The Big Idea: Paz Pardo
Posted on February 14, 2023 Posted by John Scalzi 2 Comments
Writer Robert Benchley once noted that you can do anything, as long as it’s not the thing you’re supposed to be doing. Paz Pardo knows a little bit about that – in fact, it’s one reason why her colorful new novel The Shamshine Blind is now out in the world.
What if emotions were weaponized—literally. What if someone could shoot you full of envy, or ennui, or joy? What if you could feel giddy, teenage obsession just by taking a tab at a party? Would you ever trust your own feelings?
The Shamshine Blind happened because I ran out of books in an internet-less house in the Argentine Andes. I was a Playwright, who Wrote Theater. I’d just been accepted into playwriting grad school! But I’d discovered that I wrote best with a constant input of fun books with smart protagonists, weird worlds, and intricate plots. And here I was, working on a grim play about my grandmother’s Alzheimer’s and the Argentine dictatorship (great fodder for grant applications! Very hard to write!) and I’d run out of everything to read.
So I did the only thing I could think of—I started writing my own book. I had this idea for colorful weaponized emotions: psychopigments. Like paintball, but with feelings. I couldn’t shake the thought of chaos caused by jealous couples dosing each other with Envy Green. And once I started, the world kept growing. The main character, Kay Curtida, grew on me too.
Worldbuilding started out as a hoot. Who would’ve discovered the tech that turned emotions into weapons? Argentina, with the highest rate of psychoanalysts per capita in the real world, was the obvious choice to me (and I was immensely tickled by the idea of Argentina as a superpower). They would’ve used psychopigments to win the Falklands War in the ‘80s. Most of my friends in the States didn’t even know that Britain and Argentina had once faced off over a bunch of rocky, sheep-covered islands; setting that as a turning point in world history sounded excellent to me.
But as I kept writing, the repercussions of these choices made the world I was imagining a disconcertingly serious place. The brutal Argentine dictatorship, with its neo-fascistic willingness to murder civilians to enforce “traditional values,” would’ve stayed in power—would even have provided a model of government others would seek to emulate. It started out almost as an escapist joke, but in an era of creeping fascism I found myself writing about a world that felt uncomfortably familiar.
At the heart of the book was Curtida, a know-it-all with a keen eye for the absurd and a blind spot the size of the Argentine Pampa when it came to her feelings. Curtida works a small-town beat as a member of the Psychopigment Enforcement Agency, just south of the ruins of San Francisco. She’s extremely competent—a mixed blessing for someone without the interest or tools for politicking that could nab her a transfer to a bigger city.
Curtida’s snarky commentary grabbed me from the get-go, but it was her emotional blind-spot that really kept my going. Growing up, I was always afraid of being too emotional. I was often one of the few girls in the nerdy boys’ spaces—whether that was a Magic: The Gathering tournament in middle school, the robotics competition in high school or the computer science classroom in college. I saw my male friends trying to decide if their own feelings were rational, if they were “objectively” worth paying attention to; and I knew that, as a girl, I was doubly likely to get dismissed if I got too touchy-feely.
So I watched my emotions carefully, analyzing each reaction I had to see if it was reasonable, dismissing the ones that didn’t make the cut—oh, I’m sad because I’ve been listening to depressing music; oh, I’m angry because it’s raining again. Usually if I didn’t like a feeling, I could find some tortured logic to explain it as coming from outside of me. Squash it down and ignore it, pretend it wasn’t really mine. This was not conducive to robust mental health, but it got me through college and my early twenties. Most months, I was a pretty functional depressed person.
Curtida’s got those same tendencies, but she lives in a world in which feelings literally do come from outside of you, thanks to the psychopigments she spends her life chasing through the streets of Daly City. It’s a world in which that depressive ability to squash down feelings can come in really handy: being good at ignoring your emotions is important when you’re trying to do something like arrest a crook who’s been contaminating the emotional landscape of the whole neighborhood with runoff from their illegal Cyan Sadness lab. But of course, Curtida’s human, and those feelings she can’t—or won’t—see continually make messes in her personal life. Without knowing what’s going on inside her, how could she navigate loss? Love? Her mother? I found myself writing a person I could relate to on a much deeper level than just the wise-cracking gumshoe I’d started out with—someone who struggled with the same things I’ve struggled with throughout my adult life.
My big idea of paintball-but-for-feelings started as a fun escape, but like my favorite great escapes it turned out to have something deeper going on as well. I think it’s still fun—if not, I really screwed up!—but eight years later, I finally feel like I’ve written the book I was hoping to read back when I started.
I guess this means I should get back to working on that play about Alzheimer’s…
The Samshine Blind: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Bookshop|Powells
Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s site. Follow her on Twitter.
I Think I’ve Finally Figured Out Why I Write About Politics Here Rather Less Than I Used To
Posted on February 13, 2023 Posted by John Scalzi 49 Comments
I mean, besides the reason I’ve already noted several times, which is that there are only so many times you can say “The political right in the United States is unambiguously all-in on bigoted authoritarianism and white supremacy and has no interest in helping any American, just in punishing some of them” before it gets tiring, both to say and to hear. That remains accurate!
And also, the other thing is that so much political messaging these days, particularly on the right, is so performative that engaging with it is also performative, and a furtherance in distributing the original performative messaging. The political right in the United States understands that, inasmuch as it currently lacks a coherent political strategy other than will to power, it must keep its followers forever afraid, and its opponents forever on the defensive — spending their energy responding rather than doing anything else. So: outrage at trans people and black people and librarians and candies and anything else that will keep the outrage cycle going on for another 24 hours.
And, you know, I… just don’t want to. I’d like to say that it’s because I don’t have time, but I have the time, as much as I ever have with regard to this site. I just don’t have the inclination. So much of it is fucking trivial, for one — the individual incidents, to clarify, not the overall intent to strip everyone but white dudes of their rights — and all of it is “I said or did something shitty, now you have to respond, so I can play my next card.” Engaging in that level of rhetorical dishonesty for anything more than the length of a tweet feels icky, and even engaging in it for that long is fast losing its appeal.
Likewise saying much about any of the “personalities” of the right, including the several congresspeople who have been making obtuse screaming their brand. Yes, I’ve seen your trick. What else do you have? The answer: Not much. And that’s fine, I suppose, if there is something else to talk about. But there is nothing else: No policy, no strategy, nothing other than whatever you are for we are against. That’s it, plus the white supremacy mentioned above. Again: How many ways are there to approach that before it just gets stale? And why would I want to write it? I’m not getting paid to.
(This is another aspect of it: There are lots of people getting paid to write about these topics, and I think the need to put fresh spins on the simple fact that US right has nothing but bigotry and rage going for it these days is one reason we’re getting some fundamentally nonsensical commentary out of otherwise sensible writers. Dear political writers in the US: I know you know better. Please do better. As for me, I’m glad I’m not getting paid to write on politics, otherwise I’d be in the same boat.)
I don’t think this means that I won’t ever write on politics again until the right in the US gets smarter and less addicted to fomenting outrage. One, that’s not going to happen: not being smart, and fomenting outrage, has worked well enough for the right, so why would they change that. Two, even if the right in the US did want to do that, it would be a multi-decade project. It does mean that when and if I write about politics, I want it not to be reactive, or if it is reactive, not in the way that those instigating the messaging want it to be. And, again, for something longer than a tweet, that takes time and effort. I don’t have it in me to be silent about politics, but more than ever I’m aware that I, no less than anyone else, am susceptible to the prodding and poking of others to run their play when it comes to messaging.
(Also: I have less interest in being snarky about politics these days, which cuts down the amount I write about it here, too. It used to be easy to be snarky about politics! But then we had an attempted coup and the right leaned really hard into actually taking away the rights of American citizens. I don’t know, I feel less inclined to make funny quips about all of that. You can think of it as a personal failure if you like.)
So: Writing less about politics here, but I hope that when I do, I actually have something useful to say, rather than banging out “I’m writing to write about the thing everyone else is writing about” response text. And if I can’t make it useful, I think it’s fine not to write it up at all. It’s not as if people will lack things to read on the outrage du jour. That is, after all, the whole point of the outrage du jour.
A Lazy Sunday
Posted on February 12, 2023 Posted by John Scalzi 17 Comments
Smudge has the right idea. I am aware there is the Super Bowl today, mind you. But I suspect I’ll end up following Smudge’s example.
New Books and ARCs, 2/10/23
Posted on February 10, 2023 Posted by John Scalzi 26 Comments
This week’s stack of new books and ARCs is actually two stacks, heavy on reissues and limited editions. What here would you like to give to your valentine — or keep for yourself? Share in the comments.
Stationery Haul Courtesy Of An Internet Pal!
Posted on February 9, 2023 Posted by Athena Scalzi 16 Comments
An internet friend sent me an amazing package full of goodies, and I wanted to come on here and share a few of them with y’all.
We actually did a sticker trade, which was good for me because it prompted me to organize my sticker collection a bit and put things in my sticker binder and sticker book. Now, I’ve got even more great stuff for my collection!
First off, let’s talk about how adorable her packaging skills are:
I mean how aesthetic is this spread! Basically, everything you see contains either sticker sheets, washi tape, or crafting supplies like pretty paper and envelopes.
Not to mention she handmade this oven folder to put sticker sheets inside of:
Also this candy bag packaging? So cute!
But instead of sweets inside, there were these awesome sticker sheets:
Aside from all these sheets, there were a ton of individual stickers, too, like these adorable dessert ones:
As I mentioned, not everything included was stickers. For example, this grape soda on the end is a magnet!
These vintage style food ones are literally blowing me away, they’re just incredible:
Funny enough, the pancake one is the sticker that started this whole sticker trade! I had commented on her post asking where she got that specific one, and she said a store I had never heard of because it isn’t around me, so we initiated a sticker trade and she so kindly included this set of stickers that I so love!
I know what you’re thinking, is everything food themed? Behold, plants!
Admittedly, there are some food items amongst the floral items on one of the sheets, but I assure you there is plenty of variety.
I mean just look at this postcard!
This was just one of a few postcards, too.
As if handmaking the oven wasn’t creative enough, she put together this little booklet for me.
It lists different places in California to check out during my next visit!
It is genuinely so thoughtful and super cute, too!
While this is definitely not everything she sent along, I hope you enjoyed looking at some of these highlights. I’m very grateful for her generosity and kindness!
What caught your eye? Are you a fan of the food theme as well, or is a different style more your speed? Let me know in the comments, and have a great day!
Krissy’s Office at the Old Church
Posted on February 9, 2023 Posted by John Scalzi 15 Comments
Slowly but surely things are moving along in the church renovations. Krissy has gotten herself a pretty fantastic desk set, and it’s been installed, and now she’s doing work in her new office space. She’s not entirely done decorating — that chair she’s in is temporary, and there are area rugs to come — but it’s functional now, which is a nice step. My office space you can see in the center right; I have yet to do any decorating at all, but that will come in fairly short order.
We have one last major bit of outside renovation which needs to be completed, involving capping a chimney; this has taken longer than expected because contractors are scarce on the ground these days and also it’s been winter (still is, although it was 62 degrees here today), but we have someone coming tomorrow to take a look. We’re knocking on all the wood that this will solve that problem.
But enough is done that we can get to work in here. It’s a nice space for work.
Oh, Hey, A New Depeche Mode Song
Posted on February 9, 2023 Posted by John Scalzi 7 Comments
“Ghosts Again,” ahead of their upcoming album Memento Mori, their first after the passing of fellow DM member Andy Fletcher. So, in terms of song and album, all too appropriate. Also, pretty decent song, in the late-era Depeche Mode style. The band had been about, in one iteration or another, for 42 years now. I don’t know that anyone expected that from Depeche Mode, not least the remaining members.
Aside from the obvious cinematic referents, I thought the video looked very much like an Anton Corbijn photograph come to life, so it was with absolutely no surprise that checking credits revealed Corbijn as the director. Some things you can just tell, after all this time.
I Have No Brain and I Must Veg: The Virtue of How It’s Made
Posted on February 8, 2023 Posted by John Scalzi 68 Comments
There are times when your brain turns to cheese, and is not good for anything useful, and yet you are not tired enough to sleep. For times like this, I turn to How It’s Made, the TV show where, to bland-yet-weirdly-compelling background music, the creation process of every day objects is documented and explained. Are these explanations interesting? Not as such, but they have the form and function of being interesting without actually demanding, you know, thought. It feels like you’re learning things but it actually requires nothing of you. It slides into your eyeballs and falls right out of your brain five minutes later. I love it and could easily watch 14 hours of it without interruption.
What is your “my brain is cheese and yet I cannot sleep” distraction? I crave your answer.
Housekeeping Note For Big Idea Pieces, re: Bookshop.org
Posted on February 7, 2023 Posted by John Scalzi 5 Comments
This is a small thing but worth noting: Inasmuch as Bookshop.org is taking over sales for Indiebound.org starting March 1, I’m going ahead and making Bookshop.org one of the default bookseller links for the Big Idea pieces, along with Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Powell’s. Existing Indiebound links will stay in place (because I am lazy and there are hundreds of Big Idea pieces in the archives), but moving forward it’ll be taken out of the default link list. I’ll be updating information here to reflect this change.
Also a reminder that the sales links at the end of each Big Idea piece are not affiliate links and that I don’t make any money off them; they’re there for your convenience. Don’t ever feel obliged to use them for my sake or the sake of the site, especially if there’s a local bookstore you prefer to give your money to. But if you’re so excited reading a Big Idea that you just can’t wait to buy the book, I want to make sure you have options.
The Big Idea: Bruce Schneier
Posted on February 7, 2023 Posted by John Scalzi 6 Comments
The world has systems. Systems have rules. Or are they more like guidelines? In today’s Big Idea for A Hacker’s Mind, security expert Bruce Schneier takes a look at systems, how they are vulnerable, and what that fact means for all of us.
Hacking isn’t limited to computer systems, or even technology. Any system can be hacked.
What sorts of system? Any system of rules, really.
Think about the tax code. It’s not computer code, but it’s a series of rules — supposedly deterministic algorithms — that take data about your income and determine the amount of money you owe. This code has vulnerabilities, more commonly known as loopholes. It has exploits; those are tax avoidance strategies. And there is an entire industry of black-hat hackers who exploit vulnerabilities in the tax code: we call them accountants and tax attorneys.
In general terms, a hack is something a system permits, but that is unanticipated and unwanted by its designers. It’s unplanned: a mistake in the system’s design or coding. It’s clever. It’s a subversion, or an exploitation. It’s a cheat - but only sort of. Just as a computer vulnerability can be exploited over the Internet because the code permits it, a tax loophole is “allowed” by the system because it follows the rules, even though it might subvert the intent of those rules.
Once you start thinking of hacking in this way, you’ll start seeing hacks everywhere. You can find hacks in customer reward programs; in financial systems; in politics; in lots of economic, political, and social systems; and against our cognitive functions. Airline frequent-flier mileage runs are a hack. The filibuster was originally a hack, invented in 60 BCE by Cato the Younger, a Roman senator. Gerrymandering is a hack. Hedge funds are full of hacks. So are professional sports: curving a hockey stick, hitting a cricket ball over your head, or showing up on the Formula One track with a six-wheeled car (the Tyrell racing team in 1975 — really).
I use this framework in A Hacker’s Mind to tease out a lot of why today’s economic, political, and social systems are failing us so badly, and apply what we have learned about hacking defenses in the computer world to those more general hacks. There’s a lot of value in looking at these systems through the lens of hacking.
All systems are hackable. Even the best-thought-out sets of rules will be incomplete or inconsistent. They’ll have ambiguities, and things the designers haven’t thought of. As long as there are people who want to subvert the goals of a system, there will be hacks.
What will change everything is artificial intelligence, and what will happen when AIs start hacking. Not the problems of hacking AI, which are both ubiquitous and super weird, but what happens when an AI is able to discover new hacks against these more general systems. What happens when AIs find tax loopholes, or loopholes in financial regulations. We have systems in place to deal with these sorts of hacks, but they were invented when hackers were human and reflect the human pace of hack discovery. They won’t be able to withstand an AI finding dozens, or hundreds, of loopholes in the financial network. We’re simply not ready for the speed, scale, scope, and sophistication of AI hackers.
Hacks aren’t necessarily bad. They’re how systems evolve. Curved hockey sticks made for more exciting play, as did scooping a cricket pitch — they both became part of the games. A six-wheeled race car was declared against the rules in 1983. Mileage runs are legal, but airlines have modified their frequent-flier programs to make them less effective. Gerrymandering is still mostly legal in the US, and the filibuster is still a thing in the US Senate.
A Hacker’s Mind is my pandemic book, started in 2020 and finished in 2022 It represents another step in my continuing journey in thinking about security and its relationship to broader society.) And I really like the cover.
A Hacker’s Mind: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Bookshop|Powell’s
Visit the author’s site. Follow him on Twitter.
I Was Going to Write a Piece Today But Then I Got a Secret Rush Assignment, So Here’s a Cat Instead
Posted on February 6, 2023 Posted by John Scalzi 8 Comments
What was the assignment? I can’t tell you, it’s secret! But it was fun and enjoyable and it was kind of neat to parachute into it at just about the last minute. And also, a picture of cats and toe beans is a win for everyone. Hope you had a fabulous Monday, folks.
She’s a Little Bit Rebel Senator, He’s a Little Bit Moisture Farmer
Posted on February 5, 2023 Posted by John Scalzi 55 Comments
Me: Hey, you wanna know what’s the weirdest thing in the world?
Krissy: (sighs) What’s the weirdest thing in the world?
Me: Why did you just sigh there?
Krissy: I didn’t sigh, I just exhaled heavily.
Me: That’s actually the definition of a sigh.
Krissy: You were telling me about the weirdest thing in the world.
Me: Okay, so, In 1977, the Donny and Marie Osmond show did a whole bit on Star Wars and Donny played Luke and Marie played Leia.
Me: They are brother and sister, and they were playing Luke and Leia, who were brother and sister, too, but no one knew that at the time. They were the first people in any media to accurately portray the relationship between Luke and Leia. They were totally ahead of the curve. Donny and Marie. Osmond.
Krissy: George Lucas probably knew.
Me: Did he, though? The whole thing about Luke and Leia being siblings didn’t come out until Return of the Jedi. It was kinda hinted in Empire but that Yoda utterance about there being another was really open ended. Look, I’m a writer. The whole idea that we have any idea how a whole trilogy is going to while we write the first installment is mostly bullshit. We’re all making it up as we go along. I think George Lucas was thinking about what the hell he was going to do with Luke and Leia in future movies, had no clue, then watched this episode of the Donny & Marie show and was all, like, “oh, siblings, that’s a really good idea,” and then tucked it away for later. Then, bam, Jedi, and suddenly they’re twins.
Krissy: You seriously think George Lucas got the “Luke and Leia are siblings” idea from Donny and Marie.
Me: All the evidence fits!
Krissy: And you think this is, in fact, the weirdest thing in the world.
Me: Can you think of anything weirder?
Krissy: Not off the top of my head.
Me: There you go.
Krissy: Are you saying this came off the top of your head?
Me: Well, no, I’ve been thinking about it for a while.
Krissy: How long?
Me: (checks watch) About 46 years.
Everything Pop Punk
Posted on February 3, 2023 Posted by John Scalzi 11 Comments
I’m traveling today to DJ a friend’s birthday party this evening (yes! You can hire me as a DJ! For weddings, birthday parties and bar/bat mitzvahs!), and aside from what I usually play, this friend also requested a sprinkling of mashups and/or reinterpretations of popular songs into other musical subgenres. Well, as you may know, YouTube is positively rife with such things, so I spent last night a couple of hours trawling about for fun and/or surprising takes on hit music.
Alex Melton, the fellow you see above, has made a nice YouTube career on taking hits and swapping their genres, particularly making them “pop punk,” so I thought it would be fun to show you one I’m not adding to my DJ mix, not because it isn’t good, but because I’m just more likely to play this actual particular song itself. But it’s fun to listen to this take of it. It is relevant to my musical interests, shall we say. For the actual DJ set, I have some nice mashup/revisions that I think people will enjoy. I guess we’ll find out tonight!
And, yes, in fact, no one is more surprised than me that I have developed this weird little side gig as a DJ. To be very clear, I am not one of those DJs who beat matches and has a light show and wears head-encompassing masks, since all that sounds like too much work to me (and in the case of the masks, very stuffy). I am the quintessential “wedding DJ,” i.e., the guy who will play the biggest damn hits of the last several decades so that everyone, even your grandma (heck, especially your grandma) will hit the dance floor.
But it seems to work, since I get asked a lot to do it, especially at science fiction conventions, where, aside from anything else, the fact that a Hugo-winning novelist will be your DJ for the evening has some weird appeal. And of course, I enjoy doing it, not the least because if I’m DJing then I at least know there will be music I want to dance to, and I enjoy dancing a lot. It’s how I met Krissy, after all. “Science Fiction Convention DJ” is a deeply specialized subgenre of the field, but one I can reasonably say I’m at or near the top of. I am in fact an award-winning Science Fiction Convention DJ. I should put that on my CV.
(Also, actually, I have DJ’d a wedding. And, clearly, a birthday party or two. Maybe don’t hire me for your kid’s bar/bat mitzvah, I don’t think they’ll really want someone who looks like their dad up there spinning tunes.)
Anyway, I’m off for the weekend. Enjoy yourselves while I’m off spinning tunes.
State of Personal Social Media, February 2023
Posted on February 2, 2023 Posted by John Scalzi 25 Comments
Aside from being here, of course.
1. I’m still mostly on Twitter, because aside from the “fun” of watching it slowly break down, and Elon Musk and his crew fumbling about trying to understand this thing he now owns and must make debt service on, it’s still the place where I have the most followers and the most engagement. The exodus of 2022 seems to have stabilized (I’ve actually gained a couple hundred followers in January, after having lost several thousand from Oct – Dec ’22), and while I don’t expect that “stability” to last — Twitter just announced it’s fucking with its API services, almost certainly because it’s desperate for cash and Musk is under the delusion that access to API is going to be a profit center for him, rather than another reason for people and businesses to leave — it makes the point that Twitter’s collapse is looking more like a drawn-out deflation than a sudden crash.
I mentioned that I was planning to post less on Twitter in 2023 and actually I’ve managed that so far: In January I tweeted less than half of what I tweeted in December. It doesn’t seem to have done me any harm to tweet less, in terms of engagement with what I did tweet, so, yeah, I’ll try to keep at that.
2. Aside from Twitter the place I’m posting most is my personal Facebook account, which I keep private and “friend” only folks that I know in the real world. I tend to think of it as a “backstage” online area for me, since everywhere else (including here) is open to the world, so there is some iteration of public persona at play. The Facebook page has, well, less of that. I don’t let it all hang out there — there is no place online that is truly private, and I never say anything anywhere online without the expectation that it might show up in public, in bold print, with spotlights on it. But the dynamic is different and one I find increasingly enjoyable.
Which I admit is unexpected; honestly, if you’d told me a couple years ago that I would find Facebook the most enjoyable of my social media spaces, I would have looked at you like you just sprouted tentacles out of your face. But here we are. It helps that I don’t talk politics at all there; I do “kids, cats, careers” instead. I do enough politics everywhere else. It’s okay to have one place where I don’t.
3. And after those two… well, I post on Mastodon a few times a week, Instagram about once a week and on Post every couple of weeks. Spoutible, which is actually the closest thing to a Twitter clone, UI-wise, just came out. I signed up for it, but it’s so slammed with starting-up woes that I’m not expecting to get a real bead on its usability for weeks at least. I’m posting at the various places to keep a hand in and to keep options open, and I’m happy to do it and to see where these sites land, in terms of community and usability.
At the same time, it’s a little enervating to try to keep up with all of them, and there’s a real dissipation of conversation and community that comes from picking up online media stakes and heading somewhere else. I like the back-and-forth of things that I had at Twitter; that’s harder to come by in other places. Mastodon is closest in terms of it, because it’s been around longer and has a larger userbase (and I have the most followers there), but even there it’s a little off-kilter for me and I have to work at the conversational flow more. This is a “me” problem, not a Mastodon problem, to be clear; Mastodon is doing its own thing and has done so for years now. But it’s still a problem.
4. I think we’re in a real moment of change for social media, where some older brands are beginning to sunset and some newer ones are going to come up. But the feeling I get now is that this change is going to take longer than I (and I think others) initially expected, and that 2023 is going to end up being a transitional year with no sharp breaks between the now-old-line sites, and the new ones coming up. I’m half excited and half dreading this, because change has to be endured, whether one is looking forward to it or not.
Fortunately, as noted, I still have this place. It just keeps going. Hello! Glad you’re here.
The Big Idea: S.B. Divya
Posted on February 2, 2023 Posted by John Scalzi 3 Comments
Today — finally! — we tackle the actual meaning of life! No one has ever done this before in the history of the world! Or, perhaps, no one has done it quite like S.B. Divya is doing here, in this Big Idea for her novel Meru.
What if consciousness is a fundamental property of the universe, like mass or spin? This is the question posed by a branch of philosophy called panpsychism, and I first came across it while listening to Philip Goff on the Mindscape podcast. I was instantly fascinated by the idea.
I began college as a physics major (as did half the incoming undergraduate class at Caltech), but after a couple years, I decided to shift away from the cosmic unknowns to a more local mystery: the brain. I ended up designing my own major with the computational neuroscience department, and one of my advisors was Christof Koch, who has written multiple books on the topic of consciousness. Needless to say, it’s a topic that fascinated me then and continues to do so today.
Panpsychism the way Philip Goff sees it lies at the perfect intersection of physics and the mind–in other words, catnip for someone with my interests. Can we build a systematic model of the universe such that everything in it has a degree of consciousness? Can we predict emergent macro properties in brains that don’t exist in, for example, rocks? If so, then not everything conscious has intelligence or agency or is even alive. So naturally I had to ask, what is life? How do we define a living thing vs. a nonliving thing, especially in the context of fundamental properties?
These are big, weighty philosophical and scientific questions, and I wanted to have fun with them. I love exploring ideas in my science fiction, so I decided to answer these questions for myself, which is why my novel Meru starts out with two short lists: The Axioms of Life, and The Principles of Conscious Beings. I used these to set up a world that’s over a thousand years in our future, where panpsychism has gone from the realm of philosophical speculation to practical science.
How would a society of humans–and our genetically engineered post-human descendants–interact with a universe in which everything has a certain amount of consciousness? For one, I decided (rather optimistically, I admit) that people would respect nonliving things much more than they do today. In a way, they’re trying to follow the rule of first, do no harm, though it’s more of a do the least harm possible. In this future society, people minimize their impacts on everything from plants to planets. They don’t discriminate based on size or intelligence or physical ability. And most of all, they try to espouse a post-necessity mentality rather than the post-scarcity (or abundance) model that forms the modern utopia.
In order to accomplish this, the post-humans live in outer space. Not on Death Stars or mining stations–these people are biologically adapted to hard vacuum. They have only a few permanent structures and possessions. Meanwhile, the humans have voluntarily confined themselves to living on Earth because it’s the least harmful approach (and they already botched the terraforming of Mars several centuries earlier).
All of this provides the setup for the story, which features a human, a post-human, and a planet that’s uniquely suitable to human life–a rare find. Conflicts ensue (with minimal violence because that would go against the Principles), but everyone in this world acts in accordance with the natural laws of panpsychism. They don’t question it any more than you and I would doubt the existence of electricity.
Do I believe in this particular philosophy? Not really. I didn’t drink my own Kool-Aid, but I would like to believe it. Modern society has doubled down on ideas like human exceptionalism and expansionism, and I think we could do with a course correction before we exploit or annihilate everything in our way. It’ll take some radical events to make the kind of large-scale paradigm shifts that I go for in the novel, but perhaps a rethinking of the fundamental laws of physics would set us on the right path. Until that happens, I’ll settle for the world of science fiction.
MERU: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Bookshop|Mysterious Galaxy
A Crumbl Cookies Location Opened Up 45 Minutes Away From Me So Obviously I Had To Go Get Some
Posted on February 1, 2023 Posted by Athena Scalzi 15 Comments
Hello, everyone, and welcome to my second post over Crumbl Cookies! You may remember my post from October where I tried them for the first time while in Minneapolis. I hadn’t gotten the chance to try them again until recently, because a new location popped up not too far away from me. It is far enough away that I won’t eat them all the time, though, which is good.
I was planning to get a 6-pack so I could try all their flavors, but two of the flavors this week were ones I’d already had. As per usual, they always have their milk chocolate chip, and this week they had the Pink Sugar again. I’ve been seeing a lot of people online saying they basically always have the Pink Sugar, so I decided to go with the 4-pack box.
Here we have, Churro, Chocolate Cookies & Cream, Blueberry Muffin, and Key Lime Pie.
I asked my parents to try them with me, and my dad agreed but my mom said she would pass. Then she ended up taking a bite of them all, anyways. Classic.
We started with the Churro one, because my dad is a churro fanatic. The cookie aspect of this cookie was pretty good, it was like a snickerdoodle, crispy on the outside and soft in the middle, with a rich, thick cinnamon buttercream that was super indulgent. It was definitely good, very cinnamon-y, but for me there was an odd sort of saltiness underneath all the sweetness that was kind of weird. Still yummy, though!
We just went down the line after that, so the Chocolate Cookies & Cream was next. This one was nothing special. It just tasted like an average chocolate cookie, and the chocolate cookie pieces on top didn’t really add anything. Honestly, it tasted more like a brownie. Don’t get me wrong, I like a good Brookie every now and again, but this one just wasn’t doing it for me.
Thirdly, we have the Blueberry Muffin. This cookie has blueberries baked in, and then has a blueberry muffin streusel on top. The cookie itself was very scone-like, as my dad put it. Something about the texture made it much less like a cookie, not at all like a muffin top, and more like a scone than anything. It tasted great, though! As for the topping, to me it was weirdly dry. Like when you bit into it it turned into dust that kinda fell apart and got crumbs everywhere. It was a little hard to eat without making a mess, but that might just be a me problem. Loved the taste, though.
Finally, the Key Lime Pie, which my dad insists is just a tart and not a cookie at all. I can’t really argue with him, as the description on the website doesn’t even say “cookie” in it like all the other five do. It really is just handheld key lime pie. And it’s delicious! Personally, I’m a huge fan of graham cracker crust, and I love key lime pie anyway, so there was nothing not to like here. I will say, if you’re a fan of a very tart or citrusy key lime pie, this one may not be for you, as it’s quite sweet, with just a hint of tartness. Though, I’m sure if you squeezed the lime on top it would add some acidity to cut through the thick filling.
All in all, I really enjoyed this week’s flavors. My dad says that his theory on Crumbl Cookies is that they are just other desserts masquerading as cookies. A churro, a key lime pie, a blueberry muffin? None of these things are cookies! Well, whatever they are, they’re pretty dang good!
My dad’s rankings are as follows: Churro, Key Lime Pie, Blueberry Muffin, and Chocolate Cookies & Cream.
My rankings are: Blueberry Muffin, a tie for Key Lime Pie and Churro, and Chocolate Cookies & Cream.
My mom said: They were all fuckin’ delicious.
There you have it folks! Which one looks best to you? Are you a fan of key lime pie as a dessert? Let me know in the comments, and have a great day!
The Big Idea: Dan Rice
Posted on February 1, 2023 Posted by Athena Scalzi
It’s been said that fame isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Author Dan Rice is exploring the topic of unwanted notoriety in his newest novel, and the second installment in his Allison Lee Chronicles, The Blood of Faeries.
Allison Lee, the eponymous protagonist of The Allison Lee Chronicles, has her first brush with fame in Dragons Walk Among Us after being blinded during an unprovoked assault and having her eyesight restored by an experimental medical procedure. She didn’t like the notoriety one bit. All she wanted was to fly under the radar, although she didn’t mind being recognized as a brilliant photographer.
Little did Allison realize being known as the girl with the robotic eyes would be only her first brush with fame. Allison becomes caught up in an adventure to save the planet from an invasion of aliens after having her abilities as a shapeshifter unlocked. In a world where 90% of the population has a recording device in the palm of their hand, she becomes first an Internet sensation and then a global celebrity in The Blood of Faeries. Websites track her movements, and the press hounds her for sound bites. Protesters stalk her, some celebrating her as a savior while others condemn her as the daughter of Satan.
Allison doesn’t want anything to do with fame. She wants to survive high school and be a teenager, like how Jennifer Walters wants to be a high-powered lawyer, not a super-powered one in She-Hulk: Attorney at Law. However, that’s the conundrum. Allison’s supernatural abilities are out in the open and inseparable from her public identity. Like the Hollywood actors of today, she can try going out in public incognito. But no disguise is foolproof, and constantly worrying about being recognized is exhausting.
Unsurprisingly, the government takes an interest in Allison for her paranormal talents. She is followed by a security detail she doesn’t feel she needs. She’s far stronger than ordinary humans, after all. But she is told the bodyguards are more to protect the crazies from her than the other way around. Still, she chafes at being followed everywhere. Sometimes she wants nothing more than to ditch the security, but she can’t. Not if she wants to live in a civilized society and attend high school. She is tempted to tell the government, the protesters, and everyone else in her business to go to hell, but that’s the stuff of dreams. That is unless she’s willing to live as a hermit on a deserted island like Hulk does in an episode of She-Hulk. Allison most definitely does not desire that.
The side effects are some of the most fascinating aspects of a character gaining superhuman abilities. Fame is just one of many possible outcomes. Of course, one could always try to keep a low profile and hide their skills but is that really possible in a world obsessed with social media, where virtually anyone can be recording anybody at any time? I argue not easily. That is unless you’re willing to live off the grid as a recluse, and most people are not.
The Blood of Faeries: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | iBooks
Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s website. Follow him on Twitter.
Ranking My RPG Stats
Posted on January 30, 2023 Posted by John Scalzi 40 Comments
Over on Twitter last night, Gail Simone asked:
This is a fun little exercise to consider, and while I answered this briefly over on that service (because everything on Twitter still needs to be brief), I thought it would be fun to rank them out over here in more detail. I won’t be offering a d20 number for each, because I’m not nearly objective enough for such gradations, but I think I can roughly guess where each of these attributes stand in a general ranking. So:
1: INTELLIGENCE. Look, I’m a pretty smart guy. Also, I have tons of information, useless and otherwise, rattling around in my skull. Up until the rise of Internet search engines, I would semi-frequently get 2am calls from drunken friends, asking me to settle bar bets about random shit, because there was a rather-better-than-average chance I would know the answer (within an order of approximation serviceable for bar bets). Additionally, I am usually fairly quick-witted, and pretty good at communicating ideas and concepts to others. The downside is that I am still occasionally guilty of doing “-splaining” of various sorts, but that’s a function of wisdom, I suppose, not intelligence. Point is, this is easily my top stat, and I think people would look at me funny if I suggested otherwise.
2. CHARISMA. I am, at best, average-looking, and my “at best” becomes more infrequent the older I get. But beyond that, I can be pretty charming, engaging and persuasive. I can work a room pretty well, make people happy to see me, and generally make a good impression. Also, and no one was more surprised to learn this than me, I am a decent manager of humans, partly because I take time to understand folks and use that knowledge to (eventually) get everyone harmoniously pointed in the right direction. Because I am a socialized introvert, there is a time limit on how long I can do all these things, and after a few hours I usually need to run away and take a nap. But while I’m on, I’m on.
3. WISDOM. Wisdom is the Dunning-Kruger stat in the real world, by which I mean people who will tell you they are very wise are probably fooling themselves, and people who actually have a decent amount of wisdom are wise to the fact that they are, shall we say, deeply fallible across several categories. My own take on myself is that younger iterations of me believed they were wiser than the current iteration of me does. I know a lot of my own personal failings, and I’m aware there are probably more than a few I’ve missed. That said, what I do have a lot of, at age 53, is experience, and experience is a good teacher, even if all it tells you is how much of what you’ve learned isn’t applicable anymore. Mostly as I get older I realize that when in doubt, the right thing to do is to be kind. Is that wisdom? Debatable, but it means I’m not a raging dickhead all the time, and I will take that.
4. CONSTITUTION. I think I have a very average amount of constitution, and it could be better; I was exercising a lot a year or two back and that helped, but I fell off recently and that’s been catching up with me now. Be that as it may, I am mostly healthy, with no major issues other than laziness. I don’t get sick very often, and when I do (last year’s COVID brain befuddlement notwithstanding) I usually just take a 20-hour nap and my body bounces back. I’m mostly okay, you know? Could be better! But okay.
5. STRENGTH. I also think I have a very average amount of strength for a man of my age, build, and life activity. It could be better but that would require effort, and, ugh, effort, whhhhyyyyyy. Also, bluntly, when feats of strength are required at the Scalzi Compound, they usually fall to Krissy, who is, no joke, just freakishly strong and thinks nothing of the fact. Several years ago some Internet wits were trying to negg me by suggesting my wife was stronger than I was; my response to that was a) it’s not a neg, she absolutely is, and b) she is probably stronger than they are, too. I think it’s awesome my wife is a fuckin’ Amazon, personally. I’m perfectly happy to have her be the strong one in the family.
6. DEXTERITY. I mean, I once cut myself on yogurt. This is definitely my dump stat. There is a reason that the day I turned 40 I started training myself to grab for the railings on whatever set of stairs I was about to use. I have no illusions that they will be the death of me if I don’t.
How would you rank your own RPG stats?
The Kaiju Preservation Society Wins a 2023 Alex Award
Posted on January 30, 2023 Posted by John Scalzi 21 Comments
Last week I was asked to participate in a Zoom meeting about PR stuff, but when I signed in what was really going on was a bunch of librarians telling me The Kaiju Preservation Society had won an Alex Award this year. Which, I’m not going to lie, was a much better Zoom meeting to have than a general chat about PR stuff.
For those not up on the Alex, it’s given annually by the American Library Association to “ten books published in the adult market that have special value for teens as well “the ten best adult books that appeal to teen audiences.” Basically, these are the books librarians felt really good recommending to teens this year. And Kaiju is one of them!
Here’s the full list:
- “A Lady’s Guide to Fortune-Hunting,” by Sophie Irwin, published by Pamela Dorman Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House;
- “Babel, Or the Necessity of Violence: An Arcane History of the Oxford Translators’ Revolution,” by R. F. Kuang, published by Harper Voyager, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers;
- “Chef’s Kiss,” written by Jarrett Melendez, illustrated by Danica Brine, published by Oni Press, an imprint of Oni-Lion Forge Publishing Group;
- “Daughter of the Moon Goddess,” by Sue Lynn Tan, published by Harper Voyager, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers;
- “I’m Glad My Mom Died,” by Jennette McCurdy, published by Simon & Schuster;
- “Solito: A Memoir,” by Javier Zamora, published by Hogarth, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House;
- “The High Desert: Black. Punk. Nowhere.,” written and illustrated by James Spooner, published by Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers;
- “The Kaiju Preservation Society,” by John Scalzi, published by Tor Books, an imprint of Tom Doherty Associates, a division of Macmillan Publishing Group;
- “True Biz,” by Sara Nović, published by Random House, an imprint and division of Penguin Random House;
- “Wash Day Diaries,” written by Jamila Rowser, illustrated by Robyn Smith, published by Chronicle Books.
That’s an excellent group of books, if I do say so myself.
This is actually the second time I’ve won an Alex, the first time for Lock In in 2015. Then it was just an announcement; now it’s a surprise Zoom call, and, I’m told a medal that will be sent to me. Which is awesome, I love getting actual award bauble.
Congratulations to my fellow Alex winners!
Whatever Everyone Else is Saying