever reason, saying something with your voice is actually the best way to do it.

Which as it turns out is rarely.

And which is why I don’t, on a daily basis, miss the phone call at all. I don’t miss the disruption of my workflow or personal time, or having it be the primary thing I focused on when it was an unwanted call and thus I didn’t want it to be, or not knowing who was calling or why. I don’t miss being annoyed with spam callers (my Pixel phone automatically screens out the majority of these now so I never see them at all), and I don’t miss the political or other robocallers. I don’t miss trying to navigate through voicemail to listen to messages. I love talking on the phone with people I like to talk to, and usually these days we do that by appointment, which is pretty great as well. I can and do take spontaneous calls, but the “always take that call” list is very short. If you have to wonder, you’re probably not on it.

(And I do vastly prefer phone calls to video calls. The selfie camera on my phone makes my face look like a small moon with a vast nose mountain on it, and it does the same with everyone else. This is not a great look for any of us. The video call is fine for when family or friends are having a get-together you can’t be at and you want to be able to wave at the whole group at once, or, again, some other very specialized use case. But otherwise, no, thank you. It’s possible this opinion is affected by a year of quarantine and forced Zoom conviviality; I’m the first to admit to Zoom burnout. But I think this would be the case for me in any year. If you must call, I prefer it be audio, please.)

Miscommunications about when to call aside, I do think the communication situation in 2021 is vastly preferable to what it was in, say, 1991 or even 2001. For me, Whatever and Twitter are for general public communication; my private Facebook account is for the wide spread of friends and family; email, text and private messaging are for specific people. For specific slices of folks, there’s Discord and Slack when I want that. And finally, when it’s needed, and only when it’s needed, there’s the phone.

It works! I like it! I think it’s better. You are free to disagree, obviously. Just don’t call me to do so.

— JS

Cicadas Have Arrived

Just the other day I was all, “Huh, I don’t hear any cicadas, I wonder what happened to them around here.” Today:

Yup, they’re about. It’s loud but not overwhelmingly so. No, the dog hasn’t eaten any as far as I can tell. I can’t say the same about the cats.

Any cicadas where you are?

— JS

Learning the DAW, or, What I Did With My Saturday

A “DAW,” for those of you who don’t know, is a Digital Audio Workstation. I’ve had Studio One by Presonus for a while now but have only now decided to really learn how to use it (I’ve used Audition casually for years, and at the turn of the century played with ACID). I’m playing with the samples and synths and effects in the program and figuring out how to put them all in tracks. So this is the sound of me learning how to make Studio One work: Two minutes of, er, music.

It’s… rough! And very noisy! And not precisely what I would call good. And also I had to cheat and port the file in Audition for some mastering work. As I said, I’m learning how to make this thing go. But if you’re curious what one day of progress sounds like, well, here you go. It’s documented for posterity.

Fun fact: I’m actually playing keyboards in here! So that’s a first. No, not the complicated parts. Come on.

https://whatever.scalzi.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/06/Learning-the-Daw-01a.wav

— JS

Off the Musical Deep End

I mentioned yesterday I thought it was time that I expanded my somewhat haphazard music room into an actual music studio, which made a few people ask why, in fact, now was the time for this rather than some other point in the past or future. The easy answer to this is “because I feel like it,” which is accurate — I do feel like it — but is sort of non-responsive. So here is a slightly longer answer about why I’m going a bit off the deep end on the music stuff right now.

1. Because I can afford it right now. Last year was a pretty good year for me financially and this year to date has been as well, so I have a little extra cash to throw at expanding this hobby without worrying too much about how splurging is going to impact our bottom line. Excepting The Beast — which really was an impulsive fluke that I absolutely do not regret but still probably shouldn’t have done — most of the things I’m getting right now, both in terms of hardware and software, are things I’ve been wanting to get but have talked myself out of previously because of cost issues. But right now cost is not an issue! So they’re getting purchased.

More or less. I talked myself out of getting a Mac laptop for the music room, because I have a fully specc-ed out Dell XPS 13 from a couple that I currently don’t use that often (I use my desktop for writing and pictures, and one of the Chromebooks when I need a laptop), which will work equally well as the music room computer and Digital Audio Workshop carrier. I’m still… well, cheap is not the word, quite evidently, but at the very least (and again, The Beast excepted) I want to be able to make a reasonable use case for every thing I buy. I want what I buy to have value. I can’t make a value argument for a Mac when I have the neglected, perfectly capable Dell just sitting there, waiting to be used at no additional cost to me. So no Mac for Scalzi.

2. Because I’m already competent in my other big hobby. Most of you know I love to do photography, and I’m pretty good at it — so good at it, in fact, that it will be difficult for me to improve substantially without either a huge invest of time or money or both. Time, in the sense of going places specifically to take photos there, and money, in the sense of buying new cameras and lenses to give me more photographic tools to play with. In the latter case, that means a lot of money — the next step up in terms of camera bodies and lenses means five figure layouts for either — and in the former case, that time is more than I want to spend. I like where I am with my photography; I’m not going to stop doing it, but it’s also not a huge challenge to get the photos I want either.

In music, I am what I’d call “low competent” — You give me a guitar, I can get something out of it, but I’m not going to be your first, fourth or fifteenth choice to be on the instrument. Likewise most other instruments, other than drums, which I am in fact reasonably competent. Which is fine! It’s a hobby I do for myself, not for others. But I’m at a point where I want to be able to do more with music than I can do now. There’s more headroom for me to become more competent with music. Right now that interests me. Both for itself and for another reason:

3. I want to do more songwriting. Co-writing that Christmas song with Matthew Ryan last December was cathartic and gratifying for a number of reasons, and another benefit of it was it was a proof of concept that I could, in fact, write songs. I want to develop that facility further. I’m under no expectation that I, a 52-year-old writer of science fiction novels, will suddenly challenge either BTS or Bob Dylan, or most of anyone in between, with any songs I write. But that’s not the point for me. I already have a job; this will be a hobby. I want to get to a point where I can write good songs, by my estimation of what a good song is; I’m not going to worry about much else about it.

What the goal for me (for now) is to eventually have an album’s worth of actual songs that I feel pretty good about, and then maybe put that album out there. I already have the Bandcamp page, after all. The album that’s currently there was stitched together with samples, and was fun to do; I’d like to do one where I make the music myself, and put in words. Which will, uh, take some time to get up to speed. Which is the other thing:

4. I’m 52, gotta get a move on. Which is to say, getting to a level of competence with composing/songwriting will probably take a bit of time, and while I feel good and don’t have any reason to believe I won’t be around for decades to come, I also probably shouldn’t, you know, dawdle. So, no time like the present.

Finally,

5. While not exactly cheap, music isn’t as expensive/time-intensive as some other middle-aged dude hobbies. Dude, what if I suddenly decided to collect cars? Or model trains? Or firearms? That shit adds up, people. They’re also, like, lifestyles. I don’t want to go to car meet-ups or gun shows or any of that. With this hobby, all I have to do is go to my basement. So easy!

So those are all the reasons I’m going in on all this music stuff right now.

Or, you know: Because I feel like it. Either works.

— JS

The Big Idea: Nancy Jane Moore

Author Nancy Jane Moore takes us into her past in her Big Idea, to explain how a favorite (if not outdated) book of hers inspired her new novel, For the Good of the Realm.

NANCY JANE MOORE:

For the Good of the Realm is The Three Musketeers with swordswomen and witches. While it doesn’t follow the plot of the Dumas classic closely, it takes place in a world in which politics, intrigue, and the potential of war with neighboring countries underlie everything that happens. Witches using prohibited magic increase the stakes of the intrigue and the risk for the women of the Queen’s Guard out to protect their Realm.

The Three Musketeers is one of the great successes in writing and publishing. First published in 1844, the book does not appear to have ever gone out of print. New translations are still being done. Not only are there at least 25 live action movies (starting at the very beginning of movie-making), there are multiple animated versions, video games, and stage productions, and many authors have been inspired to play in Dumas’s world.

I read it for the first time as a teenager and also loved the 1973 movie version, with a very young and pretty Michael York as d’Artagnan. Of course, I identified strongly with d’Artagnan, despite being a woman. It was a habit I picked up reading great adventure stories when I was young, because the women were rarely the ones having the adventures. 

About twenty years ago, during a fit of reading 19th century literature, I re-read The Three Musketeers and went on to read Twenty Years After and The Vicomte of Bragelonne: Ten Years Later. Being older and (maybe) wiser, I found it harder to identify with d’Artagnan or to ignore the way women were treated in the story. By then I’d spent enough time in martial arts to have some skill with a sword and an understanding of how women can fight, so I began to play with the idea of swordswomen in a world with the monarchy and politics of Dumas’s. 

That led to the short story “A Mere Scutcheon,” in which Anna d’Gart of the Queen’s Guard retrieves a necklace for Her Majesty and must deal with a witch to do so. When Nick Gevers bought it for my collection Conscientious Inconsistencies at PS Publishing, he said he thought it would make a good novel. It took another ten years, but For the Good of the Realm is now a book. 

The original Big Idea, of course, was to have swordswomen protecting the Queen and swordsmen the King. Early in the book, Guardswomen Anna and her friend Asamir become frenemies with two members of the King’s Guard. The intrigues of the Realm, compounded by the use of magic despite the ban on it, put the royals and indeed the whole country at risk. With Anna in the lead, the four must take action to protect the Realm without letting Their Majesties know about the threats from magic. 

Here’s the thing about writing stories, even adventure stories: they turn out to be about much more than the place where they start. Yes, this is an adventure story in which women get to have the adventures, but it is also a story about a world in which what people do with their lives is not dictated by their gender. Further, the people of the Realm, which sits at a crossroads of many other countries, originally came from many other parts of the world to build a culture that includes a wide variety of skin colors and general appearance.

While the Realm is far from a utopia – it is a monarchy only recently reunited after more than a century of division, with a powerful Hierophante ruling the church, nobles who abuse their privileges, and pockets of serious poverty – misogyny and racism do not trouble it. The first born children of rulers and nobles inherit their rank, so class divides still exist, but anyone with sufficient skill can become a soldier. What started as a simple story of women having adventures became a story in which women have power and agency that, while it is constricted by politics, nature, and magic, is not governed by societal rules about their proper place. 

A fantasy, perhaps, to think a world might exist that doesn’t police gender or limit opportunity by skin color and ethnicity, but the purpose of speculative fiction of all kinds is to ask “what if?” A story can be a light-hearted adventure and still bring up important ideas. And that’s a very Big Idea indeed.


For the Good of the Realm: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s website or blog. Follow her on Twitter.

The New New Toy

For various reasons, I decided now is the time in which I would finally build out the part of the basement I keep my musical instruments, into something actually resembling a functional music studio. I had a drum set and a rather large number of stringed instruments, so it was time to add a keyboard. And because apparently I have more ambition than good sense, I purchased this: The Fantom 8, which is a workstation keyboard with 88 fully weighted keys.

Now, I will say that when I bought it, I expected that it would be large, but I did not expect, uhhhhh, this. The box it came in was nearly as tall as I am, and unpacked it’s still not that much shorter than me. It’s awesome, but I’m also clearly in waaaaaay over my head.

Which is fine! I bought it so I could have all those capabilities, and I intend to learn and use them. But, seriously, whoooof. We set it up and the first thought I had when I sat down at it was, I have no idea what I’m doing, seriously what was I thinking. I love it, but it is a lot.

This is, incidentally, the thing I hinted about a couple of days ago when I said when it arrived I was likely to disappear into my basement for the next month to fiddle with it. I may have underestimated the amount of time I’ll need with it.

Also, while I think that I’m largely done buying musical instruments for a while (lol), there are still a few more additions to be made to the music area including a desk, a computer and some hardware including microphones and preamps, and then also maybe some acoustic paneling, because bare concrete walls don’t play nice with musical instruments. But the centerpiece of the music room, I have to say, has clearly arrived.

— JS

The Big Idea: Lavie Tidhar

Author Lavie Tidhar is on a mission to bring you the best science fiction in the world — the whole world, not just parts of it. This is a task which takes some doing, as Tidhar explains today, telling you of the painstaking work it took to accumulate, translate, and pitch the collection that is The Best of World SF: Volume One.

LAVIE TIDHAR:

Why World SF? Back in 2008 I had the crazy idea of an anthology of international speculative fiction. There was only one problem. No one was publishing international SF, and no one was interested…

It’s taken over a decade, five small press anthologies put together with shoe polish and string, a blog that became a magazine that ended up publishing some of the best and brightest in the field today, and rejections that ranged from a fifty-minute-no to ghostly silences from publishers large and small to do it. But it’s here. I guess it helps just being relentlessly annoying and banging on about the same thing for over a decade to finally wear someone in the industry down.

There was nothing very altruistic about it, either. I come from outside the Anglophone sphere. I grew up on a kibbutz in Israel. I read American SF in translation into Hebrew. The idea of one day writing SF myself, let alone publishing, seemed as remote as the moon or America. And yet now I write in English as a second language. Honestly? It’s not that hard. Though even Polish author Józef Korzeniowski had to change his name to finally make it as Joseph Conrad, back in the tail-end of the Victorian era. I wish I could say things are much different now.

When I started writing SF, nobody was buying. There weren’t any international writers being published. The stories I was trying to sell were a little bit different. So I got rejections. So did a whole bunch of international writers who started at the same time, as though we were the barbarians at the gates of Rome. Sooner or later we were going to get in, but no one needed to make it easy.

I set out to do this book because I didn’t think anyone would do it for me. I hunted for stories far and wide—picking up horror collections in Malaysia, getting writer friends in China to send me rough translations, translating stories myself from Hebrew, begging and cajoling to find writers in Latin America, Africa, Eastern Europe… And I pitched the first Apex Book of World SF to Jason Sizemore in 2008, by telling him it wasn’t going to make him any money but it was a good thing to do.

Improbably, he agreed.

Since then, of course, the field has radically changed—at least when it comes to short fiction. You can still count the number of international novels in genre in a given year on your fingers. Liu Cixin, who I met in China many years ago when he had only published a handful of short stories, made it big—but how many other Chinese novels can you mention? Andrzej Sapkowski (who I’d met in Tel Aviv and got to publish in The Apex Book of World SF 2) made it big—but how many other Polish writers do you know? There are tremendously exciting writers from Africa now publishing short fiction—Tlotlo Tsamaase and Chinelo Onwualu come to mind—but how many African SF novels can you mention?

“World SF” was a joke term I wanted to reclaim: back from the kids who first used it in that hotel room in New York in 1939 for their “Worldcon,” so called just to ride on the then-in-town World’s Fair; back from the pros who used it in the 1970s for a fake association whose main purpose was to organise annual drinking fests for Soviet and American writers (the official headed paper was useful for visas). I wanted to take it back for people like me, and to actually publish international fiction—not just use the term to organise parties (as fun as they must have been!).

Is it a big idea? Hell, I think so! Is the field better today for being more diverse, for having more international writers, new ideas and new points of view? Hell, yes, it is! Did I have anything to do with it? Hell, no! Not really. But I got to pay a whole bunch of amazing writers, and a bunch of amazing translators, well over the going rate for their work, bundle it together into a gorgeous hardcover, and I got myself paid, too. Like I said, nothing altruistic about it. Was it worth thirteen years of pushing? Probably not. And yet it was worth every second.


The Best of World SF Volume One: Amazon

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

A Girl and Her Log

And yes, she made pretty short work of it, too. Charlie is still a puppy, the world is meant to be chewed upon. Better a small log from the yard than, say, a leg of the dining room table.

— JS

The Big Idea: Veronica G. Henry

Behind every good villain is a great henchman. Yet, we never seem to hear much about these evil sidekicks. Author Veronica G. Henry decided to tackle this problem herself in her newest novel, Bacchanal. Discover what being a villain’s minion is all about in her Big Idea.

VERONICA G. HENRY:

Heroes? Every book, film, and fireside fable’s got one. And villains? Too many vile, despicable, ill-tempered examples to name. Heroes and villains get all the glory, and rightfully so. Stories wouldn’t exist without them. But there are other characters, perhaps less glamorous, but equally worthy of our attention. One of those characters is the villain’s minion.

Picture the 1930s south. The Great Depression. A traveling carnival . . . but not one powered by finicky electricity. Those were the seeds for what would become my novel, Bacchanal. All I needed to populate this world was a suitably malevolent cast of characters. 

At this point, I had no idea who the protagonist was. The antagonist hadn’t even entered my consciousness. But the minion, he made himself known. I was researching mythical African creatures. In Zaire (current day Democratic Republic of The Congo) folklore, the eloko (or biloko) are restless spirits. They come back from the grave as dwarf-like creatures. Their bodies sprout grass instead of hair, they have dog-like snouts, and let’s just say, they don’t hunt forest creatures. 

I scrawled a journal entry where he grudgingly introduced himself. We sat down, chatted, he even took a swipe at me with his claws. This character became so prominent, so insistent, that I wrote a short story about how he came to be such a surly sort. Eloko, my antagonist’s minion, was born and his story was later published in FIYAH magazine. 

Whether you prefer the term minion or sidekick, their role serves several important purposes. Ally is a given. Other possibilities: confidant, errand person, spy. But where the minion can really shine is in the role of part-time adversary. After all, like your entire cast of characters, the minion wants something and at times, that goal can be in sharp contrast to the villain’s. 

In essence, this character will serve to balance and sometimes, oppose the antagonist. In Bacchanal, Eloko is selfish, often ambivalent, and ambitious. He is devoted to Ahiku, but not so much that his own interests are always secondary. It is through him that we learn more about Ahiku’s motives and her weaknesses. So how should you go about crafting your own minion?

The secret sauce:

  • A good backstory, usually a troubled one. This character has made a choice to align himself with the villain. And there are reasons for that. Explore your minion’s history and you find the reasons for that choice. 
  • Interaction with the protagonist. In order for the minion to reach his full annoyance level, they have to become a threat or at a minimum, a thorn in the side of the protagonist. How much and when, depends on the author. 
  • Relationship with the villain. There has to be a meaningful, if not troubled relationship with the villain. Determine the dynamic of this relationship. Explore the power struggles, because ultimately, your minion may want to usurp the villain. Which leads me to the last point. 
  • A goal – decide early on, what your minion wants and have them use every trick in their arsenal to achieve it. 

One thing for certain, your minion should be as well developed as the antagonist they support. Bacchanal is a book about people who don’t belong anywhere else and the compromises they make to continue existing in a time where that existence is tenuous. They are flawed, funny, and mainly, just trying to survive. And in the midst of it all, Eloko, stirs up trouble at every turn. He was a blast to write. 

And that, my friends, is The Big Idea.  


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

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

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