During quarantine, my daily routine has been fairly fixed. Mornings are for writing, editing, and blogging. Afternoons are for reading or other work. Evenings are for movie/tv time with the boyfriend. And late evenings are for videogames and podcasts after he goes to bed.
But with that said, I ran out of episodes on the podcasts I follow, and it struck me that I could attempt — cue dramatic drum effect — an audiobook! I have always been resistant to the idea, but the reality of the fact is, I had no rational reason for that resistance. So I went and downloaded something I thought might be a good gateway, and a book I hadn’t read: John Scalzi’s Redshirts, narrated by Will Wheaton.
Well, about halfway in, I have to say I am loving it! I do get characters confused here and there, and the “[name] said” tags are profoundly visible in this format. It has, if not limitations, then certainly a learning curve, but I had no trouble maintaining attention, and I couldn’t stop listening. Of course, it does help that the actual book is really good. I will definitely not be “switching” to audio from now on, but as an addition to my reading, it is certainly not nearly as awful as I expected.
As an aside, this project features TWO people that have been given the “KHAAAAAAN!” approach — both Will Wheaton in The Big Bang Theory, and Scalzi himself, in early seasons of Writing Excuses, where he was, for a time, Brandon Sanderson’s “nemesis”.
As for the title of this post… I know. I’m sorry. I will see myself out.
The Collapsing Empire trilogy holds a special place in my heart, as does John Scalzi himself. The eponymous first book was the catalyst for my decision to finally pursue my lifelong dream of becoming a writer. Not because of any one specific thing in it — though it’s certainly an awesome space opera — and perhaps I was already looking for something to give me the final push. But the fact remains that it was Scalzi and his story of a galactic society, built on corporate monopolies and controlled comfort, that made me want to do this myself (I am referring, of course, to contorlling society through corporate monopolies).
The trilogy is finally done. And the whole thing worked!
(Obviously, SPOILERS to follow — this is the third part in a series after all.)
The Last Emperox begins where The Consuming Fire left us: Cardenia Wu-Patrick, a.k.a. Emperox Grayland II, has just thwarted another attempted coup by her now full-on nemesis Nadashe Nohamapetan. And in the process, she has arrested both Nadashe’s mother, and nearly a third of the nobility of the Interdependency, for treason. But that hasn’t stopped the plots, and she knows that her time is running out — both the time she has before her relentless enemy succeeds in her attempts to off her, and the precious years left before the Flow collapses entirely, dooming the billions of citizens of her empire to die a slow and miserable death cut off from vital resources.
Using this wonderful setup, Scalzi does what he did in the previous two books — uses smug post-modern omniscience to entertain, and does it brilliantly. The Last Emperox reads like something Terry Pratchett might have written, had he been an American, and probably a very different type of human. The narrative moves between a tight third person, and detached authorial observations, both of which never fail to win you through sheer coolness-factor. Scalzi knows how to do humor, but he also knows how to do tension and drama. This book is light on the former, unlike the previous two, but pretty stable on the latter, as the story draws to its inevitable conclusions.
What I found pretty interesting about The Last Emperox — and really, about the entire trilogy — is that it tells two parallel stories, and it breaks some pretty well-established conventions in telling one of them. On one hand are the characters, each of them with their own POV chapters: Cardenia/Grayland, Marce Claremont, Kiva Lagos, Nadashe Nohamapetan. They all play their parts in the great drama of the collapse, and yet their stories feel largely pre-determined. Like the pieces of a puzzle that could have only ever turn out one way. These stories combine with no really big surprises, and are often resolved through Deus Ex Machina.
In a lesser story, this would have bothered me. Not here.
Because The Collapsing Empire trilogy is not the story of Cardenia and co. It is the story of — wait for it — the collapsing empire. The story of the Interdependency as a society. That is the story we have really tuned in for, eve if the personal experiences of the characters living through this catastrophe are what makes it personal enough for us to care. And that story is anything but easily resolved. Where Scalzi is not afraid to descend from the skies and fix his heroes’ lives (or end them, as the case might be), he takes no easy paths to the resolution of the grander tragedy unfolding around them.
In this sense, the trilogy ends with a bang, the conclusion meant to both give us a sense of many stories still to come, and a firm ending. This universe is wider than the Interdependency, and there are plenty of adventures to be had in it. Personally, I am more than satisfied with the The Collapsing Empire as a complete work, but I would love to return to its worlds (well, ok — habitats) in a different time or place. Meanwhile, it’s a flawless work of science fiction, and a massive recommendation from me.
Last year was the first time I actually went to a panel on
writing. Chicago Comics and Entertainment Expo is a comic-con, rather
than a professional one, but they had acquired some impressive names, such as
Mary Robinette Kowal and Cory Doctorow, among others (both of whom are absolute
rock stars by the way). This time around the stable was even larger, with
people such as John Scalzi, Terry Brooks, and Sam Sykes, as well as a number of
first-time authors like K.M. Szpara and Chris Kluwe, and a serious presence of
the Horror and Young Adult variety, spearheaded by Joe Hill and Rainbow Rowell
I focused on the SFF panels, which took the biggest chunk of my convention weekend, and it was an energizing (and a tiny bit frustrating) experience. Despite the well thought out panel topics, the actual result seemed to always amount to “writers talking about writering”, which I totally loved. And listening to people you admire share their experiences in the field you ascribe to, helps tremendously to humanize and demystify said field.
On the other hand, having people talk about living your life’s dream when you sometimes feel so far away from achieving it, can be a bit depressing (beer helps with that, by the way). More than anything though, it paints in stark colors the simple fact that the steps to traditional publishing are very simple, very accessible, and each one requires tremendous amounts of work, patience, and determination. There are no short cuts. But in its own way, this is motivating as well.
K.M. Szpara and the importance of being earnest. Even among a group as diverse as the panels at C2E2 offered, Szpara stood out to me, and not only because I had practically just finished his book (or because, I was somehow the fanboy who got to be his first signee). He approached both of his appearances (“Tor Presents: Chaos and Cosmos” and “The Devil You Know”) with a mixture of thoughtfulness and passion that really resonated with me. An awareness of the current field, mixed with an impish attitude that I, in my rigid glory, can only admire from a distance. Plus, raising awareness of the important issue of whether Dolores Umbridge would make a good dom.
One thing that stuck with me was his advice on approaching fiction writing with the abandon of a fanfic writer. No fear of censorship, no need to worry about market or reception. It is a constant struggle and a subject of endless second-guessing for me, trying to determine whether I write a certain way because I want to, or because I think that’s how it’s “supposed” to be written. It was refreshing to hear someone who has achieved success vouch for the former. And though of course one can’t just ignore all external factors when pursuing traditional publishing, it is a nice reminder all the same that ultimately you write better when your primary drive isn’t worry about what the market might expect.
Zack Jordan and the value of showmanship. Zack appeared on only one panel – “Authors on ‘The Best Advice I Ever Got’” – which makes sense, considering his first book, The Last Human, is not even out yet (it is scheduled for late March). That particular panel quickly became a conversation about editing and author reaction thereof, and Jordan made the very important point that if you are trying to get published and sell your work for moneys, then you are no longer writing just “for yourself”. And the editor is the person whose job is to champion the book, not stifle the author, provided of course that the two are a good fit.
What was interesting to me about him though, was not the panel, but rather his booth on the main floor, glued to the Del Rey stand. Jordan, who has background in tech (one assumes) startups had set up a whole performance installation where he and a couple of other dudes in jumpsuits were “scanning” the crowd for potential humans, and issuing honest-to-Cthulhu, printed on the spot ID cards of your actual race, with picture and everything. Beyond the fourth wall, he was also handing out advance reading copies of The Last Human, and when I questioned him about the whole thing, he told me that Del Rey had provided the booth space, and he had set up everything else, from his helpers, to the card printers, the scanning app, all of it.
Moral of the story? For obvious market reasons, first time SFF writers are nobody’s budget priority. But if you are good at selling yourself, you can make a big impression with limited resources. Now if only I could in any way leverage classical violin training for PR…
John Scalzi and the JOHN FUCKING SCALZI!!! Perhaps a little context is necessary. I am sure I will end up writing about this in a bit more detail in the future, but suffice to say that The Collapsing Empire was the book that made me decide I was going to get off (on?) my ass and actually write a damn novel. Later that same year, You’re Not Fooling Anyone When You Take Your Laptop To A Coffee Shop: Scalzi on Writing was the collection of blog posts that made me decide I was going to pursue a writing career like a real boy.
So, while I wouldn’t credit Scalzi’s work with the inspiration for my own writing, his personality has definitely been directly responsible for my believing I can do this. And meeting him in person was such an amazing experience. He is a smug dork in the best possible way, and despite having the second largest autograph line after Terry Brooks, he spent a lot of time chatting with everyone and being friendly as hell. In the end, he told me to “keep writing, and don’t dare stopping”, and in my head canon, he is greatly invested in my success.
This is by no means the extent of my impressions of the convention or the writers I met there, but most of my other experiences boil down to small anecdotes, reinforcements of personal feelings, and some truly encouraging advice and raw emotion from Sam Sykes, who I shamefully had not read a word by until the very morning of C2E2 — a mistake I am currently fixing with enthusiasm. Also worth mentioning is Chris Kluwe , who was insanely charming and showed me that just because I am a bigot who thinks sportsball is dumb, doesn’t mean sportsball people can’t be thoughtful or have meaningful contributions outside of hoops, or whatever it is you do in the NFL.
Overall, after nearly a decade of walking around booths of comic books, artwork, and toys, standing in lines for autographs and photo ops with cast members of Firefly and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, I am discovering that my inner diligent student likes sitting in panels discussing the craft and business of writing more than pretty much anything else a con might offer. So I am definitely ready to test this theory at a professional lit-con. Hopefully, I get a chance later in the year.