Which John Scalzi Novel Should I Read First?

I get asked a lot by people new to me (or new to my fiction, anyway) which novel of mine they should read first. I have a long-winded answer to this that says, well, I write nearly all of my books to be read as stand-alones, so no matter where you start you should be fine. This answer almost never makes anyone happy. So let’s pretend I never said that, and instead let me now grade my books on “first readability.”

To spare anyone who doesn’t want to read me blather at length on the matter, if I had to pick just one book as the “start here” John Scalzi novel, it would be Old Man’s War. I’ll explain why in a minute. But if that’s just what you wanted from this, there you go, now go out and get it. Have fun and thanks.

Now, here’s a slightly longer “first read” assessment of my novels and novellas and collections, in order of publication. Note the grades here are only for “is this a book I would recommend as a first read,” not in regard to overall quality. In terms of overall quality, I think they are all very good, otherwise I wouldn’t have put them out there to be read.

(Also, obviously: These are my opinions. Others might disagree on which are the best “first reads.”)

Old Man’s War: As noted above this is probably the one I would suggest as a “first read” to most people. The reason is pretty simple: It’s a fast and easy read, it’s my best-known book, it opens a series so if you like it you can continue with the characters, and most importantly for “first read” purposes, it’s highly indicative of my personal style. Which is to say if you read it and like it, there’s a very good chance you’ll like the rest of my novels. If you read it and don’t like it at all, you should probably find another author to read, because I’m not likely to get any better for you. First Read Grade: A+

Agent to the Stars: The is the first novel that I wrote but second published (after Old Man’s War) and takes place in “contemporary” Los Angeles, in which aliens have arrived and are looking for an agent. It’s funny and I think a good example of my tone. As time goes on a number of the references and situations in the book are beginning to age; I think it’s best to say this book represents an alternate timeline that branched off from ours around the turn of the millennium. Still, an easy one to get into. First Read Grade: B

The Ghost Brigades: The second book of the Old Man’s War series. I expressly wrote it to be read as a stand alone, on the perfectly reasonable theory that the first book in the series might not be on the shelf and I didn’t want to give people an excuse to put the book down. So it is readable as a first book. But even so I suspect it’s less suited as a “first book” than Old Man’s War. First Read Grade: B-

The Android’s Dream: This is a standalone (I did start writing a follow-up called The High Castle, but it wasn’t good, so I stopped) and I love it to bits, but it might not be the best “first read” book of mine because it’s also maybe a little… well, aggressive might be the best word. I mean, it starts with a chapter where someone farts someone else to death. It’s a great chapter from a storytelling point of view, but it might not be the best for a first time reader. Unless they want a challenge and don’t mind farts. In which case: Rock on. First Read Grade: B-

The Last Colony: Book three in the Old Man’s War series. Again, I wrote it with the idea that people picking it up might not have access to the other books in the series, so it can be read alone. But it is three books in. Probably not the best place to start. First Read Grade: C

Zoe’s Tale: Book four in the Old Man’s War series but it was originally written a) to be put into high school and middle school libraries, b) as the possible starting point to a trilogy of books following Zoë Boutin-Perry, the teenaged protagonist of the book. So it was written under the assumption that it was the first book in its own spin-off series, and that its readers would not have read the previous books in the universe. Which makes it a not at all bad “first read”, particularly for younger readers. First Read Grade: B+ for younger readers, B for everyone else

The God Engines: A very dark and grim fantasy novella that I wrote in part to make the point that while I usually wrote generally light, generally funny, generally optimistic science fiction, I had have other tools in my writing tool box. The novella is pretty great (it was nominated for the Hugo and Nebula) but it’s also by design non-representative of my larger body of work. So if you really like this, there’s not much else in my oeuvre like it (yet…). I absolutely do want people to read it, but as a first read, I’m not sure I would recommend it. First Read Grade: D

Metatropolis: I edited this shared world anthology of novellas, which includes my own novella Utere Nihil Non Extra Quiritationem Suis. It’s amusing but very light, and while it’s a passable first read I wouldn’t recommend readers start here with me (Metatropolis as a whole is excellent, however). First Read Grade: C 

Fuzzy Nation: A “reboot” of the H. Beam Piper novel Little Fuzzy, featuring some of the same characters and general story outline but otherwise vastly revamped and updated. This is actually a very accessible book for first readers and very much in line with my general style and tone. It also has a bit fewer moments of cursing than I usually put in my books, which generally recommends it to younger readers (or more accurately, parents who don’t want to give their kids books with a lot of cursing in them). First Read Grade: A

Redshirts: My Hugo Award-winner. It’s very funny and it references and plays with several decades of science fiction tropes, most notably (obviously) from Star Trek and other film/TV science fiction. I think it’s pretty accessible and the humor in it is the same in tone as you’ll find in my other books, although there is rather more of it. It’s not a bad place to start with me, especially if you like humor and are steeped in science fiction tropes. The caveat I note is that humor is personal, so if you bounce off the humor here (and some people do), you’ll wonder why anyone thought it was a big deal at all. First Read Grade: A- 

The Human Division: Book five in the Old Man’s War series. But! It starts a new two-book arc in the series, with new main characters and situations, and I set everything up nicely so that if you’re new to the series you’re caught up on pertinent information so you can move forward quickly. I think it works reasonably well as a first read. First Read Grade: B

Lock In: My gloss on a Crichton-esque near-future thriller, which I like quite a lot and which in point of fact was a first read of mine for a lot of folks, and it seemed to work just fine. Particularly recommended for people who like thrillers and crime novels and are not 100% sure how they feel about science fiction. It’s also a good one to give people who are reluctant to be seen with a book that has spaceships on the cover. First Read Grade: A-

Unlocked: A companion novella to Lock In, written as an oral history and detailing the disease that plays a role in that novel. It’s best read in conjunction with Lock In, and it’s different enough from my usual style that I would probably not have it as an introduction to me. First Read Grade: C

The End of All Things: Book six of the Old Man’s War series and the direct sequel to The Human Division, completing that two-book arc. Again, I think readable on its own, but really not where I would start. It’s better in conjunction with The Human Division. First Read Grade: C

The Dispatcher: This novella is crime noir with a fantasy wash, and it’s a bit off the track from what I’m best known for, although not so much that I feel like it’s unrepresentative. If you were to read (or listen to, as it was written for audiobook) this first, it’s an easy transfer over to Lock In, and vice versa. Try it, it’s fun! First Read Grade: B

Miniatures: This is a collection of very short stories, most under 2,000 words, and almost all of them intended to be humorous. I actually think this is a really nice first read book for me — you get a sense of my humor almost immediately and everything in it moves by quickly (and also, the eBook is, like, $5, so it’s a pretty cheap first date). If you read this and really like it, Redshirts is the obvious next stop in terms of what to read next. First Read Grade: B+

The Collapsing Empire: The first installment of my new space opera series. I really like it, and as with Old Man’s War I think it’s an excellent “first read” because it gives you a very good sense of who I am as a writer — if you like it, there’s an excellent chance you’ll like most everything else of mine. The one tiny caveat is I have a particular character who is super profane, which I love but some people find excessive. But if you can handle that this is a great place to start. First Read Grade: A

I’ll update this piece as new books come out. In the meantime, hope this helps with your first read needs.

RIP, Jerry Pournelle

Word reaches me by the president of SFWA and other sources that Jerry Pournelle passed away today, in his sleep. This makes it a sad day for science fiction. Pournelle was an outsized voice in the field, publicly often cantankerous and privately quietly devoted to the field, both as a member and former president of SFWA. And he was a very fine writer, with a number of memorable works, particularly those written with Larry Niven. My favorite of those was Footfall, which thrilled me when I was a teenager, although many would point to The Mote in God’s Eye as their finest collaboration. Both were nominated for the Hugo for Best Novel, and Pournelle himself was the inaugural winner of the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer, which he won the same year as he was president of SFWA. Nifty trick, that.

I was not personally close with Jerry Pournelle, but as president of SFWA I had the opportunity to work with him on organizational matters. In that capacity he was always devoted and diligent, and his love for the organization and the field of science fiction was never in the slightest of doubt. He and I differed on many subjects (neither of us were ever exactly shy about expressing ourselves, either privately or in the SFWA discussion areas), but I never doubted his desire to be a positive force in the field, or his willingness to serve when asked. In this, he was the best of men.

My condolences to Dr. Pournelle’s family, friends and fans. His was a good and distinguished life. He will be missed.

New Books and ARCs, 9/8/17

Another September weekend, another stack of new books and ARCs for you to peruse. What looks good? Spill in the comments!

(If you need a bigger picture to look at some of the graphic novel titles, here you go.)

The Big Idea: Ferrett Steinmetz

Nerds love the idea of the Singularity, but as Ferrett Steinmetz hypothesizes in The Uploaded, even in the Singularity, the rapture of the nerds is not evenly distributed.


Writers are evil people. You’re walking down the aisle of your wedding, lost in marital bliss, and your writer friend is thinking yes, yes, this is wonderful, but how could this all go wrong?

We don’t mean to ponder these awful outcomes.  We writers should be focusing on your joyous wedding vows, not imagining brutal Kill Bill-style interruptions or wondering what would cause someone to burst into the room to shout, “I do know why this man and this woman should not be legally married!”

But you know, nobody wants to read a story about things going right.

My unfortunate specialty is asking what goes wrong after the happily ever after – which is why my go-to example here is a wedding.  But in my book The Uploaded, I take the biggest happily ever after and absolutely destroy it.  I’m not talking about what gets wrecked after two people get married – I’m aiming at what happens five hundred years after all humanity unites in peace and harmony.

That’s right: The Uploaded is destroying the Singularity.

Now, if you’re not familiar with the Singularity, it’s basically the nerdy Rapture.  At some point we’ll get enough computational power to upload our brains into the Internet, at which point we will have conquered death and everyone gets access to a digital Heaven that’s basically a supercharged World of Warcraft.

Do not get me wrong: in The Uploaded, this works.  This isn’t some crazy pay-for-play system where you shell out millions to avoid death and only the 1% get in.  The Upterlife’s creator, Walter Wickliffe, was fanatically devoted to ensuring that “all should pass through, but for the lowliest of criminals,” and he wound up becoming a politician to ensure no governments could spy on your archived consciousness.  He won a hairy Supreme Court case that ruled that archived citizens were actually human, and as such they can own property, they can be elected to office, and they can vote.

So that’s the perfect Singularity: you work, you obey the law, you get to live forever.  It’s that simple.

Except, of course, that it isn’t.

Because if you’re a student of history, you know that no paradise lasts forever.  Attitudes change.  People forget things.  And even though “forgetting things” is a little different when you have immortal politicians with memories that stretch back 500 years, well….

I’ll let Mama Alex, one of the characters from The Uploaded, explain it.

“Thing is, Amichai,” she continued, “people don’t change all that much. But the most virulent racists died off, and the new kids grew up with more black and Latino and Asian friends, and the world got a shade better. Not perfect – occasionally some freshfaced a-hole raised on yesterday’s thoughts would squirm into power for a time – but better.

“We never could have won if we had to face down all our enemies in their prime, Amichai. We just outlived ‘em.

“You’re right to call ‘em ghosts, Amichai. They haunt us. Every baby could be gene-engineered disease-free. Except the old-guard dead think genetic engineering’s a violation of nature, and they’re still around. And that opinion is not going away. Their old, bigoted culture gives new kids an excuse to be a-holes.

“You might hate death. But we’ve come to fetishize eternity – like hanging around forever is an unquestionable good. Death? It’s got its downsides, Amichai. But it sure clears away the underbrush.”

So society freezes because the old politicians never die.  But neither do their voters.  Within a few generations, the dead outnumber the living.  So nonviolent political change?  Gets increasingly unlikely.

Even worser: living culture changes.

Atheists often laugh at Christians, because there’s no Heaven and look at you restricting your life to live by imaginary rules when there’s no reward but the void.  But the problem with the Singularity is that suddenly, there is a Heaven – you can see it.  Hell, you get phone calls from your dead relatives squeeing about how great it is adventuring against the giant invasions on Wingbright Pass, leaving five-star reviews of the virtual mead.

You can’t have any of that until you die.

Being living becomes unfashionable.  Furthermore, living things become kinda creepy.  I mean, you can spend time crafting some nice woodworked chair in the real world – which you’ll leave behind when you die, and it will rot the whole time – or you can focus on creating virtual things.

The “real” world only becomes useful as a means of keeping the servers going.  And slowly, through a combination of culture and political incentives, the living become trained to hate themselves.  Your life’s too short to get the expertise that, say, architects and doctors with 200 years of experience have.

Your best career move is to die.

And yet that’s not the Big Idea here.

Because I don’t think it’s any surprise that The Uploaded features a protagonist who fricking loves the physical world, a culturally Jewish orphan named Amichai who’s tired of watching all his friends be told that their creativity isn’t worth looking at.  There’s going to be a dawning awareness of the secret government plan designed to cut down the living, and a big damn hero who becomes a symbol for the rebellion.

(It’s not Amichai.  It’s actually his pony.  This is a weird story.)

But that said, the Big Idea is not really “What happens 500 years after we conquer death?”, though that’s pretty big.  The Big Idea is what Amichai wrestles with throughout the course of the book:

That there are no happy endings.

There’s only work.

Because history is only work, my friends.  We thought we defeated the Nazis?  Well, the Internet provided an exciting new place to nurture hatreds.  We white folks got taught that Martin Luther King pretty much conquered racism in the 1960s?  Turns out we’ve still got a looooong way to go.  We elected Barack Obama?  Well, the backlash is Trump.

A large part of The Uploaded is about what happens when humanity gives into that urge to believe that the work is done.  Amichai becomes massively influential in the impending revolution, of course, but even though he’s smart enough to understand that the revolution is not the end point, he doesn’t know how to shape this movement so its momentum brings everyone to where they need to go.

The Uploaded is largely about that struggle.  Yes, Amichai wants to tear down the dead’s rule.  But to quote that King George line from Hamilton, You’re on your own.  Awesome, wow.  Do you have a clue what happens now?

Amichai doesn’t.  No one does.  And that’s the Big Idea:

Happy endings are an illusion.  There’s only maintenance of a fair society.  And anyone who checks out of that maintenance becomes a medium in which the most unaccountable horrors will flourish.

Anyway.  Terrible things happen.  There’s also ponies and a couple of cheap laughs.

Buy my book.


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

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

Yes, I’ve Heard About the New South Park Game’s Difficulty Settings

And yes, the game rather concretely makes the “lowest difficulty setting” point.

Here’s an article about it. And here’s the video showing it in action:

Before anyone asks, no, I had nothing to do with it, and no, I have no idea if the people who made the game read or knew about my article. And also, no, I’m not going to worry about whether or not I get credit for it. Remember that I myself was expanding on a comment writer Luke McKinney made in a Cracked article about straight male sexuality. This stuff gets around.

I am, however, amused to see it in an actual video game. All the dudes who whined about how the metaphor was all wrong will now have to grind their teeth when they set up their characters in this game. And that’s a lovely thought.

The Big Idea: Max Gladstone

Cities, sisters and war: Max Gladstone’s new novel The Ruin of Angels talks about each, together and apart. Here he is to explain how it all weaves together in his work.


Consider two sisters.

Kai and Ley live in different worlds, but sit at the same table. They grew up together, but they don’t see each other often these days. If you asked them, they’d give reasons—school and travel and work and things like that—but those reasons aren’t enough to name the distance. There was a death in the family when they were young, and they grew up in a hard home, in a country in trouble, and dealt with that in different ways. Kai dug into her home soil, dove into work, and built a life. Ley left, chasing a dream she could barely name, always just out of reach. She wanted to change the world, and she couldn’t do that at home.

They need each other more than anything. They’re all they have, in a dangerous time. But their different values have caused them to make different choices, and the conviction that they’ve made the right choices makes it almost impossible for them to understand each other’s needs.

One sees the girl who couldn’t leave, and the other sees the girl who couldn’t stay.

That’s the heart of Ruin of Angels, my new novel: the challenge of living in different worlds in the same space. What happens when it’s so difficult to understand the people we live beside—or the people we love—that we can’t help them? That we don’t even know how to help each other?

Cities are filled with different worlds, interlaced but not always intersecting, defined by values, history, choices, architecture. There are many Bostons, New Yorks, Nashvilles, some so sealed off from the rest their inhabitants never step into the worlds they live beside. Some people live all their lives in one of these sub-cities; others never have the freedom of that ignorance—they pay careful attention to which city they’re in at any given moment, because stepping wrong is the difference between life and death.

Class and culture and race shape these worlds, and they’re reinforced by the values residents hold, or are trained to hold. Is it a good or a suspicious thing to have a well-paying corporate job? Do you feel exhausted, or excited, on your fifth week of eighteen-hour grind? How important is it to live near your blood kin? Would you go to space if there were a good chance you’d never come back? When is violence the answer? (Are you sure? How does your experience of violence line up with the stories you tell about it, or about yourself?)

But crisis demands we break down those walls—or let them crush us.

Agdel Lex, where Ruin of Angels takes place, where Kai and Ley meet, is a fractured city. A hundred fifty years ago (or so), a great war started there—the God Wars, the near-omnicidal conflict between human sorcerers and the Gods whose powers they stole. The cataclysm frayed reality around Agdel Lex—and while every city holds many worlds, the worlds of Agdel Lex are a bit more literal than most.

The Iskari, Agdel Lex’s occupying power, have one vision for the city they seek to rule: an orderly metropolis, fit to a considered design, with everyone in their proper place. (Proper so far as the Iskari are concerned, anyway!) Like many governments, they think the many worlds should all be one. As the Iskari rule grows more complete, thanks to time and effort and new technologies, the families who ruled the city before the Iskari take shelter, and tell different stories, about a different city. Beneath these two cities gapes the inescapable fact (and world) of the War, a horror no one can quite bear to confront, but no one can forget. Torn between two poles, we find immigrants and wanderers trying to build their own future.

The system has worked—not really—for a while.

But a crisis is coming. It doesn’t start with Kai and Ley—their fight’s just the point when it turns visible. When the crisis strikes, Kai, and Ley, and their friends and enemies and lovers and students and partners, face dangers they can’t resolve alone. They’ll have to take down the walls that part them—walls formed by history, by pride, by self-absorption and pigheadedness and trauma. They’ll have to trust and reach out—and maybe even that won’t be enough.

W.H. Auden said it best, but he said it twice, and I’m not sure which version’s right:

We must love one another, or die.


We must love one another, and die.

That’s the big idea in Ruin of Angels. It’s the big idea in a lot of my life right now. The times are changing. We have to love, and work like hell, to build a better world. And no one can do it alone.

So, good thing we’re not alone.


The Ruin of Angels: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|iBooks|Kobo

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

The Big Idea: Michael J. Martinez

Politics! It happens in Michael J. Martinez’s new book MJ-12: Shadows! For good reason! Prepare yourself!


“We learn wisdom from failure much more than from success.” – Samuel Smiles, 19th century Scottish author and government reformer

Oh, Sam. If only.

It’s certainly easier for an individual to learn from their mistakes than, say, an entire country. Just open another browser window (after reading this) and the examples will come pouring in. Our nation is one built upon astounding successes and inhumane mistakes, and I think it’s in our character – as Americans, as human beings – to double down on success and ignore the mistakes.

But it’s our responsibility to learn from our mistakes, and that’s a very Big Idea in the MAJESTIC-12 series, the latest of which, MJ-12: Shadows, came out this week. Both as individuals and as a nation, that responsibility takes center stage.

Yeah, this gets political. Fair warning.

The MAJESTIC-12 series tells the story of American covert activity during the early Cold War from the perspective of uniquely talented yet otherwise everyday Americans – individuals thrust into the center of international espionage after randomly exhibiting disturbing preternatural abilities.

Basically, spies with superpowers against the Soviets. I mean, we can have fun with the weighty ideas, right?

I do a goodly amount of research for my historical fantasies, and the track record of the CIA throughout the Cold War is chock full of assassinations, back alley bargains, briefcases full of money and literal dirty tricks. Some of the operations that have been declassified make Argo look perfectly reasonable and sane.

Take Syria in 1949, the time and place I explore in MJ-12: Shadows. At the beginning of the year, the nation had a democratically elected government and was beginning to assert itself after centuries of Ottoman rule and decades of European colonialism afterward.

But that government was not particularly inclined toward American interests – which primarily involved denying the U.S.S.R. a Mediterranean port and getting the Trans-Arabian Pipeline built through Syria. So the CIA launched an operation to replace Syria’s democratically elected government with a military strongman.

It worked, and one of said strongman’s first acts was to approve the oil pipeline. By summer, the strongman was replaced by a military colleague – who was subsequently overthrown by year’s end. Three coups in a year…and the wheel goes on and on today.

What would the Middle East look like today if the U.S. had supported democracy in Syria instead of working to overthrow it? Has the United States learned from these mistakes in Syria? Iran? Cuba? Vietnam? Nicaragua? Afghanistan? Iraq? Have we achieved some semblance of wisdom from our failures? Have we understood our responsibilities as a nation?

I didn’t conceive of this series in our current era of God-what-now politics. I didn’t choose Syria because of what’s going on there today. Heck, I’m writing the third book of the series now, and that one is partially set in Korea. It’s scary. But I want to do all of this justice. And that means doing the research and telling a really good story – ideally, one that gets people thinking.

By placing everyday people at the center of these world-shaping events – a schoolteacher, a factory worker, an electrician, a WWII veteran – I’m able to walk a mile in some fictional shoes and explore what it means to be part of it all. These characters can, and do, question why they’re there and what they’re doing, all on behalf of a government that strong-armed them to sign up in the first place because of their abilities. They have their own responsibilities and their own mistakes to make.

Yes, they have superpowers. And there’s gadgets and chases and narrow escapes. I like me a good spy thriller, after all. But in the end, the real-world history is letting me tell a story about responsibility – of nations, of individuals blessed with unique gifts – and maybe explore some of the failures we’ve made, individually and collectively.

MJ-12: Shadows: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound | Books-A-Million | Mysterious Galaxy

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

2017 and Writing

I was asked recently how writing is going these days. Here’s the answer:


Why is it going slow? Well, in no small part, because 2017 is one big gigantic trash fire, for reasons that I suspect are well known and about which I don’t need to delve into detail right now. Because of this (and a couple of other things) I’ve found it makes it more difficult to focus. What I’m writing is good, but there’s less of it on a daily basis, and that’s something I’m having to work with and make adjustments for. Living in deeply stupid times is turning out to be a challenge, basically.

Please note this is not me gently prepping you for any delays with regard to books. Head On will publish in April and it will be fab. But for those of you interested in process: Hey, it’s harder this year! Because 2017!

And also, as a note to other authors and creative folks who have found themselves jammed up a bit this year as the real world blunders about their head, wrecking things: It’s not just you, and you’re not alone in this. Keep at it. It’s what I’m doing, even if more slowly than usual.

Labor Day Weekend Photos

Just some from around the house. 

(Arachnophobes, be aware the penultimate picture is of an orb weaver.)

Hope you’re having a good Labor Day long weekend.

View From a Hotel Window 9/1/17: Washington DC

And out the window is the convention center that the National Book Festival will be at tomorrow. Along with me! I have an event at 3:30 and a signing at 4:30. If you’re in the area I hope to see you there. Otherwise, it’s nice to be back in the area I lived in for four years, from ’96 to 2001. I liked it when I was here, except for the traffic, which was awful. Besides that: Pretty great.

The Big Idea: Katherine Locke

Magic is made-up — but sometimes, Katherine Locke argues, it helps to look at the real world through the lens of the imaginary. She’s here to explain why, and how it affects her novel The Girl With the Red Balloon.


I’ve been thinking about Luna Lovegood’s glasses lately. I’d forgotten (forgive me, Potterheads) that they were called Spectrespecs, but I had remembered they were given out through the Quibbler and that Luna believed–and maybe they did–they let her see things that other people didn’t see. The Quibbler was seen as a joke paper, but by book six, they were printing the truth–alongside some more questionable allegations about the world–while the Daily Prophet called Harry a liar and refused to see what was in front of it.

This isn’t a post about Harry Potter, really.

This is a post about how sometimes, seeing reality through the fantastic is the most truthful way to view it. Sometimes, we need to look at our lives, and the lives that came before us, through Spectrespecs, as to better understand what’s happening. To push away denial. To contextualize information.

And that’s not just for reading. That’s for writing too.

I knew I wanted to write a book that dealt with the guilt of being a granddaughter who traveled and fell in love with a place that had treated my ancestors so cruelly that my grandfather was upset with me for traveling there. For me, it was Ukraine. For Ellie, it’s Germany. And I knew I wanted to explore the way that facets of history interlocked and interacted with each other–the way that East Germany, and the surveillance state and limitations on its people, were born out of World War II, which was born out of invasions and genocide. The way that affects three different teenagers at different times in their life.

But I couldn’t look straight at it. And nor did I want to tell it entirely through the fantastical–that is, a secondary world fantasy with a history that stood in for ours. I wanted it to be recognizable, but accessible. The Holocaust and East Germany are two big subjects that aren’t easy to digest, especially in 250 pages.

So The Girl with the Red Balloon is written through Spectrespecs.

Sure, there are magical red balloons, but where possible, I didn’t alter from the historical record. In the 1988 timeline in my book, they use magical red balloons to help people escape from East to West Berlin. But I didn’t erase the other ways people escaped: by hot air balloons, tunnels, hiding in cars, false papers. And honestly, when I think about what people had to do to escape, magical red balloons seem just as possible as hand-digging a tunnel all the way beneath the death zone and the Wall to West Berlin.

I used magic, throughout the book, to illuminate real historical events instead of using magic to create new one. Magic is a lens through which we can grasp the extraordinary, and the miraculous, power of hope and faith and the human spirit. Magic lets me show that it isn’t the escape using a magical balloon that teaches us something, but who is left behind. Magic lets me show that for all that we can control and manipulate and plan, inexplicable things happen. Nothing is perfect. Time and friendships and people are fragile, and must all be treated with empathy and compassion.

Magic isn’t a thing that happens in my book, but a way for us to see what really did happen.

This isn’t something new. A Wrinkle in Time, A Swiftly Tilting Planet, A Wind in the Door, and Bridge to Terabithia are all books from my childhood that used the fantastic to show us real moments that exist in all of our lives. In A Wrinkle in Time, I remember so clearly the boy bouncing the ball out of sync with the rest of the kids bouncing their balls. I remember the door being slammed shut. That wasn’t magical. But the fantastic had given me a window into seeing a world where children’s differences, varying abilities, strengths and weaknesses were seeing as unnatural and a liability, instead of celebrated. In Bridge to Terabithia, the fantastic literally gave Jesse a place on the page where he was powerful, where his family’s dysfunction and poverty did not limit the person he could become. The fantastic is a lens, on and off the page, in each of these books.

It’s a powerful way of exploring history. And yes, people will struggle to label your book. The Girl with the Red Balloon is called a mystery, or historical urban fantasy, or a historical mystery, or historical fantasy, or mystery set in history with magical realism, and all sorts of things. But the choice here was deliberate, even if it made for a tough submission process: magic doesn’t just have to be a thing characters do. It can be a way for a reader to access your world, even if it’s not historical. Even if it’s contemporary, or secondary world fantasy. Magic should be a lens, not just a tool.

As Madeleine L’Engle said in her acceptance speech for the Margaret Edwards Award, “Often the only way to look clearly at this extraordinary universe is through fantasy, fairy tale, myth.”

So look clearly.


The Girl With the Red Balloon: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

In Which I Am Interviewed For an Hour on the Subject of Photography

By whom? By comedian Jackie Kashian, on her Dork Forest podcast. If you ever wanted to hear me prattle on for an hour on a topic unrelated to my professional capacity, now is your chance. Note: She’s got about five minutes of intro stuff, and then I come in. Enjoy.

Enjoy This Cover of the German Edition of The Collapsing Empire

Nifty, yeah? I think so too. It comes out on October 5, if you’re in Germany, or just like German translations. I’m happy to say that Bernhard Kempen, who has translated most of my work in German before, is continuing the task here. Since I’ve won awards in Germany, he’s clearly doing an excellent job.

The Big Idea: Alan Gratz

The real question to my mind is whether Alan Gratz’s new novel Ban This Book is itself ever banned. It’s possible! And would be recursive! And as Gratz explains below, it would mean his book would join a rather august list of books that have been banned.


A few years back, someone posted the following question to Yahoo Answers: “Is it OK to run an illegal library from my locker at school?” The author of the question then explained that she went to a private Catholic school where the principal had released a long list of books the students weren’t allowed to read. To be a rebel, the girl brought one of the banned books to school, and soon her friends were clamoring to read it. She added more and more banned books to the collection in her locker, and began running it like a proper library. “But is what I’m doing wrong because parents and teachers don’t know about it and might not like it,” she asks at the end, “or is it a good thing because I’m starting appreciation of the classics and truly good novels in my generation?”

Cue the Internet swoon-fest.

The link was shared everywhere. It was Tweeted and Facebooked and reposted. The story was picked up by Library Journal, and Goodreads, and Reddit. The girl and her banned book locker library were written about on educational review sites and librarian listservs and school blogs. Cory Doctorow even posted the forwarded story on BoingBoing, adding, “Give that kid a medal and a full-ride scholarship to the best library school in the country, please!” The post itself got more than a hundred responses (most of them offering earnest advice and plaudits,) and has been viewed hundreds of thousands of times. And the author of the post kept updating it with more lists of books that had been banned and added to her library.

But…wait for it…

It was a hoax.

What? Not everything you read on the Internet is true? Gasp and clutch the pearls!

Pretty quickly those skeptical fun killers among us proved the whole thing to be made up. But because nobody ever reads the comments, and because nothing ever dies on the Internet, the story keeps getting found, and shared, and linked to. I’m still surprised when I see it pop up in one of my feeds. Maybe you’ve seen it yourself. Just within the last year, a writer I admire retweeted the link with heaps of praise for the student. Like a lot of other people, I loved this story, and probably like a lot of those same people, I was bummed (but not entirely surprised) when I learned it was bogus.

But unlike everybody else, I stole the idea and wrote a book about it.

To write a book about book banning though, I was going to have to learn a lot more about, well, banning books. Not being in favor of banning books, I’d never tried to do it myself, and I’d never taught at a school or been at a school as a student or parent when a challenge happened. And none of the books I’ve written has ever been banned. At least, not that I know of. That’s one thing I learned as I began my research—that many book challenges and removals are never reported or contested. Very quietly, a book just disappears from the shelf.

I also wanted to know what kind of books got challenged and banned. I knew the famous ones—books like Huckleberry Finn (first banned in 1885, the year after it was published, for being “absolutely immoral” and using “bad grammar and inelegant expressions,” to more recent challenges over the N-word), and the Harry Potter series (witchcraft!). But what else got challenged, and why? For answers, I turned to the American Library Association, who are all over this like evolution disclaimers on Alabama textbooks. Each year, the ALA investigates every public challenge in America, and every few years they publish a book listing every challenge ever recorded. It’s a big book.

The challenged books are as varied as the reasons for challenging them are ridiculous. Among children’s books, The Stupids Step Out was challenged for encouraging children to disobey their parents. In My Teacher is an Alien, challengers took issue with the main character handling problems on her own instead of relying on the help of others. Harriet the Spy supposedly taught children to “lie, spy, back-talk, and curse.” Ewoks Join the Fight was challenged because (spoiler alert!) the Death Star is destroyed. And my favorite: The Lorax “criminalizes the foresting industry.” These were all real challenges.

So rather than make up fake books to challenge in my story, I used real books. Every novel challenged by parents in Ban This Book is one that has been challenged somewhere in America at least once in the last thirty years. The rest of my story—well, that’s all made up. I had to change a few things from the original Yahoo Answers post, of course. My main character would also be a girl, but she would be a lot younger—a fourth grader. And instead of going to a Catholic school where, let’s face it, they can tell you what you can and can’t read because it’s a private school and if you don’t like it you can just stop paying them money and go somewhere else, I would set mine at a public elementary school in North Carolina, where I live. (And where, I’m ashamed to say, we’ve seen our fair share of book challenges and book controversies.) And instead of young adult novels, it would be all middle grade novels that were banned, and Dav Pilkey, author of the awesome and oft-challenged Captain Underpants books would make a cameo, and the finale would involve a Mr. Smith Goes to Washington-style school board showdown, and…

Well, I changed pretty much everything except the part about hiding banned books in a locker and checking them out in secret to other kids.

After all, why let the truth get in the way of a good story?


Ban This Book: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

Reminder: I’m at the National Book Festival This Saturday

Come see me in Washington DC this weekend! Along with many many other very fine authors.

Here’s my appearance schedule.

See you there!

September Big Idea Slots Are Filled

The headline says it all. If you queried about a Big Idea for September and I have not yet gotten back to you, everything is all filled up for the month. October and November slots are still open (for October and November releases).

Audie Meets Spice

Such is the latent influence of A Christmas Story that whenever I see a box marked “Fragile” my brain pronounces it fra-gee-lay, and another part of my brain says “It’s a major award!” But in today, the box marked “fragile” that came to my house did have a major award in it: the Audie that The Dispatcher won this year. The Audies, in case you were not aware, are the awards that the audiobook industry give out, and this year The Dispatcher was a finalist in three categories, and won in “Original Work,” meaning a production that was designed from the ground up to be an audiobook. I showed the Audie to Spice, as you can see; she was not notably impressed, but then, she’s a cat.

The Audie will not stay on the chair any longer than the cat will; it will go on the award shelf along with the Hugos and Locus and other various awards. I’m delighted to have the physical trophy because I’m proud of The Dispatcher, not only in terms of what I wrote, but how it was brought to life by Zachary Quinto and the folks at Audible. It’s nice to have a tangible reminder that the whole package was appreciated by listeners and industry peers. Thanks, folks.

The Big Idea: Jaym Gates

California has always been pegged as the “weird” state — and as a native of the state, I just have to say… well, yeah. But in Strange California, the story anthology she’s co-edited with J. Daniel Batt, editor Jaym Gates goes beyond a simple agreement on the strangeness of the state, to dig into what makes the Golden State so weird and wonderful.


I think I first came up with the idea for Strange California long before I realized it. I had a habit, when I lived in the state, of taking long drives, losing myself on backroads choked with fog, warded by towering oaks or sequoia. One day, on my birthday, I was driving up Highway 1, along the coast from Santa Cruz to Pescadero. It was a sunny day, but a wall of fog was rolling in from the sea. Highway 1 is all steep cliffs and blind corners, and as I drove around one such corner, I found myself surrounded by a lemon-yellow fog.

There’s no way to describe that color or feeling in words. It was like being swallowed by the sun, glowing and liquid in a way I’ve never seen before. I wanted to stop and bask, but I passed around another corner and was again in the grey and blue and gold of early-winter California, wondering if I had dreamed the whole thing, and suddenly I was laughing, the fear and stress of months of personal horror washed away by a strange trick of the light.

It was moments like these that inspired the title of this anthology, and the spirit of it. The roads of California are entities themselves, mythologized in their own right, and they play their own part in telling the stories here.

Take a journey up Highway 99. Stop off just north of Bakersfield where a young woman stands on the edge of Woollomes Avenue, looking apprehensive, debating if she should cross. She’s been dead for decades but the residents see her often enough that she’s become a stable fixture of the scenery, as normal as the billboards that line the Highway.

Follow that highway further and you’ll encounter another roadside obscurity. John Muir’s conservationist efforts have inspired people across the world. Commemorating him via celebration wasn’t enough for the small town of Lemon Cove. To honor the champion of the wilderness, some Californians have constructed a massive wooden sculpture of his head that sits just the road, staring to the horizon, to the vastness of Yosemite.

Time for one more stop on your trek up 99? How about visiting the underground city below Old Sacramento buried when the town decided to simply raise the roads and start fresh. The storefronts still stand and some swear that the dead have migrated to roam the alleyways of a town that’s been forgotten by the tourists walking above.

You have a choice, from here. On up 99, to the brutally-sharp rubble and claustrophobic caves of the Lava Beds National Monument, to the silent, deserted ghost towns and high-mountain deserts of Modoc, the extinct volcanoes and wildlands around Lassen. Head back around to 80, through the Donner Pass–be sure to go in winter, and take some friends with you.

Or you can leave 99 and take 50. 50, the notorious mountain highway. Blocked in winter by snow, in spring by mudslides, in summer and autumn by wildfires. Stop off in Placerville, where an effigy still hangs over Main Street in commemoration of its heritage as Old Hangtown, and ghosts are reported in nearly every old building and mine. Follow 50 through the steep climb to Tahoe, the legendary inland sea, or venture off to its tributaries 395 and 49. 395, passing through military training grounds, ski resorts, cattle towns, and back down into the deadly beauty of Death Valley and Yosemite. 49, the Golden Chain highway, snaking through towns once infamous for their gold and hangings, through the country that inspired Mark Twain and Clark Ashton Smith.

And we haven’t even touched on Southern California, or the intense rivalries between North and South. With an economy rivaling that of many world nations, it is a world unto itself, full of mystery and legend from a hundred cultures and alternate histories. It leaves an indelible mark on everyone who passes through it.

But these are strange places we know of. California sprawls across a multitude of landscapes and has amassed a history full of the strange and unusual. There are secrets in the desert. Secrets in the cities. Strange and unusual happenings in the odd, dark places of the coastal state.

I’ve wanted to do a project like this for a long time. My family was in the state before it was a state, and the family stories would fill many a night of storytelling. While that history influenced my own storytelling quite a bit, I wanted to hear other stories, too.

So J. Daniel Batt and I talked to some people, opened a slush pile, and built an anthology. We ran it off of Kickstarter (and discovered just how much Facebook throttles links now!), and barely funded. In true California fashion, we met our goal in the 11th hour…thanks to a mysterious venture capitalist. It was the perfect laugh, a thing where you shrug and remember that weirdness doesn’t stay in the soil of a place.

California is an entity, a genius loci of power and mystery. It inspires envy, lust, greed, love, fear, and so much more. Its wide borders encompass a microcosm of the nation, from abject poverty to unimaginable wealth, the old ways and the new packed shoulder-to-shoulder, simmering with potential for greatness, or for disaster.

California Strange tells a few stories inspired by that legendary place.


California Strange: Amazon|Direct digital and print

Read an excerpt. Visit the book site. Follow Jaym Gates on Twitter.

New Books and ARCs, 8/28/17

Happy Monday — here’s a lovely stack of new books and ARCs for you peruse as this week gets started. If you see something you’re interested in, tell us in the comments!