Lock In, John Scalzi

It’s no secret that I love John Scalzi, and his books. He’s a friendly guy who is both a gifted writer in one of my favorite genres (humorous sci-fi) and an incredibly sharp political mind who has, in the last few years, used his celebrity to compose and share some of the most wonderful insights on issues of gender, race, and harassment that I’ve had the privilege to read. Apparently this makes him something of a pariah in certain circles, but since I try to avoid the trolling corners of the internet (how is it possible that all 17,000 of you are so kind? I’m very lucky), I think of him more as that wacky uncle who likes to sneak off and play videos with the kids after dinner and who probably steals all the best candy out of Halloween bags.

Due to the craziness of October, and now November’s non-stop word count battles, I ended up reading Lock In primarily in bites, ten minutes here and there, until I got about two-thirds of the way through and just plowed to the end. When I finished it, and there wasn’t immediately a sequel, I got annoyed. Then I remembered I don’t have time to read sequels this month, and I immediately felt better…ish.

I say this knowing full well you can undoubtedly appreciate the struggle between wanting (or even having) a sequel and wanting an afternoon (or a week, depending on the length or number of sequels available) when everything else can be blown off for reading. It’s the best feeling. As a child, it was easier to find the time. I would read during lessons I already understood in school, do my homework as quickly as possible, and then curl up with a book until dinner. I could happily pretend I’d already practiced piano (which I loathed and was unbelievably untalented at) if it meant twenty more minutes before bed. Now, in the twenty minutes before bed, I have to clean up the kitchen and make a reminder list for the next day and try not to fall asleep while brushing my teeth. Very little reading gets done. Even when the book is as wonderful as Lock In.

There was something especially fascinating about finding a book about disease as Ebola was entering the US. All of a sudden, the issues Scalzi was addressing seemed eerily prescient. How would we react if the world was hit by an uncontrollable pandemic? How would it change the political, ethical, medical, and social structures we’ve become accustomed to? Scalzi’s novel does an excellent job of balancing the exploration of seemingly infinite repercussions while creating characters I’m desperate to see again and again in future installments.

(Just, you know, not this month…)

 

For more of Scalzi, head this way.

Welcome to Night Vale, created by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor (Commonplace Books)

Every once in a while, I come across a story being told in an unconventional way and I inadvertently fall in love with it. A few months ago, it was The Lizzie Bennet Diaries. At the moment, “fresh” off a twelve-hour flight, it’s this podcast, Welcome to Night Vale. And yes, I realize I live in a shuttered world where the concept of storytelling via podcasts is novel to me. I’m guessing everybody else has been listening to them since around 200…6? Maybe? I honestly have no idea when podcasts really took off. Was it related to smart phones? Could I look all this up? Probably! But jet lag! So no. I’m just going to assume I’m a minimum of eight years behind the curve on anything that has to do with the internet.

So, podcasts! Yes! I love them, especially since I can’t read on planes, trains, or in automobiles (motion sickness is the devil), and I have begun to get migraines from trying to watch movies on the little television stuck into the seat in front of me. The angle is just wrong and it causes neck strain because I have an abnormally long torso…but I digress. I get bored listening to music after about three hours, and even factoring in napping and boredom snacking, that still leaves about five or six hours I have to fill when traveling this far.

I’ve recently been coming around to audiobooks to try to fill this need, but they’re expensive to buy and nearly impossible to download from the library onto a Mac. (I don’t know why that is, and maybe I’m doing it wrong, but it sends me into a tailspin of rage whenever I try it, so…) Welcome to Night Vale, on the other hand, is free and downloads easily onto my phone for hours of stress-free listening pleasure.  Those two factors alone sold it to me pretty hard, I have to admit, but fortunately, in addition, the content, designed as twice monthly radio broadcasts from a small desert town with dark roots and frequent paranormal happenings, is also delightful.

Readers who have been following me awhile know that I adore humor – dark, silly, vengeful, romantic – I crave it all on a regular basis. In fact, I can forgive a whole boatload of issues with a story or writer if the content has made me laugh. I can even squint my eyes at a podcast and call it enough of a book to review here if it has entertained me thusly. What can I say? I have literary scruples that are very easily bested by a case of the giggles.

Welcome to Night Vale  was the perfect brain candy for this flight. It kept my spirits up over the incredibly long hours, it split into twenty-minute segments so I could doze and listen as fitfully as a I pleased, and it made me into that person who snort-laughs into complete silence (which, if I’m really being honest, I love to do). Is it a book? No. Is it damn fine story-telling, available free of charge to anyone with access to the internet and a pair of headphones? Yes.

I call that a win.

The Ghost Brigades (part the second, finally), John Scalzi

The crap thing about being sick is that it’s never completely clear whether you’re at the bottom of it (as I thought I was last Tuesday), or if there’s still further to fall (spoiler alert: there was). I thought I was spending my sick day reading the last Sookie Stackhouse novel, but really, I was spending a day when I felt mildly cruddy reading the last Sookie Stackhouse novel. The real sick days were still in store for Thursday and Friday. Lucky me.

I find it difficult to read on days when I feel truly terrible. I seem to be the only person I know who has this particularly nasty springtime cold, and all I really wanted to do was watch BBC exclusive shows on Hulu (apparently, my tablet still thinks we’re in London). I rarely have time to read on the weekends though, I knew I still had about 200 more pages to read in The Ghost Brigades, so I made myself a deal. For every ten percent of the book I read, I could watch one episode of nope I cannot reveal this to the internet the show that shall not be named.

This actually worked for me surprisingly well. I could lay around sluggishly watching some brainless British drama for half an hour, and then I would spend about forty minutes reading and drinking copious amounts of juice, generously supplied by my amazing neighbor. I stayed hydrated, I finished the book, and I got through almost two seasons of wouldn’t you like to know.

When I finished the book, I was completely satisfied, and I could see how perfectly Scalzi had set me up to want to go out and read Zoe’s Tale. Unfortunately, when I took to the internet to make sure it was the next book in the series, it turned out that no, it was actually the fourth book in this collection, and furthermore is a retelling of the third book from a different point of view so I definitely couldn’t skip ahead. I enjoy Scalzi’s novels (enough so that I’m definitely going to see him speak while he’s on tour this month, even though I haven’t yet read the book he’s promoting), but I have so many other books that need to be read! There are still two more Flavia deLuce stories that I’m keeping myself from devouring. I have a spreadsheet full of titles I want to read, and then there’s the much-neglected To-read shelf that I haven’t even glanced at since I returned from my trip.

The thing about Scalzi’s older books is that, while they’re culturally rich, well-peopled, and scientifically intriguing, they aren’t particularly fast-moving. And I’m fine with that. In fact, because it is the number one challenge I face when writing novel-length stories, I find great comfort in seeing Scalzi’s literary progression – it gives me hope (also, I unabashedly like in-between action scenes quite a lot). I often wish my favorite books and shows would spend more time on quiet, human moments, and by the time Scalzi wrote Redshirts, he had nailed the balance between character development and pacing. I couldn’t put it down and happily listened to the audio version on a car trip only a few months later – it was that good. These earlier novels simply require a little more patience. They’ve paid off every time, and I look forward to reading another one, but I can’t quite commit to it right away.

What inevitably brings me back to his books, though, are his characters. He has an uncanny ability to create people I care about, and he doesn’t focus solely on main characters, but fleshes out the supporting cast as well. Personally, I could write hundreds of my own “novel” pages where nothing ever happens outside of a character’s head, but where worlds rise and fall on the thoughts and imagined actions of others. Scalzi manages to make me believe he has written all those pages too, but then has carefully cut around the edges of the character and found him or her a home inside an actual story. It’s a delicate surgery, to be sure, and it’s possible he does nothing of the kind to create his books. It’s not really important whether he does or not though – what’s critical is that he makes me, the reader, believe that he has done it. That is a rare gift, and one I appreciate greatly every time I come back.

The Ghost Brigades (part the first), John Scalzi

I feel like this season should officially be dubbed, “The Spring of Sequels.” I’ve clandestinely been gorging myself on the Flavia De Luce series, which I promised I wouldn’t review again, and I won’t unless one of them blows me out of the water, but they really are delightful fun and can be blamed for my inability to get reading/deadlines/housekeeping done in a timely manner. I try to blame all of that on the fact that I still don’t have a working computer, but in all honesty, the lack of the computer is just a perfect opportunity to read those books instead.

The fact that I even found time to get half-way through The Ghost Brigades is a bit of a miracle actually, not because I’m not enjoying it, but because any reader worth her salt will admit to having a hard time transitioning emotionally between characters. The Ghost Brigades is the quasi sequel (same world, different characters) to Old Man’s War, and if I’d been clever, I would have jumped on it immediately after finishing the first. The problem was, I was gearing up for a six week trip and I didn’t have the brain power for it. My focus was on planning and executing work and travel plans, and it didn’t leave much time for anything else.

Now, though, I’m back, and even though the calendar claims it’s early May, the weather says late July, and it’s too hot to concentrate for more than thirty minutes or so at a time. Don’t get me wrong – I can get some quality reading done in thirty minutes, and I know quite a few people who would go to great lengths for thirty uninterrupted minutes with a good book – but I’m spoiled. I want a rainy, cool afternoon so that I’m not tempted by (in this order): going to get frozen yogurt, booking flights to anywhere my friends live, catching up on television I missed in March and April, and weeding the garden. Incidentally, I like weeding because it doesn’t require me to have a green thumb, so it’s really not an insult to reading to say that I would rather be outside in the sunshine, getting a little satisfaction from clearing our tiny plot of land than inside, using my brain.

The Ghost Brigades is well-suited to this little problem. It’s about soldiers who have been created from human DNA to be far greater (stronger, smarter, telepathically linked to each other) than ordinary humans. Because they’ve been created as “adults” in a lab rather than being born in the more traditional sense, however, some aspects of their personalities – the bickering, the odd sense of humor (or complete lack of one), the less than perfect social skills – resemble those of children. These enhanced men and women have a particular affinity for the child soldiers written about in Ender’s Game because, essentially, that’s what they are.

So what does this have to do with me and my inability to sit still? Are any of you teachers? Parents? Do the rest of you remember what it was like to be in school in May? No matter how much you like learning, or being with your friends, or what your teacher might have to say, when May rolls around, all bets are off. Every hour feels like ten thousand. Every page read goes too slowly, and the information drain directly out of eyes, ears, and mouth without even a stopover at the brain. Opening the windows to allow fresh air to circulate should be qualified as a form of torture for any person who can’t immediately go out to enjoy the day, no matter age. The spring just holds this magic; to me, it feels like the time of year when I want to go out into the world and make stories happen, rather than just reading about adventures, regardless of how exciting or well-written, on the page.

My compromise usually involves taking my book or computer outside in a valiant effort to reconnect to what has to get done. What usually happens then is that I lay down on a bench or in the grass, spend three or four solid minutes concentrating, then roll over and stare at the sky. I watch the clouds, and I feed bread to the baby ducks and geese. I listen to the squeaking bikes cycling past, and I luxuriate in a feeling of relaxation we attribute to childhood, but which rarely exists at any age unless we seek it out. Instead of reading or writing, I think of what a shame it is that to be created with a purpose – as Scalzi’s “ghost brigade” is, for example – means no time to learn what doing nothing well really feels like.

It’s a shame. I believe in doing nothing well. When I give my brain a little nothing to work with, the things it comes up with when I ask for something…well, they’re quite marvelous. Go ahead. Give it a try. I promise all those important, have-to-get-done somethings will be waiting when you return. And let’s be honest, I’ll feel a lot less guilty if I’m not the only one playing hooky today.

For more about John Scalzi, hit up his blog Whatever.

Old Man’s War, John Scalzi

“I didn’t mind getting old when I was young, either,” I said. “It’s the being old now that’s getting to me.” (p 13)

So, I finally broke down and read Old Man’s War. I honestly have no idea why it took me so long. I love Scalzi; I read his blog daily and I’ve both read his latest novel Redshirts and listened to Wil Wheaton read it (roughly a month apart – it’s so good, it bears repeating). His sense of humor completely resonates with me, and his political posts are some of the best I’ve read.

For some reason though, I had been holding out on entering the universe he created with this novel. I had the idea that it wasn’t for me – that my geek card was missing the stamp necessary to gain entry into his world. As it turns out, and I’m not sure how many times I’m going to have to learn this lesson, books are for anyone who chooses to read them – no application required.

I do suspect, however, that part of what was off-putting to me was the title. It’s a great title, and it’s perfectly suited for the book, but as I am not old (well, except to the high schoolers I work with), a man, nor a soldier, it created something of chasm between me and a wonderful read. Those three words – I looked at them and I imagined a novel my grandfathers would like to read. Both were veterans of WWII, and both were defined, each in his own way, by the experience. They were neither greater nor lesser men than my father or brother, who never enlisted, but they were certainly different. I could never quite touch the stories they shared with me about war. It was an experience that set them apart, and when I spent time with them while I was growing up, their personal histories were further shrouded by the decades between us.

“Lady and gentleman,” Harry said, looking at the both of us, “we may think we have some idea of what we’re getting into, but I don’t think we have the first clue. This beanstalk exists to tell us that much. It’s bigger and stranger than we can imagine – and it’s just the first part of this journey. What comes next is going to be even bigger and stranger. Prepare yourself as best you can.”

“How dramatic,” Jesse said dryly. “I don’t know how to prepare myself after a statement like that.”

“I do,” I said, and scooted over to get out of the booth. “I’m going to go pee. If the universe is bigger and stranger than I can imagine, it’s best to meet it with an empty bladder.”

“Spoken like a true Boy Scout,” Harry said.

“A Boy Scout wouldn’t need to pee as much as I do,” I said.

“Sure he would,” Harry said. “Just give him sixty years.” (pg 29)

After reading this book, the only thing I knew for certain (besides that I loved it and immediately needed to read the sequel) was that I wouldn’t mind living in Scalzi’s universe when I turn 75. I hate the idea of being a soldier now, but it turns out that reading about the human body slowly deteriorating, as it naturally does as we age, invokes in me an unshakable fear of death. It turns out I’m actually inclined to see the wisdom in enlisting in a mythical army with the power to turn me into a young, powerful fighting machine when I have lived nearly eighty years, even if it means doing things that are abhorrent to consider now. I’m not sure what that says about me – probably nothing good – but it’s the truth.

It’s one thing to think you want to be young again; it’s quite another thing to turn your back on everything you’ve ever known, everyone you’ve ever met or loved, and every experience you’ve ever had over the span of seven and a half decades. It’s a hell of a thing to say good-bye to your whole life. (p 11)

I can’t imagine saying goodbye to my whole life right, but that’s because my body (mostly) does what I ask of it. And my family and friends are (mostly) still alive. If I lived long enough to be given the choice offered in this novel – to say goodbye to Earth and give myself over to a science and military I cannot fathom – it might not be so terrible. Or maybe it would. I can’t really know for sure, but a part of me loves the idea that an adventure is waiting as life draws to a close. As much as I love predictability and my routines (and I really do), I’m also drawn to life’s mystery doors, and what this novel suggests is like Narnia for the elderly. Without the magic, of course (unless, like me, you consider science to be magic). And with a lot more death, and sex, and space ships.

Look, you: When you’re twenty-five, thirty-five, forty-five or even fifty-five, you can still feel good about your chances to take on the world. When you’re sixty-five and your body is looking down the road at imminent physical ruin, these mysterious “medical, surgical and therapeutic regimens and procedures” begin to sound interesting. Then you’re seventy-five, friends are dead, and you’ve replaced at least one major organ; you have to pee four times a night, and you can’t go up a flight of stairs without being a little winded – and you’re told you’re in pretty good shape for your age.

Trading that in for a decade of fresh life in a combat zone begins to look like a hell of a bargain. (p 9)

 

Need more Scalzi? Head here.

The Explorer, James Smythe

When I was a kid, I remember reading a lot of straight up science fiction. Our local library was small, and it had one book shelf of YA books, one of those spinnable book displays with paperback fantasy novels, and a few shelves tucked away in a corner near the audio cassettes with hardback science fiction novels. No one ever  disturbed when I sat on the floor and pulled those unfamiliar titles out. My mother would leave me alone for half an hour or more looking for her own books, and I would slowly accumulate a pile of unfamiliar authors beside me.

Even now, years later, the only writers I remember clearly from those days are Heinlein and Brin, although I read just about every novel in the section eventually. Science fiction was, for me, an insight into a more masculine mind. The library made no special effort to purchase female authors in the genre, and I didn’t have the internet to search out a wider variety than what was presented. As a result, I drifted further from science fiction as I got older and craved books that reflected a perspective more similar to my own. It’s a shame, really, because when I read books like Smythe’s The Explorer, I feel as though a part of me that I lost long ago has been returned. It’s stunning to discover it still exists – that the part of me that secretly wanted to go to Space Camp in Florida, that still believes it might be possible to travel into space as a civilian someday soon, that is desperate for a world beyond the ordinary one we know.

Smythe’s narrative voice is just as alien to me as I remember from those authors years ago. I always struggle to explain what I mean when I say that a particular writer is more masculine than another, regardless of gender. It’s an argument I’ve had before when talking about The Lord of the Rings – different genre, but same…feel. Tolkien has a quality I find incredibly difficult to break into, and it can be a problem with sci-fi as well. I have to work harder to open myself to writers who fall into this category.

This is why I found it strange on Friday when I started this book and was immediately drawn to that very quality in Smythe’s writing. It had a sharp, cold edge to it, but given that in his opening pages I found myself in a tiny spaceship filled with corpses floating in the blackness of space, it worked for me. In fact, everything about this book worked for me. After having a frustrating, sad week, The Explorer was exactly what I needed. It was tough, and inevitable, and painfully remote.

I wrote a novel a few years ago called The Testimony, which had twenty-six different narrators, presented almost as talking heads. They were from all over world, telling a very big story about god and lies and terrorism, and it took a lot to write. Post-it notes on the walls, headaches, long walks to clear said headaches before returning to sort out the post-its, all that crazy stuff. When I was done, I decided that I had to write something completely different. Something that was, by necessity, a lot smaller. Self-contained. One narrator. Only a handful of characters, in fact, in the whole thing. And, I thought, lets start the book when they’re all dead, or most of them. Let’s start with my narrator, alone and horrifically lonely, and beginning to lose the plot. He can piece together the story – and himself – from there. (Smythe, writing for John Scalzi’s “The Big Idea”)

This was the only thing that appealed me to when I was looking through my new books this week. I wanted angst without romance, I wanted agony on a personal level, and I wanted it to take place as far from me as possible.

Can’t get much farther than space.

 

I highly recommend heading over to Harper Voyager’s page and reading the first chapter for free. That was all I needed to convince me I wanted to know more about The Explorer and James Smythe.

Dave and Liz and Chicago Save the World: A Short Story, John Scalzi

Just a reminder that during November, I’ll be reviewing short stories instead of novels. This adjustment will hopefully allow me to complete both the manuscript due December 1st and 50,000 words for National Novel Writing Month. 

 

I’ve had this story bookmarked for about two months now, in preparation for that week in NaNoWriMo when I want to stab myself in the eye for ever thinking this novel-writing thing was a good idea. I knew this time would come because it always does. Sometimes it’s as early as the second weekend of November, but I’ve had the icy terror of reality (reality being that this novel is terrible, makes no sense and should be dismantled one letter at a time while I cry in a corner) hit me as late as Thanksgiving. This year, I thought I’d celebrate my father’s birthday with my own personal writer’s breakdown.

Fortunately, this story is what I’ve kept behind the “Break Glass in Case of Emergency” sign. I didn’t read it when Scalzi posted it in September; instead I squirreled it away for safekeeping because I have discovered that he is one writer who can make me laugh in the face of giant plot holes. There is something about his style and his storytelling – my roommates in college would have called it, oh so delicately, “balls to the wall” – that makes me feel just that much more invincible wielding this pen as a sword. He seems like the sort of person who wouldn’t be afraid to kick down the door of a terrible story, and that is exactly the kind of attitude I need right now.

I love Redshirts. I love Scalzi’s blog. I especially love that this little story is free, and that you can all read it right now, if you so choose. But mostly I love that he is the kind of writer who inspires me to take no prisoners in my own war against novel-writing. Because I love these silly, lovesick, snarky characters I’ve created who never quite get around to fighting for justice because they’re too busy pining for each other (even when I hate them because theyjustneedtogetoverthemselvesandsaysomethingalready).

I may lose control of this ship, crash and burn before I reach the 30th, but then again, there may be a damn good story waiting to be written from the life boat where I watch it all go under. I’ll let you know in fifteen days…

In the meantime, go read Whatever. Scalzi’s always got something to say about something.