The Big Idea: Sheila Jenne

Authors often use the past for inspiration. But what point does the inspiration of earlier days become a problem for the setting our author wants to write for? It’s a question Sheila Jenne confronts in this Big Idea for Black Sails to Sunward.


My dad has two major obsessions: space and the sea. Since he couldn’t join Starfleet, he joined the Navy. He always loved telling us about old Navy traditions from the Age of Sail. So it was pretty natural for me to want to combine these two family obsessions by writing a book about sailing in space.

I’m far from the first to do it, of course. There’s Honor Harrington and David Drake. Even Star Trek itself has been described as “Horatio Hornblower in space.” But, I decided, I wanted to do it better. More real Navy traditions. That real salt-air, sea-shanty feel.

To prepare, I brushed up on Hornblower, Master and Commander, and Mutiny on the Bounty. But I quickly stumbled onto a problem.

The Age of Sail was horrible.

If you really want Navy tradition, you can’t just have pretty uniforms and funny lingo. You also need impressment, flogging, and the death penalty for way too many crimes. Life ashore was brutal enough, and life at sea was worse. Could I ethically even write about this stuff? I didn’t want to do it the way many authors do, downplaying and excusing the harshness. But if I omitted the floggings, it felt less honest.

In the end, the answer was obvious: my Martian Imperial Navy is the bad guy. Of course it would be steeped in tradition, and strict class boundaries are indeed a long tradition. Even today, there’s a difference between officers and enlisted, though that difference doesn’t mean what it used to. In my books, the class differences have instead calcified: those settlers who arrived on Mars first, before the space elevator was built, are nobles, and everyone else is a commoner.

Lucy, the noble main character, arrives in her midshipman’s berth completely unprepared for any of it. Her life planetside was stratified, but she’d never seen anyone flogged before. Why, I wondered, would she put up with this?

The answer is that we often put up with whatever society has told us we should. Lucy has been prepared her whole life to prioritize her social bonds with other nobles over her conscience. It takes her quite a while to learn any differently.

Writing the story this way also contextualizes this age’s favorite heroes, the pirates. Pirates were, of course, robbers and murderers of the high seas. Why do we like them so much? I don’t think it makes sense unless you understand what the Navy was. A lot of pirates were deserters or fleeing from problems on land. There weren’t many places you could really be free of the strictures of the society of the time, especially if you were poor, queer, or non-white.

So in my book, the pirates are still a rough bunch, but we sympathize with them a lot more when we know what they’re coming from. Mars is tyrannical; Earth is the enemy. You can’t live forever in space without a source of air. So what else are they supposed to do but steal?

Fiction often shows the conflict between the forces of order and those of chaos. Sometimes we’re rooting for the good-guy space military to beat criminals and rebels; sometimes the rebels are the good guys rising up against an unjust authority. In a world where authority has gone far overboard, it’s definitely time for underdog pirates to show up and change the game.

Black Sails to Sunward: Amazon US|Amazon UK|Barnes & Noble|Waterstones

Author socials: Website|Twitter

Today’s Celebrity Sighting

I just looked up on the way down the road to do some errands, and there it was: the Goodyear blimp. Why is it there? I surmise because this weekend is the Dayton Air Show, which is actually a pretty big deal as these things go; it was off to do a circuit or two for the fans. Bradford just happens to be along the way. It’s goofy, but I actually did smile when I saw it. I wonder what it would have been like to have lived in a world where blimps and dirigibles were actually commonplace and not just an occasional surprise in one’s sky. Maybe we’ll get there one day. In the meantime: Look! A blimp!

— JS

The Big Idea: Jennifer Estep

Author Jennifer Estep is back with another Big Idea for the second installment in her Galactic Bonds series. Come along to see how writing the second book of a series is actually preferable for her, and how much she enjoyed the process of bringing us Only Good Enemies.


Only Good Enemies was released earlier this week. Woot! It’s the second book in my Galactic Bonds science-fiction fantasy series.

Ah, the sophomore book. Sometimes, I think writing/releasing the second book in a series is an endeavor that is even more fraught with peril and potential pitfalls than writing the first book. In years past, if book #1 in a series did well, I would sometimes dread writing book #2 instead of just enjoying the success of book #1.

Why? Well, no author wants to hear that they have fallen into the dreaded “sophomore slump” and book #2 just isn’t as good book #1. But it can be a delicate balancing act to give readers everything they loved in the first book and still push the characters, conflicts, and plots forward in new, interesting directions in the second book. 

But over the years, I’ve realized something important—that I usually enjoy writing book #2 in a series much more than book #1 and my sophomore stories are some of the best and most creative books I’ve written.

I love origin stories, so I always enjoy writing the first book in a series and coming up with my characters, the magic system, and the overall worldbuilding. For example, in Only Bad Options, Galactic Bonds book #1, I introduced Vesper Quill, a lab rat (think inventor/engineer), and Kyrion Caldaren, an elite Arrow warrior/assassin. Vesper and Kyrion have an unwanted connection that compels them to join forces to get to the bottom of a deadly conspiracy. Since the book is science-fiction fantasy, it also features a mix of psions/magic users (people with telekinesis and other mental abilities) and technology (spaceships and blasters), along with a variety of climate-themed planets. 

But in some ways, writing Only Bad Options felt like I was setting up the pieces on a gigantic game board in my mind. I often feel this way when I write the first book in a series—that I’m so busy introducing the characters, the magic system, and the worldbuilding that I don’t have space in the book to really dig into those things the way that I want to.

As a result, I have started looking at book #2 as a sophomore book. In other words, an opportunity to do more with, well, everything. To create more clashes/conflicts between my characters, to show the lasting consequences of their actions, and especially to give them more opportunities to succeed beyond their wildest dreams or fail miserably. To me, this is the best part and the true magic of writing a sophomore book—the opportunity to add more complex layers to your characters, magic system, and worldbuilding. 

For example, at the beginning of Only Good Enemies, Vesper and Kyrion are still dealing with the fallout from everything that happened in the first book. As a result, they are both keeping a major secret from each other. Vesper’s secret could potentially kill her and Kyrion, while Kyrion’s secret could destroy the fragile trust that Vesper has in him, as well as create new enemies for them both. 

So right from the beginning of Only Good Enemies, the two main characters are clashing with each other. How they discover and react to each other’s secrets—and how the secondary characters and villains discover and use the information—drives a lot of Vesper’s and Kyrion’s actions, reactions, and emotions for the rest of the book. To me, it makes both Vesper and Kyrion much more interesting characters to read (and write) about and adds a lot more complexity to their story arcs.  

In other words, with Only Good Enemies, I feel like I am finally sitting down at that mental game board, knocking over all the pieces I set up in the first book, and seeing how they fall and impact the characters and the overall story. And you know what? It’s a lot of fun, especially writing all those pew! pew! pew! action scenes. :-)

Which do you like writing (and reading) better—the first book or a later book in a series?

Only Good Enemies: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Powell’s

Author socials: Website|Twitter|Instagram

Just a Couple of Ohio Voters, Voting No on Issue 1

John Scalzi

Issue 1 being the rather brazen attempt by a bunch of jerks to change the Ohio constitution to make it more difficult to change the Ohio constitution by voter initiative. It’s so blatantly anti-democratic at there’s an actual coalition of Democrats and Republicans arrayed against it, including former Ohio governors from both parties. Recent polling shows that most Ohioans are against Issue 1, but of course polling means nothing if people don’t show up to vote against it, so, hey, guess what Krissy and I did today.

We voted early (the actual voting day is August 8, a date, by the way, chosen by the current legislators because they know special election dates have low turnout, which would favor Issue 1 passing), and there was a small line to vote, which suggests some heat to this particular issue. And having voted, we had lunch! A lunch of victory, knowing we had responsibly discharged our duty to our state.

If you’re in Ohio and are registered to vote, please remember to vote on Issue 1 on or before August 8. I personally suggest you vote “no,” because Issue 1 is awful and cynical and the people who wrote and championed it should be ashamed of themselves forever, but of course please read up on the issue to your satisfaction so you can make an informed choice in the voting booth. Thanks.

— JS

The Big Idea: Stephen Blackmoore

If we don’t remember history, we are doomed to repeat it. But what happens when the past comes crashing into the present? Author Stephen Blackmoore plays with this idea in the ninth novel of his Eric Carter series, Cult Classic. Follow along in his Big Idea to see how he picked which cult to highlight in this new installment.


Cult Classic, the ninth book in the Eric Carter series, about a necromancer in Los Angeles with, let’s call it anger management issues, involves a bit of apocalyptic time magic forcing 1920s L.A. and present-day L.A. to crash into each other like a five-car freeway pile-up. Downtown skyscrapers replaced by three-story flophouses, Red Car trains appearing in the middle of traffic, the Valley turning back to orange groves, all courtesy of a long-dead doomsday cult.

The books are noir, horror, urban fantasy, half a dozen other genre labels you want to throw at them. But more than anything else, for me at least, they’re books about L.A..

One of the things I’ve always loved about this town is the illusion that it has no history. It reinvents itself piecemeal on a daily basis, tearing itself down in one neighborhood while building itself back up in another. We live in snapshots of what stands today while conveniently forgetting what stood there the day before. Gentrification, thy name is Los Angeles.

Take the Hollywood sign. Even if you’ve never seen it in person you probably know about it. It’s an icon. But you might not know that when it was erected in 1923 it was studded with thousands of light bulbs and read HOLLYWOODLAND to promote a new real estate development for whites only. The place wasn’t very subtle about it in its advertising, either, and used redlining, laws specifically designed to control where certain minorities could live, to keep out the “undesirables”.

We have a lot of things like that, places and events where history has been forgotten or ignored. Our stolen water, Sleepy Lagoon, the 1871 Chinatown massacre, the Black Cat Tavern, the embarrassment that is the 1942 Battle of Los Angeles.

For Cult Classic I wanted to refer to a real cult. I’m lazy like that. Whenever possible I’d rather use something from real life because real life is usually crazier than anything I can come up with. And L.A.’s history of batshit crazy cults does not disappoint.

There’s the Manson Family. You might have heard of them. They were living on a ranch in Simi Valley when they decided to murder seven people across two nights in 1969.

Aleister Crowley’s Thelema religion also had a foothold. It attracted the likes of Jack Parsons, a rocket scientist before there was rocket science and one of the founders of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, who enjoyed its heavy emphasis on orgies and sex magic. Parsons hosted the Great Beast himself for a while in his home in Pasadena where Crowley made him a high priest.

In 1945 Parsons and a friend performed a ritual to summon the Thelemic goddess Babalon resulting in a book called Liber 49, an occult text he transcribed onto a series of slate tablets using… 

Ya know, there’s no way to really ease into this one. He whacked off onto the tablets and then used a stylus to write through his jizz like ink. Presumably he stayed very-well hydrated.

Not to be outdone on the crazy cult action, this buddy of his was L. Ron Hubbard who wrote some absolutely atrocious science fiction and would later go on to start the Church of Scientology. Fun fact, there are more Scientologists in Los Angeles than anywhere else in the world. 

Yay us.

There are a lot more, The Foursquare Church, Synanon, Mazdaznan, the Reform of the New Testament Church, and so on.

But let me tell you about The Divine Order Of The Royal Arms Of The Great Eleven or the Blackburn Cult.

In 1922 May Otis Blackburn and her daughter Ruth claimed to be in contact with the Archangel Gabriel who had dubbed them the Two Witnesses, a pair of prophets from Revelation 11:1-14, who would be present at the Apocalypse. They were transcribing a book of divine knowledge for him and claimed that once the book was completed at the end of 1924, it would trigger the End of Days.

Nothing special there. Lots of cults built on a similar idea. But Blackburn took hers in a particularly L.A. direction. When the shit hit the fan the resulting world would be ruled by eleven queens who would ride out Doomsday with their followers, living in splendor in mansions on Olive Hill, now Barnsdall Park, just a little southeast of the aforementioned Hollywoodland.

She pulled off this scam the way everybody else does; find some rubes who aren’t nearly as smart as they think they are, preferably with money, play to their greed, fear, hope, etc., then wrap it all up in a lot of portentous horseshit and redirection.

Don’t knock it, it worked. The grift netted May something like $4M in today’s money.

But then, on January 1st, 1925, just as the Apocalypse was supposed to happen, Willa Rhoades, a sixteen-year-old girl who May claimed was going to lead them all into this brand-new world of splendors, sort of, well… died.

The coroner ruled it was not foul play, but to be fair he didn’t get a chance to see her for a while because they kept her on ice (a few hundred pounds worth per day) under her foster parents’ house in Venice in a copper-lined coffin as May continued to tell them that her resurrection was right around the corner.

After four, yes FOUR, years of this, Willa’s parents finally went to the police, who retrieved her coffin and one containing her seven puppies named after the seven notes on Gabriel’s trumpet.

Stories quickly came out about unusual deaths like member Frances Turner who died during treatment for a mystery ailment that involved being baked in a stone oven, disappearances like Ruth’s husband, Sam, who was probably poisoned but whose body was never found. Animal sacrifices, fucked up power dynamics, a lot of stolen money. Oddly not much jail time for anybody.

I’d found my cult. Like I said, real life is crazier than anything I can come up with.

Cult Classic: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Bookshop|Powell’s 

Author’s socials: Website|Twitter

Trying Out “The Pickle Guys” Pickles & Assorted Pickled Vegetables

I was scrolling on Tik Tok when I saw a pickle review video over various items from The Pickle Guys. I thought to myself, I sure would like to do a pickle review. So I am!

After perusing all the different types of pickles and pickled vegetables (and fruits!) they offer on their website, I ended up getting this assortment:

Seven glass quart jars of various pickled items lined up in a row on the table.

Athena ScalziStarting on the left, we have garlic, grape tomatoes, okra, baby corn, 3/4 sour pickles, horseradish pickles, and new pickles. You’re probably thinking, what the heck is the 3/4 for? Well, they have regular sour pickles, half sour pickles, and 3/4 sour pickles. I thought about getting the sour, but I didn’t want them to be too sour, but I also thought half would be not sour enough! So I settled for the 3/4 sour. As for the new pickles, that just means they haven’t been pickled nearly as long as their other pickles.

This was a lot of pickle to tackle, so I enlisted the help of my father.

We started with the new pickles, and just as you might suspect, they were quite cucumbery! They had a decent crunch to them, with a mild flavor and some garlic-ness throughout. They had an interesting sparkly feeling on the tongue, almost like they were carbonated. Overall, the new pickles were a good start to our endeavor.

Next, we tried the garlic. Eating a whole clove of garlic seemed a bit intimidating at first, but it was actually quite pleasant, as they were nowhere near overpowering. It reminded me of how roasted garlic still holds a ton of garlic flavor, but without the intense bite that garlic has when raw. They were a little strange in flavor, but still pretty good.

Thirdly, I picked the baby corn to try. Now this was definitely the most funny-face-inducing item of the bunch. They really had a certain zing to them, which my dad attributes to the fact that there’s lemon juice in the pickle brine. They had a much softer bite in comparison to the crunchier pickle and firmer garlic. I definitely enjoyed these ones.

I wanted to give the horseradish ones a go, as I figured they’d be quite strong tasting. To our surprise, they weren’t overpowering at all, and weren’t painful to consume like some horseradish-y items can be. They weren’t sinus-clearing level of horseradish-y, more so just had a nice flavor overall. They were quite snackable.

Onto the okra! Okra is something I rarely have, and usually when I have it, it’s fried. I find the slimy texture of it when its cooked rather interesting, and since these were uncooked I was curious if they would still have that mucilaginous consistency to them. I will say that they did, but it was so slight it was almost unnoticeable. What was noticeable, however, was that the okra in particular had a slight kick to them, likely due to the fact the brine contained crushed red pepper. All in all, they were good! I was happy to try something more unusual for me.

Back to the pickles, we tried the 3/4 sour ones. Turns out, they weren’t very sour! I could’ve totally gone with the full sour, and I’m glad I didn’t go for the half sour. My dad and I immediately noticed something odd about these sour pickles (other than that they weren’t really that sour), and it was that they had a distinct floral taste to them. Not exactly sure where that was coming from, but it was definitely there.

Lastly, we went for the grape tomatoes. I really didn’t know what to expect from these, but WOW these packed a wallop, and were extremely tasty! They were super squishy and popped between your teeth, gushing out the super flavorful insides. They were really fascinating, honestly.

Once we had tried everything, my dad ranked them as follows: tomatoes, new pickles, okra, horseradish pickles, baby corn, 3/4 sour pickles, and garlic.

For me, it was: tomatoes, baby corn, new pickles, okra, horseradish pickles, 3/4 sour pickles, and garlic.

So, really, I just happened to like the baby corn more than he did, but other than that we agree almost entirely! Also, just because the 3/4 sour pickles and garlic are at the end of the list doesn’t mean they were bad or anything. In fact, we really liked everything! Nothing was a disappointment in the slightest.

Now that we’ve determined how yummy everything was, let’s talk about price. These pickles come from a small pickle shop in New York, and are definitely on the bougie side of the pickling world. This ain’t no Vlasic, you know.

For all seven quart jars, my total was $111.50. I had thought that I saw on Tik Tok that if you spent 100 dollars, you got free shipping, but I must have misread or been misinformed because that was not the case. The shipping was so much that I almost did not go through with my order, as I was shocked by just how much it was. Shipping was $50.15, bringing my total to $161.65.

really debated not buying them, but I had already spent like twenty minutes picking out everything I wanted and I knew I wanted to do a post over them, so I just did it.

Shipping cost aside, I would say the price is worth it. All of the pickles were only $10.50, so they’re definitely worth it. It’s a harder sell for the other pickled items, as they average about twenty bucks a jar. All in all, everything was good and will surely last a while, so it’s worth it in my eyes. That shipping cost, though, YEESH.

Anyways, if you’re in New York, give this shop a visit, and try some pickles!

Are you a pickle lover? Do you like dill, sweet gherkins, or bread and butter? Which pickled vegetable would you try? Let me know in the comments, and have a great day!


The Big Idea: Jayne Cowie

There is profit to be made off of violence. What if there was a way to profit off of preventing violence, as well? Author Jayne Cowie takes us into the world of her new novel, One of the Boys,  to show us how violence is a treatable, fixable thing there. Read on to see the details of predicting and preventing violence within her world.


A couple of years ago, I wrote a book called Curfew, about a near future Britain in which all men are electronically tagged and not allowed out after 7 p.m. When I told people what I was working on, women laughed, and men went a bit pale and tended not to say anything at all. The difference in responses fascinated me. After all, we all agree that male violence is a problem. We pretty much all agree that women should be safe in public spaces, and in their own homes. What we can’t agree on is how to achieve it. 

Trying to answer that question took me from a curfew to the idea behind my latest book, One of the Boys. Ever since Rosalind Franklin took her first X-Ray of DNA, we’ve been fascinated by the idea that what and who we are is all down to our genes. And thanks to the Human Genome project and sites like, we’re linking genes to traits on what seems like an almost daily basis. We love the idea that we were born this way. No-one can criticize you for things that are beyond your control. It’s not your fault; it’s your genes. 

But what about negative traits? What about aggression and violence? If we insist that being untidy and bad at maths is innate, then it follows that we have to accept that maybe these are, too. But maybe that’s a good thing. If serial killers are genetically different to the rest of us, maybe we can identify them before they start. 

Picture this: a geneticist studying men who end up in prison for violent crime finds that they all have a particular gene in common. It doesn’t seem to occur in men with no history of violent behaviour. Two years later, you’re in hospital, looking down at your precious newborn son, so young, so innocent, and a doctor walks in and asks you if you’d like to have him tested for this particular gene. 

What do you say? 

The sharp conflict of born versus made runs through the heart of One of the Boys. If you have a fixed idea of what a boy is from when he’s only a few days old, you’re going to judge everything he does. You’re going to read things into normal behaviour – tantrums, aggression, losing his temper – and perhaps see them as worse than they really are. Other people will treat him differently. He’ll be excluded and pushed out. You could argue that those people are right to do so. They have to protect their own children, after all. That’s part of parenthood. We don’t let our children play with matches or knives. It follows that we shouldn’t let them play with a child who might hurt them, either. 

And yet . . what if that child is your son? How do you deal with a boy that has the potential to be violent, but hasn’t yet done anything wrong? You can’t stand back and do nothing, waiting until he does harm before you intervene. That’s basically the situation we have now. But you also have a duty to protect him from those who see him as other and less, because again, he’s done nothing wrong, and may never do anything wrong. 

The idea that one day soon we may be able to identify the young boys who are on this road and guide them in a different direction seems simple on the face of it. But what society would do with this information isn’t simple, though it’s predictable. When I was worldbuilding for One of the Boys, I looked into the history of other medical technologies, like IVF, amniocentesis and the contraceptive pill. I watched documentaries on Ritalin and looked at posts on parenting forums where mother’s to be discussed prenatal testing. 

Where there’s muck, there’s brass, as my grandmother used to say. (Brass, for those not from the north of England, means money). It was immediately obvious that there would be drug treatments and that they would be expensive. There would be parenting classes, and books, and vitamins and supplements, and YouTube channels and TV programmes. And on the flipside, private schools and nurseries that offered a guaranteed ‘safe’ experience for your daughter or negative son. The test would be big business. That would become a reason to keep it going, even as it split society in two. 

And then, as the boys hit adulthood, aging out of school and into the workplace, things would shift again, and the long-term effects would become clear: a disposable workforce, with minimal protection in law, and few other options. Capitalism thrives on workers like these. 

I like stories that live in the grey, that can see both sides, the good and the bad. Life is complicated. I want to write things that reflect that. I decided to write about 3 mothers – one with a negative son, one with a positive, and one who doesn’t know. Weaving their stories together was tough. I think One of the Boys was the most challenging book I’ve written so far, not just because I had Covid in the middle, but because there were so many threads to weave together. And it was written in a way I’d not done before – I was actually deep into a different book but it wasn’t working. I had to come up with something else and quickly. I started with half a dozen elevator pitches, then a detailed outline, and then several drafts followed by 4 rounds of editorial revisions. There were pieces I couldn’t make fit until the very last attempt. But I think it was worth the effort, and I hope you do too. 

One of the Boys: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Books-A-Million|Bookshop|Powell’s 

Author’s socials: Instagram

Oh, and, Look, Here Are My New Boots

Yes, that’s Hokusai’s The Great Wave Off Kanagawa, and yes, those are Doc Martens. I will be spending the next couple of months wearing them in so they are ready for when cold weather actually hits and I will need a pair of boots. Because, yes, I did actually buy them to be practical! But one does like a splash of color.

— JS

The Big Idea: Kemi Ashing-Giwa

Tea is best enjoyed with friends. So is revenge! Author Kemi Ashing-Giwa brings us a tale of tea, friendship, revenge, and so much more in her new novel, The Splinter in the Sky.


There wasn’t one singular idea that sparked The Splinter in the Sky; it was more of a situation. For the first few months of quarantine, whenever I wasn’t attending class on Zoom, I would read the news, watch the news, and doomscroll on Twitter.

I needed a healthy way to process everything I was learning and feeling, and since writing has always been a great comfort to me, it seemed only natural that I should start a new project. From the get-go, I wanted this story to have: (a) an assassin who takes revenge on the empire that razed her homeland; (b) a close sibling relationship at the center because there will never be enough of those stories; and (c) lots of tea, because that was my current obsession. From this hodgepodge surfaced a tea specialist-turned-spy-turned assassin who embarks on an interplanetary quest to rescue her sibling and avenge her fallen lover. Being a pantser (at the time), I cracked open a Google Doc and got right to work.  

I soon ran into a major problem: while a character running around kicking ass and taking names is always fun to write and read about, there’s not much substance in it. What’s the point of it all? Say Enitan successfully saves her sibling and gives her lover’s murderers a taste of their own medicine… Then, what? The classic hero’s journey typically ends with a return to the normal world. But the “normal world” of The Splinter in the Sky is a broken one; it’s the world that allowed for the bloody colonization of her moon, for the abduction of her only remaining family member. Enitan’s enemies aren’t just the people who personally ravaged her home and her life. Her enemy is the system itself—the autocracy on the brink of sparking yet another war of conquest. So the whole Holy Vaalbaran Empire has to go. (Or, at least, it has to change on a fundamental level).

Of course, a single person can’t take on a superpower alone, even if she’s a polyglot and knows a lot about tea. She’d need a great deal of help: allies, and even—dare I say it—friends. I’ll be honest, I did not want to write about found family (at first). I just wanted a bloody cathartic revenge tale. But my initial plan wouldn’t have made for a good story, and it wasn’t even true to myself. At the end of the day, I’m an inveterate optimist, and the tale I’d originally imagined was missing the very thing that got me through quarantine and everything that happened in it: hope. 

I’m sure you found that as corny as I felt writing that, but it’s true. Hope is no less powerful, nor less meaningful, than rage or sorrow. And, maybe, that’s the real big idea in The Splinter in the Sky. Hopefully, I did a good job of conveying that in the book. 

The Splinter in the Sky: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Books-a-Million|Bookshop

Author socials: Website|Twitter

View From a Hotel Window, 7/13/23: Winston-Salem, NC

I’m in town for the Con-Gregate convention, and after figuring out how much time it would take with connecting flights, etc, I decided it would be easier and slightly faster to drive in. Which I did, and it was fine, except for that one part where I was in a downpour on a twisty mountain road and almost hydroplaned into a canyon. But the operative word there is “almost,” and I’m fine, the car is fine, everything’s fine.

If you happen to be in or around Winston-Salem this weekend, come round to the convention and say hello. I’ll be on panels, doing a reading, having a signing and otherwise doing all those convention things I do. It’ll be good to see you.

— JS

The Big Idea: Julia Vee and Ken Bebelle

You start with an old idea, and from this old idea, you can create something new. So Julia Vee and Ken Bebelle learned, as they looked to legends from their heritage for the new novel Ebony Gate.


When we started writing what would become Ebony Gate, we took inspiration from Asian myth, using foo lions, hungry ghosts, and death gods instead of the standard fare of vampires and fae that already populated our shelves. In particular, we focused on Lóng, the Chinese dragon. Chinese dragons date back to the I Ching, but their appeal is timeless. Post-Ming dynasty Chinese texts tell of nine sons of the Great Dragon Father, each with individual strengths and powers. These dragon sons were powerful gods, capable of controlling the weather and water. We wanted to carry these old myths forward into a modern setting.

We imagined an entire civilization of people descended from these Nine Sons of the Dragon, what their culture and rules would be like. Each family’s identity is based on their Hoard, a trove of artifacts and precious gems, soaked in dragon magic, granting them wealth and power. They model their lives after their dragon gods and call themselves Lóng Jiārén, dragon family. Lóng Jiārén live like apex predators. They are:

  • Secretive
  • Acquisitive
  • Territorial
  • Powerful
  • Fiercely loyal 
  • Prone to violence

For millennia these Lóng Jiārén lived among regular humans, hiding their secrets and husbanding their power. With their amazing talents, they built empires in the shadows. But Lóng Jiārén are not precisely humans, and their dragon nature cannot be denied.

To self-govern, these descendants of the dragons lead ritualistic lives. Their society is governed by laws that supersede any other code of conduct, the first being “Protect the Hoard.” They trade debts and favors that are bound by honor and magic, payable for the duration of one’s bloodline. Wealth, power, and succession are all predicated on the ability to survive amongst the most dangerous people on the planet. 

But in this strict society, misfits chafe under the yoke of these rules.

Despite being born into a family with a lavish hoard, Emiko Soong never fit in. She’s the Broken Tooth of Soong, and has always been an outsider, struggling to carve out her place in this world of the dragonborn. Ebony Gate is a story about one woman navigating the rocky path between a world rife with violence and secrets, and the other one oblivious to the predators who walk among them.

What started as a big idea to bring Chinese dragon lore into contemporary fiction became something much more personal for us—exploring the theme of growing up as diaspora, with a foot in two worlds, and charting a new path that sits somewhere in the middle ground. It turned out, we were writing about our own struggles—but with magic and dragons. The diaspora experience is one of change and adaptation. We hold on to certain old ways, while learning the new ways. 

We’re American, but also Asian-American and we didn’t see ourselves represented in the fantasy fiction we grew up with. There’s something very painful about being cast as the perpetual foreigner in the place where you grow up and raise your own family. It was important to us that our protagonist be Asian, as well as representative of our experiences. And while we are not descended from dragons, our parents’ story of coming to a new world certainly echoes in Ebony Gate. 

In the same way that our upbringing was influenced by old and new cultures, we believe that what we do with our lives also changes the landscape of our home. Along the same vein we hope that Emiko’s story helps broaden the landscape of fantasy fiction. Ebony Gate is a diaspora story with old world legends, new world problems, and a heroine we can all root for.

Ebony Gate: Amazon|Barnes & Noble||Powell’s

Julia’s socials: Website | Twitter | Facebook | Instagram | TikTok  
Ken’s socials: Website | Twitter | Facebook | Instagram

The Big Idea: Stephen Aryan

As a child, author Stephen Aryan wanted to see people like him in fantasy books, but rarely did. Now that he writes books himself, he made sure to represent his roots in his new novel, The Judas Blossom. Follow along in his Big Idea to see how this first installment of the trilogy came to be.


So, why did I write a historic fantasy book set in Persia? And, have you ever felt like an outsider?

If you’re reading this in America then you may have noticed my surname. Forget what you think you know, as that came from a Frenchman in the 1850s who thought racism was a good idea. Fair warning, his wiki entry is an eye-opener. It actually comes from the term Aryan or Arya, which was used in ancient times as an ethnocultural self-designation by Indo-Iranians.

I was born in Iran, but moved to the UK as a baby, and I’ve lived here my entire life. I’m one of a small but growing community of Geordie-British-Iranians, from in, or around, the city of Newcastle. In the 1980s in England, the racial mix in schools was not what it is today. Add in the fact that I’ve been tall my entire life, and am now well over six feet tall, and it’s fair to say that growing up, I kind of stood out.

So reading fantasy growing up, there wasn’t anyone like me, and yet. Tanis Half-Elven came from two different people and had a foot in each camp. Weis and Hickman also wrote the Rose of the Prophet trilogy in the late 1980s, set in a pseudo Middle-Eastern setting, with a cast of characters that are all people of colour. Most of the people in Le Guin’s Earthsea books had brown skin. Although there have been many others over the years, these three are my earliest recollections of seeing someone familiar. Now, own voice books are far more common, and there are fantasy series with connections to many different countries around the world.

Given all of that, you can begin to see why I have a vested interest in making sure that a series set in 13th century Persia (the old name for Iran until 1935) feels as authentic as possible. However, with thousands of years of history, and a culture rich in poetry, art, music, and literature, with gloriously delicious food, and a people known for being outspoken, passionate and warm, I knew trying to convey all of that to the reader would be difficult. As it turned out, writing this trilogy was the biggest challenge of my writing career. I felt an enormous weight of responsibility bearing down on me.

You see, I wanted to tell a dramatic story, but as a historical fantasy series, I knew I would have to massage the facts to make it a more cohesive narrative. Historians may get upset about things I’ve changed, ignored or got wrong, despite my research and that’s fine. At the same time, I also wanted to immerse the reader in a different time and place, giving them a peek at a culture they probably know little or nothing about. 

In 2014, the incomparable Anthony Bourdain, in his Parts Unknown TV series for CNN, visited Iran and, for the first time in years, we caught a glimpse of what life was like for ordinary people. The situation has obviously changed a lot since then, but, without making this political, what’s happening now just demonstrates what I touched on earlier, about Iran being a land of passionate people, and forthright women.

My hope for this book, and this series, is that the reader goes on an exciting adventure and has a great time until the very last page. My wish is that a few readers become interested in finding out more about the country, culture and its people. And my deepest desire is that, one day, a little kid reading it sees something familiar in the characters, and doesn’t feel so alone.

The Judas Blossom: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s 

Author socials: Twitter|Instagram

The Big Idea: Rachel Cantor

As much as people love the classics, sometimes they need an update. Luckily, author Rachel Cantor is here to bring us a modernized look at the Brontës in her new novel, Half-Life of a Stolen Sister. Follow along in her Big Idea to see how she swapped out the 1800s for the modern era.

I was overseas working on my first novel when I ran out of books to read (something that could happen before the blessed advent of e-readers). I was beyond thrilled, then, when I found Charlotte Brontë’s Villette in a dusty corner of a Danish bookshop. I’d never read Villette, despite it being the favorite book of a college chum whose opinion I madly respected: probably I knew it couldn’t match Jane Eyre, which had always been my favorite book by a super long shot.
The preface stunned me. It described how, one by one, Charlotte Brontë’s four sisters and one brother died young, the first at the age of ten, the last at barely thirty-one, leaving Charlotte, for all intents and purposes, alone, likely for the rest of her life. Having reached the “spinsterly” age of thirty-three, she could not reasonably expect to wed. Lonely and wrecked by grief, she survived and, by some measures, thrived. How? How had she done it? My novel, Half-Life of a Stolen Sister, arose not so much out of a Big Idea as a Big Question. I wanted to understand.
For almost a decade, I kept the thought of a Brontë book in my head: when the time came, I would read novels, biographies, letters, and anything else I could find, and based on these sources, write four long stories from the point of view of Anne, Emily, Branwell, and Charlotte, respectively. Each would take place during a particularly important time in their collective lives; all would have as their natural backdrop Yorkshire, England, 1821-1855.
Big Problem: I am not a “realistic” writer; I adore historical fiction but I am even more definitely not a writer of realistic historical fiction. Luckily for me, I was (am) capable of enormous literary self-deception: more than ten years later, when it was time to write this book, I went for it. I bought all those research books and read, or reread, all those novels. Which was when, mercifully, my imaginative sub-brain, which is much smarter than I am, took over. I say mercifully because my imaginative sub-brain wasn’t interested in the plan I’d held on to all those years (my Big Idea, possibly): instead, it immediately placed young Charlotte, Branwell, Emily, and Anne Brontë not on the moors, not in quaint Haworth Parsonage, but in a park, where they hid behind bushes, conferring on “talkie-walkies” and looking for spies.
When they left that park, it was to sketch dioramas at a nearby museum; when they returned home, it was via a subway to a rent-controlled, much-too-small apartment. I had migrated this family, through a process mysterious—a process I still can’t say I understand—to a mid-sized North American city, probably in the late twentieth or early twenty-first century.
This shift was, obviously, decisive. It changed everything—it had to. No longer would I try to write in a manner to which I’m not suited; rather, I could rely on my strongest skill, which applying my imagination to questions of the heart. And possibly have fun doing so.
Thus I was able to convey the father’s extremely rushed (and entirely unrealistic) search for a replacement wife, seemingly moments after the death of the mother of his six children, via a dating-site profile.
Thus I could allow Charlotte’s publisher to share his thoughts about the sisters’ secret identities on a public radio show.
Thus Charlotte could express unmediated anguish following the loss of Branwell, Emily, and Anne in her diary, and a more curated version of same through letters.
And so on.
This freedom was exhilarating. It allowed me to present Charlotte and those around her not as inert figures in a wax museum (or romantic figures striding across the moors, or delicate ladies coughing tubercular phlegm), but rather as people who grow and change and spat and try really hard to do well—people who are, in other words, very much like us. It brought me close to their joys and sufferings and complications and achievements, which in turn allowed me to answer my Big Question—How did she do it?—long after I’d abandoned my Big Idea.

Half-Life of a Stolen Sister: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Bookshop|Powell’s

Author socials: Website|Twitter|Facebook|Instagram

Extended Preview of Starter Villain Out Now

Wanna read the first three chapters of my upcoming novel totally for free? Go to your favorite online bookseller and look for “Starter Villain Sneak Peek” and you’ll be on your way. You’re welcome!

(PS: Possibly US/Can markets only because it’s Tor US doing it, but I haven’t checked other country sites, so…)

— JS

Thoughts on Social Media (and Me), Mid-July 2023

John Scalzi

Hey, remember when Twitter and Facebook and Instagram (and Tik Tok, if you were under 30) were the only games in town, after having basically destroyed the idea of the independent web? Well, no longer! Thanks to Elon Musk being forced to buy Twitter and then turning it into a resource-starved playground for dimwitted fascists, and to a lesser extent to Mark Zuckerberg throwing billions down a hole to convince the world that a lightly-updated version of Second Life was the future of the Internet, there are now roughly 17,000 new social media sites, all vying to become the new Twitter, never mind that Twitter was mostly not profitable, and only barely so even when it was.

And of course, I have accounts on all of them, because I am extremely online and have been for 30 years. I’ve poked around on them and used them and now I am happy to share my thoughts on the current state of social media online by talking about which ones I am using, which ones I am using less, and which ones I’m not using at all. Here we go:

1. Bluesky: Bluesky is (currently) an invite-only service with (currently) just under 300,000 users, but among its frequent users you have people like Guillermo Del Toro (who uses it to chronicle his model making), Neil Gaiman, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, journalist Jake Tapper, film producer Gale Anne Hurd, and a non-trivial percentage of queer America. Part of the reason it is still invite-only is that it’s still in beta and lacks a lot of the features and functionality other sites have — it currently can’t even show moving gifs, although whether that’s a bug or a feature is left to the reader — and its small development team is trying to scale its back end without blowing it up. The invite system lets it onboard people without melting everything into slag.

It also has allowed it to create, in a small amount of time and with a smallish number of people, a very distinct vibe: People are comparing it to “when Twitter didn’t suck,” but it’s actually different than even that. It’s very queer, pretty weird, and as much as it can, it has an emphasis on positivity — not like “you can’t post about bad news or divisive politics here” but as in “If someone’s being a jerk, don’t engage, just block.” There’s comparatively little dunking, dogpiling or quoteposting for clout. This has been frustrating for the occasional troll or outrage farmer who comes to the site to pull their usual shenanigans and discovers that no one is playing that game; they’ve run back to Twitter complaining about how awful it is on Bluesky, which, well. For them, it is.

It’s also currently not great for “influencers” or celebrities whose social media stock-in-trade is asymmetric communication between them at the top and their adoring fans below. There aren’t enough people on the service for that sort of thing to be effective, and the general ethos of the site is “among, not above,” which is to say that the site is at its best if you’re having conversations with, not talking at, others there. It’s (currently) a very different vibe from any other site out there, and, for moment at least, on average, a lot more enjoyable experience than social media is most other places.

That said, it’s not what you would call perfect. Minority users, especially members of the black community, have had legit criticisms about how it’s run and how moderation works, and have complained of feeling excluded or minimized, which is not a great look. Bluesky also can feel cliquey and even a little snobby, especially in how it regards other social media sites, which is weird because, among other things, most users have accounts elsewhere. There’s a line between recognizing the unique things that make a community great and using that uniqueness as an exclusionary tactic, and I think Bluesky members should be thinking about it maybe more than they do.

For all that, it’s still the social media place I find myself spending the most time at these days — a place to play and chat and have fun without, for me, the expectation that I have to be selling myself constantly. It’s not the auditorium stage, it’s the backstage area, where everyone from the stars to the stagehands are mingling and talking to each other (and who the stars and stagehands are depends on your point of view).

Will this vibe last beyond the site’s beta stage? Who can say? For now, it’s great.

2. Twitter: I’m still on it! Because, bluntly, I have just under 200K followers there and I’m loath to abandon them all, although at this point just how many of those 200k followers are actually still around is an open question — aside from a relatively few people who actively deleted their accounts, most people who leave Twitter just… leave Twitter. I mean, I still have a MySpace account, and a LiveJournal account (I just got an email congratulating me for 19 years of membership there), but I’m not exactly spending time at either.

I’m still on Twitter but I’m spending less time there and am relatively less engaged, partly because it’s more fun to hang out on Bluesky at the moment, and partly because Twitter has become more unpleasant to be on. It’s not just Elon Musk turning the place into a fashy playhouse; after all this time and prior to Musk cutting off API usage, I’ve done a pretty good job of muting and blocking most of the usual suspects, so my own timeline is (relatively) fascist-free on average. I can’t ignore that Musk and his party pals are trash, but I can mostly avoid them.

So it’s not just that. It’s also that Musk — who has so thoroughly trashed his “tech genius” reputation that when he challenged Mark Zuckerberg to a literal dick measuring contest today no one was really surprised about it — has just plain made the service worse. He fired most of its staff, so now everything runs jankily; he trashed the verification system so now the biggest slice of his “verified” users are losers who pay $8 a month to be sure that people see their shitty replies at the top of the comment queue (a moment of pity for the people who have Twitter Blue for actual legitimate reasons; you’re painted with an icky, fashy brush, and I’m sorry for that); he brags about curbing bots but every post I have now includes a porn bot in the comments offering up a link to (no doubt) malware instead of boobs. Twitter is depressing to be on, not just because Musk is a fascist, but because he’s an incompetent.

I’m not mad that Elon Musk has been so completely exposed as a bumbling, insecure man-child that his reputation will never ever recover — isn’t it good to know that even being the richest man in the world doesn’t save you from being a pathetic wretch, desperate for the approval of people who will never ever love you? — but I am sad that it was Twitter that he wrecked his reputation upon, because he wrecked Twitter in the process. Couldn’t you have just fucked up Space X, Musk? You were never going to Mars anyway!

But here we are in 2023, and Twitter is dying, and I’m posting on it from habit, for the people who remain, and because I want to see when it is the lights finally get switched off. It may be sooner than later now, thanks to a new competitor I’ll get to in just a minute.

3. Facebook: Facebook is where I go to stay in contact with everyone I knew before 2005, with friends I’ve met since then in the mix as well. For keeping up with folks who are mostly uninterested in technology — which is most people! — it does fine. Because I have a rule that I don’t talk politics on Facebook (and generally delete posts off my timeline that do), and because I keep my personal account locked down (fuck you, friends of friends! You’re all terrible people!) it’s actually a pretty congenial place for me, that I enjoy hanging out on. Also at this point I’ve trained Facebook only to show me ads with musical software in them, which is pretty great, and I’ve even bought some of it, so there you go. Facebook will never be my primary social media outlet (knocks on wood), but, notwithstanding the various moral and technological sins of the company, when I am there, I have a perfectly good time.

I also have a public page that is all career updates all the time, and that is actually fairly effective as a promotional outlet, even with Facebook throttling it to convince me to spend money to extend my reach, which I will, by the way, never ever ever do.

4. Mastodon: This tech-forward, nerd-friendly site* is also the one that feels the most clique-y to me, because it had several years in more or less isolation to develop traditions and practices, and its long-time users can be prickly when newer folks come by and don’t know the rules of the road. It’s basically the vibe of the Eternal September, brought forward to the Web 3.0 era. In all fairness, it does suck when people just show up and tromp around heedlessly, so I don’t want to ding the veteran Mastodonians too much for it. It does mean there can be a bit of a frosty vibe for newcomers. There should be a way to thread that needle.

The asterisk up there, incidentally, is there because Mastodon isn’t actually a “site,” it’s a federation of various sites and servers, each with their own backend and rules and such — it’s not a single massive metropolis, it’s an archipelago of villages, connected by mail service, as it were. Mastodon isn’t the only service to do this, as Bluesky will also be federated when it gets itself out of beta, and Threads, at least theoretically, also embraces the concept of federation. But Mastodon is the one that is the furthest along in using the concept.

I really like the concept of federation in theory, and in practice I’m pretty sure most people have not the first clue as to what it means and what it does, and they just want to post pictures of their cats and/or rants about conspiracy theories. Mastodon caters to those with more than a minimal level of comfort with tech and a willingness to get under the hood with it, and because of that I’m not sure it will ever be more than a niche enthusiasm. I don’t imagine that outside of a few federation evangelists, this bothers most of the folks who have made Mastodon an online home.

I do like Mastodon, and I have spent enough time there now that I feel pretty confident posting and chatting there. If the rest of the tech world collapses, it’s entirely possible that Mastodon, due to its decentralized and federated nature, will be the Last Social Media Standing. In which case I am glad to already be there and not part of another wave of social media refugees.

5. Threads: Which did not publicly exist a week ago! And yet now has over 100 million users! Sending Elon Musk into a penis-shriveling panic! Which in itself would make me applaud the existence of Threads — Musk’s fragile masculinity deserves a kick or two square in the jewels — but the topper for that stat is that if Musk hadn’t’ve fucked up Twitter in the first place, Threads might’nt’ve happened, because Lord knows Mark Zuckerberg was busy enough making the Metaverse not happen. But Musk did fuck up Twitter, and Zuckerberg, et al saw an opportunity to eat his lunch, and now, with Threads a third the size of Twitter in just five days, lunch time it very much is.

“But Threads cheated!” is a refrain I’ve actually heard, because Threads is basically a text-forward offshoot of Instagram, and setting up a Threads account is basically pressing a button to transfer over one’s Instagram credentials to a new application. It’s how it worked for me; my Threads account and my Instagram account are one and the same, down to the verification (which I got, I hasten to add, before Meta followed in Twitter’s footsteps and allowed people to get it by paying a subscription for it). This is a curious objection: How, exactly, is it cheating to make sign-up simple and painless? How many hoops should people jump through?

My initial impression of Threads is that it is simple, easy-to-use, nowhere near fully-featured (it doesn’t even have “alt” text for pictures yet, which is a real access issue) and absolutely, completely 100% soulless. Like Instagram, its timeline is heavily focused on influencers, celebrities and commerce; it’s like someone made TMZ and the Shopping Channel have a hot night at the Mall of America, and this is what came out. It’s perfect if all you want to do is scroll endlessly; if you actually want to generate community, or even find your friends, it’s not so great.

I’m posting on Threads and apparently people are finding my posts, and I got nearly five thousand followers in three days, so it’s useful, and I’ll keep doing it. And I think Elon Musk is right to panic, because Threads absolutely is a threat to him and his shitty business plans. If I were an advertiser and I had to choose between Threads and Twitter right now, well, I’m pretty sure I’d go with Zuck’s service, since if nothing else Zuck has a track record of getting ads in front of eyeballs. But of all the things Threads is at the moment, for creative folks or people looking for their people, “fun” isn’t one of them. I don’t think “fun” is point.

6. Instagram: I post there! Sometimes! Some of my friends really are Insta-forward in their social media presences, so if I want to keep track of them, this is the place I go. And I do like posting photos. But of all the sites I regularly use, this is the one I use the least, the one I go, “Oh, right, I should post something there” about. It’s fine! I kinda like it and don’t actively dislike it or anything! But it’s also the site with the least amount of community feeling or back-and-forth to it: it really is best at uni-directional communication.

And that’s all right! For a lot of people, this way of doing social media is the most manageable and least intrusive for them. I’m glad it’s there for those folks. For me, it’s not my favorite way of doing it.

7 – 10: Post and Spoutible and T2 and Tribel: Newish Twitter replacements of varying sorts, all fairly nicely designed for the purpose of being ports in the storm once people leave Musk’s Folly, and all also after-rans, at least for me. They didn’t seem to develop either the critical mass of “cool” users that Bluesky did, or the massive crush of users that Threads did, and while there is nothing wrong about them — at all! — I wonder how many will be about in a year or two. There are other social media in this space as well: WT.Social and Nostr and Spill (which is just starting out and like Bluesky has an invite list), but aside from camping on my name, I don’t use any of them, although I’m looking forward to trying out Spill when/if I’m let in. Gab and Parler and Truth Social are sites I have, shall we say, let pass by and I don’t expect the ones of them still around to stay around long, especially now that Musk has turned Twitter into a Fash Central.

11. Everything else: I have LinkedIn mostly as an affectation. I use Flickr to store photos. I have Tumblr mostly to rebroadcast Whatever. Goodreads also rebroadcasts Whatever, and has book reviews to boot. Reddit I read but only rarely comment on; Metafilter I love and occasionally comment on; YouTube I have a channel on but it is random and sporadic. I’m not on TikTok or Snapchat or really any other video-forward site because I have a face for text, and not enough time at the moment for video editing, which is a skill one needs to learn, and I’d rather do music stuff.

And thus, my assessment of social media, as it applies to me, in July 2023.

— JS

A Review Of “Dining In The Dark” At Little Llama Peruvian Tacos

Athena ScalziThe night I got to LA, I decided to look around online and see what kind of interesting and fun events would be happening whilst I was visiting. Almost immediately, I found an event called “Dining In The Dark” being held at a place in downtown LA called Little Llama Peruvian Tacos. Intrigued, I checked out the details. It entailed of a nine course dinner, all of which you were supposed to eat blindfolded. Obviously, I knew I had to try this out and see if dining in the dark is better than just regular dining.

Upon arrival, I noticed the place is actually very casual. It’s the kind of place where you order at the counter, with blackboard menus behind the registers and a fridge to grab your beverage of choice out of. In their own words it’s “a fun and casual environment with counter service and quick but not ‘fast’ food”.

They sat me at a table for two, though I was dining alone. Apparently there were two other solo diners, but I didn’t see them anywhere. I was surrounded by larger parties, and I honestly felt self-conscious. This was strange to me because I eat out alone all the time, and never feel weird about it. In fact, I’ve done it numerous times on this trip, but this was the first time I felt like I should have someone sitting across from me.

Moving on, I was given a welcome cocktail. We were given this before we adorned our blindfolds, so I did see what this looked like. It was passionfruit juice and sparkling wine, with a spicy salted rim. This was a really nice beverage! It was light and refreshing and perfectly sweet, and I quite enjoy the flavor of passionfruit so that was a plus. Also, I tried to avoid the spicy rim, but once I worked up the nerve to try it, it was really tasty and not too spicy.

Obviously I didn’t get any pictures, but the event organizer ended up sending an email out to everyone after the event that included the full tasting menu plus photos of each item. So that’s what you’re going to see!

"Maracuya Bellini: Passion Fruit + Sparkling Wine". A small plastic cup with bright yellowish orange passionfruit juice and sparkling wine in it, with a dark orange salty spicy rim and a dehydrated lime slice floating in the liquid.

After the drink and an explanation of how the event worked, we all put on our blindfolds. Basically, they’d serve you a course and then tell what it was afterwards. When it came to the blindfolds, they were like sleep mask style blindfolds. You couldn’t see through them but you could definitely see like, downwards? Like you could see the table and your hands and whatnot if you just looked down. Obviously, I didn’t want to see anything, so I just closed my eyes.

Then I accidentally saw the first course anyways because I was taking a sip of my water with my eyes open under the blindfold when they set it down in front of me so I literally saw it. My bad. It was in a little taster glass, and you were just supposed to drink it. It tasted like salsa at first. It was so bright and fresh, I really loved it! I thought it might be gazpacho since it probably was not just straight up salsa in a glass.

"Aji Amarillo Leche de Tigre: Savory Blend of Peruvian Peppers, Herbs & Spices, & Fresh Lime". A small taster glass partially filled with thick, bright orange liquid, topped with some parsley (I think it's parsley, I'm not actually sure), and accompanied by a slice of lime on the rim of the glass.

It was slightly spicy, but so flavorful and light at the same time. I could’ve eaten a huge bowl of this. This first course ended up being one of my favorites of the night.

Onto the second dish! It was actually kind of funny, the server put the course down in front of me and said “here’s your tuna tostada”. Ope. She told me what it was. And since I already knew what it was, I decided to look. I know, I know, I’m not supposed to, but the mystery had already been revealed! I had to peek. It looked really good. I was surprised at how nice the presentation was considering people weren’t even supposed to see it. Maybe they anticipated people peeking.

Anyways, the ahi tuna tostada was so delicious! The tuna was perfect and the avocado was so smooth and fresh. Since I did peek, I did take off the red pepper on top. I was afraid it would be too spicy for me.

For the third dish, the waitress once again told me what it was when she set it down in front of me. I’m like 92% sure I heard the event organizer mention to her immediately after that they were supposed to be mysteries, and then she never said what any other dish was after that, so. Alas, I knew this one was a potato taco, so I looked again! I know, I’m the worst!

If I hadn’t looked, I would’ve had no idea that there was an egg in this thing. It really just tasted like a corn tortilla and nacho cheese. I honestly thought that the thick yellow sauce was nacho cheese, and I heard the table next to me discuss how it tasted like nacho cheese, as well. I like potatoes, and I like egg, but this dish was my least favorite of the night. I was unimpressed with this one.

Okay, this fourth dish was the first one I ate without looking. I did it! Finally. And it was harder than I expected. I’ve never been so worried about spilling food on myself before. Also, it had a stick sticking out of it, so I picked it up and ate it right off the stick.

So, going in blind, the first thing I tasted was plantain, and then a lot of guacamole.

This one was a yummy little bite! I enjoyed it, but honestly it mostly just tasted like I took a big bite of guacamole. But that’s okay because I love guac.

Upon eating this fifth course, I immediately knew it was seafood, but I couldn’t place what kind of seafood it was. My first thought was crab, but I knew that wasn’t right. It ended up being octopus, which is certainly not my favorite type of seafood, but this was pretty decent. It wasn’t mind blowing, and the octopus was a little tough to chew (as octopus always is (part of why I tend to not like it much)). It wasn’t bad or anything, but this one was pretty forgettable, and I think its position as number five makes perfect sense.

For the sixth course, we had another taco!

I could tell this taco had beef in it, but I didn’t realize it was Angus steak until they told us. As with the other taco, the flavor of the corn tortilla was quite powerful, and takes up most of the flavor profile. It was kind of basic. Another non-stellar course, but it was fine enough.

Back at it with another tostada!

Even though I wasn’t looking, I could tell this one was a tostada because it felt the same to hold and everything as the tuna tostada. So I at least knew how to go about eating this one. I knew right away it was shrimp, and I thought the tostada was topped with ceviche. Holy moly it was so good! The shrimp was perfect, the mango was flavorful, the tostada was nice and crunchy, everything worked so well together and made for some truly excellent bites. Plus, I love shrimp. It only makes sense that this ended up being my favorite course. I would eat so many of these. So many.

For the last of the savory courses, we had another taco.

This taco smelled and tasted very funky to me. Like, off, almost. I realized that the funkiness seemed a lot like sheep’s milk cheese, and looking at the photo I feel like that’s definitely what the white crumbled cheese has to be. I honestly didn’t care for this one much, but I did like the pomegranate. It was my second least favorite overall, and it’s unfortunate that it ended up being the last savory dish.

Thank goodness dessert was so dang good!

Not only do I love panna cotta, but it was passion fruit flavored, and the whole bottom portion was some seriously yummy chocolate. The brittle was good, and provided some much needed texture to an otherwise ultra creamy dessert. The amount they provided was absolutely perfect, a sweet send off to end the meal. I loved this dessert.

Alright, so let’s talk overall price/value/thoughts and all that good stuff. For all nine courses plus the welcome cocktail, the ticket was one hundred and ten dollars, gratuity included. I would say that at this price point, it is worth it, but it cut it close for me. I can see how this could be seen as too expensive for such small courses, even if there is nine of them.

However, considering it included a welcome cocktail and gratuity, plus the novelty factor of it, plus a specially curated menu made by the chef, it leans towards worth it for me. Again, definitely pricey, but it was a good experience, and fun to tell your friends about (or to post about).

When it comes to ranking the food, I would probably go with: seven (shrimp tostada), nine (panna cotta), one (soup shot), two (tuna tostada), four (plantain), five (octopus), six (steak taco), and a tie for last between three (potato taco) and eight (pork belly taco).

So, was “dining in the dark” better than regular dining? I would say not really. Not that I didn’t enjoy it, but I think I would’ve enjoyed these courses just as much had I been able to see them (discounting the couple I did actually see). It was fun enough, but not like mind-blowingly amazing or anything. However, I do think it would’ve been more fun to do it with some friends. Maybe the social aspect of it would’ve made it more interesting and less just me eating by myself with my eyes closed.

I think there is certainly something to be said about the food you eat being a surprise, but I’m not totally sure about the execution of it. I like the idea in concept, at least. And again, I did enjoy it! I just think I might stick with regular eating for a while.

Which course looks the best to you? Have you ever dined in the dark before? Would you try this kind of event? Let me know in the comments, and have a great day!


Hugo Neepery, Via Reddit

John Scalzi

Over on the r/fantasy subreddit, there was a post about recent Hugo Award stats (which excerpted this original post at the Mr. Philp’s Library blog), and in the comments people naturally speculated about why the Hugos are the way they are these days: Why Tor seems to get a lot of nominations, for example, and why diverse groups are represented in the finalist list as they are, and whether the Hugo voters are an insular and monolith bloc.

Naturally, I have thoughts on all of them and I posted them in a comment there, which I am posting here now (in lightly edited form, to add some useful qualifications) for archival purposes, and for the convenience of those who do not regularly go over to Reddit. Some of this is stuff I’ve covered here before and/or is known stuff to observers of the field, but it’s still useful, I think, when thinking about the current Hugos, and indeed about awards generally.

For the sake of context, here is the original post with its entire comment thread; and here is my original reply on Reddit with its own set of specific replies.

Some thoughts for all y’all to consider, and please note I am not an entirely objective observer, but do have relevant experience:

1. With respect to “why does Tor get so many damn finalists,” the answer (in my opinion) is: reach and design. The Tor Publishing Group (Tor, TorDotCom, Nightfire, and a couple of other imprints coming online soon) publishes more SF/F work in the English language than any other publisher, has an experienced and savvy group of marketers and bookseller/librarian representatives, and (this is frequently overlooked but is significant) has built up an exceptional editorial bench whose tastes and interests cover a wide range of work (Fun fact: The editor at Orbit, who was there in its heyday of Hugo finalists and/or acquired the authors who made the shortlist? She’s the publisher at Tor now).

Also, when authors want to publish in the genre, Tor is often the first stop for their manuscripts, so Tor gets the pick of the annual litter, so to speak, and continues to work with and cultivate the authors whose books hit.

2. The above advantages are especially borne out in the field of novellas. TorDotCom was originally created to acquire and market novellas, because Tor, pretty much alone out of all the major SF/F publishers, realized that the advent of electronic publishing meant there was now a viable market for them (supplemented by bookstore sales). Prior to the advent of TorDotCom, novellas were largely published by the SF/F magazines, who couldn’t publish many of them (they take up a lot of space, both in physical print and in the budget). They were, relatively speaking, few and far between — for years a hot Hugo tip was that if you wanted a fast track to award consideration, you should write a novella, because there were fewer of them to compete against.

And indeed this continues to be the case — except at TorDotCom, which has a robust novella publishing program (and also, non-trivially, pays better for novellas than most anyone else, again assuring they get first pick). In short, Tor dominates the novella category because, by and large, it created the modern novella market for SF/F/H.

3. If you are wondering how marginalized groups have started to become widely represented in SF/F awards (as they are not just in the Hugos, but also the Nebulas, the Locus and the World Fantasy Awards) there are three factors I want you to consider. The first is the (relative) decline of the “Big Three” short fiction magazines in SF/F (Asimov’s, Analog, F&SF) and the commensurate rise of a series of online short fiction publishing venues like Uncanny, Clarkesworld and Strange Horizons (among others). The Big Three ran on Silent, Boomer and Elder GenX writers, and the market forces for the genre those writers came up in was heavily cis and white and male. The newer venues, by inclination and necessity, cultivated younger generations of writers from more diverse backgrounds. When the Big Three declined and the online magazines rose, their respective stables of authors more or less rose or declined with them, in terms of award consideration.

The second thing to consider is who is buying science fiction and fantasy, both in the magazine and in the publishing houses. Surprise! The editorial stratum of SF/F/H is not the straight, white and (predominately but not exclusively) male enclave it was before; the editorial bench of SF/F/H publishing (and publishing generally) is much more queer and of color than it has been in years past. They are interested in publishing more than just the “usual suspects” in SF/F/H as defined by previous decades and — this is important — the diverse SF/F/H they are acquiring is selling very well. This will naturally have an impact on what is considered at awards time.

The third thing to consider with respect to the Hugos specifically is that close to a decade ago a group of right-wing fans and writers, alarmed by what they saw as left-wing, SJW, politically-correct, etc work creeping into the awards, decided to try to run slates of work to counter that trend. This did not go well, in no small part because their tactics energized a very large group of fandom to counter their actions, including a significant number of more progressive Hugo voters. When the “takeover” of the Hugos failed, most of these right-wing folks flounced from the Hugo voting pool; some of the more progressive voters stayed and continue to vote today. This is reflected in what gets nominated and thus, what eventually becomes a finalist.

4. It is true that many Hugo finalists have been finalists previously. This, however, is not a recent artifact of the award (or indeed, of awards in SF/F/H generally, or even of genre awards widely). A short glance at the finalist lists for the Hugos over their 60+ years of being run shows many authors/editors/fans with repeat appearances. Author Mike Resnick was on a Hugo finalist list 37 times in his career; Robert Silverberg 29; Connie Willis 24. Most Hugo finalists (this is an anecdotal observation) have their nomination cluster within a specific set of years, getting a bunch for a while and then making way (willingly or otherwise) to a new set of finalists. This sort of consideration largely replicates the arc of the creative popularity of most artists in any field; you have a certain time being “hot” (if you’re lucky), and then times change.

5. There’s a tendency to speak of Hugo voters monolithically, and it is true there is a core of fandom that associates with the Worldcon year after year (the overlap between this core, and the core of fandom that volunteers to run the Worldcon, is fairly high). However, this core is smaller than a lot of people think, and as for the rest of the voting pool, it can change significantly based on a number of factors. For example, this year, the Worldcon is in Chengdu, China, and thus a significant number of nominators were Chinese (this is borne out by the Chinese language nominations in the short fiction and fanzine/semi-prozine categories, and among the editorial slates). Next year it will be in Glasgow, Scotland, and the pool of potential nominators/voters will shift again.

Also, of course, anyone can nominate for the Hugos and vote for the finalists; all it takes is a supporting membership to that year’s Worldcon, which these days is going for around $50 — not a trivial amount, but not insurmountable, either. And indeed, every year there are a non-trivial number of first-time nominators and voters, and within the overall pool, loose groups with very different nominating/voting considerations. Again, not a monolith! And — trust me — very much not an organized cabal. Especially now, it’s difficult to think of a “typical” Hugo voter.

6. People like to suggest there are other things that go into nomination consideration than just the quality of a specific work, so let me be very clear about this: Sure, that’s totally a thing, nor is it confined to the Hugos. Other factors can include (but are not limited to) what and how much the nominators have read in the genre that year, their thoughts on the author as a human, their own personal preferences (for whatever reason) in the genre space, political/social interests and theories, how effective the marketing for that work was in getting the nominator’s attention, what they had for lunch that day, and how they are feeling about the world in general. If the world has been an abject shitshow recently, for example, you might see escapist work being nominated because people just wanted to get out of their own heads for a while. Something dense and philosophically knotty but possibly stuffy might get nominated because the nominators feel that after putting in the work, they want to get credit for it. And so on.

Even if they only considered the works as literature, however, you would still see finalists that you would be all “WTF?!?” about. Because taste is subjective! And what you think is trash, or slight, or overwrought, or impenetrable or whatever, could be someone else’s jam, and something they can’t wait to vote for, and something they could very cogently argue for and defend against your disdain. Work hardly ever gets nominated for a Hugo because the people who nominated it are stupid or foolish or lazy, or are part of a cabal (that event a few years ago notwithstanding). It gets nominated because someone likes it enough to think it should get an award. You can disagree! And maybe nominate next time.

— JS

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