Sun Jan 03 2021 11:41 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.
- Kiss Me, Stupid (1964): Fun and acidic. The plot only works because one character is a huge jerk at several crucial points—IMO something to avoid in plots. Can't say much else against it. Not a top-tier Wilder film, but a very good mid-1960s film. In fact I think this could work really well as a dark-and-gritty film reboot of The Dick Van Dyke Show.
We're big fans of star Ray Walston, a.k.a. Boothby—check him out in This "Murder, She Wrote" episode where he basically reprises his "buddy boy" role from The Apartment.
- Irma La Douce (1963): Knowing that this was supposed to be a musical explains a lot of its problems: it's way too long (which would have been okay if it had had 45 minutes of musical numbers), plot develops too slowly (because people can't just do a song to explain their situation), and there are weird setups that are never repaid involving people losing clothes and immediately getting them back (maybe these were hooks for songs?).
According to IMDB this made a lot of money, but there's some other 1960s movie that's way better on any given axis: Billy Wilder directing Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine (The Apartment), Jack Lemmon funny-voice dual role (The Great Race) Billy Wilder sex-worker farce (Kiss Me, Stupid), Shirley MacLaine sex-worker farce (Sweet Charity). On a creative level Wilder should have just tried to direct this as a musical. If it succeeds, it's another feather in his cap. If it's a flop, at least he went down swinging.
I will admit that this film has some really funny bits, but they're lost in the 2:27 run time like bacon bits in a huge salad. It's also got a jaw-dropping final shot, but it's mainly jaw-dropping because it's tonally inconsistent with the rest of the movie and, as far as I know, with every other film Billy Wilder made. Even The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes didn't try anything like that.
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.
(1) Tue Jan 05 2021 10:01 Situation Normal Author Commentary #1: High-level structure:
Hey, folks! My second
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
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.
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:
- Becky + Hiroko (on Cedar Commons already)
- Churryhoof + Dwap-Jac-Dac (on Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka)
- Kol + the Chief (on Sour Candy)
- Myrus + Den (on Jaketown)
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:
- Kol + the Chief + Becky (on Sour Candy)
- Dwap-Jac-Dac + Hiroko + Myrus (in Scoop Bravo)
- Churryhoof + Den (on Cedar Commons, then on Magna Carta)
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
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
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)
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
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
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!
(2) Fri Jan 08 2021 08:00 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,
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
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
"Our late sister Clovak," said the quenny. "Ethiret's
partner in crime. An intestinal infection killed her. We're not eating
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 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
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
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
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
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
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."
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
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
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!
(1) Tue Jan 12 2021 14:24 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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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