In her debut novel Autonomous, former i09 editor-in-chief and current science and tech writer and editor Annalee Newitz gets under the skin of the healthcare industry and thinks about all the ways it’s less-than-entirely healthy for us… and what that means for our future, and the future she’s written in her novel.
There’s a scene from the Torchwood series Miracle Day that I will never be able to wash out of my brain. After humans stop being able to die for mysterious reasons, our heroes tour a hospital full of people who are hideously immortal: their bodies pancaked and spindled and melted, they lie around in agony wishing for oblivion. For all its exaggerated body horror, that moment feels creepily realistic in our age of medicine that can keep people alive without giving them anything like quality of life.
Torchwood: Miracle Day wasn’t my first taste of healthcare dystopia, but it made a huge impression because it distilled down one of the fundamental ideas I see this subgenre: some lives are worse than death. This is certainly the message in countless pandemic films, where the infected are ravening, mindless zombies. Killing them is a mercy.
This idea takes a slightly different form in books like Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go and Paolo Bacigalupi’s Windup Girl. Both narratives toy with what it means when people are turned into medical experiments, like futuristic versions of the Tuskegee Study. We see some ruling class of people deciding that another class should serve as its organ donors or genetic beta testers. What if somebody were treating us like lab rats, as if our lives didn’t matter?
And then there are the false healthcare utopias, which I find the most disturbing because they remind me of listening to U.S. senators trying to sell the idea that they have a “much better plan” than Obamacare—even though I know people who will die under these “better plans.” Politicians have probably been pushing false healthcare utopias since at least the 19th century, but in science fiction its roots can clearly be traced to Aldus Huxley’s Brave New World. In that novel, everyone is medicating with Soma just to deal with how regimented and limited their lives are.
False healthcare utopias can take many forms, and they overlap with more familiar dystopias too. Some deal with surveillance. In the chilling novel Harmony, Project Itoh imagines a future Japan where the government monitors everyone’s microbiomes by tracking everything that goes into and out of their bodies (yep, there’s toilet surveillance).
Sometimes the false healthcare utopia is just a precursor to a more familiar zombie dystopia like 28 Days Later. Consider, for example, our extreme overuse of antibiotics. Though it appears that we can cure pretty much any infection with antibiotics, we’re very close to living in a world where antibiotics no longer work at all. One of the most terrifying books I’ve read this year is science journalist Maryn McKenna’s book Big Chicken, which is about how the agriculture industry depends on antibiotics to keep animals “healthy” in filthy, overcrowded conditions. This is creating antibiotic-resistant bacteria that are coming for us, pretty much any day now. That’s right–penicillin-doped chickens are the real culprits in I Am Legend.
I’m fascinated by how many false healthcare utopias depend on coercive neuroscience. Often, brain surgery is involved—we see this in John Christopher’s Tripods and Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies series, both about so-called utopian worlds created by neurosurgical interventions that restrict freedom of thought. Maybe these stories focus on brains so much because these are fundamentally stories about lies, and brains are, after all, the organ that we use for lying.
When I started work on my novel Autonomous (out today! yes it is!), I knew I wanted to explore the lies of the pharmaceutical industry and its gleaming ads promising a better life to those who can afford a scrip. One of the protagonists, Jack, has become a pharmaceutical pirate so that she can bring expensive, patented medicine to poor people who need it. But she also sells a few of what she calls “funtime worker drugs” on the side, to fund her Robin Hood activities and keep her submarine in good repair.
Those funtime drugs are why things go sideways for Jack. She sells some pirated Zacuity, a “productivity” drug that I loosely based on Provigil or Adderall. It gets people really enthusiastic about work, but it has some unexpected side-effects that the pharma company Zaxy has suppressed. Now Jack has to stop the drug from killing more people, while also evading two deadly agents sent by Zaxy: a robot named Paladin and a human named Eliasz.
So Autonomous is chase story with some hot robot sex, but it’s also very much a book about how pharma companies sell us an idea of “health” that is actually really unhealthy.
Today pharma companies market drugs the way Disney markets Star Wars movies, and for good reason. Drugs like Adderall and Provigil are supposed to make us feel better and more competent—or at the very least distract us—for a few blissful hours. Just like a movie. I’m not trying to say there’s a problem with taking drugs (or watching movies) to feel good. Nor am I saying that people don’t need anti-depressants and other meds to treat psychological problems. The issue is when these drugs are overprescribed for enhancement, and “feeling really good” becomes a terrible kind of norm. Pharma companies want us to believe that if we aren’t incredibly attentive, productive, and happy every day, there must be something wrong. This paves the way for an ideal of mental health that almost nobody can (or should) live up to.
There’s another, deeper problem that’s caused by selling medicine as if it were a form of entertainment. Nobody would ever argue that going to see the new Star Wars movie is a right. It’s just a luxury for people with disposable income. If we see medicine like that too, it’s easy to fall for the lie that our healthcare system is great even though it only serves the richest people in the U.S.
In the world of Autonomous, the pharma companies are full of guys like Martin Shkreli, jacking up the prices on medicine because they can. They get away with it because so many people in the U.S. believe that anyone can get medicine if they really deserve it. Only a lie of that magnitude could make it seem fair when working class people can’t afford to treat AIDS-related complications. Or cancer. Or a heart infection.
Autonomous is a book about lies. But more importantly, it’s about what happens to the people who see through those lies and try to do something about it. Everyone deserves to have medicine. It is a right, not a privilege. Until we recognize that, I’ll be hanging out with the pirates.
Well, specifically this silly person said I would never earn out [x] amount of money I got as an advance, and also that I would in fact never see [x] amount of money, because of reasons they left unspecified but which I assume were to suggest that my contracts would be cancelled long before I got the payout. As [x] amount of money seems to suggest this silly person is talking about my multi-book multi-year contracts, let me say:
1. lol, no;
2. [x] was not the sum for any of my contracts (either for individual works or in aggregate) so that’s wrong to begin with;
3. It’s pretty clear that this silly person has very little idea how advances work in general, or how they are paid out;
4. It’s also pretty clear this silly person has very little idea how advances work with long-term, multi-project contracts in particular, or how they are paid out;
5. Either this silly person has never signed a book contract, or they appear to have done a very poor job of negotiating their contracts;
6. In any event, it’s very clear this silly person has no idea about the particulars of my business.
Which makes sense as I don’t go into great detail about them in public. But it does mean that people asserting knowledge of my business are likely to be flummoxed by the actual facts. Like, for example, the fact that I’m already earning royalties on work tied into those celebrated-yet-apparently-actually-
How am I getting royalties on a work tied to contracts that this silly person has assured all and sundry I will never earn out? The short answer is because I’ve earned out, obviously. The slightly longer answer is that my business deals are interesting and complex and designed to roll money to me on a steady basis over a long period of time, but when you are a silly person who apparently knows nothing about how book contracts work (either my specific ones, or by all indications book contracts in general) and you have an animus against me because, say, you’re an asshole, or because of group identification politics that require that I must actually be a raging failure, for reasons, you are prone to assert things that are stupid about my business and show your complete ignorance of it. And then I might be inclined to point and laugh about it.
In any event, this is a fine time to remind people of two things. The first thing is that I have detractors, and it’s very very important to them that I’m seen as a failure. There’s nothing I can ever do or say to dissuade them against this idea, so the least I can do is offer them advice, which is to make their assertions of my failure as non-specific as possible, because specificity is not their friend. I would also note to them that regardless, my failures, real or imagined, will not make them any more successful in their own careers. So perhaps they should focus on the things they can materially effect, i.e., their own writing and career, and worry less about what I’m doing.
Second, if someone other than me, my wife, my agent or my business partners (in the context of their own contracts with me) attempts to assert knowledge of my business, you may reliably assume they are talking out of their ass. This particularly goes for my various detractors, most of whom don’t appear to have any useful understanding of how the publishing industry works outside of their (and this is a non-judgmental statement) self-pub and micro-pub worlds, which are different beasts than the part I work in, and also just generally dislike me and want me to be a miserable failure and are annoyed when I persist in not being either. Wishing won’t make it so, guys.
Bear in mind speculating about my business is perfectly fine, and even if it wasn’t I couldn’t stop it anyway. Speculate away! People have done it for years, both positively and negatively, and most of the time it’s fun to watch people guess about it. Even this silly person’s speculation is kind of fun, in the sense it’s interesting to see all the ways it’s wrong. But to the extent that the unwary may believe this silly person (or other such silly people among my detractors, and as a spoiler they are all fairly silly on this topic) knows what they are talking about with regard to my business: Honey, no. They really don’t. They have their heads well up their asses.
Or, as I said on Twitter:
And actually the dog has been in the same room as my contracts, so in fact she might know more. Keep that in mind the next time a detractor opines on my business.
Back when I was studying music production and engineering at Berklee College of Music, I had a mystical epiphany that didn’t even involve recreational chemistry. It came to me in the classroom while looking at a handout the instructor had passed around. She was about to present an overview of AM and FM radio technology and wanted us to take a look at the wave spectrum within which those broadcast frequencies are nested. On the left, the diagram showed the subsonic vibrations elephants transmit through the ground to communicate over long distances. Moving to the right, it worked its way up through the octaves of audible sound waves and then on to ultrasonic, radio, microwave, infrared, visible light, ultraviolet, x-rays, and gamma rays.
My education up to that point was far more focused on playing guitar than on physics, but I had read about how even matter is essentially composed of waves—or particles, depending on the method of measurement—vibrating at high enough rates to create the illusion of solidity. Still, seeing it all laid out like that, bottom to top, made a profound impression on me. It reminded me that all human perception is just a glimpse through the slats of a fence, a fragmentary picture of a reality we can only experience with a biological bias and a crude, albeit ever expanding, set of tools to fill in the blanks.
It’s a humbling idea. One that I later remembered I’d first encountered in the horror story “From Beyond” by H.P. Lovecraft. In that tale, a scientist discovers alien life forms writhing in the air all around him by tuning his perception with a resonator device he calls “The Ultraviolet.”
When I set out to reimagine the Cthulhu Mythos for the SPECTRA Files trilogy, this idea of exposure to special frequencies opening up human perception to other dimensions and entities was a major element I wanted to explore. After all, the closest thing to real magic I’ve experienced in my own life is the way that music—invisible wave patterns in the air—has the power to open the human heart to unexpected dimensions of feeling.
Music plays a major role in the SPECTRA books. There’s a cosmic boom box that houses a lab-grown larynx, a grand piano that acts as a portal to infernal realms, and a sea organ borrowed from a real architectural instrument in Zadar, Croatia, that plays haunting chords when the waves roll into its chambers. But the main character, Becca Philips, does her work higher up in the wave spectrum. She’s an urban explorer and photographer who shoots infrared photos of abandoned buildings in flood-ravaged Boston. Becca finds an eerie spirituality in the ghostly light emitted by weeds and vines in that range. But when her photos pick up fractal tentacles seeping into our world from an adjacent dimension, she is caught between cultists employing weird tech to evoke monstrous gods and a covert agency that suspects she might be one of them.
From water to sound to light, there are waves rolling through the entire trilogy. But the wave spectrum isn’t the big idea, perception is: how we see the world and our place in it.
Becca Philips is a character defined by her sensitivity. She experienced loss at an early age and continues to suffer from recurrent depression compounded by Seasonal Affective Disorder. It’s her sensitivity to light and shadow, her unique way of looking at the world, that makes her a great photographer. And it’s her unique perception that entangles her in the unfolding apocalypse and puts her in a position to do something about it. In book one (Red Equinox), she willingly exposes herself to the harmonics that align the human plane with that of the monsters, an act which makes her more vulnerable even as it dispenses with the illusion of a benign reality so she might be empowered to save others from what lurks just beyond that thin veneer. Becca chose this vision as an act of heroism and chose to keep it when offered a drug that would make it go away. But sometimes the cost of courage is that your contact with dark things changes you and makes you one of them.
I knew from the start that as a sensitive, Becca would also be susceptible to the telepathic dreams of Cthulhu slumbering on the ocean floor sooner or later. I knew she would struggle with her sanity and ultimately have to make a judgment about the sanity of mankind at large and whether our supremacy on the planet is ultimately for the best. As a vegetarian and animal rescuer, Becca sees the value of all life. But when you look long enough into the abyss, the abyss looks into you, and in Cthulhu Blues Becca finally has to grapple with the question of whether or not the Great Old Ones might be better for life on Earth than mankind in the long run. The crux of her crisis is that the same empathetic eye that drives her to save animals, children, and civilization, also opens her to the possibility that the cultists might be right to topple the human race from its throne. She has to ask herself what it is in the spectrum of consciousness that sets humanity apart. If we’re not at the top of the food chain anymore, what makes us unique and worth saving?
I’ve always thought it’s our capacity for compassion. Our ability to see others, even the wretched and subhuman, the animal and the alien, with a kind eye. But if we retreat into the tunnel vision of fear at the first scent of crisis, then what do we have left that makes us the good guys? When you’re caught between a militant covert agency and a radical religious cult, are dark gods really worse than white devils?
This morning was dewy and we have quite a lot of spiders around the Scalzi Compound (it being a rural area and full of bugs, you see), so I went out with my camera and took pictures of some of the webs, and occasionally, the webs’ architects as well. The collection of images is here, if you’d like to see them. Obviously for the spider-sensitive, this collection will feature arachnids, so be aware. I’m making this its own album and will probably add to it over time, so if you like spiders and spiderwebs, check in from time to time.
Here in the US, our fate and fortune was tied up in Iraq for many years. But what does the future hold for that country now? Iraq + 100, an anthology of Iraqi science fiction, offers several views of possibilities. Now, the acquiring editor and three authors from the anthology talk a bit about the book and the futures therein.
Claire Eddy, Senior Editor at Tor/Forge
I got a submission last fall from a small UK publisher and once I started reading I couldn’t stop. The editor of the anthology, Hassan Blasim, asked a simple question–how could you imagine your nation 100 years from now?
The question posed to Iraqi writers (those still in their homeland and those who have joined a world-wide diaspora), has produced an amazing project, a roadmap of what their country might look like following the disastrous foreign invasion of 2003.
Simply put, I believe that Iraq+100 is a piece of fiction that has the potential to make a difference.
I don’t say this lightly. I am very passionate about all the projects that I take on, but Iraq + 100 has a particularly special importance to me. These writers have given us not just wonderful stories, but the collection itself has a unique voice that I think deserves to be heard. Storytelling has always had the power to not only entertain, but to inform and change hearts. I truly believe that this project has the ability to do these very things.
I think a project like Iraq + 100 would do well at any point in time. In the environment that we find ourselves now, however, I think this book has a much bigger potential.
Ibrahim Al-Marashi, author of “Najufa”
My story “Najufa” is based on my first trip to the Iraqi Shi’a shrine cities of Najaf and Kufa as an adult with my father and mother in 2010. The tensions that drive the relationship between the narrator and his grandfather in the story is based on the tensions I had with my own father during that trip. My father was born in the east African island of Zanzibar, as a result of his father escaping Najaf during the British occupation of Iraq in 1920 for taking part in an insurgency then. My father returned to Iraq in the sixties, went to medical school in Baghdad, and would visit Najaf and his relatives there often. However, my father did not travel to Iraq when Saddam Hussein was in power from 1979 to 2003.
I expected the trip in 2010 to be a nostalgic “home coming” for him, but as an old man in his seventies, he seemed oblivious to the whole place or experience. He was more concerned with drinking tea and relating his life experiences to any random person in the tea house than visiting the shrines. I compared his indifference to the spirituality inside the shrine complex to my observations at the same time of the younger pilgrims there, some who wanted to leave after a few minutes of praying, since their mobile phones are not allowed within the confines of any shrine, as terrorists use them to detonate explosives remotely. Everyone had to check in the mobile phone outside the shrine, like a coat check, and without phones, that generation became fidgety. After 2003, regardless of whether one was from Iraq or the “West,” what united us all was addiction to technology. In the story I wanted to project the evolution of how we will become the technology 100 years later, even in an ancient shrine city in Iraq.
Anoud, author of “Kahramana”
Kahramana is a slave girl in a story from A Thousand and One Nights which originates from the Abbasi Era in Mesopotamia, a golden age of enlightenment after which the region fell under conqueror after conqueror and women were further marginalized.
A Thousand and One Nights is one of the few literary examples I recall from the region where women are strong, dangerous characters that move a plot. Usually we’re either ‘damsels in distress’ needing the actions of men or we’re ‘conniving’ and ‘seductive’ inspiring men to act. Women did not swing a sword, not exactly. No surprise there, most of the authors are men.
A Thousand and One Nights did reflect on the norms of its times in the sense that women were spoils of war and slavery existed and was accepted. But women and slaves in those stories, like Kahramana, could be dangerous, independent, smart. Their husbands or keepers were their subordinates in the plot. They had little or no power to move the story along.
My story is more of a pun on A Thousand and One Nights. I make fun of the status quo between east and west, refugees and those on the receiving end. I chose her simply because Kahramana resonated with me as a child. I often passed by a fountain in Baghdad’s Kahramana Square that fascinated me. The fountain was built by a famous Iraqi sculpture in the 1970s to depict Kahramana (sometimes called Morjana) the slave girl from the story of Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves.
Kahramana was standing tall on top of a pile of large jars holding a jug and pouring down onto the jars underneath her feet. According to the story the slave girl was slaying the thieves by dousing them with boiling oil on then sealing each jar shut. We, as Baghdadis, were celebrating a woman slyer. We, in a country where women need men’s permission for anything. And I, the push-over little girl, found her both disturbing and amazing. She just stuck with me.
Though I have come a long way from the timid ‘good girl’ I was raised to be and I like to think I can stand up for myself, I still get pushed around because I’m of the wrong gender, I behave inappropriately for my social class, am of the wrong nationality, standing on the wrong side of a border. It’s fucking endless. And when I want to fly off the handle I remember Kahramana standing over the heads of thieves in a Square in Baghdad, killing them all, indifferent.
Dr. Zhraa Alhaboby, author of “Baghdad Syndrome”
The idea for Baghdad Syndrome was unclear at first, thinking about it brought hopes and fears together. Hence, I began to imagine a future in which Iraq heals with a scar, the scar is the syndrome.
Baghdad Syndrome is a collection of physical and mental symptoms reflecting what people in Iraq are going through. Inspired by my last visit to Iraq, I looked more worried about the future than people living there, I saw the syndrome in almost everyone! The heart rate increases with every sudden explosion, and fear of loss. The depression comes from uncertainty, where people do not really know whether they will return home if they went out. Hallucinations and nightmares, due to the verge of reality with unbelievable events. Yet, their faces were smiley, living the moment and kept smiling to survive. Amusingly the painful reality was turned into humour. The blindness in the Syndrome is a metaphor to the endless electricity cuts in Baghdad, leaving a city that loves lights in darkness. Another darkness is the sudden loss of beloved ones, a point in life where nothing else could remain the same afterwards.
The inspiration to link the syndrome with genetic mutations came from my work. During that year (2014), I was writing a report about health-related human rights in Iraq. Revising international reports showed that health was underrepresented. Back then I contacted the Ministry of Human Rights in Iraq, it was a hopeless attempt because having no internal governmental connections means the request will be overlooked. Yet, I received a prompt reply from a local employee striving to share internal reports from several parts of the country. These reports demonstrated increased rates of congenital malformations in newborns in areas still compiled with war wastes. However, the symptoms of Baghdad Syndrome are far away from being a relatively immediate physical impact.
Writing about the future was not an easy task, I needed a link to tell the story. My style of writing is through the lenses of ancient history and riddles. My emotional link with Scheherazade’s statue in Baghdad had always inspired me, I had the sense she was watching and telling stories about what’s happening around her. With my admiration of A Thousand and One Nights, I thought Scheherazade could be my witness and say my riddle this time. When I had the context, the syndrome, and Scheherazade, I could write part of myself in each character in the story to finalise it. After finishing the story I realised, I always sketched the statue with a background of buildings and a pigeon around! Looks like my version of the future was in my sub-consciousness after all!
The conditions are not usually right around here to capture a fog bow in a full arc, but this morning I got lucky and also had my phone camera with me. It records panoramas, which was useful because the fog bow was just too wide to be captured in the usual 16:9 frame of the phone camera. So here we are: a fogbow, which I am posting here for posterity’s sake, and also because it’s pretty. Good morning, world.
- I’ll be drawing a winner of an autographed ARC of Terminal Alliance tomorrow! See http://www.jimchines.com/2017/09/
disaster-aid-and-terminal-alliance- giveaway/ for details and to enter. (And HUGE thanks to everyone who’s already donated.)
- The wonderful Book Smugglers are celebrating their 10th anniversary next year, and are doing a Kickstarter to help them to buy and publish more fiction, as well as to bring in new blog contributors. Contributors can receive anthologies, art prints, autographed books, and more awesome stuff!
- ICON and Continuum will be here in the coming weeks. I’m Toastmastering the former and Guest of Honoring the latter. Anyone else planning to be at one or both?
- Apropos of nothing, this remains one of my favorite xkcd comics ever.
The “Big Idea” for Rebel Seoul was super soldiers, specifically female super soldiers, but let’s go back to the beginning.
In 2001, I became addicted to Cartoon Network’s Toonami, a television programming block that brought English dubbed anime into the West. The block ran late at night in what was called the Midnight Run. So, as an 11-year-old schoolgirl with reasonable parents, I had to set a timer to record the shows on the VCR. To make it easier, my friends and I would take turns recording the shows and would meet on the weekends to exchange tapes like some sort of grade school smuggling ring.
My two favorite shows were Sailor Moon and Mobile Suit Gundam Wing. Though both anime, these shows were in vastly different genres. Sailor Moon, about a Tokyo schoolgirl with magical powers, was in the “magical girl” genre, which as the name suggests, featured girls with magical powers, while Mobile Suit Gundam Wing, about young men who pilot giant robots called Gundams, was in the “mecha” genre, which focused primarily on robots and elements of science fiction.
I equally loved both of these shows. In Sailor Moon, I found an adventure story with an all female cast, a story of romance with a dashing boy who oftentimes was in distress, and a heroine to believe in, to see myself in (she was blonde, but she was Asian!) and to love with a fangirl’s unwavering devotion. In Gundam Wing, I found an intelligent war story of rebellion and sacrifice that moved me to the core, a cast of beautiful boys to swoon over (be still my adolescent heart!) and some amazing visual eye candy in the Gundams themselves – massive robots blowing up stuff Is. The. Shit.
This was the beginning of my love, not only for anime, but for media in all its forms: TV shows, films, video games, Korean dramas, K-pop, comics, and of course, books.
Rebel Seoul is the second book I’ve ever completed, and my debut novel. Before Rebel Seoul, I’d written a young adult fantasy, as well as several short stories and flash pieces, some of which can be found in obscure pockets of the Internet.
The inspiration for Rebel Seoul came from a dream. In the dream, a girl stood at the top of the tallest building in Seoul, South Korea, listening to a song as it drifted through the wind. The girl was crying. Somehow I knew she had never heard a song before. It made me think, what sort of person would have never heard a song before?
Answer: A government experiment, obviously.
I then built a world and story and characters around this dream image (or gif, really) that stayed with me through each revision of the novel, although it never made it into the novel itself. I imagine it’s in the prologue before the first scene. The government experiment became a super soldier project called “The Amaterasu Project,” where girls were transformed into weapons with codenames: “Ama” for girls with psychic and mental abilities, “Tera” for girls with physical abilities like increased strength and quick reflexes and “Su” for girls with both physical and mental abilities. I wanted to make the idea “big,” so I added giant robots.
So there I was, the big idea: female super soldiers piloting giant robots!
In a way, I feel like I combined those two anime I loved when I was a child. The girls were now the pilots saving a war-torn world.
As a 1st gen Korean American growing up in the U.S., I didn’t have a lot of mirrors in popular media. Discovering Toonami and watching these shows was one of the first times I ever saw people like me – beautiful, strong, courageous people – as heroes. Perhaps this is another big idea, or perhaps this is the big idea, that I wanted to write a book where my 11-year-old self could be the hero.
Today marks the 19th birthday of Whatever, and once again I’m left to reflect that it’s a hell of a thing to be doing anything for as long as I’ve been writing here. Nineteen years ago today was four presidents back; Krissy and I lived in Sterling, Virginia; Athena, who is now in college, was about three months out from being born; and I had written but a single novel, which at the time only three people besides myself had read, and which was seven years from actual print publication. It’s odd to think of what a very different time it was.
It’s also odd to think of how very few of those first set of blogs, the ones that were up and running in 1998, still exist out on the Internet, in non-archived form, anyway. Out of my regular 1998 blog reads (or “online diary” reads, since the word “blog” had no currency then), only James Lileks is still putting posts out there on what could be called a regular basis. Most of the rest of the sites are shuttered and the ones that aren’t, update sporadically if at all. I don’t think it’s at all surprising that James and I have kept at it regularly all this time. We both come out of newspapers and I suspect we both think of our blogs as another news hole to be regularly filled with… well, something, anyway.
Also, unless you’re trained for writing or at least posting every day it’s not that easy a thing to do. People back in the day who started blog with endless enthusiasm would often realize that the infinite maw of a blog could be daunting, especially when you felt like you were throwing words out into the void and who knows who was catching them on the other end. This is the secret sauce of Facebook and Twitter, incidentally. You follow all your friends, they follow you, and then when you post, you know who your audience is and (more or less) that they’re actually listening. And if you don’t post on Facebook or Twitter for a day, or a week, or whatever, well. Someone else in your friend circle is. The pressure is off. It’s a much more congenial set-up for someone who isn’t hypergraphic by nature.
This last year has been an interesting one to try to write here regularly, in no small part because while our current administration certainly generates lots of heat and controversy, in many ways it’s difficult to say anything pertinent or insightful about it; once one is done saying “well, this is what happens when you elect an incompetent and incurious narcissistic bigot to the highest office in the land” the first few dozen times, everything else seems repetition.
Rather than being energized to fight the fumbling, shambling fascism of Donald Trump and his pals, I’ve found myself dispirited by it. It’s neither interesting nor fun to chronicle the stupid and malicious. I’m glad it’s not my job to be a full-time political writer in this era. Nevertheless I swing away at the current administration, although less than I imagined I would (here, anyway; the brevity of Twitter lends itself to my level of engagement). Fortunately there are always cats and sunsets and talking about writing.
If I had to describe the last year of writing, here and elsewhere, it would be to say that it’s been a year of recalibration, and trying to stay engaged and creative while the world is on fire. As I’ve noted before, it’s not like this is a new sort of thing — writers and other creative sorts have had to learn how to keep at their gig in awful times before, including some times that have been objectively rather more awful than this one. That said, this time certainly isn’t great, and presents its own set of challenges. I suspect it’s not just me doing some recalibration these days.
Be that as it may, and once again, I’ll keep on writing here. I still like doing it, and I still have an urge to write on many topics, and post pictures of pets and family and sunsets. And people still come by to see what I’m up to. It works out. And thank you for coming by.
This time next year will be the 20th anniversary of the site. I’ll have to figure out something special for it. I have some ideas. I’ll let you know what they are when I get them sorted.
What is the biggest mistake you’ve ever made?
Thinking about my own contenders for that title is a nightmarish undertaking. I relive countless relationship blunders, work miscalculations, and poor life decisions. It’s a part of being human to have moments we would take back if we could, to avoid hurting others, to avoid hurting ourselves.
But to quote an ancient proverb, innumerable legal cases, and Caine from Matthew Woodring Stover’s brilliant Heroes Die, “You can’t unring the bell.”
Barring time travel, what is, is.
We are left with the fallen pieces of whatever we’ve broken and the challenge of reassembling them. But we know the fixed version will always be compromised, rendered weaker than the original, no matter how we try to mend the breaks. For small things, this is an acceptable finish, and we can resume our lives unburdened by the incident.
But what if the mistake is so big you can’t fix it?
This question lies at the heart of Trespassers. A young officer in charge of a battleship’s night shift makes a choice driven by a combination of ego and patriotism. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, Lieutenant Commander Anderson Cross’s decision would be a mistake of the first kind, easily fixed and put away. This time, it puts his ship on the path to disaster. For the rest of the series, he must contend with the realization that his decision directly results in a holy war that will claim countless lives. He must contend with the realization that his decision turned the dream of first contact with an alien race into a nightmare. Cross’s story is the Big Idea of the tale—how do we come to terms with a choice gone wrong?
Despite the best intentions, Cross makes a mistake—partly a result of his actions, partly a result of circumstance, but now entirely his to own. In facing this failure, he has more choices to make. Some of them naturally go awry because perfection is more often sought than achieved.
How can a person, any person, bear up under such intense pressure without shattering?
His long-time-friend and sometimes-romantic-partner Lieutenant Commander Kate Flynn faces her own set of choices as events unfold. She must decide how to help Cross overcome his error, how to tell him that his fear of confronting that failure is causing him to make more poor decisions. She has to choose whether to risk their friendship by telling him the hard truth.
Cross and Kate are you and I, are all of us. We consistently wrestle with the fallout from our own mistakes, and we strive to help others through the pain and confusion when they fall. Often, we find the edge of the thin line that separates help from harm only after we’ve left it behind.
These are the moments when we discover who we really are.
These are the moments when we identify our true friends.
These are the moments that make us.
For the characters in Trespassers, the stakes are monumental as they travel the thinnest of paths at the border of life and death. Hopefully, the mistakes we make in our daily lives have lesser impact. In both cases, these ongoing challenges we create for ourselves are pivotal in our learning, growth, and maturation. Each new mistake teaches us vital things about the world and our place in it.
The Stoic philosopher Seneca once said, “a gem cannot be polished without friction, nor a [person] perfected without trials.” Our mistakes are self-imposed trials, granted by the universe to inspire our growth. Our response to them may lead us on the path toward perfection—or at least toward a better self.
Perhaps the best result we can hope for is embodied in the Japanese practice of kintsugi, which finds beauty in the rejoining of things once broken. The restoration is made obvious with application of gold lacquer, and the glittering repairs add to the history of the item being preserved. The original then incorporates the art and vision of the restorer and becomes somehow greater for its destruction and resurrection.
Cross will grow through his own rejoining, or he will remain forever broken. Kate will grow through her efforts to help him bring his fractured pieces together, or she will sacrifice their relationship in the attempt. The rewards are high, and the risks higher.
I have undeniably grown as a result of my own mistakes, and though I don’t always have it in me to display them with pride, they are nonetheless a vital part of the person I am now. I sincerely hope you can say the same.
So, the Big Idea once more: how do we best face our mistakes? Perhaps the key to success is a simple shift of perspective—to abandon the natural desire to unring the bell and instead accept our trials as an opportunity to become. To remember, as John Campbell aptly put
it: “The black moment is the moment when the real message of transformation is going to come. At the darkest moment comes the light.” That light reveals our true self.
Cross’s true self will be revealed against a backdrop of space battles, alien invaders, adventure, and enough explosions for three summer blockbusters. And, of course, mistakes and more mistakes as he grows and learns. Writing a book driven by a mistake threw my own into greater relief, and allowed me to find a way into Cross’s head. I believe the way he faces his challenges, both successfully and unsuccessfully, is authentic to the experiences we all share. It was a pleasure to write such a conflicted character and watch him find his way onto a path, even if it is not (yet) the path to perfection.
I wish you the smallest mistakes necessary to find the way to your own light, and strength in your continuous becoming.
My introduction to The Tick came in the late 90s, with the animated series. A few of my grad school friends and I would get together each week, eat Pillsbury cinnamon rolls, and watch The Tick (and a few other shows.)
I loved it. I loved the humor, the silliness, the undermining of superhero tropes, and the overall sense of fun.
This was my background as I logged onto Amazon Prime to watch their live-action take on The Tick.
It felt like the entire show was filmed using the same Gritty Angst Filter they used on Batman v Superman. They managed to make The Tick almost entirely joyless.
- Arthur is mentally ill, on medication for PTSD and other troubles, as a result of watching his father killed in front of him, then watching his favorite superhero team blinded and murdered by The Terror.
- The Tick has no memory of where he came from. This plot thread pretty much disappears, but it sets up The Tick as a tragic figure.
- Random violence, swearing, and killing. I don’t object to these things in stories, but they often felt gratuitous and pointless.
- There’s a hero named Superian, who has no connection at all to the story. He’s just there in random expository scenes about the world. Maybe he’ll have a point in the second season?
- For the most part, the show simply wasn’t funny.
Let me put it this way. Does the idea of a villain using weaponized syphilis to blind his enemies, then showing up to shoot them dead while they stagger about, strike you as funny? If so, you might get a kick out of this show. Me, I just cringed.
There were some good moments. I laughed at one of the very first lines: “Your reindeer are on fire.” And the show improved a bit in the last episode or two. I particularly liked the interplay between The Tick and Overkill (the show’s Punisher character). The Tick’s scolding “Don’t encourage him” as he catches a thrown machete was perfect. The Tick’s interactions with Arthur’s step-father were wonderful as well.
I didn’t need this to be a repeat of the animated show I loved. But it felt like it tried way too hard to be dark and gritty and edgy, at the cost of the heart and joy I was hoping for.
With all that said, I might still watch the next batch of six episodes when they come out. (I’m told that technically, this won’t be season two, but the second half of season one.) If they continue to improve the way they did in those last couple of episodes…
But for now, I’m rating this a solid disappointment.
Note: When I mentioned my feelings about the show on Twitter, someone pointed out that it had good scores over at Rotten Tomato. I’m not sure what the point was supposed to be. I’m not saying nobody else likes the show, or that nobody else is allowed to like it. I’m just sharing the reasons I didn’t.
Trade paperback size, 1268 very thin pages. I trust it will seem a bargain.
Translated, if I am reading correctly, by Melanie Fazi and Emmanuelle Casse-Castric.
I have no idea whether the cover art is bespoke or generic, but I like to think it refers to, well, a lot of things; assorted characters' armor, and of course the five fingers for the five gods. Artist credit goes to Johann Bodin.
Tell your French-reading friends...
posted by Lois McMaster Bujold on September, 12
Susan Forest and Lucas K. Law tackle a topic in The Sum of Us that I wouldn’t have considered for an anthology of speculative stories. But the fault here is mine, not theirs, and in today’s Big Idea, the explain why their particular topic served as fertile ground for this collection.
My father, Don Forest, was a remarkable man. He was the first person to climb all the peaks in the Canadian Rockies and Interior Ranges of BC over 11,000 feet (64 peaks), and at age 71, the oldest person to climb Canada’s highest mountain, Mount Logan. And, though he’d always treasured the outdoors, he didn’t take up mountaineering until he was in his early forties.
He taught my brother and sisters and I not only the nuts and bolts of outdoorsmanship, but the culture, the folklore, and the way of life of the mountain community. A highly respected “old mountain man,” he took no greater delight than to teach his children, and later his grandchildren, how to clean a fish, how to make a meal on a one-burner stove, how to repair a broken ski binding twenty miles from the highway. For him, his “Grizzly Group” of mountaineering comrades were his community. The glint of early morning sun on a high peak was his spirituality.
He gave it all up when, in her late seventies, my mother developed dementia.
Of course. An avocation can be a powerful passion, but your mate, your bonded life partner, is a piece of yourself. And she had stayed home many weekends, uncomplaining, caring for home, hearth and children as he went out to make his mark. They cared for each other.
I understand some of this. I love my work, my writing, my editing; but my children and my husband are part of me. Always, they come first. There is no question that the care we give one another is, personally to me and to most people, the highest priority, the highest calling, there is.
So, when Lucas approached me about working with him on The Sum of Us: Tales of the Bonded and Bound, an anthology about caregivers and caregiving, it was not only the timeliness of the subject in a western world of aging demographics, or his amazing line-up of potential authors, or the phenomenal experience I had working with him on Laksa Media’s first anthology, Strangers Among Us: Tales of the Underdogs and Outcasts, that prompted me to say, “Yes!”
It was an opportunity to read stories that captured the dimensions of love, sometimes unreturned; of desperation of a caregiver’s inability to conceive of a world without their partner; of the hard choices faced by those who, for whatever reason, choose not to take up this tough road. To explore the magnitude of human relationships implicit in an anthology centred on what it means…to care.
And I am so glad I did.
LUCAS K. LAW:
The Big Idea for The Sum of Us comes from the women in my life—the exemplary courage they have shown when they go through adversity and challenges. They are not famous or well-known. They are just ordinary folks who define the breadth and depth of giving and of caring for a young boy growing up in Malaysia, and later a man making his way in Canada.
The woman who influences me the most is my mother. She lost her mother when she was ten. At eleven, she had to leave home to live in a boarding school, as schooling was not available in her kampong. Two years later, she moved into a rented shack to take care of her three younger brothers (later, a fourth brother) who came for primary education. At fifteen, she left school to make a living. To be independent and be a caregiver at such a young age was amazing and heartbreaking. Imagine the piles of laundry she had to do for four boys—hand washing, line drying, ironing, folding—a constant and thankless chore.
I was six when another strong woman came to live with us. My paternal grandmother did not come willingly, but she could no longer take care of herself. My pregnant mother took care of her, as well as a household of seven other people. Caregiving turned out to be 24/7. A year later, my grandmother died of cancer.
In the last ten years, mental illness has struck several of my relatives. And it was the women who held everyone together through their strong determination, resiliency, and commitment, even when they felt the sting of stigma and silence from their friends and strangers.
So I totally understand when Liz Westbrook-Trenholm dedicated her story in The Sum of Us: “To the women in my family: gentle or strong, never to be discounted.”
I have seen caregiving that comes from many places, directly or behind the scenes: parents, relatives, day-care workers, educators, volunteers, people in medical, police and fire services, and many more. Caregiving has cast a wider net than what is termed by traditionalists who see caregiving as strictly for the old, ill, or disabled. Caregiving consists of the words “care” and “giving.” Any action that compasses those qualities and makes a difference in someone’s life is deemed to be “caregiving.”
However, my Big Idea is worthless if the stories remain just stories, hidden away within the pages of The Sum of Us, and no one ever knows they exist—the messages they carry about caregiving being a noble profession, voluntary or involuntary, paid or free, short-term or long-term, are lost. It is up to us to find ways to tell and share these stories and our stories of the unsung heroes in our society—invisible in the background or relegated to a footnote, quietly making a difference to those whom each touches. The authors have done their jobs with their stories; let’s take a step further and get these stories into the hands of others.
Suggest or recommend The Sum of Us: Tales of the Bonded and Bound to your local public and school libraries. Help these stories of caregiving and caregivers live beyond these pages.
Folks, let’s have a moment of silence for my wife’s iPod Nano, a fourth generation version of the machine, which finally called it a day after nearly nine years of service, which in this age of planned obsolescence, is an impressively long run. Krissy went to wake it up this morning to run on the treadmill and it just wouldn’t turn on, despite being fully charged. This was a very sad day for Krissy. All her favorite playlists were in there.
The iPod Nano is survived by Krissy’s Samsung Galaxy S7, which has access to Spotify and Google Music and of course YouTube Red. But it’s just not the same.
Farewell, little blue iPod Nano. You were too beautiful for this world. May you scroll freely in the dimensions beyond this, playing Blondie and Concrete Blonde in eternity.
And now, some of the most famous authors in the English language show a side that you probably never knew about — and Catherynne M. Valente uses that side to build up her latest novel, The Glass Town Game.
CATHERYNNE M. VALENTE:
So let’s say you’re a geeky kid, like any other geeky kid. School sucks, your siblings range from pretty okay to deeply annoying, everyone’s always telling you what to do and when to do it when all you really want to do is read your books and play with your action figures and maybe log on to your favorite multiplayer game.
Now, let’s say you’re a geeky kid who’s going to grow up to be one or two or three of the greatest geniuses of English literature, and you live in a Yorkshire village in 1828, and electricity is only a thing inasmuch as some American fooled around with a key and a kite awhile back. What’s a precocious, highly competitive pre-teen to do?
Welcome to Glass Town, perhaps the world’s first massively multiplayer offline text adventure. Meet the mods: Charlotte, Emily, Anne, and Branwell. You may know them better by their last name: Brontë.
You see, when the Brontës were kids, and not yet idols of literary fiction, they were exactly like nerdy kids are today, and invented a huge fantasy world together, complete with every worldbuilding cliche we know so well: every prince’s lineage was meticulously recorded, every horse had a backstory, every villain had an ancient grudge to twirl his mustache around, every city had a precise encyclopedia entry listing population, imports and exports, historical battles, and famous citizens. There was even a magic system worked out, invented and curated, naturally, on the monasterial Island of Philosophers. It may be strange to think of the writers of Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights as your average Dungeons and Dragons playing adolescents, but they were exactly that—except they did it long before you ever heard of it. Long before it was cool.
The four of them, not only Charlotte and Emily, who you will have heard of, but Anne and Branwell, who you may not have, created the fantasy worlds of Glass Town, Gondal, and Angria, and peopled them with a cast of thousands. (Anne also wrote excellent books, but they are less blusteringly romantic and more iron-jawed feminist, and so do not get gushing film adaptations. Branwell, unfortunately, went down another, yet tragically traditional hipster route—he got fired from his job for sexual harassment and ended up having to move back home, where he became addicted to heroin and died quite young.) They wrote hundreds of stories in their private universe, full of a child’s understanding of British politics, Yorkshire fairy tales, Shakespearian plots, an obsession with Arctic and African exploration, and, growing up in the shadow of the Napoleonic Wars, battle after battle after battle. The main players in these sagas were a set of wooden soldiers their father bought Branwell for Christmas, which his sisters immediately claimed as communal property and used to act out their sagas, much as children today can play with their Skylanders aciton figures, then plug them into their consoles and watch them have adventures onscreen. But of course, the Brontës had no screens beyond pieces of paper. It hardly mattered. Geeks are geeks, and geekery is timeless.
Being the geniuses they were, however, these geeks took it a step further. Their fantasy world was downright postmodern. They invented in-world publishing houses and made two of the wooden soldiers into editors that printed magazines for the people of Glass Town, magazines that the Brontës completely laid out and wrote themselves under a number of different bylines, even going so far as to have inter-columnist rivalries. When 11-year-old Branwell invented an obvious Mary Sue by the name of Young Soult the Rhymer, the greatest poet of all time, 12-year-old Charlotte immediately began a brutal sniping campaign, writing scathing reviews of Young Soult’s work, calling it rubbish and analyzing it mercilessly line by line. They wrote histories of Angria, and then created other historians to contradict the “accepted” narrative.
And when Branwell, as young boys love to do, got tired of his poetry being trashed and turned to his favorite games, gleefully blowing up castles and forts and ships and camps, murdering every main character in a daily bloodbath worthy of George R. R. Martin, Emily and Anne invented an elixir of life to bring everyone back to play another day, virtually inventing the Continue screen long before Atari was a pixel in the mainframe’s eye.
In a small playroom in a Parsonage at the top of a hill in Yorkshire, four children created an utterly complete universe to rival any speculative fiction writer working today. You can’t even call it just fantasy—some of their characters go to space.
I was captivated by this, not by how cute it is that such fancy famous people made up stories about their dolls, but by how incredibly modern the Brontë children really were, when we think of them as these miserable Gothic maidens on the moor, never cracking a smile. We have so much of their Glass Town writings, still, today, available to read at the click of an Amazon button, and it truly is extraordinary work. I doubt any MFA program would turn down what Charlotte and Emily produced before the age of 13. You can see the beginnings of the writers they’re going to be, the characters they’re going to create, little baby Rochesters and Heathcliffs and Berthas and Janes. You can see them struggling against the women and men they knew they’d have to be when they grew up. You can see them trying on the adult world for size.
But I saw in them what I see in every kid I’ve ever met—the fierce loyalty and obsession to the games they play, online or offline, the imaginative hunger for other worlds. I wanted to make Glass Town a real place, that they really traveled to, and had adventures in, I wanted them to confront their creations, not least because the Brontës are so bloody post-post-modern that they actually did write about visiting their world and confronting their creations in 1828. Charlotte even wrote about dreaming that she herself and all her siblings were just characters in a novel someone else was writing.
I have loved the Brontës since I was a child, and when you love someone, you want to make their dreams come true.
But more than the Brontës dreams of visiting their fantastical universe, I wanted to make every child’s dream come true. Because there are moments, when you are young, and up in your room playing and thinking and imagining and wishing, when there is nothing in the world you want more than for the world inside your head to become the real world that you live in.
Hell, there are moments when you are old when you feel that way.
I didn’t want to write one of those novels where famous writers didn’t actually write their work, they just went to a magical place and recorded it. I know all to well that making worlds is hard work, and those plots always bothered me. I wanted to write a novel where somebody made a world so well, worked their toys so tirelessly, that it became real. And that’s what this book is.
The Glass Town Game is my gift to any kid who played so long and so hard that it felt more real than real life, to anyone who used to be that lonely, nerdy kid at the top of the stairs, making their action figures have epic adventures day after day that they could never hope to have. The history doesn’t matter. The famous name doesn’t matter—it’s never mentioned in the book. What matters is what every kid knows matters—the game, man.
So suit up, log on, and press start. Glass Town is about to get real.
for their vendor page. It will also be available in due course at all the usual suspects, wherever the prior Penric stories have appeared.
posted by Lois McMaster Bujold on September, 12
I get asked a lot by people new to me (or new to my fiction, anyway) which novel of mine they should read first. I have a long-winded answer to this that says, well, I write nearly all of my books to be read as stand-alones, so no matter where you start you should be fine. This answer almost never makes anyone happy. So let’s pretend I never said that, and instead let me now grade my books on “first readability.”
To spare anyone who doesn’t want to read me blather at length on the matter, if I had to pick just one book as the “start here” John Scalzi novel, it would be Old Man’s War. I’ll explain why in a minute. But if that’s just what you wanted from this, there you go, now go out and get it. Have fun and thanks.
Now, here’s a slightly longer “first read” assessment of my novels and novellas and collections, in order of publication. Note the grades here are only for “is this a book I would recommend as a first read,” not in regard to overall quality. In terms of overall quality, I think they are all very good, otherwise I wouldn’t have put them out there to be read.
(Also, obviously: These are my opinions. Others might disagree on which are the best “first reads.”)
Old Man’s War: As noted above this is probably the one I would suggest as a “first read” to most people. The reason is pretty simple: It’s a fast and easy read, it’s my best-known book, it opens a series so if you like it you can continue with the characters, and most importantly for “first read” purposes, it’s highly indicative of my personal style. Which is to say if you read it and like it, there’s a very good chance you’ll like the rest of my novels. If you read it and don’t like it at all, you should probably find another author to read, because I’m not likely to get any better for you. First Read Grade: A+
Agent to the Stars: The is the first novel that I wrote but second published (after Old Man’s War) and takes place in “contemporary” Los Angeles, in which aliens have arrived and are looking for an agent. It’s funny and I think a good example of my tone. As time goes on a number of the references and situations in the book are beginning to age; I think it’s best to say this book represents an alternate timeline that branched off from ours around the turn of the millennium. Still, an easy one to get into. First Read Grade: B
The Ghost Brigades: The second book of the Old Man’s War series. I expressly wrote it to be read as a stand alone, on the perfectly reasonable theory that the first book in the series might not be on the shelf and I didn’t want to give people an excuse to put the book down. So it is readable as a first book. But even so I suspect it’s less suited as a “first book” than Old Man’s War. First Read Grade: B-
The Android’s Dream: This is a standalone (I did start writing a follow-up called The High Castle, but it wasn’t good, so I stopped) and I love it to bits, but it might not be the best “first read” book of mine because it’s also maybe a little… well, aggressive might be the best word. I mean, it starts with a chapter where someone farts someone else to death. It’s a great chapter from a storytelling point of view, but it might not be the best for a first time reader. Unless they want a challenge and don’t mind farts. In which case: Rock on. First Read Grade: B-
The Last Colony: Book three in the Old Man’s War series. Again, I wrote it with the idea that people picking it up might not have access to the other books in the series, so it can be read alone. But it is three books in. Probably not the best place to start. First Read Grade: C
Zoe’s Tale: Book four in the Old Man’s War series but it was originally written a) to be put into high school and middle school libraries, b) as the possible starting point to a trilogy of books following Zoë Boutin-Perry, the teenaged protagonist of the book. So it was written under the assumption that it was the first book in its own spin-off series, and that its readers would not have read the previous books in the universe. Which makes it a not at all bad “first read”, particularly for younger readers. First Read Grade: B+ for younger readers, B for everyone else
The God Engines: A very dark and grim fantasy novella that I wrote in part to make the point that while I usually wrote generally light, generally funny, generally optimistic science fiction, I had have other tools in my writing tool box. The novella is pretty great (it was nominated for the Hugo and Nebula) but it’s also by design non-representative of my larger body of work. So if you really like this, there’s not much else in my oeuvre like it (yet…). I absolutely do want people to read it, but as a first read, I’m not sure I would recommend it. First Read Grade: D
Metatropolis: I edited this shared world anthology of novellas, which includes my own novella Utere Nihil Non Extra Quiritationem Suis. It’s amusing but very light, and while it’s a passable first read I wouldn’t recommend readers start here with me (Metatropolis as a whole is excellent, however). First Read Grade: C
Fuzzy Nation: A “reboot” of the H. Beam Piper novel Little Fuzzy, featuring some of the same characters and general story outline but otherwise vastly revamped and updated. This is actually a very accessible book for first readers and very much in line with my general style and tone. It also has a bit fewer moments of cursing than I usually put in my books, which generally recommends it to younger readers (or more accurately, parents who don’t want to give their kids books with a lot of cursing in them). First Read Grade: A
Redshirts: My Hugo Award-winner. It’s very funny and it references and plays with several decades of science fiction tropes, most notably (obviously) from Star Trek and other film/TV science fiction. I think it’s pretty accessible and the humor in it is the same in tone as you’ll find in my other books, although there is rather more of it. It’s not a bad place to start with me, especially if you like humor and are steeped in science fiction tropes. The caveat I note is that humor is personal, so if you bounce off the humor here (and some people do), you’ll wonder why anyone thought it was a big deal at all. First Read Grade: A-
The Human Division: Book five in the Old Man’s War series. But! It starts a new two-book arc in the series, with new main characters and situations, and I set everything up nicely so that if you’re new to the series you’re caught up on pertinent information so you can move forward quickly. I think it works reasonably well as a first read. First Read Grade: B
Lock In: My gloss on a Crichton-esque near-future thriller, which I like quite a lot and which in point of fact was a first read of mine for a lot of folks, and it seemed to work just fine. Particularly recommended for people who like thrillers and crime novels and are not 100% sure how they feel about science fiction. It’s also a good one to give people who are reluctant to be seen with a book that has spaceships on the cover. First Read Grade: A-
Unlocked: A companion novella to Lock In, written as an oral history and detailing the disease that plays a role in that novel. It’s best read in conjunction with Lock In, and it’s different enough from my usual style that I would probably not have it as an introduction to me. First Read Grade: C
The End of All Things: Book six of the Old Man’s War series and the direct sequel to The Human Division, completing that two-book arc. Again, I think readable on its own, but really not where I would start. It’s better in conjunction with The Human Division. First Read Grade: C
The Dispatcher: This novella is crime noir with a fantasy wash, and it’s a bit off the track from what I’m best known for, although not so much that I feel like it’s unrepresentative. If you were to read (or listen to, as it was written for audiobook) this first, it’s an easy transfer over to Lock In, and vice versa. Try it, it’s fun! First Read Grade: B
Miniatures: This is a collection of very short stories, most under 2,000 words, and almost all of them intended to be humorous. I actually think this is a really nice first read book for me — you get a sense of my humor almost immediately and everything in it moves by quickly (and also, the eBook is, like, $5, so it’s a pretty cheap first date). If you read this and really like it, Redshirts is the obvious next stop in terms of what to read next. First Read Grade: B+
The Collapsing Empire: The first installment of my new space opera series. I really like it, and as with Old Man’s War I think it’s an excellent “first read” because it gives you a very good sense of who I am as a writer — if you like it, there’s an excellent chance you’ll like most everything else of mine. The one tiny caveat is I have a particular character who is super profane, which I love but some people find excessive. But if you can handle that this is a great place to start. First Read Grade: A
I’ll update this piece as new books come out. In the meantime, hope this helps with your first read needs.
Word reaches me by the president of SFWA and other sources that Jerry Pournelle passed away today, in his sleep. This makes it a sad day for science fiction. Pournelle was an outsized voice in the field, publicly often cantankerous and privately quietly devoted to the field, both as a member and former president of SFWA. And he was a very fine writer, with a number of memorable works, particularly those written with Larry Niven. My favorite of those was Footfall, which thrilled me when I was a teenager, although many would point to The Mote in God’s Eye as their finest collaboration. Both were nominated for the Hugo for Best Novel, and Pournelle himself was the inaugural winner of the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer, which he won the same year as he was president of SFWA. Nifty trick, that.
I was not personally close with Jerry Pournelle, but as president of SFWA I had the opportunity to work with him on organizational matters. In that capacity he was always devoted and diligent, and his love for the organization and the field of science fiction was never in the slightest of doubt. He and I differed on many subjects (neither of us were ever exactly shy about expressing ourselves, either privately or in the SFWA discussion areas), but I never doubted his desire to be a positive force in the field, or his willingness to serve when asked. In this, he was the best of men.
My condolences to Dr. Pournelle’s family, friends and fans. His was a good and distinguished life. He will be missed.
Writers are evil people. You’re walking down the aisle of your wedding, lost in marital bliss, and your writer friend is thinking yes, yes, this is wonderful, but how could this all go wrong?
We don’t mean to ponder these awful outcomes. We writers should be focusing on your joyous wedding vows, not imagining brutal Kill Bill-style interruptions or wondering what would cause someone to burst into the room to shout, “I do know why this man and this woman should not be legally married!”
But you know, nobody wants to read a story about things going right.
My unfortunate specialty is asking what goes wrong after the happily ever after – which is why my go-to example here is a wedding. But in my book The Uploaded, I take the biggest happily ever after and absolutely destroy it. I’m not talking about what gets wrecked after two people get married – I’m aiming at what happens five hundred years after all humanity unites in peace and harmony.
That’s right: The Uploaded is destroying the Singularity.
Now, if you’re not familiar with the Singularity, it’s basically the nerdy Rapture. At some point we’ll get enough computational power to upload our brains into the Internet, at which point we will have conquered death and everyone gets access to a digital Heaven that’s basically a supercharged World of Warcraft.
Do not get me wrong: in The Uploaded, this works. This isn’t some crazy pay-for-play system where you shell out millions to avoid death and only the 1% get in. The Upterlife’s creator, Walter Wickliffe, was fanatically devoted to ensuring that “all should pass through, but for the lowliest of criminals,” and he wound up becoming a politician to ensure no governments could spy on your archived consciousness. He won a hairy Supreme Court case that ruled that archived citizens were actually human, and as such they can own property, they can be elected to office, and they can vote.
So that’s the perfect Singularity: you work, you obey the law, you get to live forever. It’s that simple.
Except, of course, that it isn’t.
Because if you’re a student of history, you know that no paradise lasts forever. Attitudes change. People forget things. And even though “forgetting things” is a little different when you have immortal politicians with memories that stretch back 500 years, well….
I’ll let Mama Alex, one of the characters from The Uploaded, explain it.
“Thing is, Amichai,” she continued, “people don’t change all that much. But the most virulent racists died off, and the new kids grew up with more black and Latino and Asian friends, and the world got a shade better. Not perfect – occasionally some freshfaced a-hole raised on yesterday’s thoughts would squirm into power for a time – but better.
“We never could have won if we had to face down all our enemies in their prime, Amichai. We just outlived ‘em.
“You’re right to call ‘em ghosts, Amichai. They haunt us. Every baby could be gene-engineered disease-free. Except the old-guard dead think genetic engineering’s a violation of nature, and they’re still around. And that opinion is not going away. Their old, bigoted culture gives new kids an excuse to be a-holes.
“You might hate death. But we’ve come to fetishize eternity – like hanging around forever is an unquestionable good. Death? It’s got its downsides, Amichai. But it sure clears away the underbrush.”
So society freezes because the old politicians never die. But neither do their voters. Within a few generations, the dead outnumber the living. So nonviolent political change? Gets increasingly unlikely.
Even worser: living culture changes.
Atheists often laugh at Christians, because there’s no Heaven and look at you restricting your life to live by imaginary rules when there’s no reward but the void. But the problem with the Singularity is that suddenly, there is a Heaven – you can see it. Hell, you get phone calls from your dead relatives squeeing about how great it is adventuring against the giant invasions on Wingbright Pass, leaving five-star reviews of the virtual mead.
You can’t have any of that until you die.
Being living becomes unfashionable. Furthermore, living things become kinda creepy. I mean, you can spend time crafting some nice woodworked chair in the real world – which you’ll leave behind when you die, and it will rot the whole time – or you can focus on creating virtual things.
The “real” world only becomes useful as a means of keeping the servers going. And slowly, through a combination of culture and political incentives, the living become trained to hate themselves. Your life’s too short to get the expertise that, say, architects and doctors with 200 years of experience have.
Your best career move is to die.
And yet that’s not the Big Idea here.
Because I don’t think it’s any surprise that The Uploaded features a protagonist who fricking loves the physical world, a culturally Jewish orphan named Amichai who’s tired of watching all his friends be told that their creativity isn’t worth looking at. There’s going to be a dawning awareness of the secret government plan designed to cut down the living, and a big damn hero who becomes a symbol for the rebellion.
(It’s not Amichai. It’s actually his pony. This is a weird story.)
But that said, the Big Idea is not really “What happens 500 years after we conquer death?”, though that’s pretty big. The Big Idea is what Amichai wrestles with throughout the course of the book:
That there are no happy endings.
There’s only work.
Because history is only work, my friends. We thought we defeated the Nazis? Well, the Internet provided an exciting new place to nurture hatreds. We white folks got taught that Martin Luther King pretty much conquered racism in the 1960s? Turns out we’ve still got a looooong way to go. We elected Barack Obama? Well, the backlash is Trump.
A large part of The Uploaded is about what happens when humanity gives into that urge to believe that the work is done. Amichai becomes massively influential in the impending revolution, of course, but even though he’s smart enough to understand that the revolution is not the end point, he doesn’t know how to shape this movement so its momentum brings everyone to where they need to go.
The Uploaded is largely about that struggle. Yes, Amichai wants to tear down the dead’s rule. But to quote that King George line from Hamilton, You’re on your own. Awesome, wow. Do you have a clue what happens now?
Amichai doesn’t. No one does. And that’s the Big Idea:
Happy endings are an illusion. There’s only maintenance of a fair society. And anyone who checks out of that maintenance becomes a medium in which the most unaccountable horrors will flourish.
Anyway. Terrible things happen. There’s also ponies and a couple of cheap laughs.
Buy my book.
And yes, the game rather concretely makes the “lowest difficulty setting” point.
Here’s an article about it. And here’s the video showing it in action:
Before anyone asks, no, I had nothing to do with it, and no, I have no idea if the people who made the game read or knew about my article. And also, no, I’m not going to worry about whether or not I get credit for it. Remember that I myself was expanding on a comment writer Luke McKinney made in a Cracked article about straight male sexuality. This stuff gets around.
I am, however, amused to see it in an actual video game. All the dudes who whined about how the metaphor was all wrong will now have to grind their teeth when they set up their characters in this game. And that’s a lovely thought.
ETA: Congratulations to Mel, chosen by the Random Number Generator to win the ARC of Terminal Alliance. And thank you to everyone who donated.
Two weeks ago, Sophie received advance review copies of Terminal Alliance. I’ve been meaning to do a giveaway, but I was struggling to come up with a good way to do it.
Then I started seeing the damage reports come in from hurricanes and flooding. The devastation they’ve left in their wakes, and the devastation yet to come. A million people without power in Puerto Rico. Record-breaking rain and flooding in the southwest U.S. 41 million affected by flooding and landslides in South Asia.
And now I know how I want to do this giveaway. You want to win an autographed ARC of Terminal Alliance? There are two things you need to do.
- Donate to one of the organizations helping with disaster relief.
- Leave a comment saying you donated.
I don’t need receipts or anything like that. I trust you. And there’s no minimum donation, either. I know money is tight for a lot of people. If you can afford to give $100, great. If you can only afford $1, that’s great too. It adds up, and it all helps.
Here are some organizations to consider, though this is in no way a complete list.
- Houston Food Bank
- Islamic Relief USA
- United Methodist Committee on Relief
- Austin Pets Alive
- Global Giving
- Antigua and Barbuda Red Cross
I’ll draw one winner at random toward the end of next week.
Consider two sisters.
Kai and Ley live in different worlds, but sit at the same table. They grew up together, but they don’t see each other often these days. If you asked them, they’d give reasons—school and travel and work and things like that—but those reasons aren’t enough to name the distance. There was a death in the family when they were young, and they grew up in a hard home, in a country in trouble, and dealt with that in different ways. Kai dug into her home soil, dove into work, and built a life. Ley left, chasing a dream she could barely name, always just out of reach. She wanted to change the world, and she couldn’t do that at home.
They need each other more than anything. They’re all they have, in a dangerous time. But their different values have caused them to make different choices, and the conviction that they’ve made the right choices makes it almost impossible for them to understand each other’s needs.
One sees the girl who couldn’t leave, and the other sees the girl who couldn’t stay.
That’s the heart of Ruin of Angels, my new novel: the challenge of living in different worlds in the same space. What happens when it’s so difficult to understand the people we live beside—or the people we love—that we can’t help them? That we don’t even know how to help each other?
Cities are filled with different worlds, interlaced but not always intersecting, defined by values, history, choices, architecture. There are many Bostons, New Yorks, Nashvilles, some so sealed off from the rest their inhabitants never step into the worlds they live beside. Some people live all their lives in one of these sub-cities; others never have the freedom of that ignorance—they pay careful attention to which city they’re in at any given moment, because stepping wrong is the difference between life and death.
Class and culture and race shape these worlds, and they’re reinforced by the values residents hold, or are trained to hold. Is it a good or a suspicious thing to have a well-paying corporate job? Do you feel exhausted, or excited, on your fifth week of eighteen-hour grind? How important is it to live near your blood kin? Would you go to space if there were a good chance you’d never come back? When is violence the answer? (Are you sure? How does your experience of violence line up with the stories you tell about it, or about yourself?)
But crisis demands we break down those walls—or let them crush us.
Agdel Lex, where Ruin of Angels takes place, where Kai and Ley meet, is a fractured city. A hundred fifty years ago (or so), a great war started there—the God Wars, the near-omnicidal conflict between human sorcerers and the Gods whose powers they stole. The cataclysm frayed reality around Agdel Lex—and while every city holds many worlds, the worlds of Agdel Lex are a bit more literal than most.
The Iskari, Agdel Lex’s occupying power, have one vision for the city they seek to rule: an orderly metropolis, fit to a considered design, with everyone in their proper place. (Proper so far as the Iskari are concerned, anyway!) Like many governments, they think the many worlds should all be one. As the Iskari rule grows more complete, thanks to time and effort and new technologies, the families who ruled the city before the Iskari take shelter, and tell different stories, about a different city. Beneath these two cities gapes the inescapable fact (and world) of the War, a horror no one can quite bear to confront, but no one can forget. Torn between two poles, we find immigrants and wanderers trying to build their own future.
The system has worked—not really—for a while.
But a crisis is coming. It doesn’t start with Kai and Ley—their fight’s just the point when it turns visible. When the crisis strikes, Kai, and Ley, and their friends and enemies and lovers and students and partners, face dangers they can’t resolve alone. They’ll have to take down the walls that part them—walls formed by history, by pride, by self-absorption and pigheadedness and trauma. They’ll have to trust and reach out—and maybe even that won’t be enough.
W.H. Auden said it best, but he said it twice, and I’m not sure which version’s right:
We must love one another, or die.
We must love one another, and die.
That’s the big idea in Ruin of Angels. It’s the big idea in a lot of my life right now. The times are changing. We have to love, and work like hell, to build a better world. And no one can do it alone.
So, good thing we’re not alone.
MICHAEL J. MARTINEZ:
“We learn wisdom from failure much more than from success.” – Samuel Smiles, 19th century Scottish author and government reformer
Oh, Sam. If only.
It’s certainly easier for an individual to learn from their mistakes than, say, an entire country. Just open another browser window (after reading this) and the examples will come pouring in. Our nation is one built upon astounding successes and inhumane mistakes, and I think it’s in our character – as Americans, as human beings – to double down on success and ignore the mistakes.
But it’s our responsibility to learn from our mistakes, and that’s a very Big Idea in the MAJESTIC-12 series, the latest of which, MJ-12: Shadows, came out this week. Both as individuals and as a nation, that responsibility takes center stage.
Yeah, this gets political. Fair warning.
The MAJESTIC-12 series tells the story of American covert activity during the early Cold War from the perspective of uniquely talented yet otherwise everyday Americans – individuals thrust into the center of international espionage after randomly exhibiting disturbing preternatural abilities.
Basically, spies with superpowers against the Soviets. I mean, we can have fun with the weighty ideas, right?
I do a goodly amount of research for my historical fantasies, and the track record of the CIA throughout the Cold War is chock full of assassinations, back alley bargains, briefcases full of money and literal dirty tricks. Some of the operations that have been declassified make Argo look perfectly reasonable and sane.
Take Syria in 1949, the time and place I explore in MJ-12: Shadows. At the beginning of the year, the nation had a democratically elected government and was beginning to assert itself after centuries of Ottoman rule and decades of European colonialism afterward.
But that government was not particularly inclined toward American interests – which primarily involved denying the U.S.S.R. a Mediterranean port and getting the Trans-Arabian Pipeline built through Syria. So the CIA launched an operation to replace Syria’s democratically elected government with a military strongman.
It worked, and one of said strongman’s first acts was to approve the oil pipeline. By summer, the strongman was replaced by a military colleague – who was subsequently overthrown by year’s end. Three coups in a year…and the wheel goes on and on today.
What would the Middle East look like today if the U.S. had supported democracy in Syria instead of working to overthrow it? Has the United States learned from these mistakes in Syria? Iran? Cuba? Vietnam? Nicaragua? Afghanistan? Iraq? Have we achieved some semblance of wisdom from our failures? Have we understood our responsibilities as a nation?
I didn’t conceive of this series in our current era of God-what-now politics. I didn’t choose Syria because of what’s going on there today. Heck, I’m writing the third book of the series now, and that one is partially set in Korea. It’s scary. But I want to do all of this justice. And that means doing the research and telling a really good story – ideally, one that gets people thinking.
By placing everyday people at the center of these world-shaping events – a schoolteacher, a factory worker, an electrician, a WWII veteran – I’m able to walk a mile in some fictional shoes and explore what it means to be part of it all. These characters can, and do, question why they’re there and what they’re doing, all on behalf of a government that strong-armed them to sign up in the first place because of their abilities. They have their own responsibilities and their own mistakes to make.
Yes, they have superpowers. And there’s gadgets and chases and narrow escapes. I like me a good spy thriller, after all. But in the end, the real-world history is letting me tell a story about responsibility – of nations, of individuals blessed with unique gifts – and maybe explore some of the failures we’ve made, individually and collectively.