The Big Idea: Nat Segaloff

Jul. 20th, 2017 01:34 pm
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Posted by John Scalzi

When biographer and historian Nat Segaloff sat down to interview science fiction Grand Master Harlan Ellison for his new book A Lit Fuse, he knew that he was in for a challenge. What surprised him about the process was how much it wasn’t just about Ellison, but also about him.

NAT SEGALOFF:

How do you write something new about someone everybody thinks they already know? A writer who is famous for putting so much of his life into his stories that his fans feel that even his most bizarre work is autobiographical? That was the unspoken challenge in late 2013 when I agreed to write Harlan Ellison’s biography, an adventure that is just now seeing daylight with the publican of A Lit Fuse: The Provocative Life of Harlan Ellison.

I wrote the book because Harlan wouldn’t. He came close in 2008 when he announced he would write Working Without a Net for “a major publisher,” but he never did. Maybe he figured he’d said enough in his 1700 short stories, essays, and articles he’s published over the last 60 years. It wasn’t as if he was afraid of the truth; he always said he never lies about himself because that way nobody can hold anything against him. That was my challenge.

When we shook hands and I became his biographer, I also became the only person he ever gave permission to quote from his work and take a tour of his life. What I really wanted to do, though, was to explore his mind. What I didn’t expect was that, as I examined his creative process, I would also bare my own.

When you sit down with someone for a conversation, it’s fun; when you sit down with someone for an interview, it’s serious. Harlan has been interviewed countless times and he has always been in control. This time, I was. I had to get him to say stuff that was new, and I had to go beyond where others had stopped.

A Harlan Ellison interview is a performance. He will be quotable, precise, vague, and outrageous. He takes no prisoners. He will run and fetch a comic book, figurine, photograph, or book to illustrate a point, all of which breaks the mood. My job was to get him to sit still and not be “Harlan Ellison” but simply Harlan.

Harlan is one of the few speculative fiction writers (along with Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asimov, and a handful of others) who became public figures. Part of this stemmed from the quality of his work but much of it was created by his being, as I kept finding in the clippings, ““fractious,” “famously litigious,” and “argumentative.” Indeed, most of the stories I found during my research could be divided into two categories: “What a wild man Harlan is” and “I alone escaped to tell thee.”

Balderdash. What I discovered was a man who takes his craft seriously and fiercely defends others who labor in the field of words. An attack on them was an attack on him, and an attack on him was not to be deflected but returned in kind. “I don’t mind if you think I’m stupid,” he told one antagonist, “it’s just that I resent it when you talk to me as if I’m stupid.”

Even though I had final cut, I ran whole sections past him to get his reaction. He never flinched. In fact, he challenged me to go deeper. It was almost as if – and don’t take this the wrong way – I was Clarice Starling and he was Hannibal Lecter — the more I asked of Harlan, the more I had to give of myself. Both of us put our blood in the book even though I am the author.

—-

A Lit Fuse: Amazon|NESFA Press

 


Getting Lucky With College Costs

Jul. 19th, 2017 07:02 pm
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Posted by John Scalzi

The bill for Athena’s fall semester at Miami University arrived a couple of days ago, and we paid it, and I have some various thoughts about that I want to share.

When I went to college, 30 years ago now, I couldn’t pay for it. I did what the majority of people did then and do now — I cobbled together various sorts of funding from multiple sources. A scholarship here, a Pell grant there, a work study job and loans — and still it wasn’t quite enough when one of my funding sources fumbled the ball pretty badly and I had to ask my grandfather for help (which to be clear, he was happy to provide, with the only provision being that I would write him a letter a month, a request very much in my wheelhouse). I graduated with a fair amount of student debt, rather more than the average amount back in 1991, which was around $8,200. I think I was around 30 when we paid it off.

I don’t regret my college debt — I’m of the opinion that my education was worth what I paid for it and then some — but at the time I didn’t really like having the anxiety of wondering how it was all going to be paid for, and my education being contingent on outside financial forces, over which I had no control. I was lucky I was able to find ways to cover it all. I was also lucky that I got a good job right out of college (in 1991, during a recession), and was always financially solvent afterward. That college debt never became a drag or a worry, as it easily could have been, and which it did become for a number of my friends.

I don’t think scrambling for money or paying down college debt added anything beneficial to my life, however. As much as certain people might make a fetish of having to struggle in one way or another for one’s education, and that struggle having a value in itself, I’m not especially convinced that the current American manner of “struggle” — pricing college education at excessive rates and then requiring students and family to take on significant amounts of debt, effectively transferring decades of capital from the poor, working and middle classes to banks and their (generally wealthy) shareholders — is really such a great way to do that, especially since wages in general have stagnated over the last 40 years, the same period of time in which college tuition costs have skyrocketed, consistently above the rate of inflation. Worrying about college funding and paying off college debt isn’t character-building in any real sense. It’s opportunity cost, time wasted that might be productively spent doing something else educationally or financially beneficial.

So: I don’t regret my college debt, but I don’t think it was something that added value, either, to my education or my life. All things being equal, I suspect I would have been better off not having to worry whether I had enough funding for college any particular quarter, or being able to take the monthly post-collegiate debt payment and use it for something else, including investment. Not just me, of course; I don’t think anyone, students or parents (or colleges, for that matter), benefits from the current patchwork method of college funding, or the decade-long (or longer) hangover of college debt service.

We always assumed Athena would go to college; very early on we began saving and investing with the specific goal of funding her education. Along the way we caught the break of my writing career taking off, which meant the account intended for her education plumped out substantially. By the time it was the moment for Athena to decide where to go to college, we were in the fortunate position of being able to pay for it — all of it — wherever it was she decided to go. So, to go back to the initial paragraph, when that first Miami University bill came up, we were able to cut that check and send it off. No muss, no fuss. We’ll be able to do the same for the other college bills over the next four years.

Which is great for us! And not bad for Athena, who will end her college experience debt-free in a world where the average US student with college debt in 2016 was in the hole for $37,000, with that number only likely to go up from here. But let’s also look at everything that had to happen in order for us to get to that point: We saved early, which was smart of us, but we also had the wherewithal to save, which meant we got lucky that Krissy and I both had work, that in her case her gig included health insurance for all of us and that in my case I was in constant demand as a freelance writer, which, I assure you, is not always the case. We got lucky that the books took off as they did; the odds on that were not great. We were lucky that no one of us got seriously or chronically ill, or that other family crises depleted savings. Athena is an only child; that’s not necessarily lucky, but it definitely was a factor when it came to paying for college. We only have to do this once.

All of which is to say that Athena will be getting out of college debt-free partly because we planned early but mostly because of factors that we had only some control over, and over which she had almost none. She didn’t choose her parents or her circumstances; she got what she got. And in this case, she got lucky.

That’s fine for her. But it’s not a very useful strategy for paying for college. “Get lucky picking your parents” should not be the determining factor for whether you leave college debt-free, leave with tens of thousands of dollars of debt, or can’t afford to go to college at all. Every single one of those circumstances can have a substantial effect on how the rest of one’s economic life will go — and how the economic life of how one’s children will go. There’s a reason why in the United States, home of the “American Dream,” it’s actually pretty difficult to move up the social ladder. Yes, I did it, but I also don’t pretend I didn’t get lucky — a lot — or that my path is easily repeatable. Take it from someone who is living the American Dream: It stays only a dream for most of those dreaming of it.

I’m proud that we can pay for our daughter’s college education. I’m also well aware how many things had to break our way to be at this point, which just as easily could have gone another way. It would be better to live in a world where luck, one way or another, is not a salient, determinative factor for whether one can afford college, or whether one can graduate from college without debt. In fact, that world does exist; just not here in the US. College tuition in most developed countries is substantially less than it is here, including being basically free in places like Germany and France. We could do that here, for state schools at least, if we decided we wanted to.

But we don’t. I know we have our reasons. I just don’t think those reasons are very good.


The Big Idea: Cassandra Khaw

Jul. 19th, 2017 12:37 pm
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Posted by John Scalzi

Identity issues can sometimes be a bear, as the protagonist of Bearly a Lady finds out — in no small part because author Cassandra Khaw experienced something similar in her real life.

CASSANDRA KHAW:

The first time I came out as bisexual to a partner, it was a mess. What was a passably tolerable relationship became a wasteland of conspiratorial winks, elbow nudges, and endless attempts to convince me to have a threesome with someone, anyone, just pick an attractive person of the same gender.

Thing is, I don’t blame him.

Bisexual representation in media is a fraught topic. More often than not, bisexual people are characterized as wild, promiscuous individuals with thrilling sex lives, perpetually ready to jump into bed with whomever they find attractive. (Not necessarily untrue or even wrong, but that’s a conversation for another space.) Consequently, we end up with people like my ex, who begin quivering with lascivious curiosity the moment they so much as hear the hum of that first syllable.

But we are getting better at it. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend has one of my favorite bisexual characters of all times: Darryl Whitefeather, a middle-aged divorcee who comes out mid-season and proceeds to have a stunningly healthy relationship with his new boyfriend. (That show has its problems, but I will forever love the writers for making sure the queer couple is the happy one.) And genre writing is even further ahead in that department. Take Kai Ashante Wilson’s work, for example, which remarks on polyamorous queer relationships without even the barest breath of hesitation. After all, in a world of dragons and technical-minded gods, what is there to fear about a man who loves a man and also a woman?

I’m digressing.

With Bearly a Lady, I’m hoping to build on that canon. Zelda McCartney is a complicated character, for all that she might sometimes appear like an airhead. She’s been out for a long time; this isn’t a self-discovery story. Instead, the book, which goes into some dark places between the lines, interrogates the idea of expectations, labels, and toxic relationships.

And that is because she is a werebear in a human world, a woman endlessly bombarded by external forces, all looking to chip at her self-esteem for the sake of a quick buck or someone else’s emotional fulfillment. It’s no surprise that Zelda has only half an idea as to which box she belongs. Honestly, a lot of people don’t figure that out. Especially those raised outside of liberal communities.

I’d know. For the longest time, that was me.

(Except for the werebear part.)

So, that’s one of the Big Ideas behind Bearly a Lady. I wanted my main character to be full of internal conflict, certain in her identity but uncertain of the words that one might use to define oneself. A mess of paradoxes and imperfections glued together by bad sitcoms and ice-cream. I’m hoping that, one day, Bearly a Lady might be part of some bisexual teenager’s library, another piece in the puzzle as they figure out who they are. Maybe, Zelda will be an example of who they hope not to be. Maybe, they’ll see a bit of themselves in her. Who knows? That’s not up to me.

Bearly a Lady might be a queer paranormal rom-com with werebears, vampires, and billionaire fairies galore, but it’s also a look into the life of a queer woman who doesn’t always get it straight.

—-

Bearly a Lady: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Kobo

Read an excerpt online. Visit the authors site. Follow her on Twitter.


Making Hay While the Sun Shines

Jul. 18th, 2017 07:15 pm
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Posted by John Scalzi

It’s not just an old proverb. It’s literally happening across the street from where I live.

And yes, I like it that I write about high-tech futures from a place where it’s not at all unusual to see a Mennonite woman bundling hay using a tractor that’s probably as old as I am, and that the hay will probably go to feed the horses that pull the Amish buggies around here. Welcome to rural Ohio, y’all. We have juxtapositions.


The Big Idea: Michael F. Haspil

Jul. 18th, 2017 02:18 pm
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Posted by John Scalzi

Getting older often gives you a perspective that younger people don’t have. But what happens when you’re immortal? What is your perspective then? It’s a question Michael F. Haspil has considered for his debut novel, Graveyard Shift.

MICHAEL F. HASPIL:

As human beings, we tell ourselves fictions to make it easier to cooperate one with one another.

Sometimes, the fiction is noble. We are all equal and entitled to certain inalienable rights. This story only extends to imaginary lines drawn on a representative map, a different sort of fiction. After all, “We” doesn’t apply to “Them”.

Many times, the fiction is merely useful. This color of light means “go” and another color means “stop”. All drivers must drive on this side of the street. Pieces of paper have value and you can use them to barter for goods. When people stop trusting in those fictions, life becomes hazardous and disagreeable.

All too often, the fiction becomes a source of human polarization. The entertainment we criticize, others adore. The sports tribes we deride are idols to others even though we select them more often due to geography than anything else. Their ties are red, ours our blue, so they are immoral. We don’t understand the methods they use to heal; therefore, they are wicked. They have a different melanin content than we do; their lives aren’t worth as much as ours are. Our god is greater than theirs; therefore, they are evil.

It’s all about tribalism and defining the Other. We tell ourselves stories and then believe them to such an extent we can justify any action.

Viewed from the point of view of hypothetical immortals, or beings so long-lived that for all purposes they may as well be, the numbers of those who belong to their tribe shrink over time, until almost everyone they meet is the Other. Of what concern is any subject when humans change their minds or stop caring about them in a week, a month, a century?

Combine that idea with how many atrocities immortals might witness, as they become more and more detached from those fictions we humans tell ourselves. How many died because they followed the wrong leader? How many burned at the stake because of paranoia? How many mass graves? How many genocides? The immortals would tell themselves a new fiction. Humans don’t matter. They all die, some sooner than others.

The trolley problem is an ethical thought exercise. An observer stands near a switch as a runaway trolley bears down the tracks. On the tracks ahead of the trolley, several people are trapped, unable to move and will die when the trolley reaches them. The observer can pull the switch and divert the trolley to another set of tracks. However, an individual standing nearby will die when the trolley diverts. The problem lies in the observer’s choice of whether to kill one person to save many or do nothing and allow many to die.

As the immortals pass down through the centuries, the trolley problem breaks. Viewed on their timescale, what does it matter if everyone on the tracks dies? Their lives are so short, they are as good as dead anyway. Why should immortals trouble themselves with the lives of beings that end in a relative eye blink? Why should human morals matter? Or human laws? It’s not that immortals are more or less ethical than humans. It’s that over their eternal lives they tell themselves different stories. New fictions, humans aren’t equipped to understand.

Taken from the human point of view, these immortals inevitably become the Other. By comparison, our short lives would not afford us a window of understanding. Their decisions and justifications would be alien to us. What do fruit flies comprehend of human machinations?

If we knew of them at all, we would fear them. We would hate them. We would hunt them.

In my novel, Graveyard Shift, some of my heroes are so long-lived they may as well be immortal and so they share part of the problems I’ve described. Added to their condition, they often make the difficult choices of committing a lesser evil to prevent a greater one. It is a slippery slope. How many times can one justify collateral damage in the name of the greater good before one becomes a new source of evil?

In many other stories, my heroes — a vigilante, a vampire, a shapeshifter, a mummy — would be the villains. As Nietzsche warns, “He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster.” But when beings survive for millennia, becoming a monster, may be inevitable.

My characters aren’t nice people. On a good day, they are indifferent to the plight of the everyman. Often throughout the story, they do unpleasant things and they rationalize what they’ve done by convincing themselves it was a necessary evil to prevent something much worse. Most of the time, that’s true.

This was a bit of a struggle for me. How could I convey the apathy of immortals and still portray them as sympathetic heroes?

It ultimately came down to their motivations. The need for atonement drives many of my characters. They view their immortality and their continued service to humankind as a sort of penance for sins committed past and present.

It wouldn’t take much to flip the script and turn them into the true monsters other perceive them to be. This is what Matheson’s Richard Neville discovers at the conclusion of I Am Legend. Often, determining who is and who isn’t a monster, is solely based on the point of view and the fictions we tell ourselves.

—-

Graveyard Shift: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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


Unwanted Blogging Vacation

Jul. 17th, 2017 09:56 am
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I am taking an (unasked-for) vacation from blogging to attend the bed of a close, elderly, family member who is dying. This is not unexpected, but death doesn't generally happen on a schedule and I've no way of knowing whether it is hours or days away at this point: so life for the rest of us is, perforce, on hold—and so are my blog updates.

(There may be some appearances, probably unheralded, by guest bloggers over the weeks ahead. Watch this space.)

Thunderbolts and Lightning

Jul. 17th, 2017 01:42 am
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Posted by John Scalzi

So, this thunderstorm showed up today, and for about an hour there was nonstop thunder and lightning, so much so that I thought I might go out and see if I could capture some lightning in slow motion.

How did that turn out? Well:

I was pretty pleased with myself, I have to say. And then I came back inside before I got zapped.


New Books and ARCs, 7/14/17

Jul. 14th, 2017 07:15 pm
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Posted by John Scalzi

Here’s a very fine Bastille Day selection of new books and ARCs that have come to the Scalzi compound in the last week or so. What’s ringing your bell here? Tell us in the comments!


The Unsolicted Review: Poo-Pourri

Jul. 14th, 2017 06:00 pm
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Posted by John Scalzi

Some members of the Scalzi Household — I won’t say which ones for privacy’s sake — occasionally do a thing called “pooping.” Look it up on Google if you’re not sure what that is. And while pooping is generally a laudable and healthy activity, it also sometimes leaves a certain odor.

Someone I know recommended “Poo-Pourri” as a way to counteract the particular odor of the activity: You spray a bit into the toiletbowl prior to the event and the poo-pourri essentially forms a citrus-scented barrier on the top of the water in the bowl, preventing other odors from escaping. I got a bottle to see if it actually works.

My verdict, after a week: Yes, it does mostly work, although whether it works because of the advertised barrier of essential oils or just because the blast of citrusy smell from the stuff is so concentrated that it simply overpowers any other smell is (if you’ll excuse the pun) up in the air. Either way, the citrus nasal bomb is preferable to the alternative.

Does it work better than, say, Febreeze or a scented candle? Maaaybe? I mean, the fact of the matter is whichever way you go, the scent of the room is “the scent of the thing I employed to avoid my bathroom smelling of poo,” so you won’t be fooling anyone anyway. That being the case, might as go with a scent you like.

In any event, if you or someone in your household poops, and want to avoid poop smell, and wish to deal with the odor before rather than immediately after the incident, and intense citrus is your thing, this stuff seems to do the trick.


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Posted by John Scalzi

I’ll preface this by noting I think Milo Yiannopoulos is a real piece of shit human being who I’d be delighted to see tossed into the metaphorical oubliette of uncaring oblivion. But, when I saw some people having schadenfreude over Yiannopoulos’ book sales of Dangerous, which were reportedly only a fifth of his self-asserted sales numbers, I had a moment of “well, actually,” as in, “well, actually, that real piece of shit human being might not be lying about his sales.”

Here’s the deal: Yiannopoulos has asserted his book’s opening week sales were on the order of 100,000 copies. Contrasting this, Nielsen Bookscan, the service which tracks physical book sales via many (but not all) booksellers, including Amazon, has his first week sales as 18,268 in the US (and — heh — 152 in the UK). As most of us probably know, 18,000 is less than 100,000.

Or is it? Because here’s the thing about Bookscan — it doesn’t in fact track all sales of a book. It doesn’t track eBook sales, for example, nor does it track audiobook sales. Nor does it track sales from some small independent booksellers, who might have not signed up to be Bookscan-reporting retailers. As a result, depending on how much you sell in other formats, and where you sell your books, Bookscan can massively underreport your total sales.

I know this because that’s what Bookscan does with me. A couple of years ago I tracked the sales of the hardcover era of Lock In (which is to say, all the sales reported while the physical book was only available in hardcover). For the time it was in hardcover, Bookscan reported 11,175 hardcover sales in the US. However, overall the book sold about 22,500 copies in hardcover and about 87,500 copies across all formats (hardcover, ebook, audio).

In all, Bookscan recorded roughly 12.7% of my total sales. Which is not a lot! If Yiannopoulos were seeing a similar sort of ratio, based on his physical copy sales, he could indeed have sold something on the order of 100,000 copies of his book in the first week. He might not be lying.

With all that said, on further examination, this is why I very strongly suspect that Yiannopoulos has not, in fact, sold, 100,000 copies of his book in the first week:

One, my sales numbers included audio; cursory examination of Yiannopoulos’ Amazon book page shows he does not have an audio version of the book available — important because Audible, the major audiobook sales channel in the US, is owned by Amazon, and would definitely have the audiobook noted for sale on the Amazon sales page. That eliminates an entire sales channel.

Two, I suspect (but have no evidence) that Yiannopoulos is strongly relying on Amazon to sell his book, rather than having some large percentage of retail sales come through brick-and-mortar book sellers, and specifically does not have an advantage that I and other genre authors have, which is specialty bookstores selling our books. My Bookscan numbers skew low precisely because I sell a lot through indie and specialty book stores, which don’t report to Bookscan. If Yiannopoulos is relying primarily on Amazon — which would make sense, given the push to preorder there, the online nature of his alt-right audience, and the fact that it’s easier to set up sales through Amazon than through the distribution channels of physical book stores — then his Bookscan numbers would capture a far higher percentage of his sales than, say, it would of mine.

Third, there’s this comment from Yiannopoulos’s camp:

It’s true that the major booksellers only managed to ship out 18,000 copies to retail customers by the list cutoff. But that’s because they didn’t order enough ahead of time, and have been scrambling to play catchup ever since. The real news is that we’ve received wholesale orders and direct orders of such magnitude that our entire stock of 105,000 books is already accounted for.

This is a little bit of publishing inside pool which apparently Yiannopoulos is not aware of (or is trying to fudge), but: You don’t count wholesale orders because wholesalers will eventually return books if they don’t sell them. The publisher has to make them whole for that, either by shifting credit to other books (which in this case Yiannopoulos as a self-publisher of a single book does not have), or by refunding the money. Yiannopoulos may have shipped 105,000 hardcover copies of the book, but that’s not the same as having sold them. I don’t know in this case what “direct orders” mean — it could be sales to individual book buyers (in which case that would be a sale) or to individual booksellers (in which case they are probably returnable, as book stores are loath to stock anything on a non-returnable basis), or to organizations which are making a “bulk buy” for their own reasons, say, a conservative organization who wants to hand out copies to employees or on the street or whatever.

But however you slice it, by Yiannopoulos’ own words (and by his apparent lack of understanding of how bookselling works), he probably has not in fact sold all 100k of the hardcover books. Also, with regard to the wholesalers and other booksellers, I do hope someone in his organization is keeping money in reserve to deal with returns when they (inevitably) happen. I’m also curious as to how he as a self-publisher is dealing with long-term storage and shipping of the books; I really don’t see Yiannopoulos himself handling that. I don’t picture him as a detail-oriented person. Perhaps this will be a job for the interns.

With all of this said, and again with the reminder that I find Yiannopoulos a hot feculent mess of a person, sales of 18,000 hardcovers in one week is pretty darn good. It was enough to land Yiannopoulos at #3 on the USA Today list and at #4 on the New York Times Hardcover Nonfiction list (and #2 on the paper’s print/ebook combined list). He’s a legitimate bestseller. And those 18K sales don’t cover ebook sales, which given his audience demographics I suspect are pretty high. Most authors would be absolutely delighted to have 18k in hardcover sales in their first week. People exercising schadenfreude about all this are thus advised to temper their glee somewhat. The book is not a failure in any manner except in contrast to Yiannopoulos’ industry-specific hype, and also (if the professional reviews are to be believed) as a book worth reading.

(Incidentally, the first week sales also show that Simon & Schuster, who were to publish the book until they didn’t, had really rather accurately priced the book when they offered Yiannopoulous a $250,000 advance on it. An 18K first week would have put it on a sales track to zero out that $250k advance in a year or two, depending on eventual paperback sales. It would have made money for S&S, and possibly broke even for Yiannopoulos.)

Can Yiannopoulos sell 100,000 copies of his book? I suspect so in the long run, especially considering that Yiannopoulos can now have it as a rider for speaking events that whomever is having him speak will be obliged to purchase a certain number of the book in order to have him appear — and speaking events and appearances are the actual bread-and-butter for a creature such as Yiannopoulos, for which this book is mostly advertising.

Has he sold that many in the first week? I doubt it. The actual number, in all formats, across all retailers, is somewhere between 18,000 and 100,000 copies. Which, again, is not at all a bad number of books to sell in the first week. Had Yiannopoulos been smart, he wouldn’t have alleged selling 100K books in his first week at all, he simply would have taken those USA Today and NYT list rankings and waved them about happily, and built PR around those.

But apparently he’s not really that smart. Now most of the stories are about how he only sold 18,000 copies in his first week, rather than the 100,000 copies he alleged. Well done him.


The Big Idea: Jason LaPier

Jul. 14th, 2017 12:17 pm
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Posted by John Scalzi

Home is where the heart is, but what does “home” mean, and does it mean the same thing for everyon. Author Jason LaPier has thoughts on this topic, and what it means for his latest novel Under Shadows, and the series of books to which it belongs.

JASON LaPIER:

The Dome Trilogy centers on three characters with three very different backgrounds. There’s “Jax” Jackson, who grew up in a dome on planet in the Barnard’s Star system, living a sheltered life and by his late twenties, working as a life support system operator. Stanford Runstom was born in completely unsheltered circumstances; his mother was an undercover detective for years, and when it came time for her to come back in, she opted to live out the next decade in a ship, honing her intelligence networks and staying on the move. Runstom was born in space, and his childhood home was this interstellar craft and the various ports and outposts it had occasion to visit; a life mirrored when he grew up to become a cop. Lastly, Dava was born on Earth, a planet on which human life has divided between plush arcologies and abject poverty. As a child, Dava lived underground until her parents won the “Earth Kin Rescue” lottery and were able to board an ark bound for the colonies. When Dava awoke from hypersleep, she’d become an orphan and was dumped into foster care in the domes. Her erratic upbringing eventually led her to crime.

As these three characters confront their immediate challenges and obstacles, they are distracted from identifying the real things they want for their own lives. But like a system that seeks equilibrium, they each unconsciously unveil their true internal goals. And they are surprised to find those goals have evolved from the obvious to something unexpected.

When Jax was a domer, he lacked drive and ambition. His only goal was to pay his bills. When the false accusation of murdering a block of residents under his watch forces Jax to become a fugitive, his immediate concerns become those of survival and freedom. He gets a taste of domeless life in an independent colony on the moon of a gas giant, and finds inspiration in the vibrancy, diversity, cooperation, and perseverance of the population. This manifests later when Jax is given the chance to do his part in protecting the colony’s way of life. It’s then that he realizes after all his trials, he doesn’t want to go back home to the domes, but instead wants to make a new home.

Runstom dedicated his life to the pursuit of justice, but had trouble advancing his career. Though he’d rather be a detective, he finds himself in a public relations role at the policing-for-hire company he works for. Respecting his mother’s need to stay under the radar, he maintains minimal contact with her. And yet, she sees all, and when they have a chance to be reunited, the stoically independent Runstom realizes how badly he misses his mother’s advice and love. Their separate and nomadic lives become much less bearable to him.

In and out of foster homes, Dava considered herself rescued when crime boss – and fellow ex-Earthling – Moses Down recruited her. From then on, she only concerned herself with being a good right hand to Down. He pushes her into leadership, and under his influence she tries her best. When she has to take the reins and decide what is best for the crime family, she realizes she wants to offer them something different. Moses Down brought the outcasts together and made them into a family, but Dava must find that family a place to call home.

And so the thing that unifies these three very different characters is that eventual goal to create a new home for themselves. Which explicitly means leaving previous notions of home behind, and recognizing the shadows of the past for what they are: merely shadows. This is the defining theme that I used to drive the character arcs through to the conclusion of the trilogy.

I was born in Saratoga, NY, near Albany. At the age of five, I was registered for kindergarten, but I would never attend that school; instead, my parents separated and we moved four hours away, to Elmira, NY. This was the first big shift in my sense of home, but I would spend the next twenty years in this small town. Finally, at the age of twenty-six, I’d had enough of Upstate and moved to Brooklyn in September, 2001. 9/11 came, and I was never able to make NYC my home. After six rough months of being unable to set roots into a disrupted city, I needed to escape from New York, and so I catapulted across the country to Oregon. Lacking in friends, family, and money, this is the part of my life I drew upon when thinking about what it means to learn how to make a home from scratch.

So the Big Idea here is that home is a malleable concept, and what you are born into is not necessarily what you are destined to call home. This became the core internal driver as I brought these three characters to the conclusion of this trilogy: they would each, in their own way, learn to define what home means to them.

—-

Under Shadows: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Kobo

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


The Big Idea: Christopher Brown

Jul. 13th, 2017 11:43 am
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Posted by John Scalzi

The opening sentence of Christopher Brown’s Big Idea essay for Tropic of Kansas hits awfully close to home these days. Buckle in.

CHRISTOPHER BROWN:

What if the revolutions we watch ripping other countries apart were happening on our own streets?

America as Syria, Ukraine, Venezuela—that core conceit behind Tropic of Kansas drove almost everything else in the book.  It also taught me hard lessons about how speculative counterfactuals dictate the way you tell their story—and how your characters need to show you the path.

As I began to sketch out the book, my big idea was literally outside my door. The Austin leaders of Occupy had made the neon junkyard across the street into their secret base camp. Every day the news showed uprisings across the world, and increasingly stark political divisions at home. The distance between the peaceful protests here and the violent chaos on screen was nearer than geography would suggest.

You could see narratives of revolution lurking all over our pop culture landscape, from YA dystopias like The Hunger Games to the three movies that came out as I started the first draft about people taking over the White House. I wanted to explore that territory in a way that bit into the copper wire, in a mirror reality built from the mundane details of the observed world and charged with the motive power of the revolutionary creation myths we are taught in school. Done right, it would be the literary equivalent of a Syrian war zone smartphone video transposed to St. Louis.

I thought I had the perfect generic material to pull it off, by repurposing tropes of adventure fiction and political thrillers toward more emancipatory ends.  Rogue heroes and whistleblowers—a Fafhrd & the Gray Mouser for the age of Blackwater, a Glanton gang that rides to Washington instead of the border, a Night Manager undercover in dystopia, with old binaries busted to reflect 21st century diversity.  Those action-oriented archetypes seemed an antidote to the way characters in most post-9/11 fiction verbally defenestrated corrupt power but rarely effected real change.

I looked for the territory between the Nazi-fighting grit of 1960s adventure pulps and the grim memoranda of the Senate Torture Report. I found rich character trajectory rereading Eric Hobsbawm’s Bandits, a cross-cultural study of how thieves sometimes morph into social bandits (think Robin Hood) and then revolutionaries. I found an old button that said “Billy Jack for President” and put it on my desk. I made a note to myself on my Tumblr, a photo of three books next to each other: a Frazetta-covered Conan paperback, a post-financial crisis political manifesto, and a treatise on Anthropocene ecology. The caption: “remix your hypotheses.”

I started the remix, with gusto. And the initial result was kind of like when you are a kid and your mom or dad lets you loose in the kitchen to make your own dish, usually involving a lot of food coloring that substitutes for authentic flavor, the solution to which is more sugar. A compelling postulate does not automatically make a believable world, and a fresh archetype does not necessarily make a character anyone cares about. There’s no recipe—you need to intuit your own, using real ingredients available in the pantry of memory.  It’s not easy, and usually takes a few tries.

J.G. Ballard liked to say that the inverted worlds of his realist science fictions were drawn using the same skills he learned as an anatomy student dissecting human cadavers. I thought I understood what he meant until I tried to find my own way in. You have to take the clay of the real world and turn it inside out more than just one time. You have to see the threads that connect all the different pieces into a whole system. You have to figure out how character defines the world, is defined by it, and how the world of your story functions as a kind of meta-character. Outlines only get you so far—you have to write your way through it, and the harder it feels the closer you probably are.

The post-9/11 story I wanted to tell required a world without 9/11, in which all the dark energy of the war on terror was unleashed inside our own borders. The Sadr Cities needed to be run-down suburbs with rebels holed up in bullet-pocked strip malls. The American Spring required an America that looked a lot more like an oligarchic dictatorship than the civil society I lived in.  And the people that inhabited that world had to be found through their shimmering reflections in the liminal spaces of this one.

The oft-quoted Gibsonian aphorism about the uneven distribution of the immanent future is also true of dystopia. The parts of America turned Third World, the Yankee Gaza and DMZ, are there if you look for them. So are their inhabitants. The guy I met who lives in the abandoned building by the frontage road, the lady I know who called me about the deportation trucks rounding up her neighbors, the in-laws who told me about their college friends who got disappeared in the dirty war back home, and even the people grinding away in the corporate offices downtown could all point to the dark mirrors hiding in plain sight.

The land told the story of its own subjugation to industrial agriculture and petrochemical extraction. By finding the world of my book folded into the world around me, I was able to build a real portal to my imagined postulate. I learned how the coupling of realism and speculation can inadvertently produce worlds that seem prescient. And I learned how the injection of humanism into dystopia can help find the light that lurks on the other side of the unjust worlds we make, whether in the safe laboratory of the novel or in real life.

—-

Tropic of Kansas: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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


My Twitter Muting Regime, July 2017

Jul. 12th, 2017 05:56 pm
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Posted by John Scalzi

Twitter recently announced a few more options to mute the obnoxious and stupid on their service, a move I applaud both as a general step to cut down abuse on their service, and as a person who the obnoxious and stupid often try to bother on Twitter. The new mute options include muting accounts that don’t follow yours, and also muting new accounts (that you don’t follow), the latter of which is good for cutting down the number of sock puppets you might hear from.

These new options make it a fine day to talk about my own Twitter muting regime, which some of you might find comes in handy for yourself. I do mute a lot, as a consequence of people saying stupid/obnoxious things to me on Twitter on a frequent basis, and muting does make Twitter more tolerable. I do prefer it to blocking, since unless you tell them, the muted have no idea they’re muted, so they’ll often keep yelling at you long after you’ve consigned them to oblivion, and I like the idea of these jackasses wasting their time and effort. Other people prefer blocking or some combination of the two, which I think is cool. Whatever works for you.

So here’s how I mute:

1. I mute new accounts, using the new feature Twitter provides. In my experience brand new accounts that tweet at me (evidenced by very low follower/tweet numbers and default icons) tend to be sock puppet accounts, i.e., the additional accounts of an obnoxious person, who wants to make it look like he (it’s almost always a he) has a posse. I would note that Twitter does not at this point appear to define what “new account” means in this context; whether aging out of the “new” category requires a certain number of days/weeks or a certain number of tweets, or both, or some combination. In an ideal world, I would love to have granularity; I would probably mute new accounts for a month, and until the account made 200 tweets (unless I actively followed the account). But it’s possible Twitter is not saying what qualifies as “new” so it will not have jerks trying to game the “new account” setting, which I can appreciate.

2. I mute accounts with default icons, previously eggs but now eggs with shoulders. This also eliminates a lot of sock puppets and people who can’t be bothered with the service enough to actually change the default image. Between this and the “mute new accounts” setting, I expect a lot of Twitter sock puppetry to be even more futile in the future than it already is today.

3. I mute accounts that are antagonistic toward me on Twitter. This doesn’t mean I mute accounts when people disagree with me, or say something that clearly is meant to be sarcastic or sardonic, or are just having fun sassing me, or poking fun at my ego. I mute them when they’re being assholes and/or sea lions and/or otherwise trying to troll me. After nearly a quarter century online I’m pretty good at knowing who is doing what and why, and for people I don’t know, I have a “one strike” policy, because life is too short to deal with assholes. I personally advise people to mute other accounts using a “one strike” policy and by trusting their gut when it comes to people being assholes to them. Basically, if it feels like someone is trying to insult or gaslight you, mute the lil’ fucker. Twitter has 300 million users. You’ll find other people to talk to.

4. I make the Twitter handles of particularly obnoxious people mutable words. Very recently a particular garbage human tried to sea lion me and a bunch of his sycophants tried to join in on the fun. I muted the original garbage human, but his sycophants, eager to have their senpai notice them, would respond to me and “@” the garbage human too. Well, as it happens, Twitter lets you mute specific words, and Twitter handles qualify as words. So I made the garbage human’s handle a mutable word and, voila, no more sycophants (or, rather, very few). This isn’t the first time I’ve done this, and given the basic suck-up nature of alt-righties, MRAs, PUAs, aspiring fascists and the sort of dude who thinks he’s tough guy but is actually sort of a shrieking coward, it really cuts down on the bullshit I have to see.

For me, this strikes a good balance for keeping my Twitter feed mostly uncluttered by jerks while at the same time open enough for random normal humans, who do not revel in being an asshole, to comment at me when they want to, because very often those people and their comments are delightful and I am glad they make the effort. Twitter is in part worth being on specifically for folks like that. That said, I am also a quasi-public individual and minor celebrity, so keeping the lines open for random folks to chat might make more sense for me than it might for someone who is just trying to use Twitter to chat with friends and otherwise keep up with people they find interesting. For those folks, other mute settings like muting people who you don’t follow, or who don’t follow you, might make more sense.

Another point to make here is that Twitter’s mute settings are not irrevokable, so you can go turn them on or off on a temporary basis if you have to. For example, if the forces of evil were attempting a particularly heavy day of trying to jam up my tweet stream, and I didn’t have the time and/or inclination to individually mute all the jerks, then I might turn on “mute people who don’t follow me” for a day, until things got mostly back to normal, which would cut down on the jerkiness considerably. The point is to mix and match muting strategies.

Now, this is where some folks who you might choose to mute will huff and puff about free speech and/or how muting people means you’re not willing to engage in honest debate or whatever, but really now, screw those dudes. You’re not obliged to humor jerks who want to make you miserable, on Twitter or most anywhere else, and anyone who is of the “You won’t debate me! I win!” sort is probably the sort of person you’re well shut of. Let them have the “win” there. You’ll actually win by never having to see them on Twitter again.

(“But how would you feel if people muted you on Twitter, Scalzi?” Well, I’m sure they have, just as people have blocked me on Twitter. In both cases I feel fine about it. No one is obliged to humor me, either, on Twitter or most anywhere else. Please, mute or block me on Twitter as necessary or desired!)

So that’s how I (currently) mute people on Twitter. It’s made my Twitter life much happier. I encourage you, if you use Twitter, to do similarly. You should be able to enjoy the service without the jackasses.


The Big Idea: Jennifer Stevenson

Jul. 12th, 2017 02:15 pm
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Posted by John Scalzi

 

With a title that includes the phrase “coed demon sluts,” you might think that you know all you need to know about Jennifer Stevenson’s series of paranormal women’s fiction. Here’s Stevenson to make the argument that there’s more than meets the eye.

JENNIFER STEVENSON:

The foundation of this series is a question: “Aren’t you tired of doing everything right? Wouldn’t you like a second chance to go back and do it wrong?” Each of the main characters is starting life over by becoming a succubus for hell. I discovered the hard way that it’s a deeply feminist project. And that’s the big idea.

A thorough survey of strangers in convention bars informed me that, while men easily answered the question, “What would make you sign a contract to become a sex demon?” most women had to think hard. If they went for the deal, they said they wanted physical, social, or sexual power, money, a solution to [name a physical issue], a power balance to [name a social injustice], revenge, eternal youth, and, very last, beauty. Not sex.

This was my first women’s fiction, in the main passing the Bechdel test, deeply addressing the grimnesses that make feminism so unfluffy. My usual stories often have serious themes, but they always, always present as fluffy.

The deal:

Thirty antique pieces of silver a month for tempting three individuals; go the distance and you get a nice bonus.

An eternally young, super-strong, horny demon body that can be gumbied into any shape, color, or size.

A car, a credit card, housing, and a team of other succubi.

The job:

We no longer buy souls. We can’t keep all these full-time people. Everyone’s a contractor: you can quit, you can be fired.

Online monthly reporting is hellish—Windows 8, 33 screens of fields per record. You have to tattoo your 88-digit IIDN on the sole of your foot, because who can remember that?

Kiss your old life goodbye. By the time you’re ready to quit, everyone you know may be long gone–and the you they know will be gone.

What was hard about this big idea?

The challenges were what they always are: Write the other. Get into their skin and make people forget how wackshit the story premise is.

It wasn’t hard to imagine how becoming a succubus would affect prissy housewife Beth or beleaguered teen Melitta or 98-year-old bubbe Cricket with her mile-long bucket list.

But Pog’s complicated relationship with food and its relevance to her old life as a plus-size prostitute and her shifting friendships with the other five women took me back to high school in ways I didn’t want to revisit, because I flunked Girl.

While Jee’s childhood in a Bangkok brothel left scars I could trace in my sleep, her Dom relationship to the sluts’ /p/i/m/p/ onsite manager sub was new. I wanted to rebut some of the reader protocols I found in BDSM romance and erotica–most notably that the Dom always knows what they’re doing, and that the sub always falls into the role without protest, never uses their safeword, and puts on the collar for life, not just a sweaty hour in bed. How would Jee feel, dominating their demonic pimp, doing it wrong, realizing why it’s working on him anyway, and then struggling to undo what she’s done and do it again right?

Amanda was hardest. She’s so repressed, she thinks she’s asexual; sex is just her job, and as an athlete she’s used to physical work. Memo to self: Don’t write repressed characters. An Army brat who gave her life to her ailing parents, she never realized she was gay. When they died, she found that her job at a defense contractor had segued imperceptibly into a cubicle in hell. I had to draw her out of her Army shell, wake her up sexually, and get her into bed with a woman. Amanda dragged her feet, unwilling to give up the comforting numbness of her cubicle and afraid of the Army’s rule for women: be invisible. The result was one of my sweetest, happiest books…but oy getting there.

What was easy about this big idea?

I’ve been writing about sex for almost thirty years. With every book I think, What the hell different can I say about sex this time? The answer always has to be different.

Despite the title, this series isn’t about sex. I was frankly overjoyed to plunge into imagining what, aside from their job, sex had to do with these women’s lives. I got to leave out the squishy bits and write the everything-else. From a feminist perspective, this was a total gift.

I write the unexpected and I write it funny. Sometimes that’s a gimme, sometimes it’s hard. I had to challenge the assumption that woman=slut=sex. My girls had to own “slut.” Turning reader expectation on its head meant inventing women with relatable problems, confronting those problems with succubus life, allowing myself to get angry but stay funny, writing a happy end every time that relied on character, not a magical gimmick, and leaving out the sex. The make-you-think part rose up like an onion in the schmaltz.

—-

Coed Demon Sluts: Beth: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|iBooks|Kobo

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


The Big Idea: Nancy Kress

Jul. 11th, 2017 12:55 pm
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Posted by John Scalzi

Folks, in discussing her new novel Tomorrow’s Kin, author Nancy Kress has some bad news for you. It’s about your brain. And mine. And everyone’s.

NANCY KRESS:

Your mind does not work the way you think it does.

You probably assume that you consider data and come to rational conclusions. But all too often, people don’t take into account such pesky tendencies as confirmation bias (“This fact confirms what I already believe so it gets more weight”) Or polarization (“This situation is all good/bad”). Or emotionalism (“I feel this so it must be true”), a need for control (“I’m looking at what I can change and nothing else”), presentism (“The future will be like the present only maybe a little more so”), or scapegoating (“If this isn’t as I wish it to be, someone must be to blame!”)

When I set out to extend my novella “Yesterday’s Kin” into the novel Tomorrow’s Kin, which takes the story ten years farther along, I wanted to write about these distortions in your thinking. Oh, not you in particular (how do I know what you’re thinking as you read this—maybe it’s “She doesn’t mean me. I’m different.”) What interested me—especially in the current political climate—is the public mind as it relates to science and the perception of science.

There is not, of course, one “public mind.” People have differing perceptions of everything: football vs. soccer, artificial sweetness, lip piercing, Wonder Woman (I loved it). It’s precisely this lack of unity that creates conflict—and conflict is what drives fiction. No one wants to read a 400-page novel in which everything hums sweetly along for the protagonist. For one thing, we’d die of envy. Conflict swarms around science like ants at a picnic.

How can this group believe we should spend all that money going to Mars?

How can that group be so short-sighted that they don’t see the scientific value of going to Mars?

The characters in Tomorrow’s Kin aren’t going to Mars. They are, in a near-future United States, trying to go to a planet its inhabitants call “World.” Before that, they’re trying to deal with two separate global crises on Earth. And nobody can agree on how to perceive those crises, even though—and this is the heart of my novel—scientific evidence makes very clear what are the facts.

Fact: The aliens who have shown up on Earth are human, descendants of Homo sapiens taken from Terra 140,000 years ago. DNA and tissue analysis confirm this. Many people nonetheless believe that Worlders are the ultimate “other,” a separate invasive species up to no good who should be treated like Burmese pythons in the Everglades.

Fact: The spore cloud that Worlders say is drifting toward Earth exists. Astronomers confirm this, once they know where to look. Worlders say it is carrying a deadly pathogen that has already wiped out two of their own space colonies. Many people prefer to believe there is no cloud and the Worlders are planning to infect Earth with a plague.

Fact: In return for our help, Worlders leave us with the science and the engineering to build starships. Scientists eagerly decipher these and construction begins by both private entrepreneurs and several governments. Many people regard this as a Trojan horse from a race bent on destroying us.

Fact: When the spore cloud arrives, it has unexpected and terrible ecological consequences on Earth. Many people regard this as the Worlders’ fault because the epidemic arrived just after the Worlders left, even though correlation is not the same as causation.

But humanity has a long history of shooting the messenger, as well as of denying scientific fact. The medieval Church preferred the lovely idea that the Earth is the center of the universe to Galileo’s fact that it revolves around the sun. Much of the nineteenth century preferred a 6,000-year-old Earth to Darwin’s unsettling notions about evolution. Current oil-company CEOs prefer to believe that humanity is not causing global warming. And several prominent basketball players have announced their belief that the Earth is flat.

In Tomorrow’s Kin, geneticist Marianne Jenner tries desperately to convince people of scientific facts. Colorful entrepreneur Jonas Stubbins has plans to exploit facts for profit. Some facts are known only to a gifted child, Marianne’s grandson. And some facts lead straight to revenge by governments powerful enough to achieve it—or try to. As Shakespeare pointed out, “For this is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”

Do you believe something not because of fact but because of confirmation bias, presentism, scapegoating, emotionalism, polarization, or a need for control? No?

Are you sure?

So are the characters in Tomorrow’s Kin. For a while, anyway.

—-

Tomorrow’s Kin: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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


Book day!

Jul. 10th, 2017 12:40 pm
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The Delirium Brief

Today (Tuesday) is the official publication date for The Delirium Brief in North America. As of this book, the Laundry Files are moving to Tor from Ace, who published the series from books 3-7. Because it has a different publisher in the UK (Orbit), The Delirium Brief won't officially be out until Thursday—but I gather it's already on sale in many branches of Waterstones.

First week sales figures are really important to authors these days, much like first weekend audience figures for a movie. It'll eventually get a price drop (and a low cost paperback edition), but if you want to read it, you'd be doing me a favour if you bought it now rather than later. Also? Reader reviews on Amazon really help—the more, the better. Authors these days are expected to do a bunch of their own marketing, and if the number of reader reviews on Amazon passes a critical threshold (fifty is the number I've heard) then they're more amenable to promotional book-of-the-month deals and future discounts.

If you want to order a signed copy, read this. Oh, and there are still tickets to the launch reading/signing at Blackwell's Bookshop in Edinburgh on the evening of Wednesday 12th.

Frequently asked questions (below the fold):

Q: What is this?

A: It's the eighth novel in the Laundry Files, a series of books and stories about the rather bureaucratic secret British government agency for protecting us from extradimensional horrors. (Magic being a sub-field of mathematics, and computers being tools that can perform mathematical operations really fast, it follows that the rate of emergencies involving extradimensional horrors is increasing in step with Moore's Law.)

Q: Is this a good starting point?

A: No, this is not a good starting point! It's a direct sequel to "The Nightmare Stacks" (which is an okay starting point, but misses out a lot of the back story for the main protagonist in "The Delirium Brief"). Other possible starting points are "The Atrocity Archives" (the first book in the series) or "The Rhesus Chart" (book five, and the start of the arc that culminates in "The Delirium Brief"). If you haven't read the series and want a free taster, here's a link to Equoid, which won the 2014 Hugo award for best novella. (Available as a cheap ebook if you're an ebook completist or want a taster but don't want to be glued to a web browser for a couple of hours.)

Q: Bob! What about Bob? I want more Bob!

A: This is predominantly a Bob novel (you've been waiting, right?) although as there's an ensemble cast we get bits from other folks' points of view. You can stop shouting for more Bob now. (The next novel will not be a Bob novel, but maybe the one after that ...)

Q: What about Brexit?

A: As "The Delirium Brief" is set in a very different 2014 (Leeds has just been flattened by an invading army), Brexit isn't really an issue facing the Laundry. Yet.

Q: Is this "funny" Laundry or "grimdark" Laundry?

A: Starts funny, turns grimdark real quick. I think it's funny, but it's this kind of funny.

Q: I just inhaled this book, when is the next due?

A: These books normally come at 3-4 year intervals. However, I've just emitted three in consecutive years. I've been planning on taking a year out (I hope to have a big fat space opera out in summer 2018) and keeping my hand in with a couple of Laundry short stories. However, the first chapter of book nine ("The Labyrinth Index") forced its way out early, so you never know ...

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Posted by John Scalzi

Hey, did you know it’s been ten years since You’re Not Fooling Anyone When You Take Your Laptop to a Coffee Shop, my last collection of essays about writing and the writing life, debuted? That’s a pretty long time, especially when you consider everything that’s gone on — in the world, in publishing, and with me — in the time since 2007. So it seemed like a very fine time indeed to collect up another set of essays.

And thus: Don’t Live For Your Obituary: Advice, Commentary and Personal Observations on Writing, 2008 – 2017, out this December from Subterranean Press and available for pre-order now. It’ll be available both as a signed limited hardcover (that’s the version that’s available for pre-order) and also in ebook. And it comes with very excellent cover art (see above) by Nate Taylor, whose work you might remember from my The Mallet of Loving Correction collection, for which he also provided a very excellent cover.

What’s in this book? Well, let me just quote the flap copy here:

Between 2008 and 2017, author John Scalzi wrote fifteen books, became a New York Times bestselling author, and won numerous awards, including the Hugo, the Locus and the Governor’s Award for the Arts in Ohio. He also had book deals crater, lost more awards than he won, worried about his mortgage and health insurance, flubbed a few deadlines, tried to be a decent parent and husband, and got into some arguments on the Internet, because, after all, that’s what the Internet is for.

Scalzi wrote about it all—the highs and lows in the life of a working writer—and gave his readers, and other writers, a glimpse of the day-to-day business of navigating a writing life in today’s world. Sometimes these essays offered advice. Sometimes they commented on the practical business of publishing and selling books. Sometimes they focused on the writing issues, arguments and personalities of the day. And sometimes, Scalzi reflected on his own writing life and career, and what both meant in the larger scheme of things.

Don’t Live For Your Obituary is a curated selection of that decade of advice, commentary and observations on the writing life, from one of the best-known science fiction authors working today. But more than that, it’s a portrait of an era—ten years of drama, controversy and change in writing, speculative fiction and the world in general—from someone who was there when it happened… and who had opinions about it all.

Yup, that pretty much sums it up.

If you want the signed, limited hardcover for yourself or as a gift (just in time for the holidays!), I really recommend pre-ordering it now. The hardcover edition is limited to 1,000 copies, and when they’re gone, they’re gone. You’ll want one, not just because I write all pretty and suchlike, but because Subterranean Press makes gorgeous books, and when you have it in your hands, you’ll pet it and tell it how it’s special and no tricksy hobbitses will ever take it from you, precious. Trust me on this. Here’s that pre-order link again.


The Big Idea: Sarah Kuhn

Jul. 10th, 2017 10:56 am
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Posted by John Scalzi

Weddings: Blessed occasion or battleground between the forces of good and evil? Why not both? Sarah Kuhn looks at the Big Day in this Big Idea for her novel Heroine Worship, and how it turns out to be a very fine setting for more than just “I do.”

SARAH KUHN:

I love weddings.

I tear up scrolling through wedding photos of people I only sort of know on Facebook, swoon over very special wedding episodes of TV shows, and if I’m attending a wedding of someone I consider near and dear? Forget it. I still get teased about the embarrassing snuffles I couldn’t suppress when one of my friends walked down the aisle to a string quartet version of “The Imperial March.” (It was beautiful!)

I have a soft, gushy heart and seeing people celebrate their soft, gushy love will always get to me. This doesn’t mean I think everyone needs to get married or has to get married a certain way—I support your right (and think you should have the right) to get married or not get married however and whenever you want. But it does mean I’ve always had a burning desire to write a wedding book—specifically, a Big Fat Supernatural Wedding Book. That book is Heroine Worship, the second in my urban fantasy series about Asian American superheroines saving the world.

One of the Big Ideas behind the whole series was to meld the fantastical and the mundane in a way that felt just a little bit ridiculous, but also incredibly fun. I cite the TV shows Buffy the Vampire Slayer and The Middleman as big influences—those are two creative works that accomplished this particularly well without ever sacrificing earnest emotion. So in Book 1, Heroine Complex, I melded the supernatural with everyday things: demonic cupcakes, superpowered karaoke battles. In Book 2, I did that with seemingly mundane events that are part of the wedding planning process: cake tastings, dress fittings, and the epic battle that is the discount bridal gown sale.

I had a lot of fun with this, with imagining what supernatural wedding-related set piece I could throw in next, but writing my wedding book certainly came with its own unique challenges. For one thing, while I was gleefully envisioning how to make a classically ugly bridesmaid dress actually evil in some way, I had to remember to make sure that all the wedding hijinks weren’t merely hijinks—they needed to be grounded in a solid emotional story arc for my heroine, Aveda Jupiter (aka Annie Chang).

In the book, Aveda is appointed maid of honor by her best friend/co-superheroine Evie Tanaka (the protagonist of Book 1). Aveda is a character with the burning desire to be the absolute best at whatever she’s doing—she blazes ahead, hurricane-like, without thinking about the consequences. It’s always fun to give a character like this major obstacles she has to overcome, but I had to be careful not to pile on obstacles for the sake of wedding-related hilarity, to make sure each of the obstacles I was giving her made sense for her journey.

I eventually settled on the idea that she sees the maid of honor post as a mission like so many of her other superheroic missions. If she succeeds in giving Evie the best wedding ever, she’ll be able to prove herself as a friend (something she was not so hot at in Book 1) and regain the superheroine mojo she seems to have lost. That way, the main wedding storyline was tied directly to her emotional journey. I could trace the arc of both in tandem and it ensured that the wedding shenanigans I kept coming up with were relevant to the story and not just ridiculousness for ridiculousness’ sake.

Another challenge had to do with the fact that my protagonist wasn’t one of the two people getting married—but those two characters, Evie and Nate, still mean a lot to me (and to readers who were invested in their relationship in Book 1). I was super focused on Aveda’s personal arc since this book is from her POV and she’s the character who has to go through the most growth and change. That meant I was sometimes tempted to skim over or shorthand pieces of the wedding process in the story rather than giving them their due.

For example: the proposal. It’s a moment that’s supposed to be funny and sweet, but we’re seeing it through Aveda’s eyes—and her reaction isn’t the “awww” we’d get if we were seeing it from Evie’s POV. That scene initially felt a bit underwritten because I was only thinking of it as another step in Aveda’s arc rather than an important piece of the whole series involving other major characters. I went back and revised it through the final stages of copy-editing the book, taking into account what the other characters in the scene would be thinking and feeling as well, so that (hopefully!) it will give the reader a little “awww” moment.

The final challenge was more personal. Though I love weddings, I was a total stress case while planning my own. The day itself was beautiful, but my own heroine’s journey was fraught with sweaty dress fittings, pressure from relatives to do X tradition, and a sudden obsession with different kinds of cardstock. Writing a wedding book, I couldn’t help but re-live some of that—but like many writers, I dealt with it by using those feelings in the writing, giving them to my characters in a way I hope is authentic.

In the end, I got as emotional over my wedding book as I do at actual weddings—even though there was no string quartet version of “The Imperial March.”

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Heroine Worship: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|IndieBound|Powell’s

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


Meanwhile In Japan

Jul. 10th, 2017 12:17 am
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Posted by John Scalzi

The Japanese version of The End of All Things.

Incidentally, I used the Google Translate app on this and it kind of made word salad on it. So we’re not quite yet in the world of automatic intelligible translations. At least for novels.


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