No meaning, just vibes
A pretty standard, mercenary, real-life-cyberpunk-dystopia newsletter origin story.
Hi! This is the first edition of solarshades.club, a newsletter I plan to put out every other Sunday and maybe one day something more (a club?). Who am I? I’m a speculative fiction author, sustainability researcher, and narrative strategist for hire. You may know me from my contributions to the solarpunk subgenre. If you’re new to my work, feel free to dance over to my website and click through to some of the stories and essays I have scattered around the web. I also lay out a bit more of my bio and some background about this newsletter in the about page of this Substack.
I’ve resisted making a newsletter up to this point because I wanted to channel most of my thoughts into my fiction. I worried that I might get columnist-brain, the tragically common condition in which having to produce regular takes worsens your ideas over time. I figured people could follow me on social media and find my fiction from there.
But of course, social media is a fickle medium. If the algo doesn’t like your post, people won’t see it. And increasingly social media companies are suppressing posts with links that take you off their platform. So, with a couple of books coming out soon, I decided it was about time I set up a way to reach those interested in my work more directly, without a filter bubble in the way.
All of which is a pretty standard, mercenary, real-life-cyberpunk-dystopia newsletter origin story. But now that I’m here, I’m excited to see where this goes. I’m expect the form will iterate over the coming months. This edition has a pretty what-I’m-working-on/personal-update focus, but I’m sure I’ll use this space in the future for hot takes and raw speculation, recommendations and stray links, probably share some snippets of fiction. If you’ve got feedback or suggestions, I’m all ears. I mean, hey, you’re in the club, so I already know you’re pretty with it. And if you’re encountering this post out in the wilds of the web, as opposed to the comfort of your inbox, do click the button below to subscribe.
Works in Process
Our Shared Storm: A Novel of Five Climate Futures —— For those who don’t know, my debut English-language book is out next spring from Fordham University Press. (Fordham is my undergrad alma mater, coincidentally.) Originally written as my master’s thesis, Our Shared Storm is a unique cli-fi experiment that uses five parallel, interconnected stories to explore climate politics in five versions of 2054, each inspired by one of the IPCC’s Shared Socioeconomic Pathways. The book also includes an essay exploring climate fiction as a genre, which hopefully will make it useful for those looking to teach this emerging literary and speculative movement.
I spent most of this past week running through changes to the manuscript suggested by Nancy, the excellent copy editor assigned by Fordham University Press. For me receiving edits is a potent learning experience. Not in that I learn to avoid particular errors (tbh I’ll probably keep making every mistake Nancy caught), but in that it forces me to explain what I think my words mean. Going back over sentences I wrote 18-32 months ago, untangling their knots of implications to make sure they still hold––it’s made clear that I make a lot of vibe-based word choices that run counter to actual dictionary definitions. “Clatter” as a fun alternative to “clutter,” for instance. On the one hand, it’s good to have copyeditors to check that impulse, since the aesthetic connotations I see in words don’t always translate outside my brain. On the other, just going for a non-standard usage when it feels right is probably a big chunk of how we make language grow and evolve and create new beauty and meaning out of words we’ve all seen countless times.
Anyway, it feels huge to see this book chugging its way toward the real world, with a looming publication date of April 5, 2022. It’d mean the world to me if you preordered a copy from the publisher or your preferred bookseller–– support local bookstores! And if you know someone who might like a funny/tragic/wonky/harrowing/hopeful novel about climate politics, please spread the word.
The Remainder —— I haven’t talked much publicly about this project, but by the end of October I hope to finish the first draft of my novel The Remainder. This will be my first traditional novel (not a fix-up scenarios-fiction like the above). It’s basically The Leftovers meets Children of Men meets The X-Files, with pandemic vibes. People are disappearing into thin air one by one, but after years this senseless supernatural mystery has metastasized into government bureaucracy, culture war, and managed decline. Not the multispecies socialist detective novel I’d planned to write this year, nor is it a plucky solarpunk cli-fi story like I’m known for, but it is the book I ended up needing to write, partly to process the monumental and ongoing human loss of the Covid-era. It started as a “little thing” I wrote on a whim and soon sprawled to “probably a novella,” to a “short novel,” to passing the 50k words mark with an intense act three still unwritten. I’ve stalled a bit as I lurch into this last month, but I tend to find a lot of momentum in writing endings. Wish me luck, and hopefully I’ll have more to say about The Remainder soon.
This weekend I also started editing a nonfiction book by my friend Ben Fong, a history of drugs in American capitalist culture and politics. The gig kind of came outta nowhere, but so far the book is excellent. And after reviewing edits on my own work, it’s nice to be on the other side of the track changes again.
What can science fiction tell us about the future of artificial intelligence policy? –– My most recent publication is not fiction, but a scholarly article in the journal AI & Society. This is the culmination of the AI Policy Futures project, which I worked on as a graduate researcher with ASU’s Center for Science and the Imagination. The paper (written with much help from my coauthors Ed Finn and Ruth Wylie) is a sweeping critique of how sci-fi has imagined AI, grounded in both expert interviews/discussion and a survey of about a hundred prominent short stories published since 2000. If you’ve got strong opinions about killer robots, sexy hologram girlfriends, singularity computer gods, or other AI tropes, I’d love for you to read it and tell me what you think.
Imagine 2200: Climate Fiction for Future Ancestors –– This past spring I was hired by the good folks at Grist.org to be a story reviewer on their climate fiction contest, along with the very excellent Sarena Ulibarri and Tobias Buckell. We narrowed down over 900 short stories to 20, and now last month the final 12 have been published in a beautiful online collection. There’s some really great stuff in here. “Tidings” has wildly memorable sci-fi moments that will stick with me. “When It’s Time to Harvest” is an elegant solarpunk insta-classic. “A Worm to the Wise” is the kind of story I like to try to write: clever, sharp, observant. And more, plus dozens of other great stories we had to leave out.
“A Smell of Jet Fuel” –– Future time travel tourists visit the World Trade Center to observe the Sept. 11 attacks, but for the tour guide not everything goes as planned. This is my most recently published story, an homage to Ray Bradbury’s classic “A Sound of Thunder.” This newsletter is launching a bit late for the 20th anniversary, but if you are still in the mood for 9/11 discourse, give it a read. (I offer additional takes here.) If you happen to nominate for the Hugo or Nebula awards, I’d be obliged if you considered this story come awards season and/or gave it an upvote on the Nebula Reading List.
One of the nice things about putting a book on the backburner is it leaves you free to keep researching at a truly luxurious pace. Most recently, as background for my alternate history socialist detective novel Zoo York City, I got my hands on a copy of Criminal Russia. It’s a 1977 book of essays on crime in the Soviet Union, written by an exiled dissident. Now, neither the USSR nor the author had politics quite to my liking, but I’m desperate for anything that might help me piece out what policing might be like in a successful socialist society. In the early chapters covering pre-revolution Russia, I found this tidbit:
“He didn’t steal, he only took.” A good reminder how contingent all of our immutable norms are, and how much our morals are determined by economic relations instead of vice versa.
At long last, we planted our garden this weekend. Even though it’s been a much milder summer here in the valley than the last few years (only a few weeks topping 115°F, and lots of rain), we still gave up on growing anything edible for a few months. But now fall is here, in all its mid-80s°F glory, and it’s time to get some new seeds in our bags.
Yes, bags––we’ve taken to doing most of our planting in hefty cloth grow bags full of soil. This lets us use the best parts of our backyard without too blatantly ripping out the landlord’s grass. It also lets us move our crops around the yard, first to get them out of the still-scorching sun, and then to get them into the sun come almost-chilly dead-of-winter.
C is the mastermind behind this whole setup, so my big project over the last few months has been reforming our composting situation. We hadn’t had much luck with the spinning barrel we got a couple of years ago, and it’s too hot and dry to just dump scraps on a pile and hope they rot. But if you call and ask, the city of Tempe will give you a big, decommissioned trash can with holes punched in the sides, and this has made a pretty good compost bin.
So the last few months since getting this thing I’ve been stirring and watering and trying to get the carbon-nitrogen-moisture balance right, filling it up with kitchen scraps and yard waste from the neighborhood alleys. I’m pleased to report that the result turned out pretty good! It’s black and rich and almost entirely decomposed. We shoveled most of it out and mixed it with the dirt from our last round of bag-crops, then planted.
My back has been bothering me since hiking 10 miles on a camping trip last weekend. The past seven days of trying to write on the couch with an ice pack under my tailbone have been getting me more stir-crazy than usual. So it felt really good to finally be limber enough to go out and do yard work. The sky might have it in for us now, but we still have to appreciate the balmy days when we get them.