“Kaiju” a New York Times Bestseller (Again)

This time on the NYT Audio Fiction Best Seller list, where it pops in at #14. As it also appeared on the NYT Combined Print & eBook list, we can say that the book is officially a hit in every format it’s come out in. Which is a lovely thing to be able to say. I’m very pleased with how this book has been doing out in the world.

(It’s also in its third week on the Indie Bookstore Hardcover Fiction list. Whee!)

And how was your Wednesday?

— JS

Double Vaxxed, Double Boosted

If you’re wondering if people are actually getting a second COVID booster, well, hello, I’m people, and I just got my second booster shot. Why did I get my second booster shot? Let me count off some reasons:

1. COVID is still out there! And still infecting people! And still killing people, alas; this is not an abstraction to me as it has very recently claimed people I loved. I’m inclined to continue to take it seriously.

2. Plus there are new variants going around, against which it doesn’t hurt to have an additional boost.

3. Also, I live in a county where, still, less than 40% of people have had their first shot of the COVID vaccine, much less the full regimen including that first booster, so I’m inclined to believe a second booster would be prudent.

4. Additionally, I’m traveling more or less on a pre-COVID schedule now, with the recent tour and further festival/convention appearances. This means exposure to a hell of a lot of people in airports, hotels and at events, and that many more chances to be exposed. Boosting my immune response to the virus is useful given how many people I’ve seen and will be seeing.

5. An obnoxious cold that plagued me on the second half of my book tour reminded me that no matter how otherwise healthy I am, I am still well capable of catching a virus and having it fuck with me. The cold just made me phlegmy. COVID could incapacitate or kill me. So, uh, yeah.

6. Finally, I’m over 50 and while I feel fine and healthy and have no obvious comorbidities, there’s still a higher risk for people my age than not. Simple statistics suggested going ahead and getting that second booster.

Now, with all of that said: I strongly suspect that, at this point, if I do contract COVID, it’ll likely present itself as something like a bad cold than something that puts me in the hospital, or requires something like a respirator, or puts me in the ground. Again, the statistics are on my vaxxed-and-boosted side here. But then, that’s because I am vaxxed and boosted, not just because I feel lucky. It’s also possible that this second booster will end up having less efficacy than the initial booster; that’s fine. For me, a modest boost to my ability to swat back COVID is still better than not.

Naturally, I encourage everyone to get a full vaccine regimen, including at least a single booster, if not for themselves then for the people they may know who are more susceptible to to the virus and/or can’t get the shot for reasons better than “I don’t want to and you can’t make me get it and it’s all a government conspiracy anyway.” But, to be blunt about it, at this point, aside from the relative few who legitimately cannot take the vaccine, the country now falls into two groups, the vaccinated, and the damned fools. The damned fools are unreachable at this late date, so I will leave them to their karma. All the more reason, however, for me to get that second booster. It’s not like the damned fools want it. I might as well have it.

Would I get an additional booster from here? Probably, if it made sense to — for example, if a new strain of COVID not well covered by the current crop of vaccines/boosters pops up and a new booster addresses it. In this it would be like getting a flu shot (which, of course, I also got this year). I do understand there is a relatively minor concern that too many shots will mess with the body’s ability to develop an antibody “memory” or some such, but then, I’m not planning to get a new shot every month. I suspect I and my immune system would be fine.

And at this point, I think I will be fine in general, too. Double vaxxed, double boosted: As covered as I can get, and ready to be in the world. It’s nice to worry less. And all it took was a half-hour out of my day.

— JS

The Big Idea: Leah Cypess

Reuse and recycle: If it’s a good idea for physical things, can it also be a good idea for story concepts? Leah Cypess suggests that it might be — and explains how this has direct bearing on her novel Glass Slippers.

LEAH CYPESS:

Let me start with a confession: I used the same Big Idea twice.

I’m sure I’m not the only writer who’s done that. But I was pretty blatant about it. I wrote two Cinderella retellings, both from the point of view of a sibling I invented, and both circling the same theme: how deeply we believe the stories we are told as children, and what happens when we start to question them.

Like many American kids of my generation, the Disney version of Cinderella was one of the first movies I ever saw. Cinderella, in the movie, is the embodiment of sweetness and innocence. She triumphs over her more powerful enemies through pure goodness and coincidental magic, and then sort-of-accidentally becomes queen.

I mean, come on.

I’m a cynical person with a dim view of human nature, so when I take a serious stab at a Cinderella retelling, there’s only one way I can do it: with Cinderella planning her own ascent. There was no fairy godmother, though the royal family threw all its weight behind that story. There was magic, obviously, but Cinderella went after that magic and used it deliberately.

And magic always comes with a price.

When this idea first came to me, I had a different fairy tale retelling on submission, and I was thinking a lot about the way fairy tales — like other stories we hear in childhood — become embedded in our minds and are never examined critically until they’re challenged. I’d also recently had an experience in my own life in which a conversation with an old acquaintance turned my perception of a childhood narrative completely upside down – and made me realize that my original narrative had never made that much sense to begin with.

All this was ricocheting around my mind when I got to work on a story about a man investigating the murder of Cinderella’s stepsister. Needless to say, this story was pretty dark, and somewhat to my delighted surprise, it got nominated for both a Nebula and a World Fantasy Award.

By the time that happened, my Sleeping Beauty retelling had not only sold, but turned into a 3-book deal for a series of fairy tale retellings. I didn’t have to think twice before deciding that the next book would be about Cinderella’s third and youngest stepsister, who has grown up believing that her family was evil and that Cinderella had adopted her out of the goodness of her heart. But (you will not surprised to hear) that version of events gets called into question.

So far, this spin might strike many of you as not all that original. There are hundreds of coming-of-age narratives in which the main character finds out that the story they’ve always been told is the opposite of what really happened. They’ve been on the wrong side all along!

But that was not the story I chose to tell, in either version of my retelling. To me, that complete about-face is often every bit as naïve as the original belief. For the most part, my characters do not discover that in the fight between good and evil, they have unwittingly been on the side of evil. Instead, they discover that the world is far more complicated than they had been led to believe.

Writing this realization into a dark story about an adult was relatively straightforward. My adult character could recognize the complexity of the world, the mix of good and evil, and then choose what he, as a lone individual, wants to do about it. An adult can decide to fight, or to escape, or to leave his options open. But a child, for the most part, doesn’t have that option. My main character in Glass Slippers is an 11-year-old girl, and she doesn’t have the ability to turn her back on all the adults around her and make her own way in the world. She’s going to have to do something that an adult protagonist could have avoided.

She’s going to have to pick a side.

That, in the end, that was the harder story to write. It’s part of what makes middle grade harder to write in general: your characters’ choices are limited by the decisions of the adults around them. But you still have to find a way to give them agency (occasionally, without killing off their parents), and you have to find a path forward that can lead to an earned and satisfying ending.

(Sometimes, in order to make that happen, you have to go back and rewrite half the book a month before it’s due. Ask me how I know.)

In the end the same Big Idea, written for different audiences, resulted in two very different stories. Since I want everyone to buy Glass Slippers, I should probably tell you that it is the better story. But the truth is, they’re simply different. I love them both, and I’m just glad that this Big Idea seized me so fiercely that I had to use it more than once.

(Possibly more than twice. But that’s an essay for another day.)


Glass Slippers: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

A New Story For You: Grizzly Bear Conflict Manager

Artwork adapted from a public domain National Park Service photo by Jim Peaco.

Whenever I go on book tour, I like to write up a short story to read at the events; a thank you, as it were, to the people who show up, who get to hear me read something no one else has gotten to yet. The stories are usually short, usually funny, and hopefully enjoyable for the crowd. Occasionally one of them goes on to greater fame — the Emmy-winning Love Death & Robots episode “Automated Customer Service” is based on one of these tour stories — but even when they don’t, they’re still fun to have written and fun to perform on the road.

This year, the short story I wrote (which I performed first on the 2022 edition of the JoCo Cruise) is called “Grizzly Bear Conflict Manager,” and it comes with a backstory, which is, there’s an actual job with the US National Park Service called a Grizzly Bear Conflict Manager. This job was pointed out to me by a friend who works with the park service; they were going to go into detail about the job actually entailed, but I stopped them before they could do so. “No, no,” I said. “I want to write a story about this job, and I do not want it sullied by mere facts.”

Thus, this story is a fanciful interpretation of what I imagine a Grizzly Bear Conflict Manager does, which I am almost entirely certain has nothing to do with what someone with this job actually does. Please do not come to this story for a true accounting of the job, you will be gravely disappointed, and possibly in danger if you ever encounter an actual grizzly. Needless to say, apologies to all genuine Grizzly Bear Conflict Managers out there.

This story is dedicated to Gail Simone, who is, as her Twitter bio assures us, and this is a quote, “NOT EVEN A BEAR AT ALL YOU GUYS,” and who has chosen me to have one of her many blood feuds with. I am honored.

And now: On with the story!


GRIZZLY BEAR CONFLICT MANAGER

By John Scalzi

Let me start by saying that this is a circle of trust. We are here not to assign blame or dole out punishment, but to resolve conflict and come to a space of understanding and care. There are no bad bears here. There are only good bears, whose motivations may be misunderstood. Through discussion, we can come to a resolution.

We have a few issues to get through, and this room is scheduled for a raccoon encounter group right after us, so let’s just dive in. Kodiak, let’s start with you. I understand that you have been possessive of a certain point in the river where the salmon have been swimming upstream to breed, and that you have been trying to keep other grizzlies from wading in and catching their own salmon. Do you want to explain your thinking here?

Yes, I understand that you are a large bear with a large appetite, and I hear the validity of that argument. But surely you understand that all grizzlies are large bears with large appetites? And that while you have claimed that neck of the river as your own, even you, large as you are, and hungry as you are, cannot eat all of the salmon that come up the river?

Right, yes, I understand that you believe you could eat them all. That ambition is a sign of a healthy self-image. But, large as you are, you can’t be where every single salmon is as they come up the river. Let me put it another way, Kodiak. You see that large bowl of blueberries I have put on the table, right? If I tossed one of the blueberries toward you, you could catch it with your mouth. But what if I threw five at the same time? Could you catch them all? How about ten? Or fifteen?

Okay, now, Kodiak, grabbing the bowl and consuming all the blueberries in one go, as you have just done, is very clever, yes. But I think you’re intentionally avoiding the issue at hand, aren’t you. The salmon aren’t just sitting there in the bowl, some of them will get past you. Why not let some of the other grizzlies have a chance at them? There will still be more than enough for you at the end of the day.

Thank you, Kodiak. Everyone, see how this works? Just a little discussion and reasoning and we can come to a conclusion that makes life easier for everyone. Grizzlies can be reasonable and kind. 

Yes, Paw-Paw? No, I’m sorry, there are no other snacks. But at the break we can go out and root for something.

Which brings us to our next conflict, and it involves you, Paw-Paw. I understand that you have been wandering into town and digging through the humans’ trash again. We’ve talked about this before, Paw-Paw, haven’t we?

Now, Paw-Paw, this can only be a circle of trust if we tell the truth, and when you tell me you haven’t been going through trash, I know you’re not being truthful. You know that the court order we have on you allows us to examine your stool samples. Your last stool sample contained evidence of enriched flours, processed meats, and several types of plastic wrappers. You were snacking out of the bin behind the Stop N’ Shop again, weren’t you? We all know how you love Sno Balls and Slim Jims.

Yes, of course we found your stool in the woods, Paw-Paw. That’s where bears go to poop. This is widely known. Please don’t act surprised. Instead, tell me why you’re dumpster diving again.

While I find your newfound commitment to the environment admirable and indeed heartening, Paw-Paw, I have to inform you that your ingesting all that human trash does not, in fact, constitute an “accelerated composting project.” If you sincerely want to start composting, I can see about getting you an actual composting drum. Which, I want to be very clear, since I see you perking up about this, you will not be able to eat out of, either. Yes, I see, there goes your enthusiasm. That’s what I thought.

Paw-Paw, let me tell you what I’m going to do. I’m going to team you up with Kodiak, you can go with him to his bend of the river, and the two of you can eat all the salmon you can catch. It’s much healthier for you, and Kodiak will learn the value of sharing. See? Everyone wins here.

Yes, except for the salmon, very true, Kodiak. But this is not the Salmon Conflict Resolution session, is it? That’s next Tuesday, my colleague Ranger Adams handles that. 

Moving away from salmon: Scruffy, it’s my understanding that you’ve been photobombing tourists, sneaking up on them while they are taking selfies and family portraits. Would you like to explain your rationale for this?

Uh-huh. While I certainly understand that it’s important to maintain a presence on social media in order to be an “influencer,” what I want to ask you at this juncture is what does being an “influencer” mean to a grizzly? Who are you trying to influence, and why, and more importantly, how are those goals achieved by sneaking up on teenagers and families and sending them screaming into the distance?

Yes, I understand that’s your “thing.” But, Scruffy, I want you to understand that terrorizing tourists is not the same sort of thing as being food YouTuber or a true crime podcaster. No one’s worried that a food YouTuber is going to maul them and eat their face.

No, Scruffy, I do recognize that you almost never eat faces any more, and I appreciate your restraint. But you need to realize that, one, “almost never,” is not as reassuring a qualification as you might expect, and two, these tourists don’t know that you’ve cut back your face-eating considerably. You don’t wear a t-shirt that says “hardly any face-eating anymore” and even if you did, I’m not sure how much that would help. You might be wearing that t-shirt ironically.

Let’s do this, Scruffy. You stop popping up behind unsuspecting parkgoers, and I’ll talk to the Park Service about setting you up with your own Instagram account. And in the meantime if you have to get your social media fix, there’s that trail camera that’s attached to the Internet. Drop by it and do a funky bear dance. The kids love that. It’ll go viral, I promise. Yes? Okay, good. 

Finally, and honestly, I can’t believe we’re back here again — Gail. Gail, Gail, Gail. Again with the blood feuds. You’ve been asked to lower the number of blood feuds that you have with others, and not only have you not done that, you’ve actually increased the number!

Oh, don’t give me that look, Gail. Okay, everyone, a show of paws, here: How many of you are currently under a threat of blood feud by Gail? Don’t be afraid, this is a safe space, Gail can’t hurt you here.

Do you see, Gail? Everyone has their paws up. And beyond this, I’m told that you’ve expanded your blood feud list to include actors, artists, politicians, even obscure science fiction writers. Where does it end, Gail? How much blood feuding is enough? Isn’t it time to call off some of these quote unquote blood feuds?

What? Lymph feud? You want to change some of your blood feuds to lymph feuds? No. No, Gail — no. Stop. Gail, listen to me. Changing what you call the feud doesn’t really solve the problem. Blood feud, lymph feud, spinal fluid feud — the common denominator is the word “feud,” isn’t it? It doesn’t matter if the fluid in question goes through the heart or the spleen or the spine; stabbing someone through any of them is still going to hurt.

What, Scruffy? Yes, I suppose people can live without their spleens, and thus a lymph feud might be marginally less severe than a blood feud. But that’s really missing the point. The point is not to develop a taxonomy of feuds whose severity is based on bodily fluids. The point is to reduce the number of feuds altogether. Gail, when will you see that the conflict that you see in the world has actually just been inside of you all along? That the person who you most need to resolve a blood feud with is not Kodiak, or Paw-Paw, or Scruffy, but with yourself?

Yes. Good. Thank you, Gail. This promise to reduce the number of blood feuds you have to just one is a very good step. I am less enthused that the person who you’ve chosen to have that single blood feud with is me, but, well, baby steps, I guess. We’ve made some real progress here. And also, I have bear spray if you get out of line.

All right, Grizzlies, let’s have a ten minute break, and when we come back, I want to talk about this turf war you have going on with the polar bears. Yes, I know about it, when you start throwing out gang signs on the Discovery Channel it tends to get noticed. You better believe we’re going to get into it, folks.

— JS

Aaaaaand… Exhale

Why am I exhaling? Because I have Two! Whole! Weeks! — plus a couple of days! — before I have to go out into the world again to promote The Kaiju Preservation Society. After that I will be in Los Angeles, and Berkeley, and Chicago, and Gaithersburg, MD for various book festivals. But for now, I get to sleep in my own bed, and see my family, and pet my various pets. It’s a lovely state of affairs.

It’s not that I don’t enjoy being out in the world and seeing people, mind you. I do, especially after having two years of more or less enforced being at home. But being on tour is a little like being in a bubble; yes, the rest of the world exists, but one is busy enough traveling and doing events that it’s background noise rather than part of one’s actual life. Often this is a good thing (see: news), but one also does miss out on what’s going on with family and friends and such. Having a couple of weeks at home to re-center into one’s own life is a good thing.

(Also, I might, you know, write some in the novel that I am meant to put out in 2023. Would be useful to do that, I think.)

Anyway: Two! Whole! Weeks! It’s entirely possible that I may follow Spice’s example here and sleep through most of it. What a delight that would be, honestly.

— JS

A Handgun-Related Whoopsie in “Kaiju”

Which is: Glock 19s don’t have external safeties.

Which I knew, because after I wrote the firearm into the scene I was all “Oh, I should check to make sure I’m accurately representing that handgun,” and then I was all, “Oh, that’s not accurate, I will have to go back and change that,” and than I was all, “Hey, look, shiny object over here,” and then forgot all about it. Embarrassing, that. I will fix it for subsequent editions. I’m posting it here so when Glock 19 owners and others send me correction notes, I can point them to this and let them know it’s a known issue which will be addressed in in the future (or, depending on when one reads this, may have already been addressed for those subsequent editions).

This is not the first time I made an error which made it into the final (see: The hyperbolic orbit of an asteroid in The Ghost Brigades, which persisted across several editions, much to my exasperation), and these things happen, because people are fallible, and I no less so than others. It’s still annoying. I prefer errors in my work to be not so obvious, you know?

Anyway, yes. Oops. Fixing. Thank you.

— JS

The Big Idea: Marion Deeds

Whether in the real world or in a world of fantasy, power is a currency that always compels. In this Big Idea for Comeuppance Served Cold, author Marion Deeds essays the persuasiveness of power, and how it informs the alternate Pacific Northwest she’s created.

MARION DEEDS:

Magic is a form of power. Who has it? Who gets to use it? These were my thematic questions when it came to writing Comeuppance Served Cold. But there were all kinds of power inequities in Prohibition-era Seattle, and some of my characters are more caught up in the life of illegal booze, corrupt cops, and protection rackets than that of charmed amulets or magical spells.

Dolly White, the main character of the book, lives in a world where magic is an everyday thing. She’s hired by a wealthy upper-class magus, Ambrose Earnshaw, as a companion for his rebellious daughter. Earnshaw is the head of Seattle’s Commission of Magi. Its stated purpose is to protect folks from the misuse of magic. Really, though, the Commission uses a fee system to fill its own coffers at the expense of people who survive by small magics, like protection charms and healing potions. The Earnshaws take the exploitation a step further; the son and heir leads a protection gang, extorting even more money from working magicians and magic-adjacent people.

One cynical campaign the Earnshaws are waging is the intentional demonizing of shape-shifters, which makes problems for two other important characters in the book. On the surface, Philippe and Violet Solomon could not be more different from Dolly. Black Americans, they’ve been pushed into shadowy occupations by discrimination and corruption. Violet, a trained herbalist, runs a speakeasy. Her brother Philippe tends bar for her and delivers hooch for a bootlegger. He loves men. He turns into a cougar.

In the story, anti-shape-shifter prejudice isn’t a stand-in or a metaphor for the actual racism of the day. Violet and Philippe face racism already. In the real world at this time, even wealthy Black entrepreneurs (some folks pronounced that “gangsters”) like E. Russell “Noodles” Smith, were raided and arrested frequently—in fact, more frequently than white club owners. Smith was a successful and legendary club-owner—luminaries like Duke Ellington played in his clubs—but he was routinely shut down, even though he paid off the cops like everyone did. In one case, the raid was so violent, with the police attacking Black bystanders, that even the newspapers turned on the cops. The corrupt Seattle police of the time were comfortable pocketing protection money and breaking the law themselves, including bootlegging.

(By the way, Duke Ellington, Ray Charles, and other Black musical legends played at white clubs and hotels, too, they just couldn’t stay in those places. They ended up at the Black-owned businesses near Jackson Street.)

Philippe and Violet are not unusual in making illegal hooch a family business. Even the city’s best-known bootlegger made the operation a family affair. Chief Roy Olmstead wasn’t the police chief, in spite of the nickname. He was a police lieutenant, who arrested plenty of other bootleggers, while he was bringing in Canadian hooch big-time. During foggy or rainy nights, the legend goes, Olmstead’s wife, who had a radio show broadcast from Smith Tower (then the tallest building in the city) would encode coordinates into her reading, to guide in the contraband-carrying boats.

The best thing about this story—or worst, depending on your point of view—is that Elise Olmstead’s show consisted of her, in the persona of “Aunt Vivian,” reading children’s book aloud. Nothing quite says “shameless law-breaking” like hiding directions for your illegal enterprise in charming stories for children.

Part of the attraction of writing about Prohibition is this hypocrisy, plus the unintended consequences, and the sheer funhouse-mirror aspect of it. As a writer, it wasn’t much of a leap for me to imagine a power-grabbing group deciding to destroy random magical lives (like those of shape-shifters) for further financial or political gain. And I wanted to look at that from the perspective of those whose lives were being destroyed.

Philippe, a shape-shifter, is a gay black man. The demonizing of shape-shifters puts his high-risk life on the edge of the precipice. Violet, whose true love was murdered by the Earnshaw protection racket, vows to protect her brother, and she will do whatever it takes to keep him safe.

When the story starts, Violet’s business, like many Black-owned businesses of the time, is thriving. By the time Dolly shows up, Violet and Philippe both have a lot to lose. Philippe likes adventure, but Violet isn’t ready to trust a white outsider with no ties to family, the neighborhood or the community. On the other hand, Dolly is facing off against a family Violet would definitely like to bring down. Dolly’s challenge is to find a way to make Violet trust her, while Violet has to weigh all the risks. And those risks are flesh-and-blood real.

Comeuppance Served Cold isn’t all speakeasies, jazz, and forbidden cocktails. I tried to create a world close to the historic one, with real dangers and real opportunities (even if those opportunities weren’t legal). Seattle’s Prohibition history is weird and colorful. The city was the perfect place to set this story. Who has power? Who gets to use it? Sometimes, it’s the everyday people who answer those questions.

—-


Comeuppance Served Cold: Amazon|Barnes and Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s
Visit the author’s website. Catch up on Twitter.

And Now a Brief Musical Interlude

One of my favorite bands in the last decade or so has been The Naked and Famous, originally from New Zealand but now with the principal members, Alisa Xayalith and Thomas Powers residing in Los Angeles. The band recently announced a hiatus, which makes me sad as a fan, but Xayalith and Powers are doing solo and/or collaborative work with other artists, which makes me happy as someone who likes new music. And so, here’s their respective latest bits: A solo song from Xayalith, and a Meg Myers song that Powers produced. The Xayalith song is gentle and lovely; the Myers song is gothy and spiky. Enjoy both.

— JS

The Big Idea: Jess Montgomery

William Faulkner once said “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” It’s a sentiment that Jess Montgomery can certainly appreciate, since her new novel, The Echoes, deals with something very close to that idea. Here she is to explain further.

JESS MONTGOMERY:

Can we ever outrun our pasts?

I think the answer is… no.

Of course, most of us don’t try to fully escape our pasts—because most of us don’t have such dramatic pasts that we feel we must.

But all of us have at least bits of our pasts that we’d rather forget. A thoughtless comments we wish we hadn’t made. An awkward or uncomfortable event. An embarrassing choice.

And yet, even though we can’t possibly recall ever second of our lives, I’d contend every moment lived (recollected or not) shapes us.

The past echoes through us, into our present, ever part of our worldview and how we relate to one another. Sometimes, it’s not even our past that comes into our present to reshape our lives, but the pasts (and past secrets) of our loved ones.

This is the Big Idea at the core of The Echoes.

As July 4, 1928 approaches, Sheriff Lily Ross and her family look forward to the opening of an amusement park in a nearby town, created by Chalmer Fitzpatrick―a veteran and lumber mill owner. The park is in honor of veterans, particularly Lily’s brother Roger, who was killed in the Great War while overseas in France.

But Roger had a secret that he kept from his family; he had a daughter in France.

Meanwhile other secrets and past haunts riddle Chalmer’s family.

These pasts collide in the present, leading to murder and a kidnapping.

As Lily investigates these crimes, she also confronts her brother’s past, but her own past losses and haunts as well, and must decide how to come to terms with them for the sake of her present life as well as her future. She also must reckon with how to handle that her and Roger’s mother kept his secret as well.

Of course, this won’t be the last time that Lily will need to think about the past and how it has rippled forward in her present life. She’s wise enough to know it’s a continual, ongoing process—and a necessary one for a fulfilling present.


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

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

Return of the Space Toilet: A One-Month Update

A month ago I wrote about our having installed a very fancy “intelligent toilet” and offered my initial reactions to it, and promised to do a follow-up about a month later. It’s now a month later, and here are my thoughts about the Space Toilet today:

1. I’m still delighted with my purchase, as the entire experience of an “intelligent toilet” is a posh and enjoyable one which everyone should try (although, probably, not on my intelligent toilet; I don’t want all of you tromping through my house to try it, sorry). It really does elevate the bathroom experience, enough so that I find myself going out of my way to use this toilet over any other in the house.

2. Indeed, at this point I’m a little annoyed with all the other toilets that they don’t automatically raise their lids and flush themselves once I’m done. Not so annoyed that I’m going to replace every other toilet in the house — that would be expensive and also would require rewiring every other bathroom on the property — but still mildly piqued. How dare they offer a basic loo experience that I was previously perfectly content with!

3. That said, I still can’t in good conscience recommend most people get themselves an “intelligent toilet,” because, really, it is so damn expensive. You can get a bidet toilet seat for a fraction of the cost, and while it won’t automatically raise the seat or flush the loo for you, you can get a heated seat and the bidet cleaning action, which really are the main attraction. I want to be clear I do not regret my “intelligent toilet” purchase — I am really happy with it — but also, I’m aware that ultimately it’s a bit of a folly. I might get bidet toilet seats for the rest of the toilets in the house. I’m not going to buy anymore intelligent toilets.

4. Side note: Whether you get a bidet seat or a full blown “intelligent toilet,” you will still need to use toilet paper in my experience. Not as much, and mostly for a slightly different purpose (which you will figure out after your first bidet use), but, still. In these days of intermittent supply chain issues, it’s a thing you should be aware of.

And there you have it: the Space Toilet, revisited.

— JS

The Big Idea: Gareth L. Powell

If you don’t think that science fiction is affected by the events of moment, than Gareth L. Powell has some news for you: oh, boy, is it ever. In this big idea for Stars and Bones, Powell explains how world events caught up to his story in strange and unexpected ways.

(Disclosure: As you can see from the cover photo above, I gave this book a blurb.)

GARETH L. POWELL:

I really didn’t mean to be topical.

When I set out in early 2020 to write my latest novel (Stars and Bones, Titan Books), I had no idea how hard it would shortly become to write about a mysterious contagion threatening humanity, and the quarantine measures necessary to contain it, and then COVID-19 happened.

I worried the nuclear war that almost happens in the first couple of chapters might seem far-fetched, and then Putin invaded Ukraine just before the book was published.

Near-future fiction is a tightrope act, a game played with the audience. It’s a way of looking at the world, reflecting it through a prism to make the everyday extraordinary and the future relevant to the reader. But it’s a risky undertaking. If you assume it takes 18 months to write and publish a novel, world events may have rendered the entire premise of the book obsolete before it hits the shelves. No other literature has such a potentially short shelf life.

In Stars and Bones, a bumbling British prime minister makes a joke, not realising his mic is still on. The big red button gets pressed and the world braces itself for full-throttle Armageddon, only to see all the missiles snatched away while in flight and cast into the sun by a powerful alien entity. When I penned that scene, it was a wish-fulfilment from my Cold War teenage years, mixed with more recent despair over climate change.

In the 1980s, nuclear war seemed not only imminent but inevitable. All the science fiction I consumed seemed to take it as an article of faith that humanity would nuke itself before the year 2000. Even the utopian future predicted by Star Trek was built from the ashes of WWIII. And there seemed no way out. So, I would lie in bed at night and wish for a superior alien intelligence to step in and stop us acting like children.

In the book, instead of being allowed to trash our environment and run amok with nuclear weapons, the human race gets cast adrift in a fleet of a thousand 25-kilometre-long arks, with strict instructions not to mess up any other biospheres. In other words, our toys are taken away and we’re relegated to the cosmic naughty step.

Life on the arks is very different from life on Earth. For a start, every person has equal access to food, water, and healthcare. It’s a post-scarcity society, and it takes a lot of people a long time to adjust to that. But seeing as how nationalism and artificial scarcity brought us to the brink of a yawning existential chasm, it seems reasonable to imaging we’d decide to do things differently from that point onwards, to avoid the possibility of such a thing ever happening again.

But humans aren’t that simple or sensible. By the time the main story starts—seventy-five years after humankind’s expulsion from Earth—each ark has customised its interior and exterior appearances to match its own preferences, and the preferences of the millions of people that live on it. And as there’s a web of instantaneous transport between the arks, likeminded groups have tended to congregate on the arks that best match their temperaments or climate. This means that instead of a swarm of cookie-cutter starships, the characters have a thousand unique and quirky environments to explore, some hosting forward-looking societies, and others with groups that cling to the old ways.

In the book, the fleet soon runs into trouble, because the cosmos is weirder and more dangerous than we could have imagined. If you imagine Philip K. Dick got high and dreamt a crossover between Battlestar Galactica and The Thing, you’d be in the right ballpark. But the creation of the vast, intelligent arks probably owes a lot more to my love of Iain M. Banks’s Culture novels. Nobody goes hungry and everyone has access to anything they need, watched over by the superior minds of their intelligent starships. And much like the Culture novels, all the books in this series will be standalones and feature different characters, with the idea they can be picked up and read in any order. Stars and Bones is the first in the series, but it is self-contained, so you don’t have to worry about waiting for sequels.

I hope readers will enjoy Stars and Bones as an adventure. It’s exciting, scary and entertaining. But on a deeper level, perhaps it might make a few think about some of the assumptions that as a society, we take for granted. SF and space opera allow us to place ourselves in the context of the wider universe and ask the big questions. They also enable us to comment on today’s society by setting up alternatives and showing how they might be better or worse that what we currently have. If art holds up a mirror to reality, science fiction holds up a crazy funhouse mirror that shows us the truth by distorting what we see. And the truth is, things don’t always have to be the way they are today; change can be a traumatic upheaval, but it is possible.

Given the way real life events almost caught up with the events in this book, though, I think next time I might write about something more restful. Like kittens, perhaps.


Stars and Bones: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

A Night on Cat Mountain

Photoshop has some new filters that run a picture you might have through some pre-existing artwork, and so I took a picture of Spice and ran it through a filter of a painting of mountains. The result is not displeasing. Yes, this is what I am doing with my Sunday (I also wrote an essay, but that won’t be out until later this week).

Also, the last couple of days I was battling a cold which I picked up on the road, and yes, it was just a cold, I did a nose-stab when I got home, and it came out negative for COVID, so. I slept like a rock last night and woke up less phlegmy and scratchy-throated, although still a bit tired. Honestly it’s been so long since I’ve had a cold — thank you masking and social distancing — that I almost forgot what they were like. I could have been happy not knowing for a while longer, honestly.

— JS

View From a Hotel Window 3/25/22: St. Louis

I don’t know, it’s kinda trashy. But St. Louis is lovely, and the hotel in general is nice, so there’s that.

Tonight is the last event of this stretch of the tour, 7pm at the St. Louis Public Library. Please come by to say hello!

And then I go home for several days. Hooray! But next Friday I will be in Hoboken, for the Hoboken Literary Weekend. If you’re in the area, and there are several million of you who are, please come see me.

— JS

The Big Idea: Joe R. Lansdale

Frankly put, Joe R. Lansdale is an American literary treasure, and his characters Hap and Leonard are a substantial portion of the reason why this is so. So a collection of Hap and Leonard stories? Yes, sir, more please, sir. Here’s Lansdale talking about his collection Born for Trouble, and where he, and his characters, might go next.

JOE R. LANSDALE:

So one day, way back in time, I’m sitting around thinking, what do I write next? All I knew was I wanted to write a crime novel, and for some time I had wanted to write a straight novel about the late sixties, early seventies, but couldn’t come up with the right vehicle. The crime novel had to come first, due to a deadline, so I thought, well, just start something.

This is my normal way to begin a novel. I take an interesting sentence, and proceed. Every morning when I get up (or most) the story is there, unfolding for me. My subconscious is doing all the work, and I’m recording the results. My subconscious is a tricky creature, and even though it was providing me with a novel idea, it was also proving anxious to deal with that sixties business, so it all came together in Savage Season, the first Hap and Leonard novel.

I thought it was the only Hap and Leonard that would ever exist. In fact, Leonard was originally supposed to be pretty much a walk-on character. But the two met, and their past jumped out of my subconscious, and before I knew it I had characters who would return some years later, and a series would begin. Actually, I didn’t know it was a series until the second book, Mucho Mojo.

Those two characters have allowed me to visit all manner of storylines, social problems, and so on. Those books allowed me to take characters with different political views, personal views and different tastes, and show how they fit together, because they are brothers at the core. But sometimes they are less socially involved, and have what can only be called straight-forward adventures. Action, adventure, an almost folklore like element about the characters, is always there, but over the years I’ve written several straight forward action-adventure novellas starring the boys, and though their quirky characteristics were still on board, and there were tinges of mystery and so on, they were a lesser element, and it was just the boys and forward movement.

Those stories have a spotted history, appearing here and there. Tada. They have been collected and can be read in one volume titled, Born For Trouble. Tada again.  If these characters are new to you, it’s a good way to get a taste of Hap and Leonard. Tachyon has published several volumes of Hap and Leonard stories and novellas, and if you get a kick out of these, you can check out the others, including stories that go back to Hap and Leonard’s childhood and teenage years. It amazes me that they became series characters at all. It amazes me they are so beloved. It amazes me that they were the source for the Sundance—now available on Netflix–series Hap And Leonard.

These two guys had been boiling around in my head for years, and I didnt’ even know it. Not consciously. Then I had  the right catalyst. A deadline. That’s what got them started. That was nearly thirty years ago. Boy, have they been fun to write about.

I haven’t written a novel length Hap and Leonard tale in a while, but dealing with this volume has sort of “seeded’ the sourdough, so to speak, and I may dive back into their world any day. And if you don’t know about sourdough and sourdough starter, look it up.

So, off to the races, dive deep into the wilds of East Texas and keep your eyes over, and expect the unexpected.

You might like to bring some Dr. Pepper and Vanilla cookies with you for snacks. Leonard usually has some on hand, but I warn you, he does not like to share.


Born for Trouble: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

View From a Hotel Window, 3/24/22: Iowa City

And look! It’s a library!

(Actually I suspect it’s not a library anymore because there’s a newer library off camera to the left. But it was a library, once, and that counts.)

Tonight I’m at Prairie Lights bookstore, one of my favorites, and the festivities begin at 7pm. Tomorrow I’m at the St. Louis Public Library, also at 7pm. And then I go home! Wheee!

— JS

The Kaiju Preservation Society a New York Times, USA Today, Los Angeles Times, Independent Booksellers, Amazon and Audible Bestseller

How is Kaiju a bestseller? Let’s add it up!

New York Times: #10 (Combined Print & eBook)

USA Today: #19 (This list covers all books sold in the US)

Audible: #6 (Audiobook Fiction)

Los Angeles Times: #4 (Hardcover Fiction)

Indie Booksellers: #10 (Hardcover Fiction)

Amazon: #15 (Fiction, across all formats)

You know what? This is a good day.

Thank you, all of you who bought the book, in whatever format. I could not be happier.

— JS

View From a Hotel Window, 3/22/22: Parma

Aw, hell yeah, pure parking lot goodness. Of all the hotel window shots this trip, this one is definitely the most parking lot-licious. I hope you enjoy it as much as I do.

Tonight: Parma/Cleveland! At the Parma-Snow branch of the Cuyahoga Public Library! 7pm!

Tomorrow: Boulder! At the Boulder Bookstore! 6:30 (I think, doublecheck with the store)!

— JS

The Big Idea: Kenneth Hite

Location is everything — or, if not everything, then still quite a lot, especially when considering the work of foundational fantasist H.P. Lovecraft. For Tour de Lovecraft: The Destinations, master games writer Kenneth Hite gets out the map and takes us traveling, from Arkham to Innsmouth, in pursuit of terror and tourism.

KENNETH HITE:

The most important part of the Big Idea for my second Tour de Lovecraft book came from Stephen Segal, who at that time was non-fiction editor for a little magazine called Weird Tales. He had followed my first Tour de Lovecraft in its original publication (in my LiveJournal, of all things) and his Big Idea was “Ken should do a series like that in Weird Tales.” Rather than simply re-doing the first Tour, I pitched a series on Lovecraftian locations: the settings of the various stories. I sorted through all of Lovecraft’s tales and collaborations and winnowed out not just where the stories were set (Arkham, New York, Antarctica, and so on) but the other locations that informed the tales (Leng, Dreamland, Egypt) and a few setting-concepts (Antiquity, Hyperspace, Deep Time) to boot.

Lovecraft, it is fair to say, deprecated characters, and often explicitly subordinated his plots to incident and atmosphere. That leaves setting as the only one of Aristotle’s Big Three elements of story that Lovecraft cared about. And Lovecraft didn’t just care about setting, he was obsessed with it: “I am as geographic-minded as a cat,” he wrote to fellow fantaisiste Clark Ashton Smith in 1930, “places are everything to me.”

One can (and I did) find dozens of similarly emphatic statements to that effect in his letters, if the evidence of location-drenched stories like “The Dunwich Horror,” “The Colour Out of Space,” and “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” weren’t convincing enough. For Lovecraft, stories grew out of the very ground and shape and feeling of the setting, terror emerging (if you will) from the terroir. Some of this approach he took from his great unsung model Nathaniel Hawthorne, but much of it came from his “extreme & lifelong geographic sensitiveness,” as he wrote to Smith on another occasion.

All that established, I found it very odd that almost nobody (with the very occasional exception from the great Lovecraftians Peter Cannon and Steven Mariconda) had ever approached Lovecraft’s settings from a literary direction. We have plenty of speculation on the question “Where is Arkham?” for example, but almost nothing on the question “What is Arkham?” What did Lovecraft mean by a city simultaneously full of “witch-haunted” gambrel roofs and a “lovely vista of … white Georgian steeples”?

Once more I turned to Northrop Frye, and his discussion of the symbolic double-city in Western literature, backstopped by Lovecraftian scholar Robert Waugh, who wrote the definitive monograph on the topic. My Big Idea was to turn Frye toward Lovecraft, and to expand Waugh from the city to specific cities – and to the Swamp, and the Moon, and Arabia, and the Apocalypse.

I always intended the series to begin, like Dante, in The Woods and end, also like Dante, in Providence. I got through about a dozen of my “Lost in Lovecraft” pieces (Air Supply as cosmic horror: discuss) before, Lovecraftian creature that it was, Weird Tales sublimed and died once more. But I still wanted to finish the journey, and so did my beloved publishers Atomic Overmind, and perhaps most importantly, so did our Kickstarter backers. Vampires and pandemics notwithstanding, we did. Like Randolph Carter, I spent years seeking the “sunset city,” and also like Randolph Carter, all it took at the end was waking up and looking around.


Tour de Lovecraft: The Destination: Atomic Overmind Press|DriveThru RPG

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

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