In November I did a two-ply interview with Gareth Jelley forIntermultiversal. There’s a forty-eight minute podcast, in which we talk about Spear, rhythmic hypnogogic writing (“Give me an army of eight-year old girls, and I will take over the world…”), why I love reading my reviews—what I learn from them—Angela Carter, and many other things. That’s available to listen to right now:
It’s the first time I’ve talked about Spear live—and so I don’t have the sound-bites down yet. (Not even close!) Enjoy hearing me sort of stumped for a bit, talking first about the rhythm of the prose, then a corpus analysis of the reviews, then the magic, the atmosphere and, finally, the story—wrapping up the tales of Parsifal, Merlin-Nimuë, Arthur-Lancelot-Guinevere, and the Grail Quest, all in 45,000 words—and what a rush it was to write.
Coming soon will be the long, written version of the interview. And when I say long I mean about 5,000 words. A meaty and wide-ranging conversation with many Deep Thinks about the right metaphors to use for the writing process, how and why I use genre, and why and what I do and don’t like about various other Arthurian retellings.
When it goes up on Intermultiversal.net I’ll link to it. Meanwhile, enjoy the audio.
It started snowing on Christmas night and the next day we woke up to this:
It snowed on and off for a couple of days, by which point we had these hanging over every window and door:
We didn’t mind, though, because indoors all was cosy and warm. And—because holidays, because Omicron—we were and are fully stocked with comestibles of every variety, including many bags of Charlie and George’s favourite cat treats.
They didn’t mind being stuck inside. Too much. At first. After all, it was cold out there—and, besides, all the shrews, voles, moles and mice were scuttling about under the snow and inaccessible, and there weren’t many birds around to chase: the hummingbird feeder froze; when we thawed it out and put it back, it was promptly buried in more snow. So Charlie and George just hung out on our laps, or in front of the fire, or on the nice warm audio receiver—which meant I couldn’t watch anything with subtitles, but, hey, sacrifices must be made.
Charlie, though, started to get restless. Eventually he went barrelling out into the snow (and I mean into: it was twice as deep as he is) and within five minutes had brought back a bush tit. Mindful of last year’s salmonellosis episode we took it away from him before he or George could eat it. (George, of course, had sensibly stayed indoors graciously accepting cat treats.) And then? Charlie zipped out and caught another. Rinse and repeat.
Meanwhile, George very pragmatically stole Charlie’s warm spot:
And when George spreads like that, there’s no room for Charlie. So Charlie was relegated to sitting mournfully on the windowsill in Kelley’s office watching the ice grow.
And, oh, did those ice daggers grow! Daggers, then swords, then javelins, then giant fucking harpoons. We had one set hanging near the front door that got to about 4′ long and as thick around as my thigh. A handy anti-dragon weapon, yes (and you never know when such things might come in handy), and lovely to look at, but increasingly dangerous. (I had visions of trying to explain to a grieving widow just how their loved one ended up looking like something from a Vlad the Impaler Illustrated Edition on our front lawn while trying to deliver a package.) So we knocked them all down. (By we I mean Kelley—because snow and wheelchairs? Not a good combination.) We also dug out the hummingbird feeder. Again. Hummingbirds are fighty little things; it’s unusual to see them sharing anything; but at one point there were three sitting around drinking together, pausing, drinking more, and looking for all the world like a group of friends in a pub. Sadly I was never quick enough to find my phone and get a picture.
George meanwhile was entertained by his favourite game, Chase the Treat, in which I line up cat treats on the kitchen table and/or the seat of my Rollator and flick them off in every direction so he has to leap and pounce. When he got bored, he resumed his acting lessons:
As I type this I hear dripping, and suspect the first day of 2022 will entail a return of the furry beasts to the Great Outdoors—and subsequent filth and mayhem and carnage as they track in slush and mud and blood. They will be very happy: a great start to the New Year.
For now they wish to leave you with their wisdom for the coming year—which just happens to be the title of their upcoming album.
I suspect they may be right.
And me? I don’t have much to add. I’ve been rewriting MENEWOOD (it’s going well) and will talk more about that in the coming weeks. We had a very quiet Christmas—but full of warmth and peace, good books, better wine, and excellent chocolate—and our New Year’s Eve will be our ritual caviar, Champagne, and long conversation about the year that’s past and the year to come.
Most of the time we talk about our goals for the coming year. But the last three or four years we’ve preferred to simply express gratitude and hope.
Last year on this blog I made two wishes—and both were partially granted (which, given recent events, feels like a huge win):
The vaccines do work, and pretty well, enough to keep most out of hospital, even with Omicron—but not nearly enough people have been vaccinated.
Sadly, the Biden/Harris administration has not been able to find a way around partisan gridlock—at least with regard to social changes, though they have, as I guessed, managed at least a partial infrastructure bill.
This year I’ll express two modest hopes for 2022:
That we all keep trying our best to be decent human beings
That, beyond the increasing devastation of the ongoing climate catastrophe, the planet doesn’t hit us with too much horror: no asteroids, new plagues, alien invasions, or semiconductor-eating microbes—at least not before I can have a fabulous launch party for Spear, coming 19 April to a bookstore near you!
Image description: Map of the world showing density of visitors by country. The USA is coloured dark pink, the UK medium pink, and the rest of the world pale pink—with some countries (mainly in Africa) showing blank.
For the first time since 2018 the number of people who came to read something increased—by about 11% on last year. There again, I posted more often—though still not much, just 56 posts. (When I first used a blogging platform—as opposed to laboriously hand-coding everything in the Ask Nicola section of my first website, starting in 1995—I was posting daily, on average, and often more. But social media changed the landscape. So now I think four or five times a month works pretty well.)
The Top 10 countries from where my readers log on haven’t changed very much from last year, either, except that I swapped out Norway for Sweden:
Most of the year’s top 15 new posts or pages were concerned with books, kitties, and Covid, with just a couple of more personal pieces:
What lies ahead for this site in 2022? I don’t know. I’ve given up trying to guess. The only thing I know for sure is that this blog isn’t going anywhere. I like being able to say things too long for Twitter and not pretty enough for Instagram, and here’s the best place for it.
While in their Broadview studio working on Four Legs Are Better Than Two, the duo’s upcoming 2022 release, Charlie Bean (Tooth) and Gorgeous George (Claw) took the time to compile a selection of live and studio cuts. Slay Bells features fan favorites from chill groove “Wasted” (feat. Catnip) to iconic dance club mix “Hit It!” and emo classic “Luv My Bruv.”
“Just seemed like the right time, man, y’know?” said Claw. “Yeah, temp tired of killing it,” Tooth agreed. “Time to share the love!”
Over a pickup game of pawball, the brothers talked about some of the tracks. (What follows is lightly edited for clarity.)
First, tell your fans about that cover!
Charlie: Wow, well, yeah. We’re so tired of slick overproduction, y’know? So we thought it would be pretty cool to just use a phone app with stickers.
George: Except I couldn’t stand it and had to add some T&C touches like the crashed sleigh. But then Charlie—
Charlie: Ha ha! Yeah, I told him he had to make the dead reindeer look really, really fake to go with the whole handmade aesthetic, y’know?
So tell me about the music.
George: Well, first we have a cut from the Zoned Out tour. We chose “Wasted,” because it represents—
Charlie: Because Catnip was so cool that day in the studio, really mellowed us out when we were torqued about that fucking—
George: We weren’t going to talk about that.
Charlie: Right, right. Anyhow, we just love Catnip, man, just love Catnip. If anyone out there listening has to chance to work with Catnip in the studio, just do it.
“Love is the Drug” is from the Zoned Out tour, too, yes?
Charlie: Yeah, but I’ll let George take this one.
George: This one’s from the heart. I follow the teachings of Zen Master Mouse Lover, and his reading of my aura showed I had a deep-seated need to really, I mean really, truly communicate with my listeners. So what better—
Charlie: Yeah, he just likes that gooshy emo stuff. Next question.
Charlie, some might say “Hold My Paw and Never Let Go” is pretty emo.
Charlie: Ha ha! No. Not even close. It’s about holding the prey tight then ripping its guts out with your back claws.
George: That’s not what you said when you first brought me the lyrics, tears dripping off your whiskers.
Charlie: You take that back!
Hey, hey. Hey now, no need to fluff up. I think we can both agree that “Southpaw!” is anything but emo!
Charlie: When you’re right, you’re right.
George: We’d been experimenting with blending martial arts and philosophical styles. We’re both pretty comfortable with that blend of Zoomies and parkour that’s a full-body stimulant, but I was curious about the discipline of the Queensbury Rules which—
Charlie: Ha ha. Except you’re always calling it Queensberry, until I said, nope, it’s bury, as in bury your opponent.
And of course “Hit It!” Is T&C’s club classic.
George: It is.
Charlie: Love that track.
I think we can talk about the next two together. “Your Heart Is a Muscle…” and “I Feel Your Pain…”
George: They’re both from our very first album. They’re kind of mirror images of the same sentiment. Feeling comes from the heart. And while it’s good to acknowledge the good feelings it’s also important to—
Charlie: The heart just fucking tastes good, especially when it’s beating frantically with fear when you rip—
Some of our listeners might be a bit young for the hardcore stuff. Let’s stay focused on the sounds, okay? George, do you want to tell us about “Touching Tails, Unmeeting Wishes”?
George: This is one is close to my heart.
Charlie: Your tasty, beating—
George: —because, well, you know Charlie and I are close. Close as brothers can be. We went through the same hard times, the same joys, have fought some of the same fights, but still, we see the world differently. We want different things from it.
Charlie, tell us about “If Only”
Charlie: George was sad. He’d lost his pawball under the couch.
George: It brought up all kinds of losses for me, and questions about the nature of our choices.
“If Only” has a particular sonic pendulum swing, a slicing rhythm I’ve been catching more and more in your newer work. I hear that in “Nature Boyz,” too.
George: Whatever our differences, my brother and I are, at heart, creatures of the body, especially the body in nature. I love the sound of the trees. If you listen, it has this rocking, melodic rhythm—
Charlie: But then the shrieking squirrels really piss me off because they frighten the birds away. So those slicing inputs are the squirrels, and what I’d do to them if— Yeah, yeah. Young listeners. Okay. Nature’s nice. Trees are nice. Birds are very very nice.
The album ends with two contemplative tracks which seems fitting for the end of this year.
George: First there’s “A Moment For RBG,” a tribute to a woman who, though she might only have two legs, I regard as an honorary feline. She’s a role model for me.
Charlie: Bet those lace collars would have made awesome climbing scaffolds.
George: And of course “Luv My Bruv” is the song of my heart. I love my little brother. I love you Charlie and I’ll always look out for you.
Charlie: And when your brain weighs you down, I’ll carry you. Luv you bruv.
Thanks to Tooth & Claw for taking time from their busy schedule. When Four Legs Are Better Than One drops in spring, they’ll be touring cat rescue centres in a city near you. Stay tuned! Meanwhile, here’s a sneak peek at the new album cover.
Two recent studies confirm that the Omicron variant of SARS-CoV-2 is very bad new in terms of infectiousness, ability to evade immunity, and resistance to existing therapies. In addition, although preliminary reports from South Africa suggested that infection with the Omicron variant could result in less severe illness than infection with the Delta variant, the UK data hints that there’s no significant difference in severity between the two (though the study is quick to list its caveats).
What follows is a look at those studies. But if you’re in a rush just skip to the summary and conclusions.
University College London
Neil Ferguson, Azra Ghani, Anne Cori et al. Growth, population distribution and immune escape of the Omicron in England. Imperial College London (16-12-2021). Doi: https://doi.org/10.25561/93038
This study looked at over 21,000 cases of infection with the Omicron SARS-CoV-2 variant vs over 350,00 cases of infection with the Delta variant, and they controlled for vaccine status, age (in 10-yr age bands), sex, ethnicity, asymptomatic status, region and specimen date.
They suggest that the Omicron case rate is doubling every two days, with caveats:
“A total of 208,971 S+ and 15,063 S- cases with complete data were included in the SGTF analysis, and 142,340 Delta and 6,184 Omicron cases were included in the genotype analysis. Both analyses suggest rapid growth of the log odds frequency of the Omicron variant relative to Delta, with exponential growth rate estimates of 0.45/day (95%CI: 0.44-0.46) [1.5 day doubling time] and 0.43/day (95%CI: 0.42-0.44) [1.6 day doubling time] obtained from genotype and SGTF data, respectively. Given the frequency of Omicron exceeded 20% by the last time point examined, the exponential growth rate of frequency (as compared with log odds frequency) was estimated to be somewhat lower, at 0.34/day (95% CI: 0.33-0.35) [2.0 day doubling time] from both SGTF and genotype data, calculated using Poisson rather than logistic regression.”
I’m pretty sure this variant is doubling at least every two days. Recent wastewater data here in WA state—and this was 2 days ago—show 40% of virus is Omicron variant. Given doubling rate, I’d be shocked if today it were not easily the dominant strain—it’s just that the testing data hasn’t shown up yet.
They found that “Omicron was associated with a 5.41 (95% CI: 4.87-6.00) fold higher relative risk of reinfection compared with Delta.” And that, prior to Omicron, a cohort study of UK healthcare workers “estimated that SARS-CoV-2 infection gave 85% protection against reinfection over 6 months, or a relative risk of infection of 0.15 compared with those with no prior infection. Our hazard ratio estimate would suggest the relative risk of reinfection has risen to 0.81 [95%CI: 0.73-1.00] (i.e. remaining protection of 19% [95%CI: 0-27%]) against Omicron.” Also that their “estimates largely agree with those from UKHSA’s TNCC study and predictions from predicting VE from neutralising antibody titres (4,14), suggesting very limited remaining protection against symptomatic infection afforded by two doses of AZ, low protection afforded by two doses of Pfizer, but moderate to high (55-80%) protection in people boosted with an mRNA vaccine.”
In other words, a 2-dose vaccination regimen offered 19% protection against severe illness; prior infection offered 20% protection; but a two-dose vaccination followed by an mRNA booster gave at least 55% protection and perhaps as much as 80%. And here they’re talking about AstraZeneca and Pfizer; Moderna has been shown to more effective than either. This is relatively good news.
The bad news is that they “find no evidence (for both risk of hospitalisation attendance and symptom status) of Omicron having different severity from Delta,” though, as they point out, “data on hospitalisations are still very limited.” In other words, it’s early days yet. We’ll just have to keep waiting.
This study, posted on bioRxiv.org, largely agrees with everything ICL study suggests about lowered immunity but go into detail on the efficacy of monoclonal antibodies. With previous variants, when administered as early as possible after infection, monoclonal antibodies can stop many people from developing severe Covid. But the new study suggests that all of the therapies currently in use and most in development are much less effective against omicron, if they work at all.
In neutralisation studies with monoclonal antibodies, only one (Brii198 — which is a combination of amubarvimab and romlusevimab) maintained notable activity against omicron. However an update yesterday suggests that sotrovimab (Xevudy) still works (though, again, monoclonal antibodies not only have to be administered in a certain timeframe, their effects are, at best, modest).
The alarming thing noted by teh study was that there’s one small subset of Omicron that evades monoclonal antibodies completely—all of them: “Neutralization studies on B.1.1.529 pseudovirus showed that 18 of the 19 mAbs tested lost 109 neutralizing activity completely or partially (Fig. 2c and Extended Data Fig. 3). The potency of 110 class 1 and class 2 RBD mAbs all dropped by >100-fold, as did the more potent mAbs in RBD 111 class 3 (REGN10987, COV2-2130, and 2-7). The activity of S309 declined modestly, whereas 112 Brii-198 was spared. All mAbs in RBD class 4 lost neutralization potency against B.1.1.529 by at least 10-fold, as did mAb directed to the antigenic supersite26 (4-18) or the alternate site23 113 (5-7) on 114 NTD. Strikingly, all four combination mAb drugs in clinical use lost substantial activity against 115 B.1.1.529, likely abolishing or impairing their efficacy in patients. 116 Approximately 10% of the B.1.1.529 viruses in GISAID1 117 also contain an additional RBD mutation, R346K, which is the defining mutation for the Mu (B.1.621) variant27 118 . We therefore constructed 119 another pseudovirus (B.1.1.529+R346K) containing this mutation for additional testing using the 120 same panel of mAbs (Fig. 2d). The overall findings resembled those already shown in Fig. 2c, 121 with the exception that the neutralizing activities of S309 and Brii198 were further diminished or 122 abolished. In fact, the entire panel of antibodies was essentially rendered inactive against this 123 minor form of the Omicron variant.”
The good news, though, is that I can’t see any reason for oral antiviral therapies, whose mode of action has nothing to do with the mutations on Omicron’s spike that help it evade antibodies, to be less effective against Omicron than against any other strain of SARS-CoV-2. Pfizer’s Paxlovid (nirmatrelvir and ritonavir tablets—not yet approved by the FDA) has been shown to reduce risk of hospitalisation or death by 88%. Lagrevio (molnupiravir tablets—already approved) should also maintain its efficacy—though as that was only about 30%, it’s usefulness is modest.
Omicron is 5.41 times as infectious as Delta
Cases are doubling at least every 2 days
Omicron likely already the dominant strain in the US and UK
Two-dose mRNA vaccine series gives only 19% protection against hospitalisation/death
Prior infection gives about 20% protection
Two-dose mRNA vaccination plus an mRNA booster confers 55-80% protection against severe illness
Most monoclonal antibodies are useless against Omicron
Two that maintain modest efficacy:
combo of amubarvimab and romlusevimab (Brii198)
though one minor form of the variant renders *all* antibody therapy ineffective
Oral antiviral therapies will remain effective:
molnupiravir (Lagrevrio) modestly so, with 30% reduction in hospitalisation/death
nirmatrelvir (Paxlovid) strongly so, with 88% reduction of same
mRNA vaccines + booster still work well against Omicron, just not *as* well
Add in masks—the better fitting and higher filtration rate the better—and you’re pretty safe
Get vaccinated, get boosted, cancel travel-or-party plans, and wear a mask (KN95 or N95). Maintain social distance at all times, masked or not, and, until we have more data on disease severity, do not mingle indoors with anyone not a member of your household. Buy at least two rapid Covid tests from your local pharmacy plus a pulse-oximeter. If you feel sick—and Omicron symptoms look like a cold to start with (headache, runny nose, sore throat rather than fever and loss of smell)—test yourself then talk to your doctor. Hope the FDA okays Paxlovid very, very soon and that supplies can meet demand. There’s going to be a lot of demand.
Image description: A 3-D representation of a book, ‘Spear by Nicola Griffith.’ Above, lettered in black, ‘Coming 4.19.22…’ The background of the book cover is charcoal, shading to black at the bottom, with the author’s name at the top in orange-red and the title, at the bottom, and ‘from the author Hild’ in white. The main image is of a great hanging bowl of black iron with inlaid figures and great bronze escutcheons for the hanging hooks. It is wreathed about by smoke and flame and fumes, and the fumes form images: in white, woods with a woman and a stone and a sword; about the trees, shading to orange, is an figure with a spear on a horse; a fort gate and box palisade, and over all, flying up in the smoke towards the author’s name, two birds.
If you pre-order Spear from Phinney Books as a holiday gift (for yourself, for some other lucky person, for everyone you know), I will sign and personalise it/them for you when it arrives at the shop in April. For the first ten pre-order customers I’ll also include a specially-designed postcard with a hand-written message from me. All books (including those with the cards) will ship directly to you on publication.
Happy Monday! My holidays are starting early with early reviews of Spear starting to come in. Five so far: Grimdark (“Gorgeous!”), Salon Futura (“Magnificent. I am in awe”), Publishers Weekly (“A genuine pleasure”), Shelf Awareness (“Vibrant and dazzling”) and Tor.com (“Brilliant. Gripping…and all-around marvellous”). I also have a growing selection of delicious quotes from other authors, which you can read on Spear‘s very own page.
In the prepublication phase of Hild I noticed just how many comps I was getting in early reviews and author blurbs (Beowulf, Tolkien, Sutcliff, Renault, Mantel, Dunnett…) , so I started tracking them. And on publication ran a giveaway competition for those who came closest to the final numbers. I thought I might do something similar with Spear, this time focusing on high-test adjectives (“Dazzling!” “Gorgeous!” “Brilliant!”). I’m not sure what the prize will be yet, but it will be spiffy.
And thinking of holidays and Spear, tomorrow I’ll post a holiday pre-order offer for you.
Omicron is the latest SARS-CoV-2 Variant of Concern (VOC), initially discovered and sequenced in South Africa.1 It is considered concerning because of the number and type of mutations—32 of them on the spike protein. Spike is the bit of the virus that a) gives the virus entrée into the cells, which affects transmissibility, and b) is used as the model against which to build vaccines. The worry is that the high number of mutations will make the virus must more transmissible and/or make it easier for the virus to escape not only innate immune response but the immune response acquired via previous infection and/or vaccination.
It’s pretty clear already that Omicron is, in fact, much more transmissible than either the original virus or today’s most prevalent variant, Delta. One graph I’ve seen indicates that Omicron took less than 20 days to reach a greater than 90% share of all sequenced cases in South Africa, whereas Delta took almost a 100 days to do the same. Don’t quote these figures because I’m just eyeballing pictures, rather than tallying tables of data, but its possible Omicron could out-compete Delta four times as fast as Delta out-competed other variants. In other words, if we could make direct comparison between the virus’s impact in South Africa to what will happen in the rest of the world, in a few weeks Omicron will be the only variant that matters.2
As for the ability to escape immunity—innate or acquired—no one knows yet, though preliminary evidence suggests reinfection rates with Omicron are high. Should it prove to escape immunity I think it’s likely a) it will only be partial and b) many of the treatments—particularly the corticosteroids and IL6 receptor blockers—will work. The antivirals may still be effective, depending on the mode of action.3 Also, if mRNA vaccines do turn out to be a little less effective against Omicron than against the Delta variant, both Pfizer and Moderna have suggested they could produce tailored vaccines within a 100 days or so.4
My real question about Omicron concerns virulence: is it more, less, or equally as deadly as other variants? In this regard I feel a very faint hope. There are some anecdotal reports from South Africa that it could, in fact—at least in the acute phase—cause a milder illness than other variants. Patients’ symptoms seem to be not only slightly different—fever, elevated heart rate (especially in the young), no loss of smell, not much lung involvement—but milder; they recover faster. (Having said that, it’s important to note that the group initially infected with Omicron were mostly university students—a very different health profile to the general population.) If the story of Covid were only about the acute phase, and if these early anecdotal reports were borne out by further study, then this would be fantastically good news: it could be the beginning of the long, winding road to Covid becoming no more worrisome than a bad cold.5
BUT. Okay, two buts. One, it may not be borne out when expanded to a wider population. And, two, the story of Covid is also about its chronic phase: Long Covid.
The data we have about Long Covid isn’t very good (in the sense that we can only talk about those who have been diagnosed with a positive PCR test—which could be a fraction of the whole). But what we do have suggests that more than one third of those testing positive for SARS-CoV-2, even those whose symptoms were mild, still have one or more symptoms 3-6 months later. Some people have Long Covid a year and half after diagnosis and it seems worryingly likely that for some it is a form of ME/CFIDS, which can be a debilitating, life-long condition. Because Omicron is newly sequenced, there’s absolutely no way to tell how or whether Long Covid percentages will differ. That could end up having a massive long-term impact on the overall health (and therefore healthcare burden, and therefore economy) of a population.
In conclusion: it’s probable that Omicron is more transmissible than other variants but even that is not yet certain. The rest is a series of questions that will be answered one by one over the coming weeks and months—and those answers could be a mix of good news and bad news. We just don’t know.
So for now: get vaccinated, get boosted, wear a mask, keep a couple of rapid home tests close by and test yourself and other members of your household if you’ve been exposed and/or show any symptoms.6 Above all: don’t panic. Precautions that work against Delta—masking, social distancing—will work against Omicron. And while, sure, it’s possible we could all die tomorrow of some super-virulent super mutation it’s also possible that Omicron could be an early holiday gift: the faint and tiny glimmering of a possibility that Covid may become a minor inconvenience, nothing worse than a cold.
1 Does it mean that’s where it originated? Not necessarily.
2 For comparison, the Delta variant is 70% more transmissible than the original. And of course we can’t compare South Africa to, say, North America directly: the demographics there are completely different. And the initial group of those infected with Omicron were university students—a really different profile. Nonetheless, I think by the New Year, Omicron may very well be synonymous with Covid here, in Europe, and almost everywhere.
3 but to what degree? The Merck antiviral pill has now been found to be only 30% effective against the symptoms of Covid, but Pfizer’s protease inhibitor, Paxlovid, which, if administered in the first five days, cuts the risk of hospitalisation by an almost unbelievably impressive 89%, is still looking very good. Though it has not yet, to my knowledge, been tested against the Omicron variant, given its mode of action I doubt it’s effectiveness will be massively reduced.
4 I’m assuming right now that AstraZeneca can, too. If you celebrated Thanksgiving I hope you gave thanks to medical science; I certainly did.
5 I repeat long. I repeat winding. There are many coronaviruses—including about 20% of those that now cause some of the illnesses lumped under ‘common cold’—that probably started out as deadly pandemics. (Possibly, for example, the so-called Russian Flu of the late 19th century.) But it doesn’t happen overnight. It can take decades.
6 You can buy them at any pharmacy. Buy a few. If you test negative, test again to be sure. If you test positive, go get a PCR test. Edited to add from someone more knowledgeable than me: “In many cases (for example if you are symptomatic, or have a known high risk exposure) a positive antigen test can be regarded as accurate and a confirmatory PCR test is not needed or recommended. Talk to a healthcare provider to see whether one is needed.”
In November 2019 the corona virus, now known as SARS-CoV-2, first began infecting people in Wuhan, China. The earliest identifiable person with what is now known as Covid-19 first displayed symptoms on December 1. Then people started to die. Then it spread. The World Health Organisation declared a pandemic on 11 March 2020. To many of us it was perfectly obvious long, long before that we had passed the containable outbreak stage.
Two years after the virus’s first appearance, the official global death toll is about 5.1 million. I think that’s a serious underestimate; the Economist agrees, suggesting that the global total is closer to 17 million.
17 million is both a policy failure and a human triumph. It’s a failure because people are, well, people: not perfect. Looked at kindly, we don’t want to believe what is inconvenient or frightening. Looked at cynically, a lot of people used the pandemic as an opportunity to increase their following and/or strengthen their brand. It’s a triumph because people are, well, magnificent: we formed mutual aid networks, we worked heroically, we moved at feverish speed to bring together teams to research, test, produce, and administer vaccines, antivirals, and treatment best practises. Right now, if you are a healthy person living in any of the richest countries, you are very, very unlikely to die of Covid. This is because there are a series of medical filters available to you—or, in the case of antiviral pills, very soon to be available to you—that reduce the odds, stage by stage. The biggest and best filter is a mRNA vaccine, such as Moderna: two full doses followed by a half-dose booster.1 Then there are N95 or KN95 masks. Then there’s social distancing. Then there are HEPA filters. If you still somehow get the virus, and—even more unluckily—develop symptoms, then there are antiviral pills such as Merck’s polymerase inhibitor,Molnupiravir, which—if administered within the first five days of symptoms—reduces the risk of hospitalisation by 50%, and, even better, Pfizer’s protease inhibitor, Paxlovid, which, also if administered in the first five days, cuts the risk of hospitalisation by an almost unbelievably impressive 89%. If you don’t get the vaccine, or don’t get an antiviral early, then there’s still remdesivir, another polymerase inhibitor, by IV. If that doesn’t start helping and you begin to develop those first stages of inflammation that are really the most dangerous aspect of Covid, then there’s dexamethasone, a cheap but very effective corticosteroid. If that, plus the remdesivir, doesn’t help then you add in baricitinib, a janus kinase inhibitor, which blocks the activity of some of those enzymes that lead to inflammation. It is a series of almost miraculous science-based treatments filtering out and reducing harm.
For some, of course, the miracles are less effective. If your immune system is compromised—if you have to be on immune-suppressing medications for some kinds of cancer, for MS, organ transplants, or other conditions—then vaccines won’t trigger the production of antibodies and you can’t develop immunity. Luckily you can take the antivirals, and if you take them early enough your odds of staying out of hospital are very good.
Then there are those people who choose not to take vaccines.2 I won’t waste words on those selfish fools here.
Then, of course there are all those billions living in less rich countries who have very little access to any of the technologies I’ve mentioned here.
So where will we be two years from now? I don’t know. I think it’s likely Covid will be endemic in most countries; I think the virus’s deadliness will wax and wane; I think there will be waves of mutations—some more deadly that the Delta variant, some more contagious, and some—like Delta when compared to the original strain—that are both. But the antivirals will become cheaper to manufacture and eventually (I hope) available to all everywhere. Eventually, too, mutations will be routinely tracked and vaccines routinely tweaked to counter them. On the whole, I think Covid will become flu: occasionally terrible, mostly not. It’s the next new virus that worries me—but there will be another (and another, and another).
But the Covid-like-flu evolution is very much a people-are-magnificent scenario which, as we’ve seen, we can’t always afford to rely on. It is also predicated on the no-new-disasters-soon scenario—whether geopolitical, climatological, financial, or one of those wild, from-left-field unk-unks such as asteroids, aliens, and inter-dimensional portals. Hey, after the last six years you look me in the eye and tell me none of that can happen…
1 I have, as they say, Some Thoughts on the booster shot but will save it for another post.
2 There are a few people, particularly from traditionally marginalised groups, who have every right to be wary of government-sponsored medical treatment; I think they’re dangerously wrong, but I hope we can all do a better job of listening and helping assuage their wariness
Today Charlie and George are exactly two and half years old—and I am Officially Tired of reporting on their near-death experiences. Before we even met them both came close a couple of times—their four litter mates did not survive. Then Charlie had a disastrous reaction to anaesthesia during an operation to remove a polyp, resulting in brain damage—from which he’s made a remarkable recovery. Then George ate a bird infected with salmonella and spent a couple of days in kitty ICU—though, like Charlie, made a remarkable recovery (without brain damage).
Last week, it was George’s turn again: this time it was poison. But yet again, he’s made a remarkable recovery and is more or less back to his old self–except he’s very jumpy, and sticking much closer to me than usual. There again, they’ve both been jumpy and sticking closer to home—mainly because we’ve been travelling for the first time in their lives, and they Do Not Approve.
I’ve already talked about one set of travel we did in September/October. A week later we had to be gone again for a visit to Saint Martin’s University in Lacey. Then last week Kelley had to make an unexpected five-day trip back to Florida (but that’s not my story to tell). She left at five in the morning and by ten o’clock George was very unwell—drooling gallons (he sat on the threshold of the family room and living room for five minutes, and when he moved away there was an actual pool—not a few drops, a pool about 18 inches wide)—not eating, and barely able to move, and when he could move wanting to drag himself under the sofa where no one would be able to reach him and he could die in peace. He behaved in much the same way with salmonellosis. It took me a long time to figure out what the problem was, and I am enormously grateful a) that I didn’t figure it out until he had already turned the corner for the better, and b) for his strong constitution.
George’s downfall was a broken bottle of diluted grapefruit essential oil.1 It smashed on the bathroom floor the morning Kelley was leaving, and Kelley swept, then wiped, then actually washed the floor—because oil, because slippy, because I don’t walk well—before she left at zero-dark-thirty for the plane. George hates the smell of citrus so I’m pretty sure the closest he got to the grafefruit oil was walking across the swept wiped, and washed floor then licking his paws. And that was enough.
Because here’s what I know now that I didn’t then: grapefruit is a deadly poison for cats. So much so that if they ingest any, do not, under any circumstances, administer an emetic—because if they even breathe in the fumes from the vomit they could die. Yes, it’s that bad. But as I say I didn’t know that until George was already clearly improving: salivating less, coming for comfort, eating a bit. Oh, don’t get me wrong, he still looked woebegone, and he was moving like a little old man, but he was no longer trying to escape himself and everyone else by crawling into a hole and dying. I found out that evening about the grapefruit oil, looked it up, and my stress went through the roof. I was up most of the night fussing over George, until he basically gave me the, Oh stop *fussing* for heaven’s sake and let me get some sleep! look, and Charlie came and laid his paw on my forearm and looked at me gravely as if to say, I’ve got this, go to sleep. So I did—only to be woken three hours later by the two of them having a knock-down-drag-out fight then thundering all around the house—up and down curtains, over and under furniture, knocking things off the counter—then yelling at me comprehensively about their empty food dishes. So, yeah, George is fine.
And he’s a bit different: much, much more cuddlesome.
Image description: Large tabby cat clinging desperately, possessively to a white woman—his paw is curled around her forearm from above; his tail is curled around her arm from below—relaxing on an ivory sofa with a big mug of tea
Charlie is too—though of course that’s as likely to be the result of the miserable weather we’ve been having the last 10 days as any sudden increase in gratitude:
Image description: A screenshot of a Seattle Times article with a photo of waves crashing against a pier and below a single sentence, “A tornado warning, heavy rain, hail, high winds, severe thunderstorm, snow and a small earthquake were part of a mixed bag of events that occurred during a dramatic Tuesday in Washington state.”
So, before that little incident, how have they been? Fine! Happy, healthy, curious, plus in-my-face, on-my-keyboard, complaining about the service, and assuming a new throne.
The throne, of course, is Charlie’s: I have a new wheelchair (more on that in another post)2, which has become the most expensive kitty bed on the planet:
Image description: Photo of an all-black wheelchair against an orange wall warmly lit by candlelight. A small tabby cat is curled on the chair fast asleep.
George, when he’s not coming for lap time, is mooching treats.
Image description: Two photos of the same tabby cat posing on the same brown velvet cushion. On the left he sits upright looking sweet and sad and soulful (but you can just tell he’s laying on thick). On the right he sits in half profile meatloaf style looking full, smug, and not-far-from-sleep
Both of them are now proper cats. That is, when they’re not running around outside killing things, or mooching food from us—even Charlie has started to enjoy cat treats3—they sleep. Charlie’s three favourite daytime places are my exercise machine—a NuStep, which is a recumbent cross-trainer—my wheelchair, and my lap. They sometimes compete over laps.
When Charlie can’t have a lap or my chair or the exercise machine—or just when it’s colder than usual—he seeks out the second most expensive cat bed in the world, which is our Denon receiver.
At some point I plan to do a whole blog post about our new AV setup, but for now I’ll just say OH MY GOD I LOVE MY DOLBY ATMOS SOUND! I love it so much that I’m seriously considering spending an unreasonable amount of money to hunt down and buy any of my favourite music that’s been remastered for Atmos. It’s that fucking good. No, it’s better: it’s mind-blowingly magnificent! If you’ve been dithering about getting something similar, just do it. It is so very worth it. One drawback: George doesn’t like the sound moving around the family room: it’s so clear and convincing and so precisely placed that he can track it to within inches but can never see it. It freaks him out. But hey in this one regard, humans win.
Charlie used to be bothered by it, but now doesn’t get fussed. Perhaps it’s because of his brain damage—I’m pretty sure he spent some time seeing things that were’t there, and now not seeing things that are there is just another manifestation of the weirdness he’s grown used to—that and the fact that he’s always been less skittish than his brother. But, yes, he too loves his audio receiver.
I’ll leave you with a picture of him posing as the Emergency Medical Hologram from Star Trek: Voyager.
Image description: A poised and alert tabby cat with perfectly curved whiskers sitting before a blank TV screen on an audio receiver with his tail curled precisely around his paws, looking quizzically into the camera
1I use it as a mosquito repellant; it contains nootkatone—which is an even better repellant than DEET and absolutely nontoxic, to people. You can drink the damn stuff. I dilute five drops of essential oil with several tablespoons of neutral oil and it works like a magic shield. Also, it smells nice. I can recommend it. But obviously not for cats.
2 When I say expensive, I’m not kidding. But, oooh, it’s supercool!
3 They like Orijen, original flavour, which are whole-prey (muscle, organ, bone) dehydrated raw food pellets. They love to chase them.
The digital galley doesn’t have the gorgeous interior illustrations by Rovina Cai, and the long, historically-focused Author’s Note is not left-justified1 but otherwise it’s a faithful reproduction of what you’ll read in the finished hardcover and ebook (or hear in the audiobook).
Image description: A composite image with, on the left, painted in muted colours—ice blue, umber, fawn—a figure half kneeling in a river leaning her weight on something submerged, perhaps another figure, with her sword. And on the right, the cover of a novel, Spear, by Nicola Griffith, also in muted colours, this time white, dark blue, bronze, charcoal, and ember-red.
The book won’t be out until April 19 next year, but requests are beginning to roll in for appearances, real and virtual. If you want me at your store/conference/school next year, now’s the time to get in touch with my publicist at Tor, Alexis Saarela. I have no idea where the world will be, pandemic-wise, but I have my fingers crossed for some live and in-person events.
Meanwhile I’m turning my attention to a couple of juicy essays I’ve been meaning to write for a year or two, and some blog posts of varying heft about all the things I learnt, and/or discarded, and/or think I might use in some future Peretur tale. So tell me what you’re curious about and I’ll see what I can do.
 It’s centre-justified, so it looks as though it should be written on a scroll, and read like a municipal proclamation: Hear Ye, Hear Ye, Whereas on this twenty-seventh day of October, in the two-thousandth-and-twenty-first year of this Common Era, the Author did herein note—
Turning a long, speculative “stylistic and psychological tour de force” (New York Times) novel into just over 90 minutes of sleek, luscious-looking sci-fi thriller, all on a low budget, was a rollercoaster ride: sometimes wildly exciting, sometimes grindingly hard, but never, ever boring. But that’s Kelley’s story to tell and happily she’s done that in a fascinating series of journal entries about the 11-year journey from book to screen. You’ll find it an eye-opening read. It was not always a smooth ride and the only reason that f illm ever got made was through the sheer force of Kelley’s will. I’ve never been more proud of her—and I’m proud of her a lot.
And it would be a good idea to pre-order now, especially if you want a hardcover copy. Why? Three reasons—two that almost always apply, and one that’s special to these pandemic times.
First, pre-ordering is good for you, the reader—once you’ve plunked down your cash you don’t have to worry about remembering anymore. When I know there’s a book I definitely am going to want, the best way to make sure I get it—because who can remember things like publication dates?—is to just buy it now and relax knowing it will magically arrive the first day it’s available.
Second, even in the best of times, it’s good for the author. Here’s what one publisher has to say about it1:
For an author, pre-orders can alert retailers and consumers that they should pay attention to your book. From the bookseller perspective, the pre-order quantity is a good early indicator of a book’s success, and can lead to retailers increasing their initial orders.
Additionally, pre-orders can have a ripple effect in the broader publishing industry, and a pre-publication buzz campaign in support of pre-orders can build anticipation for your book launch, allowing you to carry momentum through the weeks following your on-sale date.
Third, today—mid-pandemic—is most definitely not the best of times for publishing. You’ve probably heard that there are global supply chain disruptions affecting all sorts of industries. Publishing is one of them. One of Seattle’s booksellers, Robert Sindelar of Third Place Books, recently spoke to the New York Times about this. Shortages and shipping bottlenecks are occurring at several different points in the chain: not enough paper, not enough workers to print, bind, pack the books, not enough shipping containers to put them in, not enough ships to carry them, or workers to unload the shipping containers when they arrive, or trucks to transport the books to the warehouses, and from the warehouses to the stores, and so on. Print runs are usually ordered far in advance, so a publisher has to make an informed guess about numbers. In the best of times it doesn’t matter too much if they underestimate; it’ll only take a couple of weeks to print more. But, yeah—right now not the best of times. An author’s worst nightmare: readers queuing up to buy the delicious hardcover and there being no copies available anywhere and no idea when there might be.
So if you want to read Spear—and it’s monstrously good!—do you, me, and the publisher a favour and pre-order now. And keep the receipt so that closer to publication date you can enter to win a spiffy enamel pin.2
The Spear pin is so great I actually wear in on my jacket lapel. I can’t remember the last time I liked something well enough to do that with—oh, well, okay, yes I do :)
Image description: a flyer for an event. On the left, text reading “Saint Martin’s University Les Bailey Writers Series, Nicola Griffith, Making and Remaking the World, Wednesday October 13, 7:00pm, Worthington Center St Martin’s University,” followed by logos for St Martin’s University and Barnes and Noble. On the right, a black and white photograph of a smiling short-haired white woman at a microphone.
On Wednesday evening I’ll be in Lacey, WA at the Worthington Center, Saint Martin’s University, to give a public talk, Making and Remaking the World. Actually, it’ll be more of a guided conversation: Kelley will be asking me questions and we’ll talk for about an hour, then I’ll answer audience questions—often my favourite part of events like this—and then I’ll sign books. The university bookstore will be selling copies of Hild and So Lucky, but if you bring personal copies of any of my other works I’ll be happy to sign them.
So what does “Making and Remaking the World” mean? The long answer is basically my PhD thesis, plus every essay I’ve ever written about my work. The shortest answer is all about how and why I write—and who I write for. I write to some degree for myself—I write to find out—but I also write to change the world, one reader at a time. I write to see myself, and others like me, like you, in pasts, presents, and futures we’ve been told don’t belong to us. I build fictional worlds where we can all not only survive but thrive. And by building fictional worlds, and putting traditionally underrepresented people in them, I help recast attitudes we hold towards the world we live in today. And changing attitudes changes culture.
Some of the conversation will be about how I do that, and some about why I do that. I may or may not include a couple of very short (2 mins or so) readings—I haven’t decided yet.
Perhaps that sounds weighty and serious—and to an extent it is—but as one of the truest reasons I write is for pleasure, I’m hoping the conversation is pleasurable, too. When I write—and speak—I don’t just want to change the real world, I want the fictional world the reader lives in to delight them, thrill them, fill them with joy. Because in my experience joy is contagious: if my work fills you with joy, you may then go out into the world and fill others with joy. And that, too, will change the world.
Making and remaking worlds—this one or any other—does not have to be onerous. So come and join me and Kelley for a lovely evening of conversation and exploration.
Image description: Smiling short-haired white woman in a wheelchair at the top of a beautiful wooden ramp. The ramp is attached at the top to a flower-filled deck and at the side to a blue-and-white house.
We moved into this house in 2005—before I even started using crutches. Even then, though, I knew I would one day be using a wheelchair, which is why we chose a single-level mid-century modern in a green and peaceful neighbourhood. Instead of a ramp, we installed an electric platform lift to raise any future wheelchair about 30″ from the floor of what was the garage (and is now our exercise and laundry room) to the main floor. The lift was not cheap; even so it was less expensive than building a ramp that didn’t look rickety, nasty, and institutional.
I was happy with the lift for quite a while, because although I had started using the wheelchair, I wasn’t wholly reliant on it. Now I am. This means that if the power fails when I’m inside the house I can’t leave—no power = no wheelchair lift—and if the power fails when I’m outside the house I can’t enter.
The power in this part of Seattle goes out often when there’s a big storm. And the problem with living in a green and peaceful—peaceful because it’s less dense—neighbourhood of the city is that, well, it’s less dense, which means a power outage affects fewer people which means getting the power back online is a lower priority for this area than many others. Which means that for the last three or four years every time there’s even a rumble of thunder I got tense. Anticipating helplessness is No Fun. I decided we needed a ramp. I looked at costs: for anything that wasn’t a nasty gimcrack flimsy aluminium contraption we’d be looking at between $10k-$20k.
That was pre-pandemic—a long, long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. I heard nothing, then forgot about it. (During the early part of the pandemic I never went anywhere anyway.)
Fast forward to August 2021 when I got a call from a nice woman who said, “Hey Nicola. You still want that ramp?”
It turned out MBAKS had to cancel the 2020 rampathon because Covid but that this year, with everyone vaccinated and the weather being unusually good it seemed like it might be doable. And sadly the first three people MBAKS had called no longer needed the ramp: they were either dead or now living in long-term care.
I’m not dead! I said. I’m right here! And yes please I so very much want that ramp!
Two weeks later Isaac Gaspar, from Gaspar’s Construction, came round to measure and talk about what kind of thing I needed, and then on Saturday 25th September (just 45 hours before we had to leave for our 9-day trip) a crew of 15 or 20 people from Gaspar’s—the whole office, basically; not just carpenters and master joiners and painters, but engineers, owners, designers, admin staff, handyfolk, project managers, and assorted friends and sweeties—showed up armed with tools, masks, team spirit, delight in helping, and hearty appetites. All it cost me and Kelley was conversation, coffee, and several platefuls of baked goods.
The sun shone, music played, people laughed and worked and stuffed themselves with treats, and eight hours later we had a ramp that is not only functional and sturdy but beautiful, gracefully designed and painted so that it looks as though it’s an integral part of the house and will last just as long. I am very, very pleased and profoundly grateful to all at Gaspar’s Construction and to the fine folks of MBAKS.
Also, it’s a hell of a lot of fun to play with—I love zooming up and down it at speed, even occasionally going up backwards, just because I can.
Image description: a beautiful wooden ramp running from a flower-filled deck down between a shed anda house, both painted indigo and white. A plaque on the end post of the ramp reads “Rampathon 2021, built by Gaspar’s Construction, presented by Master Builders’ Association of King and Snohomish Counties.”
The cats, while at first profoundly suspicious, now own the ramp which was, of course, created entirely for their convenience. Kelley, too, finds it wonderfully convenient—much easier to roll heavy suitcases up a ramp than lugging them up stairs. The ramp is an all-around win.
Charlie and George are rescue kitties who had such a bad start in life that four of their siblings died before they could be adopted. If it weren’t for the wonderful care of Seattle Area Feline Rescue and their network of foster households—in Charlie and George’s case, the marvellous Cody’s Cat Palace—they would not have survived. They’re happy now, and healthy, but the experience marked them. George, particularly, can be very skittish around sudden noises and anyone but me and Kelley. Both of them freak out if there is no food around.
We’ve been with Charlie and George 24/7 since we adopted them in August 2019. The only time we’ve been apart in over two years was when one of them had to have an overnight stay at the vet (Charlie when he nearly died after an operation to remove a nasopharyngeal polyp, and George when he nearly died of salmonellosis caught from a bird). As a result, for all four of us being separated is indelibly linked to stress. Add to that the idea of travelling at all after two solid years at home—masks on a plane! crazy anti-vaxxers on a plane! just being on a fucking plane! getting off the plane among crazy Red State Covid-deniers and anti-vaxxers!—and the thought of leaving the cats for nine days in care of total strangers, without being able to explain to them that we were coming back and that these humans weren’t going to do horrible things to them, was…not thrilling.
But we’ll have the cats for the rest of their lives, which we hope will be long ones, and we have to start travelling sometime. So we agreed to undertake our recent nine-day, three-stop trip with some trepidation.
The most important part of our planning was finding the right people to care for them. It took a while, but eventually through a friend we were put in touch with Cat Ladies Cat Sitting. One of the owners came round, met us—though not the kitties, who stayed well away—got the lay of the land, listened patiently to all our frets, and reassured us even more patiently, and eventually we took the plunge and said, Okay let’s do this!
So we did.
And so many times during that nine-day trip one or both of us got worried—but we had twice-daily reports via WhatsApp, including proof-of-life photos, proof of food-eaten photos, the occasional video, and reassurance that neither was traumatised to the degree that they weren’t using their litter trays or grooming themselves or drinking water.
But, oh, some of the proof-of-life pixs hurt our hearts. Charlie is a brave soul, an explorer at heart, but the first 24-hours he looked totally freaked out and weird.
Before we go there, though, let’s backtrack a bit to before we left. George was looking particularly handsome and magisterial.
Except, y’know, when he wasn’t. Here he is trying not to yawn.
Charlie was in the best health he’s ever been: strong, lithe, glossy and absolutely unafraid of anything. And as usual his moods were mercurial.
But it turned out it was George who got the rodent—this time a mouse.
And Charlie vented his rage at Birdot.
It was about this point that we dragged the suitases down from the loft and they knew something was up.
And then, feeling like monsters, I prepared labelled photos for the Cat Ladies and uploaded them for all the sitters including a perspective shot showing their different sizes so they could be absolutely one hundred percent totally sure they could identify them.
Then we carefully put blankets on the bed, and set the mattress warmer on a timer, and sorted a new heating schedule so they would never be cold. And the next morning we left about 6:30.
We were as prepared as we could be. We had references for the Cat Ladies. We’d met one of them. And still we fretted. I’m guessing it was displaced anxiety about the travel—we had a couple of emotionally hard things to deal with, as well as the sheer misery of long, transcontinental travel—plus our own separation anxiety plus genuine worry about their mental state while we were gone.
The first report came in while we were still on the plane: litter changed, fresh food and water, both seen alive tucked safely under the bed.
The next report came in about 6pm Seattle time, when we were still on the road to Stuart, FL: clean plates, used litter trays, and Charlie had ventured onto the top of the bed though George was sticking to his safe place.
Reports came in like clockwork, twice a day. Charlie warmed up pretty fast, going from fully freaked out to sniffing to graciously allowing a scritch the first day.
After that he was fine, rapidly moving from lounging to playing to demanding lap time.
George, as always was much, much more wary, staying under the bed for days, finally being brave enough to hide behind the bedroom curtain.
We knew that between them they were eating six cans of wet food a day, a lot of cat treats, and a cup or two of dried food, and the pictures of Charlie showed he hadn’t doubled in size, so we knew George was eating. Gradually he moved from the bed to the bedroom windowsill to the living room windowsill. Finally, on the very last day he sat at the end of the hallway, unprotected by anything except Charlie.
And then we came home. I wasn’t sure what to expect: Cold shoulder? Fear because we should be dead? Having our eyeballs torn out? In the end they both came galloping over, yelled at us comprehensively for five minutes—where have you been?! why did you go?! did you know strangers were here?!—then ate themselves insensible and slept near us for two hours. When they woke up they both came immediately came onto our respective laps and we all sat there smiling foolishly for a while. That night they slept jammed against us on the bed. And now, three days later, it’s as though we never went away.
So, well, I suppose there’s no excuse to not travel anymore. But I’m sure there’ll be another kitten report before that. Meanwhile, amuse yourself with previous Tales of Charlie and George, and have a lovely autumn.
From Shelf Awareness, Spear is the Galley Love Of the Week:
Nicola Griffith (Hild) draws on legend, myth and history to create Spear, a Camelot-inspired novella centered around tales of Peretur (also known as Percival), one of the legendary knights of the Round Table. Lydia Zoells, assistant editor at MCD (like Tordotcom, an imprint of Macmillan), describes the book as a “mythical retelling, or even historical fiction, [that] emphatically rejects the myth of a monolithically straight white able-bodied medieval Wales.” Told in what Zoells calls “rhythmic and rippling prose,” Spear is an atmospheric and lyrical tale steeped in rich historical detail. Griffith breathes vibrant and dazzling life into a stunning new take on Arthurian legend, encompassing queerness, magic, love, reputation, battle and legacy.
— Kerry McHugh, ShelfAwareness
GLOW selects books that have not yet been discovered by booksellers and librarians, identifying the ones that will be important hand-selling titles in a future season. You can enter to win an ARC here. The drawing is open until October 13.
We have just returned from a nine-day trip in which we travelled to Stuart FL to spend a few days with family for the first time in almost three years, then drove to Orlando FL for the tiny (fewer than 50 attendees) interstitial International Conference for the Fantastic in the Arts (ICFA), then on to Portland for the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association conference.
After more than two years at home it was strange to travel. Even pre-pandemic I found planes uncomfortable and claustrophobic so I steeled myself for the five and a half hour flight in a mask to be almost unbearable. But it turned out to just be the same mildly sucky experience it always was, only with less food. Except, well, that’s not the whole story. Apart from the dearth of food it was actually a better experience. Everyone on that plane was kind, generous, thoughtful and polite. I was genuinely touched by the constant, unremitting courtesy of airline staff, passengers, and crew.
There again, we were flying from Seattle, and this city has been at its magnificent best during the pandemic. I was prepared for Red State anti-vax Florida to be a different kettle of fish. Except, well, again, I was wrong. The non-family and non-ICFA people were all friendly, efficient, and non-contemptuous of mask wearers. And of course the ICFA folks and family were wonderful.
At all three hotels we stayed at, the biggest pandemic-based difference was in the level of service and amenities: no automatic housekeeping; no room service; limited bar and restaurant offerings. This is partly a safety issue, of course, but I suspect it was also at least as much due to staffing shortages—every staff member we encountered was overworked. I found myself tipping very heavily because I wanted to lighten their load and I couldn’t.
ICFA, though tiny, was wonderful. It’s been 28 years since I last attended in person. The last time I was scheduled to go I had to cancel just five days ahead because my father died and I had to fly to the UK. So I had forgotten how lovely it is to just hang out with other writers by the pool, or sit with Kelley and a glass of wine on the deck overlooking the small lake where an alligator lay in wait for unwary seabirds and raccoons. I saw a lovely white ibis, and what I think was an egret. And of course that gator—probably only about six feet—was ever-present. I could wish it had been ten degrees cooler, but there was plenty of shade, turning ceiling fans, and ice cold beer.
Throughout the trip we had twice-daily updates about Charlie and George, including proof-of-life photos. More on that in the next blog post.
When I travel to a 3-or-more-hour-difference timezone, I often sleep too late that first morning to make regular breakfast hours and have to rely on room service. In Stuart (and Orlando, and Portland), that option wasn’t available this time—but it turned out the Florida hotels opened for breakfast until 11 am, and my breakfast in Portland was a public one during which I gave a presentation about Spear—so it was not a problem.
I was pretty tired by the time we got to Portland (I’m still tired). To get there in time we had to up at 2:30 am Pacific time, take our wheelchair van to the rental place, get a shuttle to the airport, fly to Seattle, and, instead of driving home, drive straight from the airport to the PNBA hotel in Portland. By the time I had signed a zillion boxes of ARCs then met booksellers over drinks that evening I was fried. Then I had to be up at 6:30 the next morning in order to eat my eggs and sausage and give that presentation.
I think the presentation went okay. I suspect I was probably a bit too enthusiastic about tracing tales of Peretur/Peredur/Peredurus/Parsifal/Parzival/Percival through various regions and centuries and languages but I know at least two booksellers cried (hopefully not with boredom), and one (unfortunately) felt compelled to tell me how inspiring it is to see someone with my challenges (aka a wheelchair) being so brave and shining so brightly. Perhaps it was my fatigue—perhaps he wasn’t, in fact, trying to do the inspiration porn thing—but I suspect my lack of enthusiasm for his perspective was apparent.
Then it was a brutal 3-hour drive home in torrential rain. I’m just glad Kelley was at the wheel—I kept nodding out. The Portland-Seattle I-5 run is miserable at the best of times, but when you have fools driving pale grey cars (most residents of the PNW) who don’t put the their lights on and so disappear in the rainlight, and crazy people in Pontiacs driving a 100 miles an hour and abruptly lane-changing, all in a frog-strangling downpour, well, it becomes a bit of a knuckle-biter.
But then we got home and, ta-da! There was our wonderful new ramp! I had forgotten all about it. More on that in a separate post.
And, best of all, there were the Charlie and George—still alive, and only taking fifteen minutes to segue from terrified kitties thinking we were ghosts to grumpy cats indignant at being unceremoniously abandoned, without notice, by cruel and heartless moms, to the care of dangerous strangers.
Another fine surprise: many of our summer flowers were (and are) still in bloom. Usually they’ve given up by now, but we still have bright red-and-white salvia, red-and-purple fuchsia, red and orange and peach geraniums, petunias of all colours, a gold/orange vine flower of some kind, lots of purple salvia, and two different sets of million bells. I’m amazed.
But, yeah, I’m tired. If I owe you email it might take a few days. I’m hoping that Kelley and I can spend a lovely quiet weekend in front of the fire with wine and books and kitties, all happy to be home together.
I love autumn. For me it’s a season of change—slightly melancholy but also, always, deeply and fundamentally exciting. To me autumn is the real new year. The riotous blooms and leaves of our planters and pots on the decks are beginning to change—becoming more sparse and more intensely green as the more sensitive ad brightly-coloured annuals like petunias stop blooming. The nights are cooler and quieter. Even the air whispers of change: it smells different, more briny, more alive, and it sounds different as the leaves become papery. The squirrels are fiercer and faster and less afraid of predators because they know winter is coming and they have to gather their supplies. Right around this time, too, hummingbirds morph from instant food-territory belligerence, particularly with each other, to mellow appreciation—sometime next month I’ll see two, or even three, who in June might have fought half to death, sitting together companionably drinking from the same feeder.
One change for me this autumn is finally getting a ramp built. And once it’s in, for the first time in six years I won’t worry whenever there’s a storm. When there’s a big storm here we lose power. When we lose power, my wheelchair lift won’t work. When the wheelchair lift won’t work I can’t leave the house—or enter the house if I’m already out when the storm hits. We’ve been lucky so far, in that storms have hit while I’ve been at home, and the power hasn’t been out for more than a few hours. But I worry. Every time. And soon I won’t have to worry anymore.
Meanwhile, we’ve had to shove all our plants together in a pile on the deck so the carpenters can get to work. So, for while, the pots look abundant again especially after it rains.
This year, for the first time in three years, the season marks the beginning of another round of book publicity. The first of my 2022 books, Spear, won’t be out for another six months but my first official gig is scheduled in less than two weeks: attendance at the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association in Portland. While I’m there I’ll sign a couple of hundred galleys, meet booksellers, and give a presentation about the book at the big group breakfast.
Until Hild I’d never given a breakfast speech. I’m not at my sparkling best first thing in the morning so voluntarily eating socially while trying to blink myself awake would never have occurred to me. And wanting to listen to a speech while I ate my eggs? Eyebrow-raising. As for giving the speech, oh ha, ha ha ha! But then eight years ago the kind people at the PNBA asked me go down there to talk about Hild, so I did, and I had a lovely time. (Despite the day before being the first day of the Eight-Month Nightmare That Was Tecfidera-Induced Pain, and so being in shock for the whole thing.) And I think it made a big difference to the sales of the book. I mean, how can you not feel fondly towards those you’ve shared breakfast with? I certainly feel kindly disposed towards those who happily munched their eggs and muffins while I enthused about Hild.
So this year I’m actively looking forward to it. And I’m pretty sure this year there will be no nerve pain. And then I will come back to Seattle and happily zoom up and down my very own ramp, just because I can.
I’m guessing most readers are familiar with the classic ringed or Celtic cross: originally large, standing stone crosses with what many have described as a stone ‘nimbus’ around the arms.* These standing crosses ranged in height from about 3m to 5.5m. Here’s a generic vector drawing to illustrated what I mean:
There are now millions of these nimbused crosses in miniature: on tattoos, t-shirts, and tarot cards; woven in hanging cloths, painted on Christmas cards, and hammered from bronze and pewter and silver and gold and hung on neck chains. There’s lots of rumination among academics, religious, antiquarians, and historians about where and how that so-called nimbus developed. Perhaps it comes from the cosmological cross, an “important motif in Coelius Sedulius‘s poem Carmen Paschale,” composed in the fifth century and, according to Wikipedia, “known in Ireland by the 7th century.” (You will forgive me if I call bullshit, or at least an unseemly stretching of probability.) Or maybe St Patrick combined the cross with pagan symbols (such as the Neolithic and Bronze Age wheel cross—see footnote) to appeal to the heathen. (We have absolutely zero indication of this, but, hey, anything’s possible.) Or, gosh, it could represent Christ’s dominance over the sun god. (Well of course it could; it could represent a prescient seventh-century mystic’s representation of a lunar module on top of Apollo 13.) And on it goes. It’s always been clear to me that all these pedantic old white men were basically talking through their beards.
So I was absolute delighted last month when I read an article in the September issue of Current Archaeology, “Iona’s Archetype,” that gave a much more likely explanation: the shape is a useful accident resulting from at least two sets of damage and an eight-century repair. And for this eminently sensible suggestion there is some evidence—circumstantial, of course, but something tangible.
On the island of Iona (that Hild knows as Hii) there were several large standing stone crosses. Most now standing are replicas, or are in pieces—or parts of a larger, reconstructed whole—in museums. One, the eight-century St Martin’s cross, still stands in its original position on Iona:
Note how short the arms are, how small the upper surface area is relative to the width of the long central arm. Iona is a windy island. Any top-heavy structure, especially if the top part has a large surface area, will be prone to being blown down. My guess is that the size of those arms explains the St Martin’s cross’s survival.
The Current Archaeology article, though, examines St John’s cross, originally 5.3m tall (about 17.5′), carved in the early eight century and apparently the progenitor of all Celtic crosses. Here’s what the partially reconstructed cross looks like.
This is very high and very top-heavy. That central boss and outstretched arms would have acted rather like a sail, tipping the top-heavy thing over. The stone, particularly the arms, would most likely break under its own weight—and in fact there’s evidence of more than one such break and subsequent repair. There’s also evidence that sometime after the cross fell over it was re-erected, this time jammed into the central slot of an old mill stone to provide stability.
More interestingly, from my perspective, the circle appears to be a latter addition, introduced during one of the repairs, along with an extra piece at the top and at the neck—the shaded bits in the diagram below.
Here’s a more detailed look at the structural repair and stability improvement.
It is an elegant solution.
So, that beard-tugging rumination about the origins of the circle in the Celtic cross? Just-So stories resting on wishful thinking.
Finally, just for grins, here’s a photo of the concrete replica of St John’s cross that stands today on Iona.
It must have been an awe-inspiring sight, particularly if it was painted. Was it painted? We don’t know. I’m not aware of evidence of polychromatic decoration but, there again, I’m not aware of any evidence that they weren’t. And why would you go to all the time, trouble and expense of creating such an amazing thing and then not make it as striking as possible? Maybe we should have a colouring competition…
*I am not talking here of the white supremacist hate symbol, usually with four equal arms rather than the long vertical axis of a standing cross. The hate symbol very possibly could be a direct descendant of the wheel cross—which is a cross inside a circle (and if you break that circle just before its join to the cross you get the beginnings of a swastika)—but it’s also just possible it could be connected to the nativist national origin myths that neo-nazis love to co-opt.
Image description: A round enamel pin in the shape of a red shield with raised rim and embossed rivets held between a white woman’s the finger and thumb. On the shield are entwined forget-me-nots, with blue-and-yellow flowers and deep green leaves. Lying over all is a broad-bladed boar spear.
I promised an update on availability. Here’s what I know.
The pin will be available during a pre-order campaign which will begin much closer to the publication date. (Publication date is 19 April 2022. So perhaps after the holidays? I’m just guessing.) When that does happen, there’ll be an online form and readers can upload their receipt (from any retailer) to get a pin. So no need to cancel any pre-orders now, just file the receipt until the form is live! And I’ll be sure to let you know when it goes up.
This is the package being sent out this month to early readers and influencers. The book in the middle is the Advanced Reading Copy of Spear. On either side is a postcard featuring one of the interior illustrations. I’ll talk about each of those things in depth in future blog posts. Today I want to talk about the fourth item, an enamel pin.
When the marketing folks at Tordotcom told me they were commissioning an enamel pin as part of their sales and marketing campaign, I wasn’t sure how I felt. Obviously, Yay! that there would be a marketing campaign. But also Eh? because what if it was some cheap, lightweight tchotchke—a mile from the kind of thing a Spear reader might be interested in?
So, yeah: I needn’t have doubted. The pin turns out to be a rather splendid, substantial, lovely-in-the-hand object. Beautifully coloured, gorgeously designed, and astonishingly textured. It feels weighty and handmade.
When I opened the box the first thing that struck me was the size. That round shield is about 4 cm in diameter, and the two prongs on the back—like sharp earring posts—are held in place by two sturdy black rubber stoppers, big enough to need their own raised grip. You could pin this to canvas, leather—a belt, a book bag, the lapel of a winter topcoat—and it will stay secure. Equally, you could pin it to a t-shirt (which is what I did to test it; it looked very handsome against black).
The second thing is that the pin will stick to a magnet—as I found out when I put it on the table and click, it stuck to my iPad. So for those of you who wear expensive clothes, you could file the posts off and just stick a magnet behind your material. That way you needn’t be afraid of poking holes in your cashmere or silk or suede, or the beautiful wool cloth of your Armani jacket :)
Third, the detail. Look at the banding around the shield, and those tiny individual rivets. The shading and texture on the petals. The cross-piece below the leaf-shaped blade. Not to mention the yellow centres of the forget-me-nots.
Which brings me to the fourth thing, the amazing colour—and how beautifully it matches Rovina Cai’s artwork. (which I’ve already talked about elsewhere and will talk about more soon.)
Fifth, and best, is how perfectly it encapsulates the spirit of the book: spear—specifically a boar spear—shield, forget-me-nots, and red red red. It honestly couldn’t be better.
How can you get hold of one of these pins? I’m not sure yet. I think (again, I’m not sure yet) they’ll be used as part of some kind of campaign though I’ve no idea if it will be pre- or post-publication. I can promise you that when I know, you’ll know. So if you want one, stay tuned.
Image description: Two photos of two white women’s hands. The top photo is in colour; each woman wears a single gold band on their ring finger. The photo below is in black and white; each woman wears two gold bands on their ring finger.
On this day 28 years ago Kelley and I got married for the first time—in our back garden in Atlanta surrounded by about fifty of our family and friends. WE gave each other a 14ct gold wedding band. The marriage had no legal force.
Exactly 20 years later we got married again, this time before a judge and attended by fourteen family and friends. WE gave each other an 18ct gold wedding band which we wore next to the first. And this time it was a legal ceremony, and our marriage was—and is—valid all over the world.
That second wedding was possible because just a few months earlier, on June 26th, 2013—on the 25th anniversary of when Kelley and I met—we got the best anniversary present of all time: SCOTUS struck down the Defence of Marriage Act.
For us here in Seattle, today, life is good. I hope it’s good for you wherever you are.