The Big Idea: Jody Keiser

Author Jody Keisner comes to us today with some classic advice: face your fears. Or at least, don’t ignore them. Open up about them! Explore them. That’s exactly what she does in her memoir, Under My Bed.

JODY KEISNER:

My Big Idea started as My Big Humiliation.

“What is your greatest fear?” I asked the room of college students on the first day of a creative writing class. The question was from the Proust Questionnaire, named after the French essayist and novelist Marcel Proust. I used the questionnaire to break-the-ice and create a sense of intimacy, which was crucial since we’d be reading about each other’s personal lives for most of the semester. Composed of questions ranging from “What is your idea of perfect happiness?” to “What is the trait you most deplore in others?”, it was thought to uncover someone’s true self. 

Though I’d been answering the questions along with my students for as many years as I’d been teaching, I’d never revealed my true self, at least concerning fear. My greatest fear was also what I then perceived as my greatest humiliation. And so, I kept this part of myself hidden: I was a thirty-something woman living in the quiet, middle-class suburbs, who was afraid of being alone in her home at night. In other areas of my life, I felt daring, tough, and a little wild, just not in my own house. Only my husband and sister knew my secret.

One year, without forethought, instead of my usual vague answer, I blurted the truth:

My fear arrives out of nowhere. I’m reading a book or drinking a glass of wine, supposedly enjoying “me time,” when I’m startled by the creak of a floorboard or a doorknob rattling. The normal sounds of a normal house settling—or unsettling. The feeling that I’m not alone overwhelms me. There’s only one way to be sure. I have to check.

I saw my absurdity through my students’ eyes as I stood before them in my Ann Taylor skirt and coordinating blouse and told them how I opened closets, tugged back shower curtains, looked behind the couches and chairs, checked every latch on every window and door, and finally got down on my hands and knees and peered under my bed. I was looking for a prowler, a man waiting to rape or murder me. I felt childish and exposed. Why did I tell them? 

After a moment of silence that felt like years, the unexpected happened. Well, first the expected happened and they laughed. But then a handful of young women admitted experiencing a similar anxiety on occasion. Most of my students didn’t think I was absurd—though, as one student said, perhaps I was a touch obsessive-compulsive—and one student approached me after class to discuss her own under-the-bed checking. The male students in the room were more apt to confess humorous fears, like being frightened of boogers or death-by-zombies, though one acknowledged being “spooked” after watching horror movies. My students and I talked about how although girls and woman are assaulted—and murdered—every day in this country, I was greatly overestimating the probability of it happening to me. 

Still, my being vulnerable and open with them about my odd behavior invited them to be more vulnerable in their writing, flaws and all, which made their work more compelling. Which, of course, was exactly what I needed to do with the memoir I was writing, too.

Under My Bed and Other Essays was born out of a need to understand this anxious, hidden part of myself and the origin stories of all my greatest fears. From there it grew into an exploration of how fear carried on in my life and, more broadly and universally, the lives of all of us and especially women and mothers. Through my research and writing, I came to understand that my fears weren’t entirely illogical and didn’t really “arrive out of nowhere.” They came—as many fears and anxieties do—from a whole host of interconnected places, such as:

  • media and film portrayals of horror and tragedy (“the chest chomp” scene in John Carpenter’s The Thing makes a cameo appearance in my memoir)
  • proximity to danger (John Joubert, aka the Nebraska Boy Snatcher, lived within ten minutes of my childhood home)
  • brain changes during pregnancy (scientists say that when a woman is pregnant, the part of the brain responsible for anxiety and fear increases in activity)
  • family trauma (I grew up with a father who had an explosive temper, though he has mellowed over the years)
  • mothering young girls (what do we teach our daughters about living in a society that teaches them to ignore their anger and rebellion and instead to always be accommodating and polite?)
  • the cultural objectification and sexualization of the female body (the nationally covered murder of solo runner Mollie Tibbetts, as but one example of thousands)

I was, for once, revealing my authentic self, searching out the darkest corridors of my mind, and in doing so, I uncovered an opportunity to connect with readers as they, too, struggled to keep their greatest fears from getting close to them. 

In a recent post on this blog, Patrick O’Leary writes: “As the shrink says in my Door Number Three, ‘The only terror that heals. The terror of being yourself.’” The act of writing this book and being myself helped me to overcome fear. I will, however, never live completely without it. Does anyone? Should we even want to? Fear compels us to act and make change.

Naming my fears was ultimately empowering for me, as I hope it will be for readers. I didn’t neglect the flip side of the coin in my memoir-in-essays: stories of hope, triumph, and love. Ultimately, it wasn’t only fear that propelled my writing—it was also fear’s antidote: curiosity. My beloved grandmother used to say, “Don’t be afraid. Try everything once.”

In memoir writing, the courage to be vulnerable is everything.

—-

Under My Bed and Other Essays: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|IndieBound|Powell’s|University of Nebraska Press|The Bookworm

Visit the author’s site. Follow her on Twitter

My Chicon 8 Schedule

John Scalzi

I’ll be at Chicon 8, this year’s Worldcon, starting tomorrow, and if you’re there, you’ll be seeing me doing public events at these times and places:

Friday, September 2, 2022
1:00 PM CDT: 45 Panels in 60 Minutes
Grand Hall L
Duration: 60 mins

4:00 PM CDT: Autographing – John Scalzi
Autographing area
Duration: 60 mins


Saturday, September 3, 2022
1:30 PM CDT: Reading – John Scalzi
Regency Ballroom D
Duration: 20 mins

4:00 PM CDT: What Happened After My Story Got Optioned
Grand Hall L
Duration: 60 mins

10:00 PM CDT: Saturday Night Dance Fever, Featuring DJ John Scalzi
Plaza AB
Duration: 180 mins


Sunday, September 4, 2022
10:00 AM CDT: The Journey from Page to Screen
Grand Hall K
Duration: 60 mins

2:30 PM CDT: Table Talk – John Scalzi
Crystal Foyer
Duration: 60 mins

Beyond that, I’ll be about, so if you see me, say hello! See you there —

— JS

The Big Idea: Bob Smietana

For years now, Bob Smietana has been a writer, reporter and editor for the Religion News Service, and as such has had a front row view of the changes in, and challenges of, religious organizations and entities here in the United States. Where is it all going — and where should it be going? In this Big Idea for his new book Reorganized Religion, Smietana has a few thoughts.

BOB SMIETANA:

What would happen if all the religious groups in your community were to disappear?

If every church, synagogue, mosque, temple, other house of worship closed its door for good, along with every faith-based institution were to close their doors for good.

Would anyone miss them?

That’s the big question that’s been on my mind the past few years—and the question that led me to write “Reorganized Religion,” a new book about the decline of organized religion and how it will affect us all.

The last few decades had been difficult for organized religion.

Less than half Americans belong to a church or house of worship, down from 70% in the 1990s. The average congregation has dropped from 137 people in 1999—when I first started covering religion for a living— to 65 people.

Thousands of congregations close each year.

Tens of thousands will likely close in the near future. And a growing number of Americans could care less about God and especially about organized religion—either because they have lost faith or because they no longer trust an institution that’s been beset by scandals and been turned into an engine of divisive politics.

Yet, behind the scenes, churches and faith groups are part of the glue that holds communities together. And they provide help when crisis hits or people’s lives are falling apart.

In Kentucky, as I write, an army of volunteers, many from faith-based groups, has descended upon flood ravaged communities: cooking thousands of meals, clearing away fallen trees, helping people sift through the wreckage of their lives. 

This kind of thing happens all the time. Faith-based groups provide tutoring and shelter, they run schools and hospitals, they resettle refugees, they comfort the grieving and care for those in need. When crisis strikes, they come running to help.

A friend of mine put it this way: The average person had no idea all things that churches and other faith groups do to make the world less awful. And we will not realize how much we rely on them till they are gone.

As a religion writer, I think about this all the time. If the decline of organized religion continues, what will take its place?  We don’t know. But if we don’t start thinking about it or about the ways that religious groups can adapt to a changing world, we will all be the worse for it.

When I started writing Reorganized Religion, I had a lot of data and hundreds of stories based my reporting over the last 20 years on what we call “the God beat.” But the idea of the book was too detached. I could tell you why, from a practical and perhaps utilitarian viewpoint why we should care about organized religion.

But that was not good enough. Eventually I realized that I could not tell people why organized religion should matter to them–if I could not tell them why it mattered to me. .

This turned out to be harder than I thought it would be.

My work as a journalist requires a certain amount of detachment. I don’t write about my own beliefs or practice or thoughts on how religion should be practiced. My job requires me to set my own beliefs aside to focus on other people.

So here’s why it matters.

At some key moments in my life:  the death of my younger brother, a crisis in our marriage, struggles with infertility—our church was there for us. They carried us when life fell apart and when we did not know how we could go on. And more than that, we found in our church a group of friends and a community we could rely on and place to belong and important work to do—work that was focused on helping others.  Without that, life might have been very different.

One other story about why organized religion matters to me—a story that helped unlocked the book for me. About midway through, I was stuck. The clock was ticking, I had a tight deadline and lost the thread of the book for while at a very inconvenient time. Then I thought of my mom and how organized religion changed the course of her life.

My mom grew up in poor home, the daughter of immigrants. Her father was a janitor, her mom a millworker and there was little extra money. Certainly, no money for college. Despite being an excellent student, my mom was likely looking at a future working in the mills like her mom.

Then she got a scholarship offer from the nursing school at St. Luke’s hospital in her hometown of New Bedford, Massachusetts. She took it and went on to have a long and fruitful career as a nurse, ending up as manager despite only having an associate degree. That scholarship opened up a whole new world for her.

Here the thing. In the mid-1950s, when my Mom got that scholarship, there was a great deal of hostility and suspicious towards immigrants, and especially immigrant Catholics. Some of the major religious magazines of the day ran articles about the Catholic Church taking over the US – and powerful politicians and leaders saw Catholics as a threat. There’s a reason, for example, why Joe Biden is only the second Catholic president in U.S. history.

And that hospital which was gave my Mom a scholarship? It wasn’t Catholic. Instead, it was started in the 1800s by Episcopal Sunday school class who knew their community needed a hospital and decided to start one.  That hospital then started a nursing that eventually offered a place to my mom—even though I suspect the founders were not thinking about Catholic immigrants when they started the hospital. They knew their community needed help and decided to build something that would help the community thrive.

That’s why this all matters to me. Because organized religion, in a real way, saved my mom and changed her life—and my life and the life of millions of Americans like us. I don’t want it to disappear while no one pays attention.


Reorganized Religion: Amazon|Barnes and Noble|Indiebound|Between the Lynes

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

The World’s Biggest Pooper Scooper

Because we live in the country and are not hooked up to the village of Bradford water supply, we have a septic tank, and because we have a septic tank, every five years or so the county comes by to check on it and make sure it’s in working order. The last time, everything was in order except for one particular part — think of it as a router for what’s coming out of our house — so we needed to get that repaired and upgraded. Here are the gentlemen who are doing that. They will also be cleaning out the septic tank. So I guess you could say that we’re dealing with a lot of shit today, here at the Scalzi Compound.

Also, no, I’m not sorry I just made that pun. Not sorry at all.

— JS

Church Update, 8/28/22

As summer begins to wind down, so too does the first phase of the church renovation. Things done since the last time I checked in here: Railing added to the balcony: Sanctuary floor and chancel finished (the pews, while out, are not in their final positions), new basement-level floors laid, one restroom refurbished and another new one installed. The kitchen is 90% done and there are few other things to be dealt with, including capping a chimney and installing bookshelves into the balcony area. It’s far enough along that we can start thinking about the next phase (furnishing and decorating the place), and that’s a pretty nice place to be.

Would that we would have been there sooner! But welcome to contracting work in 2022, where everything takes longer as the baseline, and to renovating an 80-year-old church, where there’s always something unexpected to deal with, pulling completion dates further into the future. Still, good to be within sight of the finish line for this part.

— JS

The Big Idea: Randee Dawn

Life is short… but TV is forever. Author Randee Dawn plays with a fantastical variant of this sentiment with her new novel Tune In Tomorrow.

RANDEE DAWN:

Who wants to live forever?

One great thrill we get from writing and reading fantasy, science fiction or even horror is about imagining creating and watching creatures who toy with mortality. Ancient demons, immortal gods, fae with unknown lifespans, potions that turn back the clock. We’re fascinated with tweaking time – and simultaneously terrified by it.

Time weighs on me now more than it did in my 20s or 30s; there are more “never gonna do that” listings in my bucket list column than there used to be. Mostly because there’s no time. My body tells me that. My patience is shorter, my attention span shifted. I get cranky at things that waste my time, because they feel like theft.

When I first started writing Tune in Tomorrow, a book that muses on what a reality TV show/soap opera created by mythical creatures, for mythical creatures – but starring humans – would look like, I confess that I didn’t give the nature of time much thought. After all, Tune‘s a funny book (if I’ve done it right) full of slapstick, puns and backstage shenanigans. I’m an entertainment journalist and trust me, I’ve seen some stuff.

But time was always part of the story. The title even harks back to classic cliffhangers soaps relied on, suggesting the answers you crave will all be there if you tune in … tomorrow. Many soap actors devote their careers to one character, one show. So what would it be like to work among creatures who live for hundreds, if not thousands, of years – who’d want you, a puny human actor, to stick around longer than their molting cycle? What would it like for them to confer a “prize” (an “Endless Award,” in the book) for your talent that gave you immortality – so long as you were employed on the show?

Weirdness would ensue, to say the least.

In one way, it’s an ideal solution to the conundrum of never being able to die: immortality, but conditional. Exit when you’re ready (in my world, you don’t turn into a heap of dust with all your years accruing at once) and live as long as you want. After all, immortality ranks up there with almost everybody’s top three super wishes (right after flying and invisibility).You could do All! The! Things! You could invest your money wisely and spend hundreds of years tending your portfolio. You’d be wealthy and … forever young. Or young-ish.

But I wanted to explore what this would feel like beyond a thought experiment. Long life is a double-edged sword, something people my age are only starting to comprehend. We’ve already read the moaning and groaning of creatures like vampires, who’re purely exhausted with all the chasing down of victims, the sameness of meals every day. Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire got it right – it takes stamina to be a bloodsucker decade after unending decade, until Buffy catches up with you.

For humans, this is exponentially more horrifying. Mortality introduces stakes to a life (not wooden stakes, we’ve moved on from vampires now), while immortality removes them. Like a river you’ve stepped out of, the world moves on without you. Loved ones and friends die. Politics, entertainment, culture, medicine – everything goes on, while you stay fixed in place. Actors in the book stop going back to the “real” world on the other side of the Veil, living full time on sets and in dressing rooms, with the occasional jaunt to protected areas of the fae world. Meanwhile, the real world becomes its own alien landscape, made all the more so because they no longer participate in it. They’re like Severance‘s “innies” – cut off from anything but their jobs.

I feel this pain, now that the car I’m driving has crested the hill of middle age and is heading faster and faster toward … well, you know. There’s a line from The Breakfast Club that used to make me well up like a baby when I watched it as a teenager: “When you grow up, your heart dies.” Tragic! Unfeeling adults, lazy and comfortable! Yet that’s not it – as I understand now, it’s not that your heart dies, but you become less relevant to the world even as you live in it. Everyone on TV feels like they could be your kids’ or your grandkids’ age. The soundtrack of the zeitgeist – Muzak, music in movies, lyrics – is not your music. Technology advances come and go so fast they’re like quicksilver in your fingers. And then you learn that three of the four Golden Girls were in their late 40s or early 50s on the show. You’re behind the times, not ahead or even in the middle of them.

The world moves on.

It takes more effort to remain in touch these days. It’s tempting to stay in my own version of a dressing room, to withdraw and engage. To understand only the things I already know and say “enough.” To stop listening to new songs or watch new movies. So I actively push back. I listen to Billie Eilish (who’s already mainstream). I think about what it’s like to grow up as this generation, in this version of the world. I try to taste the world as it is, not as I want it to be, so I won’t get stuck. So my heart won’t die.

One character in Tune in Tomorrow is terrified of losing their position on the show, and that fear makes them do terrible things. To be thrown out into the cold, into the “real” world, is a horror that justifies them doing anything to protect their station. But it’s not sustainable. Something has to change. It may take a newcomer, a rising star to upend the way “forever” has always worked.

Because the way “forever” has always been, doesn’t have to be … forever.


Tune in Tomorrow: The Curious, Calamitous, Cockamamie Story Of Starr Weatherby And The Greatest Mythic Reality Show Ever: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

Universal Yums: August 2022 Review

Athena ScalziHello again, everyone! Today I’m back with another Universal Yums review. This time it’s the August box, so I’m just barely fitting it in before the end of the month. Hard to believe it’s almost September already!

In case you haven’t seen my other posts over Universal Yums, it is a subscription box company that sends you snacks from other countries, and each month is a different country. This month, I was surprised to open the box, and find that the location was an entire continent, rather than just one country.

Behold, the South American box!

The Universal Yums box, the assortment of snacks arranged so that everything is visible. The map of South America that was included in the box is the background, behind the snacks.

This box came with eleven different snacks.

All of the snacks from the box, laid out in three rows on the table.

In the booklet that describes each snack and whatnot, it told you which country in South America each individual snack was from, but still I found it odd, as I’ve never seen them do a whole continent before.

Anyways, I got my dad to help me out with this one, and we took turns picking which snack to try. First up was this package of Fried Corn Snacks:

A white and brown package with the word INKA on the front in black. A small purple circle in the bottom right hand corner contains the words

The corn snack spilling out of the bag onto the table.

Upon first glance, these look a lot like unpopped popcorn kernels, but bigger. Because of this, I expected them to be very hard, but they were actually much softer than anticipated, and my dad said they were softer than regular corn nuts. They ended up tasting super similar to plain popcorn as well, and even looked like unexploded popcorn on the inside. They were awfully dry, and eating too many definitely required some water to go with it, but my dad and I agreed they’d be a fine addition to something like a party mix or bar mix. However, we also decided we wouldn’t really go out of way to eat them, as they are fairly meh. I gave these a 6/10, and my dad settled on a 6.5/10.

Switching to something sweet, we tried this Yogurt Flavored Plum Cake:

A light blue rectangular package with the words

The cake, removed from its package but sitting on top of it. It is in a cupcake liner type thingy, and is unimpressive in appearance, just a small light brown cake.

Our immediate thoughts were “this doesn’t taste like plum at all”. Not only was no plum detectable, but it really didn’t taste much like anything at all. It wasn’t bad, but it was just a very standard little sponge cake. It was like a plain angel food cake you buy at the store before you take it home and add strawberries and whipped cream. Confused by the lack of plum, we looked at the ingredients and found out that there truly was no plum at all in it. No plum flavoring, plum extract, or mention of plum at all. Perhaps it’s like how we call our cakes sponge cakes, but there is no sponge actually in the sponge cake? Anyways, it was pretty simple, but tasty, so we both gave it a 7.5/10.

Next, we tried these Lemon Plantain Chips:

A white chip-bag type package with black letters that read

The plantain chips spilling out of the bag onto the table. Most are broken in half or pieces rather than whole chips.

Holy MOLY y’all, these things were like a punch in the face. Putting one on your tongue was like battery acid. There was no actual taste of lemon, just a pure shot of citric acid. Now this isn’t to say that they’re bad, though, in fact I think they’re pretty good, and they’re definitely addicting despite the discomfort that is sure to ensure upon eating more than like, two of them. They’re pleasantly crunchy and not really as hard as banana chips tend to be. We recommend that you don’t put these flat on your tongue or let it sit too long without chewing it, cuz that zing of acid is no joke. I went with a 7.5/10 for these, and my dad rated them a 7/10.

Back to sweet, we have these Candy Coated Cookie Clusters:

A light blue bag that reads

The cookie clusters, spilling out of the bag onto the table. They are off-white and black.

Now here was a totally bomb snack. These little clusters were the perfect mix of crunchy cookie and creamy candy coating. They were just like an Oreo, but more chaotic. My dad said they were like a frosted animal cracker that had a transporter accident. And he was right, they did taste a lot like frosted animal crackers, but definitely have more of the appearance of an Oreo. Whatever they resembled, they were delicious, and got an 8/10 from both of us.

Trying out something spicy, we went for these Chili Pepper Flavored Bites:

A small shiny green bag that reads

The small snacks spilling out of the bag and onto the table.

I was afraid that these would be fiery hot, but they were pretty mild, enough so that they didn’t hurt me, anyway. They were actually very light little airy things, with the texture of Goldfish crackers. They were also very forward with the heat, so you didn’t get that sort of kick on the back end that spicy snacks usually have. I liked them well enough that I would be very interested in trying the other flavors they come in. For me, these earned a 7/10, and my dad gave them a 7.5/10.

Up next was this Coconut Rice Crispy Bar:

A rectangular granola-bar looking thing with a dark green package and bright yellow lettering.

The bar, tilted to show the camera the candy coating on the bottom.

Imagine a Nature Valley bar but way better and without the insane mess. This coconut bar is very coconut-y, and pleasantly sweet. So if you don’t like coconut, definitely don’t try this. It looked crunchy, but it was pretty soft! It was nice, and I could totally eat one of these like every day. The candy coating on the bottom was a surprise, but only added to the yumminess. I gave this bad boy a 9/10, and my dad went for an 8/10.

Here we have another snack from the cookie cluster company, but this time it’s White Chocolate Covered Peanuts:

A purple package that depicts peanuts being dunked into a puddle of white chocolate, causing a splash.

The peanuts, white little ovals, spilling out of the bag onto the table. They have a strange pattern on them.

Okay can we just talk about the strange pattern on the outside? They look like dinosaur eggs or something. That wasn’t the only unexpected thing about these peanuts though. My dad and I were imagining something along the lines of a peanut M&M, but they were totally different. They weren’t waxy like the M&Ms are, and the peanuts were strangely crispy instead of chalky. In fact, on the ingredients list, it specifically says “crispy peanuts”. Not sure what that means, but you can definitely tell the difference. Overall, it was an 8/10 from both of us.

Going into fruity territory, we have these Fruit Flavored Gummies:

A multi colored bag of gummy candies.

The multi colored gummy candies spilling out of the bag onto the table.

These gummies were chewy like a Sour Patch Kid, but they were covered in sugar instead of citric acid, making them an extra sweet treat and offering some contrast to the gumminess of the candy itself. There were three flavors: orange strawberry, cherry pineapple, and cherry strawberry. After tasting all three individually, we decided that the orange strawberry was the best one. I could definitely polish off this whole bag if left unchecked, though. It earned a 7.5/10 from me, and a solid 8/10 from my dad.

For the last of the regular snacks, we had these Lemon Cookies:

An off white package of light brown shortbread cookies, lemon flavored ones more specifically.

Three of the shortbread cookies laid out in front of the bag of cookies.

It doesn’t get much simpler than these cookies right here. Lemon, shortbread, what could be better? These cookies were simple, classic, lemony goodness shortbread with not much else going on. Have them at tea time! Or don’t, I’m not your mother. They got an 8/10 from me and an 8.5/10 from my dad.

Moving onto the candies of the box, first up was this Coffee Flavored Chew:

A small piece of candy wrapped in shiny red and gold wrapping paper.

A small square of brown candy laying inside its shiny wrapper.

As someone who normally doesn’t really like coffee, this candy was pretty damn good. Even my dad thought so, and he likes coffee even less than I do. It tasted like coffee but if the coffee had tons of creams and sugars in it. It wasn’t too strong of a coffee flavor at all, honestly, and it was quite good. I would definitely love to have a bowl of these around the house. It got an 8.5/10 from me, and an 8/10 from my dad.

Finally, we tried the Passion Fruit Bubblegum Lollipops:

A lollipop wrapped in yellow and orange paper.

Two lollipops, unwrapped, both are yellow and orange and have black seeds throughout them.

Listen, I like lollipops as much as the next person, but these lollipops were next level. I’m talkin’ one of the best ‘pops you’ve ever had. It was so fruity, like eating the real deal, and perfectly sweet. And it lasted a while, too! Sadly, the bubblegum at the center was not very good, just a sad little wad of mediocre gum, but honestly who even cares about that part. 8.5/10 from both of us.

As you can see, this box was a total hit. The lowest thing on our list was the corn snacks, and those only got a 6, nothing in this box was even a 5 or below. This box did not miss. We really enjoyed each snack, as well as how much variety there was between the snacks. Although there was nothing that was a 10/10, this box was what we’d consider a jack of all trades box.

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

-AMS

The Big Idea: David Quantick

You have to hand it to David Quantick: He took a wild idea, and then, as the kids used to say, let his fingers do the walking (on the keyboard. I’m sorry. I will stop with the puns now). In this Big Idea, learn how the author finally got the idea for Ricky’s Hand out of his head, and onto the pages.

DAVID QUANTICK:

It was the oldest idea I had, but it wouldn’t go away. Like a zombie that was also an idea, the thing that should have died years ago along with all the other unsuccesful ideas for books and scripts was still out there, occasionally rearing up at me and trying to sink its teeth into my throat. But where the other ideas eventually retreated back into the basement, hissing themselves back into vapour, this one refused to go away: one day a man wakes up with someone else’s hand.

I liked the idea, which may have been inspired by me waking up with a hangover and looking at my hand like it was an interloper, but I didn’t know what to do next. If it wasn’t the hero’s hand, whose was it (I didn’t know)? Why was it someone else’s hand (no idea)? How is having someone else’s hand a story (it isn’t)? And so on. So the years went by and I left the idea alone. I wrote comedy scripts for British TV and novels that nobody wanted to publish and more scripts but the idea kept coming back, one eye rolling around on its cheek I pitched it to a British scifi comic book, and even wrote a synopsis, but they turned it down. It was time to take a hint, and I would have done but by now my books were being published and some of them were science fiction or horror or even both. 

It occurred to me that the idea might have finally found its time so I started planning it. This time, with the experience of both acceptance and rejection, I felt almost confident that I could make a decent story of it. I worked out whose hand it was. I worked out why it was someone else’s hand. And I realised what the story might be. Best of all, I had evolved a technique to help me write: pretending the novel was by someone else, which seems apt for the subject of this book. 

I’d written my first published novel, All My Colors, as a tribute to Richard Bachman, Stephen King’s seedier alter ego, even setting it in a King-appropriate 1970s. It had worked, and my attempts to pastiche “Bachman” and his era had freed me mentally to be more psychotic and tasteless as a writer. This time round, I decided my main character, the guy with someone else’s hand, would be based in Florida, a state I’d visited a few times, and he’d be a paparazzo in South Beach. Once this setting had been decided on, the next step was clear: my favourite author of Florida fiction is Carl Hiassen – Hiassen even sharing this book’s obsession with messed-up limbs. So the new book would be racy and comedic like a Carl Hiassen novel, with bursts of sick violence and dark laughs.

I had a world, I had a story, and now all I needed was a title. Most of my books take their names from song titles – All My Colors, Night Train, Sparks, Go West and even The Mule (maybe the only novel named after a drum solo) – so I thought of songs about hands. The obvious candidate was Fad Gadget’s astonishing early electro horror 45, Ricky’s Hand, about a man who loses a hand in an industrial accident. If I called my protagonist Ricky…

Everything was in place. The actual writing, which took about three months, was intense and seemingly relentless: it was as if I could only cope with the insanity of the story by not thinking about it as I hammered out the chapters. And then, a few weeks later, it was done. An idea that I’d had in my mid-20s had somehow survived until the next millennium, crept up behind me, and infiltrated my brains (or brainzzz).

Ricky’s Hand, boys and girls. I hope you like it.


Ricky’s Hand: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

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

GeForce Now: A Review

John Scalzi

In my writeup the other day about not getting a new computer (or, more accurately, about ordering one and then cancelling the order because of supply chain issues), I mentioned that in lieu of getting a ginchy new computer with a top-of-the-line graphics card, I got a subscription to the GeForce Now streaming service, which would allow me to play games on my current computer as if I had a shiny new graphics card, for $99 for six months, instead of the few thousand dollars a fully-specced-out new computer would cost right now. Was this a smart choice? So far, yes.

A little more detail about the GeForce Now service: It’s run by Nvidia, a company most famous for its computer graphics cards, which allow for the complex visuals of current PC gaming. The current Nvidia line-up is its RTX 30×0 series, from the relatively modest 3050s to the behemoth 3090s, the latter of which is larger than some actual computers. Among the things these cards do is “ray-tracing,” which allows for more realistic lighting effects in games, making it look like light is actually bouncing around in the game rather than just offering flat illumination.

Up until very recently the 30×0 series has been difficult and expensive to get hold of, not only because of the supply chain issues that have plagued the world over the last couple of years, but also because GPUs (the processors that run graphics cards) are really efficient for cryptocurrency mining. Wannabe Bitcoin barons have been snapping graphics cards of all kinds and driving prices to ridiculous levels.

The good news is, crypto crashed, which means prices have come down considerably recently. The bad news is, these cards are still really expensive: On Amazon right this second, a top-of-the-line RTX 3090 is $1,740, or, about the same as you would pay for an entire new Mac Air with the M2 chip in it. Naturally, this also means that buying a computer with an 30×0 card in it is commensurately expensive, even with dropping card prices.

So Nvidia apparently thought: Hey, if our graphics cards are hard to find and expensive, why don’t we just rent them to people, relatively cheaply? Thus, the GeForce Now service. For $99 every six months (or $20/month if you bill monthly), they set you up with access to a virtual gaming rig rocking an RTX 3080. You get all the benefits of the ray tracing and improved graphics, but those graphics are streamed into your computer rather than being native on it; it all takes place in the nebulous “cloud.” What you need to bring: A fast internet connection and the actual games, the latter being a significant differentiator from other streaming services, many of which include game access as part of their package.

I already have a lot of PC games via Steam, which integrates with the GeForce Now service, and my internet speed… well, it’s just barely fast enough for 1080p, 60 frames-per-second streaming off the GeForce Now servers. So I thought it was worth giving it a shot. I signed on, downloaded the PC application, connected it to my Steam account and fired it all up. After a couple of days of intermittent gaming, here are my thoughts.

1. GeForce Now does what it promises: Gives me next-generation game graphics on my current, two-generations-past computer, without the expense of buying a whole new graphics card and the rig to go around it. I fired up Cyberpunk 2077 (current-generation AAA game with ray tracing built in), Cult of the Lamb (current-gen indie game with cute but not complicated graphics) and Half-Life 2 (old game with graphics impressive for its day but now kind of clunky). All of them streamed from the virtual rig instantly, without complaint, and (in the case of HL2) with all my key bindings and preferences already in place because my Steam account had that information, and shared it with GeForce Now. It was a pretty seamless experience.

2. Seamless but not perfect — although that has less to do with the GeForce Now service than it does with my own Internet connection. My rural internet connection is 40mbps/sec down in theory — in practice it’s between 25 and 40 depending which second you poll it, and the speed is affected by whether someone is downstairs watching Netflix while I’m upstairs playing a graphics-intensive game. That being the case, from time to time I experienced stutter and warnings that my internet was slow, and that slowness was in danger of affecting my gameplay.

Again, that’s a me problem and not a GeForce Now problem, so I’m not holding that against the service. Also, as a practical matter these stutters did not have a huge impact on my game play. They were brief enough, and also I’m playing solo games, not massively multiplayer online games where every millisecond counts to avoid being sniped by a 13-year-old gamer who does nothing else with his time. For how I roll, this is not a real issue.

This also means that while theoretically I am able to stream games at 1440p or even at 4k resolutions, at framerates up to 120fps, again, as a practical matter, I’m at 1080p/60fps. I don’t find this to be a problem — 1080p is detailed enough for casual gaming and again I’m not playing games where every millisecond matters — but if you’re considering GeForce Now and have a less than perfect internet connection like me, it’s something to consider.

3. Also something to consider: While GeForce Now supports a large number of my games on Steam, it doesn’t support them all. It gives me access to 88 out of my over 400 purchased games, with the emphasis being on more recent and/or more popular games. My understanding is that GeForce Now is adding support for new and classic games as it goes along, so it’s likely that more games will show up in my queue eventually.

But again, it’s worth being aware that not every game is available to stream, and as I understand it, in some cases, what’s available to stream depends on it being in one particular store: Some games available through Steam are not available via the Epic Games Store, and vice versa. Also, there are some companies who just don’t offer their games regardless; Bethesda, which publishes some of my favorites like Dishonored and Deathloop, doesn’t, although they once did. So that is another thing to be aware of: Just because a game is currently on GeForce Now doesn’t mean it will always be.

So far, this reality is fine for me. I have 400 games but I don’t play most of them (I am, like many people, a victim of Steam Sale Syndrome, in which I buy older games at deeply discounted prices and then never actually get around to downloading them, much less playing them), and the older and/or indie games that GeForce Now doesn’t support I can download and play on my current computer. The graphics card I have (an Nvidia GTX 1080ti) plays them just fine. Newer, more graphics-intensive AAA games not on the GeForce Now service may eventually become something I have to consider (I suspect I would buy any Deathloop sequel or DLC regardless of its availability on GeForce Now), but I’ll worry about that later.

4. When games are supported on GeForce Now, firing them up is really easy. On Sunday I bought Cult of the Lamb on Steam; it was immediately available on GeForce Now for me to play. I didn’t have to download the game onto my actual computer (and haven’t so far). The instance of it I’m playing is on the GeForce Now servers. I’m digging it.

5. What I’m also digging: The fact that, since GeForce Now is a streaming service and all the processing is done on its side of things, the games themselves can be ported into any computer, including tablets and phones. As an example of this, here’s the frankly delightful spectacle of Cyberpunk 2077 on a Chromebook:

Am I going to play Cyberpunk 2077 on the Chromebook? No, because among other things my preferred keyboard control scheme requires a number pad. But I could. There will be other games I probably will play on my Chromebook, whilst I am traveling, just because I can now. Or on my other laptop, or on the M1 Mac Mini I have downstairs in the music studio. Or on my TV! There’s apparently an LG widget for GeForce Now. How about that. The portability of this service is a big plus in my book.

6. I should note that I got the GeForce Now RTX 3080 subscription plan, which is the service’s most expensive, which aside from the 3080 gaming gives me priority access to the service (I don’t have to wait in a queue for an available rig) and the ability to play for eight hours straight before the service punts me out. I don’t expect that I will in fact game for eight hours straight, because I am old and also have a job, but even if I did I could immediately sign back in and keep going. But, look, $99 for six months (so, $200 a year) isn’t cheap or practical for everyone. There are less costly plans, including one that is free (that one will make you queue, limits you to an hour, and doesn’t offer top-of-the-line graphics). If you’re curious about the service, you can check out one of those first.

Would I recommend the GeForce Now service? If you have a fast internet connection and don’t mind that some games aren’t available, then, sure. I’ve been well satisfied with it so far, and it’s doing what I want it to do: Act as a stop-gap current-generation gaming solution until such time as I decide to splash out again on a new gaming/desktop computer. And yes, I will eventually buy a new desktop computer, and when I do I will get a top-line graphics card in it, because as it turns out, those things are handy for other things besides gaming and destroying the planet by mining crypto. Now, however, I feel less internal pressure to get something immediately. That’s good for my wallet, and for getting a computer that’s right for me, not just what’s available.

For all those reasons, GeForce Now seems like a decent value for me, right now. It might be the same for other folks as well.

— JS

The Big Idea: Dan Koboldt

Heists! Dan Koboldt has been thinking about them — strictly for fictional purposes, honest! — and in this Big Idea for Silver Queendom, Koboldt gets into the nitty-gritty of what makes them work.

DAN KOBOLDT:

I love a good heist movie. It probably says something about me that my favorite film genre involves cleverly stealing something that’s worth a lot of money. Whether it’s another installment in a long-running franchise like Mission Impossible and Ocean’s Eleven, or a one-off job like Ronin or The Italian Job, I’m down for it. Imagine my delight when I recently found one on Netflix I hadn’t seen: a Gene Hackman film with the dead-on title The Heist. We truly live in a golden age of entertainment.

A few years ago, I decided I wanted to write a heist book. When I thought about my favorite heist stories from film, television, and books, and I realized that they all a few key things in common. Much like romance, mystery, and other genres, the heist story has a number of recognizable tropes. However, it seems to me that all great heists boil down to four key ingredients:

  1. The Score

It starts with the big score, obviously. Gene Hackman is a classic actor and his character goes after a classic prize: gold bars. Gold is heavy, which makes for some complications, but you can’t argue with the market value. Other favorite scores include jewelry (Reservoir Dogs), priceless artwork (Entrapment), incriminating evidence (The Inside Man), or the plans for the Death Star (Rogue One). Whatever the score, it’s usually something life-changing. 

Of course, it bears mentioning that things which are extremely valuable tend to be well-protected. It’s why celebrities have bodyguards and bank vaults aren’t made of balsa wood. So a big score often has an opportunity window. Maybe it’s being moved from one secure facility to another. With high-end art, often a piece becomes vulnerable when it goes out for restoration or a special exhibition. From a storytelling perspective, an opportunity window is a useful element because it adds urgency. When something about the window changes, the stakes can get even higher.

  1. The Crew

Arguably the best part of any heist is motley collection of characters who are necessary to pull off the job. It often starts with the mastermind, who’s often the protagonist of the story. He or she is usually an experienced con artist, excellent at the grift and a total mess in their personal lives. Danny Ocean is a great example. There’s usually a facilitator – often the mastermind’s number two — who brings all the right people and equipment together. Other members of the crew usually have specialized skills – safe cracking, hacking, demolitions, etc. – required for the heist in question. Recruiting the necessary talent is often a major plot point. Seeing them work in their element is absolutely my jam. 

  1. The Pressure

Great heist stories with compelling characters usually give us a deeper reason for the heist. We’ll make this big score and then we can retire is always a popular motivation. I guess that once you start dabbling in the criminal life, it’s hard to get out. Revenge is another common reason for trying to steal something. Usually, that means your big score is your enemy’s big loss. Yet I really like stories where an otherwise sympathetic criminal is forced to pull a heist by someone with leverage over them – blackmail, debt, or good old-fashioned threats of violence. 

  1. The Escape

Okay, this is the part most people love about a good heist movie. The dash for freedom with treasure in hand. Cut to the chase! It could be a high-speed boat chase or Mini Coopers zipping through subway tunnels. All you need is a great driver and a souped-up vehicle of some kind. It had better be fast, because the heat is coming just around the corner. 

Then again, one of my favorite escape scenes doesn’t involve speed at all. It’s in The Thomas Crown Affair (1999), when the master thief disappears into a crowd of body doubles all dressed the same and carrying identical briefcases. Clever getaway plans are usually a good idea, because your adversaries probably have a fast vehicle, too.

The Twist

I could have gone ahead and written a heist book that hit those four notes. But this is the Big Idea, not the Regular Idea. Nothing amps up a story like a good plot twist. So here’s mine: my book is an epic fantasy heist. Think crossbows instead of guns. Fast horses instead of fast cars. Dirt roads instead of subway tunnels. No one needs a burner phone because phones haven’t been invented (neither has electricity). The fantasy heist is almost becoming a subgenre itself. Six of Crows (Leigh Bardugo) and The Lies of Locke Lamora (Scott Lynch) are two of my favorite examples. I knew it could be done. All I needed was a supremely valuable thing that someone would want to steal in a society that hadn’t yet discovered gunpowder. 

Naturally, I went with alcohol. Not just ordinary booze, but a magic-imbued wine with highly coveted hallucinogenic properties. Imperial dreamwine. Ounce for ounce, it’s the most precious substance in the Old Queendom. Never duplicated, never stolen. If you boosted a shipment and got away clean, you’d be set for life. But as my characters find out, there’s a good reason that no one has managed to steal imperial dreamwine.


Silver Queendom: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound

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

More New Music: “8/22/22 (Perseus Galaxy Cluster)”

Photo Credit: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center/Stephen Walker et al, in the Public Domain

NASA’s Exoplanets Twitter account posted this yesterday:

John Scalzi

And I was all, huh, I wonder if I can make some music out of that.

The answer is: Apparently! Although I didn’t end up using the original audio file. What I did was make a MIDI file out of the original audio, quantize it for time and key, and use that for several individual tracks, time-stretching the information to 16, 32 and 64 bars, and then putting various voices and effects on the tracks. And then adding drums. As one does.

I mentioned all this to Athena, and she was, all “so, you sampled a black hole.” And, well. Yes! Sort of. I’m a science fiction author, I’m allowed.

The resulting track is a) short, and b) asymmetrical. It’s not a song; it’s a musical composition. And — this is a real surprise, I know — it’s pretty noisy. Once again, it’ll be up on music services in the next few days, but right now here is the only place to hear it. I hope you like it.

(Update, 8/24/22: It’s now up on the major music services, including Spotify, TIDAL and YouTube/YouTube Music)

— JS

(Not) Getting a New Computer

John Scalzi

My desktop computer has been slowing down a bit recently, and my graphics card is now several years old and questionable for a number of new games I wanted to play, and my C drive recently informed me it had only 5GB of space left on it. So I made the decision a couple of weeks ago to get a brand new, top-of-the-line desktop computer, and since I have neither the interest, or, frankly, competence, to build my own (I’ve tried it before, it ended… poorly) I went ahead and ordered it from Alienware (i.e., Dell). They took my money and told me it would be out for delivery by the 18th of this month.

Then on the 20th (i.e., after the 18th), I got an email informing me that the computer would be delayed until well into September, which is to say, more than a month after I had placed the order. I went to Dell’s site to see where we were in the production of the computer, and it turns out they haven’t even begun assembling it yet, i.e., there was no computer, yet, and no one had put in the labor to make it. The only actual thing that had happened at this point was Dell charging my credit card.

I had no real confidence that Dell would actually make the new delivery date, and by this time I was asking myself if I really wanted to spend as much money as I had laid down. After much soul-searching, and reminding myself how much the church renovation was costing us, the answer, it turns out, was “no.”

I canceled the order for the new computer and decided to make do with what I had.

So what to do with this older, slower, fuller computer? Well:

1. I purged the C drive of a whole bunch of memory-gobbling programs I had downloaded but either never used, or were obsolete versions of programs I did use. Lo and behold, a third of my C drive suddenly became free, which is more than enough space for my current needs and purposes.

2. I did the same to my D drive, which is mostly Steam Games, punting off the games that I hadn’t played in a year and/or opened up, played for a little while, and then never played again. Deleting them isn’t a problem these days since my settings for the games are stored with Steam, so if I reload them later, all my configurations will be ready to go.

One side effect of all the purging on both drives: The computer accesses the remaining programs faster. I especially notice this with Photoshop.

3. That doesn’t solve my older graphics card problem, however. My current computer is a compact chassis, and I’m not 100% sure that it will fit the current generation of graphics card, or that the motherboard will work with them even if I did make one fit. And anyway, as stated earlier, I am hilariously not competent in building/fixing computers.

So for that, I punted: rather than trying to buy a current-level graphics card, I’m renting one. Which is to say I got a GeForce Now RTX 3080 account, which allows me to stream a significant portion of the games I own on Steam with all the graphical bells and whistles, including ray tracing. There are some limits — my Internet account is only barely fast enough for it, which means I’m streaming games at 1080p rather than in full 4k glory — but at the moment it’s good enough. Also, because it’s streaming I’m not bound only to my desktop to play games anymore. I briefly played one of my games on my Chromebook last night, which, conceptually, was delightful. I’ll do a longer review of the GeForce Now service once I’ve lived with it for a bit, but so far I am not at all displeased.

Will I eventually get a shiny new computer? Of course. Computers don’t last forever, and there’s only so far purging one’s storage will go. Also, I am a nerd and I like shiny new toys. But at the moment I am feeling relatively smug that I got most of what I wanted out of a new computer, not for thousands of dollars, but for $99 (the cost of the 6-month GeForce Now subscription) and a couple of hours on a Sunday, clearing out unused programs. That seems like a reasonable compromise for now.

— JS

The Big Idea: R.R. Virdi

All legends have an origin. Author R.R. Virdi tells us a bit about how stories change, shift, and adapt over time in the Big Idea for his newest novel, The First Binding.

R.R. VIRDI: 

Something I wanted to tackle with The First Binding is the nature of stories: how they’re created, how they travel, change their shape, and evolve. Along with this, how words and names in stories change as well. Ari, the protagonist, is the main vehicle for this. We’re shown his life, past and present, and how his legendary (or villainy) reputation has come to be. Some by luck, bits by truths, and some through lies. But his stories and rumors have never held their shape.

How can any story do so over a thousand miles, told over time, and by countless tongues?

A real life example that inspired the word, Satan. We all know it as another name for the Christian Devil. But did you know the word originally comes from Arabic and Hindi, and it is said as, Shaitaan in the latter, Shaitan in the former. The most notable example of this in modern SFF is The Wheel of Time where it is used as another name for the primary antagonist of the series, The Dark One. Over time and travel, and no amount of western tongues probably being unable to pronounce it right, the word became Satan—soon synonymous with Lucifer.

This theme is something that will play out in Tales of Tremaine (the series) as names are traded, misremembered, mispronounced, and twisted over time and distance. Something that happens to Ari over the course of his life, and something he has seen happened to others. It’s part of how stories change and reputations are created. And it’s a very real thing that has happened time and time again throughout our own worldly history. 

So I went in very aware of this and wanted to use this as part of the world building in how stories change shape and so do names and facts over time. So keen-eyed readers (and re-readers) will find many more secrets and things hidden the more attention they give to the story, and the stories within stories. 

At first, this only applied to Ari as I figured he would be the best lens and focal point to show this with, but as the world grew, and as did my research, I realized they couldn’t be separate. 

People are informed and shaped by the stories they’re exposed to, and no story begins or shapes itself in a vacuum. They all borrow, life, and mirror many others. Some steal and twist to serve new cultures or environments better, or with more familiar and relatable characters. 

One example of this that I found in my Indo-European research is the analogs between Indra vs. Vritra (from the Indian epic, the Mahabharata,) and another god from another pantheon with a similar story. 

You tell me.

Indra is a storm god who fights Vritra, the three-headed serpent or dragon (his mantles and attributions change in retellings, also an important theme I tackle). Vritra is responsible for holding back waters (rivers) and keeping them from flowing, but functionally he serves more as an obstacle for the hero to have someone to defeat. 

The storm god uses his club, a proto-hammer, imbued with all the powers of a thunderbolt (sound familiar?) to slay the monster. Vritra has historically been related often to Jormungandr of Norse mythology. And if this myth predates that, well, who’s Indra’s later counterpart?

Not so hard to figure it’s another storm god with a club-like weapon famous for having thunderbolt attributions, albeit his most magical gift might be his lustrous blonde locks, at least as far as the silver screen’s concerned. The original Thor had red hair, for anyone who cares. But, hey, another way stories evolve, character’s change and take on new features and manners, right?

Tales of Tremaine was created to also showcase how real world stories, and those in this world, have all gone through this process, and how one person’s story can be scaled up to legendary, and how any legend can be brought back down to the personal.

How they grow, and how they can go wrong. And through it all, the idea that one person’s story can be an epic—IS an epic, and that they are also susceptible to rumors. Those things that can get out of control, and maybe sometimes add cool bits to legend and lore, but all the while, are affecting a real life living person.

I’m sure everyone’s had a rumor spread about them or shared in close circles. They can hurt, they can get out of control, and they can grow very malicious and untrue—usually both of those things and faster than people can realize.

Ari is no stranger to those, and neither are any of us. It’s a part of our history as a species. All stories borrow, lift, steal, twist and reshape things as we wish to see them (for good or bad), or have frame of mind to understand them.

So, this is the story of stories, and how they’re never all we think they are. They are always more. And separate fact from fiction in them is difficult, but it can be fun. 

Ari learns this over the course of his life as he tries to understand the stories of others, those he and his own—his place in the world, and the ones he’s crafted, whether out of hubris or a young man’s games, or to protect himself from dangers he has little other defenses for.

Hard living has taught him this, and will keep teaching him, that one of the greatest disservices anyone can do to another is not learning their whole and truest story. To judge them only by what we’ve heard or wish to see, not what the truth is. And it’s happened to him.

And I daresay it’s probably happened to many of us.


The First Binding: Amazon | Barnes and Noble | Indiebound | Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: Kate Heartfield

Author Kate Heartfield brings us an original story based in the wildly popular videogame series Assassin’s Creed universe. Come along as she unwinds the history of her newest novel, The Magus Conspiracy.

KATE HEARTFIELD:

Queen Victoria survived eight attempts on her life over the course of her reign, by seven assassins (one guy tried twice). Alexander II of Russia wasn’t as lucky – he dodged several attempts, but they got him eventually. It’s hard to think of a head of state of their era who didn’t get very close to an assassin, or a would-be assassin, at least once.

The latter half of the 19th century in Europe was an age of knives and bombs and ideologies. The widespread revolutions of 1848 mostly failed to overturn governments, but they shaped the rest of the century nonetheless. The next decades saw an evolution of communism, anarchism, and liberal nationalism – and a pushback from authoritarianism.

All of this was in my mind as I set about writing a novel about a brotherhood of assassins in that time and place. The Magus Conspiracy is set in the universe of the Assassin’s Creed videogames, with their opposing factions: the Brotherhood of Assassins, which fights for individual freedom, and the Templar Order, which fights for control so the Templars can shape what they see as a better world.

I wanted this novel to be satisfying for fans of the Assassin’s Creed games and to respect what I love about that universe, but to also be accessible and interesting for readers who have never played one.

And while I definitely wanted the novel to feel just as immersive in its own right as parkour on beautifully re-created rooftops, and just as exciting as a successful stealth mission, I was also eager to dig into the games’ philosophical underpinnings in fiction. (My first degree was in international and comparative political science, which may explain why I am that kind of nerd.)

The real history of the 19th century has a lot of parallels to our own time (and influences on our own time), but it’s also remote enough now that it offers us a way to examine how political violence does or doesn’t lead to more political freedom. 

Assassinations in particular can have wide and unpredictable consequences (the most famous example probably being the assassination of Franz Ferdinand in 1914.) Setting aside the ethical question of whether or when it can be right to take a life, the strategic calculation is seldom simple. And frequently, assassins’ goals may encompass more than just removing an individual from the world.

Take, for a more recent example, the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich in 1942 in Prague. Heydrich was a high-ranking Nazi, and one of the main organizers of the Holocaust. He was one of the most utterly evil mass murderers in human history, and history sheds no tears for him. 

It would have been completely unsurprising for Heydrich to be assassinated by anyone in Prague at any moment (assuming they could manage it) simply out of retribution or a sense of justice. And that desire for retribution did factor into the plan mounted by the Czechoslovakian government in exile. But it also wanted to demonstrate the strength of its country’s opposition to the Nazis, as a signal to the Allies. It wasn’t just about fighting the war with Germany; it was also about what the peace would look like afterward. The Special Operations Executive in Britain helped train two assassins. The resistance on the ground wasn’t sure whether the assassination would be worth the inevitable reprisals. 

And when Heydrich succumbed to a lingering death after a grenade attack on his car, the Nazis’ vengeance on thousands of innocent people was indeed terrible. Was it worth it, to change the geopolitical landscape? Was it worth it, to show the world that Nazis were not beyond the people’s reach? 

The axiom in Assassin’s Creed that “nothing is true and everything is permitted” suggests that consequences make a better guide to ethical decision making than a set of universal rules created by people, who are themselves fallible. But the consequences of assassinations can be difficult to weigh. 

Assassinations and attempted assassinations in the 19th century also had consequences beyond the rather satisfying one of reminding powerful imperial tyrants of their own mortality. Governments often responded by regressing to illiberalism and developing that century’s version of a war on terrorism.

So as I considered how to weave the real events of history into an Assassin’s Creed story, the first question in my mind was what strategic purpose many of these assassinations might have served, and who might have been behind them – and whether they made any mistakes.

I said on Twitter the other day, in response to a great Cory Doctorow post about how Tim Powers constructs secret history, that my own approach to building a narrative out of historical events sometimes feels like a corkboard with photos and string. I look for connections and try to build a narrative that feels inevitable, so that by the end of it, the reader feels like of course there was a secret Brotherhood of Assassins and a secret Order of Templars behind these events; it just makes sense. 

I love stories like this because they’re entertaining, but I also think one important thing historical fiction does is remind us that we are always building stories out of events. The way I just told the story of the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich may not be the way someone else would tell it. They might emphasize different things, ascribe different motivations. 

Unlike some characters in the Assassin’s Creed universe, we have no way of visiting the past to learn from it. We only have stories, which are, among other things, a way of asking questions.


Assassin’s Creed: The Magus Conspiracy: Amazon | Barnes and Noble | Indiebound | Powells

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Oh, Right, Governance

John Scalzi

I’ve noted before that I am posting less about politics these days, primarily because I find it largely enervating, and there are only so many ways to say “The current GOP is a white supremacist authoritarian cult who threw away any pretense at seriousness to grovel at the feet of an actual seditious criminal” before one starts to sound like a broken record. That said, for people who have an interest in actual governance, today wasn’t a bad day: President Biden got to sign into law the Inflation Reduction Act, which is actually mostly a climate and medical care bill, but, sure, call it the Inflation Reduction Act if you like, why not.

The act, now law, actually gets us a reasonable distance to meeting our climate remediation goals (knocks on wood) and helps shave down drug prescription and other medical costs, mostly for seniors. It covers a lot of ground, raises revenues to pay for the plans, and generally is a decent bill that does things as well as can be done when one entire party won’t vote for anything the other party proposed even if it were to build a golden shrine to Ronald Reagan on a national park land leased for its oil rights.

Is it a perfect bill? Not at all — Joe Manchin, who you see at left in the photo, and who was given the honor of the signing pen by Biden — made sure there were some oil and gas giveaways, and Krysten Sinema made sure very rich people continued to get a tax carveout on investments. Lots of stuff I would have been okay with was tossed over the side, and the whole thing in general is substantially smaller than it was when first proposed. From my point of view it could have been better, if, for example, the Democrats had had 52 senators and not 50.

But they didn’t have 52 senators, they had 50, and perfect is the enemy of good, and sometimes, if you can get half a loaf, you take half a loaf, because half a loaf is better than nothing. Then you find a way to stretch that loaf into something closer to what you might have originally wanted. Climate folks, for example, say that the bill just passed has the potential to achieve 90% of the climate goals of the original Build Back Better proposals, which, if accurate, seems a pretty good deal, all things considered. “I get everything I want or I set it all on fire” is not actually a good way to govern.

It also means that at this point Biden has done an actually pretty good job of carrying out his campaign goals, in terms of the legislation that’s gotten through Congress. He’s done a very poor job of communicating that fact to this point, because none of this legislation is really what you’d call sexy; it’s mostly blandly practical at best, and also, it’s debatable whether people actually want to hear about it. Biden was voted into office as much if not more to deny Trump a second term than anything else. But when you add up everything that’s gotten through Congress to be signed into law, well. Turns out Biden’s been pretty effective when no one’s been paying attention. Who knew?

What would be nice is if this actually turned into momentum for the Democrats keeping control of Congress; midterm elections rarely favor the party in power, and the GOP in particular has been busy trying to stack the House with gerrymandered districts. The Democrats will need every advantage they can get to hold that side of the Hill. Whether actual effective governance will be heard over the noise of criminal investigations of the former president (for starters) is what we get to find out. Remember to vote, folks.

But if the GOP does take the Hill, wholly or partially, and the brakes are applied to Biden’s legislative plans, he’s got these things done. We’re closer to not baking in our own juices over the next few decades, and we’ll keep some folks from not having to choose between rent, food or medications. It’s not nothing. In fact, it’s a lot of something. It’s not everything, but it’s more than I would have counted on even a couple of months ago. And it’s worth noting, and remembering when it’s time to cast your ballot.

— JS

Why I Like Making Music

John Scalzi

Mostly, it’s because I’m not good at it.

This is not me fishing for compliments. I am aware I can fiddle about and get something out of my equipment that is musical, and that it isn’t completely awful. What I mean is that my level of technical competence with the programs and instruments I own is relatively low, and that I am in the process of learning how to use it all, and every time I do, I’m learning something, and my baseline level of competency and proficiency goes up a bit. The learning part of this process is fun for me, as much, and at this point, possibly more than, the music that comes out of it.

And yet you have an entire album of music! Yes, well, and a) that album is crafted from loops made by others, not music I created myself, b) on software from nearly 20 years ago. While I have nothing against creating music from loops (I mean, obviously), it’s a different skill than creating music from instruments, which is what I’m mostly working on now, and the skill I learned using that software in the early 2000s does not entirely transfer to today’s music-producing software. When I picked things up again a couple of years ago, in many ways it was starting again from square one.

My learning curve on music has been relatively slow — we’re talking over years — for a number of reasons, mostly involving time, and how relatively little of it I have for it, but also because of personal inertia (I would have more time if I stopped faffing about on Twitter), and because the joy I have in learning new skills is also counterbalanced by the aggravation of having to learn new skills when all I wanna do is just make music, man. Sometimes the latter wins out over the former and I just stay upstairs rather than descending to my subterranean lair to compose (the music room is in my basement). But I have been making an effort to actually use all the expensive musical stuff I bought rather than just let it sit around. When I do I remember why I bought it in the first place.

The real trap of increasing competence in any hobby, mind you, is that the further you go along, the more you realize just how much more you have to go. I have all these really nifty musical toys that promise that you can use them without having to know music theory, for example, and while they are correct — up to a point — when I use them, at least, what I end up realizing is, yeah, actually, sooner or later if I want to get where I’d like to be with music, I’m probably gonna have to learn fucking music theory. I’m not 15 and have scads of time just to do nothing but play guitar or keyboards until I figure it all out on my own. At my age, learning music theory is the short cut! I hate that. Also, I am seriously considering keyboard and guitar lessons, with an actual person.

Aside from the pleasure of learning things, and it is a pleasure, the other thing I like about music is that it’s almost certainly never going to be anything more than a hobby. I’m 53 and the number of musicians who have debuted on the Billboard Hot 100 at that late age is pretty low. I think it’s Christopher Lee (who had a heavy metal Christmas song enter the charts when he was 91), and then… yeah. Let’s just say my expectations for my music are realistic. No stadium tours, no Grammys, no platinum albums. Just me in the basement, occasionally putting something together for myself.

Which is fine! I mean, I do have goals for my music. I’d like to eventually put together a whole album’s worth of music I’d consider good outside the “faffing about” rubric, one that I could play for my actual musician friends and have them be, like, “yeah, that’s not bad at all.” That seems achievable, eventually. Anything else will be a bonus, and unlikely to be something I’ll be giving up the day job for. Which, again, fine. I have a day job. Letting hobbies be hobbies is a thing we occasionally forget is allowed. We don’t have to, in fact, monetize every enthusiasm we have.

Anyway: Music! Fun! Good for my brain! Unlikely to lead to a new career at this late stage! I’ll occasionally pop new music up here when I feel like it. Listen to it or don’t, it’s all groovy either way. I’m mostly doing it for me. I’m not good at it. But I’m enjoying getting incrementally better as I go along.

— JS

New Music From Me: “8/13/22 (They Were Not Aware They Had Become Ghosts)”

More fiddling about with my DAW and musical equipment. This one is noisy and saturated and the drums have more echo on them than is perhaps wise, but I kinda like it, which is why I’m sharing it. I suspect this is may be an early draft of something else (which is to say I’m thinking about whether or not I can put some lyrics to it), but in the meantime, here, enjoy.

— JS

Your Weekend Cat

I had the Midjourney AI art generator give me a few pictures of a cat in a library, in the style of Gustav Klimt. This was my favorite, both for the absolutely unimpressed expression but also because in the cat’s “fur” you can see hints of books and bookshelves, which is actually quite clever for an artist without actual sentience. It was worth sharing on this slow summer weekend, so here it is. Enjoy the rest of your weekend. Maybe read a book.

— JS

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