December Film Roundup: To close the year we dug into our crate of Billy Wilder DVDs, with mixed results. So mixed, in fact, that this month's Roundup can illustrate the principle that it's a lot easier to talk about a bad movie than a good movie.

I still love Wilder, but as I see more of his stuff I think my impression of him has been distorted by the 1959-1961 seasons, where he directed three of the best movies ever made in three consecutive at-bats.

[Comments] (1) Situation Normal Author Commentary #1: High-level structure: Hey, folks! My second novel Situation Normal came out three weeks ago, and I've heard that at least a few people have finished it, so I'm reinitializing a tradition I started with my first novel, Constellation Games: author commentary.

With Constellation Games I did a chapter-by-chapter commentary as the book was serialized. I won't be doing that this time—Situation Normal is significantly longer than Constellation Games, which was itself really long for a science fiction book. Instead I've written a number of topical essays; a combination of "stuff for fans" and "stuff I wish I'd known when I was planning a big novel."

I'll be posting chunks of comentary every Tuesday and Friday; I have about a month of stuff depending on how I split it up. Today's episode takes a look at the structure of the book on the highest level. All of these essays will have big spoilers for Situation Normal, but since this one's a high-level overview I think it's vague enough that you could read a bit to see if the book sounds interesting.

Plot structure

The single best piece of writing advice I've ever gotten, or at least the best one I consciously remember, comes from Jim Macdonald, who compared plotting a novel to a game of chess. At the beginning of the story, the crucial thing is to get your characters "out on the board" as quickly as possible.

One you do that (this is my own discovery and not part of Jim's advice), you can get a long way through the plot by writing a scene for each pair of characters and seeing what they have to say to each other. I don't know if anyone else does this as a conscious strategy but I see it happening a lot in ensemble TV shows like Star Trek. I did this in Constellation Games, e.g. "Daisy and Ariel haven't had a scene together, what would they say to each other?" But this doesn't quite work in Situation Normal because the characters spend most of the book in small, physically isolated groups. What I did instead was shuffle the groups.

In Situation Normal, Cedar Commons is the "chessboard". At the beginning of the book, most of the major characters are drawn to the planet. This lets me write "before" scenes with sets of characters who already know each other:

Then I turn on the particle accelerator. The Situation goes Normal, and all the characters are shuffled and flung back into space. Now the characters are separated again, but every grouping of characters contains wildcards:

Over the course of the book, the characters become even more isolated than this. Myrus is sent to the Youth Festival, Becky leaves Sour Candy. But at the end of the book everyone comes together a second time, at Nimar, pulled together by the gravitational pull of the plot.

Because the characters spend so much time in separate plotlines, a lot of fun scenes didn't happen. Churryhoof and Myrus make things very difficult for each other without ever meeting or even becoming aware of each other. Ethiret-Jac and the Chief only have the tiniest interaction, but in that interaction I see the seed of an amazing scene: those two are effectively the same character, and you can just see how much they hate each other.

I'm not crying over what might have been. This is a huge book. I cut major characters and plotlines to get to where we are today. But compared to Constellation Games, there are a whole lot of scenes I could have written but didn't.

The Lebowski Connection

It's now a bit of a cliche to love The Big Lebowski, but it went through a long wilderness period where it was dismissed as a post-Fargo brain fart, so let me have this. I've loved The Big Lebowski since opening day, March 6, 1998; and one of the things I love about it is the plot, which is pretty tightly constructed (not perfect) but seems random and incoherent because the POV character doesn't understand what's going on. Since POV is so tight, the moviegoer must see the film multiple times to piece together what the Dude can't.

In Constellation Games a whole lot of stuff could have been cut without affecting Ariel's through-line (e.g. Ragtime and the Mars mission). For Situation Normal I wanted to work on tighter plotting, and naturally I took The Big Lebowski as my model. The problem is, it's a bit much to ask someone to watch a movie multiple times to understand the plot, and it's a non-starter with a big novel. This only worked with The Big Lebowski because it's funny as hell; even then it took years for the film to get its due.

However. With multiple POV you can tell a complex story and the reader will be able to keep up even as each character stays in the dark. If you told the story of The Big Lebowski from multiple POV (let's say the Dude, Bunny, and Maud—the three Lebowskis), you could tell the story all the way through in chronological order, it would make sense on first viewing, and the core elements of the comedy would come through just fine, because no one character would know what was happening.

When writing the first draft of Situation Normal, I worked on a scene-by-scene basis and didn't really know where it was going overall. But I had a single guiding principle: all the major characters need to end up at the same place and play a crucial role in a climax that fires every Chekhov's gun introduced over the course of the book: Evidence, brands, pain debt, rre colonies, etc. No Return of the Jedi stuff (or, be fair, Constellation Games stuff) where entire subplots end up making no difference to the outcome.

If Cedar Commons is the planet where everyone ends up together by chance, Nimar is the planet that everyone goes to intentionally. The middle part of the story equips everyone with the motive, means and opportunity to get to Nimar. Every major character has an individual character arc as they proceed through the same plot arc, though some characters (Dwap-Jac-Dac) change more than others (Kol).

Then the climax fires all the Chekhov's guns, and the epilogue draws the lifelines of the survivors a little bit past their second point of intersection at Nimar. It gives you a little cooldown without changing the emotional tone, like Donny's funeral in The Big Lebowski.

In my 2013 review of The Big Lebowski I mentioned how, like in a Thomas Pynchon novel, "each of [the] characters is surrounded by a protective bubble of literary genre". In The Big Lebowski each character lives in a different genre. In Situation Normal everyone is in the same genre—madcap space opera—and the characters who get the best endings are the ones who'd already been living in a compatible genre bubble, or who manage to develop one over the course of the book.

This is a smaller influence, but Myrus's subplot in particular was inspired by the John le Carré (RIP) novel The Tailor of Panama. I'm probably not remembering this right, but the bit I remember is someone tells a little bitty lie that spirals out of control and ends in death and disaster. The upside for Myrus is he never finds out about the consequences of his (totally justified IMO) lie.

Building the cast

So, all these characters who can't see the consequences of their actions, where did they come from? Going back to "Four Kinds of Cargo", the Sour Candy crew were all structured around the Chief, who's a huge weirdo. Kol was the one who managed the relationship between her adventure-story fantasies and reality; and Arun and Yip-Goru were... pretty similar to each other. In the novel I differentiated them by making Yip-Goru extremely cowardly (inspired by thons line "Why should we risk our vocalizers for a dead body?") and Arun smoothly British (inspired by his willingness to do a "Bertie Wooster routine").

Becky Twice is the starting point for all the new characters. Becky herself stems from a request of my friend Mirabai, a big fan of Constellation Games who wanted to read a space opera romance between two butch women. I had one butch woman character (the Chief) so I created another (Becky) and put them on a collision course to disastrous romance.

I didn't consciously know this at the time, but a romance story often has a red-herring partner to create tension or to contrast with the story's "real" relationship. Hiroko Ingridsdotter came out of that story need—a maximally inappropriate match for Becky. Hiroko's personality was somewhat flexible through the drafts, as she got moved from one subplot to another, but her character design has always been (Mirabai's phrasing) "high-maintenance military hard femme."

(Mirabai fan-service also explains Crinoline White, though I cut Crinoline's storyline in the final draft. I'll talk more about her in a later post, but she was basically Hiroko's style plus the Chief's cavalier attitude.)

A chain of logic gives us the other characters: at the end of "Four Kinds of Cargo", Kol suggests Sour Candy "sit out the war in a forest." In Situation Normal we see he had a specific forest in mind—Cedar Commons, a whole forest planet where he and the Chief had previously hidden their purloined Evidence.

This raises the question of why Becky is also on that forest planet, or why a "forest planet" even exists. A lot of forests on Earth are monocultures that basically exist to be cut down for wood, so it made sense to say Cedar Commons was that kind of forest. This created a good reason for Becky and Hiroko to have a whole planet to themselves (they're guarding the trees), and for Becky to have missed out on recent developments (meaning she needs the same exposition you do).

Given that a forest planet is our chessboard, who else would go there? Answer: people who want to cut down the forest and make things out of the wood. Jaketown came out of this, and Myrus and Den, the apprentice woodworkers. From that came the question: how come Becky and Hiroko didn't hear that a customer was on the way? Answer: Jaketown is running from something. Not in a panicky way, where you'd hide on the closest planet. Jaketown is a bunch of draft dodgers, and they're looking for a forest planet, where they can pretend they're doing business as usual. Churryhoof and Dwap-Jac-Dac came out of the need to have someone chasing down the draft dodgers.

At that point I had plenty of characters for a novel, with main characters from all three Outreach species, so I stopped sending people to Cedar Commons. We do have some characters introduced later in the book: Starbottle and the Errand Boy are shadowy villains who get revealed over time. Tia and Ethiret were necessary to further Dwap-Jac-Dac's character arc of ceasing to be Dwap-Jac-Dac. And the standalone arc of Styrqot and Vec is necessary to further Den's character development.

The occupation of Cedar Commons changes Den from the person Myrus remembers to the person we see in Part Four. Styrqot and Vec play a role analogous to (though much nastier than) Tammy Miram's role in Constellation Games. I could have cut Tammy without affecting the main plotline; she's actually the main character of a different book we never see. But Ariel's relationship with Tammy puts him through the transformation he needs to be ready for the climax of Constellation Games.

On Friday I'll go into more detail about the sci-fi components of the worldbuilding, and the transition from "Four Kinds of Cargo" to a novel-length story. I'll cover the secret origins of Evidence and skipping, and reveal which real sci-fi corpus was my model for the Cametre stories. See you then!

[Comments] (2) Situation Normal Author Commentary #2: Worldbuilding: Welcome back to the commentary grotto. Please, help yourself to an olive. Today I got some high-level notes on the worldbuilding for Situation Normal. In future entries I'll be going into much more detail on two very important items—the space aliens and the fictional religions—but today is a more grab-baggish look at the choices I made when customizing an off-the-shelf space opera universe. As always, spoilers (and olive pits) are ahead.

from "Four Kinds of Cargo" to Situation Normal

The single biggest worldbuilding source for Situation Normal was worldbuilding I already did for its prequel, "Four Kinds of Cargo". Over and over again I'll be telling you that some major piece of the novel originated in a throwaway line from the story. But there are also many tonal differences between the two that you probably wouldn't notice, except I'm going to point them out here.

Most obviously, I changed some of the names around at editorial suggestion, to avoid ambiguity or assonance (both of which cause readers to conflate names). The main reason I did a Retcon Edition of "Four Kinds of Cargo" was to let you go back and forth between story and novel without being confused by abrupt name changes. I don't think the names are a big deal one way or the other—"Terran Extension" and "Terran Outreach" are the same kind of nonsense. I changed "the Captain" to "the Chief" because Situation Normal contains numerous characters who have "Captain" as a military rank, but no equivalent of Master Chief or Chief O'Brien. That sort of thing.

Since there's no expectation you've read the short, Situation Normal only contains explicit references to "Four Kinds of Cargo" when that's necessary for continuity purposes. Mainly we need to refer to Terequale Bitty, the crew member who dies in the first sentence of "Four Kinds of Cargo" and who in Situation Normal is replaced, briefly, by Becky Twice. Becky sleeps in Terequale's bed (if you can call it sleeping) and inherits her coffee mug. The details are just Easter eggs—if you haven't read "Four Kinds of Cargo" it may seem weird that Sour Candy had a quenny engineer, and I don't explain it. What's important is, that engineer just died and her stuff is still on board, which makes room for Becky and sets up the expectation that the crew on Sour Candy changes pretty frequently.

In Situation Normal we learn that crew members usually leave Sour Candy not because they die ("Four Kinds of Cargo" sez Terequale Bitty was the first fatality) but because they're romantically involved with the Chief, who dumps them. Were Terequale and the Chief lovers? I never had that in mind, and it doesn't fit with how anyone remembers Terequale in "Four Kinds of Cargo", but statistically it's likely.

Becky joins Sour Candy despite not having any of Terequale Bitty's skills, because the most important thing is having an odd number of people on board to prevent votes from ending in a tie. (This may also explain Kol's bad decision to hire Mrs. Chen in "Four Kinds of Cargo".) This was more prominent in an earlier draft of Situation Normal, where at one point there were four people on the crew and they couldn't agree on anything.

In Situation Normal it's revealed that Mrs. Chen has been tracking Sour Candy, whereas in "Four Kinds of Cargo" it seems more like she's doing psyop work against Quennet. Going over "Four Kinds of Cargo" and reconstructing what I may have been thinking back in 2012, it reads like Mrs. Chen was trying to get to Terequale Bitty or turn her somehow. So it's a little weird that immediately after infiltrating the crew ("Four Kinds of Cargo") she'd go right back to secretly tracking them (Situation Normal).

In "Four Kinds of Cargo", Arun is described as not just the heavy but the negotiator. At the beginning of Situation Normal we see him pull the "Bertie Wooster routine" on Becky, but apart from that he doesn't negotiate very much—in particular, the Chief handles the drug deal with Rooroo.

In the final draft of Situation Normal there are three references to the Cametrean tradition of ritual cannibalism (as modified by Kol in "Four Kinds of Cargo"), all of which come from people mocking Ethiret and none of which are explained. The first draft contained actual cannibalism: the food served at the monastery was not neutral soup, but a Tupperware containing a jellied corestin arm:

"Our late sister Clovak," said the quenny. "Ethiret's partner in crime. An intestinal infection killed her. We're not eating that part."

Finally, this is more of an Easter egg, but the purple dress the Chief wears in "Four Kinds of Cargo" comes from the rasme thau casino Den visits at the end of Situation Normal—Den is given an identical dress even though she's a different species with a different body shape. It's the equivalent of the humiliation necktie they give you at the fancy restaurant if you dare show up without a tie. I'm assuming they still do that but maybe it only happened in sitcoms. I will say I've been to a couple fancy restaurants in my day, and I always made sure to wear a jacket and tie to avoid Den's fate.

The title

The very first title of this book was The Furniture War. Once I'd written a bit I wanted to call it Heavy Evidence (now the title of Part Two) but was foiled by genre reading conventions: that sounds like a mystery novel. Instead Sumana and I started calling it Explosion of Honour, a title I never seriously intended to use, but which set the mood as a parody of those Baen military fiction books with goofy cover paintings.

Sumana came up with the title Situation Normal while we were brainstorming over dinner and from that moment on the book never had any other title. There are other books called Situation Normal, and there will probably be more in the future, so I hope we can all get along.


In 2007, I was doodling a novel set in 1960s Earth, called The Man From ARPA. A programmable hallucinogen fit with its countercultural phone-phreaking theme. This is a quote from my notes:

A family of "targeted hallucinogen" drugs called Evidence that induces specific hallucinations or hallucinations intended to evoke specific reactions.

So Evidence has been in my head for a while. However, this idea did not work with The Man From ARPA at all—the level of neuroscience you'd need to create it is way beyond a 1960s level. Even in the space-opera future, the Fist of Joy can't pull it off without cheating.

Instead of The Man From ARPA I wrote "Vanilla", an unpublished novella featuring a synthetic hallucinogen that was not called Evidence but had a few similarities. "Vanilla" became Constellation Games, and Evidence finally saw publication with Situation Normal. At this point The Man From ARPA is well in the rear-view mirror, but the phone-phreaking plot is still a remote possibility—the core concept is clever and I haven't seen anyone else use it. It would probably be a short story, not a novel, and set on another planet, because I don't like doing historical research.


Keeping time in terms of "shifts" shows up in "Four Kinds of Cargo" for the same reason I use 2x notation for everything in "The Time Somn Died". In a story with no human POV characters, time won't be measured in "hours" or "days", and using those words will take the reader out of the story. This is always a challenge because making up fake timekeeping words also takes the reader out of the story, without even the benefit of explaining how long a period of time has elapsed. A "shift" is a way humans have of keeping time that isn't directly tied to the planet Earth, so it served the purpose.

I expanded the "shifts" idea a little in Situation Normal: the Outreach does keep time using "hours" and "days", even though this doesn't make sense outside of Earth—part of the Outreach's human chauvinism.

At some point I calculated exactly how long a shift was and calibrated all the times in the book based on that number, but that was a while before the final draft and if you try to make everything line up precisely I suspect you will be disappointed. The one rule that has to work for plot purposes (it's part of Yip-Goru's conspiracy theory) is that a kiloshift is approximately one Earth year. This would make one shift about 8 hours and 45 minutes—approximately the length of a "shift" of 20th-century American work. In the end this doesn't matter and you can get through the book on Becky's vague sense that "[Fist] sitcoms ran five centishifts, so ten hours maybe?"

The Fist measures volume in the creatively-named "volumes", though in the final draft this is only used once, in a way that's ambiguous. ("A volume of Terran bourbon!") I'm gonna say the ambiguity is intentional.

I dunno how the Fist measures distance; fortunately it doesn't matter because of the way FTL works. Astronomical distance is measured in terms of the time, or number of skips, it will take to get there. Speaking of which...


I read a book around, like, 1989, which I've never been able to find since. I think the book was called Twister, so good luck finding it, and I'm pretty sure I read an ARC, so maybe its name changed or it was never even published. Anyway, in this book our intrepid scientists are trying to invent a teleportation machine. Instead, they make a machine that can "twist" a spherical volume of space, swapping it with the equivalent volume in a parallel Earth where humans never evolved.

In "Four Kinds of Cargo" the mechanism of FTL space travel is not really spelled out, because I think that stuff is boring. But you gotta spell it out in a novel that spans most of a galaxy, and I like to have a mechanism that gives me some constraints and plot toys, rather than just handwaving it and making space the size of Rhode Island. In Constellation Games the FTL mechanism is ports—moveable wormholes that connect two previously separate points in spacetime. This gives me some cool plot toys, most of which were stolen by the video game Portal, and the rest of which you can read in that novel.

In Situation Normal the FTL mechanism is skipping, defined as the thing I suspect those scientists in the book I read were trying to invent: something that swaps one spherical volume of space with another. This gives me lots of cool plot toys: skip overlap, questions of what is "spherical" given that mass distorts spacetime, and FTL as something that happens in discrete bursts (with capacitors that discharge) rather than continuously—more Battlestar Galactica than Star Trek.

The idea of encrypted matter, which shows up at the very end of the book, is an idea I've had for a really long time and wasn't originally related to skipping as an FTL technology. I think at one point I intended to use it as a plot point in Constellation Games—something related to the shipping containers—and I will probably use it again in another story. It's too cool an idea to only use once as a minor plot point.

Some other things I remember about the mysterious sci-fi book, in case you want to try and find it where I have failed: there was a hacker character, possibly named Gordon, who frequented a l33t hax0r BBS with a false front. The hacker character would suffix "-o" to statements for emphasis, e.g. "sounds like some bullshit-o."

Infrafictional works

Constellation Games was full of fictional media and works of art, and Situation Normal keeps up this enjoyable tradition. The only fictional video game in Situation Normal is the Snake-like game bundled on Myrus's replacement Fist of Joy terminal, though I cut a couple when I cut Crinoline White's storyline—Kol uses online games to launder money.

More prominent in the novel are the crime dramas which first made their appearance in "Four Kinds of Cargo"—primarily Nightside, Undeclared, and (Becky and Den's favorite) The Down Under Crew. Over the course of Situation Normal, a number of characters take inspiration from these dramas as a guide to life, which makes perfect sense as Situation Normal is the same kind of story. As Myrus says, "no magic or future stuff, just normal people in normal spaceships doing crimes."

Jammer Readout!!, the Chief's origin show, is a different sort of crime drama, and IMO the book's most direct connection to Constellation Games. The rasme thau have just made contact with aliens who have brought them new technology (the videocamera) and introduced them to a complicated wider universe. So they use the technology to have wacky fun and play out their feelings about the complicated universe. I modelled Jammer Readout!! after corny low-budget sci-fi like 1980s Doctor Who.

My elevator pitch for Situation Normal is "the Coen Brothers do Star Trek", and my elevator pitch for Aquadale Selmar's Cametre stories is "Phillip K. Dick does Star Trek." I asked myself what kind of science fiction would inadvertently become a religion (as opposed to you-know-what), and I think that's a pretty good answer. I'll cover Cametreanism in greater detail later, but here's a detail about the books themselves: Selmar's novels are the ones with "Cametre" in the title. In Cametre's Clutches, Doing Without Cametre, Through Cametre's Prism, etc. The titles that don't specifically mention "Cametre" are short stories: Don't Go Out There, The Second Copy, The Kind Permission, etc. Doesn't really matter.

Myrus spends the story reading a novel called The Object of Power, and you see little clips from it at one point as he searches for the dirty bits. The Object of Power is my attempt to play out what a fantasy novel would look like in a space-opera universe, where you have magic but also space aliens and interstellar travel. I don't read a ton of fantasy, so the style of those excerpts was mainly inspired by stories and novels I've read through my writing group.

In earlier drafts, the interactive "Princess Denweld" story Gearu and Den improvise was a generic medieval high-fantasy story. I never enjoyed rereading those scenes, so while embarking on a late-stage project to make the uhaltihaxl more alien-feeling, I rewrote "Princess Denweld" to feel more like a medieval high-fantasy story written by uhaltihaxl as opposed to humans. This gave those scenes some sci-fi oomph and made them more rereadable.


In addition to changing names from "Four Kinds of Cargo" I spent a lot of time working on new names, and new naming rules, for new types of characters. Hetselter Churryhoof's name went through several variants early on as I was establishing the rules for uhaltihaxl name construction. Her original name was "Wabang Kannakannary", but that sounded too much like a human name.

Eventually I figured out that uhaltihaxl names, like the word "uhaltihaxl", needed to sound awkward on the English-speaker's tongue. For this I used weird enjambments and little bits of chopped-up English words (similar to how I made Alien surnames in Constellation Games).

Myrusit and Denweld were the only major uhalti names I never changed. Tellpesh was originally "Tellhesher", Myrus's dad (Kemrush) was originally "Kenressy") and Den's mom (Maskitenny) was originally "Tensenny". Watkerrywun, the fake name Hiroko gives Tellpesh when bamboozling the spaceport manager, turns out to be the name of the colony where Tellpesh grew up.

"Professor Starbottle" is the name of an astronomer in The Goddess of Atvatabar, an 1892 hollow-Earth novel. While writing the first draft I read a history-of-science book that mentioned this novel, and the cool name fit the character, who "bottles" the numinous and distills it into Evidence. His full name, Thaddeus Ganapathy Starbottle, is intended to evoke Groucho Marx's high-status clowns.

Styrqot's name was originally "Styrriqo". I like that name better but it's the same rhythm and has the same rolled R as "Churryhoof", so changed it to reduce cognitive load.

The name "Dwap-Jac-Dac" is probably the deepest cut in the book. It's a reference to one of the meetups I held in the mid-90s in Bakersfield for my BBS, Da Warren. The meetup was called DWAP-JAC-DAC and it stood for "Da Warren Annual Party - Jabbacrats Anonymous Conference - Dvoren Awards Ceremony." Yes, I pulled it off—the reference of a lifetime!

A quiet running joke in Situation Normal is the apparent impossibility of finding a precise English translation for the name of a Fist of Joy spacecraft. Hiroko translates Sour Candy as Bad Sugar, Mrs. Chen translates it as Sweet-and-Sour, and Crinoline (RIP) translates it as Tsundere. Churryhoof translates Small but Sharp as Little Dagger. The Errand Boy translates Unreadable Signature, the name of his own ship!, as Small Illegible Smear.

As for the Outreach Navy, all their spacecraft are named after important political documents from member governments, in parody of/tribute to the over-long ship names from the Culture books. These went in and out of the book as necessary. Some of the ones I cut that I remember are Tryst With Destiny, Akset Swy Stands Ready, United States v. Frankie, and A Few Suggestions For The Incoming Government. You may be interested to know that The Case of the Armie Truly Stated, a very GCU-ish name for a Light Combat Platform, refers to a real pamphlet from the English Civil War.

I believe the only civilian Outreach ship we see is Jaketown, which is named after my friend Jake Berendes. It's a simple but pleasant joke of taking the tradition of naming early American colonies after royalty (Jamestown, Williamsburg, etc.), and applying it to some random guy named Jake.

Outreach colonies with names like Fallback and Temporary Junction are inspired by the planet in Larry Niven's Known Space universe called We Made It; also by some Discworld characters whose names bear Cake Wrecks-type mistakes due to a poorly-thought-out naming ceremony.

A few Navy characters have the position of "Master of Drone" on their ship (Dwap-Jac-Dac on Brown v. Board, Churryhoof on What is to be Done?, Ja-Iyo-Cat on Magna Carta). This is a reference to the Roman military/government position of magister equitum, "master of horse".

The name of the capital terminal is a dense pun: it's a computer terminal that goes inside your head, but it's also the interface through which you experience capitalism. "Capital" and "terminal" are both antonyms ("first" and "last") and synonyms ("deadly").

The next essay is devoted to a single, awesome topic: space aliens. How do you make twenty-six species of forehead aliens feel distinct? You don't! Lots of pro tips like that coming right to you, on Tuesday the 12th!

[Comments] (1) Situation Normal Author Commentary #3: Space Aliens: My favorite part of writing science fiction! If you've read Constellation Games, you already know that I love designing alien biologies and cultures. In Constellation Games, each alien species had its own histories of war and privation, which they'd transcended to become part of a classic SF multi-species alliance. In Situation Normal, I came up with two different takes on the "multi-species alliance" trope and had them fight.

Not for the first or last time, the setup in Situation Normal comes out of a throwaway line in "Four Kinds of Cargo". Specifically, when Kol goes out onto the Outreach space station he mentions "humans and their Outreach lackeys." This implies a) the Fist sees itself as an alliance of equals, with the Outreach dominated by humans, and b) there are at least two "lackey" species. Basically, the Fist of Joy is how Star Trek's Federation sees itself, and the Outreach is the Federation we actually see on screen most of the time.

Some of the Fist species have some flavor (e.g. the rest of the Fist are squeezing the jetk into a gender binary where they don't really fit), but overall they're designed to feel like a disorganized mob where no one is in charge and you can't even keep track of everyone. The key line here is:

Myrus wondered if a species could quietly join the Fist of Joy without anyone noticing. With everyone thinking someone else had invited these weird-looking people.

Whereas the Terran Outreach is an empire consisting of three species with well-defined cultures (plus brands). As Arun sarcastically puts it: "the nasty humans and their uhalti pets and their rre attack dogs."


The fundamental alien concept for the uhaltihaxl is pain debt, which makes them capable of feats of physical badassery despite a reputation as fluffy sheep people.

The book starts hitting "fluffy sheep people" early. The first thing we hear about uhaltiaxhl is the mayor of Jaketown saying they "aren't warriors by nature." The "hoof" in Churryhoof's name is designed to subliminally lock in "ruminant". And Myrus is a fluffy sheep person. He gets a moment of pain-debt-fueled badassery near the end, but all he wants is to read fantasy novels and make furniture. Churryhoof and Den are the ones who do bad stuff, and the surprise (I hope) is that they don't need pain debt to do the really bad stuff—I'm thinking of Churryhoof's decision to draft the council kids and Den's cold-blooded manipulation of Gearu.

The "six percent" conversation in Chapter 24 is important here: Churryhoof drafted the wrong kid. Myrus is in the six percent of uhalti who would never hurt anyone, and Den is at the other end of the bell curve, able to kill without remorse.

The other alien feature of the uhalti is that their extreme gender segregation means no incest taboo. You're not even supposed to know who your relatives are, so it can't matter, right? In various drafts I went back and forth on whether Den and Myrus were actually related and/or romantically interested in each other, leading to a kind of wishy-washy Arrested Development level of humor.

In the end my editor wanted me to make the uhalti as weird as possible, so I went all the way in the final draft, adding the tradition of concentration of genes, and Maskitenny's and Kemrush's attempt to put it into practice with Den and Myrus. And, of course, the nearly-successful human attempt to wipe out that tradition, such that Churryhoof (who's very conservative), is happy to see it being kept alive.

One minor feature of the uhaltihaxl that I think should be present in the next release of humanity: in chapter 16, Myrus is able to "close his ears" by an act of will and not hear something annoying.


The rre are a body-snatching species who are also a colony-intelligence species. It's a similar trick to Her from Constellation Games—a collective intelligence whose components are individually intelligent—but much more fine-grained.

The rre are the opposite of the uhaltihaxl: they repulse humanoids and have a horrifying biology but are generally nice people. They were built out of a few features of Yip-Goru as described in "Four Kinds of Cargo": 1) ungendered pronoun, 2) hyphenated name, 3) lives in a metamaterial suit.

Having set that up, Yip-Goru turns out to be an unusual rre. Most of the rre we see are squares, hyper-loyal to "the rules" (Dwap-Jac-Dac, Tip-Iye-Nett-Zig) or some higher sense of morality (Tia, Ethiret-Jac). Yip-Goru is bitter, cranky, and only out for thonself.

Yip-Goru's late predecessor, Yip-Goru-Toco, is mentioned a couple times in Situation Normal. My sketch is that Yip-Goru's unusual attitude stems from trauma from being trapped in a suit and attached to Toco's dead body for a long time. But this didn't come up and was too gross to put in the story for no reason.

The metamaterial suit was mainly used a way to introduce the sanitized, human-friendly version of the rre to the reader. It's abandoned pretty quickly, as Dwap-Jac-Dac takes things in a... different direction.

The Fist of Joy

The many species of the Fist of Joy are designed as Star Trek-style forehead aliens—humanoid, but superficially different from humans and from each other. "From each other" is the most important piece because the contrast I'm setting up is actually between the Outreach and the Fist.

Since there are three major characters—Kol, the Chief, and Qued Ethiret— from these forehead-alien species, I needed to demonstrate that there's diversity within each species, and it's not a Planet of Hats thing where all the egenu are walking down the street like this.

I did this by creating minor villains whose personalities are maximally different from our heroes. The self-made Chief is mirrored by the credentialed Dr. Cwess, and sensitive Kol by the sadistic Vec. Bolupeth Vo, who draws a sharp distinction between "real life and something you'd see in the damn 3-tank", is mirrored by Qued Ethiret, who makes no such distinction.

The Errand Boy is the only major jetk character, and he's a big villain, so I ran the process in reverse, giving a number of "regular folks" bit parts to jetk: the receptionist at the Long Term Memory House, the Mormon missionaries, one of the kids in the model ICSA, and Tvez the pilot.


In Connie Willis's novel Bellwether you get phrases like "word came down from Management", and only late in the book do you discover that there's a character named Management who said that stuff. The core idea behind the brands came from a similar joke. Our experience with real-world brands (e.g. on Twitter) makes it easy to read "Strigl Modern Design did X" in the passive voice, and you don't learn until pretty late in Situation Normal that "Strigl Modern Design" is a specific person.

A couple things happened to this idea en route to the final draft. Basically, keeping you in the dark that long would not have been funny, because unlike with "Management" the fact that brands are AIs is important to the story. The most important change here is in Chapter 4, where Hiroko uses the three-ring binder to enact Trellis On-Site Security, and Jaketown on the other end finds someone to enact Strigl Modern Design at her. There's a conversation between two brands, with both sides of the conversation are mediated through humanoids.

This introduces "brands" as a satirical take on the real-world phenomenon of people switching in and out of a corporate voice. When the literal brand-as-character AIs are introduced, it's hopefully less of a shock because you see who was making the humanoids do that. After that reveal, I expanded the scenes between Den and Gearu to establish the fucked-up relationship between brands and the rest of the Outreach—something that in previous drafts was primarily Crinoline White's job.

There was some lighthearted editorial debate about how to format brand speech. Up to the final draft, brand speech was written as narration, to throw off the reader and convey the "gets in your head" feeling of a brand connecting directly to your capital terminal:

"This gentlebeing wants me to talk to you about a factory."

The hless factory.

"Presumably some kind of munitions factory," said Tellpesh-Tia.

My fallback idea was to set off brand speech with dashes—what I always think of as "James Joyce quotes"—but we settled on French-style guillemets. Italics and underlines were out because they were being used for mental asides and rre native-speech.

One of my big missed opportunities in this book is that because of the scenes I happened to cut, we almost never see brands taking action on their own. Almost always they are doing what someone else told them to do. This makes it difficult to see them as moral actors until the very end, but I assure you, they are moral actors.


And finally we have the humans: Becky, Arun, Mrs. Chen, and Professor Starbottle. I gave them the same treatment I gave the Fist of Joy aliens. There are huge differences of attitude between Becky (born and raised in the Outreach), Starbottle (born and raised in the Fist), and Arun (born in the Outreach and had to flee).

Because there's no need to convince human readers that humans aren't all morally the same, I was more free about casting humans as pure villains. In "Four Kinds of Cargo" Mrs. Chen was depicted as a little sleazy, but she's despicable in Situation Normal; and if you're a consequentialist, Starbottle is the worst person in the whole story.

This only shows up in the background, especially after I converted from Commonwealth to American spellings (we'll talk about that later), but Earth culture of this time period is dominated by India. Everyone in the Fist of Joy has a very superficial understanding of American culture, but Kol makes a pretty obscure joke about the Mahabharata (about the "Tata Yudhisthira" hovercar which abruptly loses altitude) and assumes the Chief will get it. The Errand Boy misreads a fact about Hindus as a fact about humans in general. The government of the Outreach is a parliamentary democracy with a civil service; not, for example, a Galactic Senate. Just a counterweight to how US-centric these space opera settings often are.


Surprisingly, this novel's language design also comes from a decision made in "Four Kinds of Cargo". The language used in that story is Trade Standard D, which implies that language barriers in this universe are handled with trade languages rather than automatic translation, and there are at least three more of these things.

In Situation Normal, languages are almost always rendered as English (so you can read them), but this rendering is done in different styles depending on which other languages the speaker knows (a fun trick I learned from Keith Laumer's Retief stories, also used in Constellation Games) and the fluency of the POV character.

The clearest example is Trade Standard A, the Fist's military language. When Kol hears people speaking A over the radio, it's rendered as idiomatic English, because Kol himself is fluent in A. When Churryhoof (who learned A in the Academy a long time ago) overhears Styrqot and Vec speaking A, it's rendered in a way that makes visible the underlying structure of the grammar. Through Churryhoof, we see that Trade Standard A sentences are stacks, with nouns pushed onto the stack and verbs popping from the top.

Styrqot's line as heard by Churryhoof: "To the military, the research project, the brand operates, the benefit accrues." is literally: "The benefit of the research project operated by the brand accrues to the military." and idiomatically: "The brand is just running the research project for the military."

Trade Standard B and D are two languages that work together. D is designed to be really easy to learn (Becky needs to learn it quickly for plot reasons) because it just doesn't have most of the stuff you'd want in a language designed for literature or flirting. That fancy stuff is isolated in Trade Standard B, which acts as a mixin language that you can drop in and out of while speaking D.

This shows up so subtly that I could have ditched it, but I think it's a cool idea. Merikp Hute Roques refers to "boring old Trade Standard D" because for the sake of her Outreach guests she's not including much B in her patter. The comedian in the casino is working almost entirely in B, which Den understands, as befits her would-be future in marketing. Jac is fluent in A and D, but to be effective as a con artist in the Fist thon needs Ethiret's fluency in B.

For characters who learned English through Trade Standard D, their English speech is mainly rendered as a sequence of noun phrases. This is most obvious with the Chief ("Kol, the dramatic reveal!"), but we also see it in the video ad for the Youth Festival ("Our decision to send you there!"). You see how this works in detail at the Youth Festival itself, where Myrus watches a sentence get translated from English to D, and the response get translated in the opposite direction.

I had to add some clarifying bits to make it clear that the Chief doesn't talk like this all the time! She's a native speaker of Trade Standard D, so when she talks with Kol, she sounds like she does in "Four Kinds of Cargo". Only her English (in scenes where Becky is the POV character) is noun phrases.

The flip side of all this is the way Becky, a native English speaker, encounters Trade Standard D. To start with she has no sense of the language's words or syntax—it's a wash of anxiety-inducing "harna harna" sounds. After watching the Down Under Crew dub with the Chief, she can pick up individual words if they're spaceship-related. By the time she goes off on her own, she has a clumsy grasp of D, which is rendered as all of her verbs coming out as gerunds. ("Thinking I Yip-Goru anticipating a war happening.") At the very end of the book, Becky becomes aware of the linguistic underpinnings of her reality, which I dramatized by using punctuation characters to mark up different parts of speech in the text of the book.

Crazy Rooroo does business mostly in his native language, switching to D only when talking numbers. Since he learned English through his native language, his English is rendered differently than the Chief's; he tends to use weird prepositions, a bit like Tetsuo from Constellation Games.

The Cametrean abbot's vocabulary includes a lot of portmanteau words designed to sound like neologisms from bad 1970s sci-fi: "genemod", "newsfax", "farcall", "litstash", "tintshots", etc.

Kol has native fluency in all relevant languages, a purely practical decision I made because otherwise the book would be impossible to read.

No information is available about Trade Standard C.

Situation Normal Author Commentary #4: The Fictional Religions: The theme of Situation Normal is what happens when you let a narrative drive your life, and religious belief is the O.G. of letting a narrative drive your life. There's one religion mentioned in "Four Kinds of Cargo" (Cametreanism) which I wanted to flesh out in Situation Normal. Having created one, I wanted to make more, so that it wouldn't look like Cametreanism represented my opinion of religion in general. As with alien species, I wanted to create a diversity of alien religions, and I wanted each religion to have some crossover appeal beyond its species of origin, so you wouldn't just have "the uhaltihaxl religion", "the rre religion" (or 'rreligion'), etc.

Babylon 5 has a fictional religion called Foundationism which is an in-universe attempt to refactor all human religions and find the good bits that they have in common. This was an inspiration to me because it jibed with my 21st-century experience of religion. Other SF religions, notably Bajoran mysticism, seem more premodern.

I have a suspicion that JMS thinks Foundationism is the way to go in real life ("he's written a document that covers the history and principles of Foundationism, but has to date been debating whether to release it or not, partly for fear of being 'elroned'"), so I want to make it clear that Jalir, Hasithenk, and Cametreanism are completely made up, with no spiritual value beyond what you can get from Buddhism, Stoicism, or Star Trek fandom.


A touchy-feely religion based on a specific long-ago incident, the Two Epiphanies, which is dramatized in the book and which completely changed the rre species' concept of itself. I have just a couple things to say about Jalir. First, the touchy-feely part was designed to counterprogram the stereotype of the rre as killer parasites, just as pain debt counterprograms the opposite stereotype about uhaltihaxl. Second, the Two Epiphanies scene was written to be super disturbing, to set up a mystery as to why a dying human (Spaceman Heiss) would find satisfaction in having that as his last rites.

At the end of the book, in another death scene, the mystery is resolved, and you see how a story based on rre biology provides comfort to a dying humanoid. But I suspect a lot of people won't see a mystery here at all. They'll figure out the message of the Two Epiphanies during Heiss's death scene. It doesn't seem that big a leap to me. I'm interested in hearing what you think.


Hasithenk is paranoid Stoicism, the shifty-eyed worship of Murphy's Law. It posits that the universe is indifferent to the point of hostility and the best you can do is roll with the punches. It's a good religion for a species like the uhaltihaxl who get pushed around a lot.

As the uhaltihaxl become less pushed-around, Hasithenk is dying out rather than spinning off a 'prosperity gospel' variant. Because of this, Churryhoof is the only faithful Hasithenk practitioner we see in Situation Normal—as a military officer she has an ongoing relationship with Murphy's Law. The story she tells Dr. Sempestwinku in Chapter 26 is, I imagine, the kind of story people share in church.

Myrus's dad seems like an Easter-and-Christmas type worshipper, which explains why Myrus knows the terminology but doesn't believe. Den is so hostile to Hasithenk ("a children's story") that she relishes using it as a way to manipulate Gearu. There's also Kol, whose 'belief' is more of a suspicion, but who shows that Hasithenk has some cross-species appeal.

We see little glimpses of the day-to-day experience of Hasithenk—the interminable church meetings, the mysterious engraving plates in the scriptures—which are taken directly from my experience growing up in the LDS church. The iconography of Providence comes more from Catholicism, her ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ mimicking Christ's posture on the cross. And Thrux is inspired by the Shrike from Dan Simmons's Hyperion books—specifically Hyperion. The sequels go into too much detail about the Shrike's hit points and special attacks for my taste; it's much cooler as a mysterious "it sees you and you're dead" thing.

Thrux is the focus of the Weird Thing in a book that otherwise plays by normal science fiction rules, analogous to what happens in Constellation Games when (rot13 spoiler) Nevry naq Wraal xvff. Churryhoof's religious Moment of Awesome here is my little tribute to the very best part of Star Trek V.


Just a palate cleanser before we get to Cametreanism. Becky Twice grew up going to a social-justice multicultural Baptist church, and I made none of that up, but I made sure to mention an Uhaltihaxl Jesus in the Echo Park Baptist Fellowship's array of Jesus iconography, to show that human religions also have appeal beyond their species of origin. (Echo Park is near where I grew up, BTW —I learned to swim at the Echo Park Pool.)

The inaccurate depiction of Jesus we see in Becky's Evidence trip is because Starbottle doesn't really understand any of the religions he's weaponizing. That Evidence works on Jeong, though, so apparently accuracy is not super important.


In "Four Kinds of Cargo", Cametreanism is presented as a generic oppressive, no-fun religion. We hear a couple fragments: "Cametreans are isolationists," "space travel is a sin". These puritans control Quennet, and Terequale Bitty made a deal with them because it was the only way she could get off-planet and into a life of space adventure.

At the same time, Terequale Bitty's attitude doesn't seem unusual. The quenny in "Four Kinds of Cargo'' love space adventure stories. They devour Extension Navy, even though it's shoddily produced propaganda designed to delegitimize whatever rumors you might have heard of the universe outside Quennet.

My idea for Situation Normal was to tie these two threads together by making Cametreanism a religion derived from a science-fiction fandom. Space travel is a sin because the Cametre stories show space as an environment degraded by our presence. Cametreans are isolationists because any contact with the outside universe makes it clear that the Cametre stories are completely made-up.

The Cametreans are right about one thing—they are characters in a science fiction novel—but they're wrong about which novel. When the abbot is arguing with Tellpesh-Tia he's so confident that he's going to show up again at the end of the book, and nope!

I don't think it's disrespectful to say that there are deep similarities between a fandom and a religion based on a holy text. Even if you do think it's disrespectful, it's by no means an original observation—Futurama had a religion explicitly based on Star Trek. The concept resonates with me, I think, because of my Mormon background.

Mormons have some sacred books that include quite a few... continuity errors. When a certain type of person learns about the continuity errors, they feel they have no choice but to leave the church. And Mormonism teaches kids to seek out the truth and hold to it no matter what, making it all the more likely you will grow up to be the type of person who has to step away after discovering the truth.

Compare this to actual Star Trek, which is full of inaccuracies and continuity errors, and it's not a big deal—it's fun!—because everyone knows this stuff is fiction, and with rare exceptions, the inaccuracies don't affect the moral core of the show. Someone who models their life on "what would Captain Picard do?" (not a terrible idea) is treating Picard as a moral yardstick, not an infallible guide.

In "Four Kinds of Cargo" we glimpsed a theocratic strain of Cametreanism that's brittle against continuity errors. We don't see much of the Bronze Age Bastards, but they're a weird militant offshoot devoted to destroying things that aren't "canon". In the monastery on Arzil, we see a strain which treats the religion more as a fandom. This is not only more humane and closer to the original author's intent (insofar as any of this was intentional), it also gives you a more accurate approach to the holy texts.

When Ethiret ran the Arzil monastery, he did wacky stuff like hosting movie nights and expanding the definition of canon. Quennet found out what he was doing and sent over a quenny abbot to deploy the iron fist of orthodoxy and put a stop to all that. But like James T. Kirk, Qued Ethiret can't be constrained by orthodoxy of any kind. His whole schtick is coming up with "fucked-up, impractical plans" that work when they shouldn't. That's canon, folks!

And the abbot recognizes this! He can't imagine a plan to get the Navy grunts off Arzil, but he knows Ethiret can. And he really hates that a literal, fundamentalist interpretation of the religion means creating and tolerating playful unorthodoxy.

The idea of putting things "in sync"—taking real events and slotting them into the continuity of the Cametre stories—is a satirical exaggeration of the real-world process by which we compartmentalize our knowledge to resolve cognitive dissonance. This is most explicit when Ethiret talks about his two sets of memories, and there's a little Easter egg for LDS folks in there, where Ethiret mentions putting a forbidden thought on a shelf.

Syncweed, the drug that gives you some conscious control over your own cognitive dissonance, is an essential precursor to Evidence, the drug that rewrites your brain by guiding you through a hallucination. We see versions of syncweed that work on quenny, corestin, and humans, which implies that Starbottle's epilogue vision of neutral Evidence is a real possibility.

Syncweed and the process of putting events in sync are where my idea of Aquadale Selmar as a PKD-like figure shows through the strongest. Specifically it's reminiscent of the use of Can-D and the Perky Pat layouts in The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch.

Postscript: Mystery solved!

In an earlier essay I mentioned a book called Twister that I read when I was a kid and couldn't find any trace of online. As it happens, I just started reading Vonda McIntyre's Starfarers, and she mentions that book in the intro! How fortuititous! The book is Twistor, by John Cramer, which explains why I remember it being called Twister but couldn't find any trace of it online.

I've ordered a copy of Twistor, so pretty soon we'll see how accurate are my recollections of l33t h4x0rs and alternate universes.

Next Tuesday comes what I expect is the one you've been waiting for: deleted scenes! We've got 'em in abundance. You'll meet Crinoline White and Admiral Norton, antithrill to Hiroko's un-venture, and see Becky successfully set up her marketing consultancy. See you then!

[Comments] (2) Situation Normal Author Commentary #5: Deleted Scenes: The first draft of Situation Normal was about 182,000 words. My original concept was a science-fiction Song of Ice and Fire-type epic with many overlapping points of view. Unfortunately, this made the novel unsaleable—that length is the main reason you didn't see this novel years ago. Fantasy readers will devour 182k words and come back for the other two books in the trilogy, but science fiction novels usually run around 80k-100k. Constellation Games is around 120k which is already really big.

To sell Situation Normal I had to cut the word count down to no more than 150k. (Final count is about 147k.) I also rearranged scenes to dramatically cut the number of POV switches—frequent switches work for television but put too much cognitive load on a reader.

To get to 147k I had to cut a couple subplots and some fun scenes. In today's commentary I'll list the main ones and mourn them with some choice quotes.

The bakery that only sells flowers: First, a scene that was rewritten rather than deleted. I did a lot of "writing the other" in this book, and took critiques from a number of sensitivity readers. I want to highlight a big change I made with the help of a sensitivity reader.

In the draft I sold, when Den enters the awareness station on Magna Carta she is overwhelmed by a "horrible stay-away smell" which turns out to be Churryhoof's must telling Den, fellow uhaltihaxl female, to scram. Sensitivity reader: "[T]his was such a sort of familiar scene (older-lady sexuality is stinky and embarrassing) that I kind of wanted the exact opposite."

When I get any kind of critique, I try to find a way of addressing it while also improving the story in other respects. That attitude short-circuits my defense mechanisms and moves the focus away from whether I personally think a critique is reasonable.

In this case I do think the critique is reasonable—that was lazy writing— and the sensitivity reader also provided a good solution. "The exact opposite"—Churryhoof's pheromones smelling so good that it makes Den woozy—made just as much sense as the cliche I'd written originally, and was a lot cooler.

Coffee: In the second draft I wrote an introductory scene that basically does the job of "Four Kinds of Cargo." It walks you through the Outreach, the Fist of Joy, the differences between them, and the fact that they're about to go to war.

The scene stars Styrqot, everyone's favorite doomed dad. Just before the war starts, he's importing a shipment of coffee beans from the Outreach. He gets a cursory inspection from Outreach customs, and then a more thorough inspection from the Fist. One of the customs inspectors mocks Styrqot for importing luxury goods instead of going off into glorious battle.

"Due respect, ma'am, I won't take this from you. I ran logistics in the last war."

"Oh, the war we lost!" said the mehi-peri. "Well, thank you for your service!" She hopped down off the pallet. "Excuse me, didn't realize we had a fuckin' hero here."

Stung by this rebuke, Styrqot decides he'll do one little military job and call it even. Of course the 'job' turns out to be transporting Vec to Cedar Commons, and you know the rest.

There's a little twist at the end which might make it plausible to turn this scene into a bonus story, but it's not my best work. In the draft I sold, I cut "Coffee" and moved the Battle of Unicorn Sector to the start of the book, so we could open with an exciting set-piece. But eventually I moved that scene back to its original place, to preserve chronological order. The book now starts exactly as I originally wrote it: nice and quiet, with Hiroko waking Becky on Cedar Commons.

Overall I feel like I tried a bunch of flashy stuff to sell the book, but it didn't make the story any better and I should have focused on cutting the word count.

Fish Dinner: In the first draft, our first glimpse of Sour Candy is from Kol's point of view. Immediately after Sour Candy lands in the ocean on Cedar Commons, Kol pops the hatch and goes up with Arun to scrape flash-baked carp off the spacecraft's hull:

"[These fish] are supposed to be neutral," said Kol.

"They're invasive, is what they are," said Mr. Arun Sliver. "Whoever terraformed this planet spent about a centishift planning its ecosystem. We're going to get very tired of eating this particular fish."

This is why you see the Sour Candy crew handling fish in the subsequent scenes, and why Kol calls the land-in-the-ocean maneuver the "Fish Dinner" in chapter 34. This scene still happens but I don't need to show it, and cutting it left space for a much better Sour Candy introduction in the final draft:

To put it in cinematic terms, Becky arrives on the scene, is taken hostage, and brought on board Sour Candy; but the camera doesn't go into the ship with her! It peels off and starts following Kol as he climbs into the stolen hovercar. The POV has changed and we are now seeing things from the "enemy" perspective.

Admiral Norton: In the final draft, Mrs. Chen shows up to Cedar Commons immediately after Sour Candy bugs out. She gets there quickly because she never stopped tracking Sour Candy after "Four Kinds of Cargo". This definitely keeps the story moving, but there's a great scene I cut, where Churryhoof brought Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka back to the fleet in disgrace, was relieved of command, and lectured by an Admiral Norton, apparently one of her mentors. This is the "tradition of glorious suicide" scene I mentioned in my weblog a while back.

Something was seriously wrong. When your superiors chew you out, there are certain rote phrases that tell you approximately how fucked you are. Norton was not using those phrases. For instance, "completely unacceptable", "colossal blunder", or the most popular, "no place in this Navy." ... What was this "lapse in judgement", "cannot have front-line officers" crap?

The mystery of why Churryhoof is being given the kid-glove treatment, given the horrible thing she did on Cedar Commons, was solved when Norton announced that Churryhoof was being reassigned to Echo Division under Mrs. Chen—Chen heard about that horrible thing and saw it as showing a promising Echo Division mindset. Chen and Churryhoof then go right back to Cedar Commons, which in retrospect was kind of silly, so it's a good cut overall.

Until I made this edit, Brown v. Board was a pretty big operation, crewing maybe fifty people. Because of this edit I had to make it much smaller—I couldn't have dozens of people left on board after the loss of the scoop, because everyone except Churryhoof must be moved quickly offstage. So now Brown v. Board starts out with a crew of seven. This caused some rank inflation—do you really need two officers on the equivalent of a Swift Boat?—which I didn't bother fixing, under "ten percent more accurate than Star Trek" rules.

Here's a fun paragraph I cut from the return voyage to Cedar Commons, when Churryhoof sees Mrs. Chen seemingly dead (she's actually on an Evidence trip). "No acknowledged rank" is a thing from earlier drafts. You can see why I had to cut this bit, given all the explanation I just had to give:

Perhaps it is indicative of a personal flaw that Churryhoof's first instinct was to eulogize. Mrs. Chen may have been a cranky old human who considered herself Churryhoof's superior despite having no acknowledged rank, but there are only two good ways for a spaceman to die, and dying quietly in bed en route to a war zone splits the difference in a way guaranteed to please nobody.

And this might be my favorite joke in the whole project, a rare moment when Situation Normal flat-out becomes a Star Trek parody. Mrs. Chen is quoting Churryhoof from a book she assumes they've both read:

"I happen to know it's required reading at the Academy."

"There was a lot of required reading at the Academy," Churryhoof said, "and I didn't necessarily do all of it."

This joke would work great in Star Trek: Lower Decks, so feel free to take it! BTW, other moments I consider pure Star Trek parody: the death of Captain Rebtet, "scan for life signs", and the bit where Kol solves a problem by reversing the polarity. The space marines calling Dr. Sempestwinku "bones" is a loving tribute, not a parody.

Mexican Coke: In the first couple of drafts, there was a point where a) Becky had left Sour Candy, b) Cedar Commons was under occupation, c) Myrus was at the Youth Festival, d) the Navy personnel were hiding out at the Cametrean monastery. At that point there was an act break and the story skipped ahead a few weeks, letting things mellow for a while. I removed this gap to make the story move at an even pace. This gave me the opportunity to cut a lot of scenes, including one I really like. During this gap, Becky emigrated to a planet called Ototho and set up her marketing consultancy to the Fist of Joy:

It was going all right. A little data modeling, a little advice the customer could have gotten elsewhere, and some good old American flim-flam. The customers kept quiet about her. They were embarrassed, like cheating spouses. You could imagine two businessmen talking shop at a pub. "I know this American lady, she's worked with brands." Business grew by word-of-mouth.

We see Becky with Kugeif, a client whose business sells snack foods. Sales are in decline, and he blames his ugly packaging. He wants sleek, modern branding, like Coca-Cola has. But after analyzing his sales data, Becky concludes that the guy's ugly packaging is actually driving sales to hipsters in trendy neighborhoods. The working-class authenticity of his packaging is making his product more upmarket than he originally intended:

"Be listening to me!" said Becky. "Coca-Cola is owning a thousand companies like yours. Their boys are working all day long to be seeming like a small business instead of a you're-knowing-what. They're inventing some crusty bastard like you, not offensing, and pretending he's owning the company instead of them. They're making the packaging ugly so it looks like your boy came up with it. They're faking it. You are having the real thing, and hipsters are loving the real thing."

"The real thing!" said Kugeif. New possibilities were dawning in his mind. "Like Coca-Cola."

Unfortunately, halfway through this scene, the Errand Boy, having chased Becky down, makes his way into her office unannounced and really harshes the vibe. I love this scene because apart from the horrorshow at the end of Situation Normal, it's the only time we get to see Becky being good at marketing. In the final draft, the Errand Boy is much faster on the uptake, intercepts Becky en route to Ototho, and we never get to see what might have been.

Cardparticleboard: And what did Myrus do all those weeks he was at the Youth Festival? Well, he and Professor Starbottle took a very detailed trip through the Fist of Joy Youth Festival Equipment Library, looking for wood. This gave me a chance to name-check technical equipment from other science fiction stories, but as for wood, the cupboard was bare—a real obstacle to Myrus's plan to teach Starbottle woodworking. So Myrus got the idea of making wood—particle board—out of all the empty cardboard boxes lying around the Equipment Library.

Apparently something like this happened offscreen, because in the final draft, Starbottle mentions the particle board procedure in his letter to Den. I researched this while writing it and it does seem possible to make extremely shitty particle board out of cardboard, but who would do that? You'd have to be a civilization completely without trees... who did business with a civilization that had lots of trees...

Hiroko's un-venture: In the first few drafts, Hiroko didn't get sent to prison with Dwap-Jac-Dac, Tellpesh, and Heiss. She claimed to be a civilian, and was sent to the Youth Festival with Myrus and the kids, to provide adult supervision. At the Festival, she pieced together intelligence to figure out that the Outreach was losing the war—something that is no secret in the final draft.

Hiroko went with Myrus from the Youth Festival to Nimar, where she re-met Becky and had an unpleasant time with her and Arun. Luckily, Hiroko escaped Nimar with nothing worse than a busted foot, rescuing Myrus and fleeing into the Hestin box. She in turn was rescued by Ethiret-Jac et al. and ended up on Sour Candy as the latest object of the Chief's affections—exactly where she ends up in the final draft.

TBH, separating Hiroko from the other Navy personnel was mainly a way to torment Myrus with proximity to his crush. In this trajectory Hiroko had very little character development and not much to do. Fortunately, those drafts also featured two extra grunts, Mantri and Zaid, who also didn't do much.

So I moved Hiroko to the Arzil storyline. I changed her military specialty from "intelligence analyst" to "pilot". She got Mantri and Zaid's scenes and ended up with their rre inside her. Her old scenes were cut, or went to Myrus or Arun. She's still not the best-developed character, but I cut almost all her POV scenes, so it's less important. (Hiroko's one POV scene in chapter 4 is the last vestige—I tried and tried and couldn't cut or rewrite that scene. Hiroko's the only person on that side of the planet!)

Here's a little scene I cut from the Youth Festival. Hiroko, the POV character in this scene, has discovered Myrus's estrus (musth, I guess) and is trying to let him down easy.

"You want to hear a funny story?" [Hiroko] said, in a normal tone of voice.

"Not... really?" said Myrusit.

"I had a girlfriend back when I was working at Jonar Solutions," said Hiroko. "Uhalti lady. And I tell you, Myrusit, she always fell hard for the girly types. She'd be sitting on the train next to some ditzy redhead with the big cleavage and her horns would unroll, like a cartoon, sproing! And then she'd be in quite a fix, because, take it from me, ninety-five percent of those girly-girls are straight."

"I fail to see the humor in this story," said Myrusit.

"Well, let me finish. This eventual girlfriend of mine. Her insurance didn't cover antiestruals, so she drank lots of licorice-nel tea. She'd carry around a big Thermos of tea all day. And one night she's at the Seven-Eleven, waiting in line with her box of Soothing Fragrance licorice-nel tea, and this uhalti guy gets in line behind her. And she sees that he's also holding a box of Soothing Fragrance licorice-nel tea.

"And he says 'Hey, you wanna...' and she says 'I'm gay.' This is supposed to be the end of the conversation. But this guy can't drop it. He has to try to back out gently. So he turns purple and stammers 'Uh, oh, yeah, I am also gay.'"

Hiroko snickered. Myrusit's face was a face of stone.

"And if that isn't funny enough for you, she dumped me by throwing a snowball at my head and running away."

In the final draft, Tellpesh's story about boot camp kinda fills in for this story. I only regret I couldn't find a way to reuse that cartoony image of the horns unrolling.

Crinoline White: The single biggest cut: a massive subplot starring a really fun character. See, after Becky goes AWOL from her job on Cedar Commons, the two brands involved—Trellis On-Site Security and Eserion Natural Resources—have a passive-aggressive conversation that ends up with Trellis hiring an assassin to hunt Becky down and murder her.

Crinoline White, the assassin who takes the job, is a glamorous super-femme lesbian who seduces her way across the galaxy before boarding Sour Candy, posing as a passenger. In what's now Chapter 23 we hear of someone "whose species and gender was unknown because they were wearing a black Cametrean shame robe with a one-way veil"—that used to be sneaky Crinoline.

In the final draft, when Becky encounters the Errand Boy, she has some internal monologue that he's not acting like a hitman 'cause hitmen "just garroted you while you sat on the toilet." In the draft I sold, Crinoline did in fact garotte Becky while she (Becky) was walking to the head on Sour Candy. In an epic action sequence, Arun captured Crinoline, Becky peed her pants, and they all ended up with radiation burns from exposure to space:

Arun cracked the hatch. "We've taken some X-rays," he told the rre outside. "We all need to visit the medical chamber."

"Isn't the medical chamber the thing that takes the X-rays?" Becky asked.

"I mean, we were bombarded with X-rays from the gas giant," said Arun.

In Chapter 27, when Sour Candy is docked at a space station and Yip-Goru comes in and says thon found some replacement capacitors, that's a generic bit of spacecraft maintenance I slipped in to stand for the hull damage caused by the Crinoline/Arun fight.

In the draft I sold, Crinoline is the reason Becky flees Sour Candy. As soon as Crinoline leaves the medical chamber, the Chief starts making eyes at her and, in a massive room-reading failure, suggests a threesome between herself; Crinoline; and Becky, the person Crinoline just tried to murder. This is Becky's cue to leave along with Arun. Crinoline replaces Arun as the muscle/negotiator on the Sour Candy crew, and the book ends just in time for the Chief to dump Crinoline for Hiroko. Crinoline, like Becky before her, flees the crew, joining Kol in his Tok-Bat.

Although Crinoline is hilarious and her scenes are great, it's questionable whether you, the reader, really want fifteen thousand words of her during an already crowded book. The good news is that cutting Crinoline made Becky and Kol much more active as characters. In the draft I sold, they both stuck around Sour Candy much longer than they should have, waiting for Crinoline to force their decision. Now each makes the decision on their own. Becky decides to leave much earlier than she used to. Cutting Crinoline also let me bring in the Errand Boy earlier and foreshadow him as a threat to Becky.

The biggest downside of this cut is that Crinoline is a match for the Sour Candy crew in a way that poor Becky never is. She has an awesome fight with Arun, plays chilling mind games with Kol, and her absence makes the Chief much less important to the novel than she was to "Four Kinds of Cargo". When I cut Crinoline, I had to cut a key piece of dialogue where the Chief explains why she does what she does:

"Let's paint the Fist on the ship and get it over with," said Crinoline. "Me and Yip-Goru don't care about the Outreach. It's fine. It's just some paint."

"We will not paint anything!" said the Chief. "This ship is freedom! In the Fist everyone else tells me what to do. In the Outreach some brand has always gotten first where I want to go, and makes me pay for my pleasure. In these societies, the only free person is the criminal. So I build this little space in between, where a few people can be free."

And here's Kol passing up the chance to kill Crinoline and solve a lot of his problems at once:

There was already a moment out of time when a man had disintegrated because Kol had flipped a switch. A normal person who'd lived through a war might have one moment like that in his life, but two was the start of a pattern. If Kol allowed two, there would soon enough be three.

I would really like to rearrange the Crinoline scenes into a side story for you, but I'd have to make up a whole new final act. Even if that person in the Cametrean shame robe is Crinoline, there's obviously no fight with Arun, and when Sour Candy shows up at the end, Crinoline ain't with them. So it would probably be a story of her pursuing Becky, forever one step behind, until she gets iced in the big space battle or something.

I had to leave one little hook for Crinoline's story in the final draft: the "adorable soldier-boi" in Chapter 27 who checks Becky and Arun into the refugee ship. Her name is Xiaofei and prior to the Battle of Unicorn Sector (where she got zapped with Evidence) she worked in Outreach Navy communications under the call sign Mudskipper. I wrote a great scene where Crinoline seduces Mudskipper, taps into her capital terminal, and uses the Navy's military context to track Sour Candy. Could still happen!

Dodgy wodgy: I cut the very last scene before the epilogue, set in an Outreach minimum-security prison—basically a hotel you can't leave. Kemrush (Myrus and Den's dad) and Maskitenny (Den's mom) are confined in a cell awaiting trial for their part in the Jaketown draft-dodging mishegas. Someone looked at their disposition contexts, noticed they were a 'couple', and decided to do them a favor by putting them in the same cell, but they can't stand each other. Like a rom-com running in reverse. The scene isn't great, but I really like this bit of worldbuilding:

When he was four Kemrush had spent a year on scholarship at an English-intensive boarding school for uhalti children. The house pudding was what the kids called wadxy or wodgy, although in English it was simply called "pudding". A bland lump of cake lying like a waterlogged corpse at the bottom of a dish of white cream. If you ate with eyes closed and the utmost focus, you might detect a hint of citrus flavour, but sensory deprivation does strange things to suggestive young minds, so who can tell?

Dodgy wodgy, they'd called it. That was the term. Sharing a cell with Maskitenny Xepperxelt was dodgy wodgy: a punishment presented as a reward.

Anyway, when Clear Perspective mindfucks all the Outreach brands, the hotel brand running the prison decides that the Jaketown draft-dodgers are political prisoners—bad PR—and it has a guard release them.

This scene wouldn't work in the current draft because the whole point of the Den/Myrus project is to concentrate Kemrush's genes, and Maskitenny would have put a stop to it if she'd come to hate him. Like I said, not a great scene, and cutting it let me cut Kemrush as a POV character, but it does show you that the parents survive.

Situation Normal Author Commentary #6: Miscellaneous References: Today I'm covering items adjacent to the text but not really part of it, and a slew of little Easter eggs and miscellaneous references I put into the book. The next essay will be the last one in this series, and it'll provide an exciting peek at what is happening next.

Back in the days of Constellation Games, I put up a special post solely for spoiler-filled discussion. I'd like to do that again but I feel the time for special spoiler posts has passed. So if you got any kind of question about SN, just go for it, either in comments to this post or on Twitter/Mastodon.

The cover

Let me get this out of the way first: I know everyone hates the Constellation Games cover. I'm probably the only person alive who likes that cover, and since I wrote the book the appeal is wasted.

So when it came time to design the Situation Normal cover I decided to leave it to the professionals. To stop me from bothering the designer like a helicopter parent, editor Athena gave me a form to fill out ahead of time. I located the professional (Brittany Hague, who I've worked with before) and filled out the form and generally left her to work.

On that form, asked to summarize the overall emotional feel I wanted the cover to go for, I wrote: "I want to capture the moment you realize the pin is no longer in the grenade." I don't think there's a better summary of Situation Normal. Here's a longer quote from the form; I was asked to list some covers I find inspirational:

Mechanical Failure by Joe Zieja – I really like the way this interrupts a traditional SF cover with immediate peril and humor. This exact idea won't work for Situation Normal because it carries the implication that the failure was sudden and unexpected, but it always makes me smile.

Joseph Heller's Catch-22 has had a number of covers in different languages. The more literal covers make it look like a stereotypical war story, but most of them use juxtapositions to convey the underlying theme—trying to survive a war while trapped a system that is simultaneously broken and working as designed—in a way that really speaks to me. Here are a couple examples:

  • This audiobook cover depicts a bomber with its crew and loadout as a ready-to-assemble plastic model. Human life and military hardware are treated as interchangeable and equally disposable. I really like the schematic feeling here, and the "toy" look drives home the novel's point even as it makes it impossible to take the message too seriously.

  • I think this one is too realistic to be really strong, but it carries off the theme by grouping a set of dog tags (which every airman is issued) with the Distinguished Flying Cross (a special award for heroism).

  • This is the cover I'm most familiar with. Despite its overall simplicity it's not my favorite—in particular, I think the bomber in the lower right is superfluous. However it does carry off the juxtaposition I'm talking about, by showing a silhouetted figure in military uniform doing a heel-clicking jig. The silhouette calls to my mind the chalk outline of a body at a crime scene, and the "Kilroy was here" symbol popularized during WWII.

Brittany's core insight was to juxtapose several story elements into a schematic framework that depicts causality the way comics do, creating a Rube Goldberg machine with a most-likely-fatal "punchline".

Not gonna go into a lot more detail on the cover because the finished product is almost all Brittany, and here's Brittany on the topic. I'll mention one little Easter Egg: the gun in the first "panel" of the cover looks a little different from the stereotypical SF ray gun because it incorporates some design elements of an industrial nailgun.

The content note

The content note at the front of the book was the last thing I wrote. Athena mentioned that Candlemark & Gleam had gotten a lot of complaints through the Kindle system about typoes in Constellation Games. Now, I know of at least two serious errors in Constellation Games (peoples' names are wrong) and one day I hope to do another press run to fix them, but I'm not talking about legitimate errors here. I'm talking about words like... just skimming Constellation Games to find an example... "pakpapur". Which I suspect I composed from spice-sounding English words like "paprika" and "pepper" but which is also clearly a made-up space alien word.

Apparently at one point these Kindle complaints reached such a pitch that Amazon threatened to flag Constellation Games as a low-quality typofest, surely with a deleterious effect on sales. So Athena suggested I add something to the beginning of the Situation Normal manuscript explaining that "uhaltihaxl" and "Dwap-Jac-Dac" are spelled that way on purpose and there's no need to write in unless you find a regular English word being misused. (This certainly happens! I found some in the final manuscript while writing this commentary!)

My first reaction was, I got really defensive about this request. This is a novel where major characters murder each other, and you want me to put a warning at the front of the book about spelling? I don't think every book needs a content warning at the front, but a lot of bad shit goes down in Situation Normal, and if I'm going to put any kind of note at the beginning of the book it's got to be a heads-up about that.

This turned out to be the key to compromise. I wrote one last piece of in-universe text, as though Situation Normal were a potboiler adventure novel published in the Terran Outreach and stocked alongside the Down Under Crew novelizations. This fits in conceptually with the main theme of the novel—people living and dying by fantastic narratives. It lets me do the content warning, and incidentally I can explain the spelling stuff, in terms of an in-universe standards body which sets down how to transliterate words between languages. It's still pedantic as hell, but hopefully it doesn't sound patronizing.

Which reminds me: Situation Normal was originally written in Commonwealth English, that being the in-universe "human language" by the same science fiction logic that makes Narathippin "the uhaltihaxl language". I converted it to American English pretty late in the process for the same reason I wrote the content note: apparently Americans see "honour" or "manoeuvre" and smash that "Report Content Error" button. I edited Arun with a lighter touch to keep his voice, and there are still some vestiges of Commonwealth English: word choices like "solicitor" and phrases like "in hospital".

Hidden quotes

A lot of authors work little pop-culture references into their writing in ways designed to stand out only to readers who get the reference. I've caught a few in my time, Thomas Pynchon does this a lot, but the one that always stands out for me is Neal Stephenson working "I didn't expect the Spanish Inquisition" into The System of the World.

There are several hidden quotes of this sort in Situation Normal; here are the ones I'm most proud of (rot-13ed because apparently I consider this beyond mere spoilers).

As with "Hi, I'm Daisy!" in Constellation Games, I did not name a character Becky just so I could use that line, but once the name was set, it was inevitable.

Finally, a rather ominous instance where Situation Normal quotes itself: Mrs. Chen uses the phrase "clear perspective" in a way that implies she knows something she probably shouldn't.

Miscellaneous references

The "Princess Denweld" story is the exact opposite of Ender's Game: a teenager getting a video game to do something horrible. This isn't a direct quote, but Den's "it is essential that we continue" is a reference to the Milgram experiment.

Becky planning a heist entirely in The Down Under Crew references is itself a "Darmok" reference.

The name of the fantasy novel Myrus is reading, The Object of Power, is a truncated quote from 1984: "The object of power is power."

The wirchak woman who owns the bou-tique in chapter 14 is, in my mind, played by Margaret Dumont. Becky's hatred of clothes shopping comes courtesy of direct personal experience.

In Constellation Games I made a big deal about the cma, miles-high treelike organisms in Alien Ring. In Situation Normal this is flipped: regular Earth trees are regarded as monstrous freaks of nature and no one else has anything nearly that big.

The Fist of Joy Youth Festival was modelled after the World Festival of Youth and Students, a Cold War-era festival for bringing together Communist youth for athletic events and cultural exchange. I say "Cold War-era" but these are still going on! The most recent one was in Russia in 2017. Anyway, since Myrus and the other council kids claim to have defected, adults see them as politically aligned with the Fist, and the Festival as a convenient way to make them someone else's problem.

The beverages on the refugee ship that are not "anything like coffee" are a little Hitchhiker's Guide reference; so are the actual hitchhikers who work as day laborers on Jaketown, and Den's really impressive feat of hitchhiking at the end.

The "shiny white outplastic" that Ohrsi uses to whittle his four-dimensional sculptures was inspired by what is IMO the most disturbing MST3K skit: the Klack commercial from First Spaceship on Venus. I just went and looked up the skit, assuming my mental image of outplastic came from the general feeling of unease it evokes, but no, the outplastic is right there on screen.

Somewhere between "reference" and "inspired by true events": Bolupeth Vo's story about his demi-uncle double-dipping at the blood bank to get on Home Front Heroes came from a letter I read in a WWII-era issue of The American Magazine, where people would send in their takes on how they were doing their bit. Someone really did the blood donation thing, and lived to write in about it. Apparently this was common! I just read The Fly Swatter, a biography of author Nicholas Dawidoff's grandfather, who also gave an unhealthy amount of blood during WWII.

From the "incorrectly regarded as references" file, Cheryl from my writing group told me there's a character in the Hunger Games series who's very similar to Merikp Hute Roques, host of the successor to Home Front Heroes. I assure you that I have not read these books and this was not intentional. After looking around the Hunger Games wiki I believe Cheryl was referring to Effie Trinket. So go ahead and imagine Merikp Hute Roques as Effie Trinket with a beak.

Similarly, the Great Motto of the Terran Outreach (Universi sumus una hac in re, "We're all in this together") is not a Brazil reference; I wrote that before I'd seen Brazil. But same vibe. BTW I forgot to credit Seth David Schoen in the acknowledgements for his Latin translation of the Motto. Thank you, Seth!

Random stupid error

In the final draft, the population of Jaketown is inconsistent. It's reported as three thousand and five hundred. I understand how this happened, but I remember triple-checking it. Really frustrating. The correct answer is three thousand.


I can always tell when a movie's about to end because the director starts paying off the bookending they opened up early in the film. But it's much easier to see in film than in books, because books take longer to read. So I'll cut you a break: here's some of the bookending I put into Situation Normal:

Again, you have any questions, post them in the comments. I'll see you next time for the final essay!

[Comments] (1) Situation Normal Author Commentary #7: What's Next: Welcome to the end of January, and the final entry in this commentary series. Before we get into it, I have a request of you. If you've read and enjoyed Situation Normal, please tell other folks about it, either by writing a review or just mentioning it when books or science fiction come up in conversation. If you're eligible for voting in awards like the Hugos, consider it when you place your 2020 votes—it came out late in the year but 2020 is its eligibility year. Constellation Games spread almost entirely through word of mouth and the same will be true of this book.

Today I'm raising the curtain on three things that, in different senses, come "after" Situation Normal. I do this this with some trepidation because at the end I'm going to talk about a project in progress that is exciting but far from complete. But first, something that's totally done and just waiting for the right moment to spring on you:

"We, the Unwilling"

"We, the Unwilling" is a bonus story I wrote after finishing the first draft of Situation Normal. It's a tall tale of an Outreach Navy grunt who's retrained as a superweapon after his superiors discover he's apparently immune to Evidence. There was no way to tell this story in the main plotline, and at some point we'll be publishing it online to juice sales. Here's a little taste:

The rre doctor ratcheted thons exosuit into a standing position. Kenta just sat there, unable to move, amazed that... well, he was going to die, sure, but there was a chance he'd die with his shameful secret intact.

Kenta was immune to Evidence, but the explanation wasn't physiological. It was hiding in plain sight. Evidence turned battle-hardened spacemen into cowards. It didn't work on Kenta Imura because he was already a coward.

I reused one little plot point from this story in the final draft of Situation Normal, but it's pretty minor. It's the sort of thing that probably happens all the time, whenever two people struggle hand-to-hand for control of a spacecraft. Not a big deal. Anyway, I'm looking forward to showing you the story!

Nice Doggie

Several years ago, in a fit of excessive optimism, I wrote a short pitch for a sequel to Situation Normal called Nice Doggie, a working title which I love but would surely have to change. Here is the pitch exactly as I wrote it except with spelling errors fixed:

"Diplomacy is the art of saying 'nice doggie' until you can find a rock." - Human saying

Sel has been promoted! As the colonial administrator of Resca, a Terran system captured during the war, it's her responsibility to bring ninety million humans into full citizenship in the Fist of Joy. Not bad for someone whose previous major accomplishment was running an international trade show. There's bound to be some initial trouble with some dead-enders, but once the humans get a taste of a fully functional modern economy, they'll never want to leave the Fist.

Jamey Pandit of the Terran Diplomatic Corps is starting to wonder why he even bothers saving the galaxy. Time after time he's bailed out his doddering superiors, and his reward is one punishment assignment after another. This time he's the passport officer at the Terran consulate on Resca, a planet that shouldn't even have a consulate because we shouldn't have given it away. Still, even on a backwater there are plenty of opportunities for advancing humanity's interests—and making a little money on the side.

Nice Doggie does for interstellar diplomacy what Situation Normal does for interstellar war. Inspired by Keith Laumer's Retief stories, it is intended as a sequel to Situation Normal but it can be told in a different setting as a standalone story.

You can see the Retief stand-in there, I won't insult your intelligence. I will say I gasped when I reread this and realized I'd made Bolupeth Vo's girlfriend one of the POV characters.

Is this likely to happen? Probably not. I'm still searching through new fictional universes, looking for the one that will hit it big. Except, that's exactly what I said about a Constellation Games sequel, and...

The Constellation Speedrun

At the start of the coronavirus pandemic, I was about 5,000 words into a novel about a post-scarcity society that abruptly stops being post-scarcity. This was shaping up to be one depressing-ass book. Situation Normal doesn't have a traditional happy ending, but the war does end and some of the survivors are working to break the cycle of violence. This was a real end-of-the-world novel, and with the world actually ending around me, I just couldn't write it.

So I did what for ten years I'd said I wouldn't do: I went back to the Constellation universe. Constellation Games wasn't the commercial success I'd hoped for, but it's become a bit of a cult classic, and writing in that universe means accepting strict rules about how bad things can get for humanity. To quote Ariel, "we did nothing but fuck this up from beginning to end, and it probably turned out okay." Those rules gave me the guardrails I needed to face the blank page and write through what I hope will turn out to have been the worst year of my life. (I'm preemptively disqualifying the year where I actually die.)

I'm currently 30,000 words into The Constellation Speedrun. Maybe thirty percent of the way to a rough draft. It's slow going, and I don't usually talk about incomplete manuscripts, but this isn't a novel I'm writing for sale. I'm writing it for myself and for you. I hope I can sell it, but if I have to I'll self-pub or just put it online for fans. This novel is my coping mechanism and I will finish it eventually.

Any attempt to describe The Constellation Speedrun runs into the reticence that led me not to tell you about the project in the first place, so I'll just say that it takes place about ten years after Constellation Games, starring new characters who were little kids at the time of first contact, with old favorites like Jenny and Tetsuo returning in cameos or small parts. I'm trying to capture the same freewheeling, idea-packed feel of Constellation Games but with a much tighter plot and in an average word count for a science fiction novel.

Thus ends the commentary! Again, if you have any questions about Situation Normal feel free to ask, and I hope to see you again soon!

[Comments] (1) January Film Roundup: This month, by popular request (Sumana's pretty popular around here), I'm bringing back my gimmick from July 2013 where I list a fanciful connection between each pair of movies I reviewed this month. Fortunately this month there are only three movies to connect in a web of fun:

[Comments] (2) Twistor!: During my Situation Normal author commentary I mentioned a book I read as a kid which was a big influence on the worldbuilding of my own novel. Shortly thereafter, chance reunited me with the correct metadata for the book: Twistor, by John Cramer, published 1989. I bought a copy and went through it, looking to nail down the influences.

My original plan was just to skim the book, and the first part is very skimmable; but pretty soon I was reading the book for real, because not only does it get really interesting after the setup is complete, it turns out the influences on my work were not limited to Situation Normal. This isn't too surprising because, looking back, there's a good chance Twistor was the first science fiction for grownups I read. So, big thanks to John Cramer. Here's what I found:

First, I misremembered the goal of the scientists when I wrote my author commentary. They're not trying to create a teleportation device; they're doing Ph.D-level research on a combination of real physics and technobabble. The closest we come to a practical application has to do with a new medium for data storage. This would presumably replace the retro-future "laser disks" we see the characters using. I guess technically CDs are "laser disks"; we should have called them that but I understand why we didn't.

However, I was more or less right about the plot device that comes out of these experiments: a phenomenon that can be exploited to swap matter among the six parallel universes that inhabit the same space as our universe. This phenomenon is at the core of the children-in-peril subplot, a couple of pre-Jurassic Park siblings who are caught up in an improbable case of skip overlap (to use Situation Normal terminology), very similar to what happens in Chapter 8 of Situation Normal. There's a subplot about sighting the stars on the other side of the skip bubble, similar to how the cops in Situation Normal will track you when you skip. Nothing comes of it, though, since in Twistor those are completely different stars that formed in the parallel universe.

That skip-overlap incident also slices off a goon's hand at the wrist; and, in the book's goriest scene, the twistor phenomenon is used to dig a spherical chunk right out of another goon's brain. This is a form of murder that the Seattle police are surprisingly cool with. I get it, I wouldn't want to write about that investigation either. Characters in Situation Normal joke and speculate about injuries from skip overlap, but it doesn't happen onscreen.

As far back as I can remember I've imagined forests of giant trees as being a standard science fiction trope—that's Alien Ring in Constellation Games. But apart from Twistor, all the examples I can think of are a) fantasy and b) a single world-spanning Yggdrasil-like tree, not a forest of trees that are just really big. I suspect I got that idea from this one formative book, whose shadow universe features a forest of very memorable giant trees.

Those giant trees have a scent like cedar. That may be why I named the planet in Situation Normal Cedar Commons, but that's a big stretch IMO. I wouldn't have remembered that detail.

Similarly, there's a fantasy story-within-the-story, analogous to the "Princess Denweld" adventure in Situation Normal, but I didn't remember that from my initial reading, and it's such a common technique that I can't imagine I got it from here; especially since I was consciously parodying a different book when I wrote "Princess Denweld".

A totally random thing I did remember: at one point a character sings a Pynchon-esque song and I remembered music that I made up for that song! I know it's my music because a) there's no record of this song existing outside Twistor and b) when I came up with the music, I dropped a word from the lyrics and got the meter wrong. No influence on anything, but a fun example of all the weird stuff we have buried deep in our memories.

Twistor contains a fair amount of realistic 1980s password-cracking and 1337 skullduggery—man-in-the-middle attacks, false-front BBSes, etc. Most of this skulduggery is carried out on "HyperVAX" systems, and exploits real features of VMS. As a kid I lapped this up—I think it was my first glimpse of the cool things grownups could do with computers. I was way more interested in concepts like email and BBSes—within five years I'd be running my own BBS—than in any of the hax0r stuff.

This is one of those sci-fi books where the climax involves spreading the forbidden knowledge to all and sundry. I agree that's probably the best move in the situation the book sets up, but I can't say I share the narrator's optimism. I feel like the jerk at the wedding saying "I give this planet six months." Anyway, the method by which our heroes spread the forbidden knowledge is... mailing list spam! They evade the watchful eye of the FBI by sending out their preprints through a BITNET distribution list, rather than making an easily-stopped trip to the FedEx store.

In a very useful afterword, Cramer does his own author commentary, separating physics fact from speculation and explaining that the hax0r techniques described are "all known techniques which have been used to penetrate protected computer systems", but that they're all now being defended against and you should not use them for real. That's a little disingenous IMO. Many of these techniques are alive and well today—installing a trojan keylogger on someone's computer to capture their passwords—even though VMS itself is dead.

Finally, I'm going to reproduce the last two paragraphs of the afterword verbatim, because it's a great piece of computer history:

BitNet is an actual worldwide computer network that is already in very active use by the physics community. However, at present it is used primarily for "mail" messages between users and for the transmission of data files and programs. It is not in general use for the transmission of scientific papers and preprints because these usually include a number of figures; for example, line drawings of equipment or data plots. Although CompuServe's GIF standard, Adobe's Post Script, and several others are looming on the horizon, there is presently no universal graphics standard that would permit the routine inclusion of figures in scientific papers, and so they are still distributed by conventional mail.

It is a good bet that this will soon change. The scientific journals published by the American Institute of Physics, e.g., Physical Review, already accept manuscripts submitted on computer media. It is very likely that within a decade physics papers for journal publication complete with drawings and figures will be submitted and preprints of such papers will be routinely circulated by BitNet or its successor. One can only hope that publishers of works of fiction (like the present novel) will also eventually emerge from the nineteenth century and adopt similar technology.

Pandemic Reading Roundup #2: As I prepare the Crummy.com Review of Things 2020 I've been looking back at the stack of books I bought off my wishlist and read over the past few months. That's right, it's time for a second edition of Pandemic Reading Roundup. I'm not in a mood for detailed reviews so I'll just recommend my favorites of this batch:

I also have an anti-honorable mention: Len Deighton's 1964 spy novel Funeral in Berlin. It occupies a space halfway between Ian Fleming and John le Carré, a space that in retrospect doesn't really need occupation. I mention this not-great book in this post when I let many decent books pass without notice only because there's a reason why my wishlist included two Len Deighton novels. Deighton wrote a really good novel in 1978, SS-GB, an alt-history about the impossibility of selective collaboration with evil, which I read many years ago. Big recommendation for that one. It doesn't seem like his other work is similar, though.

The Crummy.com Review of Things 2020: A little late, but I don't want to let the year go by unremarked.

My accomplishments: The big one: I'm still alive and healthy. Second, Situation Normal was published! You may have heard of that.

What you haven't heard, because I'm just mentioning now, is that In 2020 I sold a story to Analog! I've cashed the check and done the copyedit and it's coming out sometime this year. This is my first print magazine sale, and very exciting. The story is "Mandatory Arbitrarion", a legal thriller I wrote in 2019. It's my first published story to feature Ravy Uvana, the space lawyer/circuit judge/general bureaucrat who I think has the potential to be a memorable recurring character.

In 2020 I assembled a NaNoGenMo novel, Brutus and Cassius, at the close of the scene After a rough start I also wrote two non-terrible stories: "Stress Response" and "When There Is Sugar".

Books: I recorded my 2020 reading in a couple of earlier blog posts, so I'll say that the Crummy.com Book of the Year is A Suitable Boy, a book I started a really long time ago and finally finished last year. Highly recommended for those who like big encyclopedic books like Moby-Dick and Infinite Jest.

Leonard's Excursions: n/a

Film: Not a lot to choose from from 2020, given that we spent most of our quarantime with non-live theater and TV; even early in the year, many of our museum visits were films I'd already seen. But I've updated Film Roundup Roundup with the 2020 crop, and I do have some special recommendations:

Honorable non-film mention to the National Theatre productions of This House and One Man, Two Guvnors.

Games: 2020 was a year when Sumana and I played Switch games together: notably Animal Crossing: New Horizons, Ring Fit Adventure, and the one you didn't expect, Crystal Crisis. Yes, the Capcom arcade classic Puzzle Fighter finally has a clone on modern systems, featuring such well-known gaming characters as... Quote and Curly Brace from Cave Story? A guy who appeared only in Turbografx-16 print ads? I guess the Darkstalkers crew weren't exactly the A-team either.

On the Linux platform, the Crummy.com Game of the Year is Noita, a roguelike that relies on just enough programming logic to be interesting, not so much that it feels like work. Other great games I played this year: Demoncrawl (roguelike Minesweeper), Jupiter Hell a.k.a. DoomRL, Shortest Trip to Earth (not as good as FTL but excellent for those who want more of the same feeling or just want it to be much more complicated), and Spelunky 2.

Podcasts: Generally speaking my podcast time took a big hit when I stopped riding the subway every day. However, as part of a research project tangentially related to the Constellation Games sequel, I went around looking for some podcasts where families play fantasy RPGs together. As it happens there's a very famous, extremely funny podcast where a family plays fantasy RPGs together, but that podcast doesn't feature women or children, two types of people frequently found in families. So, here are some other family RPG podcasts I enjoyed in 2020:

I think that's it for now. I'll see you in 2021! Wait, I just did. I guess I can check that one off my to-do list.

[Comments] (1) February Film Roundup: '90s Month!: After we saw Speed in January, Sumana discovered that she really liked being able to talk to people our age about movies that the other person might have seen or heard about. We decided that over the course of February, we would watch some big films from the 1990s, one for each year of the decade. These are movies that don't often get programmed nowadays, and we chose ones I hadn't seen back when they were in theaters, since Sumana's more interested in rewatching films than I am.

Preparing for this project was a ton of fun, and we now have a pretty big list of interesting-sounding '90s films for future Roundups. In the end, "big" usually meant "big box office", but for a couple of the years we made a decision based on lasting cultural impact or cult status. I didn't want to watch a bunch of Disney animated features, folks.

This was a fun experience and in fact we're keeping it going: we've already deemed March to be '80s Month and watched a fun film from 1980. It does look like I've seen most of the big '80s movies that are still remembered by people my age, so this month is likely to be more of a "forgotten gem" thing. Still fun though!

[No comments] March Film Roundup: '80s Mo......nth?: The promised '80s Month came to a crashing halt almost immediately when the Film Roundup Screening Room (our television) stopped working. I guess this means the golden age of blockbusters continues!



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