Jupiter, Saturn, Clouds

Jupiter and Saturn in the sky, about to be swallowed by the cloud cover.

Since many of you who frequent this site are complete nerds, you’re probably aware that in tonight’s sky Jupiter and Saturn are within a tenth of a degree of each other, which is their closest conjunction in eight centuries. And because I’m the sort of nerd I am, I was hoping to see that. For much of the day the sky conspired against me — rain and complete cloud cover. At sunset, however, the sky cleared up juuuuuust enough that Jupiter and Saturn were briefly visible. Here’s a shot of the two of them just before the were once again completely concealed by clouds. Thank you, sky, for cooperating if only briefly. It’s nice to see astronomical history with one’s own eyes.

— JS

Not a Single One of You Correctly Guessed the Holiday Song I Was Thinking of for the “Murder By Other Means” ARC Contest

None of you! 577 comments, not a single one correctly guessed the song I was thinking about.

Which, incidentally, was this one:

“Santa Claus’ Party” by the Lex Baxter Orchestra

Now, “Santa Claus’ Party” is not a “top tier” holiday song in terms of popularity, but I didn’t think it was so hopelessly obscure that out of a few hundred people not a single one of you would think of it. But, I guess, I have learned something new today. And so have all y’all, namely, this song. I hope you enjoy it!

Since no one correctly guessed the song, I asked Alexa to randomly pick a number between one and 577, that being the total number of comments in the thread. Alexa picked 493, and I counted backward to find “orkydd” in that comment space. So congratulations, Orkydd! I have already sent you a confirmation email.

Everyone else: Thank you so much for playing, and thank you also for a very interesting collection of holiday songs in the comment thread. Some, I dare say, are far more obscure than “Santa Claus’ Party.” I’m going to enjoy seeking them out.

— JS

My Thoughts On Red Dead Redemption 2

Arthur Morgan from Red Dead Redemption 2

Athena ScalziLike pretty much all my other video game posts, I’m severely late to the game (no pun intended). Today I’m here to talk about the wildly popular Rockstar game, Red Dead Redemption 2.

Even though it came out two years ago, I only got around to playing it this year. I started it around April, played like half of it in one week, and then dropped it for a few months. I ended up finally reaching the very last mission back in September, but dropped it again before winning. So, I have never technically beaten Red Dead Redemption 2, however I played a fuck ton of it before reaching the end, so I feel like I’m qualified to give a solid review.

The only Rockstar game I played before Red Dead Redemption 2 was Bully, back when I was in junior high. I have never tried any of the Grand Theft Auto games, but I could see a lot of similarity between Bully and Red Dead Redemption 2. I also have never played the first Red Dead Redemption, but the second one is a prequel, so I didn’t see a need to play the first one beforehand.

In case you don’t know the premise, Red Dead Redemption 2 is about a group of outlaw bandits on the edge of the 19th century, trying to find their way in a quickly progressing and modernizing world that has no place for their kind anymore.

You play as Arthur Morgan, one of the most essential members of the gang, and throughout the game you realize that being a crook ain’t all it’s cracked up to be. Things you thought mattered seem to be insignificant now; the heists, the robberies, the money. Arthur realizes all the wrong he’s done was for nothing, and seeks some kind of redemption.

But this is a very slow process, as most character development is, and relies on you as a player choosing to make Arthur good. You have to consciously pick to be a good person, again and again, and your choices affect Arthur’s “honor level.” Depending if you have good or bad honor, you get different game endings. You can gain honor in the smallest ways: by saying hello to strangers, giving money to a nun collecting for orphans, giving someone a cure for poison after being bit by a snake. You can also lose honor just as easily, and more often than not, accidentally. Like when you hit a pedestrian with your horse. Did I mean to? No. Are the cops after me now? Yes.

I love any game where you can choose whether or not to be a good person. It’s one of the things I love most about the Fallout games, too. In a world where everyone is struggling to survive, you can choose to be selfish and evil, or choose to be generous and kind. And I will always choose kind. In Red Dead Redemption 2, I got an achievement for maxing out Arthur’s honor, and I worked to keep it as high as possible. It was important to me. I wanted Arthur to be different, to become better. I knew deep down he was capable of being a good man, all I had to do was make a few good choices for him for it to kick in.

Throughout the game, your gang leader, Dutch, keeps talking about how your posse just has to make one more big score, and then you can all live happily ever after in Tahiti. A lot of the game is going through with all these heists to become rich so you can all finally get away to paradise, and escape this ever-advancing society.

On the surface, it seems like just a normal, bank-robbing, gun-slinging, shoot ’em up kind of game, but it’s actually so much more than that. With over 100 missions, there are so many ways to play this game. If you want to focus on the story of the gang and get through the main quest, you can do that by playing only the main story missions. If you want to develop Arthur’s character more (like me), there are tons of honor-specific missions you can play through. If you’re interested in side characters, there are lots of little quests that pertain to them that you’re free to explore in your own time. You can be collector, a hunter, a fisherman, a bounty hunter, a train robber, a king of poker, a serial killer puzzle solver, and so much more.

This game is truly what you make of it, and I love it for that. Other things I loved include the outfit choices, the ability to cook and craft, the voice acting, and of course, the beautiful graphics. And the ability to pet dogs. Thank goodness for that.

Alternatively, here are some things I did not like that really bug me about this game:

An image of horseriding in the game, with the words

There is so much horseback riding. I mean, just a ridiculous amount of the game takes place on horseback. For starters, the map is huge. Secondly, the game uses horseback riding alongside your companions as a way to cram dialogue into a scene, so you have all the info you need for the mission you’re embarking on. However, when they do this, you can’t ride past a certain speed, because they’ve allotted the dialogue to take up a set amount of time. You can’t skip it.

While the game does have a “cinematic view” option, where it basically autopilots horse riding for you, it still takes a decent amount of time to get from point A to point B. Bandits can interfere with you and attack while you’re in this autopilot mode, which is a huge inconvenience. Basically, there’s no fast travel, unless you count taking the trains, but even then that involves going to a station and purchasing a ticket.

I have never pressed “A” so many times in my life. Even the fastest horse in the game, the Elite White Arabian (which I acquired right from the beginning), seems slow when you’re going from one side of the map to the other. It just makes for boring gameplay, and I despise how much time riding around takes. I suppose it’s realistic to the time period, but still.

Red Dead Redemption 2 was a pretty difficult game for me. For instance, I found the aiming mechanism hard to work with; the way guns work in this game are very different than what I’m used to. You have to be way more precise than I ever have in a game before, which was a pain. I had to get good real quick.

The way health works is odd to me, too. Of course, you can eat food and that replenishes some health, or take medicine to heal, that’s pretty standard. But the health and stamina had cores that could be depleted, and that affected your overall health and stamina levels. I don’t know, it was just kind of odd to me, but maybe that’s more common than I think it is.

My biggest problem with this game was the epilogue. FUCKING BORING AS SHIT. I have never wanted a game to end so badly in my life. The epilogue just kept going and going and going, and it wasn’t any fun whatsoever. It mainly consisted of doing chores around the farm, all of which you could not run during, so basically you just slowly walked everywhere and did dumb chores for days on end. It was infuriating, and I spent hours doing almost nothing. It felt like such a waste.

And there’s two separate parts to the epilogue, both equal in levels of boringness. Plus, you lose everything in the epilogue, so any money you had saved throughout the game is gone, which is a huge pain in the ass. Other than the epilogue, I don’t have many problems with this game.

THE NEXT PARAGRAPH HAS SPOILERS. 

That being said, there is a big chunk of the game that I don’t necessarily hate or anything, but just feels odd to me. I’m referring to Chapter 5: Guarma. I didn’t really enjoy playing this chapter, because you are obviously lacking in the weapons and resources department, which I just didn’t find to be very fun. However, I can see how someone who likes a challenge would enjoy it. The plot of this chapter was very out-of-nowhere in my opinion, and the whole island adventure seemed like it didn’t really serve a purpose. Or, if it did serve a purpose, I feel like it could’ve happened sans the boat ride south. So, yeah, weird and not very fun, but I didn’t hate it or anything. Just not the best part of the game.

OKAY WE’RE DONE WITH SPOILERS NOW.

Overall, I really liked Red Dead Redemption 2. I can see why it’s so popular and beloved by many. My favorite Rockstar game is still Bully, but that’s probably only because it was a childhood favorite and not because it’s actually a better game or anything. I would highly recommend Red Dead Redemption 2 if you like games that let you choose your own destiny, have a lot of shoot-outs, and where every character has a Southern accent.

I’ve never been one for Westerns, but this game single-handedly made me enjoy the whole “wild west” scene. Especially because they really nailed the whole “turn of the century” vibe. The characters are bewildered by new, bustling cities, far from their usual territory of podunk towns with dirt roads and one sheriff per 50 mile radius. The game addresses issues regarding Native Americans and women’s suffrage, and you can be an ally in different groups’ fights against the American government, which I really appreciate.

So, yeah, I liked this game a lot, and would definitely recommend it. It’s pretty, it’s fun, there’s lots to do, and you can wear tons of spiffy outfits.

Have you played this game? What’d you think? Who was your favorite character? Were you an honorable person or a crooked bandit, through and through? Let me know in the comments, and as always, have a great day!

-AMS

I’m Giving Away an ARC of The Dispatcher: Murder By Other Means

You wanna win it? Here’s how you do it:

I’m thinking of a holiday song right now. Guess which one it is in the comments.

That’s it!

Now, THE RULES:

1. One guess per person. Don’t post a list of songs, y’all.

2. When you leave your comment, make sure the email address you put in the comment form is one I can reach you at (don’t put it in the comment itself, unless you want the whole world to know your email address).

3. In the event that more than one of you guess which song I’m thinking of, I will ask Alexa to randomly select a number between one and [the number of people who guess the song correctly]. Whatever number Alexa picks, whoever is the chronological equivalent will win. In the event that no one guesses it correctly, I will have Alexa pick a number between one and [total number of comments] and give it to whichever comment corresponds to that number, chronologically speaking. Basically, someone’s gonna win this thing.

4. Contest lasts for as long as the comments are open (which will be two days from when I post this entry, so, early evening, Eastern Time, Saturday). I’ll try to contact the winner immediately thereafter to figure out shipping.

5. Contest open worldwide. Yes, I will pay to ship wherever. Also, if you like, I will sign/personalize the ARC. I’ll put it in the mail early next week. Given the state of the US mail at the moment, I wouldn’t expect it before Christmas (and definitely not before the end of Hanukkah).

6. What qualifies as a “holiday song”? It’s a song that is either about, or strongly associated with, one or more of the December holidays. As an example, while “Jingle Bells” is not strictly about any particular holiday, it’s so strongly associated with the holiday season that it counts (although I’m using it as an example here because the song I’m thinking about is not, in fact, “Jingle Bells”). “December Holidays” in this case are Hanukkah, Christmas (and surrounding days), Solstice, and New Year’s Eve/New Years Day. Also, I’m not actively trying to stump you all here, so the song I’m thinking about doesn’t just have a glancing association to the holidays. It’s a full-on holiday song. I told Athena which one it is, just in case you all don’t trust me. And no, she can’t be bribed.

(Also, if you want the actual signed, limited hardcover edition of Murder By Other Means, you can pre-order it from Subterranean Press here. The hardcover edition is limited to only 2,000 copies, so if you want one when it comes out in April, it’s best to pre-order as soon as possible.)

Got it? Then guess the holiday song, and good luck!

— JS

I Regret To Inform You All That I Miss High School

There, I said it. I’m not happy about it, but it’s the truth. I miss high school.

When I was in high school, I hated it. Not just a normal amount, the way every teen does, but like, extra hated it. I resented the idea (and still kind of do) that kids are legally required to go to school every single day for thirteen years of their life (except summer and weekends). Like, that’s a lot of time. For something that at the time seemed so purposeless and not helpful to actually living life.

I despised school not just at the individual level, but at the institutional level. I feel that at its core, school is a beneficial thing, however I also believe that it is a deeply flawed system. Not just in academic ways, but in disciplinary ways, as well (that’s a post for another time).

Throughout high school, I couldn’t wait to be done. I wanted to be done so badly that I went to community college my senior year of high school so I could leave school a semester early. I told myself I would never, ever miss high school, and that anyone who missed high school was deluded.

Well, joke’s on me, because I started missing it about two years ago. And I graduated in 2017! So it didn’t take me long for me to wish I could go back.

I’ve been trying to figure out what it is I miss. Is it my friends? Is it the days where teachers brought in Oreo Balls and let us play Jeopardy? Is it playing kickball and your crush telling you “nice catch”? Is it the super gross chocolate milk cartons? Or is it that feeling of having your whole life ahead of you, the future being some bright, intangible thing you look forward to seeing? Is it less about high school and more about me missing my youth and carefree days where my biggest problem was figuring out the answer to number thirteen on the math homework? Do I miss the time before my mental health was garbo and I had who I thought was the love of my life by my side through it all? I think it’s a combination of many things, and many people.

I didn’t expect I’d miss my teachers so much, either. Sometimes I wish I could just walk into the school and go say hi to them all. But some of them aren’t even there anymore. I miss having teachers that cared about me, or at least knew my name. In a lecture hall of over a hundred people, you feel so insignificant. For me, the more I care about a teacher, or feel like they value me as part of their class, the more likely I am to try, to do the work and put in effort. I miss having a teacher who believed in me.

Going to school made me get up at seven every day, which at the time I hated more than anything in the world. But now I can’t bring myself to get out of bed until around 1 or 2 in the afternoon. It may have been annoying, but school did keep me on some kind of “good” schedule. It gave me a reason to get up, get dressed, do something, anything with my day. And I miss having that regularity. That structure that I cannot enforce upon myself no matter how hard I try.

When I was sixteen, I was pretty much the only one in my friend group to have a license. I drove us all around; to Walmart, Waffle House, the movies, the mall, pretty much anywhere teens could go that didn’t cost a lot of money. I felt like I was needed, like my role in the friend group was important. I don’t have anything like that anymore. I think I miss feeling essential amongst my peers.

I miss feeling like I was special in other ways, too. In elementary school, I was one of four kids in my grade in the advanced studies group. I always nailed standardized testing, and my reading level was off the hook. In high school, I wasn’t that same level of super smart kid, things were actually hard now. Like geometry. Fuck geometry.

Despite not being as smart anymore, I was still thought of as such. It’s just what I had been known as my whole life up to that point, so people still thought I was. I was still absolutely crushing standardized testing — I got the highest ACT score in my class — but suddenly I didn’t understand things anymore. I had to drop a class for the first time in my life because I could not grasp chemistry and I was failing. My reading comprehension diminished as soon as I started reading 1984. I felt stupid for the first time in my life, but at least everyone still thought I was the smart kid.

Now, after being in the real world and having been at Miami, I’m left with an inferiority complex on top of my gifted kid complex. And I miss the days when I didn’t have these feelings. I miss school because it made me feel good enough. Now I feel like I’m not.

I also miss high school because parties were exciting, and fun, and in college, they’re just boring. In high school, I knew who I was around, and in college, everyone was strangers. In high school, people’s parents would order some pizzas for the party or something. In college, you’d be lucky to be offered anything other than a bucket of Jungle Juice. I know that’s kind of a silly thing to miss, but parties in high school were really more just like hangouts and bonfires. In college they’re loud house parties where someone ends up at McCollough Hyde Hospital from getting alcohol poisoning at Brick.

I don’t know where I’m going with this. Really I’m just lamenting over a time in my life that’s gone forever and I wish I could have it back. I have a hard time letting go of things, and that includes the past. I also have a hard time accepting that there are certain things in my life I will never get back, things I can never do again, things that are just permanently in my memories and they’ll just have to stay there. It just makes me sad.

Do you miss high school? Tell me why (or why not) in the comments. And as always, have a great day.

-AMS

Systems Check: Ooooooouuuf

I posted this on a Twitter thread yesterday but I think it’s worth noting here as well: Not long after Athena had her COVID test, I had one as well. It came out negative, but it was also a less accurate test that apparently has higher error rates when the symptoms are (relatively) mild. In retrospect and in consultation with some people who think about this stuff more than I do, I’ve come to the conclusion that I probably did have COVID, given the symptoms and some lingering (but, again, relatively mild) issues I’m having. At some point in the reasonably near future I’ll have an antibody test to confirm or deny this theory of mine. For now, I’m going on with the assumption I did have it but still interacting with the world as if I didn’t — i.e., staying home most of the time and taking all full and necessary precautions when I have to go out in the world.

I should note that generally speaking I’m fine and the rest of the family is fine. Athena has by all indications fully recovered from her encounter with it, and both Krissy and Dora (my mother-in-law who lives nearby) are perfectly fine and healthy. The lingering issues I’m having are general fatigue, which is generally solved by a nap, and a mushy brain, which is not horrible in a general sense — who among us is braining at peak efficiency in December of 2020? — but has been a real pain in the ass in trying to get this book done. Turns out, you need a sharp brain for writing! I’ve been plugging away at the current book while I’ve been under the weather, and, well, I have words, but at the moment that’s all I can vouch for.

More specifically, what I’ve noticed is that while there are some writing things I can still do perfectly well, there are other things my brain just can’t get it together on. At the moment I can write dialogue just fine, but I can’t plot my way out of a paper bag. This is a problem because while it’s fine that people talk to each other, they and the story then have to do things. I find the specificity of my fuzzy brain issues interesting in an academic sense, but in a practical sense, it’s annoying as fuck. I actually need to write this book and if at all possible, I want it to be good. Being able to plot is something I need my brain to do.

It does feel like the fuzzy brain thing is beginning to lift, which is good. But it’s happening slower than I would like, and it would have been better not to have had fuzzy brain to begin with. It is what it is. And honestly, if the worst thing that happens to me from this maybe-probably-COVID is I spend a some weeks plodding along in a lower gear, mentally speaking, I will count my blessings. Other people have had it much much worse. I’ve kept my editor appraised of things and (here we knock on wood) it shouldn’t have any effect on when the new book comes out in 2021. But if it does, I’m not going to beat myself up too much about it.

Consider this piece a closing bracket to this opening bracket piece, where I basically said the same thing but with less covidity. And be careful out there, folks. If in fact I did contract COVID, I’ve gotten off very very easy. But it’s still no fun at all.

— JS

The Big Idea: Sam Hawke

The thing about “happily ever after” is that it skips over so much. What happens when you don’t skip “ever after?” Is it actually happy then? Sam Hawke has thoughts on that, as it relates to the newest installment of her Poison War series, Hollow Empire.

SAM HAWKE:

Winning was easy, young man, governing’s harder.

There’s a temptation to stop a story at the point at which the good guys have ‘won’, whatever that looks like. Maybe they won the war. Defeated the dark overlord. Found the thingamajig, rescued their true love/family member. Deposed the despot. But life is more complicated than that, and even though we are trained to be satisfied with the big finale in terms of story beats, I’ve always been fascinated by the what-happens-after. 

If there’s a recurring theme in my work so far it’s something to do with bad power structures – identifying them, dismantling them, and then (this is the hard bit) trying to do better. On the surface City of Lies was a murder mystery with the poison-tasting main characters trying to unmask a traitor and stop a civil war, but at its heart it’s also a story about privileged people being forced to reckon with the evils they’ve benefited from. Hollow Empire, it follows, is about what happens next, when you’ve resolved to right the wrongs: all the grand gestures aside, what does ‘trying to better’ look like in practice, today, tomorrow, next year? So in planning where I wanted to take the story, the core driving force was the desire to explore how my main characters—all fundamentally decent humans, for all their flaws—might go about trying to do better. And that has to be shaped naturally, even inexorably, by the events of City and how the country would try (and possibly fail) to change itself in light of a seismic shift in its people’s understanding of the world.

We’ve all read books where the main characters seem to reset after each book, fresh and ready for more adventures, unchanged by their last lot. Or one problem is solved in the big showdown and then that conveniently fixes all of the related mess; Simba comes back as rightful king to take his place and oh good! The rain is here to end the drought and fix that whole messy starvation issue! The main character’s love interest was imprisoned and tortured but it’s cool, they’re free now and definitely not permanently traumatised, don’t worry! There’s an easy appeal in that; after all, it means you can think up new adventures for the same beloved crew but you can leave the set-pieces relatively static and preserve the character dynamics that worked for you in earlier books.

Change is hard, change is messy. But in epic fantasy the stakes are frequently sky-high and the events of previous books world-changing. Failing to give the effects of those events sufficient gravity—that is, failing to properly explore consequence—is a sure way to drop my interest in a series. (In fact an exploration of consequence is a cornerstone of my favourite series of all time, Robin Hobb’s Realm of the Elderlings, in which personal choices made by Fitz in book 2 are still impacting how minor characters react to him in book 14!). 

After City, things couldn’t go back to the status quo. The opposing sides of a civil war agreed to a peaceful resolution, but what does that really mean? How do the aftereffects of rebellion and recognition of decades of abuse actually change the fabric of a country socially, economically, culturally? In Hollow Empire I wanted to explore how, in practice, a government might expand to be more inclusive and make reparations for the kinds of large scale wrongs it has perpetuated, and, importantly, how this could (and likely would) go wrong. We’ve got plenty of real world examples to see how resistant those in power are to sharing it or (heaven forbid) giving it up, and how on a personal level even people who understand the fundamental injustice on which their privilege is based will try their best to resist change, as if a problem is fixed merely by identifying it. We can’t go back to the status quo, but boy some people will try hard to keep us there anyway.

So Hollow Empire finds us with our characters a little older, still making mistakes (and still, quite often, wishing desperately for a cup of tea instead) but still trying their best. Trying to wrangle the country into a stable and fairer future, holding the fragile peace together despite the efforts of an unwieldly and antagonistic Council with its uneasy mix of old and new representatives. Looking to the future and the next generation by adopting their relatives as heirs, forced to reconcile responsibility and love for a child with training them in an inherently harmful and dangerous job (it is one thing, after all, to accept that a beloved uncle fed you poison as part of your training; it’s still another to do the same to a child in your care). Grappling with the aftereffects of their secret duties creeping into public lives. Dealing with the physical and emotional fallout of what happened to them before. And being given access to power previously denied, and finding it isn’t entirely as expected.

Of course, none of this is the main the plot of Hollow Empire. The story is another political intrigue/suspense/mystery, set in an overstuffed Silasta during effectively the Fantasy Olympics, in which our poison tasting protagonists are once again on the clock to protect their country and their loved ones from danger. There are assassins on the hunt, sneaky diplomatic games among the visiting dignitaries, a criminal gang running a sinister new drug, and an old and determined enemy. But I hope that this driving force of not just the question—how can we do better—but also the ultimately optimistic viewpoint that we can and should keep trying, is something that readers take away from the Poison Wars.


Hollow Empire: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

Biden Wins Again, Again, Again, Again, Again

There are still Hawaii’s electoral votes to count, but they’re electorially superfluous at this point. California sent Biden (and Harris!) over the top in the electoral votes, sealing Biden’s election to the presidency. By some estimations, thanks to Trump’s steadfast refusal to accept reality, multiple lawsuits and several ultimately pointless recounts, this is the 16,912th time Biden has won the 2020 presidential election. And indeed Trump was belatedly correct: I did get tired of all that winning. But the good news is: It’s done now.

Also, to the objectors and naysayers, I refer you to this tweet I posted. Please read it as often as necessary for it to sink in, and for those of you who have people who need to read it, feel free to forward it on to them:

Use those exact words! Repeat as necessary!

(No, seriously, it’s over. If you think Congress isn’t going to ratify these votes, you almost certainly literally don’t understand how the process works at this point, not in the least because any extraordinarily far-fetched scenario that doesn’t end up with a President Biden ends up with an Acting President Pelosi, not a President Trump. He’s done, over, toast. Stop freaking out. Believe it.)

Congratulations to the nation! We could use the rest.

— JS

The Big Idea: Leonard Richardson

When the universe is at war, what is life like for those in caught in the middle? Author Leonard Richardson gives us a glimpse at those who are caught in the middle of a galactic war, but have their own stuff going on outside of the battle. Read on to hear more about his newest novel, Situation Normal.

LEONARD RICHARDSON:

In my 2012 short story Four Kinds of Cargo I wrote a character who, like many of us, grew up with tales of space adventure. Unlike my childhood entertainments, these stories weren’t all that unrealistic: they featured fictionalized versions of real-life starship captains and interstellar smugglers. This was a universe where someone with a head full of stories could actually buy a spacecraft and head out for adventure. Doing so was foolish and dangerous—this was the lesson of “Four Kinds of Cargo”—but not impossible.

I’ve always loved stories about the intrusion of fantastic narratives into a more realistic ‘real world’. Galaxy Quest is an obvious touchpoint for a sci-fi fan, but my absolute favorite is Edgar Wright’s 2008 film Hot Fuzz, a cop movie about cop movies, in which Prime Suspect proceduralism gradually slides into ridiculous Bad Boys action set pieces. Even as I wrote “Four Kinds of Cargo”, a comedy where space-adventure stories collide with the deadly reality, I wanted enough room to write that kind of slippery slope. It would take a novel, and the novel would need much higher stakes than a botched smuggling run.

The novel became Situation Normal, a story about a galactic war that happens for no good reason. I didn’t spend much time on the large-scale view of the war, partly because I don’t have the experience to make it realistic. My model was Catch-22 and the extent of my military-fiction ambitions was to be ten percent more realistic than Star Trek. I wanted space to show normal people caught in the undertow of an event the size of a galaxy; individuals trying to budge history with their little person-sized decisions.

How you react in an overwhelming situation comes down to the heroes you’ve chosen, and what you’ve committed to doing ahead of time. Every character in Situation Normal has a head full of stories, whether they got those stories from pop culture, ideology, patriotism, religion, military training, or good old-fashioned drugs.

These stories give them the strategies, and in some cases the courage, for getting through a horrific event. Some survive with honor intact, some compromise themselves to save someone else, and some refuse to collaborate with evil even as the situation becomes hopeless. In the end, all these person-sized choices add up to something that changes the course of history—just like it does in the real world.

In Galaxy Quest the cast of a TV show eventually comes to accept that their real lives are a genre story. The question in Situation Normal is not so much whether the characters can accept that fact—some can and some can’t—it’s which part they choose to play.


Situation Normal: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Kobo

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

Today In “My Life Is Fun Sometimes”

Some fellow on Twitter decided to impugn my manhood by comparing me (negatively) to John McClane, the hero of Die Hard. So, as one does, I checked in with Steven deSouza, the screenwriter of Die Hard, for his thoughts on the matter.

The results were, shall we say, satisfying.

The insult: "See, son. That's a man, there, John McLane. He doesn't whine like a girl even when he gets glass stuck in his feet. John Scalzi calls his wife in to kill roaches and pees sitting down, so don't me like him, son. Be like McLane."

Me to de Souza: "You'll find this amusing: A manly man is trying to belittle me by comparing me to a character of yours."

deSouza: "Idiot. John McLane would recoil in terror from the least of your burritos."

This is now canonical. I am the Hans Gruber of burritos.

The Four Movies That Have Made Me Ugly Cry, Part 3: Crazy Rich Asians

Scene from

Athena ScalziI didn’t think this movie would make me cry. I knew the first two on my list, The Fault in Our Stars and Coco, would make me cry, but I never expected this charming romantic comedy to be on this list.

I actually didn’t see this one in theaters, though I remember I had thought it looked pretty good. I ended up seeing Crazy Rich Asians because Miami University was showing it for free one Friday a few months after it came out, and my friends invited me along.

Also, this is your OFFICIAL SPOILER WARNING!

In my opinion, pretty much the entirety of Crazy Rich Asians is not cry-worthy. Like, there is practically nothing in this movie that would make one cry. That being said, it definitely does have a certain relatability to it, and targets some very specific “feels” within oneself throughout it.

That theme of, “you’ll never be good enough” and “you’re not one of us” really hits different. I think that feeling of “you don’t belong” is something that everyone has experienced at some point. That desire to fit in and not be looked down on is universal. So chances are you can relate to Rachel, even if the reasons you felt that way are different than hers.

To see her go through these trials and tribulations of trying to be accepted by her beloved’s family is disheartening. She’s not even like, trying to impress them or be something she’s not, she’s just trying to be liked for who she genuinely is as a nice and decent person, but it means nothing to them because she isn’t somebody. She’s not enough for Nick in the eyes of his family.

But it’s not just his family, it’s his friends, too (minus the nice ones that pick them up from the airport and get married). Like that scene where the girls leave the dead fish in Rachel’s bed with a message in lipstick on the windows! That’s some shit that would make any girl cringe and think of a time where mean girls did something similar at summer camp when they were like, twelve. Again, it’s just something relatable that makes you feel for the character. But, like I said, nothing really cry-worthy.

I’d say the only thing that’s like, possibly misty-eyed worthy is the wedding scene when Nick is standing by the altar and mouthing to Rachel that he loves her. Ugh, so sweet and cute. It’s gross how adorable it is. And what a beautiful wedding oh my gosh.

Of course, then it all comes crashing down after that, but still not tear-inducing!

So there I am, sitting with my friends, having a fine time, not crying at all, not a single tear in sight. Nick is about to re-propose to Rachel on the plane, which is cute and all and like, totally no big deal. But then he opens the box, and it’s his mother’s ring, and I lose my shit.

I literally double over in my seat and put my face into my hands because I had burst into tears. Like just started sobbing out of nowhere. My friends all looked at me with genuine concern and asked what happened, and if I was okay. All I could say was, “IT’S THE MOM’S RIIIIIING” and continue crying. Even when I think about it, I get all choked up.

I thought Nick was just going to re-propose with the same ring as before, and he would be like, “who cares what my family thinks?!” and it would just be the same scene, but on a plane, which I didn’t really get why they would do that? Or why Rachel would say yes the second time around? But then that reveal of that beautiful emerald ring, it killed me. Literally destroyed me. The ultimate sign of acceptance. She knew what that ring meant. It meant she was enough.

Isn’t that all anyone wants to be?

Have you seen this amazing movie? Did you love it? Wasn’t it the cutest?! Let me know your thoughts in the comments, and as always, have a great day!

-AMS

A Very Dragon Christmas

Hey! Look what just arrived!

The 2020 Dragon Award for Best Science Fiction Novel

It’s the 2020 Dragon Award for Best Science Fiction Novel, which was won by The Last Emperox. More accurately, it’s the trophy for it, which is lovely, and individually crafted by Decatur Glassblowing. As I understand it every trophy is ever-so-slightly different, and I’m happy to say I clearly received the most gorgeous one this year. On seeing it, Athena remarked that it is very pretty, and also you could stab someone with it, and of course “can I murder someone with this” is the gold standard for award trophies. It took a while to arrive, but then it would if it was individually handcrafted. I’m just going to consider this my Christmas present for the year.

I was delighted to have had The Last Emperox win the Dragon Award this year; it’s a pretty good novel and a good conclusion to a trilogy and it’s nice to see it get some recognition. As with any time I’ve received an award, there was some sniffiness as to whether the award was deserved (this happens with just about any work that receives an award, so in that respect I’m not special, although some of it is indeed specific to me). Those people are, naturally, invited to die mad. In the meantime the award is currently resting on the same shelf that houses my second Seiun award, and my congratulatory proclamations from both the Ohio House and Senate after winning some previous awards. It’s in good company.

Somewhat more seriously, thank you to everyone who voted for the book in the awards, to DragonCon for hosting the award, and to Decatur Glassblowing for making such pretty trophies. This is a lovely lift at the end of a very long year.

— JS

Aced My Test

Athena ScalziIn case you missed it, last week I got tested for COVID. And it sucked. Now you shall all know:

Yes, I had corona.

This made me one of about 9,000 positive cases in Ohio on the day I was tested. Which is a pretty staggering number. Fortunately, my case has been a very mild one. The only symptoms I had, which are going away now, are the loss of taste and smell. One of the days I was like, pretty tired, and maybe like a little low energy/fatigued, but it was nothing serious. I’ve felt pretty much perfectly fine the entire time I’ve had it.

Losing taste and smell is a fucking trip. It’s more annoying than anything, really, but if you’ve never experienced it, it’s pretty weird. For me, it was there one minute and gone the next. Today is the first day they’re starting to come back! I wouldn’t say my taste and smell is a hundred percent functioning yet, but definitely vastly improved compared to before. I mean that shit was GONE gone, couldn’t smell or taste to save my life.

My dad felt like he was experiencing symptoms after I tested positive, so he went and got tested, too, but he tested negative, which is great! Neither my mom or grandma experienced any symptoms, but like my dad they chose to quarantine anyways, just in case.

All things considered, I am a very lucky person. I couldn’t have asked for a more mild case. I am truly thankful that nothing worse than loss of taste and smell occurred, and I’m even more thankful that I didn’t get my family sick.

Please be safe out there! Make sure you always wear a mask because you might have it and not even know! I was asymptomatic for a couple days after I tested positive, so you really could have it and not even notice until your symptoms kick in a few days later. Make good choices, and as always, have a great day.

-AMS

The Big Idea: Alma Alexander

You know about werewolves, but if that’s all you know about, you don’t know the half of it… or in the case of the Were Chronicles, you don’t know the third of it. Here’s author Alma Alexander to provide the rest.

ALMA ALEXANDER:

This be one of those things that are a mystery rolled into a puzzle folded into an enigma.

It all started with somebody putting out a call for short stories to go into a new anthology which would deal with the concept of Were-creatures – “but not your usual Werewolves”, the instructions said. “We want something different.”

Well, all right, I had a Big Idea, something that I don’t remember seeing anywhere else before, ever. A Random were. How this works, see, is that a Were creature has its Were form, into which it Turns like clockwork every month at the full moon. The Randoms can nail down their primary form, to be sure, and the creature will Turn into this form at the proper time… all other things being equal, that is. The thing about the Randoms is their gift, or curse, of Turning into the last warm blooded creature they see at the moment of Turn – and they will Turn into that shape for the duration of that Turn, primary form or no primary form. As you can imagine, this opens up a Pandora’s box. And it very quickly became clear to me that this was way too big a concept to stuff into a single short story. It needed a novel.

The second Big Idea took me full circle to my educational roots – I own a MSc graduate degree in Molecular Biology. I had my hands dirty with real DNA, working with real genetics, with real cloning. I wrote a Master’s thesis on the subject. And I took all of that… and applied it to the topic at hand. Ladies and gentlemen, I posit a genetic basis of the ways and means in which a functional Were creature is literally possible. And when these books were read (when they first appeared) by my old professor, the much-laurelled academic who supervised my graduate degree, he wrote to me and said “The science is as good as it gets.” (When the Omnibus edition was first mooted, I wrote back to him and asked if he wanted to write me a foreword. He did. This is a work of fiction given a real academic Seal of Approval. This is rare enough for the book to be picked up and read just because that is there…)

As you can see, I suddenly had a lot of material to cover.

That original novel became THREE novels – the original Random, then Wolf, then Shifter.

Final Big Idea, and perhaps the biggest of all: this isn’t a trilogy. It’s a triptych, and the three stories are three lenses through which an emergent history is viewed and shaped. This story not only became bigger than originally anticipated… it grew into dimensions. A thing on paper grew up and down and sideways. We have a fully three-dimensional story in a fully three dimensional world – a story with the weight of a truth in it, not only because it really did grow to fit the space it saw around it and then some but because it colonized the interstices of its world. There is a deep-cutting reality in this admittedly fantasy milieu. What we have here… is recognizable. We come face to face with uncomfortable things – with bigotry and discrimination and bullying and hatred, and the reasons underlying those things. This is an omnibus edition of three novels about Were-creatures… and it turns out that what the story is really about… is what it means to be human.

I have seldom been prouder of anything I have written. This book has roots of good science, a pure heart, and a true soul. The three protagonists who carry the three individual books are very real people, with fears, with dreams, with flaws, with troubles of their own and the valor and strength to face and defeat them. Their story is a mirror held up to humanity. Some may recognize what they see here; some may be made uncomfortable by it; others might find a glimmer of deliverance, or understanding, or salvation. The gateway to all this is a very very big idea indeed – that the things that make us different are also sometimes the very things that draw us together, and that often it is we who make the choice about which of those things is going to come true.


The Were Chronicles: Amazon

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

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