Daily Archives: March 18, 2008

RIP, Arthur C. Clarke

Via Charles Stross, who got it via AP, Arthur C. Clarke has died.

Too much to say about it — it’ll have to wait until I don’t have a splitting headache. But in short, we owe him for helping make some of the good parts of the world we live in.

Ad astra, sir.

Update: Clarke’s obit from the New York Times.

I’m Alive

Made it to Chicago – I’m actually a little past Chicago, actually, since the hotel I’m at is one of those a mile out from the airport. It’s technically Chicago but it feels more like Irvine, with much worse weather. The trip was fine except the last hour, which was the Kennedy Expressway crawl, which apparently never goes away in either direction. My plan for now: Maybe a nap. After that, we’ll see.

How’s your day?

The Big Idea: Caitlin Kittredge

I wish I could tell you something about Night Life, the dark fantasy novel by Caitlin Kittredge, but I can’t, because I haven’t read it. And the reason I haven’t read it is that when it came in, my wife looked at it, thought it looked interesting, and took it. And since then she’s entirely consumed by it — reading it pretty much at every available opportunity. At one point I tried to approach the book to take a look at it, and she snarled at me. And so I had to back away slowly, palms up. Okay, I made up that last part. But on the other hand Krissy is really digging this book, and I don’t think it would be wise for me to try to take it from her.

As for me, I think the book has werewolves in it. At least, I think that’s what it says on the back cover, which I have read, from a distance. I think I’ll shut up now and let Ms. Kittredge talk about her book.

CAITLIN KITTREDGE:

My mother—an ex-hippie who protested the draft in Washington when she was my age—always taught me not to take any crap. More importantly, she told me that if I saw someone else getting hassled for who or what they were, I should lend my support, or at least draw attention to the fact.

So it’s probably no shock that when I grew up and started writing novels, the thing I included, which I’d found missing in a lot of urban fantasy I’d read up until that point—was how, exactly, all of those disparate groups of supernatural and human creatures fit together, what the friction of rubbing the Other against the Normal exploded into.

Now, the idea of prejudice against fantastical creatures in a fantastical world isn’t the core of my book, but it’s the thing that informs my heroine, Luna, the most. She gets the double whammy—she’s a woman who works as a homicide detective (and not in one of those departments where you get shipped off to sensitivity training, either) and she’s a werewolf in a world full of humans. Humans, as a rule, don’t care for creatures that can tear their faces off once a month. And the humans can be real dicks about it.

First, I thought about the mechanics of prejudice—the fear and the insular communities and the resentment and anger and the plain ignorance that lead to a climate of hatred. I examined both sides in the novel—I had Luna, the victim of a lot of human attitudes towards shapeshifters, up to and including physical assault, and the other side, the male human cop who embodies most of the more visible traits of the prejudice.

Honestly, when I started, it came off sort of cartoony. I wondered if I wouldn’t be better trying to write a happily integrated world than struggle with this issue of backlash against the Other and the climate of mistrust it spawned, a climate that made the main thrust of my plot possible. No, I decided. I was gonna push through it. I was going to write the ugly side of what a community of supernatural creatures suddenly exposed to the norms would look like. Because honestly, I had a hard time believing it would happen any other way.

It was tough, in the first book. Bigotry weighs you down, and there were times when the words on the page got ugly enough that I stepped away. I wrote about institutionalized sexism and racism in the police force, by taking my cartoony cop and making him much less cartoony and much more insidious, with his small undermining words and his overtly demeaning actions. I wrote about shadow minorities, using werewolf prostitutes, and how their ignored plight leaves them vulnerable to every kind of atrocity you can imagine, with little or no recourse.

Did I have to use fantasy to shine a light on this stuff? No, but it’s what I write, and I try to keep it grounded in reality, odd as that might sound. The reality is, the world can be a hard place to live in when you’re not Everyone Else. I also began to realize that the situation I had set up—general hatred and fear of shapeshifters after a series of riots in the 1960s, with the resultant upswing in crime and poverty among the shapeshifting community—was pretty bleak. I couldn’t end the book with an “everyone learns a valuable lesson about tolerance” bit (because, keeping it real, remember?), but I realized that I desperately wanted a message of hope. I’d already used the story to show how ugly two groups at odds can get—I wanted to show I believed there could be a resolution, because I do…at least in my books.

Luna, in my novel, deals with her situation in a way that isn’t always the most productive—she gets angry a lot. She has rage in her over what she knows is injustice, but I knew I had to write an arc of her coming to terms with what she is and finding a way to cut through the attitudes of those around her. I’d been examining my own attitudes towards bigotry over the course of the novel and I ended it in the way I want to see situations end and so rarely do—Luna ends up feeling okay about who she is, and allowing herself to trust a few human allies. It’s not much, but it’s a start.

***

Read Caitlin Kittredge’s blog here. Read the first chapter of Night Life here.

The Writer’s Dream

Last night, I dreamed I was in a supermarket, and they had two of my books in the book racks. And I remember that I actually stopped all the action in my dream, went back and counted the number of individual copies (four copies of The Ghost Brigades, two copies of The Android’s Dream). Because I’m a total loser writer geek like that. But, dude. Two separate titles in a book store at the same time. In multiple copies! Even in a dream, that’s good news.

The Big Idea: J.F. Lewis

Vampire novels: ever get tired of reading the gothic angst of the undead? J.F. Lewis did — a minor issue, because, you see, he sort of wanted to write a vampire novel himself.

So what do you do when you’re in a situation like that? You go back to first principles and re-examine what it is that makes a vampire a vampire, and how the blood-sucking undead deal with it all. The result for Lewis: Staked, his debut novel, casting vampires in a new light. And the result for us: A Big Idea that goes for the jugular known as “reinvention.”

J.F. LEWIS:

There’s a post-it note on my cubicle at work. It reads, “There is something terribly wrong with Jeremy”. I’m proud of that note and I suppose, after a fashion, it’s true. One of my co-workers (grinning all the while, I might add) stuck the note to my desk after reading the first few chapters of an early draft of Staked. It was pretty much the reaction for which I’d been looking.

You see, the Big Idea for Staked came as a response to what I was reading at the time. I don’t remember exactly which vampire book it was, but I recall throwing it down in disgust as the vampire protagonist whined about his horrible fate one time too many. It was all so terribly tragic and romantic and suddenly, to me, totally boring. Don’t get me wrong, that kind of gothic ennui-laden vampire can be written well (check your local listings), but I needed a break.

I also needed a fresh idea. To be actually published for the first time, particularly if I was going to be foolish enough to try my hand at the undead wheel, I needed a new take… something different. Something fun, but gritty. Oh sure, being a vampire gave you immortality, but it had to come with a bigger price than sun block and a restrictive diet. In that rough idea, I had the essence of everything my vampire protagonists needed to be, to be the kind of vampires I wanted to read about.

First: Blood. Being a vampire revolves around blood right? Then why be squeamish about it? I needed to take that further. Could a vampire taste? Why would they? If vampires can’t taste anything except blood, how would that affect them? Would they be repulsed by the idea of food? Maybe, but it seemed more fun to have them drawn in by it, to have solid food, the act of watching someone eat it, become a voyeuristic thrill… in short, food porn. Pleasure tinged with regret and embarrassment. I pictured vampires salivating at the thought of a nice juicy steak, then I stopped again. Could vampires salivate? If everything about being a vampire centered on the blood, then it would make sense that a vampire had no fluids other than blood coursing through him… or her. Being a vampire needed to be viscerally unpleasant, a high price to pay.

The implications cascaded their way down through the book. I wanted to take away the typical easy outs. Vampires would all have souls; there could be no getting off easy on that one. Just because people become undead doesn’t mean they instantly stop being who they were alive. There was no room in Staked for any demon that made vampires start drinking people to live… it had to be mere survival instinct, the same kind of instinct that might cause perfectly normal people to consider each other as food sources say… when a plane crashes in the snow covered mountains.

I had a hard time with the weaknesses until I realized those needed to change as well. The sun, holy water, a stake through the heart… oh sure, those all needed to be huge inconveniences, but for my vampires the biggest weaknesses need to be their own human foibles and character flaws magnified by their immortality. Over time, they wouldn’t become less than themselves. Instead they ran the risk of becoming unbridled caricatures of who they used to be. How fun is it that? Immortal blood junkies frozen like the addicts they were at the emotional maturity level they’d reached before becoming “addicted.”

That decision led to another one. Vampirism needed to be a very personal hell for the newly dead, so that how powerful they became was a variable. Being turned would be the ultimate Rorschach test. The strength of the newly dead’s core personality would determine which level of the vampire feudal system they landed on: Drone (Peasant), Soldier (Knight), Master (Lord), or Vlad (King).

Of course, another piece of my big idea was to keep things fun and entertaining, so my protagonist (or co-tagonist once my secondary point of view became stronger) had to be a person who could pay that price and not whine. He needed to know that he was a monster and yet still be a basically good guy at heart… a vampire John McClane, if you will, willing to get beat up, knocked down, and ground through dirt, but still come up swinging with a mouthful of witty reparte. He couldn’t be a young twenty-something either. My protagonist needed to have lived a while. That had to be one of his defining traits. He wouldn’t identify with the pretty young things that were young and immortal forever. By the time he was turned, Eric would have lived through World War II and Korea – an itinerant undead member of the greatest generation.

Not that it didn’t go wrong a few times. Okay. LOTS of times. Getting Eric right was the hardest part by far. I shudder to think of one or two real crapfests I came up with… say the version where Eric owned a Opera house (Phantom of the Opera much?) or the version where his language wound up sparkly clean as if he’d been attacked by the lady from the Orbit Gum commercials working in tandem with insane ADR (automated dialogue replacement) technicians. And let’s all agree not to mention the tommy-Gun-Toting-Eric. (“I need your blood, see, and I’m gonna take it. Yeah. See? Yeah.”) Pardon me while I shudder.

Lastly, of course, the Big Idea affected the setup for the city – Void City. It became a place where the general populace couldn’t know about vampires, but where the local government knew and made vampires, oni, and other assorted supernatural ghoulies foot the bill for any cover-ups that the Void City Police Department (VCPD) and the Mage Guild had to employ. Essentially, I wanted a setting in which my vampires could be super powerful, but still have to pay parking tickets and worry about the electric bill. I think it worked.

***

Read J.F. Lewis’ blog here.

Tuesday Travel Twofer

Today (Tuesday) I am traveling to Chicago for secret nefarious purposes of my own (read: doing some early publicity stuff for Zoe’s Tale) and thus will be busy doing things like driving, driving and driving some more. And YET, even driving I’ll spend less time traveling than if I flew into Chicago, and this way I won’t have to take off my shoes or unpack my laptop. I will have to pay tolls. Stupid tolls.

Anyway, to make up for the fact that I will not actually be here on Whatever all day long, I’ll be posting not one but two Big Idea pieces: The first will hit at 6am, and the second at noon. So there, you have your morning mapped out for you.

Depending on when I arrive I may check in and let you all know I am alive. Or I might not, which will not necessarily mean I am dead. However, if I am dead, I definitely won’t check in. Sorry. I’m probably making this more complicated than it needs to be.