Spoiler: It was me. They were having a little clinic at our local library, so it was convenient to do. The shot itself was painless, and now I’ll have a day or so of feeling vaguely crappy and then I’ll hopefully be substantially flu-resistant through the end of the flu season. Also, in an era where I would have to ask myself “is this flu or is this COVID?” it’s nice to have a significantly reduced chance of getting either (and if I do get either, less chance of being really messed up from them).
Naturally, I suggest you get your flu shot as well, for all the reasons I note above, plus you’ll decrease the likelihood of someone who legitimately can’t get a vaccination getting sick from whichever flu will be going around this season. Why not be a nice person to others, as well as keeping yourself from being gut-wrenchingly ill? It’s a win for everyone!
For Eighth Grade Vs. The Machines, middle grade author Joshua Levy decided that there was a certain concept that he wanted to put at the core of his middle-school-in-space tale. Was it action? Adventure? Laser Hamsters? (Also, how cool would laser hamsters be?) No, something even more fundamental than that, from which those other concepts could flow. Here’s Levy to tell you what it is.
JOSHUA S. LEVY:
Is that a “big idea”? Fun? It’s certainly what drove me most as a kid reader. (Still does as a grown-up, here and there.) And, from the beginning, it’s been the guiding light for my wacky middle grade sci-fi series, starting with Seventh Grade Vs. The Galaxy (first published in 2019; paperback out now) and continuing in its sequel, Eighth Grade Vs. The Machines.
When I first got the nugget of the idea that would morph into these books, I was a flailing middle school teacher. (By far the most difficult job I’ve ever had.) I was presiding over a mock social studies debate relating to the “classroom community.” I can’t quite remember the topic. Something like: “For and against hand raising.” Or maybe: “What is the best color of whiteboard marker?” But I do remember how it felt—hilarious. The room was bursting with rowdy, funny, creative, frenetic energy. (This is possibly why I didn’t make the best middle school teacher.) And the aspiring writer in me thought: this. My book needs to feel like this.
So I took a bunch of (fictional) rowdy, funny, creative, frenetic middle school kids and threw them onboard a “public school spaceship” in the future. (The PSS 118. Ganymede District. Unfortunately, not the most well-funded PSS in the solar system.)
Like any school, the PSS 118 has classrooms (head aft from the command bridge, can’t miss ‘em), homework (Language Arts, math, intro to thermonuclear physics), and a gym (zero-g dodgeball is a school favorite, and not only because you can’t always count on the ship’s spotty gravitometric field generators—down the corridor from the teachers’ lounge).
Eighth Grade Vs. The Machines picks up right where the first book left off, galaxy-wide alien conspiracy in full tilt. I don’t want to spoil anything here (not when the stakes are SO HIGH!). Suffice it so say…the stand-up comedian robot (Chucklebot 7) who the kids and teachers meet early in Book 2 is not who you think it is! And while the stowaway pet hamster (Doctor Shrew) has a new semi-autonomous exoskeleton—it’s not just for catching carrots. (Okay, fine. It’s just for catching carrots. But, like, really hard-to-catch carrots. Guy can jump fifteen feet in the air now, so.)
It’s a series about people on a spaceship, having high-stakes adventures across vast distances. So sometimes, I’ll get a review that tags the books as “Space Opera.” But applying that term to Eighth Grade Vs. The Machines (and Seventh Grade Vs. The Galaxy before it) is a pretty good joke in and of itself. (Someone tell Chucklebot 7.) The books are not so much “opera” as they are…the last hour of a middle school talent show? So maybe “Space Recital” is a better label.
Anyway: fun. Action. Adventure. Humor. More all-school assemblies than the kids would prefer, given that THE FATE OF THE GALAXY HANGS IN THE BALANCE. But hey, at least the cafeteria food printers have a pizza option this year.
I’m not sure I’ve got enough (or any) authority to declare this The Golden Age of Middle Grade. But from my perspective, there’s little question that the category is currently producing some incredible books. Inarguably important books. Mirrors and windows for kids across the astronomical spectrum of readers. Eighth Grade Vs. The Machines …is not one of them. It’s a little escapist fiction, which I think there’s still room for (despite the times) and which I’m so delighted to be putting into the world (solar system, galaxy, universe).
A friend of mine gave Eighth Grade Vs. The Machines the following (100% biased, very possibly made up) review: “My kid was reading it after he was supposed to be asleep, laughing the whole time.” That’s about the best a Space Recital author can hope for.
Facebook and its associated services Instagram, Whatsapp and Oculus went down for several hours yesterday, coincidentally after a damning 60 Minutes interview with a whistleblower on the service. While this afforded a few hours of schadenfreude for many, myself included, others noted that there are lots of folks who actually rely on Facebook and its other services for day-to-day connection with family, friends, and community, and being locked out of that connection for any period of time is no laughing matter.
My thought about this is, these folks are not wrong, and also, this is not a state of affairs that anyone who can avoid it should put themselves into. Schadenfreude and joking aside, any single point of contact with the Internet is vulnerable to what happened to Facebook yesterday. Sites go down, DNS assignments get scrambled, servers get Fresca spilled onto them, and so on. Arguing that people rely on Facebook services is neither here nor there to the point that Facebook services will fail at some point (and have before), as will Twitter and Google and Apple and Microsoft services, and, really, any other site or service you can name. Everything goes down on the Internet. Usually not for long, and usually not with permanent repercussions. But long enough to mess with your day for sure.
The solution to this problem is (fairly) simple: backup systems and multiple points of contact for communication. You may notice you’re reading this on (or at least from) Whatever, which is on Scalzi.com, my personal site which has existed for 23 years. It’s outlived several social media giants, from AOL to MySpace, and hundreds of other lesser sites. No matter what happens to Facebook or Twitter or Instagram or TikTok in the future, Scalzi.com will persist as long as I continue to pay an ISP to house it. But if it goes down temporarily — I’m on Twitter and Facebook and Instagram. I can be found. I have backup.
I think everyone should have their own space not reliant on a rapacious social media giant intent on commodifying one’s existence to house it, and I happily pay to have my own. But I understand that’s not feasible for everyone. But almost everyone (and every business/group/association) can have multiple points of access, and — importantly — can let others know where they be contacted/where the group can go when the primary access point goes down.
So: If you’re a group who mostly connects by Facebook, also have a community space on, say, Discord, or a dedicated Web site that allows comments. If you have email via Gmail, have a backup email address via an ISP (or, in my case, the other way around), or through another service like Outlook. If you rely on Whatsapp, keep Skype or Google Meet in your pocket for emergencies (or, you know, text and phone).
Point is: whatever it is that you do on the Internet, have a second way to do it when the first goes down, and make sure people who need to, know how to get to it. No, it’s not necessarily going to be a 100% equivalent experience, but then, Facebook or Google or Twitter aren’t likely to be down forever (or if they are here in 2021, we’re likely to have larger issues to worry about). They don’t have to be equivalent, they just have to provide access and connection for a little bit of time, even if all one does with it is send a “don’t panic, I’m fine” message to others.
What having multiple redundant points of contact on the Internet does require is effort, which people don’t like to do — the whole point of social media and especially Facebook is that it is mostly frictionless (which is why your grandmother uses it, and why terrible political memes are so easily spread on it). But these are the breaks: You can make an effort, or you can be locked out for however long it takes your favorite social media provider to break into their own data services and remove the squirrel that has electrocuted itself in one of the servers, knocking out the service worldwide. Your choice.
There’s a central, motivating emotion at the heart of The Death of Jane Lawrence, and despite what the title may imply, that emotion is not “fear.” No, it’s something that, under the correct set of conditions, can be much worse. Here’s author Caitlin Starling to reveal and explain.
The Death of Jane Lawrence is a book about shame.
The shame of not fitting neatly into society. The shame of losing a patient who might have been saved, if you’d only been faster, more clever, more ruthless. The shame of surviving a devastating attack which claimed the lives of many more. The shame of making decisions from a place of perceived strength and mastery, only to realize that all the strength and mastery in the world can’t cheat death.
There’s a difference, you know, between shame and guilt. Guilt is over something you have done; shame is over something that you are.
Shame is heavy. It collapses. It constrains. It suffocates.
Shame is the cornerstone of gothic horror; secrets are its mortar. Shame doesn’t require secrecy, but it thrives in its embrace. Shame begets secrets to hide the source of that shame, and secrets create shames of their own, hidden things that must not be mentioned – or what will the neighbors think?
(It is both very challenging and very easy to write about shame. We’ve all felt it. Sometimes it feels like my life is governed by it. It’s familiar and raw, and putting it on display, even through the lens of fiction, feels like being flayed alive.)
From the beginning of the book, Jane knows she’s strange. She sees and moves through the world differently. She’s the adult ward of two friends of her long-dead parents, reliant on them for her survival. When at last she decides to marry, she does so out of the crushing conviction that she is, and always has been, a burden.
The man she courts doesn’t see her that way. But he coaxes something else out in her: a revelation of her capacity for coldness, her desire for control over everything and everybody around her. She sees in herself a monster, either born fully formed or forged in the wreckage of a city she barely remembers, in the deaths of parents she blames herself for having survived.
And her husband? The dashing, compassionate surgeon willing to go heroic lengths to save his patients? He carries his own humiliations, his own dark stumblings. A doctor is not a god, after all; he has a body count of his own, of those he failed to save, and those his interventions likely killed. Those he has lost cling to him relentlessly.
And then there are his private shames. A woman buried in haste two years ago. A crumbling manor outside of town. A cellar with four heavy locks. There are rules: Jane must not visit Lindridge Hall. Jane must never spend the night there.
And Augustine must always return.
But when they wed, despite their best efforts at strictly defining the path of their life together, the careful winding between dark holes in the floors of their selves, they begin to mix. To blur. The paths wander off, the walls come down. His secrets become hers, staining her life before she even knows what horrors they hide. And her shame, when planted in the wreck of Lindridge Hall, flourishes. It threatens to tear her apart.
And something in the rooms of Lindridge Hall is hungry for all of it.