Saturday Music: Over the Hillside (Rough Mix)

I’m not saying that me posting covers of songs I like is becoming a usual thing for the weekends here, especially as I’m about to have my weekends booked for the next two months inclusive, but I am saying it’s been kind of fun to learn more about my music production equipment, and my current state of competence with it, by taking songs I like and making cover versions of them.

Today’s cover is “Over the Hillside,” from a band called The Blue Nile, from Scotland, and it is the opening song off Hats, probably their best known album (which, alas, is not all that well known). I’m calling this a rough mix because, whether they need it or not, I want to tweak the vocals a little more. At the very least, however, those of you who noted with previous songs that I needed to seat the vocals in the middle of the mix will be happy, as they are right up front. Be careful what you wish for!

(Update: 9/11/23: I did indeed update the vocals, mostly by taking out things rather than adding them in. They’re better now.)

Also, for compare and contrast, here is the original (it’s better). Enjoy both, and have a great weekend.

— JS

COVID Paranoia in Full Effect

Today I was having one of those “I feel terrible, is it allergies or COVID” mornings, so I took a test. Good news! It’s not COVID! The bad news is that my allergies are completely out of control right now. But apparently I’m not alone in this; ragweed allergies are getting a whole bunch of people. I blame climate change for this, and who knows, that might actually be correct.

It’s fairly imperative for me not to contract COVID any time in the next couple of months, since I have a book tour starting on the 18th, followed by international travel, followed by a book event or festival basically every weekend through mid-November. Unfortunately we’re having a spike of COVID cases in the US, which makes this more of a challenge. I’m hoping that I can get the new booster before I travel, although if I can’t, I might try to get it while I’m on tour. I’ll also very likely be wearing masks at airports and on planes for the duration of the tour, and possibly during the book signing portion of my events. We’ll see on the day.

In light of the COVID spike we’re currently having, combined with spotty vaccination and boosting among the general populace, if you are coming to one of my events, please consider wearing a mask. Additionally, check the event information, since I know at least one of the organizations holding my event is requiring masks. Yes, they’re annoying. But so is feeling like crap and maybe horking up a lung. So consider a mask instead, and if you go that route, thanks.

— JS

Fani Willis Says “Bless Your Heart” To Jim Jordan

And as we all know, a southern woman saying “Bless Your Heart” means “Go Fuck Yourself.”

Which is indeed, the substance of Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis’ reply to House Judiciary Chairman Jim Jordan’s August 24th letter to her, in which he essentially tried to threaten her with congressional oversight for intending to put former president Trump on trial for numerous charges relating to election tampering. Her response was, essentially, you can’t, you’re an ignorant tool, I can do as I please, and also, go fuck yourself.

The letter in itself is a delicious work of art, with pity nuggets like “Your letter makes clear that you lack a basic understanding of the law,” and “Those who wish to avoid felony charges in Fulton County, Georgia — including violations of Georgia RICO law — should not commit felonies in Fulton County, Georgia.” I commend it to you all, but if you don’t wish to read the whole thing, here’s this Atlanta Constitution-Journal news article about it, with Willis’ response and Jordan’s initial letter appended (those outside the US might find the article GDPR-restricted, but I’m sure you know how to use Google to locate the news for your jurisdiction).

Jim Jordan is well known for being a corrupt dimwitted opportunist bully with even fewer principles than brain cells, so it’s nice to see him get taken to the woodshed by someone both smarter and more principled than he. I’m sure Jordan will bluff and bluster and make noise about it, because he’s not smart enough (nor otherwise sees any advantage) to be ashamed of himself, so the rest of us will just have to be ashamed for him. As a citizen of Ohio, I sure am! Please stop electing him, OH-4! You can do better, in so many ways.

— JS

Mr. Scalzi Goes to Columbus

And, in fact, I went to the Statehouse! To barge into the Governor’s office to give him a piece of my mind, as is my right as a citizen of Ohio? No, they would have dragged me off to jail, come on. I was there to record a bit for the Ohio Channel (the state-run public video channel) in conjunction with the Ohioana Awards in a couple of weeks, and to have lunch with the Ohioana librarians. It was a lovely, if brief, visit. Now I’m back home, where almost instantly a cat shoved her butt into my face, so let’s just say the afterglow of roaming the halls of power was fleeting to say the least. There’s probably a lesson in there for us all.

— JS

The Big Idea: Abby Goldsmith

Standing apart from the crowd is usually seen as a good thing. It makes you cooler than the majority. But what if going against the majority was dangerous? Even life threatening? Enter the dystopian world of Majority, the first novel in author Abby Goldsmith’s newest series.

ABBY GOLDSMITH:

What if everyone had an audience inside their head, listening to their every thought? 

I grew up in a rural area and didn’t make friends easily. Maybe that was why I imagined an audience of aliens inside my head, tuning in from distant planets. Maybe I was an alien, too. Maybe I’d been left on Earth accidentally. That distant audience would watch my life from the comfort of their technologically advanced homes, reacting as I explored the stream near my house, whispering about the kids who bullied me in school. The aliens were on my side. 

As I learned about Nazism–my Jewish ancestors were fortunate to move to the U.S. prior to the immigration restrictions during the WWII era–I had to grapple with a big question. When I learned about colonial American slavery, there was the big question again. And the Salem witch trials. Okay, here’s the big question. How can a successful society, a society ruled by adults, collectively agree to do something horrible? 

Now I was questioning that distant audience of aliens. What if they were actually laughing at my misfortunes from the comfort of their alien homes? It’s not hard to imagine. The people we hear about on the news are utter strangers to us. There’s a layer of distance between an audience and the newsworthy subject they might be watching or casually discussing. And there’s camaraderie, too. The audience bonds with each other. They share an experience, and the subject is not part of that. 

In fact, sympathy for the subject is dangerous in many situations. It can be dangerous to go against popular opinion. Ask any kid who goes to school. Ask anyone who ever dared to defy social norms, or anyone who dared to say something controversial on social media. 

The dystopia of Majority arose from my own lived experience as a weirdo who didn’t fit into the society around me. New GoodLife WaterGarden City is a glamorous alien metropolis that sparkles with utopian luxuries–all supported by brutal slavery. It’s just one of billions of metropolises ruled by the galaxy spanning Torth Majority, who are like the Borg of Star Trek combined with the dogpile mobs of Twitter and Reddit. The Majority can change its collective mind on a whim. Their elected leaders are sociopaths, because only crowd-pleasing egomaniacs gain enough orbiters (followers) to win the respect of fame and popularity. The Majority is composed of individuals, but individuals cannot lie to their inner audiences, and they dare not leave. Anyone who displeases the Majority is likely to get enslaved or murdered. If an individual secretly disagrees with popular opinion, they must pretend otherwise. 

Therefore, within the Majority, individuals get very good at lying to themselves. They rely on self-deception in order to survive. 

The hero of Majority, Thomas, chafes at being denigrated. In his hometown in the United States, everyone, even the people he loves, consider him to be too disadvantaged and too young to matter. When the Majority claims him, Thomas goes from being dismissed as a disabled child to being elevated to godlike status as a supergenius thought leader. 

The challenge, for me, was to show how Thomas is seduced by the Majority…and to keep him likable. The Majority collectively make terrible decisions. They enslave his loved ones. They’ve outlawed love and friendship. Yet they respect Thomas in a way that his own foster family and friends never did. His celebrity mentor, the Upward Governess, sees his potential as an inventor and insists that he is special. She even risks her own godhood to protect him from vicious enemies. She judges Thomas as her equal–and she is a galactic ruler with trillions of worshippers. She convinces her own inner audience that Thomas is someone worthy of respect. 

It becomes more and more difficult for Thomas to reject his inner audience, plus all the luxury gifts they shower him with, plus the powerful mentor who genuinely wants his friendship. When the Majority collectively vote to force Thomas to do something awful to his foster sister from Earth, he has no choice but to go along with it or die. But deep down, he snaps. He continues to please the Majority and repress his own morality in order to survive on the alien planet ruled by his mentor, but his subconscious begins to solve the problem of how to escape the Majority. He collects opportunities. He deceives himself. It’s a mind trap for sure. 

Very, very, very challenging to write. 

I loved the challenge. I do switch to other POVs, including Thomas’s loved ones as they fight for survival and respect in an alien slave ghetto. The contrast between their physical battles and Thomas’s mental/social battles is stark and enormous, and I think it helps keep the story compelling. How will they escape? If they reunite, will Thomas’s loved ones hate him as a betrayer, or will they understand what he was dealing with and give him the respect he deserves? Will Thomas ever be able to meaningfully challenge the galactic empire known as the Torth Majority–or transform the Majority into something better? 

Majority is a series starter. The entire Torth series is pre-written, originally serialized online, and I guarantee a satisfying ending. Justice matters. The Torth Majority is ultra powerful and galaxy-spanning, but their system is rotten, and it has to change. There are answers to all the big questions. 


Majority: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Audible

Author socials: Website|Twitter|Facebook|Instagram|Goodreads

Come With Me On A Journey Through Six Caramel Flavors

Back in July, I bought a bunch of pretzels from pretzels.com and did a ranking post on them. Turns out, that company also owns caramels.com. And you know who loves caramels? Me. Also, my dad, so he’s here to help with the ranking of the six caramel flavors I decided to try out.

Much like their pretzels, the caramels come in these matching cylindrical canisters with the flavors listed on the bottom. While the pretzels were twelve dollars for a 1/2 pound tube, the caramels are eighteen dollars for a one pound tube.

Six white and brown canisters lined up in a row. They each read

First up, the tried and true Classic Butter:

A bunch of light brown caramels individually wrapped in clear wrapping spilling out of the canister onto the table.

My dad and I have definitely had our fair share of caramels in our lives, and this was indeed a good, standard caramel that we would in fact enjoy again. Nothing incredible, but a good caramel is a good caramel. It was an 8/10 from both of us.

Staying in the realm of pretty standard caramel flavors, we went for the Pecan Maple next:

Individually wrapped light brown caramels spilling out of their canister onto the table.

The fact that they put “pecan” before “maple” in the naming of these ones turned out to be very accurate, because they were quite pecan-y, and the maple was rather subtle. A contributing factor might have been the actual pecan chunks throughout these caramels. Regardless, they were really good, and tasted like a pecan pie. I gave them an 8.5/10, whilst my dad settled on another solid 8/10.

Getting into uncharted territory here, we tried the Blueberry:

A few individually wrapped light brown caramels spilling out from their canister onto the table.

The blueberry was A LOT. It really punches you in the face with flavor. Definitely need a chaser of some water or something with this one. It wasn’t bad, just really strong, more of a one and done kind of caramel, whereas I could see going back for a second one when it comes to the previous two. These were a 7/10 overall.

Onto Sugar Cookie:

A handful of individually wrapped caramels spilling out of their canisters onto the table.

Sugar Cookie, as you can probably imagine, was very sweet. To me, it tasted a lot like “the holidays.” I think that might be because making caramels, Buckeyes, and baked goods with my family is a bit of a Christmas tradition, but it was really nice, and made me wish festivities were already upon us. It was sweet and yummy, and sugar cookies are one of my favorite types of cookies, so I gave it an 8.5/10. Again, my dad went with an 8/10. My teeth were really feeling this one (yeouch).

Here they are, the caramel I have been waiting so patiently to talk about, Tropical Passion Fruit:

A couple of individually wrapped light brown caramels spilling out of their canister onto the table.

I actually really enjoy passionfruit. It’s a recent discovery of mine and I have liked it a lot ever since I first tried it, so these caramels were promising. However, when I opened the lid and smelled the canister, I was immediately flashed back to the days of my youth, when I was sick and had to take the nastiest tasting medicine that ever existed: children’s amoxicillin. The smell hit me like a ton of bricks and I was disgusted. There’s no way they could possibly taste like that revolting medicine from the Dark Ages of Childhood.

And yet, they did. One bite and it was over. I spit it out immediately, repulsed. I couldn’t believe it, I was so excited for passionfruit, and got one of the grossest medicines ever invented. My dad said it tasted fine, but wasn’t that good, and gave it a 5/10. Obviously, I gave it a 0/10. I’m literally shocked and appalled.

And finally, the flavor I got because I knew my dad would be happy, Black Licorice:

Several individually wrapped black colored caramels spilling out of their canister onto the table.

I think I’ve mentioned before that I don’t dislike black licorice, it’s just not something I’m passionate about, like my dad. I don’t seek it out or eat it on purpose, but I’m not a hater. So I expected these caramels to be like a four or five for me, or pretty much just meh, but I was pleasantly surprised at how good they were! They weren’t overly strong, more of a mild yet also complex flavor. They went down smooth, you know. Very well done, I would totally have another. Solid 8/10!

At the time that I ordered these, there were some other flavors I was interested in trying that I don’t see listed right now. In fact, I don’t even see the classic or pecan maple listed in their flavors right now. Or even the blueberry! Maybe they sold out? One of the ones I wanted to try was harvest apple. Looking at what they have right now, though, I would want to try coconut, raspberry, and probably huckleberry! I’m sure coffee and peanut butter would be great, too, though.

Anyways, I really recommend caramels.com! This company also has licorice.com which has like fifty some types of licorice, so maybe I’ll try that sometime soon.

Which flavor are you most interested in? Have you ever homemade caramels? Let me know in the comments, and have a great day!

-AMS

The Big Idea: Jon Evans

There’s the observation that at any sufficiently advanced science is indistinguishable from magic. In Jon Evans’ new novel Exadelic, this may be more right than anyone ever suspected.

JON EVANS:

Exadelic‘s big idea is why it is, probably, the only book about occult magic categorized by Amazon as ‘Hard Science Fiction.’ That high concept: in the present day, an AI trained on occult texts learns how to hack reality itself. More precisely, it discovers that the fundamental substrate of our universe is more like software than hardware … and the phenomena we’ve long called “magic” stem from bugs in that software.

It also learns there used to be much more magic—hence ancient myths and legends—until, a few thousand years ago, our reality’s operating system was patched, and most magic went away. But a sufficiently sophisticated AI can still exploit the subtler bugs which remain, and hijack the laws of physics.

The notion that our universe is fundamentally software has a surprisingly illustrious scientific history. Stephen Wolfram has long suggested reality is, at root, “a vast array of interacting computational elements.” But the universe–as-software idea raises some disconcerting questions: does that suggest it’s running on hardware … somewhere else? Was it programmed? In other words, do we live inside a vast simulation? And if so, programmed by what, for what purposes?

Exadelic is a book made of spoilers, and I don’t want to reveal much more. But I do think it’s entertaining and instructive to go over the history of the notion that our reality is a simulation … a history which, it turns out, goes back thousands of years.

Consider Saint Irenaeus, in the second century AD; the second Bishop of Lyon, after the first was martyred by the Romans. Despite this, Irenaeus managed to find time for some persecuting of his own. Today he is best known for his work Against Heresies, in which he attacks the then-popular Gnostic splinter faiths.

Gnosticism was a complex family of beliefs, but all included the notion that our world is a cruel simulacrum of true reality—or, if you will, a simulation—created by a malevolent god. You’ll note this is also, basically, the plot of The Matrix. But wait; it gets wackier. St. Irenaeus is also known for his belief that “God made himself Man, that Man might become God.” Or, as Ronald Cole-Turner puts it, “It is important to note that for Irenaeus, salvation is not primarily a pathway to God. It is a process by which humans become gods.”

SF readers have a name for that belief, too: transhumanism. As such, one can interpret the persecution of the Gnostics by St. Irenaeus as an attack on simulationists, by transhumanists … 1800 years ago! Many of our tropes are much older than we think.

Over subsequent centuries, the Gnostics and all their texts were eradicated, making Against Heresies one of the only records of their existence. And yet their long-forgotten beliefs have had a significant influence on science fiction, and on how we imagine the future … thanks to a murderous blood feud, a possible grave robbery, a thief-priest, and the black market of the alpha metropolis of an ancient civilization.

I realize that sounds like a D&D (or maybe Call of Cthulhu) campaign. But in 1945, in Nag Hammadi, Egypt, that very combination of events led to the discovery of long-buried original Gnostic texts. And, a few years later, a certain C-list SF author grew obsessed with them.

That author spent most of his life struggling with small advances, poor sales, addiction, mental health, and failure to sell any of his ‘mainstream’ work. His books were very weird, and often didn’t really make much sense. None of his peers could have suspected he would become the most culturally significant science fiction author of the twentieth century.

But if you measure by Hollywood adaptations, he absolutely was, because I am talking about Philip K. Dick, whose influence on other writers (including me) has also been immense. In fact, way back in 1977, at a convention in France, PKD declared that we live in “a computer-programmed reality,” referring to the true/higher level of reality as “the matrix world.”

While the Wachowskis have always been cagey about their influences, Jean Baudrillard’s book Simulation and Simulacrum actually appears in The Matrix … and it, in turn, cites Dick. (Albeit misnaming him “K. Philip Dick,” perhaps signifying the respect SF commanded at the time.) It’s pretty remarkable that a direct chain of citation for the simulation hypothesis extends from The Matrix, via PKD, to Gnostic beliefs assumed eradicated and forgotten for many centuries! Culture dies hard, is perhaps the lesson here.

Regardless of whether the simulation hypothesis is correct, “the universe is software” is a compelling metaphor for the world in which we do live — one increasingly mediated by software, where other people appear to us mostly in compressed digital forms. That isn’t necessarily bad. Often software is better than hardware; that’s why we write it! But when this mediation goes wrong, it can contribute to depersonalization and even dehumanization. Philip K. Dick  said his work focused on two questions: “What is Real?” and “What is Human?” Exadelic is a hard-SF thriller, but it uses its big ideas to grapple with those two questions too.


Exadelic: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Bookshop|Powell’s

Author Socials: Web site|Twitter

New Music LP Out Today: “Eternal”

Wait, a whole LP? Yes, that’s right, while you weren’t looking, I’ve been fiddling about on a specific musical project that ended up being 40 minutes long, which is to say, the length of a traditional LP. It even breaks well into two sides, with Side One being a shade over 23 minutes and Side Two a shade under 17. Did I plan it this way? Ha! No. But when it turned out that way I wasn’t displeased. It’s my longest musical work to date.

And also, formally, my most ambitious. It’s a single long work, with four parts, each with two movements. Each part is comprised of a single musical phrase that consists solely of the “E” note, played across four octaves, with that phrase being stretched and compressed, depending. The first movement has four instruments playing the phrase at different lengths; the second movement reverses the phrase, and shuffles which instrument is playing which phrase length. Each part has its own tempo, instrumentation and effects, including reverbs and arpeggiations, and has a tone and feel distinct from the others.

Why do this? Well, the short answer is that recently I was thinking of the late avant-garde composer Glenn Branca, who sprang not from traditional “classical” environs but out of the “no wave” musical movement of the late 70 and early 80s. Branca’s compositions were often confrontational and experimental, sometimes microtonal or atonal, heavy on treated electric guitars and other instruments not generally associated with symphonies and movements, a real mess and a lot of fun. And on at least one occasion, he’d have his musicians play a single chord, loudly, and explore the tonal landscape that would happen in the sonic crossfire of reverberations.

I am not, to be clear, Glenn Branca. The inspiration I am taking from him here is conceptual rather than directly musical. But I was curious about what would happen when one explores repetition, recurrence and revision, using a same bit of music, applied to the current musical technology.

I was also interested in the idea — and here I make an obvious nod to Brian Eno — of music that is designed as part of a larger experience. Eno’s thing is “ambient” music, to be listened to incidentally, a liminal soundtrack for public spaces (like, famously, airports). For this project I’m not thinking “ambient” per se, since I want you to notice the music more overtly than that. Perhaps “concurrent” would be a better way to put it; played as part of a museum installation, say, to set a specific mood or tone, each part easily repeatable to play continuously as people move through the area. Adding to the experience, and giving an emotional context for it.

Conceptually, then, you could say this album is a looping soundtrack for a cultural event that doesn’t yet exist. There’s a reason the cover art is of an entrance to the Louvre.

(Yes, I know, could I be any more pretentious. Look, concept albums are inherently pretentious. You accept it or you don’t do it. Clearly, I went with it.)

With that as preamble, here’s the album. As of this writing it’s on YouTube and YouTube Music, TIDAL and Amazon Music; Spotify and Apple Music are still processing it (Update: It’s on those two services now, too).

Eternal, Part One (15:25): The original version, with the slowest tempo (68 beats per minute), and the most heterogeneous instrumentation. I’ve noticed that depending on the speakers you put this through, you might hear instruments that aren’t there as the instruments that are there interact with each other sonically. Which is pretty interesting.

Eternal, Part Two (7:43): For this one, all the instruments are the same: a lightly treated piano. Each piano is performing the same arpeggiation, but each arpeggiation is being played at a different speed, from 1/8th of a bar to a single bar. This is played at twice the tempo (136 bpm) of Part One. Of all the parts, this one is probably the “single,” i.e., if you’re going to listen to just one of these, this would probably be it. It’s the prettiest.

Eternal, Part Three (5:40): The fastest (~180bpm), loudest, noisiest and most overtly electronic of the parts, and the only one with a drum track, which skitters over the whole thing like an angry spider. This is also the one where the difference between the two movements of piece is, in my opinion, the most noticeable. This part is the most abrasive one, without a doubt, and is also probably my favorite of the four.

Eternal, Part Four (10:30): The most “moderate” of the pieces in terms of tempo (99 bpm), but possibly the spookiest in terms of instrumentation, with strings that are plucked, buzzed, droned and morphed. This is the part most likely to be heard in an A24 horror film.

Eternal was a bit of a surprise project for me, coming more out of experimentation and exploration than a desire to make something for others to hear. But once I had it, I thought, hey, maybe people might like this. I hope you do. As summer ends here in the US, this is a fine way to take us into a new season.

— JS

Saturday Music: “Ride the Wind to Me”

Songwriter and musician Julie Miller is one of the great secret weapons of the musical genre known as “Americana,” which for those who don’t know, is kind of like if country music and shoegaze had a baby. I became acquainted with her when Emmylou Harris covered a song of hers for her Wrecking Ball album (this one), which eventually led me to Miller’s own 1999 album Broken Things, which is, flatly, tremendous, starting with the first song, “Ride the Wind to Me,” a twangy, plaintive paean to love lost and possibly found again.

My version of this song is not twangy, nor plaintive; I was curious how it would sound with an 80s, gothy, Gene Loves Jezebel sort of vibe, and now I know, and, if you listen to it, so will you. I think it works, although of course it’s held back by my own production shortcomings. But this is why I do these covers; to teach myself how to get better at it. I hope you enjoy it nevertheless.

Also, for compare and contrast, and there is a lot of contrast, the original, below.

— JS

The Big Idea: Dwain Worrell

When you read a novel, you might think you know who the villain might be. But in Dwain Worrell’s new novel Androne, whoever and whatever you think that villain is, it’s not that. Probably.

DWAIN WORRELL:

ANDRONE | ən-drōn |

Noun

  1. a remote piloted bipedal machine made to mimic the functionality of the human body.

Imagine we were at war, millions of casualties, protesters on the White House lawn, and a wartime debt of trillions, but in this war no one, neither civilian nor military, knows who the fuck we are fighting.

Do you mind if I curse?

In the novel it’s called the “Enigma Campaign” or “World War Who.” Ten years before the opening of the novel, every major military instillation worldwide was attacked by something, but we don’t know what. What we do know is that it’s none of the usual suspects. It’s neither aliens nor AI, no foreign country or ourselves. This antagonistic force, in a word, is (spoiler). And as the attacks become more frequent, more brazen, it will unwittingly destroy both us and itself in the process.

That spoiler is the big idea, and the protagonist of the story was created with specific attributes that thematically and structurally reflect that idea.

Sergeant Paxton Arés is an androne pilot from Oakland, California, and a soon-to-be father. He leaves his grandfather, girlfriend and unborn child to report for duty at Nellis Base in Nevada. Paxton is a bit of jarhead, not the type to speak up or get promoted. He operates one of the lower-tier andrones, a Spartan series, out in some foreign desert from a cockpit a thousand miles away. Every day he waits for an enemy that never shows up.

But Paxton quickly discovers that something is off about the base. As he scratches away at the facade on the surface, he discovers what they are actually at war with and that changes everything—from what he though was humanly possible to his own loyalties with the military.

“The strongest and oldest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” —HP Lovecraft.

I didn’t know the answer to the central question in Androne, “who are we fighting?” I started writing without it. But that idea, a war without an enemy, was the center of gravity, a blackhole for me, the characters, the plotting, everything revolved around it. And for Androne to work, the answer to that question couldn’t be aliens or AI or ghosts or monsters or anything I had read before, that would have been a letdown. It had to be something different to leave an impact on the reader and myself. I haven’t read a novel that has used (spoiler) as an antagonistic devise before, though there are no new ideas. And it’s probably be out there somewhere in the unknown.

Androne is a debut novel. And everything here is unknown. Working with editors, publishers, and new terminology like ARC, never heard that before (Advanced Reader Copy, btw). I traveled into the “literary” unknown, so it’s only fitting that Paxton and his companions journey into the “literal” unknown.

And do you mind if I pun?

Niels Arden Oplev, director of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, described Androne as “a high-end videogame on steroids with a destiny of Shakespearean magnitude.”

And I’ll leave it at that.


Androne: Amazon |Barnes & Noble |Bookshop|Powell’s

Author’s Socials: Website|Instagram

An Update From the Old Church, August 31, 2023

For the longest time it seemed impossible we would actually get to this point, but now we’re actually here: All the major renovations we were making to the church are now complete. The very last thing to have done were the bookshelves in the balcony, which span the walls on both wings; we had a local cabinetmaker do them and they are terrific. Here’s a panorama of the bookshelves on the south wing of the balcony:

Those bookshelves are being filled up little by little, since every time we visit the church we bring a box of books from the basement. It will take a little bit of time with that process, but at this point, now that every major renovation thing is done, we’re not in a huge rush.

The renovations were not only to the church; you may recall that we bought the house immediately north of the church, which was in a state of disrepair, brought it down and cleared out the debris. We’ve had some landscaping done in the front to make it look nice from the street, and behind the new firebushes and crabapple trees are what we’re currently calling the “north lawn,” and then a gravel parking lot in the back because the church previously did not have off-street parking. We have plans for the lawn portion but we have to wait a bit; apparently when you take down a house and scoop out the foundations it takes about a year for everything to settle out. Again, we can wait.

Once the renovations were officially done, we had a cleaning crew come in and remove nearly two years of renovation dust, and we took away any remaining detritus from the rebuild. What comes next is furnishing; specifically, my office (Krissy’s is already set up) and the balconies. The plan at the moment is to get it comfortable and cozy, but not, I think, to go all out and try to decorate every nook and cranny right now; we’re presumably going to have years to bring in art and bits and bobs. It’ll be enough to get it to a place where we’re ready to welcome friends and visitors.

When we say we’re done, two things should be understood: First, that there are some minor things that can still stand to be updated (like the church sign outside, which needs a refresh) and some things that we’re not going to get to for a long time if at all (like making the pipe organ functional again). The renovations were to make the church structurally secure and updated; some things that were not directly relevant to that are projects for later. Second, the realization that with a building like this — or any building, really — “done” is a relative term. There’s renovation, and then there is maintenance. We’ll be in the “maintenance” phase of owning this building for as long as we have it, and we plan to have it for a while.

For the record, it never does get old, walking into the church and going, holy buckets, we own this thing. For so long we’ve been on the schedule of contractors and service people and craftsmen, going down a checklist of things that needed to be done before we could start using the place the way wanted and intended to. Finally we’re at the place where the schedule we have for the building is the one we set for ourselves. We still have a few things to do, to get it ready. When we do, we’re going to invite folks in friends to let them see what we’ve done with the place and how we mean to keep it part of the community, even as we use it for our own intended ends. We’re looking forward to that.

— JS

A Night On The Town Featuring Candlelight Concerts and Losanti Steakhouse

You may remember a post of mine from two months ago over the Best of Hans Zimmer Candlelight Concert I went to in Cincinnati. Ever since then, I’ve wanted to go to another Candlelight Concert. Not even a week after seeing the first one, I got myself a ticket to one in August, and patiently waited.

In my previous post over them, I mentioned that they do tribute performances to popular artists such as Taylor Swift, Adele, Queen, even Bach and Vivaldi. However, this particular show I attended was a bit of a deviation from their standard performances, and I was a little surprised it was even offered. It’s called “Favorite Anime Themes”, and the show featured sixteen iconic anime opening/soundtrack songs, plus a Studio Ghibli medley.

(I’ve gone ahead and put the full list of songs in the comments for y’all to check out.)

The concert was held in The Transept in the Over-the-Rhine area of Cincinnati. Funny enough, it’s only about half a mile from the previous concert’s venue, the Woodward Theater.

The Transept is a gothic-church-turned-event-venue, and it was definitely an impressive establishment.

A shot of the front of the Transept, a red and black gothic style church with a blue sky behind it.

I was one of the first people there, and managed to get a picture of the inside without anyone in the shot:

The inside of the venue/church. The ceiling is fifty feet tall, and rows of chairs fill the space. At the front of the room is a slightly elevated stage, covered with LED candles.

And a close up of the stage since I had front row seats:

The stage, covered in LED candles. There's a staircase on each side, also covered in candles, as well as dozens of candles in front of the stage on floor level. There's also four music stands and one chair on stage.

Like the previous Candlelight Concert I went to, it was a string quartet performance, though this was a different group than last time. This group is called Listeso String Quartet:

All four members of the string quartet in the middle of performing a song.

(You’re allowed to take photos and videos during the last song of the set.)

This group did an amazing job. Every piece was absolutely spectacular. It filled my heart with joy to hear theme songs from shows I watched years ago performed so beautifully on some of my favorite instruments. I could’ve listened to them all night. I never knew I needed a string quartet performance of anime openings until I got it, and now I want so much more of it.

One of the most interesting parts of going to this concert was seeing all of the different people that attended. I definitely had a particular idea of what kind of people would be there, but I was surprised at the range of demographics in the audience.

On the other hand, unsurprisingly, there were plenty of sightings of things like Totoro purses, anime t-shirts, and even two tweens in cosplay.

I was also surprised at how many people there were. There was probably about a hundred chairs total, all filled, and then a standing balcony which was also crowded with people. It was a great turnout!

The hour passed quickly, and afterwards I walked about two blocks through a lovely public park and arrived at Losanti Steakhouse. I had gone to Losanti after the first Candlelight Concert I went to, and it was so good I just had to revisit it.

Losanti is an Italian steakhouse (I didn’t even know you could combine those two things?) that is modern, intimate, classy, all those good things! I absolutely love the vibe in here, and all the staff and servers are so nice and helpful.

Losanti's menu. The sections consist of

The drink menu. There's cocktails, martinis, scotch, whiskey, bourbon, and beer. The wine list is separate.

Since I’d been here before, I wanted to make sure I didn’t get anything I had gotten the last time.

The last time around, I had the Queen Bee, the Sage Gimlet, and the Lillet Rose, pictured here:

A gimlet glass filled to the rim with a peachy colored liquid. A pink flower sits on top of the drink.

The Queen Bee was very honey forward, sweet, and herbaceous. The Sage Gimlet tasted like a refined ginger ale, and was refreshing and light. The Lillet Rose was sweet and fruity. They were all great, no wrong choices here.

I also had the crab cake starter, a filet mignon (medium rare), and this super yummy looking truffle mac and cheese:

A white oval ramekin containing truffle mac and cheese that is golden brown on top with parmesan and chives.

Needless to say, everything was awesome, and the filet mignon was probably the best I’ve ever had.

So, this time around, I started with the Honeysuckle:

A gimlet glass filled with honey colored liquid with a pink flower on top.

This was sweet, tasted just like honey, smooth, and had a pretty flower! I don’t know about y’all, but I seriously love honey, so this and the Queen Bee are really great choices.

I wasn’t sure what to get for my starter, so the bartender suggested the oysters. They had east and west coast oysters, so I picked west coast, and apparently they were from Washington. I got half a dozen, and they came with their housemade cocktail sauce, housemade ponzu, and housemade hot sauce.

A silver bowl filled with ice. Atop the ice sits half a dozen oysters. The sauces are in the shot as well, along with some lemon.

These oysters were so fresh and ultra-buttery-melt-in-your-mouth goodness. I had the first one just with lemon, two with the ponzu sauce, and three with the cocktail sauce. No hot sauce for me, because I’m weak.

I also got a salad. The bartender recommended the Kale Caeser, which was pretty different from other Caesers I’ve had before.

A big bowl of salad. What is visible is mostly kale, with some croutons and tomatoes in the mix, and lots of parmesan.

This one had celery and roasted tomatoes, and most noticeably different is obviously the kale as the base. Kale isn’t usually my first choice of leafy green, but this salad was so good! Plus, it was a giant portion.

I also got the Cincy Fizz:

A gimlet glass filled to the rim with purple liquid, with a bit of pale purple foam on top.

This drink was quite interesting. It was very port forward, so if you like port wine this is definitely a good choice for you. It’s definitely a bit strong for my usual taste, and the foam from the egg white was really interesting texturally speaking. Overall, not my favorite drink, but fun to try.

I decided to try a pasta this time, instead of a cut of meat. I opted for the Orecchiette, with lamb sausage and saffron cream:

A big white bowl of pasta. It's very yellow in color, with tomatoes, chunks of sausage, chives, and parmesan.

I don’t eat lamb all that often, but it was a welcome protein in this creamy pasta. The tomatoes offered a slight acidity to cut through the richness of the saffron cream, and the parmesan and fresh cracked black pepper on top brought it all together.

Again, another generous portion size, and I wanted to save some room for dessert, so I got this boxed up, as well as my salad, and took a look at the dessert menu.

A small dessert menu listing

I was torn between the salted caramel gelato and the butter cake, but since the butter cake came with salted caramel gelato, I got that. I expected a slice but got this actual round cake:

A round cake topped with a scoop of salted caramel gelato and caramel drizzle.

This was actually ginormous, and also like the greatest cake I’ve ever eaten?! This thing was off the charts. It’s probably hard to tell in the picture, but the entire cake had this really thin like crystalline sugar layer all over the outside, and it was served nice and warm which made the delicious, creamy gelato all melty and oh my god I actually died and went to heaven upon eating this cake.

One fun thing about this place is that when they bring you the check, they bring it in an old book that you can write in.

A copy of

I’ve been to quite a few eateries in OTR but Losanti takes the (butter) cake. I highly recommended checking this place out. Not only is the food excellent, but the service is stellar and the atmosphere is perfect.

Which cocktail sounds the best to you? Have you seen any of the anime on the list? What are some places you like in Cincinnati? Let me know in the comments, and have a great day!

-AMS

20 Years of Science Fiction Conventions

Me and Cory Doctorow, August 2003 at TorCon 3, Toronto. Photo by Debbie Ridpath Ohi

Because I am the sort of nerd who keeps track of these things, I will note that today marks the 20th anniversary of the first time I ever attended a science fiction convention. On August 28, 2003, having sold Old Man’s War to Tor at the beginning of that year, I decided it was time to meet my future audience and headed to Toronto, Canada to attend that year’s Worldcon, Torcon 3. I went to the airport to board a plane, forgot Toronto was in a different country and I would need a passport to travel, raced home for documents and then drove to Toronto, speeding all the way, to arrive just in time for my very first panel ever (“Day Jobs for Writers”). I was the last panelist to arrive so of course they made me be the moderator. And thus, I was unceremoniously tossed into the deep end of the science fiction convention pool, almost literally before I had caught my breath.

I understand that, here in 2023, it might seem implausible to some that I, Hugo winner and noted mega science fiction nerd John Scalzi, would have attended my very first science fiction convention at the relatively advanced age of (checks math) 34. But, remember, and in some cases, know for the first time, that up until I sold Old Man’s War to Tor, the writing sphere I had mostly existed in had been journalism. Yes, I had been reading and enjoying science fiction all my life, among other genres, but my writing focus was elsewhere. Socially I had never been tied into science fiction or what we would generally now understand as “nerd culture.” Yes, I was a nerd — I was a writer, the Venn diagram there has substantial overlap — but being a nerd wasn’t central to my identity, either personally or professionally.

What was my professional identity? Well, in 2003, I was mostly writing freelance journalism and corporate marketing, and occasional non-fiction books, and I was actually pretty happy about that state of affairs. I had sort of fallen backwards into getting a contract for Old Man’s War, and my assumption, even after getting a contract with Tor for that book and another book to be named later (it became The Android’s Dream), was that novel writing and science fiction would be an occasional side gig at best. I mean, that two-book deal was for $13,000, and I would get that money spread out over several years. On the basis of that, 2003 me did not see a whole lot of potential for novels being anything more than a glorified hobby.

Nevertheless, if I was going to write for the science fiction audience, I thought it would be useful to see who the core of that science fiction audience was. I knew Worldcons existed (that’s where they gave out the Hugos), and in 2003, media cons were not what they are now, or at the very least, there was still enough differentiation between comic book conventions and science fiction conventions that I didn’t see the point of going to the former rather than the latter. Worldcons seemed to me to be at the heart of my potential fandom. Off I went.

I have told the story of my immediate reaction to the Worldcon many times: I got there, did my panel, wandered around and then called my wife (on a payphone! 2003 was a different world!) and informed her I was at the Convention of Misfit Toys. I still stand by that initial impression — there’s nothing wrong with being a misfit toy, y’all — but I acknowledge here in the future that in that particular scenario, the actual misfit toy was me. I was coming from outside into a community and culture that had existed for actual decades (Torcon 3 was the 61st World Science Fiction Convention, after all), and one I had almost no context for, and knew almost no one in.

I mentioned as much to my editor Patrick Nielsen Hayden when I saw him in the Royal York Hotel lobby after I had called my wife; he was, literally, the only person I knew at the whole convention. His response to this was to seemingly randomly grab one of the people passing by, say “Cory Doctorow, this is John Scalzi. John Scalzi, this is Cory Doctorow. Cory, John is your con buddy for the rest of Worldcon,” and then leave. Cory sized me up for a second, said, “come on, then,” and then suddenly my problem of not knowing anyone at Torcon 3 was solved.

I should note that Cory did not necessarily have to be stuck with me for the whole convention. He could have just as easily and reasonably ditched me after an hour or so and gone on with his plans for the day. But he didn’t; he let me pad along with him and as a result I met people and began to form friendships that carry on to this day, mine with Cory not the least at all. And it gave me a sense of how a “big name” writer should be to newbies, that I have tried to emulate since. In 2003, Cory was already a Campbell (now Astounding) Award winner and his novel Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom had come out to much acclaim. He was a Pretty Big Deal, and he treated me — whose novel wouldn’t come out for another 18 months — like a peer. I appreciated it then, still do today, and try to pay forward the kindness he showed me with other writers when I can.

Twenty years on I don’t remember many of the details of the convention itself. I vaguely remember opening ceremonies, I remember how clearly happy Rob Sawyer looked to be given the Best Novel award that year, and I remember watching a new pal on a panel get deeply annoyed with another panelist. What I mostly remember, however, are the people I met and became friends with: Sitting in the bar with Justine Larbalestier and Scott Westerfeld, with Walter John Williams over there in the corner; having lunch with Nick Sagan who, like me, was new to all of this and comparing notes; chatting with Lesley Livingston at her booth because she was a sci-fi TV celeb in Toronto; listening to Charlie Stross after my reading, who advised me to slow down and actually, you know, breathe; getting an author autograph — my very first ever! — from Geoffrey Landis; having a long and amusing conversation with Robert Silverberg without actually knowing who he was; getting shushed with Lucienne Diver because our conversation was distracting a hotel room from an amusing Connie Willis story; and meeting Allan Steele and noting to him that he was the first person I ever sent fan mail to. These among many others are memories not lost in time, like tears in rain, but still there in my head, and happily so.

(There is one memory which I think is especially kind of fun, which is me sitting with Cory and Charlie in a coffee shop and me saying to my new friends “Hey, wouldn’t it be cool if, like, one day we were all Hugo nominees together?” and them very kindly agreeing with the excitable new guy whose first novel wasn’t even out yet that, yes, that would be nice. Six years later, again in Canada, and guess what, there we all were on the Best Novel ballot together! We all lost to Neil Gaiman, sure! But that’s not the point.)

Torcon 3 was the only science fiction convention I went to in 2003; likewise the next Worldcon, in Boston, was the only one I went to in 2004. Then Old Man’s War came out, and I started going to more conventions, and then, eventually, I started going to many, often as a Guest of Honor, which is cool, but sometimes just to show up and see friends and colleagues, which is also cool. I go to so many now that it’s really easy to lose track, and the convention scene is much different now – and a much bigger deal – than it was twenty years ago. That’s mostly good, although I do miss some of the intimacy of the smaller universe that conventions were back in the day.

I won’t be at Worldcon this year; it’s in China, which is a jaunt, and it was moved to October when I’m busy here in the US, doing appearances at other conventions and festivals to promote Starter Villain, my upcoming novel. But I’m happy to say I’m on the Hugo slate this year (rather unexpectedly, from my point of view), and I’ll be at the next Worldcon, in Glasgow, next year. Worldcon is still important to me, and I like to attend when I can.

I’m hoping that the new writers and fans who are experiencing the Worldcon for the first time in 2023 will get to have the same experience that I had at my first: the dizzying disorientation followed by an introduction to a new community, and the beginning of friendships and professional acquaintances that can last decades. Everyone gets their first convention once. I hope if Worldcon is their first, like it was for me, that it’s a good one.

Welcome to the Convention of Misfit Toys, y’all. It’s good to have you here.

— JS

(Photo Credit: Debbie Ridpath Ohi)

Saturday Music: “She Goes On”

I was down in the basement music studio today, upgrading software, and I figured as long as I was down there I might as well cover a song, this one by Crowded House. It’s a very pretty song, pretty enough to (almost) mask that it is also a fundamentally sad song. I love it and wanted to try my hand at it. I don’t think Neil Finn has anything to worry about musically, but I enjoyed having a pass at it. I hope you like it too.

And here’s the original for a compare and contrast.

— JS

I Was Gonna Post About Trump and His Mug Shot, But Then I Got Busy and Also OMD Came Out With a New Video, So Here Is That Instead

I mean, I will probably talk about Trump again soon! But today has turned out to be a day I need to do things in — I know, so unfair, right? — and also this new OMD single is very OMD, and as someone who grew up with the band, I think of this as a good thing, so, yeah, here, have this instead and I will get back to the rest later. Honestly, you’re getting the better end of the bargain here.

— JS

My SciFri Interview About The Kaiju Preservation Society

This summer the folks at Science Friday made The Kaiju Preservation Society their book club read, and in addition to talking about the book with each other, they had me come over for an hour-long chat about the book, writing, science and life in general. Here’s the whole interview for your delight. Note the live action part starts at about 3:43 in the run time, and I show up at about 6:50. Enjoy!

— JS

The Big Idea: A.J. Hartley

Shape-shifting creatures… in small-town North Carolina? There’s a reason they’re there, and as A.J. Hartley explains in this Big Idea for Hideki Smith, Demon Queller, there’s no better place for them to be. 

A.J. HARTLEY:

Japanese folkore and mythology is packed with shape-shifting monsters. Seriously. Everywhere you look there’s something pretending to be something else. Some of them are funny (monsters disguised as umbrellas, anyone?). Some are terrifying. Some of them are just plain weird, acting according to a logic only they understand. But all of them reinforce a basic idea about the universe: that nothing is exactly as it appears.

It’s a familiar notion, of course, though it seems to have developed a deeper and more unsettling brand of truth as we wrestle with the implications of, on the one hand, quantum mechanics, and—on the other—a greater awareness of how race, gender and other matters create a disconnect between our we appear to others and how we see ourselves.

About those shape-shifters. My new novel, Hideki Smith, Demon Queller, is set in North Carolina but it’s informed by mystical beings from old Japan (generally called yōkai ) because the book’s protagonists are partly of Japanese heritage. I say partly because the title character (who goes by Caleb) has—like my own son—a Japanese-American mother and a Caucasian father. He and his sister have been raised to assimilate into a small town in which there are no other families like theirs, and they figure the best way to get through the pitfalls of high school is to fit in as best they can.

Except, of course, that they don’t look like they belong in their small mountain town, and changing that isn’t something they control. And their lives get more complicated when monsters start appearing in the woods, monsters whose origins are clearly—if mysteriously—connected to Caleb and Emily’s long-suppressed Japanese ancestry.

These aren’t just monsters of the scary teeth and claws variety, however. They are beings whose appearance can change, giving them a much wider selection of weapons. Many of the yōkai of Japanese legend are supernatural forms of common animals. There are racoon-dogs (tanuki) that can pretend to be teapots or sake barrels but can also appear as people. Sometimes they are tired, old folk who beg you to carry them or perform other tasks, for no reason other than their own amusement.

Tanuki are primarily tricksters, and not always competent ones at that, so they often give themselves away: hilarity, as the book jackets say, ensues. Mujina (a kind of badger) are more inclined to scare whoever they meet, appearing as ordinary people whose faces then vanish. In many versions of the story, the victim runs away, half mad with fear, and tells their tale of terror to the first cop, barman, or restauranteur they meet, only for their confidante to reply, “Was it like this?” Whereupon their face vanishes and the hapless victim blacks out in horror.

Once, when I lived in Japan, I saw a kabuki production in which a young family, lost in the mountains, came upon a tiny Buddhist temple where an elderly nun invited them to spend the night. In one of the most startling visuals I have ever seen on stage, the nun leaned behind the translucent paper screen to pick up a lantern, casting a shadow which revealed her true nature as a bakeneko: a massive and monstrous cat. She then performed a bloody attack on the family, and finally ascended into the heavens above the stage, fully transformed, not so much a cat as into a something somewhere between cat and human, covered in fur (and brandishing the afore mentioned teeth and claws), but clothed in a dazzling kimono.

It was breathtaking and unnerving, because the cat creature wasn’t just dangerous, it was uncanny, the kind of thing that makes your flesh creep because it contradicts what you think you know about the world and your place in it.

The supreme Japanese shape shifter is the fox or kitsune, a being so expert at human transformation that it can do what Caleb and Emily can’t; it can blend in. Kitsune can conceal their true nature so completely that they can marry humans, have kids, and live undetected among people for years at a time. These foxes might only be discovered if someone is particularly attentive to what he or she (often she) gets up to when the fox believes itself to be alone. Occasionally they give themselves away when angry, particularly if their spouse breaks an oath made years before. Sometimes they just get bored of human life and revert to their true form, vanishing into the forest and leaving their families baffled and grieving.

It’s a powerful idea, that sense that nothing and no one is what they appear to be, that even the things we think we know best might be something else entirely, something strange or lethal. After all, none of us is precisely what others take us to be. Inside our heads we are so much stranger and more complex, less easily knowable, than other people think, though somehow—preposterously—we still trust our superficial readings of others.

For my purposes, the sudden appearance of these shape-shifting beings in Portersville, North Carolina, provides more than (I hope) thrills and mystery; they embody a running metaphor for people wrestling with their sense of who they are, were, and might be, while surrounded by other people who assume they know exactly what their appearance means. Nothing is what it seems, least of all us.


Heideki Smith, Demon Queller: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Bookshop|Books-a-Million

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Starter Villain in the House

Literally ten minutes ago the UPS truck rolled up with my author hardcover copies of Starter Villain. As is tradition, I gave the first copy to Krissy, and the second copy is mine (the third usually goes to my mother-in-law. The fourth usually goes to the Bradford library). I have to say it looks great and I’m delighted to have it here at home. You all will still have to wait another four weeks. Sorry.

This does, however, give me time to remind you that I will be on tour with the book, so go ahead and get that on your schedule, and otherwise, if print is your favorite reading medium, preorder the book from your favorite local bookseller so you know you’ll have your copy on September 19th. They will be happy to take your preorder, I assure you!

Also, in case you’re wondering, it never gets old to see your book in print. This is the thirty-something-odd time. It’s just as great as the first. Hey! I wrote a book!

— JS

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