Gotta be honest, I had entirely forgotten I’d done this interview last year when I was in Iowa City for a book festival. But eventually it all came back to me. Also, it’s a pretty good interview. Enjoy.
Hey, did you know I’m currently writing a novel? I am! It’s called Head On, and it’s coming out in ten months. Also, it’s not done yet, and the deadline is real soon now. I need to make some real progress on it in the next few weeks or else my editor will give me highly disapproving looks. Which would be no good. My problem is that whenever I make any real progress and take a break to see what’s going on in the news, it looks like this:
And, well. That’s not great for my focus.
The world is not going to stop being like this anytime in the near future, alas, but I still need to get my work done, and soon.
So: From now until the book is done, my plan is to avoid the news as much as possible, and also, to the extent I do see news, to avoid writing about it in any significant detail. Tweets? Maybe. 1,000+ word posts here? Probably not.
Note that I’m going to fail in avoiding the news entirely — I live in the world, and next week I’ll be at Denver Comic Con, which means that at the very least in the airport CNN is going to come at me, and anyway whichever way the Senate plan to murder the ACA falls out, I’m pretty sure I’m gonna know about it. Be that as it may I’m going to make an effort to keep as much of it out of my brain as possible.
Incidentally, yes, just in case you were wondering, this is confirmation that at least one of your favorite writers — me! — finds it hard to get work done in these days of the world being on fire. “The art of the Trump era is going to be so lit!” people have said. Dudes, when you’re worried about friends losing access to health care and American democracy being dug out from below because the general GOP attitude to the immense corruption and bigotry of the Trump administration is “lol, as long as we get to kick the poor,” just to list two things about 2017, the creative process is harder to get into, and stay inside of. I’m not the only one I know who is dealing with this right now.
But the work still needs to get done — and not just for you folks. I like getting caught up in my work. It feels good when the writing is moving along.
So, again: News break.
This doesn’t necessarily mean fewer Whatever posts over the next few weeks, since I’ll have July Big Idea pieces and other posts in the pipeline. It does mean the posts that show up probably won’t touch much on world/national news or politics.
I mean, I hope they won’t. But I also know this is a thing, especially with me:
So. I will try to be strong.
Also, when the book is done, oh, how I shall opine.
In the meantime, I don’t suspect you will have difficulty finding other opinions on news and political events. It’s called “the Internet.” You may have heard of it.
If you’re a fan of the Midnight Star video games I helped create, here’s something fun for you: John Shirley, legendary writer and lyricist, has written “Purgatorio,” a serialized story set in the Midnight Star universe. He’s written it for Bound, a new company (and iOS app) specializing in serialized fiction. Which is pretty cool.
And, it’s the first time someone’s done media tie-in work for a universe I helped to create. Which is also pretty damn cool, if you ask me.
Here’s the post on Bound’s site talking about the story. If you have an iOS device you can also download the app there.
Big Ideas are great for a book (I mean, that’s kind of the whole point of the “Big Idea” pieces). But as Laura Lam explains about her novel Shattered Minds, sometimes the Big Idea is just the jumping off point.
Sometimes you get the big idea for the story. Sometimes that’s not enough, even when you’ve written the damn thing.
My first idea excited me and got that fire of creativity going. I wanted to play with the Dexter notion—the serial killer who feels conflicted about it. A character who loves killing in rather inventive ways, who thrives off violence, but has enough of a glimmer of a conscious to want to change. A serial killer who doesn’t want to kill innocents is sort of like a vampire who doesn’t want to drink human blood—can they suppress that thirst or will they succumb? We as humans love staring into that darkness. It’s why we read about serial killers, about mythological creatures who prey on humans, or it’s why we watch horror. Carina, the protagonist of Shattered Minds, is a serial killer who becomes deliberately addicted to a dream drug called Zeal so she’s only killing people in her imagination.
The first big idea: serial killer lost in dream drugs. I knew this book would be more violent than my other work and have some cool, trippy dream sequences. I also wanted to build on the world I created in False Hearts, which came out last year (the Pacifica novels are a series of standalones set on the West Coast of the formerly United States). This book is set in Los Angeles instead of San Francisco. The series blends psychological thriller and near future tech, with a big nod at 80s and 90s cyberpunk. Shattered Minds has hover cars, floating skyscrapers and mansions, bright moving ads against the sides of buildings. People can change their appearance at will thanks to flesh parlours. Moving tattoos are etched on their skin, and their eyes might glimmer in the dark from extra implants. Pacifica is a shiny ecotopia that’s an ugly dystopia once you scratch the surface.
I wrote Shattered Minds, and the plot worked, for the most part. Carina scared me, but not quite as much as the villain, Roz (if you watch Orphan Black, Rachel is a big inspiration for her). I did a lot of research on serial killers, especially female ones, and neuroscience, hacking, corporate espionage, and more. But something was missing. All the pieces were there, made sense, but it was just . . . lacking. The puzzle pieces had the right images but they weren’t slotting together. And that was terrifying. This was going to be my fifth published book. Shouldn’t I have a better handle on this by now? I’d put in all this work, and I could tell something was wrong. This is where good editors are worth their weight in gold. Together, we found the second big idea to bring the project back to life.
It became a Frankenstein retelling. I struck the thing with lightning, basically (har, har). In the first draft, Carina was a serial killer just because . . . she was. There wasn’t much explanation or reason. No purpose (to use the most overused word said in lectures on the MA in Creative Writing I help teach at Napier in Edinburgh). In the next draft, Roz experimented on Carina when she was a teen, reprogramming her brain to be cool and collected—the perfect unbiased scientist, unbothered by things like empathy or ethics. (Note: this isn’t a spoiler—you find all this out in chapter three after the third murder in a row). However, Roz’s experiment went wrong. Carina started feeling things again, with the side effect of her also wanting to kill everything around her. Now Roz has a much stronger reason to want to take down Carina rather than just greed. Carina is the broken experiment that much be eradicated. The one who got under her skin. The one she couldn’t let go.
The next draft just worked. I loved editing Shattered Minds as much as I had hated writing the first draft. Scenes slotted into place, Carina and Roz finally worked, circling each other like sharks. It was glorious fun to make my dark, bloody book even darker and more twisted.
Sometimes, maybe a book needs more than one big idea. More than just “what if” question. Maybe something is missing in the first draft and you just need to add a little lightning to revitalise the corpse.
First, my initial thoughts, as rendered on Twitter.
Now, let me talk a little bit more about the part where I say “rich people don’t miss their taxes,” since I think there are people who may be reasonably skeptical about this. Warning: I’m going to talk about my money. Then I’m going to talk about other people’s money.
To begin: I pay taxes on a quarterly basis, because I’m self-employed and the IRS, alas not entirely unreasonably, questions whether self-employed people will keep track of their money for a full year in order to pay off one big tax bill. So every quarter, I pay taxes. And in each of those quarterly tax payments, I pay in taxes roughly what I grossed (and definitely more than I netted) in income from the entire four-and-half years of my first job out of college, working for a newspaper. Add up my yearly tax bill, and it’s close to what I grossed my first ten years of being a professional writer — and there was never a time in there I didn’t do okay; it was a solid continuous progression up the middle-class income ladder.
So these days, whenever I see how much I pay in taxes annually, my first thought is always something like HOLY CRAP that’s a lot of money. I could totally use that! As someone who grew up poor and has worked his way steadily up the income ladder, it’s a freakin’ huge amount in terms of the raw dollars.
And then I pay my taxes and I discover that anything I would have used that ridiculous wad of tax money for, I still have enough in my net income for. I literally cannot think of a thing I want — or need — that my post-tax income can’t handle. Because as it happens, even with federal, state and local taxes, my tax burden is reasonable. I don’t pay taxes in 1980, when the highest marginal federal income tax rate was 70%; I pay taxes in 2017, where top federal tax bracket maxes out at just under 40%. With state and local taxes, I have to break a sweat to have a total top marginal tax rate of 50% — and my real world taxes indebtedness doesn’t come anywhere near half my income, because of how marginal tax rates work and because like lots of people in my position I have a very smart accountant who finds me lots of deductions.
So even with literally the full (pre-deduction) tax burden someone in Ohio can pay — we max out all the marginal rates — there is more than enough left over for pretty much anything that we want to do, individually, as a couple or as a family. We save a lot, invest a bunch, and thus take that money out of the short-term income pool we use for bills, household spending and, uh, “consumer activity,” and we’re still just fine, thanks. I suppose it’s possible that we could spend so much of our post-tax income that we’re left with little or nothing and thus would wish we had some of the money that we paid in taxes back into our hands, but speaking from experience, this takes effort, and some willful stupidity about your money. Yes, I’m looking at you, Nick Cage and Johnny Depp. But if you’re not the sort of person who spends $30,000 a month on wine, you’re probably going to be fine.
We do just fine. The other people I know who have similar or better incomes than we have also do just fine. The ones I know with substantially better incomes than we have are also doing just fine. No one at my income level or better actively misses the money they spend on taxes, because they’re still rich after they pay taxes.
Would I like to pay less in taxes? When I look at the raw number of dollars I send to the IRS, sure. When I think about the actual impact on my day-to-day life having that money would make, versus the actual and positive impact on the day-to-day life of millions of other people, when people like me pay our taxes? Nope. I have certain (in more than one sense of that word) opinions about how those taxes I pay in should be used, and whether they are being used effectively, and whether I’m getting value for what I pay, to be sure. Those are different issues, however.
Cratering health care for millions in the United States (and crippling Medicaid in the bargain) in order to give people like me a tax cut means that we are taking something from people who need it, often desperately, to give something to people who don’t need it and may not even notice it in any substantial way. In the House version of this legislation, you have to make more than $200k to get any tax benefit from it; people with incomes between $200k and $500k a year would get a tax break of $510 on average. $510 is not a lot to get in return for asking millions of other Americans to be potentially priced out of health coverage, have lifetime insurance caps reinstituted, be denied for pre-existing conditions, get sicker and die earlier. And the roughly 95% of Americans who don’t make $200,000 a year won’t even get that.
Rich people don’t need any more tax cuts. They’re doing just fine. They will continue to do just fine. And no, their tax burden isn’t onerous. Trust me, I know. I live that tax burden daily. It doesn’t hurt. What does hurt is knowing that people I know and care for will likely die sooner and sicker than they should just so someone like me gets back a few more dollars they won’t notice. Don’t come at me with “but the rich earned those dollars.” Dude, I earned my dollars, too. I earned them in a country that helped me get where I am in part through taxes. I earned them understanding that getting rich came with an obligation to the society I live in and benefit from, an obligation discharged, in part, by paying a perfectly reasonable amount of taxes.
The motto of the United States is not, in fact, “Fuck you, I got mine.” It was, and should have remained, “E Pluribus Unum” — out of many, one. We’re all Americans. We all deserve the blessings this country can provide. This one is willing to pay his taxes for the benefit of the many.
CURTIS C. CHEN:
It is very likely that I set Kangaroo Too on the moon because of The Fifth Element.
In that movie, there’s a throwaway line of dialogue when Korben Dallas’ mother telephones him and complains that he never visits her on the moon. I had totally forgotten this until I went to see a 20th anniversary screening this year (yes, we really are that old), but it must have been stewing in my subconscious all that time.
Because why wouldn’t you put a retirement community on the moon? Gravity there is only one-sixth of Earth’s, so elders with mobility issues will find it easier to get around. Every habitat needs to be pressurized and climate-controlled anyway, so it can be as tropical as residents want. The only downside is that your family will have even more excuses for not visiting. Q.E.D.
Using the moon as a setting also let me put characters in a wider variety of awkward situations. Most of the first novel took place in a single location—a cruise spaceship traveling from Earth to Mars—but each hemisphere of the moon is roughly as wide across as the entire continental United States. Add a futuristic high-speed subway connecting population centers, and a reckless secret agent can get into plenty of trouble all over the place.
One lunar feature I latched onto early in my research was a “crater of eternal darkness.” The moon is tidally locked to the Earth (i.e., one hemisphere always faces toward us), and there are places along the day/night terminator that either always or never see sunlight. If you want continuous free electricity to power a transportation network, put solar panels on mountaintops near the north pole; if you want to keep something hidden, bury it under the deepest crater at the south pole.
And, of course, I had to include visits to at least a couple of Apollo landing sites, which are preserved as historical museums in this future. I’m sure the same thing will happen in reality. As soon as people can affordably travel to other planets, there’s going to be a booming space tourism industry. Everybody wants to stand on the Lunar surface, see the Earth rise over the horizon, and cover that blue marble with their thumb.
But back to aging on the moon. NASA recently conducted a Twins Study in which they followed identical twin astronauts Scott and Mark Kelly for one year, while Scott lived aboard the International Space Station and Mark remained on Earth. The final report isn’t out yet, but researchers are already seeing unexpected results (e.g., telomere lengthening) which raise many interesting questions. It seems possible that humans could naturally live longer in low gravity environments.
Of course, the most important scientific question raised in Kangaroo Too is: could we actually keep chickens on the moon, and therefore have fresh eggs? The only way to know for sure is to establish a Lunar base and start breeding livestock up there. Make me a liar, Fish!
I’m getting a smidgen better at taking pictures of these little glowy dudes. The secret, which is not a secret at all, is long exposures on steady platforms, and low ISO settings so you don’t blow out the picture. This one, which is actually a detail of a larger photo, is a 20 second exposure at ISO 250 at late dusk (close to 10 pm here because it was literally the night before the solstice), so the sky was darker than it is here. I used the birdbath in the front yard as a platform.
I was focused on the fireflies but as you can see a little here, and rather better in the photo linked above, I caught some stars in there too, as well as twenty seconds of their movement across the sky, which was apparently just long enough to catch some streaking. I think this is pretty cool.
I’ll probably post one or two more firefly photos before the season is done. I think they’re pretty.
For The Last Good Man, author Linda Nagata decided to take a risk with one of her characters, who is not the usual sort for the literary milieu Nagata has her story inhabit. Who is this character? And what were the repercussions of that risk?
For most of my career, I’ve written novels based only on what was intensely interesting to me at the time. In the early days it was nanotechnology, cryonics, the vastness and wonder of space, biotech, and artificial worlds. My settings would regularly shift between near future and far.
And then, abruptly, I abandoned science fiction and took a turn into pure fantasy.
“With magic?” one hard SF writer asked me in dismay.
So much for author branding. Clearly, market savvy was not part of my process.
But older and wiser, right?
Not exactly. I made another abrupt turn and dove into military science fiction with the Red trilogy—high-tech thrillers published by Saga Press in 2015. The books were well-reviewed. The first volume was a Nebula-award nominee and named as a Publishers Weekly best book.
It seemed logical to follow up on that seeming success so I resolved that for the first time I would approach my next book with a little market savvy. I would write another military-themed story, again with a near-future, high-tech setting. That way, I told myself, I’d have a better chance of holding on to the readers I’d gained with the trilogy because I’d be giving them something similar-but-different.
Next, it occurred to me that if I set the new book even closer to the present time, I might have a chance of pushing beyond the science fiction genre and making inroads into the military thriller market.
Hey, we can all dream.
The Red trilogy was written around a unit of US Army soldiers. Following that similar-but-different philosophy, I decided the new novel would involve a private military company, because that would allow for more freedom with the plot.
Even with the benefit of hindsight, this all still makes sense to me. But in selecting my protagonist, I embarked on a major gamble.
My version of brainstorming is to engage in swiftly typed stream-of-consciousness question-and-answer sessions. It’s the best way I know to develop ideas. I was brainstorming the possible identity of my main protagonist when I typed this:
Hey. Maybe she’s middle aged. (How to kill a novel in one bad move.)
Generally speaking, middle-aged women are not considered to be cool main characters of the sort that commonly inhabit techno-thrillers. So this was a perfect example of the creative and logical parts of my mind contending with one another. The logical part immediately recognized the risk, but the obstinate, defiant, creative part turned out to be in charge. Later on, in the same session, I typed:
Man, I like the retired-army-woman character.
I liked her—at that stage it was just the idea of her—because she was an atypical protagonist for the sort of book I wanted to write.
On Twitter there has often been talk of how middle-aged women don’t exist in science fiction. That’s an exaggeration, of course. Looking back at my own work, the protagonist of the second novel I ever had published was a woman of “mature years.” Still. I felt as if a gauntlet had been thrown down and I wanted to pick it up, accept the challenge, and write a riveting but realistic story about a can-do, older woman. I knew it was a market risk. Nevertheless, I thought I might persuade at least a few readers to go along with me, and besides, it’s fun to kick clichés to the side of the road.
So my “retired-army-woman character” stayed, becoming the Big Idea behind The Last Good Man.
Of course there is a lot more going on in this novel. The Last Good Man is a fast-paced, high-tech, military thriller that deals with autonomous weapons, big data, A.I., surveillance, remote warfare—and their effects on human relationships. But from the first day that the story truly started to take shape, I knew it would be centered on a woman. Specifically, True Brighton, retired US Army soldier, former helicopter pilot with frontline experience, a forty-nine-year-old mother of three who’s been happily married for three decades, and who is not at all ready to retire.
True works for a private military company and despite her husband’s misgivings, she is a valued part of the company’s hostage rescue team. She’s also realistic about the limits that aging will place on her. I’m reasonably athletic, so it was fun to foreshadow those limits, working from my own experience.
Middle age is an interesting time. There can be more freedom as children reach adulthood, but there is also a sense that time is getting short and that old age with all its limitations is just around the corner.
True feels the pressure of time, and she also carries an extra burden. She is haunted by the death of her oldest son, a soldier too, who was brutally killed in the line of duty. When a chance discovery during a hostage rescue mission indicates there is more to his death than she’s been told, a mother’s resolve comes over her to uncover the truth, regardless of the cost.
This was a challenging novel to write, I think in part because deep down, I doubted the marketability of it from the start. Somewhere along the way though, it became a novel I needed to write.
Still, my doubts were not misplaced. New York publishing houses didn’t know what to make of it. No one said specifically, Middle-aged mom? No way! But it was implied that marketing The Last Good Man would be a challenge that no one quite knew how to handle.
So The Last Good Man went out under my own imprint—and I’ll admit to sweet satisfaction when it earned a starred review from Publishers Weekly.
I hope you’ll give it a try. After all, it’s readers who ultimately decide if a Big Idea is “market savvy.”
I mean, I was happy to give Entertainment Weekly an exclusive for a day, but now this cover needs to here at home.
Also, I really like it. Credit to Irene Gallo, Tor’s art director, and Peter Lutjen, the cover designer (he also did the design for Redshirts and Lock In). Tor always does right by me in terms of covers, and this is no exception.
In her Big Idea piece for The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter, author Theodora Goss makes an observation about classic monster stories that I, personally, never picked up on, but now that she’s pointed it out, seems obvious. It says something about me that I missed it, and something about her that she’s used it as a cornerstone for her novel.
“The remains of the half-finished creature, whom I had destroyed, lay scattered on the floor, and I almost felt as if I had mangled the living flesh of a human being.” –Victor Frankenstein
It’s hard to identify where a novel comes from, but if The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter comes from anyplace specifically, it’s that moment when Frankenstein, having created a female counterpart for his creature, disassembles her. Then, not wanting to leave her remains for the peasants to find, he puts them in a basket, weighs it down with stones, and throws it into the sea. There goes the Bride of Frankenstein…
I was studying Frankenstein and his creature because I was writing a doctoral dissertation on late Victorian gothic monsters–Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Count Dracula, the Beast Men on the Island of Dr. Moreau. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein isn’t late Victorian, of course, but I wanted to understand this iconic monster narrative so I could apply some of what I learned to those later works. Well, one thing I learned is that there’s almost always a female monster, and she’s almost always destroyed.
Let’s take some examples from the later works I was studying. Some of these you’ll recognized, but some may be obscure enough that you won’t know what I’m talking about. That’s all right! Late Victorian gothic is like a wonderfully fearsome labyrinth. The fun is in exploring . . . So let’s start with Sheridan Le Fanu’s Camilla, in which the titular vampire is destroyed according to standard vampire protocols for the crime of seducing the innocent Laura and trying to turn her into a vampire as well. (Bonus: lots of sexual subtext from an era when books about same-sex romantic relationships were still banned.)
In Bram Stoker’s Dracula, which was deeply influenced by Carmilla, both vampire Lucy and Dracula’s brides are staked and beheaded. In H.G. Wells’s The Island of Dr. Moreau, the Puma Woman escapes from Moreau’s terrible House of Pain and kills him, but is herself shot. In Arthur Machen’s The Great God Pan, the mysterious Helen, who has the power to summon Pan and his minions, is forced to hang herself. You don’t even have to be a technical monster: in H. Rider Haggard’s She, the irresistibly beautiful Ayesha burns in the fire of immortality–which is a good thing, because she was thinking of claiming the British throne. And where would that leave Queen Victoria, I ask you? Ayesha isn’t a monster, but she is monstrous–a woman who has the power to kill with a gesture, and whom no man can resist. No wonder the novel has to get rid of her.
We find the same thing earlier in the century and across the pond with Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Rappaccini’s Daughter,” the beautiful but poisonous Beatrice, who kills herself so that her lover may live. Beatrice gets more sympathetic treatment than other monstrous women–she is, at least, a romantic heroine. Like Ayesha, she gets to tell part of her own story, although the focus of the narrative is not, finally, on her, despite Hawthorne’s title. But she too dies in the end. They all do. One exception is Queen Tera in Stoker’s less-known novel The Jewel of Seven Stars, where the resurrected Egyptian queen triumphs at the end–but guess what? In the second edition, the ending was rewritten (perhaps by Stoker, perhaps by his editor), and she too is exterminated.
(Perhaps most strangely, women creep into these works even when not officially present . . . In Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, which contains almost no women at all, Hyde himself is feminized, suffering from “hysteria,” and Jekyll tells us that he finds turning into his alter ego “unmanning.” Of course, Hyde has to die, taking Jekyll with him.)
The field of monster literature is strewn with female bodies. Why? Well, monsters die just in general, so it’s not all about being female. But female monsters are presented as particularly dangerous. Frankenstein does not complete his creation because she might breed with the male monster, and their progeny might outcompete man. Beyond that concrete biological danger, a female monster does not fit the cultural category “female” as it was conceived in the nineteenth century (or earlier: we have a fearsome female monster who must be destroyed in the classical figure of Medusa). Carmilla must be destroyed specifically because she threatens the good women. She might–gasp–turn them into monsters like herself!
So the big idea behind my novel is really very simple: the female monsters did not die. They’re alive, and they’re telling their own stories. That doesn’t mean all the female characters in the novel are good–villainesses are too delicious to dispense with, and anyway, I wanted to make sure that in my narrative, female characters got to be all sorts of things, both good and evil.
But it started with the idea that female monsters have served, throughout literary history, as supporting characters for primarily male stories. They have been the sirens or harpies at the edge of the hero’s journey, the sphinx posing riddles . . . The late nineteenth century was particularly obsessed with monstrous women, as we can see from the many pre-Raphaelite and Aesthetic paintings of these mythical figures. (It’s probably not a coincidence that this was also the era of the New Woman and the suffrage movement, when “unnatural” females were agitating for such shocking things as the right to vote or attend university.)
In my novel, the women talk–a lot, sometimes over each other. But hey, they’ve been silent (and silenced) for so long that once I let them start, they had an awful lot to say. They tell us their stories as they really happened. (Jekyll had a daughter! The Puma Woman survived! Frankenstein’s female creature was not disassembled after all!) I wrote The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter because I love the older novels–I can’t imagine a better afternoon than one spent with nineteenth-century monsters, with tea and cookies on a nearby table, while outside the mist and rain create a suitably gothic atmosphere. But this time, I wanted the women to have their say . . .
You know, just in case you’re curious. Here’s the link.
It was a good day. And a good life since.
Every year we have fireflies in our yard, and every year I intend to go out with a camera and take a picture of them, and then I always forget. Not this year! Last night and went and made a first attempt. It turned out… adequate! I need to take a longer exposure, I think, and put the camera on a tripod. But as a proof of concept, this will do for now. Also, now I know how to take a long exposure on my camera. Go me.
Here you go. After this week, you deserve a good one. Have a great weekend, everybody.
Just in time for the weekend, this collection of very excellent new books and ARCs that have come to the Scalzi Compound. Let us know which of these trigger your “I gotta have that” reflex, down in the comments.
Coincidence: Random events that merely give the appearance of being connected, or… something more? Not so coincidentially, Nicky Drayden is thinking about coincidence, and how it plays into her debut novel The Prey of Gods. What are the odds that she will tell you about it here? Pretty good!
Have you ever been out running errands about town, start thinking about a friend, only to look up and see them standing right in front of you? Is it coincidence, or is there something greater at play? Fate? A master weaver, tangling and entwining our lives together? Maybe there’s someone who’s watching me from above, saying “Hey, Nicky’s been laying on the couch watching Netflix Originals for six hours straight. Clearly, she needs a few threads crossed…”
I often feel like a pawn in my own life. When I was a kid, my parents took me and my brother to the Houston Zoo. We both got silver helium balloons, and my little brother let go of his and cried as it floated away. Later that day, back at home (exactly 26 miles away, I just checked) we’re playing outside in a neighbor’s yard, and I look up and see a balloon floating high over our house. I am not lying when I say that balloon came directly down towards me, right to where I was standing, and all I had to do was reach up and grab it. A silver Mylar balloon with “Houston Zoo” written on it in colorful block lettering. Of course, I kept it rather than giving it back to my brother, since I was kind of a jerky big sis, but still. It happened.
Coincidence? Fate? Maybe it wasn’t even the same balloon, but does that make it less weird, or weirder? This kind of thing happens to me practically every other week, but unfortunately, writing fiction, you can’t rely on coincidence too many times before a reader throws your book across the room. After all, real life doesn’t have to make sense. Fiction kinda does.
So enter the master weaver—me, your mostly humble debut author–here to regale you with my Big Idea, the story behind the threads that make up the tapestry that is The Prey of Gods. When I set about writing this novel, all I had were six random character sketches, most of whom have nothing to do with one another, and a setting, South Africa, because during a college summer break I’d traveled there as a peer counselor for a group of teenagers, and I thought it’d be cool to see how the experiences I had there would translate into a work of speculative fiction set 50 years into the future.
There are of course, the big, bold threads that tie the six point-of-view characters together, moving them all towards the epic battle scenes involving giant robots and angry demigoddesses. (Fun fact, easiest way to upset a demigoddess, have someone show up to the world’s destruction in the same exact dress she’s wearing.) But the true joy of character weaving is tying the tiny, nearly microscopic threads together, and having the characters cross paths in ways they might not even notice.
For example, Riya Natrajan, the sultry pop diva in the book, has attitude for days, and finds herself stuck sharing a robot taxi with a business exec who’s late to a meeting. She’s trying to be incognito, but the guy is onto her—suspecting she’s a celebrity lookalike, but maybe…just maybe it’s really her. Riya denies it of course, but now the guy is jabbering on, practically beside himself with excitement. She commands the robot taxi to play some music for a distraction, and as the master weaver would have it, one of the tracks from her latest album blasts over the speakers.
Small coincidences like this work fine, and even add a little comic relief to tense situations, because the plot isn’t hinging on such minor occurrences. But then the guy tells Riya that he’d just bought tickets to her concert for his brother-in-law, and the careful reader will realize that he’s related to Muzi, the slightly wayward teen, who after a trippy afternoon dabbling with a new hallucinogenic drug, discovers he’s able to control people’s minds. Muzi inadvertently (maybe) uses his new powers to make his best friend Elkin forget the most intimate moment of both their lives. Oh, and Elkin’s drug dealing cousin, the one who bullied them into this whole mess, is in a secret relationship with pop star super sensation Riya Natrajan. Bigger coincidences, threads are crossing, and the weaving is just getting started.
These little knots gain significance as the story moves on, putting more and more tension upon already taut threads. Do the threads pop, or do they hold? Are these chance encounters unrealistic? That’s ultimately up to the reader to decide, but maybe we enjoy these twists of fate in fiction so much because they give us a mechanism to process the absurd coincidences in our own lives.
I owe a lot of people credit for the development of this book, but first and foremost, there is Dr. Joshua Hill to thank, the director of the Renewable Energy and Environmental Protection program who organized and lead our trip to South Africa. Many (many) summers ago, I left my college home of Austin, Texas, leaving my country for the first time as well. I worked nearly all of my amazing experiences I had abroad into the novel, like the mouthwatering beer bread, the intricately carved wood sculptures, and of course the plague of dik-diks.
While in South Africa, I received a letter from my college boyfriend, informing me that he’d had lunch with a random guy up at his summer internship in Virginia, who knew someone who went to the University of Texas (a school of 50,000 students, mind you.) The guy asked my boyfriend if he knew a girl named Nicky. My boyfriend said that he was dating a girl named Nicky, and from a short exchange, they concluded that I was in fact that same Nicky. A coincidence in itself, but the guy who my boyfriend was having lunch with—Dr. Joshua Hill’s son.
Master Weaver, I see you up there. You’re doing a bang-up job. Keep those threads crossing.
Just join the Tor.com eBook of the Month Club! It’s that simple.
You ask: “But how do I join the Tor.com eBook of the Month Club?” Well, here’s a link! (Note: After June 21st 2017, you can still sign up for the club, but Old Man’s War will no longer be on offer. Sorry.)
You also ask: “But why only the US and Canada?” The answer here is: That’s where Tor has the rights! Other publishers have the rights elsewhere. And they’re not part of Tor.com’s eBook of the Month Club.
You also also ask: “But I already own Old Man’s War and have incorporated all its teachings into my personal worldview. What now?” I say: Then let your friends who have not read the book and might be interested in it know that it’s available for free for the next few days. That’s right, share the joy of John Perry, Jane Sagan and the Colonial Union! I mean, I’m not saying go door to door asking people if they’ve heard the good news about the Colonial Defense Forces. But, if someone says “I don’t know what to read next,” this is a good thing to slip into conversation.
You also also also ask: “But, Scalzi, you’re giving away your classic of modern science fiction for free — how will you feed your adorable family and pets?” Well, you know. I’ll find some way. Selling blood plasma, perhaps. And anyway, Old Man’s War has done well by me for the last dozen years. I can occasionally let it go as a freebie for a couple of days to bring in new readers. If they like what they read, I have 11 other novels (including five more in the OMW series) they might be willing to pay for after that. It’s worked that way before, anyway.
So, go on — enjoy! And tell a friend or two.
What does it take for a civilization to be “too big to fail” — and can any civilization in fact make it to that particular point? In writing his novel Soleri, author Michael Johnston had reason to consider this particular question, and came to a civilization near the Nile River for inspiration.
I got my big idea for my novel, Soleri, back when I was an undergraduate, sitting in an art history class. The professor was talking about ancient Egypt and how the people of the New Kingdom visited the pyramids, which were constructed during the Old Kingdom (thousands of years earlier) as tourists. Those giant pyramids in the sand carried as much mystery and wonder for the Egyptians of 10 BCE as they do for any tourist today.
Egyptian society was ancient in a way that we can’t even imagine. For roughly three thousand years they built a civilization in and around the Nile river. Academics theorize that the Egyptians could not imagine the possibility of their civilization ever coming to an end. The Persians had come and gone and when the Greeks appeared, they simply integrated themselves into the fabric of Egypt. Cleopatra was of Greek origin. There was something potent about Egypt. It simply could not be dominated. Of course Julius Caesar put an end to that notion, but it had a good run. Three thousand years is nothing to sneeze at! So I think it’s worth standing back and considering the idea of a civilization that had always existed and believes that it always will. That idea stuck with me.
In fact, it stuck with me for fifteen years. I grew up in rural Ohio and was a constant reader of science fiction and history, and I loved architecture as well. I never thought I could be an author, so I went with the practical choice and studied architecture. I’ve taught architecture and practiced in New York and Los Angeles. I did a lot things between that art history lecture and the time when I started writing speculative fiction.
But I wouldn’t call it a break. Soleri is as much about history as it is about architecture (although I did have to tone down the descriptions of ancient buildings. They went on for pages in the early drafts). See, my big idea was to take what I knew about architecture and history and to meld it with everything I loved about speculative fiction. To do that, I went back to that idea about ancient Egypt. Suddenly that old idea had a fresh meaning, I saw it as the bridge between my old profession and my new one.
Skeptical? Hold on for a moment. Here’s how it worked.
I wanted to write about architecture and history, but I didn’t want to write non-fiction. I wanted to use my imagination and besides, there are already many wonderful histories of Egypt and Rome on the shelves. So I decided to look at ancient Egypt as a concept, a speculation, and not a place in history. Egypt represented the eternal civilization. Even the Roman Empire was short by comparison. So I decided to write about a civilization that was so ancient, that every part of its history had been obscured by time, that its origin had been written and rewritten so many times that the truth behind it had been lost a hundred times over.
My novel is about a civilization ruled by a family of gods, but no one has seen these gods, the Soleri, in centuries. They are shrouded like their history–the wall they live behind is even called the Shroud Wall. In Soleri, the empire is so old that its people have stopped questioning its legitimacy. Everything is ritual, but no one recalls the purpose behind these rituals. The empire of the Soleri is still going through the motions, pretending it is virulent and strong when all the life has already poured out of it (if you are starting to think the Soleri empire might be a metaphor for our own, you are on the right track but that’s a different essay).
There is a place in the novel when one of my characters thinks: This city (the Soleri capital) has forgotten more history than I can recall. It has witnessed the lives of more men, great and small, than I could ever hold in my head.
That lines sums up a lot of the book. Everything we first learn about the Soleri and their empire is inverted as the novel progresses. Like peeling away the skin of an onion, we have to strip away all the layers of history, all the lies that were placed one on top of the other to form the empire we encounter in the prologue. One of the lines in that piece sums up the idea perfectly, Before time was the Soleri, and after time the Soleri will be. They are eternal, their existence unquestionable, or so the story goes.
In Soleri, we learn the secrets behind each of those lies. We take apart the history and find something entirely unexpected inside, which takes me back to my big idea. The eternal civilization. It doesn’t exist. It is itself a fiction. Soleri is about a society that has become its own fiction, a civilization that has come to believe their own lies. At least until a few people start to find out the truth behind the empire. That’s what happens in the novel. That’s the moment when things get interesting, but I’ll leave it to the reader to discover what actually hides behind the Shroud Wall and what secrets lie behind the history of the Soleri.
Personally I find it reassuring that no matter what, new books and ARCs keep coming along. Here’s today’s stack. What here is on your own personal “to get” list?
She looks pensive, doesn’t she.