Spice Meets the Macro Lens

The Pixel 7 Pro that I finally unpacked and fired up today (it arrived last week, but I was traveling) has a new “macro” photo mode, which allows one to get pretty darn close to one’s subject to snap a photo. Here’s me snapping a photo of Spice about an inch and a half from her nose. She doesn’t look impressed, but no one looks impressed with a phone mere centimeters away from one’s face, I suspect. The distortion from the lens isn’t helping either, although Spice looks cute with a moon face.

I’ll likely write up the Pixel 7 Pro soon, when I have a chance to play with it a bit more. So far I like it! But I’ve also only had it a few hours. Let me take some more photos with it and otherwise play with it and see what I think.

— JS

The Big Idea: Joelle Presby

What’s in a word? For Joelle Presby, perhaps the whole world… for starters. In this Big Idea, Presby explains how a single word opens up a whole universe for her novel The Dabare Snake Launcher.

JOELLE PRESBY:

My big idea is a dabare.

When you grow up in an area where everyone else speaks at least four languages fluently, but your family moves around, you start over with a different primary language every year or three. For other people, that meant getting very good at language learning. For me, it meant adoring the numerous West African children’s games that were numbers or science-based and could be played without being able to really communicate.

And it meant treasuring the words that were kept in the common argot even as we moved around the country of Cameroon. Dabare was one such word. The fact that it mostly related to science-y and engineering-ish type things made it all the more precious.

The word dabare from the Fulani language in current and historic usage varies significantly depending on which part of the Fulani diaspora is providing the definition and how recently the recording entity has conquered or been conquered by that powerful tribe.

Within The Dabare Snake Launcher, I honor that flexibility in the word’s meaning by redefining it before each section from a new fictional source.

dabare

\ da-ba-RAY \

an engineering construction made with repurposed parts and extreme technical know-how, which either works flawlessly or not at all

origin: West African Fulani

Definition from The Cassini-Sadou Dictionary, 3rd ed.

Dabare—the engineering know-how to plan, implement, and follow through on a complex project

(Samson Young’s note: Depending on context, “dabare” is sometimes applied to someone who only thinks they have this “dabare” skillset, but the resulting engineered object—also referred to as a “dabare”—proves the individual does not/did not.)

Definition from “Local Terms” in The TCG Kilimanjaro Handbook

Dabare—early texts using this term can be understood to mean some combination of the following: (1) scheming, (2) the practice of magic, (3) the application of knowledge in an attempt to force a result, not always successfully

Source: University of Yaoundé, Fulani Folklore Wiki

Characters who scheme make for really fun story-telling. And complex engineering is a delight to my nerdy soul. I began work on my Dabare novel after getting my hands on a hardbound 2013 collection of articles from the International Academy of Aeronautics titled, “Space Elevators: An Assessment of Technological Feasibility and Way Forward.” I skipped to the section in the back of the book with all the reasons why a space elevator was impossible.

They weren’t wrong.

But if you give me science fiction’s traditional single cheat, in this case, a tether of carbon nano fiber in truly industrial lengths, all the other problems are solvable with money, power, and hard work.

In short, a whole lot of characters would have to fight for and against the construction of Earth’s first space elevator. If it succeeded, it’d be the amazing wonderous kind of dabare. If it failed, it’ll be the greatest waste of all time, and Earth would’ve been better off if no one had ever tried. A space elevator project is a dabare. It has to be.


The Dabare Snake Launcher: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

Staying Or Going at Twitter: Ironically, a Twitter Thread

Written this morning and now posted here for archival purposes. I’ll likely have more to say on the topic soon, but at the moment I’m in transit and heading home.

Also note that if you’re reading this here, you probably don’t need the links to the site that I have provided.


1. As folks are asking, no, I’m not leaving Twitter at this time, for reasons I explained in April, when the current owner first started his quest to own the place (see the attached article). What I am doing, however, is re-evaluating how I use the site.

2. And not just how I use Twitter, mind you, although that is the current hot topic du jour. I’m thinking about social media generally, and the utility of “being the product” in exchange for ease of use and an audience. I’d be lying if I said it doesn’t have advantages…

3. …for someone like me. I like having a largish audience and Twitter not requiring me to do much besides being quippish. But even before the new guy, the deal has been getting increasingly lopsided and requires more effort from me to use useful and usable.

4. It’s become less *fun,* honestly, and the steps that the new guy seems determined to take will make it more so, and more prone to trolling and impersonation and misinformation. The value proposition for me could go south fast.

https://www.theverge.com/2022/10/30/23431931/twitter-paid-verification-elon-musk-blue-monthly-subscription

5. If the value proposition goes south, then the question is how much of my time/effort I want to give the site. I don’t want to walk away from 200K followers, and I enjoy (most) of the interactions I have with people here. But I also have other places I can be…

6. … including my own site, where I don’t have to worry the owner is a bored, overly-rich shitlord trying to monetize every last possible thing because he overpaid dramatically for it. There are options, for me at least, because I stuck with my own online space all this time.

7. Now, I’m well aware that if I draw down on Twitter, not everyone here is going to follow me elsewhere, and, well. That’s life, and the decisions that will have to be made. I’ve gone through several Internet phases already. Nothing lasts, it’s always in flux.

8. Which means this “crisis” is also an opportunity. How *do* I want to be online in 2022 and beyond? I’m on Twitter because it’s easy, but what if I made an effort elsewhere? What would that look like and how would I do it? I’m thinking about these things now.

9. So, anyway. In the short-to-medium run, I’ll still be around here. But I am recalibrating what Twitter is worth to me, and making plans to do more things elsewhere, especially with my own site. Which I should have been doing already, honestly. I’m looking forward to it.

10. Also: Hey! Here is my personal site. Bookmark it in your browser, put it in your RSS feed, subscribe to in email, etc. I already update there daily and have for 24 years. Make it part of your everyday online experience if you like.

https://whatever.scalzi.com/

11. And now, as usual, here’s a cat to end the thread.

Sugar, rolling around on the driveway.

Originally tweeted by John Scalzi (@scalzi) on October 31, 2022.

— JS

Tiger Tail and Moon Mist

John Scalzi

Here on Sunday at Hal-Con, and I was presented with two regional favorite ice creams: Tiger Tail, which is orange ice cream with a ribbon of black licorice, and Moon Mist, which is basically banana bubble gum. The Moon Mist was a little much for me — 11-year-old me, the one who would shove an entire package Bubble Yum into his mouth at one time, would have loved it — but the Tiger Tail was pretty great, and I ate the entire bowl presented to me. The was followed by probably the most intense sugar rush I’ve had in a decade. I’m back in my hotel room now, managing the crash.

Also, Hal-Con is now at its end, and I had a genuinely lovely time at it. Everyone was super nice, people seemed happy to see me, and the staff and volunteers were just terrific. As the kids would say, A++, terrific con, would attend again. Although next time I might not eat an entire pint of ice cream at one go. Time for a nap.

–JS

Welcome to Halifax

John Scalzi

When the folks at Hal-Con asked if I would come visit their convention, I said I would if they supplied me with Coke Zero, Tiger Tail ice cream, and a framed picture of either Halifax’s own Sarah McLachlan, or, if one were not available, at least one member of the band Sloan (also Halifax’s own). As you can see, they gave me framed pictures of both, and threw in (Halifax’s own!) Anne Murray to boot! Plus ketchup chips! And hickory sticks! And chicken bones! Among other things. No Tiger Tail ice cream yet, but the fridge in my hotel room doesn’t have a freezer, so that’s reasonable. There’s time for it.

In other news, hello, I’m in Halifax, here for Hal-Con. It’s been lovely so far. As soon as I got my stuff stowed away, I set out in search of a (Halifax’s own) donair, the local spin on the gyro, basically, and enthusiastically consumed it. Now I am full and immobile on my hotel couch. Also, as I drive into town there was this:

A good omen for the weekend, if you ask me. If you’re in the area, hope to see you at the convention. If you’re not in the area, well, try to have fun anyway.

— JS

Universal Yums: October 2022 Review

Athena ScalziHello, everyone, and welcome back to another Universal Yums review! If you’ve missed my other reviews, Universal Yums is a snack box company that features snacks from a different country every month. This month, we have Spain, which is actually the first country I ever got back when I used to get Universal Yums in 2019 for a few months.

I was interested to see if they had any repeats from the first Spain box I got, but it didn’t appear so. Some similar items, perhaps, but none that were like the same brand or flavor, I’m pretty sure.

Of course, I had to have a companion to snack with, so you’ll be getting my opinion, and theirs! So let’s just get right to it.

I was most curious about the Fried Egg & Sea Salt Chips:

A black chip bag with an image of a fried egg on the front, alongside an image of a couple of potato chips. The words on the front read

Several potato chips spilling out of the bag, onto the table. They look like kettle chips and several are folded over themselves.

I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect from these chips, but they absolutely nailed the flavor. It tasted just like an egg, more specifically it had a very yolky flavor. I was surprised how accurate it was to its intended flavor, but I suppose all things are possible through science (or magic). These chips were definitely on the extra crunchy side, much like a kettle chip. I really enjoyed these, and gave them an 8.5/10, because while they’re definitely good there’s almost always room for improvement. And my friend gave them an 8/10.

I wanted something a little less intense after that eggy punch, so I opted to try these Honey Butter Corn Puffs:

A blue and orange package of corn puffs with a giant M on the front.

Pale yellow, almost white, corn puffs spilling out of the bag onto the table.

I am a huge fan of honey butter flavored things, so much so that my favorite chips in the world are the Haitai Honey Butter Chips from Korea. So I was excited to try these, but they were a bit underwhelming (why isn’t anyone ever just whelmed?). They had the consistency of a cheese puff, and the flavor of movie theater buttered popcorn. I was expecting a bit of a sweeter flavor from the honey, but it was mostly just butter flavored and lacked that honey aspect. They weren’t bad but they weren’t particularly good, definitely on the meh side, so they earned a 6.5/10 from me, and a 6/10 from my friend.

Switching to a fruity vibe, these Sour Kiwi Gummies were up next:

A green bag with the words

Three kiwi slice gummies outside of the bag sitting on the table. They are covered in the sour sugar.

Other countries always seem to have less intense versions of what the US has when it comes to things like sweets, or in this case sours. Unlike Warheads or Sour Patch Kids, these kiwi slices were subtly sour, and barely made us pucker. I honestly prefer weaker sour candy because I like my tongue to be intact when I finish eating something. These were really tasty in terms of fruitiness, and it didn’t taste super artificial or chemical at all. My only complaint with these is that their gumminess had a bit too much chew to it and was more along the lines of leathery. Fruit leather is good, too, but very different from gummy. Overall, these were an 8/10 for me, and a 9.5/10 for my sour candy fiend friend.

After something sour, you gotta go for something sweet, so we had these Cocoa Dusted Salted Caramel Truffles:

A white box of truffles, showcasing the truffles on the front of the box alongside images of caramel squares.

The chocolate, shaped like a big Hershey kiss, dusted in cocoa powder.

These chocolates honestly just look like big Hershey kisses, but they have a way better mouth-feel and flavor. They were softer than I expected when I bit into one, and it sort of melted in your mouth right away. I thought the salted caramel flavor was pretty prevalent from the get-go, but my friend said it mostly just tasted like chocolate. It wasn’t overly sweet like a lot of salted caramel flavored things are, and there were a ton in the box. This was a great snack, and I deemed this one a 9.5/10, while my friend gave it an 8/10.

Back to something with a crunch factor, we tried the Lemon Pepper Chips:

A white and yellow chip bag that reads

Potato chips spilling out of the bag onto the table. You can see the flecks of pepper on each chip.

I’m a sucker for citrus flavors in things that are not usually citrus flavored, like chips! And these were definitely lemony! To me, at least. My friend said they weren’t really getting that lemon flavor, maybe on the back end but certainly not upon eating. I totally disagreed, I thought they were quite lemony. They did have an odd aftertaste, though, so that made me want to not eat them as much. They were the same brand as the egg ones from earlier, so they still had that almost kettle chip type of crunch to them. These were a bit of a miss for me, so they only got a 5/10, and a 6/10 from my friend. I think the Limon Lays are much better if you like citrus chips.

Onto the things I feared most in the box, the Spicy Mango Gummies:

A red candy bag with big orange letters that say

A few of the orange slices of mango candy spilling out of the bag onto the table.

I knew I was getting myself into trouble with these guys since the word “spicy” was literally the first word in this candy’s name. Usually things like this have a slow burn, or heat on the back end, but these were immediately hot, and they did not come to play. They were hot; surprisingly so for one tiny little slice of mango candy! I will say that they tasted exactly like a ripe mango, so these were totally on par in terms of fruity flavor, but it was hard to appreciate that yummy mango goodness with my mouth on fire. Of course, I’m a total baby about spice, so if you actually like spice, you would probably enjoy these. These are good enough that I can recognize that if it weren’t for my spicy bias, I’d really like them, so I gave them a 6.5/10, because I can tell that there is good stuff goin on there, I just can’t handle the heat. My friend is much more spicy inclined than I am, and rated them an 8/10.

A yellow cylindrical tube with the word

Six orange discs of the circular candy coming out of the tube. They say Gold in black letters on them.

Okay, first off, these look just like those Advil pills that have that grossly sweet shiny coating on the outside that they warn not to give to kids because they’ll think its candy. This felt forbidden to eat. Aside from the appearance, they were a lot like harder M&Ms, specifically the white chocolate M&Ms. These had a strong caramel flavor and were extremely sweet. The tube also reminded me of the tubes that the Fun Size M&Ms come in with the pop-lid , so that was a fun packaging choice. These were pretty good, nothing special but a decent enough candy, earning them an 8/10 from both of us.

Continuing on with the candy trend, we tried this Milk Chocolate Peanut Cream Wafer:

An orange and yellow candy bar package that says

The candy bar laid out on the table. It is one bar consisting of four individual bite sized sections. The candy bar is drizzled with a darker colored chocolate than what the candy is covered in.

The bar broken in half so you can see the cross section. The middle is filled with the peanut cream.

I expected this to be a lot like a Reese’s, but was surprised by the crispiness the wafer brought to the table. The contrast in textures between the peanut cream and chocolate vs the crispy wafer was really nice, and it wasn’t overly sweet. It didn’t exactly have a peanut butter flavor, since it was peanut cream instead of peanut butter it had a bit of a different taste to it, but it was quite good. I gave this wafer an 8.5/10, and my friend gave it a 9/10. I would probably buy this at a gas station if I saw it on the shelves.

Moving on to yet another piece of candy, we have this Chocolate Pine Nut Candy:

A hard candy wrapped in a beige striped foil wrapper.

The candy unwrapped. It is just a small brown blob that looks like a deformed square of chocolate.

While this is definitely a piece of candy, it tastes like something that should not be candy. Like, the flavor did not exactly say “candy” to me. It wasn’t sweet, and the flavor was so off, like it was expired or something. It didn’t taste like chocolate, and it didn’t taste like pine nuts, so I’m not sure exactly what it did taste like, but it wasn’t good. It was hard at first, and then after some chewing and really working it around, it softened up quite a bit and made sure to stick in your teeth. It was a 3/10 from both of us.

Finally, these Pistachio Toffees:

A piece of candy wrapped in gold colored foil.

The piece of candy unwrapped. It's a small light brown square, resembling a piece of caramel.

Okay, whoever made these has clearly never tasted a pistachio before, because this tasted like cherry cough syrup. Not even in a subtle way, just like straight up medicine. This was such a nasty candy, with that same hard to chewy consistency that the previous candy had. My friend couldn’t even finish it, and just ended up spitting it out and drinking water immediately after. It was super unpleasant, and I hope to never eat one of these again. 1.5/10 from both of us. It was almost a 1, but there’s definitely worse we’ve tried. But, yeah, this was icky.

All in all, this box was pretty decent! Nothing super stellar but it had such a great variety of flavors and textures. Lots of candy, lots of chips, both of which I love, so I can’t complain too much on this box. Not my favorite, but still good. I can’t wait to see what next month’s box has in store!

What looks the best to you? Have you ever been to Spain? Let me know in the comments, and have a great day!

-AMS

Pepsi Points and the Jet: A Column From 1996

John Scalzi

They’re making a Netflix documentary series about the time in the 90s a kid tried to get a Harrier jet from Pepsi, based on a commercial the soft drink maker put out on TV. As I watched the trailer, I had a vague memory of writing a column about it at the time. I checked the archives, and, indeed, I had! Here it is, from all the way back in 1996. That’s (counts on fingers) oooooof, a long time ago.

Anyway, if you were not aware of my existence in the 90s and wonder what sort of stuff I was writing a quarter century ago, here you go. I think you can see how I went from how I was writing then to how I am writing now pretty clearly. I will say that if I were writing the same piece today I’d do that last graf differently. The 90s were a bit more sexist than today, and at the time I was happy to be dude-ish for a punchline. We live and learn.


PEPSI POINTS AND THE JET

How much Pepsi would it take to get a Harrier Jet?

The question has relevance because someone, specifically John Leonard of Lynwood, Washington, is suing PepsiCo, the makers of Pepsi. PepsiCo won’t give him the Harrier Jet that he says they said they would give him if he collected 7 million “Pepsi Points.” Pepsi Points are credits that PepsiCo gives you for consuming their brown beverage — drink enough Pepsi, and you can get various trinkets from a catalogue they provide. They’re like Green Stamps, only carbonated.

One of the ads for Pepsi Points featured a 13-year-old kid who racked up 7 million Pepsi Points and redeemed them for a vertically-launching Harrier Jet. The kid was using the Harrier Jet to commute to school, which admittedly would have had some advantages (no traffic except for the occasional, very surprised helicopter; also, coming to school equipped with Sidewinder missiles tends cut down on the amount of homework teachers are willing to assign you).

Most folks who saw this commercial showed a rather un-American lack of initiative in pursuing the 7 million Pepsi Points, but Leonard, full of the moxie that made this country great, saw a golden opportunity. After all, Harrier Jets generally go for $70 million. Oh, sure, occasionally you can get a million or two chopped off the asking price, but you usually have to be an ally of the US, and have fought a war or two on the same side as us (or be France). The average Joe, on the other hand, presuming he could even get his hands on a Harrier, would have to pay the full dealer markup — which of course doesn’t include tax, title and delivery, or things like air conditioning or a cassette stereo.

But PepsiCo, who had apparently somehow managed to acquire a Harrier Jet (presumably the Cola Wars have taken on a new and more violent aspect), were getting rid of it for a mere 7 million Pepsi Points, which aside from drinking Pepsi can be bought at 10 cents a point. That’s just $700,000, still a lot of money — it takes Bill Gates almost 12 hours to make that much off of interest! — but a fair markdown from the Harrier’s listed sticker price. Leonard got some investors, got the $700,000, and approached Pepsi for the jet. Though we can’t know exactly what the exchange was between Leonard and PepsiCo, we can assume it went something like this:

Leonard: I’m here for my jet.

PepsiCo Representative: You’re nuts.

Leonard threatened to sue to get the jet. PepsiCo responded by filing for a Declaratory Judgement — basically asking a judge to tell Leonard to take his Pepsi Points and buy a clue instead. Leonard followed through with his suit, and that’s where it stands at the moment: Leonard on one side, PepsiCo on the other, and a Harrier Jet in between.

Ignoring the reality-based issues of this suit — such as the fact that PepsiCo never had a Harrier Jet, that its commercial was clearly meant for humorous effect, and that even if Leonard some how miraculously won the suit, the Pentagon would never give him a Harrier anyway — let’s deal with the theoretical aspects. I say that PepsiCo should give Leonard the Harrier Jet — if Leonard earns his Pepsi Points the way they were meant to be earned: by drinking his way through them. Just him, without help from anyone else.

Which brings us back to our original question: how much Pepsi would it take to get a Harrier Jet? According to an Associated Press report, it’d take 16,800,000 12-ounce cans — except in August, when points are doubled. So he’d only have to drink 8,400,000 cans, presuming he could drink them all in August.

It takes about 12 seconds to drain a can of Pepsi; the limiting factor is the mouth of the can. You could speed up the process of getting the Pepsi out of the can with something like rubber tubing (a “Pepsi Bong”), but then, there’s the set-up time getting the rubber tubing in the can and into Leonard’s gullet simultaneously. 12 seconds per can is as good as it’s going to get. That’s five cans a minute, 300 cans an hour, 7200 cans a day.

Assuming that Leonard, cathetered and with a nutrient IV drip to fulfill his basic life functions, did nothing else besides drink Pepsi 24 hours a day, it would take him one thousand, one hundred sixty six days and 16 hours to drink all 8.4 million cans. By which time, obviously, August would be over. He’d have to drink another 8.4 million cans to make up the difference. All told, Leonard would have to spend about 6 years and three months of his life doing nothing but drinking Pepsi to get enough Pepsi Points for the Harrier Jet.

That’s fair. If he can do that, I say he’s earned the jet. He’ll need a couple of other things as well (for example, a new digestive tract), but if you’ve drunk that much Pepsi, you can probably tuck a couple more cans of the stuff away to cover the medical expenses. I think it’s a solution that both PepsiCo and Leonard can agree on. I called PepsiCo, to see if they might be amenable to idea: Pepsi spokesman Brad Shaw declared, “I can hardly think of a better way to spend six years than drinking Pepsi non-stop.” So, John Leonard, get cracking!

Now, there’s another Pepsi Points ad in which these guys are drinking Pepsi, and every woman around them has turned into Cindy Crawford. I recently quaffed a Pepsi, but all the women near me persisted in being themselves. I think I may have a case.

— JS

The Early Vote Is In

John Scalzi

Athena and I beat the rush to the polls this November by voting early today. It’s become my tradition to vote as early as I can (presuming I know who I am going to vote for, which this year I very much do) to have it done and not worry that something will keep me from voting on the day, like pleurisy or being pinned under a car. I dragged Athena along because voting is more fun if you bring a friend or loved one — try it and see!

It will not come as surprise to any of you that this election there was not a single Republican on my ballot. The GOP has well and truly gone over the bend and become unapologetically bigoted and fashy; I don’t give my votes to a political party that thinks democracy is an impediment to rule. That being said, I live in a profoundly conservative area so I don’t pretend my local choices are likely to prevail. State-wide and in the senatorial race? Here’s hoping.

If you have the option to vote early, I really do encourage it. It’s a nice feeling to have exercised one’s franchise, and everyone who can vote early makes the election day lines for those who can’t vote early that much more tolerable. Do it for yourself; do it for others.

But whatever you do: vote.

— JS

The Woolly Bear Is Coming For You

John Scalzi

It’s Woolly Bear season, those being not actual bears but the caterpillars of a tiger moth, who wander around this time of year fattening up in order to freeze through the winter and become moths when it warms again, or so Wikipedia tells me. The rumor is that you can tell whether it’s going to be a mild or severe weather by how wide the orange band is on the Woolly Bears, but honestly, I can never remember the formula, and also the orange band always looks pretty much the same width every time I see one.

Also, the rumor that their hairs are poisonous is not true, but they can cause irritation by sticking into your skin like splinters. I didn’t touch this one in any event; I took pictures and then let it do its thing. I look forward to seeing it in its moth iteration… well, whenever that actually happens.

— JS

My Award-Winning Saturday

John Scalzi

Yesterday I picked up an award from my high school for Alumni Outstanding Achievement, and it was both delightful and a little nerve-wracking. I’ve picked up awards in front of thousands of people and didn’t bat an eye; this time it was in front of maybe sixty people I went to school with, who remember me when I was fifteen and just starting to write. They know me in a way that not many people do, or can.

Fortunately for me, they and the others in attendance were fabulous. My class and school mates gave me a standing ovation, and then did the wave, which was ridiculous and awesome. It was genuinely touching, and lovely.

I’ve mentioned here before how important my high school was to me and how formative it was in me becoming who I am today, but I’m not sure I’ve made clear the affection I have for my classmates and the other folks I went to school with, and how much that affection has deepened over the years. These are important people to me, and there’s kinship and camaraderie there that’s not just rooted in the time we spent at the school, but also everything’s that come after. To be recognized by my school and to receive this award in the presence of these friends of four decades standing means more than I can express.

And then, when it was all done, we went and danced our brains out and then closed out a bar together. What a great day. What a great night.

— JS

Exciting News That Must Remain Mysterious For Now

Athena ScalziHello, everyone! Today I have some good, but vague, news for you all! I have an exciting opportunity in the works, and will be job shadowing a position next week. I’m not going to say what the job is yet, but as long as the job shadow goes well, the position is mine! I figured it was about time I actually have some money in my bank account and quit spending all of my parents’.

Anyways, I’ll let you all know how it goes and what the job is once I (hopefully) secure the position next week! I just wanted to share because I’m pretty stoked.

Until then, please enjoy this photo of two cats I cat-sit in Santa Monica last week.

Two identical black cats looking up at the camera.

And have a great day!

-AMS

Loitering in Paradise

I’m now in high school hometown of Claremont, kicking back outside with my laptop and writing on the novel, albeit not with any particular intensity at the moment. Write a paragraph, be mellow for a bit, write another paragraph, rinse, repeat. I’ll pick up the pace soon, but for today I’m happy to go at a slower pace. It’s been an enjoyable time in California so far.

That’s all I have for you today. Hope your day has been enjoyable as well.

— JS

The Big Idea: J.S. Fields

There are many ways in which small indie presses and large traditional presses differ, and in this Big Idea for the anthology Farther Reefs, co-editor J.S. Fields identifies one that you might not expect. What’s this difference? Read on!

J. S. FIELDS:

Lesbians.

Okay wait. Hear me out. As someone who writes in both traditional and small press/indie spaces, it absolutely fascinates me how adult speculative fiction handles sapphic characters based on the perceived market. Big Five SFF, particularly sci fi and space opera, almost never market the work as ‘lesbian,’ f/f,’ or ‘sapphic.’ Instead the story takes the lead, and the characters just happen to be gay. 

Small press and indie tend to lead with the pairing, which can help the smaller audience find the books they’re after. In these spaces, ‘f/f’ tends to come first, and the type of story, romance, sci fi, etc., tends to come after. Sapphic books in indie spaces can therefore sometimes have an easier time finding their niche market, but directly targeting a niche market comes with its own downfalls. In particular, lesfic is currently experiencing a schism within the ranks: what does it mean to be a lesbian / what counts as ‘lesfic’?

Camp A, generally of an older generation (but not always!) remembers when lesbians could only be in books if they were tragic. They remember ‘kill your gays,’ they remember having to fight for women-only spaces. This camp tends to cling to lesfic being women who love women (bi women need not apply unless they’re ready to renounce men), wherein we define women as cis women whose biggest gender feels revolve around the butch/femme dynamic.

Camp B, trending towards younger generations, question why trans women are not more represented in lesfic. They wonder where nonbinary lesbians fit in, why intersex individuals are not represented, indeed, whether the term ‘lesbian’ itself is truly inclusive, as it can erase bi and pansexual women. The term ‘sapphic’ is increasingly embraced by this group as an inclusive look at the more traditionally understood term ‘lesbian.’

When the idea for a sapphic, speculative fiction anthology first came to me a few years ago, I was more interested in embracing the quirky tropes of the lesfic genre (lesbians on boats! Lesbians but also dinosaurs! Space lesbians!) than anything else. As stories came in and I got to read more on the depth of the sapphic experience, it became increasingly apparent that those at the margins of traditional lesfic were hungry for representation. There are thousands of books now featuring cis, white lesbians having adventures and sexcapades. Trans lesbians? Ace lesbians? Nonbinary and intersex sapphics? These stories are much harder to find. 

My dreams for the first anthology changed. I still wanted EXCITING PLANT AND FUNGAL ADVENTURE but, quite suddenly, inclusion stood at the forefront. I led the anthology with an editorial note about how we defined ‘lesbian,’ in the broadest and most inclusive way possible. The response was enormous. The anthology hit #1 across several Amazon categories. Reviews were glowingly positive. It just kept selling. For a group of authors and their editor who had just set out to write some fun killer plant stories with inclusive views of lesbianism, we were blown away.

It was with great delight then, I put together Farther Reefs, my second installment of sapphic adventure. This time I’m leaning into my all time favorite sub-trope ‘lesbians on boats.’ This time I’ve also broadened the contributing authors, expanding the included writing styles and representation. It is such a joy to contribute to sapphic speculative fiction literature not just in terms of broadening the tropiest of spec fic sub-genres (what if the stories had mermaids and pirates and tentacles and power play?) but to do so in a way that helps the most marginalized in our community feel like they, too, belong in sapphic spaces. After all, if we can believe in sentient space fungi, mammalian mermaids, and sexy tentacle creatures, trans lesbians, intersex and nonbinary sapphics shouldn’t even blip the radar. This is a chance for us all come together under a unifying cry: spaceships, mermaids, fungi, and breasts are all very cool.


Farther Reefs: Amazon | Barns & Noble | IndieBound | Powells

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The Big Idea: David Walton

Author David Walton offers us a glimpse into the past, the far past, in his Big Idea for his newest novel, Living Memory. Can the past be able to shape the future? Walton has thoughts!

DAVID WALTON:

Admit it: You wish you could ride a triceratops. As a child, I would have handed over my library card for the chance. Every kid longs to see a brontosaurus at the zoo, or touch a velociraptor’s feathers, or watch a pterosaur the size of the space shuttle soar overhead. 

I’m no longer a child, but I still long to see the world when fifty ton giants shook the ground and predators with teeth like railway spikes downed prey the size of armored tanks. As adults, however, we know that no matter how many Jurassic Park movies we watch, we never will. Those magnificent animals are gone.

But what if we could remember?

I started Living Memory with that childlike dream: Imagine a complex chemical that, when you smelled it, would launch your mind into the experience of a dinosaur from more than sixty-six million years ago.

Wait. Hard stop. Come on, David. Wake up and get a grip. You write hard SF, and this is the stuff of pure magic! How could such a chemical exist?

I once read some writing advice that said if you’re stuck with an idea, just dig yourself in deeper until you find a way out. So here’s another whopper for you: What if just before the Cretaceous asteroid hit, a species of dinosaur evolved with sapient-level intelligence, like us?

Even worse, right? A dinosaur civilization can sound pretty ludicrous—we imagine tyrannosaurs in tuxedos or stegosaurs sitting down for tea. But is a dinosaur civilization really any more ridiculous than a primate one? Is there some rule that dinosaurs couldn’t develop big brains and symbolic language? It’s mammalian prejudice, pure and simple.

Ah, you say, but why is there no evidence of this dinosaur civilization? Where are the cooking pans and pot shards? Where are the jewelry and weapons and building foundations? The answer is that my dinosaurs didn’t have any. Their technology didn’t follow a primate development path; like us, their culture followed their biology. Specifically, my dinosaurs had an exceptional sense of smell. It was their primary form of communication.

As a result, instead of iron and bronze, their technology started with the chemical and shifted into the genetic. And if smell is your primary form of communication, how do you create a written language to pass information to the next generation? Why, you develop a chemical that can use scent to store memories, of course.

Voila! Justification for my dream. But a technology doesn’t make a story. Characters make a story. So:

Meet “Easy Prey”, an aptly named dinosaur who’s at the bottom of every pecking order but discovers something no one else knows: an asteroid on its way toward Earth.

Meet Samira Shannon, the modern day paleontologist who discovers their remains. An Ethiopian orphan adopted by white missionary parents and currently working a dig in Thailand, Samira doesn’t fit in anywhere or have a spot that really feels like home. Despite that, she’s carved out a place for herself, excelled in her profession, and is stubborn enough not to let others push her around instead of doing the right thing.

And meet Kit Chongsuttanamee, a Thai paleontologist who discovers the ancient memory chemical clinging as residue to a very well-preserved fossil. He also discovers that the chemical can do a lot more than give immersive dinosaur shows. That revelation brings the unwanted attention of every national government to their dig site, eager to control the power it can give them.

If you breathed in the last memories my dinosaurs ever stored, you would see the day of the asteroid, when spears of red-hot glass rained down from the sky and whole forests burst into flame, when the ground heaved like ocean waves, and the sky darkened with rubble and smoke as the very air burned, and there was no place to hide.

The story of the dinosaurs is a tragedy. We know how it ends already. But what about our own story?

This was my big idea for Living Memory: a technology millions of years old that can store and replay memories, and the people—on both sides of the sixty-six million year divide—who must choose who they will be when faced with a coming cataclysm. Disasters tend to strip off the veneer of civilization and show people for who they really are. Like the passengers of the Titanic, will they risk themselves to rescue others, or will they trample everyone else to save themselves?

In Living Memory, humanity finds itself on the brink of war and facing an extinction threat every bit as dangerous as the Cretaceous asteroid. To survive, we might just need some help from the distant past.


Living Memory – USA: Amazon | Barnes and Noble | IndieBound | Powell’s | BAM | Audible

Living Memory – Canada: Amazon.ca

Living Memory – UK: Amazon.uk

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The Power of Concentration

Flying into California yesterday I saw something I’ve not seen before: the Ivanpah Solar Power Facility, which focuses the sun’s rays to generate power. I knew it existed but I’ve never seen it before with my own eyes. It is very bright, which is how I noticed it in the first place.

In other news, hello, I am in California, visiting friends and family and then this weekend going to my high school reunion, which is also my high school’s centennial celebration, at which I am also getting an award. Which is pretty neat if you ask me. California is lovely and it is nice to be back, for a few days at least.

— JS

The Big Idea: Mary Robinette Kowal

“The book was better than the movie!” What about when the book was inspired by a movie? Hugo Award Winning author Mary Robinette Kowal talks to us today about what inspired her to write her newest novel, The Spare Man.

MARY ROBINETTE KOWAL:

The Thin Man in Space — That’s what The Spare Man is. Not the novel by Dashiel Hammet, mind you, but the films that follow Nick and Nora Charles as played by William Powell and Myrna Loy. I adore these films. If you haven’t seen them, they’re about a happily married couple who solve crime with their adorable dog Asta. They were made in the 1930s are are often lumped into the noir category but are really murder comedies.

I wanted to write a murder mystery that was a playful as the films, also starring a happily married couple and their small dog. In space. I am a science fiction writer after all.

This is one of those novels where the pitch came first and then the characters and then I had to find the story itself. To do that, I watched all six of The Thin Man movies and started paying attention to the way things were constructed. The films are… uneven, shall we say. The relationship between Nick and Nora (and Asta) is always charming because of the actors, but some of the mysteries are so convoluted that they don’t make any sense.

In the good ones, every suspect has a connection to the deceased and a motive. There are clues that are easily misinterpreted until another clue puts them into a different light. And there are oddball characters that seem to exist only to give a sense of whimsy.

And, of course, a murder.

With those elements, I turned to one of my other favorite tools — inversion. I really enjoy taking a piece of a story and turning it to its opposite. In the films, Nick is the detective and Nora is the spouse who wants to participate in sleuthing but isn’t allowed.

Sure, I could have gender swapped the characters, but that still means the detective is doing the detecting. I’m more interested in stories in which a competent person is put in a situation where their competencies are irrelevant. That meant that my Nora — Tesla Crane — is still an heiress. Her Nick — Shalmaneser Steward — is still a detective. My Asta — Gimlet — is still a dog.

But let’s invert some things. Shal is placed in a position where he can’t investigate, even though he’s a detective, because he’s arrested as a suspect. Tesla has to investigate, but I strip her of her power — money — by having her travel incognito. That in itself is an inversion, because Nick and Nora are both famous within the world of the films.

And in my novel, Gimlet (the most perfect of dogs) is a service dog so she has self-awareness and discipline that her inspiration lacks.

When you watch the film and then read the book, you’ll spot one other inversion which is related to the murder itself. That is a giant spoiler, but I’ll just say that I’m really proud of that murder.

The other major driving force in The Thin Man movies comes via the conversations that Nick and Nora have in their pursuit of answers. When I plotted the novel initially, I figured out who the characters were and how Tesla and Shal could meet them and then I discovery-wrote the first half of the book. Usually I plot things out, but I hadn’t fully decided who the murderer was until I was about at the midway point following the Agatha Christie method of writing mysteries. What’s the Agatha Christie method? She didn’t plot her novels. I know, right?! She gave everyone motive and opportunity and then decided at the end which one was the murderer.

I didn’t go quite that far but I did wait until I had fleshed out the characters before deciding, because I realized that a lot of the fun of The Thin Man comes from the conversations, the banter, and the characters that they meet.

So for Shal and Tesla, I started with the characters, not the plot. Granted, I had to do a fair bit of cleanup after that. But each time I had to adjust an element, I thought about Nick and Nora Charles and tried to bring them into the 21st century. In space.

As I said, the Big Idea for this is pretty simple. The Thin Man in spaaaaaaaaaaaace!!!!


The Spare Man: Universal Book Link|Parnassus (MRK’s local store)

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s website. Follow her on Twitter and Tiktok. Access writing dates, classes, and more on Patreon. Find her on The Spare Man tour.

The Big Idea: Ever Dundas

There are typefaces that have passed into infamy for being terrible… but in HellSans, there’s one that’s gone just beyond being terrible into being terrifying. And for author Ever Dundas, this typeface is a metaphor, not for awful kerning and character design, but something altogether more sinister and troubling.

EVER DUNDAS:

I spent my childhood throwing up.

Halloween 1984, when I was five years old, I went guising in our neighbourhood and someone gave me nuts. Oblivious, I ate one. I would have felt a bit off at first, a strange taste in my mouth, then my lips would have swelled. Thankfully, my breathing wasn’t laboured, my throat didn’t close. I vomited, expelling the poison, and there began my journey of countless allergic reactions over the years.

I’m allergic to a very long list of foodstuffs, some discovered through tests, most discovered the hard way, but that moment when I was five years old and ate that nut, HellSans was born. It just took me almost forty years (and a lot of vomit) to translate that moment into art, the main catalyst being a colleague’s misuse of a typeface.


I went into work one morning to discover a slew of emails from a colleague all written in Comic Sans. The next day, I found another colleague doing the same. That evening I said to my husband, “It’s spreading, like a disease.” I immediately wrote a scene for what became HellSans.

In my early twenties I fell ill with Myalgic Encephalomyelitis (M.E.) and in my thirties I fell ill with fibromyalgia. I clung to my Comic Sans-riddled office job, desperately trying to hang on, making myself more and more ill by the day, dragging my pained and exhausted bodymind through the hours, collapsing at home, and doing it all over again.

Eventually, admitting defeat, I handed in my notice. But then what? What if you can’t work? Who are you then? What is your worth?

But maybe those are the wrong questions. Maybe I should have been asking:

What if society doesn’t work for you? What if you fall through the cracks of capitalism and find yourself in a dystopia?


The symptoms of M.E. and fibromyalgia include chronic pain as well as sensitivity to light and noise. I remember thinking about these symptoms and my numerous allergies and saying to someone, “Sometimes it feels like I’m allergic to the world.”

What if that was the case? What if you were literally allergic to society?

I ran with that, took “what if words could kill”, mashed it into visceral reactions to art and design, continued via food allergies and the pathos in being made sick by something that should be nourishing, leapt into political sloganeering via graffiti: “society is making you sick” and “capitalism is killing you”, and landed in the chasm you fall into as a disabled and chronically ill person when you can no longer earn a living.


HellSans is set in an alternative dystopian UK, where the population is controlled by its bliss reaction to the ubiquitous typeface. But there’s a minority who are allergic to it: so-called ‘deviants’. The allegory isn’t subtle; the discrimination against those who are allergic to the typeface was directly influenced by the way disabled and chronically ill people are treated in the UK under the Tories, a government who were investigated by the UN for human rights violations against disabled people.

The novel is released as we near Halloween 2022, and I think of that five-year-old, expecting safe and fun horrors, but instead skirting a little too close to death. She expelled the poison, an exorcism she repeated over the years. As a disabled adult, I expel the poison of a Conservative government and a health supremacist society that wants me dead, the poison transmuted into the ink that is now HellSans.

WARNING: may contain traces of vomit, serifs, and revolution.


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

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A Quick Moment of Foliage

I’m traveling a lot this month, which means my usual spree of October foliage photos has been interrupted, but now that I’m home for a couple of days I’ll try to get some shots in. That said, while I was in Kentucky earlier this week, I did get this lovely photo of a Virginia Creeper vine doing its thing, and it looks quite lovely. Yes, it’s often considered a weed, but one, “weeds” can be lovely, and two, it’s not my weed, so I don’t have to worry about, I can just take a picture of it.

In the category of weeds that are my problem, here’s some poison ivy in the treeline of my house:

It’s pretty. Don’t touch it. We will probably get an expert to come in and deal with it.

— JS

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