1/21: You can now bid on an autographed 16×16 print of this amazing piece of…art! All proceeds benefit the AFS. Details available here.
Yesterday afternoon at 3:00 p.m., a group of authors set forth on a great challenge. In the hallowed halls of the DoubleTree Hilton, they stripped down and waited patiently while powder was applied to certain overly shiny scalps. Author and photographer extraordinaire Al Bogdan prepared his hand-painted backdrop, set up his camera and flashes, and laid out the rubber raft.
The time had come. John “Waffle-man” Scalzi, Patrick Rothfuss, Charles Stross, and I took our places around Mary Robinette Kowal. We had come to Dearborn not for the glory, but to fulfill a promise made weeks ago, that if the good people of SF/F fandom raised at least $5000 for the Aicardi Syndrome Foundation fundraiser, we would attempt to duplicate the cover of Young Flandry.
The fundraiser brought in more than triple that amount. And thus did the five come together, prepared to endure great pain and sacrifice all dignity to support a very worthwhile cause and simultaneously try to point out that, darn it all, some of our SF/F are just ridiculously sexist, you know?
I’d like to thank ConFusion for hosting our photoshoot and reveal, the other authors for being such wonderful fun and good sports, and Al for donating his time and expertise.
And now, my good internet, ARE YOU READY?
ETA: While the overall response to the fundraiser and pics continues to be exponentially awesome, I’ve also seen a few areas where response has begun to shift from, “I say, those poses seem remarkably impractical, and how exactly does one do that without dislocating one’s ankle?” to “Hey, guys dressing or posing like girls are both ugly and hilarious!” Which misses the point so badly it’s not even funny. Please see this follow-up post for my thoughts on the context of these poses, the hotness of John Scalzi, and my apology for not better framing and presenting this post in the first place.
When I started the Aicardi Syndrome Fundraiser, I recruited bestselling author and ukelele prodigy John Scalzi to be a bonus goal when we hit the $1000 mark.
We raised that much on the first day. Which meant it was time to see once and for all (at least until the next round) who was the true cover-posing master!
This was the big one. After warming up, I took a break to walk off the pains of the previous poses, and to mentally prepare myself. I meditated for three days and six nights. I purified my body with a diet of crushed ice, unbuttered toast, and green Skittles. I studied one of our cat to learn the true secret of flexibility. Unfortunately, all I learned was the secret of well-timed cat farts.
But my training period was over. I put the Rocky soundtrack on the stereo, changed clothes, and began Operation Sexy Leg.
My wife took eight photos, helping me to adjust my stance each time, then giving me a chance to fall down between takes. But I think it was worth it!
Dear Internet: I present to you my version of The Taste of Night!
Tor was kind enough to send me a review copy of John Scalzi‘s latest book Redshirts [Amazon | B&N | Mysterious Galaxy]. This is one of those really annoying books that made me go, “Dang it, why didn’t I think of that??!!” I started my career writing fantasy from the point of view of the underdog monsters. Scalzi has done something similar, writing science fiction from the perspective of the expendable crew members who die in various horrible but dramatically appropriate ways every week.
That created a problem for me as a reader, because I started thinking about how I would have written the story. By the time I actually started reading, the story in my head crashed pretty hard into the story Scalzi had written.
Like everything I’ve read from John Scalzi, this is a quick-paced book with plenty of action. smart-ass dialogue, and humor. Ensign Andrew Dahl is the newest crewmember on the Intrepid, flagship of the Universal Union. The rest of the crew, familiar with the redshirt phenomenon, have learned to avoid away missions at all costs. As Dahl realizes what’s happening – and his likely fate – he has to figure out why it’s happening (with the help of a mysterious yeti-haired recluse named Jenkins) and come up with a way to stop it.
First off, happy book day to my friend Lisa Shearin, whose book All Spell Breaks Loose [Amazon | B&N | Mysterious Galaxy] is out today. And last week marked the release of Mira Grant’s Blackout [Amazon | B&N | Mysterious Galaxy].
This year will be my first Worldcon, and the first time I’ve voted in the Hugos. I’ve been diligently downloading and devouring the Hugo Voters Packet, starting with the short stories, because … well, they’re short!
Shadow War of the Night Dragons: Book One: The Dead City: Prologue, by John Scalzi. I wonder how I’d feel if a story I wrote for an April Fool’s Day joke made the Hugo ballot. On one hand, it’s delightfully random and unexpected. At the same time, I think I’d have this nagging sense of, “Wait, what about all the stuff I wrote that wasn’t a joke?”
As a joke, this was marvelous. Tor and Scalzi went all out, including cover art, and the story was an amusing read. It’s nice to see humor on the ballot. And there’s an actual story here amidst the jokes and the over-the-top fantasy tropes. I can honestly say that when I finished reading, I wanted to know what happened next.
You could tell Scalzi was having a good old time with this one. That said, some of the humor felt a little forced. While it’s a fun read and you should check it out, I don’t see this one taking home a rocketship.
Movement by Nancy Fulda. This is a first-person SF story set in the near future about a girl named Hannah with temporal autism. Hannah’s parents are trying to decide whether to pursue a new technology which could help her integrate into society, but becoming more “normal” isn’t always a good thing. This made me think of Elizabeth Moon’s award-winning novel The Speed of Dark, which I reviewed here. Like Moon, Fulda does a very good job of capturing her protagonist’s voice, showing us the world through Hannah’s eyes. As the father of an autistic child, it’s hard for me to be entirely objective about this story, but I really appreciated it, and I thought the ending worked well.
Also, even though Hannah doesn’t think it’s terribly effective, I totally want to invest in shoulder-mounted mosquito-killing laser technology!
The Homecoming by Mike Resnick. Resnick is one of the most prolific writers in our field, and “The Homecoming” has a lot going for it. It’s an emotional story of an estranged son (Philip) coming home to visit the father who wants nothing to do with him. His mother has Alzheimer’s, and has only a few lucid minutes each day. Philip left Earth years ago, after radically redesigning his body into an alien form, in order to explore another world. His father took it as a rejection of family and humanity.
To me, it felt like a metaphor for a father unable to accept his son’s sexuality. I could be reading into it, but this is how the story resonated for me — the father mourning his lost grandchildren, hating the life his son has chosen, while the mother takes on the role of peacemaker, bringing them together despite her infirmity.
While the SFnal elements were wonderful, the ending felt too quick and easy, and didn’t really work for me. It didn’t feel true.
The Paper Menagerie by Ken Liu. This is, in my mind, a good example of that sense of truth I’m talking about. Jack’s mother was a mail-order bride from China. When he’s young, she makes origami animals and infuses them with life: a paper tiger purrs and prances, the tinfoil shark swims, and so on. It’s amazing and beautiful. But as Jack grows older, he rejects his Chinese heritage, wanting to fit in with his “American” peers. In doing so, he rejects his mother as well. Only after she’s gone does he learn the rest of her story.
There is no neat ending here, but there is … understanding. Movement. Regret and loss, but with a thread of connection through the story’s magical element.
One of the things I admire about this one is that it’s not overstated. Jack has little understanding or compassion for a mother who sold herself in a catalog, but there’s a line later on where he’s prepping resumes and says, “I schemed about how to lie to the corporate recruiters most effectively so that they’d offer to buy me.” It’s just one line, and Jack doesn’t see the connection, but the reader does. One line is all it takes.
This story has already won the Nebula award, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see it take the Hugo as well. Yeah, it’s really good.
The Cartographer Wasps and the Anarchist Bees by E. Lily Yu. Let me put it this way: this is a story that made wasp nests beautiful and magical in a mere two paragraphs. It’s a story of clashing civilizations, in which the wasps colonize the less powerful bees, a situation with many real-world parallels. The wasps take tribute from the bees, but offer them “the honor of watching us elevate [you] to moral and technological heights you could never imagine.”
This kind of story could become preachy, but it never does. It is what it is, unapologetic and disturbing. Yu takes advantage of the shorter insect lifespan to show the evolution of a new line of bees: anarchists who set out to create a new future.
Like Liu’s story, the ending isn’t neat or happy, but it feels right. There’s a sense of movement that feels circular even as it moves forward. There’s a lot going on in this one, and I may have to reread it to catch things I missed my first time through.
Discussion is welcome, and since the stories are all online, you don’t even have to be registered for Worldcon to read them.
Subterranean Press was kind enough to hand out copies of John Scalzi‘s novelette The Sagan Diary [Amazon | B&N | Subterranean Press] at ConFusion this year. As the title suggests, the book is a collection of mental diary-style entries from Jane Sagan of Scalzi’s Old Man’s War universe.
The book begins with a preface from Lieutenant Gretchen Schafer, an analyst involved in reviewing and transcribing BrainPal memories from Special Forces soldiers like Sagan. Written as a letter of protest, Schafer complains that “what we have to work with are data-poor bits in which Lt. Sagan thinks about what appears to be a romantic partner of some sort…” She describes the files as “of some anthropological interest … but for our purposes these files are near useless.”
I read this as a nicely-done warning to the reader: this is not Old Man’s War. This is not action-heavy space battles and supersoldiers. It’s the musings and philosophizing and reflections of a soldier. A rather loving character study. It’s almost poetic at times:
I am not Death. I am killing; I am the verb. I am the action, I am the performance. I am the movement that cuts the spine; I am the mass which pulps the brain. I am the headsnap ejecting consciousness into the air.
I am not Death but she follows close behind…
It’s a fairly quick read, and an interesting change from the other things I’ve read by Scalzi. I definitely recommend reading his Old Man’s War books for context.
I liked Jemisin’s first book a lot, but it’s been almost two years since I read it, and unfortunately my memory of the details from that first book were a little fuzzy, because my brain leaks. The Broken Kingdoms works as a standalone, but I think I would have gotten even more out of it if I had the first story clear and fresh in my brain.
This is set ten years after The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. From the back cover:
In the city of Shadow, beneath the World Tree, alleyways shimmer with magic and godlings live hidden among mortalkind. Oree Shoth, a blind artist, takes in a strange homeless man on an impulse. This act of kindness engulfs Oree in a nightmarish conspiracy. Someone, somehow, is murdering godlings … and Oree’s guest is at the heart of it.
Oree is a fascinating character. While blind to the mundane world, she can see magic, and can perform magic of her own through her paintings and drawings. She is not a typical fantasy warrior or kick-ass heroine. Like all of Jemisin’s characters, she feels very real, with her own struggles and desires, her own history and scars.
Heartfelt. That’s the word I’ve been struggling with as I work on this review. Jemisin’s writing feels heartfelt. She understands and loves this world, these characters, and it shows.
Shiny, the homeless man who refuses to speak, was particularly interesting. He appears mortal most of the time, but is unable to die (permanently, at least – think of a glowing Jack Harkness), and manifests powerful magic when protecting Oree. He’s arrogant and rude, but even before you learn his backstory, you can tell he’s also lost in the world.
Lil is another great character, a godling who is both disturbing and fun. (I just realized why I like her. At one point she unselfconsiously devours the bodies of the dead, because that’s just what she is. She’s like a superpowerful version of my goblins with scary-big teeth.)
Storywise, it was fascinating to see some of the fallout from the events of the first book, and to learn more about the history of the gods and the godlings. There’s a fair amount of action as Oree struggles against enemies with the power to kill godlings … perhaps even to kill the gods themselves. It gets pretty dark and intense for a while toward the end, but the ending works. A story of mortals warring against themselves and the gods isn’t the newest idea in fantasy, but ideas are easy. It’s the execution – the thoughtfulness, the characterization, the history – that make this book work.
I’m having a hard time talking about the book in more detail without spoiling things. So I’ll just say this is the second of Jemisin’s books I’ve read, and I’m looking forward to picking up her third.
Yesterday, Mr. Coke Zero himself, John Scalzi, took my publisher to task for the cover of Zombie Raccoons and Killer Bunnies [Amazon | Mysterious Galaxy]. Others have offered up alternate covers, or just chimed in about how bad it is.
Disclaimers up front: Zombie Raccoons is the latest DAW anthology. DAW is my publisher as well. I was invited to write a story for this one, but the editor decided that my tale (“Mightier than the Sword”) fit better in her other project, Gamer Fantastic. So I’m hardly unbiased.
This is not my favorite cover from DAW. It didn’t really work for me, and I was happy to end up in Gamer Fantastic, which had a cover I liked better.
That said, I think the criticism is over the top. Scalzi says he’s genuinely offended that a major publisher would produce such a thing. (He also claims it will make blood shoot from your ears, but I’m chalking that one up to hyperbole.)
Is it a bad cover? The editor loved it. It certainly stands out, and it’s stirred up more buzz online than any DAW anthology I can remember. On the other hand, the raccoon’s mouth gave me nightmares, and I find myself wanting to delete the Photoshopped rabbit and raccoon and see what’s behind ‘em, which seems to be a totally different piece of art.
I wanted to make a few other points, though. Starting with the fact that, to my knowledge, DAW is the only major SF/F publisher still putting out a monthly anthology of short fiction. These aren’t moneymakers; very few short fiction anthologies ever earn out. But DAW continues to produce them, more reliably and consistenly than most SF/F ‘zines.
Does that excuse a bad cover? Of course not. But no publisher gets it right every time. Sooner or later, no matter how good the publisher, they’re going to have a stinker. I could fill the rest of this post with examples of bad cover art from Baen, Tor, and the rest.
That’s no excuse either, of course. It’s not supposed to be. It’s supposed to be a reminder than nobody’s perfect. That when you’ve put out thousands of books over the years, you’re not going to hit it out of the park with every one. It’s easy to sit around online and boast about how you could whip up a better cover in five minutes on Photoshop. And hey, maybe you could.
Now do it 99 more times. If you think they’ll all be brilliant, you’re sadly deluded. Even award-winning artists produce the occasional stinker.
I wasn’t in on the meetings at DAW. I don’t know what they were going for here. Maybe the original cover didn’t work, so the bunny and raccoon were an emergency fix at the last minute. Maybe they wanted to try something different, and they went for the over-the-top kitsch angle. Maybe the artist backed out at the last second, leaving them only a week to whip something together. Maybe, like the editor, they just liked this cover and thought it worked for the project.
I’m not saying Scalzi’s out of line in his critique; he’s not. I like John a lot, and folks have every right to express their distaste. No cover will work for everyone, and this one does seem to have failed for most.
But to say you’re genuinely offended by that failure? That bothers me a little. By all means, hold publishers to a high standard. But people also say they want publishers to try things that are new or different, and every time you do that you risk failure. High standards, yes. Perfection? I prefer my publisher to be human, thanks.