The Big Idea: C. L. Clark

What you speak, and how you speak it, and the things you write in the language you speak: All more complicated than you might expect, especially when the dynamics of civilizations come into play. C.L. Clark has been thinking about this, and in this Big Idea for The Unbroken, delves deeper into the power and powerlessness of words.

C. L. CLARK: 

The Unbroken was largely inspired by my time studying post-colonial literature in English and French. Many of those indigenous authors–of both fiction and nonfiction–grappled with the double-edged blade of the language. Many of them found themselves with the dubious privilege of an education by or in the metropole, and with their education in the dominant language had the opportunity to reach greater audiences. On the other hand, it often came with the crippling loss of connection to roots–to whole histories and languages.

This is not unique to nations that had the formal term ‘colony’ applied to them, either. Consider the United States’ and Australia’s treatment of their indigenous peoples. Consider the forced removal of Black Americans from their own roots. Consider Apartheid. Consider people of color everywhere who must distance themselves from their heritage in order to ‘successfully’ integrate into white society enough to be valid under–yes, under, not within–white capitalism.

The Unbroken is a story about the choices people have to make under colonialism. I’ve been reading fantasy all my life. It led to an unsurprising and yet surprisingly common obsession with England and France and Italy and all those other European sites that inspire so much of Anglophone fantasy. But as I studied colonial history, I learned the reality–not the fantasies–of these elegant cities I obsessed over but was never a part of. I connected them to their fantasy counterparts: if non-white characters existed, it was in direct opposition to the heroes and their war of conquest or their quest of exploration. And these conquerors were always so glorious and few of the writers were interrogating what happened to these gloriously conquered nations. It was a world without consequences–they were well and truly fantasies: white fantasies. And the characters of color were voiceless.

In The Unbroken, I flip the subject position. We’re not invested in the colonizers anymore, not like we’re invested in the people who are living under their conquest. I wanted to see how colonized people across different generations and locations, with different lives, would react to the heroes coming after their great magics, their artifacts. I couldn’t possibly contain all of the possible reactions to being conquered in one book, not even in one trilogy, and it would be ridiculous of me to try; humanity is so deeply varied. But it was important to me to at least crack the seal on the complexities of this situation that so many have the privilege to gloss over.

Originally, I wrote The Unbroken with a third perspective–an older rebel leader, Djasha. For various reasons, her point of view chapters were cut, but my passion for the struggles of her generation remained. Every generation handles the trauma of conquest differently–every individual does–especially as the level of physical threat changes. Still, while the older generation in The Unbroken leads the rebel council and clings to their original cultures (in their own ways, and to varying degrees of success and with varying desires for vengeance), I was especially interested in the perspectives of those who had never spent any time without the colonizing Balladairan influence. It’s a perspective I feel quite keenly.

Some of these characters follow the steps of their elders, hewing as closely as they could to the old ways, learning and keeping their language and histories alive. Some follow the torch of an idealized world they’ve never known into violent rebellion. Others straddle both worlds, blending just as comfortably in high Balladairan society as they do in the slums Balladaire has fashioned of El-Wast. Still, others actively try to distance themselves from any stain of ‘Qazal’–anything that might keep them from ascending in Balladairan society. There is a complicated mix of tenderness and self-loathing, hope and fury and compassion in all of these characters. All together, they show that the ‘colonized’ are not some faceless, homogeneous mass. They are people. We are people.

And though I can’t depict every possible reaction to the trauma of colonialism, I know I’m not the only author exploring these topics now, these perspectives. So the big idea here? It’s time to listen. Because whatever language we choose, we have never been voiceless.


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

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

 

My First Tik Tok!

Athena Scalzi

After months of debating with myself, I finally made a Tik Tok account. “Why so much indecision?” you may wonder. Well, it’s because Tik Tok is very much about filming yourself, either talking or dancing or singing or really anything. And I have a very big issue with that since I can’t stand to see myself in videos and I certainly don’t want anyone else to see me looking dumb on camera.

But, I figure I can just make videos that don’t have me in them! Or maybe by being on Tik Tok for long enough, I’ll get over it eventually and just say fuck it and make one that is actually of me.

Anyways, my friend got me a water-coloring set for Christmas, and I had yet to use it despite it being almost April. The other day, I was in the mood to paint, so I busted out the kit and tried my hand at water-coloring for the first time since, like, junior high.

And I decided to make a Tik Tok showing it because I found my attempt extremely funny. Here it is:

@ascalzi98

Proof I have the talent of a preschooler ✨#watercolor #watercolorpainting

♬ Funny Laugh no no no – Sound Effect

Do you know how long it took me to edit this so the audio clip actually matched up with the video? LIKE SIX MINUTES. Editing is hard, and Tik Tok is all about editing, so it’s a bit of learning curve for me even though this app is basically for children.

Anyways, I just wanted to show off my first Tik Tok! Hope you found it funny, and hopefully I will continue to create funny content and not chicken out of making more videos because of i n s e c u r i t y ✨ Have a great day!

-AMS

Zack Snyder’s Justice League: Review

Promotional Photo for Justice League
John Scalzi

There are many reasons that Zack Snyder’s Justice League (aka Justice League: The Snyder Cut) exists, almost none of them having to do with the actual film itself.

The first and foremost reason is that it is (relatively) cheap advertising for HBO Max, the streaming service owned by AT&T, which owns HBO and Warner Bros and DC Comics. Warner paid $70 million to build this version of the film, which was mostly spent on special effects and some reshoots. $70 million isn’t nothing, but for a major superhero film it’s dirt cheap (there’s also the $250M-$300M the company already spent on the much-maligned theatrical cut, of course, but that’s already been costed out in Warner’s ledgers). That outlay gives HBO Max what is now its signature event — here’s something that you could only get thanks to streaming, and only thanks to HBO Max. Given the flood of reviews, features, reactions and awareness that ZSJL has generated since it was announced, this is the best $70 million that HBO Max could have spent on advertising.

The second reason is that it gives Warner another (again, relatively cheap) way to right the foundering ship that is its cinematic DC universe properties, which financially and culturally are playing a distant second fiddle to the immensely profitable and popular Marvel universe of films and (now) TV shows. The underwhelming financial and critical performance of the Justice League theatrical release is the event that threw the current iteration of the DC cinematic universe into doubt, so there’s irony in this iteration being a vehicle to prop it up. But it just means that the bar for this version to clear is low — as long as it’s better, in some ineffable way, it’s a win.

The third reason is that it gives Warner Bros a public avenue to repair its relationship with director Zack Snyder, who left the previous version of this film after the death of his daughter, but not before there had already been some pushback from the studio about the direction and tone of the film. When Snyder left the film, Warner brought in Joss Whedon to finish it (and, as it turns out, substantially rewrite and replot it). On paper, this looked like a grand idea: Whedon had written and directed two immensely popular “Avengers” films in the Marvel universe, both of which featured ensemble casts and multiple storylines, which of course was what Justice League was all about.

In reality, it resulted in a bit of a tonal mess for the theatrical release, and now we all know Whedon was allegedly something of a dick on set, which has led actor Ray Fisher to publicly denounce his behavior, with Gal Gadot and Jason Momoa supporting his claims. Snyder being asked to do a redo and refresh of the film is a way for Warner to offer a public mea culpa for what had happened while at the same time getting something out of it. Why be enemies when you can be friends.

The fourth reason is that it helps rehabilitate Zack Snyder as a director and architect of the DC Universe. It’s worth remembering that there was (and is) a persistent concern that Snyder’s good-looking-but-dour-as-fuck version of the DC universe wasn’t quite on point, particularly when the candy-colored Marvel universe was out there, sucking in money and positive reviews. It’s not for nothing that the single most financially-successful DC film of the “Snyderverse” era is Aquaman, i.e., DC’s very own candy-colored superhero film, and one conspicuously lighter in tone relative to its compatriots.

After the theatrical release of Justice League, the nerds of the Internet took it as an article of faith that Snyder’s version had to have been better, and that he had been wronged, by Warner and Whedon and by the universe. Once again, a low bar, but if Snyder’s cut of the film was better, than his reputation would get a boost, and indeed, per point two above, the whole “Snyderverse” might be in line for critical and cultural reappraisal.

Again: None of this is about the film in itself. Justice League ain’t exactly The Magnificent Ambersons, which is a deep cut reference for you film nerds out there (if you’re not a film nerd, that’s Orson Welles’ second film, which in its original cut was alleged to be genius, and which was forcibly taken from him by the studio and recut into a shorter version, with all the cut footage destroyed). But the idea that a director’s vision was compromised and a better, more significant version of a film exists is in itself narratively compelling. However, I am very certain, that’s not the reason this version of Justice League exists. No one who held the purse strings for this version of the film splashed out millions in the strong belief that a creative vision had been wronged and, thus, there had been a moral crime that had to be righted. If there was no HBO Max, there would be no ZSJL, except possibly as a crappy no-effects extra on a “Deluxe Edition” home video package for the six people who still buy movies on physical media.

For whatever reasons ZSJL exists, it does exist, all four hours of it, and I watched it.

And how is it?

Meh, it’s fine.

Which, to be clear, is an improvement on the theatrical release version of the film. I can say I saw the theatrical release of the film. What I can’t say is that I remembered it at all prior to watching this version. There were bits in this new version for which, when they happened, my brain was all oh, yeah, I think I saw that part before, but honestly that’s all I got. It’s not a good sign when one’s memory of a $250M+ tentpole film is “I know I put it in front of my eyeballs but otherwise I got nothin’.” I’m pretty sure I’ll remember at least bits of this version, so that’s a win.

But being able to remember it doesn’t mean I feel compelled to care about it, and that’s the real problem with the Synderverse DC films. They look great and I dig the vibe — I like the Snyder aesthetic, personally — and, also, with the exception of the first Wonder Woman film, I find it hard to give a shit about any of them. I don’t hate them, but I don’t especially like them either (more accurately, I like them just fine — in the moment. More on this soon). They exist, and that’s about it. The problem with the Snyderverse films is not that they’re dour but that they’re empty. They’re not compellingly written, either in the larger plot sense or the smaller character sense, and when you’re done watching them, most of what you’re left with is a sense that you sure looked at something expensive.

(The other thing about this version is that it is almost certainly not what “The Snyder Cut” would have been in 2017. If the universe had rolled differently that year, Snyder would have been compelled to turn in something in the “two hours and thirty minute” range, not a four-hour version that exists only because you’re watching it somewhere you can pause at any time to pee and/or get snacks. This is a Snyder cut. It is not the Snyder cut, the one that the Internet nerds were clamoring for. I think you could certainly have gotten “the” Snyder cut out of this cut — there’s a whole lot that could have been trimmed down and still have this be a coherent experience — but we’ll never see it.)

The bones of this version are largely the same as the theatrical release: Earth is threatened by an alien invader who will destroy the planet for reasons that make no sense and no one really cares about, so Batman (and here’s where I note that as a Batman, Ben Affleck is a really excellent Bruce Wayne) assembles a team of “meta-humans” to fight said alien invader and his army of CGI effects. Oh, and along the way they need to find a way to resurrect Superman, because the Jesus metaphor that has developed around that character is not nearly subtle enough. Snark aside, this is standard super hero movie stuff — minus Superman’s resurrection it is literally the plot of all four Avengers films — so the question is how the film rings the changes.

And some of the changes are all right! For example, giving The Flash and Cyborg better backgrounding. The Flash gets some dimensionality to his past life, and Cyborg gets his actual origin story. These really should have been handled in their own films, incidentally. One of the problems both versions of Justice League have is that they’re precipitate — only one of the heroes of the Snyderverse had had their own film at that point. But when you have four hours to fill, you have to fill them with something, and here we are. These bits are pretty decent.

Some of the changes are less all right! Like stopping the story dead for clunkily-handled exposition, which happens several times, and shoehorning in secondary characters mostly so you can say “hey, look, it’s that guy from that thing,” whether “that thing” is from the DC universe or some other film from whence they’re better known. The most obvious version of this (and it’s not a spoiler, as it’s in the trailer) is the appearance of the Joker, who is literally only there for the most pandering of fan service for the Internet nerds. I hope you’re happy now, Internet nerds. There’s a lot here that’s here because Snyder got four hours to fill, not because it matters to the actual function of the story.

“I’ve got four hours to fill” is in fact the organizing principle of this version of Justice League. This film is a buffet, basically: you get a lot of stuff and you get a lot of that stuff, even if some of the dishes are entirely unrelated to others. Everything tastes all right, which is to say the individual bits, whether action sequences or character moments, are all done competently, and with That Certain Snyderness that hopefully you’ve come to see.

But as a side effect, it’s pokey and it wanders about doing one thing and then the next, and as a result it doesn’t build particularly well. When the third act of this film comes (in Part Six, as this film has, in a nod to its streamy nature, voluntarily chopped itself into six 30-to-40 minute segments, not including an almost entirely unnecessary epilogue), you feel that you’ve been delivered to it by the film, but not driven to it. I was oh, right, big finish, mighty heroes, got it. The finish was perfectly well done! Just not arrived at with popcorn-munching urgency.

So it’s slack and flaccid? No — again, everything is perfectly competently done. I wasn’t bored, and I didn’t get lost. I just didn’t feel much about any of it other than the basic sense of being entertained in the moment. Being entertained in the moment isn’t bad! But then the moment’s over. I won’t be dwelling on the events of or characters in ZSJL for any great length of time.

This is a problem for what was meant to be (and now in a distaff way still is meant to be), a critical tentpole of a franchise. I’m perfectly happy to have seen this iteration of Justice League. But it did not bring out a desire in me to have any more of it. The film leaves lots of places for putative sequels to go, since, after all, Justice League was at one point meant to have sequels. But if you told me tomorrow they’d greenlit Justice League Two: Snyderpocalypse, my reaction would be, well, okay, nice for everyone involved to be employed. Which, in keeping with the theme of this review, isn’t really about the film itself.

— JS

Charlie Update, 3/21/21

Charlie, lying down in a such a way that it looks as if she is running.
John Scalzi

It’s been a full twenty-four hour since Charlie has been gotten, which is enough time for me to say that based on early observations, she is, indeed, a very good dog.

Yes, yes, all dogs are good dogs, I know, I know. But I mean that Charlie has shown herself to be a) quite intelligent, b) very even-tempered, c) socialized to an impressively significant degree, all of which we couldn’t necessarily hoped for right out of a box for any dog, much less a shelter dog whose previous home life and treatment were a mystery to us. But so far:

* She’s been great with the cats, who at this point want to avoid and/or murder her. Her response generally has been “Okay, you don’t like me, that’s cool, maybe you’ll come around later.”

* She hasn’t really looked at the standing bowls of cat food or the cat’s water bowl; she understands which bowls are hers and uses them exclusively. If this continues this will be the first dog we won’t have to yell at for eating the cat food.

* She has met and played with the neighbor dogs Buckley and Gus, and has also gotten along well with Roxy and Roscoe, my mother-in-law’s Shih Tzus. She’s personable and doesn’t seem to need to dominate other dogs.

* Is housetrained and lets us know when she needs to go out.

* Is calm when meeting people and looks to us to make sure they’re okay, and if we indicate they are, is good with them.

* Is able to bark, but doesn’t unless there is a reason, which is a thing I love so far.

* Is a snuggly loving cuddlepup.

On the flip side, she did have some immediate separation anxiety when Krissy left the house; Charlie went to the door she left from and started whining and pawing the door. We calmed her down and I took her for a walk to dissipate some of that nervous energy. Then Krissy came back, proving that she had not in fact abandoned Charlie, which was a happy moment for the dog. When Krissy left later in the evening, Charlie was rather less stressed about it. I suspect this is part of Charlie’s learning curve that this is her new home and we’re her new people, and that we will go, but we will come back. The sooner she learns this the better, because in usual times, we do of course leave the house and even travel.

Also she was disappointed to learn she’s not allowed up on furniture, but seems to be accepting that fact pretty well.

But that’s it for “negative” behavior, at least so far.

Charlie’s actually pretty remarkable degree of calmness and situational intelligence suggests to me that the story we received of the previous owners surrendering her because she got too big for the terms of their apartment lease might actually be true; this does not seem to be a dog who was neglected or hurt, and indeed seems to have been as least lightly trained. Our previous dog, Daisy, had neglect as part of her backstory and it was something we did have to work through a bit, especially at the beginning. So far, what we get from Charlie is pretty much, “Is this my new home? Is this my new squeaky pig? I love all of you!” Which, you know, is great.

As with our previous dogs, Charlie’s most immediate and obvious bond is with Krissy, who she happily follows all through the house and wants to be by most of the time. I mean, I get it; I feel the same way. But it’s amusing to me that, given that all three of us met Charlie at the same time and gave her equal amounts of love and attention, she imprinted on Krissy the quickest. She knew that Krissy was her human, just like the rest of the dogs knew. They always know. The irony is that she, like all the other dogs, will spend most of her time with me, because I’m the one who is always home. And that’s fine. She likes me! And is happy to be with me! But she clearly loves Krissy the most. Again, I totally get it.

As a family unit, we’ve had three dogs: Kodi, Daisy and now Charlie. All of these dogs have something in common, which was that they were someone else’s dog before they were ours. Kodi had been claimed by someone who had then changed their mind for whatever reason, so when we mentioned to a friend we were thinking about getting a dog, he said he knew of a puppy who needed a home. Daisy we got through a lab rescue organization. And Charlie, now, from a shelter. I’m not someone who feels it is an absolute moral imperative to get a shelter/rescue pup (there might be specific and reasonably ethical reasons to want a “purebreed” dog, mostly relating to allergies and temperament), but all things being equal, I do think it’s strongly preferable to do so when one can, and I do recommend doing it that way. We hadn’t gone wrong with secondhand dogs before this, and with Charlie, at least from the perspective of one day in, we seem to be going three-for-three.

— JS

Meet Charlie

Charlie is a dog!

Charlie is a six-month old Shar Pei mix who was surrendered by her previous owners because she got too large for their apartment. The good news is: We have lots of room! And we like large dogs, although Charlie is currently medium-sized at best. She is very well behaved with other dogs (from what we have seen of her interactions with other dogs at the shelter we got her from), and so far her relations with the Scalzi Cats has been politeness in the face of their unabashed loathing. We assume that will change in time. She’s a sweet dog. Krissy has been wanting to get a new dog for a while, and well, now we have one. Expect more Charliness in your online life from now on.

The Big Idea: Christina Consolino

Characters don’t always come out right on the first try, or even the second. Author Christina Consolino tells us a little about her experience with getting the characters right in her Big Idea for her newest novel, Rewrite the Stars. 

CHRISTINA CONSOLINO:

Have you ever wanted to do something over? Maybe you made a bad decision and wished for another opportunity to make a change, do something a little different. When people read the title of my novel, Rewrite the Stars, they often think of do-overs and second chances. The big idea of this novel, though, isn’t so much about getting that opportunity to do one thing over; it’s about looking inside yourself, making significant changes, and moving forward on a new and different—hopefully more positive and fruitful—trajectory in life.

So how did that idea come about? It took time to get there, honestly, as in over six years! The story originally began as the tale of a thirty-something couple, Sadie and Theo, who struggled with the ever-worsening symptoms of Theo’s ALS diagnosis. Because I have a doctorate in physiology (concentrating in skeletal muscle), I understood the disease, which meant the writing, while time-consuming, didn’t require many mental hurdles. In that version of the story, Sadie met a man, and her guilt over her attraction took up much of the space in the novel. The book had a different title, After We’ve Fallen, and because titles guide my writing—much like the North Star—the story revolved around all aspects of falling: falling in love, falling physically (which of course can happen when someone has ALS), falling out of love. But after much reflection spurred on by a writer’s conference, I recognized After We’ve Fallen was flawed. Deeply flawed.

How so? Well, if you’re anything like me, you like to read about strong, purposeful characters who lead by example, make active choices, and don’t just “let life happen” to them. But with a title like After We’ve Fallen piloting me and an action—falling—that implies the possibility of another person causing it, I’d been writing passive characters, more reactive than proactive. I needed to make some major changes. I had to, in effect, rewrite the novel.

So I asked myself: What do I want my characters to do, what circumstances can give rise to more active choices, and how can I give them agency over their situations? The new love interest stayed in the book because romantic elements in any genre appeal to me, but I looked at other aspects of the novel, namely the family situation and the health issue. In short order, a happily married couple dealing with the repercussions of ALS morphed into a couple on the verge of divorce struggling with the effects of PTSD on their family. Once I made that change in my head, changes on the pages followed, and I began to build a Sadie who relied less on other people and more on herself to find what she wanted out of life, to discover what made her happy. She no longer questioned what happened after she’d fallen or why she’d fallen in the first place. Instead of pure guilt over that attraction to a new man—after all, the marriage had ended long before we meet Sadie and Theo—Sadie doubted her ability to love again and feared the shift in family dynamics that might ensue with the addition of another person in her life. Now, she wanted to know what would happen if she took the active step to avoid the fall.

Yet any writer knows that revision, while fun, isn’t easy, and often, things crop up that we aren’t expecting. As I went about revising Sadie’s story, Theo stood up and yelled, “What about my voice? Don’t I get a say in this story?” And he was right; his story was just as much a part of their world, and he deserved to tell his side. On my next pass, I contemplated how to bring Theo’s voice forward as another POV character. I researched articles, read books, and reached out to subject matter experts to authenticate how Theo might react and think when mired in PTSD. I dug deep into my own psyche and struggle with mild depression and imagined not only ordinary, daily stresses that might push him to a perceived brink—the clang of silverware, the stare of a stranger, the popping of corn—but also larger, life changing issues—a divorce, a potential new job, a new love interest for the woman he loves—that would affect what he said and did. He reacts to life differently than Sadie does, but over the course of the book, both learn their reactions make all the difference and only they are responsible for their happiness.

As the new pages came together, I also realized I wanted to write a hopeful story. Getting away from falling and more into rewriting, I wanted my characters to stumble, right themselves, and get back up again, moving forward with intention and a new outlook on life. And part of that entailed making sure to include compassion with themselves and with others, especially when it came to PTSD. In the book, Sadie acknowledges that PTSD can be tricky: she wasn’t always sure what she was dealing with when it came to Theo’s diagnosis, and its unpredictability, especially with young children in the house, proved difficult for her to reconcile. But with the right support—caring family, effective therapists, proper information—and time as well as the earnest desire to heal on the part of Theo, these characters overcome their challenges.

Does life turn out the way Sadie and Theo both expect? Did the story turn out the way I expected? Maybe not, but the rewritten narrative provides what I intended. Strong characters with purposeful intentions. They’ve learned and grown as characters, and the experience helped me learn and grow as a writer. Being stagnant isn’t good for anyone—character or real human alike—and I challenge readers to think about their own lives and figure out how they might rewrite their own stars.

—-

Rewrite the Stars: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Bookshop|Indiebound|Powell’s|Black Rose Writing

Read an excerpt. Visit Christina’s website. Follow her on Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram.

 

The Big Idea: Matt Ruff

In virtual reality, you can be anyone you want. But what happens when the headsets come off, and you’re faced with real world threats? Author Matt Ruff explores this idea of curating a persona in VR in his newest novel, 88 Names.

MATT RUFF:

Like my previous novel, Lovecraft Country, 88 Names started out as a TV series pitch. The idea was to create a near-future thriller set entirely in virtual reality, so that you would never see the characters as they actually looked and sounded, but only as they chose to present themselves. In effect, everyone would be an unreliable narrator, at least as far as their identity was concerned. With instantaneous machine translation, they could pretend to be a native speaker of a language they’d never studied, and a process called ‘faceting’ would even allow them to present different versions of themselves to different observers simultaneously. (You think I’m listening politely as you lay out your twelve-point political theory, but my friend, granted access to a more privileged POV, can see me roll my eyes and say, “Please just kill me now.”) 

88 Names’ protagonist, John Chu, is a “sherpa” — a freelance guide to massive multiplayer online role-playing games. For a fee, he’ll cater an adventure in the virtual game world of your choice, providing you with a ready-made high-level character with cool weapons and armor and a team of skilled playmates to show you the ropes. Chu’s business has fallen on hard times due to recent raids by the EULA police (in-game enforcers of the End-User License Agreement, which prohibits the use of sherpas). But he gets a chance to turn things around when he’s contacted by the pseudonymous Mr. Jones, who claims to be a “wealthy, famous person with powerful enemies.” Jones is offering $100,000 a week for a comprehensive tour of the world of VR gaming. This sounds too good to be true, but the money is real, so Chu takes the gig. But as the tour gets underway, he begins to suspect that Mr. Jones is actually North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un, whose interest in virtual reality has more to do with power than entertainment.

Jones provides the story’s central mystery, but he’s not the only character Chu has questions about. Most of his relationships are with people he’s never met face-to-face, and even if you know someone’s real name, you can only trust Google so far. Whether he’s talking to clients or coworkers, Chu is constantly playing profiler, trying to get a better sense of who he’s dealing with and what they want. 

This guessing game extends to his ex-girlfriend, Darla Jean Covington. In 88 Names, crowdfunded advances in cybersex technology have made it easier than ever to have an intimate relationship with someone you’ve never met. Chu and Darla had talked about getting together in person someday, but before that could happen, he did her wrong and she stormed off, vowing revenge. So in addition to worrying about North Korean assassins and possible Chinese spies, he has to keep an eye out for Darla. There’s a lot he still doesn’t know about her, but she’s definitely someone who means it when she says you’re going to be sorry.

The majority of the story takes place online, with virtual game worlds providing the backdrop for most of the novel’s action set pieces. Readers who are gamers should eat this up, but I wanted 88 Names to be accessible to people who have never touched a joystick or controller. In his role as a guide, John Chu tells you everything you need to know, and even in the most whiz-bang moments, the narrative stays focused on the characters and their relationships: During an apocalyptic space battle, Chu manipulates the game mechanics to trick Mr. Jones into revealing information about himself, and a virtual crime spree becomes a means for testing another character’s trustworthiness. 

To raise the stakes for the novel’s climax, I decided to bring the characters out into the real world. In 88 Names’ final chapters, the digital masks come off and the players converge on the headquarters of their favorite game company for one last round of cat and mouse. This time, the dangers are real, and there’s no handy reset button to undo mistakes.

88 Names was a blast to write, but working on it has reminded me how, when you create imaginary futures, the present inevitably catches up to you. When I started thinking about this story in the early 2000s, social media was still in its infancy, and online gaming was a relative niche hobby. By the time I began writing in 2016, Facebook and Twitter had become dominant cultural forces, and the Trump presidency made it seem, at times, as if the entire country had become trapped in an online role-playing game. Now, after a year in which my social and professional lives have been conducted entirely through a computer screen, my novel feels more like realism than science fiction. I still think it’s a lot of fun, though, and I hope you’ll think so too.

* * *

If you’d like to hear more about the ideas behind 88 Names, come check out the 88 Names podcast, where my co-host Blake Collier and I interview such luminaries as game designer Mike Pondsmith, VR technologist Mariana Acuña Acosta, and novelist Cory Doctorow.


88 Names: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

Final Thoughts On WandaVision

Wanda in a bathrobe

Athena ScalziThis post was supposed to come out last Monday, but my brain said “nah,” but at least it’s here now!

If you missed my posts about the first six episodes, you can find them here, and here! Now that you’re all caught up, let’s dive right back in.

Here is your SPOILER WARNING, but this time, it’s not just for WandaVision, but also for Star Wars: Rogue One, and surprisingly, Toy Story 3.

EPISODE SEVEN

This episode is aptly named Breaking the Fourth Wall, since Wanda has decided to make her little sitcom one of those shows where the characters talk to whatever mysterious force is filming them. As a result, this episode happens to include the funniest line in the entire show:

“I actually did bite a kid once.”

Oh, Agnes, you’re so funny! And friendly! What a good neighbor, right? Right…

I do find the “breaking the fourth wall” thing really interesting though. As in, why make this one and only episode this way? I figure it’s because Wanda is depressed and wants someone to talk to, but has nobody, so just talks to the camera instead. She wants to feel less alone in this lonely town of her making.

Then comes along Monica, essentially the only person from outside of the Hex trying to help her instead of destroy her. Monica somehow managed to push her way through the boundary, giving her her very own super powers! She understands that Wanda needs a friend, someone to share her grief with, so it doesn’t keep manifesting in this way (this way being taking an entire town hostage to make a fantasy world).

And what does Monica tell her? “Don’t let him make you the villain.” Wanda replies, “Maybe I already am.”

This line from Wanda is essential to her character! She sees herself as a bad person. She knows that what she’s doing to this town, to the residents of Westview, is wrong. I’m sure that that’s part of the reason she’s so depressed, she so desperately wants to be good, but has done so much harm in the past, and is currently causing harm, that she can only see herself a villain.

Of course, that is until it’s revealed that Agnes is the real villain of the story. How convenient that mere minutes after Wanda’s conversation with Monica about her being a villain that it turned out to actually be Agnes, or rather, Agatha all along (yes that song is totally stuck in my head).

So, my thinking here was that Wanda was upset about their conversation, and didn’t want to be the villain of this story, so she made one. I mean, the residents of Westview can play any character Wanda tells them to, say anything she makes them say. Wouldn’t it make sense she’d make someone else the villain, so she doesn’t have to confront how bad she actually is?

I was confident in my thinking that Wanda just turned poor sweet Agnes into the villain, just to make herself feel better, but then my dad informed me that Agatha is actually Wanda’s villain in the comics. So my theory went out the window.

So then it made me wonder, why did Agnes go along with everything for so long? Why did she abide to the dress code of each era and play as the friendly neighbor? Why did she bother pretending like she was just another one of Wanda’s cast members?

EPISODE EIGHT

I saw someone online say that they hated episode eight because it was such a blatant info dump, all the exposition needed to catch someone up on the show. It’s basically the ultimate recap before the season finale.

Listen, it might have been annoying for some of you, but I needed that shit. I need info dumps and exposition, or else I’m not gonna understand jack shit. I really need stuff spelled out for me, so episode eight was a blessing for me.

I especially enjoyed the scene where Wanda and Vision were talking in the Avengers Complex. Just two misunderstood beings, alone in this world, sitting on a bed, watching a sitcom.

“What is grief, if not love persevering?”

Damn. Vision out here spitting words of wisdom. One of the many reasons I love him.

Another good part of the whole “flashback” scenes is that we learn that Wanda isn’t as “bad” as we thought she was. Director Hayward made us believe she’d gone off the hinges and broke into S.W.O.R.D. and stole Vision’s body. But now we get a clear perspective of what really happened, and I’m not shocked at all that Hayward was a lying douche from the beginning.

Not only did Wanda have to deal with the pain of losing Vision, but then to see the person you love most in the world being torn apart and dissected by a team of scientists? Talk about capital T trauma.

So, Wanda is left utterly alone, yet again, with not even a body to bury.

Despite this, she leaves the S.W.O.R.D. compound peacefully, without stealing Vision’s body or bringing him back to life like we’d imagined had happened.

It is only when this poor, suffering girl reaches the plot of land that was supposed to be their happy home, that she breaks, and takes the entire town with her.

So, now we know that what Wanda did was, at least at first, unintentional. And more than likely she had a break in her psyche and deluded herself into believing her own fantasy world.

She is a victim of her own creation.

EPISODE NINE

What is a Marvel movie/show without a fight scene? One that involves tons of special effects and flying, no less. Enter the season finale of WandaVision, with two witches fighting each other and two Visions fighting each other.

I was so intrigued by the Visions fighting. The fact that they can just punch through each other because they can make their bodies intangible was a super interesting mechanic to see in their fight scene. I’m not entirely sure why Vision 2.0 is white and blue now, but it is a cool look. And it makes it easy to keep track of which Vision is which during the fighting.

The only thing more awesome than the Visions fighting, is them discussing their own existences. The “Ship of Theseus” thought experiment was truly intriguing, and was a perfect analogy for the pickle the two Visions are in. Which is moreso the real Vision? Surely the one that is technically made up of the same body as the original Vision, right? But he acts nothing like the true Vision, so isn’t Wanda’s version of the Vision more accurate to the original?

It’s all very interesting stuff.

Let’s switch to the witches, now. Wanda managed to defeat Agatha by sneakily placing runes on the walls of her Hex, making Agatha’s magic useless. But this was a little confusing to me, because that applies to the entire town of Westview, right? The “given space” protected by the runes is the fantasy world, yet Agatha has runes in the basement of that house, so are those cancelled out by the runes that encompass a bigger area? If Agatha were to go back to that basement, could she use her magic in that small space because her runes are there? Maybe I’m just overthinking it.

Alright, now we get to the heart-wrenching conclusion. Wanda is finally dismantling the barrier that kept the town trapped, and she and Vision know that their time is coming to an end.

They head home, hand in hand, and tuck their children in to bed for a final goodnight. Wanda and Vision stand in the living room of their home and gaze into each other’s eyes as the red wall of doom approaches them.

The thing that really gets me, is characters that accept their death. Characters that can see their incoming demise, and fully embrace it.

You know that moment in Toy Story 3, where all the toys are headed straight for a giant pit of fire, and instead of fighting it, they all hold hands and close their eyes as they approach their end? Or how about in Star Wars: Rogue One, where Jyn and Cassian embrace each other on the beach as the explosion nears them?

THAT SHIT MAKES ME CRY EVERY FUCKING TIME.

So seeing Vision stare out the window at the approaching barrier, knowing that he’s about to vanish, breaks my whole heart. Not to mention the dialogue of that entire scene was incredible. Wanda explaining to Vision what he is, Vision telling Wanda all the things he has been before, and them reassuring each other that they’ll say hello again.

It reminded me of why I love Wanda and Vision as a pairing so damn much.

Even though we said goodbye to the Vision we’ve come to know and love throughout the show, the “original” Vision is still out there somewhere. Personally, I can’t wait to see him again.

So, after bidding farewell to her fabricated, yet very real family, Wanda goes back into town to talk to Monica. Once she reaches the main part of town, she’s met with the townsfolk she had imprisoned, and boy oh boy are they giving her some dirty looks.

Monica tries to help Wanda feel better by saying that they don’t know what she sacrificed for them, and she responds that it wouldn’t change how they see her. How could it? No amount of sympathy for her could ever overtake their feelings of terror and hatred towards her. She traumatized the absolute hell out of the residents of Westview, and to them, she’ll always be a villain.

Is she really a villain though? Is she a bad person, or just a person who made bad choices? Where’s the line between the two? If someone makes bad choices over and over again, when do they earn the title of “bad person?”

This final episode also opened up the door for sequels and spin-off series, and I’m excited to see what Marvel will put out next!

Did you like how WandaVision ended? Do you think Wanda is a villain? I want to hear your thoughts in the comments! And have a great day.

-AMS

I Got Shot, Part One

Me getting my first shot of COVID vaccine
John Scalzi

Hey, would you look at this, this is me getting my first shot of the Pfizer COVID vaccine today. You should know that the shot itself was painless — literally, if I hadn’t been taking a selfie of the moment I was stabbed I’m not sure I would have been convinced I had gotten the shot — and so far there are no real side effects for me. I understand that with the first shot, it’s the next day you feel it, and that it’s the second shot where you really feel the side effects, if in fact you feel it at all. I’ll let you know in both cases, but in both cases, side effects are better than the actual effect of battling COVID.

For those wondering, I got the shot at Wilson Health in Sidney, which is in the county north of me, mostly because they had appointments available when everything closer to me was all booked up. The process was efficiently and competently run and Krissy and I were signed in, shot up, and sent out in just about an hour. The only real complaint I had was not about Wilson Health, but that nearly every dude waiting to get a shot had his nose sticking out of his mask. On one hand, they’re getting a vaccine, so it could be worse, but on the other hand, for fuck’s sake, dudes, put your nose in your mask.

I live in a region where there is “vaccine hesitancy,” because this is a Republican-dominated area, and the Republicans spent the last year trying to pretend COVID wasn’t that big of a deal, that it would magically go away, you don’t need masks, so on and so forth. I was heartened to see so many people getting vaccinated today, but there need to be more, and for the people who have “hesitancy” about it, I would remind them that the COVID virus genuinely does not care what your politics are or what your favorite talk show host has to say about vaccines, or whatever ridiculous thing you read on Facebook about microchips in the shot or whatever. It just wants to infect you, and then possibly kill you. Get the damn shot. It’s smart for you, and it helps protect literally everybody else you might come across. And as someone in line actually said today to someone else, “Better to have it and not need it, than to need it and not have it.” That’s one hundred percent correct.

In any event: One shot down, one shot to go. And I now have a concrete timeline for a return to something resembling normalcy for me and my family. That’s worth a tiny, painless stab in the arm for sure.

— JS

Slate Lactose Free Chocolate Milk: Taste Test and Thoughts

Athena ScalziIf there’s one thing to know about me, it’s that I love chocolate milk. So when I got an ad for Slate, a company that boasts a delicious, healthier, shelf-stable version of the stuff we all know and love, I decided to give it a shot.

Slate’s version of chocolate milk is 120 calories per can, and has 17 grams of protein while only having 9 grams of sugar and 1 gram of fat. It’s also lactose-free! So, while this sounds good on paper, it makes you wonder if the taste gets nerfed from all the healthy benefits it boasts about.

I bought the 12-can variety pack, which as you can see from the photo above, comes with all three of their flavors: dark, classic, and espresso (the espresso contains 150mg of caffeine! There’s about 100 in a normal cup of coffee).

I do like the packaging, if that matters at all. The cans are thin and sleek and I like the minimalistic look a lot. I appreciate that they put the most important nutritional facts in a small enough print at the bottom that it isn’t distracting, but still make it clear what’s going on inside the can.

Anyways, I poured out shots of each one for me and my parents to try. Here’s the skinny on each flavor:

The classic is what we went with first. We figured we should start with the one we believed would be truest to the thing it’s trying to taste like. Did it succeed? Not exactly. This healthier chocolate milk mostly tasted like a Yoo-Hoo, an American watery chocolate beverage. It fell very short of the standard I personally hold for chocolate milk. It was thin, tasted kind of funny, and left an aftertaste that was less than desirable. So, I think of it less like a healthier milk, and more like a healthier Yoo-Hoo. Here’s a comparison of Slate and a Yoo-Hoo nutritional information, respectively:

As you can see, Slate has way less sugar and way more protein, as well as a ridiculous amount of potassium, calcium, and vitamin A. So, if you like Yoo-Hoo, you might want to try this flavor! It may not be a great substitution for the real thing, but certainly a good enough replacement for Yoo-Hoo.

Up next was the dark chocolate flavor. This had the same thin consistency as the classic, but a worse flavor, according to me and my mom. My dad, however, thought it was an improvement from the classic, and ended up finishing the rest of the can! He said the dark was a 7/10, while the classic was a 5/10 in his book. My mom and I disagreed, and poured the rest of our portions out in the sink.

Finally, we tried the espresso. This one actually wasn’t that bad! If you like the taste of coffee well enough, anyway. My mom said they taste just like the tall cans of Starbucks espresso drinks you can get from gas stations and whatnot. So, again, while this is not really a good replacement for real chocolate milk, it’s definitely a suitable, possibly healthier replacement for say, a Starbucks Doubleshot Espresso drink.

All in all, I wasn’t really that impressed with these. My family and I agree they were sort of “meh.” They definitely weren’t terrible! But they certainly don’t come close to the real deal. If you are someone who is lactose-intolerant, or trying to watch your sugar intake, this might be a good option for you!

They aren’t bad, but they aren’t great, and with a cost of about three dollars a can, I can’t say they’re totally worth it. Maybe I’d drink this as a post-workout drink, if I kinda just chugged it and didn’t focus too much on the taste.

(I couldn’t decide if I liked this photo or the one up top better, so you get both.)

I think what Slate attempted is a noble cause, I mean who doesn’t want healthier chocolate milk? They just need to work on the flavor aspect, and then they’ll be golden.

Oh, one more thing, they have free shipping! A lot of times when I go to purchase something like this, the shipping cost ends up being as much as the actual product, and I don’t end up buying it as a result. So, yeah, hooray free shipping!

Have you tried Slate before? What were your thoughts? Do you have a favorite brand of chocolate milk that really just hits different? I wanna know all about it in the comments! I hope you all have a great day.

-AMS

My 2021 Oscar Prediction (or Not) Post

John Scalzi

This year’s Oscar nominee list is out, and every year except for 2020 I did a piece predicting who I thought would win and who I thought wouldn’t, based on historical trends and gut feelings built up over years of having been a film critic. Last year I bowed out because I wasn’t feeling it, and this, year — I’m bowing out again!

But not because I’m not feeling it — no, this year, I’m bowing out because I genuinely believe that any historical trends are chucked out the window this year because a) COVID messed with the regular dynamic of the film cycle, b) the status quo of the film industry (and of the Academy) has changed so much in the last few years that I have no faith in the historical voting conventions I used to set store in. 2021 is a whole new world and honestly I don’t know what to think about who is going to win what.

In fact, I’m only going to make one prediction, which is that Chadwick Boseman is the likely frontrunner for Best Actor, not only for his performance but for the general outpouring of goodwill toward him after his passing last year. But even that I’m not super solid on. And otherwise: bwuh? I don’t know! I can’t even pretend to predict.

Except to say that I wouldn’t be surprised if this year’s Oscar broadcast is the least watched in a long time: Whether or not these films, performances and people are worthy, I don’t know that any of the Best Picture nominees set the world of public opinion on fire this year. Streaming or otherwise, it was a very weird, very quiet year in movies, and I think may end up being a collective hole in the mainstream consciousness, which will be reflected by low audience numbers for the show. We’ll see.

But, yeah, I have no idea what’s likely to win and what’s not this year. That’s actually kind of exciting for me, I have to say.

— JS

Time To Rant About Time Travel

Athena ScalziWelcome to today’s post, where I’m going to yell about time travel in movies and shows and you’re going to like it! Or, if you don’t, that’s okay, too. We can have different opinions on time travel. But my opinion is that it sucks. I despise time travel. It’s confusing, almost never makes sense, and is used way too much in movies lately.

So I’m going to be talking about a few movies in the Marvel and DC Universes that use time travel and multi-verses, so here is your OFFICIAL SPOILER WARNING for Avengers: Endgame, Avengers: Infinity War, Agent Carter, and Justice League: Dark Apokolips War.

My main beef with time travel is in relation to Avengers: Endgame. If you love Endgame, I’m sorry, but I think it’s a terrible movie that contained a lot of bad decisions, and even more bad writing. To have 22 movies come before Endgame, and make the only one that deals with multiverses or time travel at all be Dr. Strange (excluding Spiderman: Into the Spiderverse), and then suddenly be like “oh, you know what we should do, time travel”, it seems nonsensical and like they came up with it at the last minute because they didn’t know what else to do. I’m not saying that’s true, maybe they did know all along what they were going to do, but I’m just saying as a viewer, it came off as an out-of-nowhere thing.

I can understand the part where the Avengers go into specific moments of the past to retrieve the Infinity Stones, and then later return them to their exact time and place, as if they had never been taken at all. That part is simple enough, they’re just borrowing them.

The part where it starts to become ridiculous for me is when 2014 Thanos and Nebula travel to the future. Wouldn’t that mean that Thanos wasn’t around in the years following 2014, so Infinity War could’ve never happened in the first place because he skipped that part of time completely? If that isn’t enough for you, what about when 2014 Nebula dies, but future Nebula continues to exist? Everyone knows that if you time travel and past you dies, you cease to exist and you fade away!

So already we are deep into the path of things not making a lick of sense, but to add to that, they made Captain America go back in time and STAY THERE. I can’t tell you how upsetting this was to me. When I first saw that scene, I was upset mainly because seeing Old Man Rogers made me sad, but I was also confused, because if he went back then that meant he never came out of the ice in 2012 and became part of the Avengers.

Not only that, but he married Peggy. And you’re supposed to be happy for them. Certainly I used to hope and dream that Peggy and him could be together, but that changed when I watched Agent Carter last week. Agent Carter ends with her and Agent Daniel Sousa being together. And for all two seasons of Agent Carter, I was rooting for them. I was so happy when they were finally together. They obviously loved and cared about each other so much.

If we are to assume that Daniel Sousa is the man that Peggy Carter is talking about in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, when she talks about her husband and her family, then Steve essentially prevented their life together from ever happening. Peggy had children, a whole family, totally erased because Steve decided to be selfish and go back to be with Peggy.

And sure, Peggy was probably plenty happy with Steve, and I’m sure they had a good life together. But you don’t just get to make that choice for her. Yet another superhero movie that lacks consent. Who knows if Peggy would have even wanted to trade the life she lived for Steve? Steve should’ve left Peggy in the past, and not stayed there with her.

One more thing about this that makes it seem like Marvel didn’t know what the hell they were doing is that they had Steve and Peggy’s great niece, Sharon, be kind of interested in each other and even kiss. Like, if they knew all along that this is how it would turn out, why did they bother doing that weird shit?

These were all the questions I had before doing some research and learning about how Marvel’s time travel is based on a branching theory, which means that every time they change something in the past, it makes a new timeline branch off of the original. To me, this seems like a cheap way out of there being any real consequences to dicking around in the past. Marvel gets to keep its perfect little timeline while simultaneously exploring a bunch of different options, like if Steve Rogers had lived in his original time period with Peggy.

To me, that’s some bullshit. A viewer shouldn’t have to do extensive research and watch a bunch of explanation videos to understand something. Not everyone is a huge fan that will spend the effort and time learning about what the creators’ intentions were. Not to mention everything about it just screams cop out.

So, Marvel totally failed at using time travel, in my opinion. Let’s take a look at DC.

Over the past couple months, I’ve been watching a lot of animated DC movies on HBO Max. I’ve never been big into DC, and only really ever seen the Zach Snyder DC movies. So when I started watching the animated ones, I was totally blown away by how cool DC is. They have some pretty interesting animated movies, and a whole timeline of their own much like the MCU, just animated instead!

DC has its own problems with time travel and multiverses, though, just like Marvel. Mainly because DC likes to use Flash as their source of time travel. If you’ve ever seen the CW’s Flash, you know how well it goes when Barry Allen changes the past. Confusing as shit.

The animated films are no different, they use Flash to create “Flashpoints” and change the timeline. This happens at the end of the bigger storyline, in Justice League: Dark Apokolips War. In this movie, Dark Seid totally fucks the Justice League up, kills a bunch of our beloved heroes, and takes over the Earth. After they defeat Dark Seid over two years later, the Earth is about to explode and kill all the survivors and there’s no stopping it, so Flash goes and creates a new Flashpoint, resetting the entire timeline. This paves the way for the newest DC animated movie that reintroduces Superman all over again in Superman: Man of Tomorrow. 

Again, doesn’t this all seem like a huge cop out to avoid dealing with consequences? They’re making time travel the solution to all of the world’s problems. Just start over. Wipe the slate clean. Sure, that’s one way of dealing with things, but it just seems like lazy writing to me.

The moral of the story here is that no one should ever use time travel. It’s dumb and overused and I’m sick of it because it never makes sense. Even when given the explanation of “oh it’s a branching thing” or “it’s a multiverse thing”, it’s still confusing! I still hate it! Y’all didn’t have to make superhero movies so confusing!

Do you think Marvel and DC are right in using time travel? Do you think Endgame was a good and satisfying movie (it’s the fourth worst movie I’ve ever seen)? Do you like the animated DC movies more than the live action (I sure do)? Let me know in the comments, and have a great, time-travel free day!

-AMS

Thoughts on a Plague Year

March 11, 2020, is when I peg the start of my personal plague year. I was on the JoCo Cruise at the time and had intentionally avoided news up to that point, but then two things happened. One, people came up to me wanting to tell me about Tom Hanks contracting the COVID virus (people knew that I know him personally), and two, my editor Patrick sent me a cryptic email telling me that I should call him immediately. After reminding him I was on a cruise and the ocean does not have cell phone towers, he told me via email that my book tour was cancelled and that plague was everywhere. I gave in at that point and caught up with the news from the world, all bad.

Other people peg the start of their plague year slightly earlier or later, but March 11 was when the plague touched me directly, first by infecting someone in my personal sphere, and then by messing with my livelihood. No longer was it something that was happening elsewhere. It was happening to me.

The year since has been, well, a lot. My kid got COVID; she, being 22 and being in reasonably good shape, was tired for a few days and lost her sense of smell. Some friends got it and fared worse; one of them had to undergo surgery for damage to his heart. Other people of my acquaintance died from it. In November I got sick with something that felt like COVID but which two separate tests suggest was not; we may never figure out what it was. I can’t think of anyone I know who didn’t have someone close to them affected by COVID, and sometimes that person was them.

As of the moment there are more than 525,000 COVID-related deaths in the United States, and that number is almost certainly too low. Much of this number — some estimates say about 40% of it — is the responsibility of the previous administration’s appallingly bad response to it, in which the then-president and his fellow travelers repeatedly tried to downplay the severity of it, and then mismanaged the dealing with it by prioritizing politics over science, and settling scores over helping people. Our unlamented, likely-to-be-in-prison-soonish former president will go down in history as the Man Who Botched a Plague, and he will deserve it. Currently he is out there in the periphery, querulously complaining that no one gives him credit for doing the things that are now helping to curb COVID. He is correct, because everything he did wrong far outstrips anything he did right.

But to be scrupulously fair, no matter who was president, this was going to be bad, and hundreds of thousands of Americans would have died. We’re not and can’t be New Zealand, a counrty with less population than Cook County, Illinois, and whose ignorant fringe is not imbued with as much political power as ours is, particularly in the previous administration. But even larger powers who did better than we did managing the virus still had surges and strained medical systems and thousands upon thousands of deaths. We absolutely could have done better — and should have done better, and if the previous president, his administration and his party had done better, he might still be president today, which is a terrifying thought. But it was never going to be good. That should be acknowledged.

Speaking of the previous administration, the fact that the plague hit during an election year in the United States either proves that God exists, and he’s an asshole, or that he’s dead and the universe is a capricious disaster zone. Between COVID and the election, a lot of people — myself included — felt like life was continually punching us in the face. I had hoped the election results in November would have brought at least partial relief but we all know how that went. I’m not going to call this March-to-March span the worst year or twelve months in history (within the last century alone 1939 is right there, picking its teeth), but in my own lifetime, it’s the year where external events really had an impact on my personal life, and my personal mental health.

And yes! Over the last year my mental health was not great. I was hopeful that as an introvert, basically staying in my home for a year seeing no one but family wouldn’t be that horrible. It mostly wasn’t, until suddenly it was. And then it was very bad for several days before it ebbed again. I went through several cycles of that.

I was equally hopeful that I would get a lot of work done since I was home anyway, and that didn’t go very well either. I did a lot of work, but a lot of that work wasn’t up to my standards in no small part because the year kept pulling focus. I’ve discussed the before, and I’m sure will again, so I won’t go over it in detail right now. Suffice to say angry, bored and shut in is no way to go through life, or to get creative things done.

(And of course I have to acknowledge that as these things go, I had it pretty easy. I was able to be with my spouse and kid, and we did have the means to weather this thing economically. We had the 1% version of the quarantine. And it still sucked.)

This March 11, the one in 2021, Ohio dropped the age of the people allowed to get a vaccine to 50, and did it at midnight. I just happened to wake up at about 1am and when I did, I went “oh, right,” got online and hunted down two vaccination appointments, one for me and one for Krissy. We’ll be getting Pfizered up on Tuesday. We’re not out of this thing yet, but I do think it’s a pleasingly resonant coincidence that March 11 serves as the day that both started me into my personal plague year, and serves as the day that is starting me out of it. It’s a nice set of bookends, as it were, and perfectly timed.

I hope that likewise you see your own “plague year” coming to an end soon. It’s been a very long year, and I’m happy to have concrete signs it’s coming to a close. Again: Not there yet. But soon enough. I’ll settle for that today.

— JS

The Big Idea: Gabriela Houston

It’s not how you look on the outside, but what’s on the inside that makes you a monster. This is especially true in Gabriela Houston’s newest novel, The Second Bell. Explore Houston’s Big Idea with her as she tells you of a society that is terrified of monsters, yet is monstrous itself.

GABRIELA HOUSTON:

If everyone you’d ever met – your whole family, your friends, your neighbours, believed your child is a monster which must be expelled from the community, what would you do?

In The Second Bell, the humans of Heyne Town believe that any child born with two hearts—a striga—is a monster, which, should she be allowed to remain within the community, would grow in strength till her unholy powers inevitably manifested themselves in some catastrophic way. 

The only way such a disaster can be averted is to leave the infant on the edge of the striga forest, for the other strigas to find her. The mother is expected to forget about her baby, and count her blessings that the taint of her child does not extend to her. 

But every now and again, a mother decides to leave with her child, to brave the hostile world outside the safety of the town, and join the strigas in the mountains. Miriat, the mother in The Second Bell, makes just such a choice, breaking every taboo and law of her community in order to raise her daughter, Salka.

That is the initial premise of The Second Bell

The Big Idea behind the novel, however, is the natural question which arose from its starting point:

How hard is it to go against everything you’ve been taught to believe, when a conflicting loyalty arises? 

Miriat didn’t suddenly, magically, unlearn everything she’d been told since childhood about the strigas. Just because she feels the pull of maternal love for her infant doesn’t mean she’s suddenly had an epiphany that prejudice towards the strigas is wrong, and that love must prevail.

Humans don’t think like that.

Miriat makes the choice to join her daughter in banishment in spite of believing that there is potential for great evil residing within her child. In fact she shifts her internal concept of duty, from staying away from all strigas, towards protecting Salka from the evil inside, and to stop her daughter from becoming a monster at all cost.

The fear doesn’t just go away because love temporarily overrules it. And so it remains, pervading every element of life. 

The strigas, whose community Miriat joins, share the humans’ belief that they are, on a fundamental level, evil; that the only thing which will stop them from realising their dark potential is the rigid structure of laws and regulations, and that any transgressions must be severely punished for fear that any leniency might lead to disaster. 

The Big Idea I kept in mind when writing The Second Bell was, what – if anything – could finally have the power to overturn years of conviction? A conviction that has become central to a people’s identity, the core of what they consider their self-knowledge.

Love isn’t always enough to do it. Neither is friendship. Battling a belief that strong demands the shattering of one’s entire identity.

And then, once the old self is in ashes, it requires courage to build something new in its place. 


The Second Bell: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

Bit of a Bust Bagels

Athena ScalziIn another bout of culinary adventuring, I decided to make homemade bagels! One of my favorite food bloggers, Half Baked Harvest, posted a recipe for cinnamon crunch bagels, and I decided to try my hand at it. This post’s purpose is to take you, my dear reader, on the journey that was bagel making. Let’s get started.

To kick things off, I thought the ingredients list was super easy. As seen here, there’s really not that many ingredients:

Very standard things, like flour, salt, butter, sugar. I didn’t have to go to the store for anything! Except packets of instant yeast. As you can see from the picture, the yeast I actually bought was not instant, because I am a fool.

So, I had to mix the yeast with warm water, specifically water that was a hundred degrees, but I don’t have a thermometer so I just microwaved some water and hoped I didn’t burn my yeast alive. I’ve also never used real yeast before, only instant one time before, so I hoped I was doing it right as I mixed the water, sugar, and yeast together until it just looked like brown water. Then it got kind of foamy.

After pouring everything in the stand mixer, foamy yeast included, I attached the dough hook and let it work its magic. After a couple minutes, I ended up with this!

The recipe said to let it rise for an hour or two, so I opted for two, because I was busy playing Super Smash Bros.

As you can see, this sucker puffed up!

I punched the bejeezus out of it and rolled it out onto a lightly floured work surface (aka I just threw flour on my counter).

The recipe said it makes ten to twelve bagels, so I chose to split the dough into ten pieces, and after doing my damnedest to shape them, this is what I got:

Hey, those things vaguely look like bagels! Nice!

The recipe said to make the holes two inches but I wasn’t sure how to measure that kind of thing so I just said to myself, does this look like a bagel? And if it kind of did, I figured it was close enough.

The next step was boiling. This part is very important, DO NOT leave your pot of boiling bagels unattended. Honestly, I wouldn’t even look away from them if I were you. Never in my life have I had a pot of water try so hard to boil over (and succeed).

Once they were boiled, the bagels grew in size a considerable amount. They were almost like sponges, and soaked up a bunch of the water, so I ended up having to add more water to the pot, and boil it all over again.

I didn’t know they’d get so big. Be sure not to overcrowd your pot, I certainly almost did.

Next was the pièce de résistance, the cinnamon crunch layer. Comprised of nothing but sugar, butter, and cinnamon, this delectable addition was sure to be the star of my creation. Behold their glory before I baked them:

As you can see from the picture, the mixture got all over the baking sheet and all up in the holes of the bagels. The recipe for the cinnamon crunch layer is supposed to cover all ten to twelve of the bagels, but I used all of it on these six. So I had to make a half-batch for the remaining four, and then I used all of that on the last four! Maybe I’m too heavy handed with it, or maybe it was because so much of it spilled all over the parchment paper. Either way, you might want to make sure you have enough of your ingredients to make another batch or half-batch if necessary.

Alas, the thing I had counted on being the star of the show was the demise of my bagels. Once they baked, all that sugar that escaped turned into severely burnt caramel.

All that black goo is basically molten sugar, and it coated the bottoms of the bagels. Once it hardened, it made the bagels practically impossible to bite through because the burnt sugar layer was so hard. It also tasted bad, because, well, it was burnt.

So, I learned my lesson, and with the remaining four bagels, I put the topping on them before setting them on a parchment paper lined baking sheet. This ensured there was no sugar laying around on the baking sheet all willy nilly. And behold:

Much cleaner! These actually looked like they came out correctly. However, upon eating them, they were just too tough in my opinion. My dad said they were good, and they were the right amount of chewy, like a bagel is supposed to be. But I still think they’re too hard. My dad and I decided to microwave them for like fifteen seconds to soften them, which worked okay I guess.

I’m curious if they were tough because I overworked the dough? Or maybe they would have turned out better if I had used instant yeast like I was supposed to?

Honestly, for the effort and time put into making these, I would say it’s probably better to just go with store bought bagels, or picking up some Panera cinnamon crunch ones.

So, while these were not a total bust, and they are edible enough, I wouldn’t say this endeavor was a huge success, either.

Congrats! You’ve reached the end of the post, which means I shall bestow upon the recipe for these bagels.

What’s your favorite kind of bagel? Are you a buttered bagel kind of person or do you like cream cheese on it? Do you toast them? Let me know in the comments, and have a great day!

-AMS

Today In Life Choices That Are Either Questionable or Awesome or Both

A six-necked guitar called "The Beast"
John Scalzi

See that fucking ridiculous guitar above? The one with six necks? Yeah, I just bought that shit.

(My Fictional Interlocutor crashes in from the underbrush)

You did what now?

I bought it! I read in Guitar World that it was up for auction and I put in a bid and I won.

Were you deeply stoned at the time?

You know I don’t do that stuff.

I don’t know, maybe you started.

Nah.

Ambien, then.

I swear I was not in a pharmaceutically altered state of mind when I bid on it.

Then… why?

One, because it’s ridiculous.

Well, yes.

Which is awesome. Two, I have plans to build out a music room in the basement — it’s already where the majority of my musical instruments are — and I thought this would make a very fine centerpiece for it.

So you didn’t buy it to play it.

Oh, no, I’m definitely gonna play it.

It seems ergonomically dubious at best.

Well, yes. When I say I’m going to play it, I don’t mean it’s going to be my everyday guitar. It is meant mostly to be art. Even the guy who built it says it’s a “conversation piece.” But it’s a playable guitar — all the pickups and electric bits work — so I’m going to keep it tuned (or at least, tunable) and ready to be fiddled with whenever I or someone else has a mind to.

I’m not 100% believing it’s playable.

Here’s a video of someone playing it:

That’s probably CGI.

Stop that.

Also, you don’t play that well.

True enough! But I guess I could practice.

How much did this folly cost you?

Actually less than I expected. When I bid on it, I put in the upper amount I was willing to pay, and I assumed the price would be run up — actually, if I’m being honest, I thought someone would outbid me. But no one did, so I didn’t reach my max bid. However it’s in the UK and will need to be crated and shipped here to Ohio, so what I didn’t pay for the guitar itself, I’ll probably pay in having it brought over.

Tell me you didn’t spring this on Krissy.

I did not. Krissy and I always inform each other of when we wish to make a substantial expenditure, even (especially) if it is, in fact, entirely ridiculous. Also, of course, if Krissy was all, “please don’t,” then I wouldn’t have. But this was within our budget at the moment, and Krissy gets the whole “I’m buying art for a room” thing I’m doing. As distinctive original art goes, this was a reasonable expense. As a guitar, it was slightly pricey but not ill-advisedly so. As both? A bargain! Also I had a hard-out price I wouldn’t have gone above. This is awesome but it’s also silly, and there’s a limit on how much I’m willing to spend on silly.

So when do we get to see you with this thing?

I don’t know! I’m talking to a shipping company today and we’ll figure out how long it will take to get here. I’m not exactly expecting an overnight delivery. I expect it will be several weeks. Please be patient.

Will you post a video of you playing it?

Oh, probably.

Plan to buy any more musical instruments any time soon?

Oh, probably not.

Liar.

Shush.

— JS

The Big Idea: Jess Montgomery

What do you get when you take strong women, crime bosses, and bootleggers, and throw them into a novel set in 1927 Ohio? You get Jess Montgomery’s newest addition to her series, The Stills. Prepare to explore the past in Montgomery’s Big Idea.

JESS MONTGOMERY:

When The Widows, my first novel in my Kinship Historical Mystery Series came out, I didn’t know that it was the first novel in my series.

That’s because I didn’t realize I was going to be writing a series. 

I knew, of course, that I’d written The Widows, inspired by Maude Collins who became Ohio’s true first female sheriff in 1925 after her husband was killed in the line of duty serving notice on a speeding violation. In my books, Lily becomes sheriff after her sheriff-husband Daniel is killed in the line of duty—but in this case, no one knows who killed him, or why. In pursuing the truth, Lily connects with Marvena, a coal mining union organizer and childhood friend of Daniel’s, who has her own mystery to pursue—where has her teenage daughter disappeared to? The two women become friends, bond over loss, and find themselves facing a difficult choice: personal vengeance, or save their community from deadly confrontation between mine workers and management?

I also knew that I had a contract for a second novel with the same publisher, Minotaur Books. (And I knew that I was—and am—damned lucky for that.)

But then, my editor asked if I’d thought about turning The Widows into a series.

“No,” I said. (I’ve written series before, under another name, and wasn’t sure I wanted to go back to that.)

“It’s up to you,” she said, “but do you realize you’ve created this great cast of characters in Kinship [the county seat where Lily is sheriff], and a fascinating world?”

“Uhhhh….” Thankfully, I’m more articulate on paper (I promise) than in conversations.

“And I’d like to know more about both, and I think readers might too. Please just think about it,” she said.

So I did. While I wasn’t contractually obligated to build The Widows out into a series, I was intrigued by her complimentary question. And soon I realized she was right, as editors so maddeningly often are, and that the world in which Lily works and lives—Bronwyn County, in the Appalachian area of southeastern Ohio—as well as its occupants are varied and intriguing. There seemed to be a lot more material to explore.

But I needed something to thematically tie the novels together, beyond Lily-solves-another-crime. 

And then I got to thinking about that tension Lily and Marvena had in the first novel, between personal desire and serving their community. About those raw, tender, difficult boundaries all of us face at least a few times in our lives between individuality and community expectation. (Note that I define community as family, or any bound group such as a religious group or a club or even a vocation such as the writing world. It can also mean a location or municipality, but not necessarily.) 

And I thought about how Lily and Marvena share, by turns, the narration of the first novel. 

That’s when the Big Idea hit me: each novel could pair Lily with another community member, together pursuing a criminal event that pits individual desire or need against community expectation or need. 

In the next novel, The Hollows, Lily and her childhood friend Hildy—who, at least at the beginning, is very timid compared to Lily—seek to resolve the murder of an elderly woman, and in so doing, uncover the community’s dark past.

My newest novel, The Stills, just out from Minotaur, is set in 1927. Prohibition, in the background of the first two novels, and a sinister bootlegging plot which leads to poisonings and death form the backbone of the plot. In this novel, Lily shares the story’s narration with the bootlegger’s wife, Fiona—a former member of the Kinship community.

These are not women who particularly liked each other when they were simply wives and mothers in Kinship. Lily was for women’s right to vote; Fiona was not. Fiona’s first husband worked as a deputy for Daniel, and later, after Lily becomes sheriff, does not approve of Lily being sheriff. It’s not that she wants her husband to rise from deputy to head sheriff (she also doesn’t like the danger the job entails); she just doesn’t believe women should take on such work. And then, Fiona’s first husband (the deputy) is also killed in the line of duty. Both women are widows, and must find their way as such in the world—but they do so in very different ways. Lily takes on a non-traditional job for a woman, while Fiona ingratiates herself into the world of bootlegger and crime boss George Vogel (inspired by real-life George Remus), who happens to be Lily’s nemesis.

But Fiona is no shrinking violet. She has her own plans and agenda, and grows from being dependent on men toward becoming independent—just in a very different way than Lily. This pits the women against one another—unlike Lily’s relationships with her co-narrators in the first two Kinship Historical Mystery novels.

And yet, in The Stills, as in the other Kinship novels, what really drives the story is the tension between individuals and community—and how each can find redemption and hope in the other.

Several more novels are planned for my Kinship series. I’m excited to see how far my Big Idea will carry the series, and I hope readers will be as well.


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

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

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