Covid infection numbers are up in Ohio, as they are in a whole lot of places, and in the US in general; I’m particularly looking at the infection numbers for Georgia, where I am meant to be at the beginning of September, and they are higher there now than they have ever been before, and by a considerable margin. The deaths that are being reported relating to Covid are not spiking, but those have tended to trail the infection rate (i.e., we’ll likely see more of those soon), and in any event we have discovered that surviving a Covid infection very often doesn’t mean you just bounce back as if from a cold or flu — it often damages lungs and hearts and other organs and takes months (or longer — we’re in the process of finding out) to fully recover.
Nearly every other Western country in the world has seen their infection rates drop down from the March/April time frame, but we haven’t, and now our leaders want to suggest that this is just the way it is and we’ll have to “live with it.” In fact, it’s not the way it is, or at least, wasn’t what it had to be. The reason we’re in this mess is that the GOP followed Trump’s lead in deciding this was a political issue instead of a health and science issue, and radicalized its base against dead simple measures like wearing masks and other such practices, and against waiting until infection rates dropped sufficiently to try to open up businesses again, because apparently they thought capitalism was magic and would work without reasonably fit humans.
The GOP is getting it now, purely out of necessity — Texas now has a mask requirement, as an example — but it’s probably too late in terms of not torpedoing the economy for the rest of the year, and possibly too late for an entire demographic of people who are now convinced that wearing a mask is an admission of weakness and/or fealty to George Soros. It also means that all that time we spent in quarantine in March, April and May was effectively for nothing, and that if we want to actually get hold of this thing we’ll have to go back in quarantine again, at least through September and possibly for all of the rest of 2020.
Which, honestly, really pisses me off. We could have managed this thing — like nearly every other country has — if we had political leadership that wasn’t inept and happy to use the greatest public health crisis in decades as political leverage for… well, who knows? Most of the areas being hit hardest now — places like Florida, Arizona, and Texas — are deep red states; there is no political advantage to be had by having them hit by infection and death and economic uncertainty four months before a national election. The fact that Joe Biden is currently in a statistical tie with Trump in Texas voter polls should terrify the GOP. I don’t expect Biden to get Texas’ electoral votes in November, but honestly it shouldn’t even be this close now. And the thing is, things are almost certainly going to get worse in Texas before they get better.
In April and May I had held out some hope that the second half of 2020 might be salvageable, and that it would be safe, or at least safer, to do the things we normally might have done with the year. Now that we’re in the second half of the year, it’s pretty clear that 2020 is going to be unsafe all the way through. It didn’t have to be this way. If we are going to have to live with it (and hopefully not precisely in the “fuck it, I guess some of you are just gonna have to die” way that the GOP wants us to), we should admit to precisely whose fault it is. The GOP needs to be punished in November for a number of reasons, and this is certainly qualifies as a major reason. I will leave my house to vote, if I need to.
In the meantime: wear your masks, practice social distancing, and stay home if you can. As my friend Ashley Clements put it:
She’s right. Alas.
It’s simple: Your vote!
(Provided you are a US citizen of legal age.)
Have you registered to vote? If not, do so here, it’s simple and easy.
If you are registered to vote, then check your registration to make sure it’s current. This is also (usually) simple and easy.
This year voting may be more difficult than usual because of the coronavirus and/or governments trying to restrict ways for certain people to vote. So be sure to know the procedures for absentee, mail-in and early voting in your state. The earlier you know this stuff, the better you prepare to get your vote in on time.
Finally, check with friends and relatives and other people you might know to encourage them to vote, to check their registration status, and to prepare for absentee/mail-in voting if necessary. The 2020 elections are an “all hands on deck” sort of historical moment, folks. We need every US citizen who can vote, to vote.
Happy July 4th!
“Please enjoy your long July weekend. Take it easy on the fireworks. Have a cookout with those in your social bubble, appropriately distanced, of course.”
(And here’s a note from the human — I’m out for the rest of the day! See y’all later.)
I recently posted a couple of photos from my front porch and it was noted that we fly an American flag, which led to some comments about folks being reluctant to fly the flag considering the state of the nation and its leadership.
While I understand the motivation there, I don’t particularly agree. The flag of the United States has survived bad presidents and bad administrations before, and it’s flown through the administrations of better presidents as well. Intolerant people have always tried to wrap themselves in it, because they want to arrogate it to themselves and to those they think are true believers. They also tend to confuse the symbol for what the symbol is meant to represent.
I’m not that keen to let these folks just have the flag of the entire damn country. It’s my flag too, and I like it. I think it’s pretty. And I also see it as a symbol of a nation that is never perfect — often far from it — but is perfectable, in the sense that we are always meant to be moving toward that more perfect union we can become. The flag for me is not about who we have been, but who we can be, if we keep working at it.
So, yes. We fly an American flag here at the Scalzi Compound. I like having it here. As we come up on the nation’s birthday, it’s worth reflecting on what sort of nation we would like it to be a symbol of. I’m hoping it will be a better and kinder one than we have today. I’ll work toward that.
For those of you missing context. Was Cain at Trump’s Tulsa event? Oh, my, yes he was.
Thoughts and prayers to everyone attending that Mt. Rushmore rally this weekend.
Wear your masks, folks. If you won’t listen to me, then listen to Tom Hanks.
Many authors have learned that just because a character comes out of your own head doesn’t mean they won’t fight you from time to time. Author C.T. Rwizi learned this very thing while writing Scarlet Odyssey. The details await you below.
The big idea behind Scarlet Odyssey begins at my little sister’s preschool graduation some years ago. All the kids are lined up in front of the seated guests, and we’re at the part where they each introduce themselves and tell us what they aspire to be when they grow up. Most of the girls want to be doctors, scientists and nurses. Most of the boys want to be engineers and police officers. There’s a pilot here and there, a president, and a judge. All the things many African parents wish for their children.
Then one boy breaks the mold and says he wants to be a nurse, like his mother. Instead of applause, he is greeted with a smattering of snickers and scornful laughter. Not from his peers on the stage with him, mind you, but from the adults in the audience.
I’ll never forget the mortified look on that poor kid’s face.
This incident isn’t precisely what inspired me to write Scarlet Odyssey, but it was on my mind as I built the world. I wanted to explore how societies often place arbitrary gender restrictions on roles that, in and of themselves, often have nothing to do with gender. But instead of the very respectable profession of nursing—which is more vital today than ever—I decided to use magic as the vehicle for this exploration. The main character, Salo, is a young man whose affinity with magic, considered womanly in his society, puts him on the outs with his clan and his hypermasculine father, brothers and uncles.
Now, I didn’t want to fall into the stereotype that only gay men choose roles traditionally associated with femininity; this is simply not true. But I felt compelled to extend my exploration of gender roles into an exploration of sexuality, and I also wanted to write a character I’d personally never read before: a gay kid from an African-inspired setting.
So that’s what I did, and I was having a blast. But as I became more serious about the project, I started to get cold feet.
“Come on, Rwizi,” I said to myself. “You live in Africa. In a very Christian neighborhood. What are people going to think of you if you go through with this?”
The truth is, I didn’t want to find out. So I started to change Salo and his story, succumbing to the very same social pressures I was trying to have him face and surmount. I turned his love interest into a brother to remove the romantic component while keeping their relationship close. I made him flirt with young women. I tried to justify my decision by saying, “Well, wouldn’t it be more interesting to write a story about a man who doesn’t conform to his society’s standards of manhood but is actually straight?”
But this was not the story I wanted to tell. This was not my truth. I wanted my book to be free of controversy, however, and I was the author, so I could simply decide to make my main character be whatever I wanted him to be, and if I wanted him to be straight, he’d be straight, and that would be the end of it.
What I discovered is that once a character becomes alive in your mind, they can develop a personality distinct from yours, the author. They can want things you don’t want them to want. Say things you’d never say. And if you attempt to write them in any other way, you’ll feel like you’re trying to put on a shirt several sizes too small.
The shirt will fight you. Put too much force and it might even tear apart at the seams.
And this is precisely what happened to my story. I developed a serious case of writer’s block. Salo’s scenes in particular became impossible, and never felt right no matter how long I slaved over them. Every time I made him flirt with some young woman, I could almost feel him frowning at me from the shadows of the closet I’d shoved him into, like he disapproved of my attempts to mischaracterize him, to deny him his right to exist as he was.
The sense of guilt I felt was very real.
So, naturally, I decided to do away with his sexuality altogether. Sanitize the whole thing so I didn’t have to deal with it. No love interest, no attraction, no controversy. Problem solved.
Admittedly, I had more success with this approach. I completed the manuscript, and it was good enough to land me an agent and a publishing house. But my editors sensed that something was missing and encouraged me to fill in the blanks. Salo was blurry at the edges, they said, and while they found him sympathetic, I’d deprived him of a certain je ne sais quoi I’d bequeathed to the characters around him. They felt I could do better.
I was forced to finally look him in the eye, and in doing so, look myself in the mirror and admit that there’s such a thing as artistic honesty. It’s not just about writing what you know, but also what you feel, because other people will sense when you’re holding something back.
When you’re not being authentic.
I’d made the conscious choice to deny my character his sexuality so as to avoid courting controversy, and my work suffered as a result. But when I finally allowed myself to be completely honest about who Salo was, I achieved a level of characterization that had previously eluded me, and a more profound exploration of the themes I’d set out to address in the first place.
It was like a weight coming off my shoulders. And while I’d always loved my story and the world I’d built—I couldn’t have finished the work otherwise—now I was completely, wholly, unreservedly in love with it.
I have no regrets.
Scarlet Odyssey: Amazon
I got my Nikon D780 in May as a birthday present for myself and explained my reasons for getting it (as opposed to a mirrorless camera) then. Today I archived the last couple of months worth of photos (roughly 2,000), and I thought it would be a good time to check in with how (and if!) I’m still enjoying my latest photographic purchase.
The short answer is: Yes! The new sensor is very good with colors and their gradients (I’ve noticed this particularly with my sunset pictures) and is otherwise superior to the one that I had in my previous camera, the D750. The battery life has been tremendous — I charged it when I got it, took 2,000 photos with it and was still at just under a half charge when I charged it today — and I can charge it now with a USB-C cord, which is pretty great. And while I usually compose photos through the eyepiece, the “quasi-mirrorless” option of taking pictures with the back screen has been very useful, particularly for when I want more control with focus. The camera is heavier than a mirrorless camera would be but it’s no more heavy than my previous camera, so I don’t really notice.
Complaints? A couple, mostly relating to the fact that I notice graininess more in my lower-light photos shot on auto than I did with the D750. I don’t know if that’s because of something with the sensor or the camera’s auto choices for ISO and shutter speed, or because the way the D780 processes RAW photos is different, or some combination. But it’s noticeable to me and I’ll have to look into that. With that said, this problem is generally fixable by turning on a light; I also have a faster prime lens which will likely make the problem if I ever fix it onto my camera. This is a long way of saying the problem here is probably the operator (waves). I’ll look into it more.
Overall, however, a very good camera and I have been delighted with the purchase. I plan to take lots and lots and lots of photos with it.
As I wrote on Twitter earlier today, well, the first two decades of 2020 are done. Let’s get to the next few decades! And to start off, these five things:
Trump, doubling down on being a racist piece of shit: This time by asserting that “Black Lives Matter” is a symbol of hate, which is not something he would say about, oh, the battle flag of a racist country that went to war specifically to own people. Because he’s a racist, you see. But we knew that about him. Also, you know, look: When the actual government of Mississippi is to the left of you on the whole “symbols of hate” thing, you may be too far out on that racist limb. The silver lining here is that there’s increasingly little wiggle room for the few remaining Trump supporters who want to believe that they are not racist to maneuver that particular rationale; Trump is seeing to that. Meanwhile:
The GOP defection is real: At least for old establishment Republicans who did time in Washington, in this case, a bunch of Bush-years folks. I don’t think individually these sort of public defections matter that much, but what it is doing by aggregation is giving a whole bunch of GOP voters sick of Trump’s bullshit cover to step into a voting booth and vote for a Democrat just this once. Of course, it doesn’t solve the problem of the fact that the GOP base is filled with racist ignorants who want conspiracy theorists as their elected representatives. But, I guess, one problem at a time.
Meanwhile, Putin, Ruler for Life: Russian voters (or, at least, we’re told Russian voters) approved changes in the Russian constitution that lets Putin run for president there at least twice more after his current term ends in 2024. You can bet our current president is super-jealous today about that. I don’t know enough about the Russian electoral system to know if the fix was actually in there, although I do know that Putin is more popular generally in Russia than our own president is here, so it’s entirely possible that the Russians would be happy to have Putin run things until he’s 83. Live your dreams, Russian electorate!
Catching readers up: Over on Reddit, someone asked about repetition of information in series books and why it’s done, and used the Old Man’s War series as an example of such repetition (and in the poster’s opinion, not a great one, although they liked the series generally). Since I was in a position to know why I repeat information in the series, I went ahead and explained it. If you’re interested, go ahead and click the link at the head of this paragraph (also, please don’t give the original poster any guff; it was a fair criticism and I wasn’t offended by it).
It’s Debbie Harry’s birthday! She’s 75. It’s a good age. Have a Blondie video.
There isn’t just one Big Idea in The Second Star – there are half a dozen of them, interwoven into a complex story tapestry. This is at once a story about voyaging to the stars and coming home again, about our other selves hidden inside of us, about what people are willing to believe and to endure for the sake of that belief. But what it all boils down to is macro and micro universes.
There is an incredible video which starts with a closeup of a woman’s eye and then spirals out, showing her body on a sward of grass, the park she is lying in, the city, the country, the earth, the solar system, the galaxy, the galaxy cluster, into deep space…and then back, into her eye, diving deep inside her body, her veins, her red blood cells, her DNA, her molecules, her atoms.
It is all linked; it is all one; we are starstuff, as we are reminded by the poetically minded scientists (or the scientifically inclined poets) amongst us.
We know almost as little about what goes on in deep space as we really know about what happens inside a human mind, a human soul, and The Second Star is in essence that woman’s eye in that video, vision turned inward and outward, a bridge between two worlds.
This is a story about how something OUT THERE – out amongst the unknowable stars which are still shining in a dangerous here-be-dragons expanse, in which literally anything might be possible – meets something inside a human mind and human soul, misinterprets what it finds, changes everything it touches, and then leaves the shattered human beings to battle with the consequences.
We all love our science fiction aliens – but the truth of it is that a truly ALIEN alien would leave us floundering in a morass of incomprehension because there may not be a way to make one of us understand the other. There could be mistakes made in the way the alien perceives us – which leads to unspeakable consequences, not necessarily because the alien entity wished to hurt us but because it was simply ignorant of what causes us hurt. There could be our own utter misinterpretations of the aliens’ contact with us to the point where we might have built worlds and worldviews on completely misunderstood phenomena (and what would it do to us if a glimmer of true understanding was permitted to spark through?).
The Second Star is science fiction – but in the end, the ‘fiction’ is a story about people, and what they would do when faced with a ‘science’ which changes everything they thought they knew, changes their most deeply held beliefs. It is the irresistible force of change and of the sheer pure strangeness of the universe, meeting the immovable object of our fundamental humanity and how we might respond to such a shattering stimulus.
In my story, it’s what frightened and intractable authorities (secular and sacred) might do to preserve their hold on power. It’s about how far someone who is ‘just obeying orders’ is willing to go. It’s about how much honorable, dedicated, and empathetic people might be willing to sacrifice on behalf of someone whose care has been placed in their hands.
And finally it’s about what human beings with the immeasurable courage to take their lives into their hands and go out into the universe on behalf of all of us here on the home world would need to face in order to accomplish their task and fulfil their vision, and about the very real possibility that such people may never truly be permitted to return to the place they left behind.
This is a Big Idea novel which is really a bridge spanning several Big Ideas, knitting them into an even bigger whole.
Just remember. We are all starstuff.
The last one of the month! Let’s get to it.
So will there be any more “Five Things” after today? I think so! It’s a good, quick format for me, in that it covers a lot of territory regarding things I’m thinking about and/or want to share, and makes for lively comment threads that (at least so far) don’t get too bogged down on a single topic. And it gives me new stuff here on the regular, which I like. It doesn’t seem to have stopped me in going deep on specific topics I want to go deep on, either, which I was curious about. It seems like a good and useful feature, and I think I will continue it.
Will I continue to do it daily? I think I’ll aim for dailyish, which is to say if I skip a day because I wrote a longer piece, or just decide to skip it for a day because of reasons, that’ll be fine. And sometimes if I only have three or four things, I might say “close enough” and post that. But generally speaking it’s not difficult to come up with five things. So, yeah, let’s keep doing this thing for now. If I get bored with it later, I’ll drop it! But I’m not bored with it yet.
Carl Reiner, RIP: This is one of those “you knew it was coming, and you knew it was probably coming soon but still” things. The man lived to 98 and you can’t say that’s not a good run for anyone, and in his case his run included being one of the acknowledged masters of modern comedy, so there is that. My favorite thing of his was the “2,000 Year Old Man” bits he did with Mel Brooks — Reiner modestly gave Brooks the lion’s share of the credit for that, but a two-hander bit of comedy needs both hands. It wouldn’t have worked without Reiner. I liked it enough that I did my own version of it, once. It was okay. Reiner did it better. Farewell, sir.
The “Russian Bounties” thing is gonna stick, I think: The President has been saying he hasn’t been briefed on that thing, but all the evidence points to the contrary; the best you can say is that Trump ignored the material because some didn’t distill down to a single sentence and speak it at him veeeeery slooooowly, because apparently that’s what you have to do if you want the President to know something that didn’t come from a Fox News morning show or OAN. But that doesn’t make things better; it makes things worse. It’s really hard to spin “The Russians are paying for American deaths”; it does directly to the heart of the Trump constituency. Trump (or his administration) knew and did nothing about it, and it’s possible American soldiers are dead because of it. That’s going to stay.
Lights out on Broadway: Through January at least. Your further reminder that 2020 is going to be a strange, lost year, entertainment-wise. Movie releases scheduled for July have been pushed back in August, and I suspect will now be pushed back even further than that, because, surprise! Turns out the coronavirus didn’t give a shit whether we were all bored and hated masks. So rude, honestly! At least we have Hamilton on TV later this week. But that’s not exactly comfort to everyone in NYC theater currently out of a job, and out of a job for another six months at least.
Oh, look, arty roses. Krissy has upped the flower quotient around the Scalzi Compound recently and I’ve been having fun taking pictures of them. Here’s a picture of our miniature rose bush, done up in “handpainted monochrome” style. Enjoy.
First, in my brain I had today, Tuesday, pegged as the first day of July when I took my break. I was genuinely taken by surprise yesterday when I looked at a calendar and it was the 29th instead of the 30th. Math is hard, y’all. Anyway, today was the day I put in my schedule to check back in with everyone, even if it’s a day early on the calendar. So, uh, hello.
Second, I feel better, thank you. I spent most of my days off reading, watching movies, playing video games and taking pictures, such as the one above, of a lily that’s in my yard. And also, you know, thinking about life and things and stuff. Taking time away from the world was a good thing for me, because the week before this felt like getting repeatedly punched in the face by news and revelations, and I needed time to process all of it, away from people who (it at least felt like) wanted me to immediately respond to everything that was happening, and then wanted to nitpick how I responded. I can handle a lot of that, but eventually I need to tap out, as I expect anyone else would. Four days off did a lot to help get me on a more even keel.
(Although not entirely. Still processing, folks. Still thinking about things. But feeling a little less like I’m being punched in the face by events.)
Third, looking back on June I got less writing done that I would like: about 12,000 words, which is not bad, but I spent most of the second half of the month distracted by events, both public and personal. Tomorrow starts the second half of the year — I know, what the actual hell, right? — and if I write a thousand words a day, every day, between July 1 and December 31, I will just about be on schedule for everything I have due by the end of the year in terms of pay copy. This doesn’t count other projects, both professional and personal, I’d like to engage with before 2020 is history.
My solution here is something I already know — run away from social media for some portion of the day. When I did that in the first half of June I did fine; when I didn’t in the second half, well. I lost a considerable amount of focus. This is, for me, a tale as old as time.
With that said, there’s another aspect of it, too, which I think I’ve been minimizing: it’s not just time on social media, it’s engagement when I am on it, and how social media is making me feel when I use it. The term “doomscrolling” refers to how people basically suck down fountains of bad news on their social media thanks to friends (and others) posting things they’re outraged about. It’s gotten to the point for me where, particularly on Twitter, it feels like it’s almost all doomscrolling, all the time, whether I want it to be or not.
I don’t want to leave Twitter (or other social media), but I do have to recalibrate how I manage it if I want to stay on it. So that’s a thing I’ll be doing — I’ll be trying some things on Twitter and other social media starting today and recalibrating as needed going forward. How will this affect Whatever? I don’t think too much, except that I am considering turning off comments on posts here slightly more often, if for time and/or other reasons I’m not able to ride herd on the conversation. We’ll see.
So that’s where I am at the moment! Wheee, it’s fun! I hope you’re okay, and wearing masks and being smart about social distancing and all that good stuff. We’re about to get into the second half of this year. It’s going to be a thing. Let’s get to it.
If you think creating a new world for your fiction means you’ve left behind the troubles of this one, you may be right — but now you have to think about the troubles of the new world, and what they mean for your characters. Dorothy A. Winsor have some thoughts about new worlds and their details, and how they apply to her novel The Wysman.
DOROTHY A. WINSOR:
You could say the Big Idea in The Wysman came to me suddenly in the form of the main character, Jarka, a street kid with a crooked foot and the ability to know people’s secrets by reading the wind. Or you could say it came to me only gradually in the form of repeated drafts to figure out why Jarka turned up on my page.
The plot of The Wysman turns on a question that appears in various forms throughout speculative fiction: Who should rule the kingdom? Or the country? Or the star system? I’ve always believed that secondary world stories, like The Wysman, are inherently political because as soon as you create a world, you have to think about power. Who has it? How do they get it? How do they use it?
In The Wysman, the Big Idea turned out to be that the best judge of a ruler is often a person who’s not firmly anchored to a place in the power system. In this case, that’s sixteen-year-old Jarka.
Loss or gain? Jarka was born with a crooked foot and uses a crutch. In the world of the book, Jarka’s disability gives him the ability to read the wind because the gods never take something away without giving something back. I’m a bit of a magpie as I scavenge up ideas for story elements, and I confess I “borrowed” the disability/gift connection from Bujold’s Miles Vorkosigan. Miles’s disability doesn’t give him a literal gift like Jarka’s, but his mother encourages him to think of it as something that can make him a deeper person. As with Miles, tension between loss and gain—i.e., an unanchored position—was literally embodied in Jarka himself when he first appeared to me.
(I make no apology for borrowing ideas, by the way. I think stories are mostly magpie nests arranged and shaped in different ways. Borrowed ideas are turned upside down, sideways, or back to front and become something new.)
An unanchored position extends to Jarka’s relation to power because powerful people discover his gift and take him into the castle to train as a Wysman, an advisor to the king. Overnight, this teenaged boy goes from being a street kid to being groomed for one of the most influential positions in the kingdom. Not that he fits easily into his new place. Plenty of people believe he’ll never fit there.
A character living in between. For most of the book, Jarka lives in the nowhere of in-between: between high and low, castle and street, childhood and adulthood, gods and men. This in-between status is what made him show up on my page. It’s what allowed the story to evolve the way it did because when street kids begin to disappear, Jarka can’t stop looking for the monster grabbing them, even when the king orders him to and he desperately wants to avoid being back on the streets. Jarka can’t forget the insight that his in-between positioning gives him. He knows what goes on in the castle; and he knows what goes on in the streets. This leaves him uneasy, and uneasy characters make for compelling stories.
Over the course of writing the book, then, I realized that lurking behind this character who popped up on my page was the idea that a character who’s adrift offers insights and possibilities–if I can see my way to exploring them.
I think it’s often the case that writers learn the possibilities in their stories only gradually, as they write them. That was certainly true for me as I wrote The Wysman.
Unusually, today’s Big Idea starts with an author’s note before the main body of the Big Idea piece. As you read, however, I think you’ll see why author Max Booth III thought it important to put it in, and why some aspects of his new novel Touch the Night are almost eerily in sync with the moment.
MAX BOOTH III:
Author’s Note: I turned in this essay to my editor on May 24th, one day before the death of George Floyd. Since then, well…I don’t need to tell you what’s been going on. I just wanted to include this brief note, since I realize how weird it might read given the current moment. As for Touch the Night itself, I started writing it in July 2016 and sent it to Cemetery Dance in June 2019. I do think it’s a strange coincidence that my novel about police brutality would come out now. I feel a little uncomfortable even trying to promote this book right now. I hope it doesn’t seem like I’m trying to capitalize on the situation. I’m very proud of this book and I hope people read it. I also hope people are staying safe and healthy and enraged. I would like to end this disclaimer by encouraging everybody to please donate to Black Lives Matter charities and bail funds. Wherever you are right now, find your local mutual aid group. Volunteer. The bigger we are, the weaker they become.
I think every book begins with one moment. A single image too vivid to ignore. It builds up and up and up until you’re on the verge of exploding, and either you finally write that novel, or literally burst like that guy’s head in Scanners. In the case of my new Cemetery Dance novel, Touch the Night, that “single image” was less of an image and more of a feeling.
The feeling of my head being slammed against the scorching hood of a cop car.
Okay, maybe we should rewind a little bit: back to when I’m twelve years old, and I’m sleeping over at my best friend’s house. There are three of us: myself, Josh, and Ian. It’s Ian’s house we’re staying at. It’s always Ian’s house. Nobody is ever home and we have the freedom to watch videos of people getting hurt on YouTube. We have the freedom to prank call people using celebrity soundboards. We have the freedom to do whippits and grimace at rotten dot com and film ourselves skateboarding into trash cans. There is simply no better place to be than Ian’s house.
On this particular night, it’s well past midnight and the three of us are wide awake. Ian’s mom is out at some bar getting wasted. Fuck it, we decide, let’s go out for a walk, maybe get some pops and chips at the gas station down the street. Who cares what time it is? If anything, the fact that it’s so late makes everything even more exciting. So we sneak out, and we get up to the kind of things stupid twelve-year-old boys tend to do when they’re out past curfew unsupervised. At this time of night, the small town of Lake Station, Indiana, feels hauntingly empty. We throw realtor signs like Frisbees. We hit houses with rocks. We drink Jones Soda in a gas station parking lot and dare each other to do increasingly dumber things.
On the way home, we take a shortcut through the woods. Behind us, a stray dog starts following. Growling at a low volume.
Every small town has at least one knife kid, which is exactly what it sounds like: a kid who always seems to have some kinda knife in his pocket.
I’m a knife kid.
With the dog getting closer behind us, I pull out tonight’s pocketknife and flick the blade open. I have no desire to hurt this animal, but if he charges us, maybe it won’t be a bad idea to have some protection. Luckily, the dog grows disinterested and runs away before anything can get out of control.
That’s when something else starts following us.
Just as we make it in front of Ian’s house, red and blue lights illuminate the street. We freeze. I realize I’m still holding the knife. I let go of it and it lands, blade down, into the grass at my feet. Sticking up from the earth.
Two cops get out of the car. They demand to know what I dropped. “Uh, nothing,” I tell them, which is a lie they quickly bust me on.
They drag me and my two friends to their car and slam our heads against the hood so hard all I can hear is a loud ringing. The car is hot against my face as they search the rest of my pockets (and find nothing). Behind us, the cops call us names like cocksuckers and faggots. They want to know what we’re doing out here at this time of night and going for a walk does not satisfy them. They want to know where we all live, and for some reason Ian tells them he’s my brother, and he lives at my house clear on the other side of town. One of the cops ask if this is true. There is zero hesitation on my part when I nod and confirm him and I are kin.
Seconds later, Ian’s mom comes walking out of their house and asks what’s going on.
The rest of the night isn’t worth getting into too much detail. Everybody’s parents were called. We were giving strong lectures. We were yelled at for hours. Meanwhile, all I could think about was the kind of language the cops had used with us before any adults appeared. The kind of language they had used on children. How violent they had gotten with us so quickly.
This night planted a seed that would grow over time into a deep hatred for authority. It seemed inevitable I would eventually write about it, especially with the number of stories about cops executing unarmed civilians popping up more and more in the news every day. I know the three of us got off incredibly lucky that night. Things could have so easily turned to disaster. I also am positive my experience would have been drastically different had we not been white. I do understand my privilege here, especially here. It’s no secret that the police in the United States have a real disturbing fetish for murdering black kids. And it’s also no secret that this country refuses to make them face the consequences for their actions. Their crimes.
My new novel, Touch the Night, is my reaction to both my own real-life experience and also my frustrations with other, severely more serious cases of police brutality. It begins with two twelve-year-old boys sneaking out in the middle of the night and getting stopped by the police. Only…these kids are not as lucky as my friends and I were. The cops take these boys away…but not to a police station, no, someplace far more sinister than that, and it’s up to their mothers to take the law in their own hands to save them. Things get…uh, pretty dark.
Every book begins with one image. One seed. Over time, it grows and grows and grows.
Getting slammed against a cop car and called every homophobic slur in the book did something to me at such a young age. It forever altered my perspective. I foolishly thought maybe writing Touch the Night would rid this internal rage from my system once and for all.
But of course, I was wrong.
It only made me more pissed off.
I woke up at 3am with a stomachache, and before that Krissy, who has been watching me stress out the last couple of days, has suggested that now might be a fine time not to look at the rest of the world for a bit. I think she’s probably right, so I’m going to step away for the last few days of June and, I don’t know, read a book or something. I have Big Idea pieces to go up today and Monday, but otherwise I’m out of here until July 1. See you then, folks. Be good to each other, okay?
So, I’ve spent a day giving myself a small ulcer trying to write this thing well, and it hasn’t been working. So fuck it, I’ll just go for blunt and see where that gets me:
I have some friends who have fucked up in how they’ve been treating women. Specifically Myke Cole and Max Temkin and Sam Sykes and (as an online acquaintance who I’ve been friendly with) Warren Ellis. Variously they’ve fucked up and it’s the first time I’ve heard of it, or they’ve fucked up, been given one strike (by me and others) and then fucked up again. Some have owned up to it and accepted that they’ve fucked up; at least one (as far as I can see) has sort of slunk off.
I’m not interested in excusing or mitigating their fuck ups. When you fuck up, you own your karma. I like and have liked all these guys to a greater or lesser degree, and also my personal feelings about them are irrelevant with regard to how they’ve treated other people, and specifically women (and, additionally, people they’ve identified as women who might be non-binary).
It’s hard and sad when friends fuck up, because they’re friends; you like them and you have a relationship with them. You have friends in common. You have at least a little bit of a life in common. It hurts when your friends fuck up. But when they fuck up, you have to be clear about it.
My friends fucked up. Not accidentally, to be clear. They made choices.
They are responsible for their wholly intentional fuck ups.
Also, I am responsible for my fuck-ups in relation to them — to what extent my friendship implies complicity with their actions, or provides cover, or has allowed me to overlook things I should have been paying attention to, or has allowed me to excuse what they were doing. This is one reason I feel like I have a small ulcer at the moment; the gnawing feeling in my gut that wonders how much of their fuck ups are at my door. In some cases, not much! In others: well, more.
(You should also know right now I definitely have that exasperated part of me that is all, like, look, I haven’t been in the same room as this guy for a couple of years! I don’t have a body cam on him! I don’t see every goddamned thing he does as he does it and to whom he does it! My brain is very full of defensive frustrated whining right now! Which is also a thing I have to work through.)
(And while I’m at it, I’m going through my own interactions with people, especially women, at conventions and other places where it turns out the power differential slides toward me. I can admit that this power differential wasn’t something I truly clued into for a while — I think it took being SFWA President to get it drilled into my head, because that was a big fuckin’ neon sign, wasn’t it — but it was there fairly early, so, uhhh, yeah. I’ve seen people commenting “well, at least we still have Scalzi,” and there’s part of my brain going, oh, man, I sure hope you do! But I also know that I have fucked up before in other places where I didn’t understand my power (see: RaceFail, now a decade back), and because of that what I did or said hurt people. That’s also a thing.)
So, yeah, I have to sit with and work through all of that.
I’m angry at my friends right now. I’m sad for my friends right now. I’m even more angry about and sad for the women who they have made feel unsafe, and who they have harassed, or groomed, or otherwise harmed, because it is unacceptable. I want to be a friend to my friends and I also want to chuck them off the side of the fucking boat and be done with them. I want to think there’s a way back for some of them, for the same reason there was a way back for me when I’ve fucked up before. That’s on them, and right now I don’t know how much, if any, of my personal time and credibility I want to put into helping them. I’m frustrated and I’m tired that we keep having to do this, and I’m ashamed that some of the reason we keep having to do this rests on me. I understand and accept why I need to write this piece and I also fucking resent having to, and that resentment rests solely on my friends, and me.
I’m well aware of how much this piece I’ve made about my reaction, when at the end of the day what it should be, simply, is this:
Women have a right to be safe and secure, and to have full participation in the cultures and communities that they create and work in.
My friends fucked that up. And me too.
I’m sorry my friends fucked up. I am sorry for fucking up too.
I’m going to work on my shit. I hope these men I’ve called my friends work on theirs.
Writing has always been a way for me to express myself creatively. Ask me to draw, you’ll get stick figures. Color, not so great at that either even if I do stay in the lines. Decorate my living room, it’s as plain as when I moved in. But write a book, I can actually do that. So, when at a gathering with a bunch of friends, many of whom happen to be veterans, the topic of conversation came to dating, divorce, and marriage an idea sparked for a story.
After doing some research (mostly to make sure some of the high figures friends had mentioned were actually true), a big question stuck in my mind over and over: After hearing over and over that if the military wanted you to have a wife, they’d issue you one, I began to wonder what if they actually did issue spouses? Who would actually sign up for a program like that and why?
In doing some research, I found out there were many reasons people married into the military. I remember coming across a story about two friends who got married because one of them needed insurance, another where the military member had gotten married because of increased salary and other perks. But I wanted to go deeper. So, I started asking myself what would make me join a program like that.
One thing came to mind right away. Community. While I have close cousins who’d grown up with a father who was away all the time, aunts running their households and hosting holidays without their husbands present, they always had a built in community. And I loved that. It’s something I have found is hard to find in my own civilian life.
My heroine started to develop and take shape, because belonging is something we can all relate to. Sometimes I think people forget that belonging is an aspect of life adults deal with as well as teens and younger kids, especially as our circumstances change. It’s also an area that some of the veterans I know had mentioned being a reason they missed the military as well. They hadn’t found a comrade, a tribe, like they had when they were active duty.
Once this concept of belonging took hold, it also steered how I wanted to approach my novel. It needed to be focused on home life, not a romantic suspense where the military member and the love interest got caught up in a mission of some sort. One of my favorite TV shows came to mind—Army Wives. And what better reason for a Netflix (or maybe it was Hulu) binge than research. Well, it wasn’t my favorite show when it was actually on TV, it was my mom’s favorite show. And I used the opportunity to spend more time with my mom as we watched it together at her house, something I wished I had done more of with my father before he died.
The hero came together a bit easier for me. Sure, he’s a bit surly like two of my uncles, and is stubborn when it comes to his health (like my dad had been. I mean, he had lung cancer and would “take walks” to “secretly” smoke a cigarette, yet the neighbors would rat him out. Not to mention smelling like cigarette smoke the moment he came back home). I am smiling now as I remember the ways he would come home acting all innocent, the same way I had when I incorporated that part of my dad into the hero. My dad was quite the character.
Writing Issued also forced me to take a look at relationships, including my own. This was probably the toughest part of the book for me, because it caused me to face some of the not great parts and even to examine where I had faults. Like what does it mean to truly accept your spouse? How do you trust someone to see you at your weakest, especially when society dictates you should be strong? And how do you forgive, especially forgiving yourself? For someone who doesn’t trust easily like me, at times this book became hard to write emotionally because I felt like I wasn’t “practicing what I was preaching.”
Overall, I wouldn’t trade the experience I had writing this book for anything, even if it meant I didn’t have to do half of the rewrites my editor asked of me. I came out of the experience having spent more quality time with family members, learning more about their struggles and good times. I got to remember and incorporate my father in some ways into the book. And I came out with a deeper respect for active duty members of the military, their spouses and their families.
Hello! Let’s get to today’s five, shall we?
Chair trouble: This morning I sat down in my office chair and kept going down; the pneumatic tube that regulates the height appears to have given out. Unfortunately my desk does not lower, which means working at my usual place of business is not possible today, unless I want a righteous case of carpal tunnel, which I do not. I have thus wandered about the house to get work done with my laptop and have had a fitful time of it. I’m good with the laptops for email and blog work, and when I travel (because I have no choice), but when I’m home I very much prefer my desktop and its big, roomy monitor.
So there will be a visit to the local Staples in my near future. I have taken a look at some super fancy chairs online but thanks to Covid, all of the manufacturer websites warn of shipping delays. I’m not going to be happy waiting two weeks for a whole new chair (or for a replacement pneumatic tube, to forestall an inevitable comment).
Also, this is another one of those times when I reflect that I am fortunate to be in a position where a chair breaking down on me means I am mildly inconvenienced for a day or two, rather than just having to suck it up and deal with it because I don’t have the means to acquire a new chair. Maybe it’s weird to feel fortunate when things break down. But I do, and I think the mindfulness of that is not bad.
The Last Emperox an Amazon Top SF/F Book of 2020 (so far): My publicist sent me the news this morning, which is nice, and also a reminder that somewhat incredibly, 2020 is almost half done. This year has felt simultaneously 10,000 years long and also whiplash fast. Be that as it may, it’s nice to see the book get a little love here on the doorstep of the second half of the year. I’m happy with how things have been turning out with Emperox generally, especially in this trainwreck of a year. No matter what happens with it from here on out, it feels like it’s already won.
Is Joe Biden actually running a good campaign? Writer Jonathan Chait argues that he is in New York magazine, and, I mean, maybe? Biden didn’t exactly cover himself in glory during the primaries, where he always felt like everyone’s third choice (“everyone” in this case being “everyone I know and/or who is on Twitter”) and who, upon locking up a nomination, has mostly appeared to be following the practice of not interrupting his opponent while he is making a mistake. Which, here in 2020, might be enough to qualify as a successful campaign! Chait argues he’s doing other things right too. Sure, why not. I’m going to vote for him pretty much regardless, but I agree it’s nice to see him not fucking it up on a constant basis.
Travel restrictions for the tri-state area: New York, Connecticut and New Jersey say that if you’re coming in from somewhere that has done a shit job of handling the spread of the coronavirus, you’re going to have to quarantine for two weeks. The metric they’ve determined for this basically covers almost all of the south, and Utah and Washington thrown in as spare change. I seem to recall Florida doing something like this a couple of months ago, although I also seem to recall the specifics being different (ie, Florida not doing testing and maintaining that the only way the virus could be in the Sunshine State was if it were brought in from New York). As Michael Scott would say, how the turntables. I’m not going to be too smug about it because the way things are going, other states including mine could find themselves with the same restrictions. Wear those masks, folks.
The Muppets haven’t been exactly hitting it out of the park recently, but as a card carrying Gen-Xer, I’m always willing to give them another shot.
When Katherine Addison gets hold of the Victorian Era in her new novel The Angel of the Crows, she does things to it that no one expected — possibly most of all herself. Here she is to tell you how and why she’s done what she has, and why she had so much fun with it.
Disclosure: I read this book in galley and liked it enough to provide a blurb for it.
I started writing The Angel of the Crows when I was in a particularly bad spot. I was depressed, I was stuck, nothing seemed to be working. So I had this goofy idea about Sherlock and angels and said, I’ll never publish this, but I’m sure not writing anything else right now, so what the heck, and started writing.
It very quickly turned not to be about Sherlock at all, but about the original Sherlock Holmes stories, which I have loved since I was a child. They are also stories that have burrowed deeply into our culture, as the proliferation of Sherlock Holmes movies and TV shows and parodies and pastiches shows. That proliferation also shows that there’s a conversation going on about the stories, about the figures of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, about the Detective and their Sidekick. This is a conversation in which I’ve listened to a lot of voices, and a conversation in which, it turns out, I have something to say… by means of making Sherlock Holmes a (slightly) fallen angel.
I wasn’t going to publish it. It was obviously too weird. But if it was already too weird, that gave me freedom to throw in anything I wanted to. Angels and vampires and werewolves and steampunk watchdogs and I had to have hell-hounds, and a giant airship mooring tower in the East End of London, and then why not Jack the Ripper? I started calling it my kitchen-sink novel.
When my editor asked me what I was working on, I told the truth.
She lit up like a pinball machine.
Apparently, everything that I thought was fun in a novel, she also thought was fun in a novel, and she didn’t think it was too weird at all.
The novel is built around the Holmes stories, and part of the game I was playing was to see how far I could twist them by putting them in this new context, where people don’t get addicted to opium, they get addicted to vampires, and a hell-hound is actually the most reasonable explanation for what killed Sir Charles Baskerville.
The novel is also built around the historical case of Jack the Ripper. I have done a lot of reading about Jack the Ripper, and this was a chance to pull out an always popular what-if: what if Sherlock Holmes had taken the case of the Whitechapel murderer? It was a chance to put all my reading to good use and a chance to try the tiniest bit of historical fiction. (The Thames Torso Murderer is real, too.) My conclusion from this is that historical fiction is extremely damn hard to write. You have to make choices about things that are historically undecided, like how many victims Jack the Ripper had. (I voted for six.) I followed the historical timeline exactly, and the things Crow reads in the papers about the Whitechapel murderer are things the newspapers really said.
The temporal structure of the novel—the timeline—is Jack the Ripper. The thematic structure is the Sherlock Holmes stories, and combining the two was a complicated venture. It should be acknowledged, though, that I made no attempt to follow any kind of Sherlockian canonical chronology—I’m wrong from the start, since A Study in Scarlet begins in 1878 and I had to move things up a whole decade to get to August of 1888 and the murder of Martha Tabram. (In this world the Second Afghan War drags on for ten years because there are fallen angels and they are very bad news.) And Conan Doyle himself never tried for any kind of continuity between stories (except that “The Adventure of the Empty House” has to take place after “The Final Problem”). So chronology there is what I say it is for the purposes of the larger story.
I used as many Sherlock Holmes stories as I could, starting with A Study in Scarlet and finishing with “The Adventure of the Speckled Band.” I took them apart and recombined them; I let them gambol a bit. I increased women’s speaking parts. I repurposed some characters and made up others; I rewrote the Andaman Islander in The Sign of the Four; I mixed in the occasional historical person. This is truly my kitchen-sink novel.
Ultimately, the Big Idea of The Angel of the Crows centers on the Sherlock Holmes stories. By putting the stories in a new setting, and by putting the detective up against a mystery that has baffled real-life detectives for more than 130 years, I’m offering my own commentary on the stories and their late Victorian milieu and the place they continue to have in our culture. And having a lot of fun doing it, too.
Busy day! Let’s get to today’s five.
Meet my newkulele: Get it? Huh? Huh? Huh? It’s a Fender Fullerton Jazzmaster ukulele in Tidepool Blue; you can’t tell very well in the photo but it’s sparkly. I have several ukes in the house so I didn’t really need a new one, but — look! It’s like a tiny guitar! It’s so cool! And anyway it has a couple of features I wanted that none of my other ukes had, and also it was my vastly belated birthday gift to me, so. These are my excuses. It sounds nice and plays well and like all my musical instruments its true limiting factor is the person playing it. I’m enjoying it regardless.
Europe considering travel restrictions on US residents: I mean, I would, in their shoes. They actually made an effort to tamp down coronavirus transmission, while we basically farted about and can’t get a sizeable percentage of our population to wear a friggin’ mask. I traveled to the continent last year and was happy to have been able to have the privilege, but I totally understand if they’re not in a huge rush to have me back. They know where I’ve been, i.e., here in Covidvania.
Speaking of travel restrictions: Severe restrictions this year on the Hajj, the journey to Mecca every ablebodied Muslim is enjoined to make at least once in their life. Mllions usually go each year; this year it will be limited to 10,000. Which is wild. And historic, as the article notes that the last time restrictions were this severe it was because of Napoleon. That’s… a lot to take in. Sympathies to my Muslim friends.
Covid claims another theatrical release: This one the new SpongeBob movie, which is now to be released on VOD and then on CBS All Access. This is not terribly surprising and also a pretty safe bet, since the movie’s audience is (generally) young enough that having them watch it at home is probably a better idea anyway. As a long-time movie industry watcher, it’s been interesting watching which films are ditching the theaters, and what that means for Hollywood’s confidence about people going back to the cineplex. So far it’s kid’s films and indies that have made the switch, which again, have been safe bets for skipping theaters entirely. The only film with a truly significant budget to make the swap so far is Artemis Fowl, which a) is still a kid film, b) was shaping up to be a flop so it didn’t hurt Disney much to do it (they saved millions on global publicity budgets). When someone releases a $100M+ adult franchise film to VOD, that’s going to be an interesting day.
Speaking of ukuleles: The Cure’s “The Lovecats,” done by the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain. You’re welcome.