We’re still about six months out from the release of The Kaiju Preservation Society, but that doesn’t mean reviewers haven’t been getting their hands on it already — and loving it. I’m delighted to announce that Booklist has given Kaiju a coveted starred review, flagging it as being a book of particular note. The full review will be out in a couple of weeks (I’ll link to it when it goes up), but in the meantime I can say that it says the book is “wonderfully inventive” and that “this is Scalzi having a lot of fun.” And it’s true. I did have a lot of fun with this book. I hope you will have the same amount of fun — maybe more! — when you read it.
Remember also that you can pre-order Kaiju now so that when March 15 rolls around, you can start reading right away. Your local bookstore will almost certainly be happy to take your pre-order, as will any of the major online book retailers. Don’t wait! I mean, you can wait if you really want to. It’s fine. But if you don’t want to wait, then pre-ordering is the way to go.
More Kaiju news when it happens. Stay tuned!
This branch from a dead tree fell into the yard today, and Charlie was very very very excited, because there are very few things in the world she likes more than a really big stick. Sadly for her, it was a little too unwieldy for her to pick up and trot around with. I broke it into manageable pieces, tossed one over to her for her recreation, and took the rest to the fire pit in the back yard for future bonfires. Even so, for a brief shining moment, Charlie had the biggest stick ever. It was a good day.
For today’s Big Idea, Boston University history professor Charles Dellheim delves into Nazi stolen art — and from whom it was stolen — as an introduction to his book Belonging and Betrayal: How Jews Made the Art World Modern.
After more than two decades of intensive scrutiny, it would stand to reason that the resurgence of concern with the fate of Nazi stolen art would fade. Nothing of the sort has happened, however. Family ties, Jewish pride, love of art, and material interests all come into play in battles to regain, or retain, disputed works. Nearly eight decades after the end of the Second World War, we continue to struggle with the tension between remembrance and restitution, between honoring stolen lives and returning stolen art.
New cases and new controversies continue to surface. On September 2nd, an unusually controversial exhibit opened at Stadtmuseum Dusseldorf. “Deprived of Rights and Property, The Art Dealer Max Stern.” This title
politely omits the fact that its subject was Jewish. In 1929, Max Stern, who was trained as an art historian, entered the Galerie Stern. Founded by his father, Julius, an erstwhile textile manufacturer in 1913 in Dusseldorf, the Galerie Stern specialized in 19th century painting, including renderings of Europe’s royal courts, as well as in Old Masters.
Foregoing an academic career in favor of art dealing, Max Stern dreamed of opening new galleries in London and New York. When he took over from his father in 1934, this was out of the question. Already hard hit by the economic turmoil of the Depression that stalled, and threatened to sink, the art market, the very survival of the business (to say nothing of the family Stern) was in question. Banned by the Nazis from practicing his profession, Max Stern was forced to liquidate his collection. He had the good fortune to escape to Britain in 1938.
Even so, his travails were not over: He was interned as an “enemy alien” in Britain and then in Canada. Knocked down but not knocked out, Max Stern started over in Montreal and eventually flourished. He joined the Dominion Gallery, which under his direction became Canada’s finest. Max Stern and his wife Iris bequeathed the bulk of their assets to three academic institutions in Canada and Israel: McGill University, Concordia University and the Hebrew University.
This is only a bare sketch of a life and work, which more than merits an exhibit. Why, then, the controversy? Any such exhibit taking place in Germany inevitably raises explosive, unresolved issues about the memory and history of the Shoah. As a result, who is allowed, or not allowed, to tell Max Stern’s story, what they focus on and what they screen out, what motivates them and what they hope to accomplish, are fraught questions.
The immediate origins of the controversy go back to the end of 2017. Organized by curators in Canada and Germany, “Max Stern — From Dusseldorf to Montreal,” was slated to open in the Stadtmuseum Dusseldorf in February 2018 and then travel to Haifa before finally arriving, as its subject did, in Montreal. After three years of preparation, Dusseldorf city officials led by then Mayor Thomas Geisel abruptly announced that the show would not go on. This had nothing to do with lack of funding or enthusiasm. It had everything to do, as Mayor Geisel put it, with “current demands for information and restitution in German museums in connection with the Galerie Max Stern.”
Geisel’s limp bureaucratic statement appears to have ensured that the exhibit did not aid or abet claims for contested works of art. Geisel’s unbelievably inept about-face led to sharp slaps in the face from various parties, among them the local Dusseldorf Jewish Community, the World Jewish Congress and the German Culture Ministry. Consequently, Geisel reversed himself again and announced that an expanded Max Stern exhibit would take place in a revised “form” at a later date. This turned out, for various reasons, to be September 2, 2021. “Deprived of Rights and Property – Max Stern” also was deprived of the participation of the original group of Canadian and German curators, who refused to take part in the new exhibit.
The Max Stern exhibit is more likely to end up as a cautionary tale in a Harvard Business School case-study than in a new version of Profiles in Courage.
What this sorry saga demonstrates above all is the danger of choosing between remembrance and restitution. Honoring dead Jews who were victims of Nazi persecution “looks good,” particularly in Germany for obvious reasons. But honoring victims is no substitute for rectifying crimes. At the same time, the restitution of Nazi pillaged works of art, crucial as it may be, is no substitute for deepening our understanding of, and sympathy for, the Jewish dealers and collectors who loved and lost them.
In my new book, Belonging and Betrayal: How Jews Made the Art World Modern, I turn the story of Nazi stolen art on its head by showing how certain Jewish art dealers and collectors acquired so much great old and modern art in the first place, how these outsiders came to play a pivotal role in the art world, how they joined the ranks of the old masters’ new masters and, above all, became the modernists’ champions, and how their sudden prominence further antagonized antisemites and fueled a violent onslaught by Nazis, who denied their humanity by denying their ability to appreciate, and their right to own, beautiful works of art. I explore these themes in a narrative of the rise and fall of an extraordinary circle of individuals and families – dealers, collectors, and artists
I hope that readers will come away from Belonging and Betrayal with a deeper understanding of, and sympathy for, the fortunes and misfortunes of the people that I write about. But this should not be the end of the story. Remembrance without restitution is futile; restitution without remembrance is hollow. Recapturing stolen paintings cannot redeem lost time, let alone restore stolen lives. But for Max Stern, as for other Jewish victims of the Nazis, it should be a spur to rather than a substitute for scrupulous consideration of claims to Nazi stolen art.
This is a song from “Deathloop,” the video game that’s caused me immense frustration recently by being awesome and yet not wanting to play nice with my computer. That said, this song is the bomb and has been running through my head for a solid week at this point. The video title calls it “City Lights” but the composer (Erich Talaba) has titled it “Ode to Somewhere,” and I figure he probably knows. Enjoy.
Over on the University of Chicago Class of 1991 Facebook page, one of my classmates asked if any of us could remember what essay questions the College asked of us when we were applying (there were several and you got to choose). As it happens, not only do I remember the essay question, I also — perhaps not surprisingly for me — still have the essay that I wrote about it.
The question was, paraphrasing, “Name a piece of art that profoundly affected you and explain why it did.” Below is the essay I wrote. Note: to best provide you an accurate glimpse of my 17-year-old brain, I have resisted copyediting the piece, so it contains all the tense mismatches and other copy/grammar errors present at the time. Also, I’ve appended at performance of the piece of art in question so you can have that as context. Please be aware it is not my high school choral class singing it.
My College Essay:
It is not very difficult for me to pinpoint the one work of art that I feel has affected me the most. It is a composition by Felix Mendelssohn, the title of which I am not entirely sure. The opening lines were “Jauchzet dem Herrn, alle Welt” and I believe that is also the title. While it is easy for me to say which work of art has affected me, it is a little harder for me to explain exactly why.
I have never been conventionally religious. Although I was baptized Lutheran, I have never to my knowledge attended a Lutheran service. As it is, I have not been voluntarily inside of church for the purpose of worship since I have been able to make decisions for myself. This is not to say that I think religion is not a good thing. It is just that because I was never registered in a religious atmosphere at home. I did not feel the need for it in other parts of my life. Actually, I feel this lack of bonding to a religion has been a helpful thing for me. I like to thank that it has allowed me to be more objective in my own personal pursuit of what I feel is the truth. It has also allowed me to enjoy what I’m doing with whomever I’m with, without worrying about repercussions in another world. This may or may not be a good thing.
So when I was presented in my singing class last year with this medicine piece, I really thought nothing of it besides noting that it was in German that it was a piece praising God. And to me it was just another piece of music to sing.
It didn’t remain that way for long.
Why? Two reasons. First singing in German is no small feat. I am presently taking German as a class, and one of the things that has been noted about me in the class is the way I can take an innocent German word, and twist it through my hideous pronunciation into a seething mess of verbal slag. My attempt at singing German was for a time an exercise in language mutilation.
Second, I was, along with the rest of my vocal section, having a bit of trouble hitting some of the high notes in the piece. One of the reasons I found out later was the fact that I was singing tenor when I am actually a bass. I did not know this at the time and was therefore at a loss to explain my inability to hit those notes. It got to a point where my choral director had decided that she would just have a certain few members sing the section that contained all the inaccessible high notes and I was certain I wasn’t going to be one of them.
This annoyed me. Not only because I didn’t like the fact that here was something I couldn’t immediately do, but because that part I that I would be excised from was my favorite part in the whole piece.
I sat down to work. I stretched my voice until I thought my vocal cords would snap. I worked on my pronunciation until I could recognize words intelligently. I sang loudly and even if I couldn’t comprehend the words I was singing or the meanings behind them, the least I could do was make it look like I was having a swell time anyway. I did all of this and it worked. I was allowed to sing the whole piece when we performed our choral concert.
Now, being able to sing this piece at this point meant simply that I had overcome the obstacles that had stopped me before. It wasn’t that I wanted to sing the song because of the song itself, other than I like the tune and I thought it sounded good when the whole choral group sang it together. We had had the words explained to us at one point by our German teacher. I wasn’t terribly impressed. There was one line in the song that translates into “we are sheep in his pasture.” I didn’t usually compare myself with a sheep and when I do I usually come out favorably.
So as a piece of religious and personal expression, I wasn’t interested in it. I must truthfully say, then, that I was surprised when as we sang this piece during our coil program the most wonderful feeling came over me. And I must say it wasn’t just me; when I looked at one point at the rest of the choal group. I remember the thinking that I had never seen a happier group of people. And it wasn’t just happy. It was joyful.
This feeling continued through the piece, climaxing for me at this section with all the high notes. Usually, I worried about hitting those notes, but when I sang them, they were right there, right where they should be, and I didn’t have to strain, or worry or anything. They were there, and I sang them, and everyone sang them with me, and I can honestly say I don’t remember a time when I have felt more content.
In the movie Chariots of Fire there is this scene in which Olympic runner Eric Liddell is talking to his sister in the Scottish Highlands. Eric’s sister is worried about her brother’s ambitions in the Olympics interfering with his plan to go to China and become a missionary.
Eric soothes his sister by telling her that God had made him for a purpose: China. “But He also made me fast,” he says, “and when I run I can feel his pleasure in me. Not to run would be to dishonor him.”
I think that when I sang that song, I felt His or Her or Its pleasure in me. Not in me personally, although I like to think that has something to do with it, but His pleasure going to me, through me, and out of me. The hard part about this is explaining just what that feeling is like, but I have felt it before then, and I realized that I feel it when I am doing those things which are important to me: singing, acting, playing my drums, or writing, and most definitely when I am with my friends and we are laughing and having a good time.
I feel that when I’m doing these things, and I think it is because this is what God, for lack of a better term, wants me to do. The ultimate aim of my life is eventually to make the world better place than it was when I came in, and when I do those things through which I intend to do that, I can feel His pleasure just as I can feel my own.
I’m still not conventionally religious. I do not go to church and I do not pray or ask for guidance. I do worship, however in my own way. The important thing about the Mendelssohn song was that it showed me how.
This is the first time I’ve ever seen these things, although a quick visit to Google suggests they arrive seasonally and have done for the last couple of years. In this particular case, despite the Cheetos name, there is no cheese flavor; instead the vaguely buttery extruded corn in vaguely skeletal shapes is dusted with cinnamon and sugar. It would remind you of a churro if your only contact with churros was the churro cereal that’s now available. These things are terrible, and also, I can’t stop eating them, which makes them an almost perfect exemplar of “junk food.” Would probably not buy again, but if I did I would consume the whole bag by myself in about five minutes flat. You have been warned.
We remember our own lives, mostly… but what if we had access to memories beyond our own lives, and not just in the form known as “books” and “recorded media”? J.D. Moyer offers a vision of how that might work in The Last Crucible, and also touches on writing about memory in such memorable times.
The Last Crucible’s big idea is the Crucible technology, an artificial parasite that has survived the fall of Earth-based civilization into the 28th century. The Crucible integrates with its host’s nervous system, slowly emulating and enhancing consciousness via a quantum supercomputer. When the Crucible passes to the next host, the simulated mind of all previous hosts survives.
The first two books of the Reclaimed Earth series explored how the Crucible technology could go wrong, but in The Last Crucible, the technology works as intended, creating a powerful community of minds that operates more-or-less harmoniously. When Jana accepts the Crucible into her own body, she also takes on the responsibility of protecting her village, which has survived the centuries only because of the vast knowledge and experience carried on through the Crucible hosts.
The Crucible allows a kind of immortality, but at a price: the hosts must share a physical body, and negotiate who gets to control that somatic form. Jana allows her previous hosts to perceive through her physical senses, thus losing any semblance of privacy (and subjecting herself to ceaseless advice and commentary). But she gains access to knowledge and experience stretching back centuries, including a host who personally witnessed the environmental havoc that ushered in the fall of civilization and the construction of the ringstations that still orbit the Earth.
I wrote The Last Crucible in 2020, a year of historical events so outrageous that I wouldn’t have believed them had they been described to me five years earlier. A real-estate conman in debt to the Russians as president (with a very good chance of four more years — or more), the KGB’s ideological subversion plan to destabilize the United Status coming to fruition, a global pandemic, the global rise of neofascism, religious extremists and conspiracy kooks gaining real political power within the US government, catastrophic wildfires and flooding; it was as if every dystopian novel ever written was manifesting in reality, simultaneously: 1984, Brave New World, The Handmaid’s Tale, Parable of the Sower, Fahrenheit 451, and Kim Stanley Robinson’s cli-fi series, but all at once in a jumbled mess, straining credulity.
And yet everything (pandemics, fascism, religious extremism, climate disruption) has happened before, in one way or another, and humanity has found a way through. Not unscathed, not whole, but still evolving and developing. That was the thread of optimism I clung to while writing this book, that wisdom and the close examination of past experience might ultimately guide us to a better, saner, more compassionate future. Jana’s communal mind, her consorteria of past hosts, provides her with this wisdom, even though the Crucible extracts its price.
Anyone who is paying attention knows that human life in the 22nd century will not be “business as usual.” Fascism and religious extremism are both symptoms of false nostalgia, a longing for an idyllic past that never was. The way of life considered culturally and economically “normal” for centuries (externalizing environmental costs, treating finite natural resources as infinite, economic exploitation of non-whites and labor in general, male control of female bodies, systematic/industrial cruelty to animals) has led us to climate chaos, worker revolt, endless war, and renewed demands for equity. Change is the only option.
Our neighbor Bob texted Krissy and told her to tell me to get out my fancy camera because something big was about to come down the road. He was right; about twenty minutes later, and preceded by the Ohio Highway Patrol blocking off the road and providing an honor guard, this big damn truck rumbled down the pavement, carrying… well, I think it’s probably part of a wind turbine, but honestly I don’t know.
Why our road? Probably because it’s rural and there’s not a huge amount of traffic, so shutting it down won’t inconvenience too many people, and because from where the road connects to the main street of Bradford, about a half mile down, the road is one long straight shot west all the way to the Indiana state line. Which is good because I can tell you, watching this thing turn onto our road for ten minutes, this rig is not exactly good on curves.
And that’s our excitement today! Welcome to rural America, folks. You never know what’s going to happen next.
Fantasy and science fiction are often considered two sides of the same coin, but Jason Sanford has another theory about both, and in today’s Big Idea, he shares that hypothesis with you, and why it’s important for his novel Plague Birds.
Is fantasy the end result of all science fiction?
I’m not talking about the marketing categories separating those two genres, both of which I deeply love. Instead, I’m talking about how people approach our world’s advanced technologies even as these technologies change who we are as humans. I’m talking about the anti-science attitudes that are spreading across our world using the very tools resulting from our understanding of science.
It is impossible to separate humanity from our tools and technology. Our species has been shaped by our tools for countless generations. Fire, stone tools, agriculture, written and printed language, metal smithing — these are merely a few of the tools and technologies that altered humanity to massive degrees. And some of these tools were used by humans for incredibly long periods of time. For example, various species of humans used Acheulean stone hand tools with relatively few changes for well over a million years.
And just as these earlier technologies helped shape who we are as humans, today’s technologies will do the same.
I’ve long been fascinated by Arthur C. Clarke’s third law, which says that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” While Clarke’s law is frequently used to discuss possible futuristic technologies such as the teleporters of Star Trek fame, the law actually has greater relevance in how we approach the impact of current technologies on our lives.
I fear we’ve reached a point in our history where technologies have outpaced humanity’s desire to understand them. Many people in our world don’t seem to understand or care about the science behind how the touch screen on their smartphones works, how blockchain technology enables bitcoins, or how algorithms decide what they see on social media. Yet these are merely three of a number of technologies that are now reshaping our lives.
All of these technologies started out as science fiction, but they may as well be fantasy — may as well be magic per Clarke’s third law — based on how many people today approach them. If the technologies powering our modern world were actually based on magic instead of science, I suspect far too many people wouldn’t care as long as their cell phones and other gizmos worked.
This returns me to my thought experiment that perhaps fantasy is the end result of all science fiction. By this I mean that even though people accept the advanced technologies and tools reshaping our world, they approach these technologies as if they were some type of magic instead of actual science. As if the science behind these technologies is merely opinion, or wrong belief, or fake news that can be argued against.
This results in two problems for humanity. One, it makes it more difficult for people to understand how new and emerging technologies might deeply change our societies and lives. Second, this lack of understanding also appears to be spawning an anti-science attitude around the world, a belief that it doesn’t matter how science actually works or what the results presented in scientific studies actually say. That the science behind our modern world can be ignored or discarded if you simply disagree with it.
You see this attitude in how many people are refusing to get the life-saving COVID vaccines because they don’t trust the science behind them (even though they also believe an unproven horse dewormer is an effective treatment). All of this is happening despite humans knowing about and practicing forms of vaccination for centuries and the science around vaccines being extremely solid and relatively easy to understand.
You also see this anti-science attitude in how the severe threat of global warming is ignored or discounted by far too many people, merely because what needs to be done to save our planet may not be politically expedient to them.
In my writings I’ve continually explored the conflict presented when people are surrounded by advanced technologies yet don’t attempt to truly understand them. This is also the big idea around my novel Plague Birds, which is set in a science fiction world where artificial intelligence and genetic manipulation are not understood by most people even as that world’s societies resulted from those very technologies.
While Plague Birds is science fiction, it reads like fantasy and is weird and dark because I fear that’s the future we’re rushing toward.
I don’t know what the answer is to people not understanding the technologies reshaping our lives. Obviously education is part of it, especially science education. But I’ve also seen engineers and physicians and other highly educated people who fail to understand the technologies around us, or who practice science with one hand and discount it with the other. After all, just because you understand one aspect of something doesn’t mean you understand everything.
Perhaps there is no single answer. Perhaps all we can do is try to be humble. To accept that none of us understands everything. To listen to others but also remember the vital difference between sharing opinions and facts. To remember that just because we can do something doesn’t mean we should.
And most importantly, we need to always remember that the science behind the technologies shaping our lives doesn’t care if we fail to understand it. But we may end up caring a lot about what our lack of understanding science eventually does to both humanity and our world.
Today’s the first day of autumn here, and the weather is rainy and gloomy, and temperatures have dropped by more than 25 degrees from yesterday, and yet the crabapple tree right off from our front porch decided to send out a few optimistic blossoms this morning. These blossoms are even more errant than you might expect because the tree they’re on is now largely dead; it effectively passed on this spring, simply a victim of time, and we’ve made arrangements for it to be removed and replaced. So not only are these the last blossoms this tree will offer this year, but the last blossoms it will ever have. It was a good and lovely tree and I want to honor its last efforts at beauty and renewal, and share them with you. Here they are.
Interesting video from the Kurzgesagt folks about whether individual action can make a difference on the climate change front. The short answer is no (no matter how much you as an individual work to decarbonize your personal life, it’s literally a fraction of a drop in the bucket in terms what the total change required would be), and the longer answer is yes (vote out politicians who do not prioritize climate change issues; collective economic and social action will eventually tip the scale).
Of course no one likes it when “No, but also yes” is the answer. But it’s in line with everything I know, and it’s a reminder that the focus for climate change is less on what one does in one’s own individual life, and rather more on what’s to be done to haul the major companies and corporations and economic sectors which account for the vast majority of negative climate change activity into line. More bluntly, it’s less about you and more about Shell and Delta and Tyson Foods and so on, no matter how much they try to put all the responsibility back on you.
I think about this a lot. I live a high carbon life, as it were, and have in the last several years tried to do the work to offset my own footprint by doing the usual things like cutting back on meat and/or buying locally raised meat and produce to lower transport carbon, by making sure our next car is electric, buying carbon offsets for my air and other travel, keeping track of and supporting sustainable initiatives, etc. And obviously I also vote and invest with an eye toward climate policy and initiatives. I do it with full awareness that on an individual level, any personal change will shift things only microscopically here and now, but also with the awareness that a) if I don’t do it today, who will, b) this is all for the long-term. Also, you know. It cuts down my personal hypocrisy load a bit, which is never a bad thing. And also, if we can’t get oil and agriculture and construction and technology and other industrial sectors to massively overhaul, my carbon offsets and local produce will mean diddly.
I’m optimistic that we will move ourselves in the right direction for all of this, but I also know enough about our current and political systems to understand we’re not going to move near fast enough and that the rest of my life, at least, will be spent watching the world be pound foolish for not having been penny wise when it could have. This is pretty much baked in at this point, pun intended. What we’re doing now is finding out how much we’ll mitigate the change that is already here. I’m doing my part, and you should, too. But there’s a whole lot more to it than that.
There are emotions we all experience, because we experience other emotions first. In the Big Idea for Under the Whispering Door, author TJ Klune talks about one of those follow-up emotions, and why it’s so important for the novel.
Under the Whispering Door is, at its heart, a book about the power of grief. No two people experience grief the same way. Whether it be because of our beliefs or the circumstances surrounding why we’re grieving, it’s a unique experience that varies from person to person.
And yet, there is still something universal about it. The loss of a loved one, the loss of an opportunity, the loss of a pet or a life not quite lived the way we wanted, we’ve all been through some form of grief. After all, if you live long enough to learn what love is, chances are you’ll know grief too. If you’re reading this, you’ve probably grieved over someone or something. It’s inevitable.
I think a lot about what might happen to us when we close our eyes for the last time. It’s not because I have an unhealthy fascination with the idea of death, but more because it’s one of the great unknowns, a mystery with no firm answers. No one really knows what happens, at least no one living. Is there something more beyond this life? Is there a Heaven? A Hell? Somewhere in between? Are we judged over every little action we made, the good weighed against the bad? Do people who lived in service of others get a better deal than those who didn’t? Or is there nothing at all? Is this the only chance we get to do anything, and once done, there’s nothing else?
I don’t have these answers. At best, I’m a lazy agnostic, but I think I consider myself that because it’s easier than to believe in one thing specifically, only to be proven wrong. I’m not knocking anyone’s beliefs, whether personal or those found through religion, but I often find myself questioning what comes next, and what it all means. I’d like to believe that we continue on, somehow, and that there’s more that awaits us than we can know in life, but I can’t ever really bring myself to commit to it. My faith is filled with questions that I don’t know how to answer.
But I do know grief. I know the power it has to eat away at you until there’s nothing left but an empty husk. Denial: thinking that this can’t be happening, this isn’t real. Anger: the ranting and raving about the unfairness of it all. Bargaining: I’ll change, I swear I’ll change, we can fix this, I’ll be better, I’ll do better. Depression: that old black dog that bites down and chews you up until you’re in shreds. Acceptance: a ludicrous thing that we must get to because it might mean there’s a light at the end of the tunnel.
So many stages of grief, and there’s even more than I’ve listed here. These steps aren’t something everyone goes through, and even if they do, it doesn’t mean there’s a specific order. I’ve bounced from acceptance back to denial at the drop of a hat. I’ve stayed in anger for so long, it becomes all I know. I’ve bargained, making dramatic proclamations that if I get what I want, I’ll do whatever it takes to show that I’ve earned it. Depression? Hell yes. I know that one probably better than all the others, like I’m in quicksand and no matter what I do to try and escape, it only makes me sink further.
I lost my father when I was five. My uncle that same day. My grandfather, my grandmother. Friends, family, pets. A partner taken far too soon, leaving behind a ragged hole where he should be, making me laugh and calling me out for my bullshit. I’ve lost people, good people who didn’t deserve to go when they did. I’m not unique in that regard. Everyone has lost someone. Again, grief is different for everyone, but I think we all wonder what we would do if we had more time. What would we say? What would we ask? What would we do if we had one more day, one more hour, one more minute? Would we hold on just a little bit tighter? Would we say everything we’d kept secret?
I don’t know. It feels like a mantra, that: I don’t know. I don’t know what happens next. I don’t know what I’d do if I had just one more moment with those I’ve lost. I don’t know what I’ll do when it becomes my turn to find out. Will I be brave? Perhaps. Will I be scared? Oh, yes, I think I will be. But I’ll have the answers, then. I’ll know.
Under the Whispering Door was never meant to answer the question of what comes next for us after we die. I wrote this book because I was still wrestling with my own grief, and when I’m lost in such a way, I do the only thing I know how to: I write. And through this story, I found a measure of peace. I found my catharsis, and when I finished, I knew I’d done what I set out to do: I found a reason to believe, to have hope, even if I still don’t know what comes after this life.
There are still days when I’m angry, still days when I’m bargaining or caught in a web of depression. But acceptance comes easier now, and even though I wish things could be different, I can’t do anything to change the past. Even if this is all there is, I want to try and leave this world a little better than it was when I came into it. It’s the least I could do for being able to love as I have, even with all I’ve lost.
And maybe that’s the point. To try. To live and love and grieve, but to still try. What more could anyone ask of us?
Read an excerpt (click the “Read Excerpt” link on the page). Visit the author’s site. Follow him on Twitter.
Tomorrow’s the first day of Autumn up here in the northern hemisphere, and while the persistent cloud cover here in Bradford suggests I will not be able to get a shot of tonight’s sunset to bid the season farewell, I can offer this version of “The Boys of Summer” by Bree Sharp. Enjoy, and welcome, fall.
(is passed note)
Oh, wait, that should be, is definitely clowning around. Well, sort of.
Look, he’s here to explain it all, I’ll just let him do it, okay?
I’m loathe these days to try and give the “big idea” for my books, as all my elevator pitches sound like parodies of proper ones. A Man Lies Dreaming? “Adolf Hitler as a Private Eye”. Central Station? “A science fiction novel where nothing happens”. By Force Alone? “The Matter of Britain as a gangster saga” (OK, that one at least sounded more commercial, I just forgot to mention the Jewish kung-fu and the aliens when I pitched it).
There is something very appealing to me about the inverse-pitch. The absurdity of concepts put together that should never, in truth, be put together can lead to a sort of new illumination, even profundity. Or it can slip on a banana skin and fall head first into a custard pie, of course.
So for The Escapement, I blithely went around telling everyone I was writing a “clown western”. What I didn’t take into account – simply because it never occurred to me! – was that people in publishing really, and I mean really, hate clowns. It turns out it’s not just people in publishing, either. So I would watch publishers edge away and run from the table at what was, after all, yet another ridiculous elevator pitch. You know, the ones that really shouldn’t work.
It becomes a running theme in the book, of course. This hatred of clowns. Their alienation. That uncanny valley. “I cut and I cut, trying to find the answer,” says Professor Federico The Magnificentearly on to the Stranger and Temperanza, standing over the dissected corpse of a Whiteface. “Why aren’t they funny!”
Alone of all the people on the Escapement, it is only the Stranger who has a strange love of clowns. That love might come from the ambiguity of what the Escapement actually is. Is it a secondary world, filled with god-like forces, circuses and bounty hunters, train robbers and clowns? Or is it a projection, an imaginary construct created by a nameless man as he sits by his dying son’s hospital bed?
Perhaps it’s both. I wanted to write a very simple book for once. A linear adventure story. A fantasy without The War on Terror (Osama) or the Holocaust (A Man Lies Dreaming) or Israel and Palestine (Unholy Land). I wanted to write about train robberies and murderous magicians (in the stage performance meaning of the word), of people hanging for dear life from a clock tower like Buster Keaton, of buried clocks still ticking life and of train engines powered by ghosts. Instead I wrote a fairytale about a father searching for a flower to cure his son’s illness. The heart of the Escapement is in that doomed quest. It grew in the telling (as old Professor Tolkien once said) and it became its own thing. So…
Somewhere there’s a place where clowns roam the land and toy trains run along toy tracks across vast distances. It is a place anyone can visit but few do. It is full of hidden dangers, a place where a chthonic bomb could turn the people of a city into pink flamingoes, a place where giant statues roam and circus people flourish. Somewhere out there the Stranger rides in search of the Ur-Shanabi, the Flower of Heartbeat rumoured to grow beyond the Mountains of Darkness. But the road is long, and directions often change on the Escapement. He has been searching for a long time… And somewhere else a father sits by a hospital bed, where a boy with a clown doll clasped in his hands lies hooked up to machines, and the clock on the wall ticks relentlessly.
Welcome to the Escapement, Stranger.
And when the rainy day is a Monday? Well, forget it. He’s just gonna nap through the whole darn thing!
Also, for those of you born after, oh, 1971, who might not get the reference:
There, now you’re all caught up. Hope your Monday was a good one, rainy or not.
Bethesda and Arkane have made some of my favorite video games in recent years, most notably the Dishonored series, which had a delightful balance of worldbuilding and the ability to magically hoist bad guys into the air, all the better to stab them in the neck. When they announced Deathloop, which promised all the stabby joy of Dishonored with a nifty retro sci-fi aesthetic and a wild time-loop mechanic, I was all in. Now that I’ve dived in for about twelve hours worth of gameplay on my PC, I can absolutely say that as a game, it lives up to its advertising and is a whole lot of fun to play. Also, there’s no way you should buy it right now, because getting it to run on a PC is a huge fucking nightmare.
I noted this yesterday on Twitter:
This is not an exaggeration. When I open up the game on Steam, it’ll get to the opening splash screen and then close, throwing up a huge dialog box of crash data. So I open it up again, and then again, and then again, and then again, and eventually if I open it up enough, it’ll work and I can play. Why does it work on the fifth or eighth or eleventh try? Got me. My PC, although not new, is not meagerly specced; it fits the game’s minimum system requirements with some headroom. So that’s not the issue. It’s just temperamental, and when I say temperamental, I mean I’ve discovered that Deathloop has a better chance of opening and being playable if, while I’m firing up the game, I also have Chrome open and am actively scrolling through a Web page. Why? Who the hell knows? I don’t and I imagine neither Bethesda nor Arkane knows, either.
Which, you know, is a problem. I shouldn’t have to rely on janky heuristics and finger-crossing to get a multimillion-dollar, AAA major studio game to open on a computer that fits the game’s minimum specs, and neither should anyone else. Some people are pointing fingers at the game’s DRM system, while others are noting it plays poorly with modern graphics cards, or whatever. At the end of the day, however, a new game should be able to be played out of the (these days virtual) box, or at the very least have a reasonable explanation for why it cannot.
When the game can be played, it’s pretty terrific. As a character named Colt, you wander about a time-looped island trying to figure out how you got there and why another character named Julianna is going out of her way to kill you. Along the way you discover that in order to break the time loop, you have to kill eight “visionaries” (think: level bosses), and you unlock various quasi-magical skills to do it as you go along. The gameplay is fun, the story is compelling, and it’s fun murdering a whole bunch of temporally-locked jerks who are trying to kill you. When it works, it’s probably my favorite game of 2021.
But it doesn’t work enough, and when it does work, it runs the risk of suddenly not working anymore (the latest crash involved the game telling me to “infuse” a weapon I didn’t have, and didn’t give me a way out of the screen it had put up to have me do it, and when I tried to alt-crtl-del my way out, it shut down). Given all the reports on the Internet about Deathloop, I know I am far from the only one having problems with the game on PC (I understand the PS5 version has its own problems as well). The excellent game experience is deeply and terminally compromised by the overall user experience.
Which is why I say: Deathloop on PC is awesome, and I absolutely cannot recommend it. This game needs to be patched waaaay the fuck out before I can suggest that anyone else spend $60+ dollars on it.
Further, game studios should not ship games that don’t work. I bought Deathloop on day one, because as a video game player, Bethesda and Arkane earned some credit for their previous terrific games. But here on out, I’ll be waiting a month or two (at least) before buying any game of theirs on PC, because they can’t be trusted to make a game that runs on day one. That’s bad news for both, since a game that’s not bought on day one has a much better chance of being a game that’s not bought at all. But them’s the breaks, when you ship a broken game.
Sometimes, the killer hook for a thriller isn’t a plot point, or even the first line of the novel, but something else… something that comes even before that. Lee Matthew Goldberg explains in this Big Idea for his latest story, The Stalker Stalked.
LEE MATTHEW GOLDBERG:
The first germ of a Big Idea I had for my novel Stalker Stalked was the title. After writing eight books, none of them summed up the plot so succinctly: What if a stalker finds herself stalked as well?
My last novel The Ancestor had recently come out, a historical thriller about a man who wakes up in the wilderness with amnesia, believing he was frozen in time from the Gold Rush era. It required a lot of research, since a good chunk takes place in the late 1800s. I’d also written it after my father passed away and death really permeates throughout the book. So, coming off that, I needed to write something lighter. I’ve penned Sci-fi and YA too, but I’m most at home writing thrillers, and luckily, the title just popped into my mind.
From there, the novel began to form. My stalker Lexi would be obsessed with reality TV and fixate on the star of a horrible show called Socialites about six rich frenemies navigating the NYC socialite scene, everything Lexi aspires to be. She’s a pharma rep, hawking drugs to doctors, and addicted to Monolopins, little blue pills which she refers to as her “my blue heavens”. After her boyfriend breaks up with her, Lexi’s splits from her own reality: hallucinating and imagining herself as one of the Socialites, with the star Magnolia Artois as her best friend.
But while she’s stalking Magnolia, Lexi begins to see a shadow of a person outside her window, following her on the train, staring at her from across the club. Is it the “my blue heavens” causing these visions, or is someone after her for nefarious reasons? One of her exes, a doctor who knows she’s stolen pills, her best friend Pria, a detective investigating her case, or maybe, Magnolia herself turning the tables? If Lexi wants to survive, she needs to use her own stalking prowess to overcome her pursuer.
After heavy research for The Ancestor, the research for Stalker Stalked was very different. I watched a lot of really terrible reality TV. I wanted to get in the headspace of the self-absorbed people who are on these shows, but also those addicted to them. On TV, a heightened reality is created that’s not entirely fake, but played up for the cameras, all with the notion of keeping eyeballs glued and sponsors happy.
With social media these days, anyone is accessible in some form. It’s how Lexi stalks Magnolia, and how she becomes stalked as well. We put up a shiny version of our lives on display, a sliver of our realities to gain likes and followers. For lonely Lexi, it becomes her means of interacting with the world. It’s something I struggle with as well. As an author, you’re meant to have a social media presence. I’ve had publishers ask how many followers I have to do promotion, and it never seems enough. Gone are the days of a J.D. Salinger or Thomas Pynchon who don’t need to promote their work. We’re required to feed this system now, but at what price?
For Lexi, the journey she goes on in Stalker Stalked is one of self love. How did her past shape her into the needy individual she became, and is there happiness waiting for her at the end? She wants to be noticed so much that she enjoys being stalked. It gives her a purpose, a never-ending cycle where she feels safe and loved. For her to move forward in life, she needs to break this cycle, turn off the TV, cancel her social media accounts, and fully unplug.
Sometimes that doesn’t sound like such a bad idea.
Our hibiscus plant nearly died because after keeping it in a heated garage all winter, we replanted it too early in the spring and it got snowed on, so the hibiscus flowers this year have been few and far between. It just makes me appreciate the ones we have gotten. Here’s today’s.