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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.

Bookending

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!


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