COVID-19 update

In my opinion, COVID-19 is well out of the box. There is no ‘window of opportunity’ to prevent a pandemic: it’s out there, and it’s spreading.

Let’s start with some stats. As of 22 February 2020 16:40 -8 UTC, worldwide:

  • 78,669 confirmed cases
  • 23,003 recovered
  • 41,654 currently with a mild case
  • 11,553 currently in serious or critical condition
  • 2,459 have died

In other words, the current overall case fatality rate = 3.125%. This is a lot.

But there’s another way to look at it. Worldwide, if you look at COVID-19 from the perspective of closed cases (resolved either by recovery or death) and open cases (still sick), the numbers seem daunting

  • closed cases (resolved by recovery or death)
    • 90% recovered
    • 10% have died
  • open cases (still sick):
    • 78% mild
    • 22% ‘serious or critical’

the story is a little different outside China where there are fewer cases and many are in rich countries with top of the line medical systems that were forewarned:

  • case fatality rate = 0.97%
  • critical/serious = 3.8%

These are still large numbers.

I’m not convinced any of them are reliable. For one, China’s method of counting has changed twice, and, for another, I believe many countries—North Korea, for example—are simply not reporting at all. We had no window into Iran, where in 24 hours they went from insisting there were zero cases to five people being dead; this does not inspire confidence. So far we have only one reported case in Africa—in Egypt—and a grand total of none in Indonesia (which I flat out don’t believe). My conclusion? Really, we have no idea what’s going on.

For several reasons I think we’re not in good shape.

  • A report from Imperial College London, Faculty of Medicine estimated that “about two thirds of COVID-19 cases exported from mainland China have remained undetected worldwide, potentially resulting in multiple chains of as yet undetected human-to-human transmission outside mainland China.”
  • The virus spreads asymptomatically—from people with no cough, no fever, no lung involvement that would show up in scans. Not only that, it spreads from people with such low levels of viral load that in initial testing is negative. How can you stop a virus if you have no idea it’s there?
  • According to the Journal of Hospital Infection, corona viruses can persist on surfaces for up to 9 days. So not only have countless people gone into the world carrying it, we can’t detect those people, and they can leave it on a table top or door handle to to picked up as much as nine days later.
  • Professor Gabriel Leung, the chair of public health medicine at Hong Kong University, said most experts thought that each person infected would go on to transmit the virus to about 2.5 other people. That gives an “attack rate” of 60-80%. If at some point (all at once? in waves?) 60% of the world’s population will be infected, then we’re looking at massive numbers. For the US alone that would be over 8 million people requiring hospitalisation, and a significant percentage of those in intensive care. If preliminary numbers from China hold up, that time elapsed from first symptoms to death are about 14 days, the system will be overwhelmed—and this is a top class medical system. What about those countries with fragile systems?

But the key to all this is how much no one knows about COVID-19. We don’t know

  • the R0 rate
  • how rapidly it will mutate—or in which direction
  • whether it will die down in the warmer months (given data from Singapore and Iran, where it is not cold, I suspect not)
  • whether infection confers protective immunity (many other corona viruses don’t; you can get them over and over)
  • whether the virus—which has been isolated from faecal samples—can be transmitted that way
  • why women die less frequently than men

Two good things: various anti-virals are being trialled, and there are indications that some like remdesivir may be effective. (But we don’t know how effective.) Several teams are racing to build a vaccine, and I think they’ll succeed in 14-18 months. But how easy will it be to ramp up production of both anti-virals and vaccines? How effective will they be? How fast will COVD-19 mutate?

So, basically: yep, we have no clue, and nope, there is no window of opportunity to prevent pandemic. The opportunity that remains is a) preparation and b) communication.

Preparation involves quarantine, disinfection and other strategies to slow down the spread as much as possible to give those teams time to get anti-virals and vaccines into production. It means assessing realistically what it will take to keep the world working during this crisis, and, particularly, keep the health systems functioning under an onslaught.

Communication means getting information out there to everyone on a) how to stay safe and b) what to do if you get the virus anyway. The CDC, WHO and others have lots of info on this. My quick and dirty take away is:

  • Wash your hands. All the time. Wash them for between 25-45 seconds in hot soapy water. Wash them front and back and between your fingers and your fingertips. Use 70% alcohol hand sanitiser. Do not touch your mouth, nose, or eyes—or anything that will touch mouth, nose, or eyes—without thoroughly washing your hands first. If it gets bad, I’ll be wearing gloves, and throughly washing, and thoroughly hand sanitising, once I take them off.
  • Antiviral surgical masks are only effective if you know how to use them properly—single use; wash hands before and after removing; don’t move it aside to talk or eat then just slide it back because now the virus is all over your hands, and possibly the inside surface of your mask—and then only in combination with serious hand-washing.
  • Wash surfaces. Use alcohol, bleach, and hydrogen peroxide because plain Lysol is not effective. According to the Journal of Hospital Infection, coronaviruses “can be efficiently inactivated by surface disinfection procedures with 62-71% ethanol, 0.5% hydrogen peroxide, or 0.1% sodium hypochlorite within 1 minute. Other biocidal agents such as 0.05-0.2% benzalkonium chloride or 0.02% chlorhexidine digluconate are less effective.”

Everyone makes their own choices but what I plan to do, as always, is hope for the best and plan for the worst. Plan on a staycations, and buy a lot of hand-sanitiser.

2019-nCoV, the novel coronavirus: an update

Via Johns Hopkins

On 26 January I wrote a bit about 2019-nCoV, the novel coronavirus originating in Wuhan, and opined that we’d know more in 10-14 days. Here’s an update in two parts:

  1. The current situation, that is, what I know today (6 February) and what might reasonably be inferred—though with the caveat that information is always changing and its transmission is imperfect.
  2. Speculative fun, that is, how I would use all this to write a novel about the fall of civilisation.
Current situation
  • confirmed cases 31,439
  • serious condition 4,826
  • of which, critical condition 985
  • dead 639
  • recovered 1,564

Using these numbers, the worldwide fatality rate is now just a little over 2%, and falling. (Mostly. The story is more complicated than that, because in Hubei province it is 4.1%, and only 0.17% in the rest of the world—at least the parts of the world that are reporting.) This is good news, and it’s the result of improved reporting. (But, oh, so many places are not reporting, and as these are places with fragile healthcare systems I do not trust this data.) As the quality of data continues to improve, my hope is that we’ll see that figure continue to fall. I honestly have no idea of the latest R0 (R-zero, or R-nought, that is, the rate of transmission) but just looking at the numbers I’d guess that has not fallen.

I want to emphasise, again, that this data is not very reliable. The number of cases, for example, is certain to be wrong. I’ve seen figures ranging from 100,000 to 200,000 mentioned as a more likely  number, and I think this is much closer to the mark. (What’s going on in North Korea? How about Indonesia? Then there are all those countries in Africa where Chinese engineering projects have necessitated vast in- and outflows of Chinese labour.) The reason we don’t know about many of the unreported infections, though, is that their symptoms are very mild. In other words, the virus might not be nearly as deadly as we first thought. At least at the moment. I also suspect that there will be deaths that should be attributed to the virus but weren’t because the infected person was asymptomatic and so never tested.

Viruses mutate all the time. This virus will, too. It may become less infectious or more infectious. It may become more deadly or less deadly. We don’t know. But it will mutate; it’s what viruses do.

The virus is very close to being a pandemic if it’s not already. Pandemic just means an infectious disease has reached epidemic proportions on more than one continent. Flu, for example, is a global pandemic but most of us aren’t that afraid of it because we know fatality rates are generally less than 0.1%—often quite a bit less. The common cold (another coronavirus) is also pandemic—so pleased don’t be alarmed by the word.

Coronaviruses rise and fall with the weather. Like the common cold, it’s entirely possible that in the northern hemisphere, the 2019-nCoV will start to die down in spring—but really rev up in the southern hemisphere as things begin to cool down. It’s also entirely possible—I’d go so far as to say likely—that there will be a resurgence of infection at the end of the year coinciding with autumn and the onset of winter

So how do you protect yourself against it? I’m not an expert so this is not medical advice. I can only tell you what I plan to do, which is to behave as though I’m on book tour, meeting a lot of people in the middle of flu season. The most important thing is to wash your hands, a lot. If you can, use warm water, and wash thoroughly with soap—not a quick rinse under the tap but a through sudsing. Hand sanitiser is also very effective. Don’t stand right next to someone coughing and sneezing. Wipe down surfaces if someone with symptoms has been in a space for five or more minutes. (Experts suggest at least 10 minutes, but hey, precautions are our friend.) And if you do test positive for the virus, wear an anti-viral surgical mask to prevent spreading infection. Do we need any more precautions than that? I don’t think so, not unless the virus mutates in terms of transmissibility and/or deadliness. For more info, see a variety of advice, for example from The Guardian. And the Wold Health Organisation has a decent video.

Those people who are dying from 2019-nCoV are doing so from lung injury; most seem to have co-morbidities. So if you already have health issues, like me, and/or a weak respiratory system, start washing your hands a lot.

What treatments are there? Nothing that’s proven to help. Though there are indications that some of the therapies used to combat HIV—a combination of anti-virals and interferon, which signals to the immune system to rev up—might help. And there are several teams in various parts of the globe working on a vaccine. The virus has already been sequenced and people know roughly how to knock out specific important bits to prevent or reduce replication. So I’m guessing there will be some kind of vaccine in 15-18 months.

But remember what I said about mutation? I suspect 2019-nCoV will be like influenza: seasonal, and variable, and sometimes vaccines will be more effective than others.

So meanwhile, people, wash your hands and keep yourselves informed. The two best sources I’ve found so far are BNO News (for latest numbers) and WHO for thoughtful Situation Reports. Johns Hopkins has a nifty Dashboard, but I find they sometimes lag a bit, and the Guardian does great live updates, and has useful tips based on changing info, but that links is always changing, so it might be best to go do a search.

Here is where I move into speculative territory. If you are of a fretful disposition I’d stop reading now. If you continue reading please remember I’m just playing, making shit up for for fun. It’s not researched; it’s guesswork, pure and simple. You’ve been warned.

Speculative fun

Coronaviruses are tricky bastards. Not only do they mutate with astounding ease, they don’t play fair: they do not confer protective immunity on their host. In other words, you could get 2019-nCoV, fight it off over a two-week, life-or-death struggle, emerging weak but triumphant, only to get it again. Just like getting the same cold twice in winter, only this time you die.

Vaccines won’t be much use against an endlessly metamorphosising opponent. As with flu, you’ll often be in the position of bringing a knife to a gunfight. So don’t even think about feeling safe.

Coronavirus is, essentially, already a pandemic. Like seasonal flu and the common cold it will wax and wane with the seasons—you might think you’ve got it corned but, eh, no, it’s just gone skiing in New Zealand and will be back refreshed, and ten times deadlier, just in time for Halloween. Then factor in that many, many countries are not reporting infections and I’m pretty sure this thing cannot be contained.

But all that’s for later. What’s happening now?

Factories in Wuhan and surrounding areas are closed. Manufacturing is halted. It’s likely this will spread to other regions. This will trigger a series of chain reactions.

First, demand shock: idled manufacturing plants don’t use energy; oil prices will tumble. Entire economies—often of politically volatile polities (Russia, Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, Nigeria, Sudan)—will implode. Add this to mass migration already underway because of climate change and there will be increased instability, unrest and conflict. Worst case: war, lots of war, with collapse of local, regional, national, and even international society.

And that’s just oil. Now think about what those idled factories are actually manufacturing: car parts, washing machines, iPhones, hammers and drills, industrial piping, steel, aluminium… The list is almost endless. China’s economy is nearly 10% of global GDP (and its exports well over 12% of global trade) and most it is not services. What do you think happens when you can’t get an engine part used for manufacturing in, say, Korea or the US? Manufacturing in Korea or the US stops. This is already happening to Hyundai in South Korea. Multiply that a zillion-fold and include parts necessary for refrigeration, electrical switching… And boom, down it all goes.

We are living in an unprecedentedly globally interconnected society. As its complexity increases, so does its vulnerability. We only need one part of one grid to go down and a cascade of failures will follow. And as most of the industrialised world is only 3 days from starvation, if grids go down and transport fails then, oof, it is not going back up. Not just ‘not for a while,’ but not ever. If that happens? Billions die.

But imagine nothing goes down, just a series of things closing. So factories are idle. All those workers aren’t getting paid. Starbucks and other big US corporations have already shut many Chinese branches: their profit goes down; their stock goes down; other stocks go down. The next thing we know: global recession. Unlike the last Great Recession, though, central bankers have no shots left in their lockers: they can’t bring down interest rates enough to make a difference. The recession becomes a depression. A depression in a globally interconnected world? Nightmare. Millions die.

And all this is not folding in factors such as police and medical professionals being too ill to work. Or the tools of their profession—medications, ventilators, ammunition—being in short supply because of global supply chain failure.

But let’s change tack and imagine a Happy Fairytale and do some best-case speculation. Imagine there’s no interruption of the supply chain. Imagine no recession. Imagine no political unrest. Then imagine the virus fatality rate drops by half. Assuming the transmission rate does not increase—-but assuming the virus can’t be put back in the box, and we’re already heading for global pandemic—we’re still looking at the death of at least a hundred million people.

So, yep. Buy a mask, buy soap, and wash your hands. All the time. If nothing else, it’ll cut down your chances of getting flu.

2019-nCoV: the new coronavirus

Crenim at English Wikipedia [CC BY-SA (

I’ve been idly following along as the CDC reports on the Wuhan coronavirus, 2019-nCoV. Why? I write science fiction (sometimes) and I’ve been fascinated by the intersection of history and catastrophe for a long time. I like to follow news stories like this one so that if I ever choose to write a pandemic-apocalyptic piece I could do it with at least a scrim of realism (which is often all you really need: a few authoritative phrases to toss about, some nifty numbers, and readers’ left brains think, Oh, this writer knows what she’s doing, and relaxes, after which you can tell them anything). But a funny thing happened on the way to the story file: I started doing my own calculations based on the raw data, and my interest sharpened.

As of right now (17:30 UTC-8, 26 January 2020) the 2019 novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV) has an infectivity rate, or R0 (pronounced R-zero) of 2.6 and appears to be accelerating. (For comparison, the flu pandemic of 1918 had an R0 = 2, and ordinary seasonal flu = 1-2.)

The 2019-nCoV fatality rate (the number of people infected who subsequently die of the virus) = 4%. (1918 flu pandemic = 2%, seasonal flu = <0.1%.)

The 2019-nCoV incubation period (the time from when a person comes into contact with the virus and begins to show symptoms) = 1-14 days, averaging about 10. (Seasonal flu = 1-4 days, average about 2, 1918 pandemic = unknown, though if it’s similar to H1N1 of a few years ago, around 5 days.) And there are indications that, like flu, those who have contracted the virus are infectious even before showing symptoms. This is Bad News: infected people will be spreading the virus without knowing they’re even infected, and they’ll be doing it five times longer than those with seasonal flu and twice as long as the 1918 pandemic.

So, to recap, this new virus is more infectious than the H1N1 strain of flu that killed 50-100 million people a century ago, it is much more deadly, and it will be spread farther and wider by asymptomatic people. It makes ordinary, seasonal flu (that killed about 80,000 people in the US alone in the 2018 flu season) look like a startled sneeze.

These are preliminary figures; the data we have is so sketchy as to be mostly useless. We simply have no idea what the real picture is; it’s entirely possible that things aren’t nearly as bad as they seem. On the other hand, they could be worse. I think we’ll know a lot more in 10-14 days. Meanwhile, expect those numbers to vary enormously as other regions begin to track cases with varying degrees of accuracy and transparency. If R0 and fatality numbers go up, I’ll be stocking up on masks and gloves and dry goods and batteries and wine (oh, lots of wine), and not letting anyone in the house without a mask. If the numbers start to go down, well, I’ll still stock up—masks and water don’t go bad, and lithium ion batteries and wine last a while—but I’ll be a lot more relaxed about it.

Am I being alarmist? No doubt. But I’m a big fan to planning for the worst and hoping for the best. Your response, of course, may vary.

Call for contributors: A Hild Companion

Black adn white relief map of Britain annotated with seventh-century polities and place names

Last year I had a fabulous time at a four-day conference held at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, BC. The conference was IONA: Early medieval studies on the islands of the North Atlantic—transformative networks, skills, theories, and methods for the future of the field. I not only had a fabulous time, met some people to collaborate with.

The first project, already in its preliminary planning stage, is a companion volume to Hild, an accessible guide to the book and its Early Medieval context. Most likely we will aim for publication with by a university press, but as the project comes together more clearly, a trade press may be a better option.

This is a call for contributors, and ideas.

  • Scholars who might teach the book to undergraduates
  • Scholars who may want guidance into certain areas of the field
  • Lay readers who wish to pursue the history/historical context of Hild in great depth

1. Introductory article/s

2. Short survey articles of 10-15 pp each intended to bring the non-scholar into the historical reality in which the book is set, or to guide scholars into particular areas. There will be 7-8 of these. We’re sure of the first four topics and are mulling others:

  • women/gender
  • queerness
  • race/ethnicity/ethnogenesis
  • teaching Hild
  • disability
  • culture/s
  • literacy
  • languages

3. A series of encyclopaedia entries on smaller topics. The number and topics are still very much under discussion, but some examples might include:

  • textile production
  • metal smithing
  • buildings/architecture
  • environment
  • identity/identity-signalling/fashion
  • belief
  • travel
  • law

4. Full bibliography to guide those who want to pursue topics further


Just before Hild was published I bought the domain I’d originally intended it as an unofficial companion to the novels—stuffed with maps, illustrations, family trees, glossaries, all the extra research that wouldn’t fit in the book, and so on. So this is the ideal place to host as much of the book content as we can for free—we believe in open access. Here’s where we’ll put too-expensive-for-print extras for the official Companion: full-colour maps and other illustrations; perhaps sample syllabi, reading lists, and other teaching materials; public domain texts; pre-prints of some Companion articles; specialised bibliographies; interviews with contributors; and whatever else seems appropriate. It’s a website; there are no length restrictions, and nothing is set in stone.


We—me, the editors, other contributors—are fully committed to diversity and inclusion in terms of disciplines, author identity, mindset, and place of origin. Included in the list of those who have already agreed to participate are two historians, two Celticists, three OE lit scholars, and, ahem, one novelist. We’re actively seeking queer scholars, scholars of colour, disabled scholars, and scholars at various stages of their academic careers—including those engaged in independent study.

It’s only human to want to work with those we’ve worked with before, but for this project we’re keen on representing different ways of thinking. So if you have thoughts, please share, either in the comments below or in private email. (If you have my email address please feel free to get in touch privately, or use the contact form on this website.) If you know of someone we should approach, please tell us. And if you think someone you know might be interested, please send them a link.

I you get in touch we’ll share who is already committed, who we’re talking to, and other plans for the project.

I’m excited about this. I hope you are, too.

Kitten Report #12: A new decade [photos]

Charlie and George have torn into the New Year and new decade with enthusiasm. They are still growing like magic beans. George is massive; Charlie seems tiny in comparison, but he weighs 7 lbs 10 oz—above average, apparently, for a cat his age: eight months. My guess is that George is now about 10 lbs, which is more than our last male cat, even in his prime, and it’s not fat. He’s going to be a giant, I think. You can see from this picture just how big he’s getting. Kelley has amazingly large hands but he makes them look small.

Large tabby cat sitting on a lap, head tipped back in bliss

George blisses out

The reason we know Charlie’s exact weight is that we had to take him to the vet. He has some symptoms—snoring, a huffing grunt when he exerts himself, and excessive swallowing—that reminded me of when he was developing his polyp. The vet, however, thinks it may be a reoccurrence of the kitty herpes virus that leads to cold-like symptoms and upper respiratory inflammation—which is what leads to the development of polyps, but doesn’t mean he has a polyp yet. So we’re giving him prophylactic antibiotics, keeping a close eye on him, and crossing our fingers. Other than the symptoms above he is in fine fettle. As you can see by this photo, his build is quite different to George’s.

Young, slim tabby cat standing on a table

Some days Charlie looks more like a civet than an American tabby

At eight months Charlie and George are, in human terms, about eight years old. That is, they can make basic sense of the world because they’ve seen a lot of it before but, oh, there is so very much still to see for the first time. Like snow. We all woke up on Monday morning to this:

Early morning snow covering a back deck, and benches, and fences, and hedges, and trees...

And over the next few hours the kitties were fascinated by snowfall. They had no idea what it was, but George was mesmerised by the falling flakes; Charlie was mesmerised watching George watch the flakes; and I was mesmerised watching Charlie being mesmerised by George being mesmerised. It all got very meta.

Photo of two cats. One in the foreground watching one in the background who is watching snow fall outside the window.

Charlie is mesmerised by George being mesmerised by falling snow

Tabby cat staring directly into the camera with another tabby in the background

Charlie is mesmerised by me being mesmerised by Charlie being mesmerised by George being mesmerised by falling snow…

Tabby cat falling asleep on a kitty condo facing the window

Eventually George mesmerised himself to sleep

Eventually they got bored and fell asleep. George is doing this a lot, with a particular fondness for being on his back with his legs in the air. And he looks so blissed out it’s almost as mesmerising watching him sleep as it was to watch him watching the snow.

Big tabby cat lying on his back with back feet perpendicular to the back of the sofa and head hanging off the front edge of the seat

George measures the sofa in his sleep

Tabby cat lying on his back partly on a kitty condo and partly the oak desk next to it

George is getting way, way too big for that condo

Large tabby cat lying on his back on a green blanket

George finds his bliss, again

Once the snow was gone, the cedar waxwings came back and they were then mesmerised by the flock.

One cat sits on a desk by the window to eatch birds while another cat watches from his kitty condo

They want those cedar waxwings

Tabby cat stretching to the window, yearing for birds, while another tabby cat plays with the first cat's tail

Charlie *really* wants those waxwings. George really wants Charlie’s tail.

You can’t really tell from these photos but Charlie’s coat is quite different to George’s. George is a classic American Shorthair, but Charlie, well, Charlie isn’t.

Tabby cat on a lap with luxuriant white whiskers and thick fur

Charlie has a lot of fur

Beautiful soft-furred tabby sitting on an oak desk and staring straight into the camera

Which can make him look deceptively soft and sweet

You can see the difference a bit better in these two photos of their faces

Closeup of tabby cats soft furry face

Charlie has thick, soft clouds of fur

Tabby cat peers over the top of a closed trunk

George’s fur is short and sleek

Charlie is being particularly active at the moment, leaping on everything, balancing—and sometimes not—on everything, and jumping off from there.

Tabby cat balancing on the back of a wood chair

Charlie want to be one of the flying Wallendas

He’s taken to striking a Monarch of the Glen pose, standing on the kitchen table with his front paws on the back of a kitchen chair and looking tall and noble. But I’m never fast enough to catch that pic. Here’s he’s just coming down from it.

Tabby cat standing with his hinds legs on a table and front legs on the back of a wooden chair

Charlie wants to be the king

But mainly, well, they’re cats; they sleep. The other day George spent hours sleeping on my desk, moving only to turn and sleep in the other direction as the afternoon drew on to twilight.

Tabby cat asleep on cat bed on a desk between keyboard and screen

George sleeps as I work

Tabby cat still sleeps on a cat bed between keyboard and display as the afternoon darkens

The rain pours down outside, I work, George sleeps on…

They’re cats, they sleep a lot. And they’re brothers, they sleep together when there’s room.

Two tabby cats sleeping back to back on a blue throw

Back to back is good, as long as Charlie’s in front

And although George is so much bigger, it’s still Charlie who always takes point and sleeps in front of his brother, protecting him from the world.

Two tabby cats spooning on a blue throw

Charlie takes point, as always, even in spooning bliss

So bottom line: the cats are happy, and growing, and getting on well with each other. Over the next decade there will, no doubt, be much mis/adventure and mischief to come. When anything interesting happens I’ll post about it. Meanwhile, feel free to go reread previous kitten reports.

2010-2019: a decade in review [photos, links]

Two tabby cats with their backs to the camera facing a hearth, watching the flames. the larger cat on the right (George), has his kitty arm around his smaller brother (Charlie). They look as though they are feeling the poignancy of the moment.

Most of the links below are to my own blog posts. But some are to images, and one or two link out. Some of the years have round-up posts, some do not.


This will be a long post: ten years is a long time; a lot has happened; and the world has changed a fair bit. Of course, it had been changing rapidly in the previous decade.

By the time the Great Recession began in 2007 (or 2008, depending on how you squint), I had seen the way publishing was going for midlist writers and decided to change direction: I let go of my old agent, but instead of getting a new one and selling a book on chapter and outlines, I began to work on the book that would become Hild. But I knew I would not make any money from it for years. At the start of the new decade the effects of the recessions were still very much with us. It was almost impossible for freelancers to make money. Kelley and I launched Sterling Editing, and helped those writers who had actual jobs and health insurance to make their work better. We also picked up a variety of freelance and consulting work where were could: we built websites, we taught, we advised corporate executives about their online presence. What money we did make almost all went on healthcare: our annual out-of-pocket medical expenses until just last year averaged about $35,000. It was a very hard time for us, and for many people we knew. I lay awake more than once worrying we would end up living in a paper bag under the overpass eating cat food.

In the last year of the last decade, and this first year of this, I was also spending a massive amount of time working with a non-profit organisation that was going through the dangerous transition from founder-led to semi-professional. I believe that at one point it came very close to collapse, but it is now thriving. It was brutally hard work, and unpaid, but not a decision I regret.

The social media revolution of the beginning of the 21st century began to accelerate. In 2008 I moved my old-fashioned website’s Ask Nicola feature to a standalone blog, Ask Nicola, (still up, because I still haven’t got around to linking everything on the ‘new’ site)—where in the first five years I averaged 330 posts a year. The Yahoo Group I’d started in 1999 began to fade. I joined Twitter. I launched a YouTube channel. And of course, like half the rest of the world, I joined Facebook—not sure when, exactly, but I’ve never liked it that much as a platform; it feels sorta pushy and intrusive. I do, however, like Instagram—though a bit less than I did since FB fucked with the feed order and gave us no way to customise it. There’s also LinkedIn, both for me, and for Aud Torvingen, who has a surprising number of connections. Social media really changed the nature of this blog. I’m okay with that. I find that I use it now not only to communicate via slightly longer-form pieces but to archive meaningful personal and career moments.


So. This was the year that the VIDA Count began, that the first Uber customer hailed a ride, and SpaceX was the first privately funded company to successfully launch, orbit and recover a spacecraft. Additive (3D) printing was about to take off. Book world was still clinging to the 20th century. Publishers like Macmillan still thought they could stand up to Amazon (they couldn’t). Digital book sales were beginning to eat into print sales—though the most popular e-reader, the Kindle, was itself only one step beyond that first primitive, pointy trapezoidal thing with no back light; the Paper White didn’t come out til 2012. Borders was still around. B&N was still regarded as the Great Satan by independent booksellers, and indie bookseller were in a parlous state. Self-publishing was beginning to look like a thing. Audible was in its infancy and had been owned by Amazon only 2 years, and ACX was still a gleam in some executive’s eye. Book publishers began to merge. Many bookstores closed; Borders is running its digital sales through Amazon—everyone with two brain cells to rub together can see where that will end.  Blockbuster filed for bankruptcy. Not coincidentally, this is the year that Netflix streaming app became available for iOS, Wii, and smart TVs. At this stage, for most people ‘bingeing’ was a word associated with gluttons and alcoholics.

In 2010, I turned 50, just nine days after Kelley. We held a 10-day birthday jubilee. My liver shrivelled a bit, but it was worth it. In 2010 I was still doing yoga but later that year I moved to sabre. Given that sabres were originally used as a cavalry weapon, it seemed ideal to use sitting down.

Two fencers, one in black one in white, crossing sabres

I taught a fair bit, including Lambda Literary’s emerging voices workshop. For the first time my fiction was nominated for a Hugo Award—for the first short-fiction I’d written in a decade—and I decide I am GOD.

Round-up post 2010.


At the beginning of 2011 I did not yet own an iPhone or an iPad but bought an iPod Touch which used what I affectionately referred to as Crapcam, which took lovely, gauzy-looking photos that hid a multitude of sins.

A while later I bought my first iPhone 4S, and I was amazed by Siri. Borders filed for bankruptcy. Games of Thrones debuted and I was struck by the serious lack of imagination of the show-runners when it came to cod-medieval fantasy sex. During this period I wrote several of the posts that are perennial blog favourites, such as Writers Manifesto, and Lame is so gay.

Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell was repealed. And at the end of the year the biomedical research paper I had known about for over a year, written by a friend, was finally published, announcing that MS is not, in fact, an autoimmune disease but a metabolic disorder, specifically, the result of a faulty lipid metabolism. I felt filled with hope, and in a rush of energy I inaugurated what has since become an annual tradition: blowing up the Christmas tree.


I finished Hild. The rewritten ms made an impressive stack.

My new agent sent it out to publishers. I knew it was a good book; I knew it would change things for me. When it sold to Farrar, Straus and Giroux for a goodly sum, I went practically insane with joy.

A few months later I got my first (and still favourite) ukulele, Jeepster, and recorded some songs. Disabled artist Riva Lehrer came to Seattle and we collaborated on a mixed-media portrait, which turned out pretty well and in fact sold so fast I never did get to see the finished thing. Oh, well.

DADT had just been repealed, and we could all sense the winds of change blowing from the Obama Whitehouse. One of the most amazing changes was the passage of the ACA (Obamacare), signed into law March 2010 because it meant I could no longer be refused coverage for previous conditions, which widened my choices considerably. The cost did not go down, but at least it was no longer climbing 20% a year. We spent election week in Vancouver and ignored the madness; on returning to another 4 years of Obama (yay!) I made a surprising—to both me and Kelley—to become a US citizen.

This year I did two round-up posts:

Round-up post, Part One
Round-up post, Part Two


I should have known this was going to be a year like no other when, right out of the box, the pope resigned. I did author photoshoots for Hild and liked the results so much I asked the photographer to shoot me and Kelley.

Kelley and Nicola, May 2013. Photo by Jennifer Durham.

Then I became a US citizen. Then we were in New York for BEA, doing five events a day to promote the upcoming publication of Hild. I also won an award.

Just days after getting back from New York, on the silver anniversary of when Kelley and I met and fell in love—the Supreme Court struck down DOMA and paved the way for marriage equality. A month later, Kelley and I were co Guests of Honour at Westercon, where we also held a mini-reunion of Clarion class of 1988. Two months after that, on the 20th Anniversary of our first, non-legal wedding, Kelley and I got married. After many conversations, we decided we would reclaim an old and honourable word, and call each other wife.

Sepia-tone photo of two women holding hands, wearing identical wedding rings

Then Hild came out and for the rest year my life was all Hild, all the time: a national tour for the hardcover; interviews; essays; book signings. Right at the end of the year: a handshake on an amazing movie deal for Hild. Seriously—just the option money was as much as many conversion prices.

Round-up post for 2013.


This was a hard year. Apart from the crushing financial disappointment of getting the movie contract, and then the producer walking away, and constant travelling—a UK tour, followed by another US tour for the paperback—I had some awful health-related issues. You can see both encapsulated here: happiness and general delight at the world—but that arm strapping as a harbinger:

But even the hard-times were tempered by joy. I had an amazing life-changing eye procedure that meant, for the first time in my life, I didn’t need glasses: going from -17 and -16 dioptres to 20/20 vision seemed—still seems, no was—a fucking miracle. I also published another short story. It didn’t win any awards, but “Cold Wind” seemed to strike a chord among artists.

Cold Wind, by Rovina Cai.

Round-up post for 2014.


After years of complaining about the treatment of women in the literary ecosystem, and taking small steps to address that (see, for example, Taking the Russ Pledge), I finally got cross enough to put together some statistics. I wrote a blog post, Books about women don’t win big awards: some data. The world went mad. It was my first experience of a post going truly viral. It’s easily the most-read post I’ve ever written. It was read and reported on all over the world; I did dozens of interviews. A $50,000 prize was established as a result; and a Toronto Literary Festival celebrating women’s voices.

For the first time, Kelley and I spent a wedding anniversary apart, but it was for the best of reasons: Kelley was in Perth, Australia, on the set of her movie, OtherLife. And speaking of movies, with Carol the world discovered (gasp!) that people would pay actual cash money to watch women on screen.

Round-up post for 2015.


By this point I had long ago set aside my sabre; I was still occasionally doing archery but eventually it got too difficult to go pick up the arrows. At this point that I faced reality, got a wheelchair, and came out as a cripple.

Sepia-tone photo of black TiLite AeroA wheelchair with e-motion wheels

I also enrolled as a doctoral candidate at Anglia Ruskin University, Cambridge. It was an experiment for all of us: I would do the whole thing remotely, as a reasonable accommodation. But, oh, I loved—loved, loved, loved—academic access to multiple institutions. I learnt at warp speed. A month later, we heard the results of the Brexit referendum, and I knew that night that Trump would be the Republican nominee, and perhaps even President. I was not happy.

I coined the hashtag #CripLit, and, with Alice Wong, launched #CripLit, the first Twitter chat for disabled writers. There were many other hashtags launched before and after this time, too: #BlackLivesMatter (2013), #OwnVoices (2015), and #MeToo (in 2017, though the phrase had been used since 2006 by Tarana Burke). By the end of 2016 we needed them more than ever. I’m not going to dwell on the last three years of politics, though, because it’s just too fucking hard. If you want my opinion, you can read blog posts such as Punching nazis, How to defeat an autocrat, and Passport to a perilous future. This was a time where, in the US and UK and many other places, we saw the resurgence of autocracy and kleptocracy, voter suppression and the subversion of legal and legislative process. I argued myself hoarse with many US citizens that a nation’s institutions are only as strong as the ethics of those elected to uphold them.


After I wrote the first draft of my PhD thesis, I wrote the first draft of So Lucky. Then I submitted my thesis. Then I rewrote So Lucky and sold it to Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Then I defended my PhD thesis and become Doctor Griffith.

Another big triumph this year: I finally managed to revert the rights to all three Aud novels. Oh, that made me happy! I also learnt how to travel with my wheelchair: we went to San Diego for the North American premiere of OtherLife. It’s currently streaming on Netflix; go watch it.

We had had a few erratic years, but financially things were a little less dire; we were getting by on our writing and freelance consulting incomes—Kelley was bringing in the lion’s share—keeping our heads above water, though sometimes only just. But it was stressful, and Kelley was juggling entirely too much. And politically and economically we were beginning to wonder if we could stay in Seattle, or even the US. This year I felt so unsettled I couldn’t bear the idea of blowing up the tree, so made reindeer dance instead.

One ray of hope in an otherwise relentless depressing political and cultural year, Get Out made money at the box office.


Ursula Le Guin died. She was a friend—we’d had her to the house, been out for dinner many times—but not one of our very closest friends, so I was astonished at just how hard her death hit me. Perhaps it was because this was a time when we most needed her voice. I was still feeling it when I narrated the So Lucky audiobook the following month. But I focused.

“Yes?” In which I am *focused*…

Surprisingly, I was still feeling Ursula’s loss when So Lucky came out. Sadly, though, I was not a bit surprised at some of the ableist crap apparent in the reviews I got for that book.

In June it was the 30th anniversary of meeting Kelley, and I put together 30 Years: a love story in photos. I wrote a short story, “Glimmer,” and posted it on my website as a free audio download. I began to write nonfiction about disability, including for the New York Times. I was beginning to think: We can do this. Plus, the world was making great strides in movie representation terms. Black Panther, Wonder Woman, and Crazy Rich Asians were all hits.

We were still skating from precarious contract to precarious contract, though, and nothing seemed to be changing except our expenses, which were growing—it’s not cheap being a cripple. And we had to pay a serious chunk of change for a wheelchair-accessible van with hand controls. Thisput us at our absolute limit, and maybe a bit beyond, and then we found out that a contract Kelley had been relying on the for first quarter 2019 could not, in fact, be relied upon. We were facing a black hole with no solution in sight. In middle of numb, blank despair, just two days before Christmas, Kelley was offered a full-time, permanent job. Health benefits! Social security payments! Tax relief! Paid time off! It was a Christmas miracle. This year I blew things up with enthusiasm, and we had a lovely holiday and New Year.

Round-up post 2018.


This year has felt like a surreal mirror-image of the future I imagined as a child. We don’t have flying cars, but we do have killer drones. It’s not the government who is listening to everything we say, but Big Tech; they’re watching, too. And we invited them in because we decided privacy is a reasonable sacrifice for convenience. SpaceX and Blue Origin, two companies founded and owned by billionaires, have rockets that take off and land again on their fins, just like the pulp SF of the 30s. We don’t really have working autonomous vehicles, but we do have electric cars—it’s just that if you live outside big metro areas, well, good luck recharging. We no longer have Concorde; planes go a bit slower, and are a lot more crowded. And for those of us in wheelchairs, well, access has not improved nearly as significantly as we had hoped since passage of the ADA in 1995. Having said that, many organisations are now beginning to pay attention and make at least a gesture (pitiful gestures in some cases; I’m looking at you AWP). Bookstores and libraries are most definitely paying attention except, oops, for Long Island City, New York. And the world has finally woken up to the fact of climate change (something I began worrying about in the late 80s with the discovery, and relentless growth, of the ozone hole), though of course are not doing anything about it. Perhaps they are confused by some of the extreme weather events we’re having, which are not always about being too warm: Seattle, for example, saw record-breaking snow early in the year. I do not understand why governments can’t see that the kind of grinding conflict and migration we’ve had these last ten years are a direct result of environmental degradation. Just look at history. Only this time it will be much, much worse.

However, to stay sane I’ve had to focus on things within my own personal zone of control: there’s nothing much I can do about Trump, about Brexit, about the Supreme Court and every other damn thing except vote and occasionally use this and other platforms to make my voice heard. So this year I’ve been internally focused.

Part of that internal focus is the result of dealing with so much grief. In March, my father died. Less than a week later, our oldest and best friend in Seattle, Vonda McIntyre, died (and I still haven’t been able to write anything for or about her, apart from this very short piece that came out a few days ago). Somehow, and I’m not sure how, in the following three weeks I managed to learn to drive with hand controls and pass my driving test, fly to the UK to give Dad’s eulogy and start dealing with his estate, and travelto Vancouver to give a plenary speech at IONA, a medieval conference. Not long after that, my aunt died. Grief and exhaustion overwhelmed me; I felt as though someone had stuck a blender in my brain, then poured the resulting slurry into a bucket of eels.

During this internal phase I wrote only about things close to home, for example, The gift of a negative review, and the problem with Ruined Earth novels.

And then I abruptly thought, Well, fuck it, if the world keeps trying to beat me bloody, I’ll beat it right back. I took up boxing. (I love it. If you box, come and join me at Title Boxing Club—fully accessible—in Greenwood any time.)

Secure in the knowledge of where the next mortgage payment is coming from, I got a new toy: an iPad Pro, with Pencil. I use it now for everything except long fiction: photo and video manipulation, audio recording, social media, and writing short pieces. We’ve come a long way, baby, since the beginning of the decade, and Crapcam.

This year I also made some stuff happen with my fiction, which I discuss in a writing update: Hild, Aud, Ammonite and more. I celebrated 30 years residence in the US with Kelley. I was delighted (and seriously surprised) when So Lucky won the Washington State Book Award. And perhaps most exciting, energising, and just plain lovely of all, we got kittens: Charlie and George, survivors of a litter of six.

If they could survive the horrors they were born into, and even evolve a higher consciousness, then, fuck yes, we can survive anything the next decade throws at us.

The next decade

In one decade we’ve gone from hardly anyone having a smartphone to a fully app-based society. Drones herd sheep. TV has changed forever. Bingeing is a thing. And a lot of the most popular shows are adaptations of literary properties. Publishing itself has, meanwhile, changed to the outer edge of recognisable. Today we have the Big 5 publishers, and a variety of small, specialised independents. B&N has come perilously close to closing; but the remaining indie bookstores are thriving. However, Amazon owns at least 50% of the US book market and I doubt that this will decrease anytime soon.

Tech behemoths like Amazon, Apple, Google, and Facebook have changed our world to an astonishing degree. Let’s Amazon and its home city of Seattle as an example. Amazon has remade whole chunks of Seattle in its own image, including South Lake Union, a neighbourhood that formerly consisted of parking lots, abandoned warehouses, and cheap artists’ living and working space. (One such space, Re-Bar, is hanging on. I love that place.) In just eight years, rent-plus-utilities in Seattle have gone from around $700 a month to almost $1700 a month. Not coincidentally, homelessness here is now epidemic.

Then years ago, the protestors of Occupy were bringing attention to income inequality. What difference has it made? I believe it helped begin a trickle of change. Those protesters are now probably protesting homelessness. Or the climate crisis. Or gun violence. In a decade that saw horrors like Sandy Hook, the Parkland shootings, and the massacre in Las Vegas, there had been zero significant movement towards gun control. This year alone, as of writing this, there have been 418 mass shootings in the US. But people are talking about it. Change takes time.

This decade so many people have done so much work on so many fronts—the Women’s Marches, Me Too, Black Lives Matter, Standing Rock, Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, homelessness, anti-fascism (and anti-racism, and anti-white supremacy), Occupy, legalising cannabis—that it’s hard to keep track. There is so very much to do—but it does make a difference. To take just on example: popular culture. Films by and about women are beginning to make money. Women seem to own TV drama and comedy. Books by and about women, by and about women of colour, by and about queer people, are winning awards. But it just a beginning, and it’s fragile. We need more people like the judge who resigned in anger at the explicit sexism of judging.

So how will the next decade unfurl? As I’ve said before, I have no idea. All I know is: it will be nothing we expect; what will make a difference is staying alive to the possibility of change; staying open to feeling; ready and willing to assume good intent and to be kind to one another—but also ready to call bullshit in no uncertain terms. That’s my plan, anyway. My wish for you is that your New Year is exactly as exciting as you wish it to be, and you get to spend it how and with whom you like. See you on the other side.


Blog stats 2019

This post will be short and numbers based. In a couple of days I’ll publish a long, juicy post reviewing the decade.

In 2019 I published 33% less: 50 posts vs. 75 posts in 2018. The average word count of each was 630. According to WordPress, this year about 56,000 people visited the blog, a lot less than last year. I have no real idea how many people actually read each post but I suspect it’s a multiple of the WP figures: more than 2,000 people read by email, a few hundred via the WP feed, and another couple of thousand between three other platforms where the blog reposts automagically. But whichever way you slice it, the nature of this blog is changing. More thoughts on that in a few days.

Most popular

Another indication of change: not a single post written this year made the list of 10 most visited. So here are two lists:

Overall Most Visited (in descending order of popularity)

My Favourites This Year (in no particular order)

Visitors, Referrals

Like last year, readers came to the blog mainly through organic search, Facebook, Twitter, and Wikipedia, and from almost exactly the same 150+ countries as last year—still no one from Mongolia, Svalbard, or Greenland, huh—and this time, in the top 10, readers from Ireland outpaced those from New Zealand.

  • US
  • UK
  • Australia
  • Germany
  • India
  • France
  • Ireland
  • Netherlands
  • Sweden

No predictions for the coming year because I am always—always!—wrong.