The Big Idea: Greg van Eekhout

How does one get from Los Angeles to Ragnorak? If you said “take a left at Albuquerque,” you’ve watched too many Bugs Bunny cartoons, and also, you’re not Greg van Eekhout, the Nebula-nominated writer who is making his novel-length debut with Norse Code. Along with knowing how to write the sort of apocalyptic fantasy that reviewers love (“van Eekhout makes a successful leap to long fiction with this thrilling urban fantasy” — Publishers Weekly), van Eekhout knows exactly how to get from LA to the end of the world; interestingly, it starts with a detour through a movie theater.

GREG VAN EEKHOUT:

One of my earliest formative childhood experiences was being taken by my grandfather to see Earthquake in Sensurround. Sensurround was a theater sound technology that employed huge, low-frequency speakers to rattle the theater and scare the little crappers out of me. I lived in Los Angeles, and I fully expected an 8.0 to strike during the movie. My grandfather and I would stumble from the theater into dust-filmed air. We would pick our way through the rubble, and at home we would find my parents and brother and grandmother and toys, all crushed.

I wanted to see the movie again and again and again.

The tale of Ragnarok is the best story in Norse mythology. It tells us how the gods will perish and how we puny mortals will meet our ends. It’d make a really, really cool disaster movie. But Ragnarok’s not quite the end of everything. It’s more of a reboot, with a new world arising from the ashes of the old. Most of the gods won’t be there to see this new world, but a few will be, and they know they will be because a prophecy conveniently lays it all out. And that’s what I find interesting about Ragnarok: If you’re a god, you either know exactly how you’re going to die, or you know you’re going to live to preside over the next world, or, in the case of a few exceptions, your name got left out of the prophecy and you’ve got no right idea what’s going to happen to you. The category you fall into has got to impact your degree of enthusiasm for the destruction of everything and everyone around you.

Norse Code is largely about Hermod, one of the gods who doesn’t know if he’s going to be eaten by a giant wolf, or live to plant new lawn seed, or slip on a bar of soap and crack his head open and miss the whole thing. Opposing him are the gods who know they’re going to survive. After thousands of years of waiting, they’re getting impatient to move on from this old, sick world of ours. “Gee,” they think, “maybe we shouldn’t just wait for Ragnarok to get started. Maybe we should be more proactive. Maybe we should make it happen.”

It all may sound very cosmic, but it’s a fairly simple idea: If I were a god in that situation, what would I do? If you look at it that way, it’s a pretty human-level story.

Norse Code also has a science fictional idea at its core. Several years ago I read about a research project that used Y-chromosome data to link 0.5 percent of currently living males to the fecund and randy Genghis Khan. Bringing this back to Norse mythology, a key element of the Ragnarok story involves Odin’s private army, the Einherjar. These are the elite warriors who hang out in Valhalla and train for the final battle by beating the crap out of one another every day. You don’t have to be a descendent of Odin to join these guys, but it helps. So, if the Twilight of the Gods was approaching and I were tasked with recruiting Einherjar (as the valkyries are), I might start sampling DNA from the modern population to find traces of Odin’s lineage.

And that’s basically what Norse Code is about: Huge disasters, gods conspiring to speed things along, a minor god with an unknown future, and valkyries with biotech. There’s also a moon-eating wolf, and atomic tests in the South Pacific that wake up the Midgard Serpent, and talking ravens, and a resistance movement made up of Iowa farmers who resent being dead.

The real challenge of writing Norse Code, of course, was telling this big story without losing sight of the personal stories belonging to the characters living through it all. I hope readers of Norse Code will find more than big SFX and subwoofers, but the Sensurround is there for those who like that sort of thing.

—-

Norse Code: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Powell’s

Read Chapter One of Norse Code on Tor.com, and Chapter Two on Suvudu.com. Visit Greg van Eekhout’s LiveJournal.

71 thoughts on “The Big Idea: Greg van Eekhout

  1. Read the two sample chapters. Sounds really cool; I’ll have to remember this next time I go to the bookstore.

  2. This sounds really interesting. I noticed Amazon doesn’t have an ebook version available, is that coming in the future?

  3. I’m not sure why you think I would know that, mos. I’m not in book distribution or inventory.

    Also, more to the point, did you look in Amazon’s Kindle store directly? Often times Amazon doesn’t link the two versions together — they forgot to do so with Zoe’s Tale at first.

    Which is to say before one asks people not in a position to know something, it helps to make sure you’ve checked the obvious places first.

  4. Oddly, when I look up “Norse Code” in Amazon, the 2nd hit is the Kindle version, but the dead tree version is nowhere to be seen (or at least not on the first screen). If I throw “Greg Van Eekhout” in as a search term, then I get both the Kindle and dead tree versions in that order.

  5. I cannot wait to read this book! I always knew Ragnarok was going to hit in my hometown.

    I am slightly disappointed that there was no mention of coffee in this write-up, as I understand Greg wrote most of the book in a coffee shop. Maybe he can get a little acknowledgement when “You’re Not Fooling Anyone When You Take Your Laptop to the Coffee Shop” is revised, eh, Scalzi? :)

  6. Sorry, I didn’t mean to imply that you would know. I kind of figured Greg van Eekhout would keep an eye on this thread and have some info. (And thankfully, my fellow readers have been kind enough to enlighten me in the meantime.)

    –For the record, no, I didn’t search for the ebook directly, I visited the linked paperback’s page, and it had the “tell the publisher you’d like to read this on Kindle” link to the side. I’ve seen that message before, but I’ve never seen that message and found the ebook version available.

  7. I haven’t worked my way through the Hugo packet yet, and you’re suggesting more books? Sigh. Oh well, I didn’t want a life anyhow.

  8. First of all, my thanks to John for lending me space on his blog today. For an author with a debut novel, it’s beyond just a nice thing to do.

    As for glitch catches, I’m alerting my publisher to any and all. For now, I am going to consider the Kindle thing a glitch, rather than a conspiracy. For now. I’m always contactable by email for such things: gregvan@gmail.com

    There’s also an e-book edition available from the Sony eBook store, or one could just go to the Random House site and select the retailer and format of one’s choice.

  9. “maybe we shouldn’t just wait for Ragnarok to get started. Maybe we should be more proactive. Maybe we should make it happen.”

    That sounds very similar to the thinking of some religious fundamentalists in relation to Armageddon/the End Times.

    It sounds like a good read. I wonder if it is being released in Australia? I’ll have to try to order it through my local indy book store.

  10. And I’ve been informed that the cause of the Amazon listing glitch has been found and all will soon be resolved.

    Greg, signing off from the Nervous Author Central Headquarters Office (NACHO).

  11. Sounds cool, I think I’ll queue it up for my Kindle now. Anyone who wanted to repeatedly watch a movie that made him think his family and toys were crushed by an earthquake MUST write a good disaster novel!

  12. Cool. I’ve gotten so used to being able to read on my iPod touch at any moment (I even read at long red lights) that I just don’t buy dead-tree books anymore. The electronic version is just so handy.

  13. I suppose it would be futile to ask everybody to stop writing really cool books until I get caught up…oh, never mind.

  14. I saw this one pimped on the Tor.com website, and I have to say that I really dig the cover art. I like that sort of water-colory look. If I’d been going to the bookstore looking for something random to grab, say, on the way to the airport, I very likely would have picked it up not knowing anything about it.

    I’ve grabbed the kindle sample chapter, will have to check it out.

  15. @M.A. — I hear you there — tho in my case more “until I have a job/income other than unemployment and therefore don’t have to do mental acrobatics to justify book purchases.” Sigh.

  16. A note to the publisher: this is the sort of cover that makes me pass by. I almost didn’t even read this “big idea” because the cover made it look like another Buffy fanfic wannabe. It was only that bit of text that said “Greg Van Eekhout” catching my eye (as I know him from his stories on Escape Pod) that got me to actually read.

    It sounds good, and worthy of putting on the “to read” stack.

    Wait…now I see the Brust blurb…that likely moves it higher up the stack.

  17. The paperback version is up on Amazon.

    The story sounds interesting and I’ll look at it at the bookstore before making up my mind to buy. On the other hand, the cover is a HUGE problem. As a 43 year old professional male, I wouldn’t be caught dead with a cover-like that in my possession. I can imagine the jokes that would be directed my way from friends and colleagues.

    Why is it that publishers make covers like this? Are 18 year old men so predictable that they’ll pick up a book with an hot woman on it holding a sword? Or is it marketed for a stereotypical’ woman’s wish-fulfillment fantasies? Much like I suspect the old Conan covers were to men.

  18. @ Stevem – actually, the cover looks more like it’s targeting the paranormal romance/urban fantasy market than 18 year old men. And *that* audience is more female than male.

  19. Oh wow. My faith in amazon’s ability to have their stuff together is totally shaken.

    I have the electronic version on my Kindle now. This book looks awesome!

    Thanks go to John and Greg!

  20. Urban Fantasy & Paranormal Book Cover notes

    Check the “Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought” on the Amazon page. You’ll see the general cover design of the books Amazon recommends are pretty similar. A lot of the books pimped on Big Idea can be classed as urban fantasy, and have the same trend in the artwork. Marjorie Liu, for example.

    So in this case, buyers of urban fantasy are getting what they’ve come to expect, and should be able to recognize the sort of book that the cover signifies from a distance.

  21. Placed in queue for the Kindle. The Big Idea post definitely caught my attention, and the sample chapters sealed the deal.

    Once my wife finishes the book she’s reading on the Kindle, it’ll be my turn!

  22. Okay, so is this “urban fantasy” or not? I saw the cover a while back, and said “Oh, looks like another of those things that’s taken over the name of “urban fantasy” (stealing a perfectly good name from people like Emma Bull), where a gorgeous woman fights monsters and has sex. Yawn. The cover-blurb text, all of which focused on Mist, didn’t help either.

    The first chapter was moderately interesting, enough to think maybe this was better than all the marketing material was trying to make it seem like. Then the second chapter hooked me.

    Now I’m confused again, because Josh Jasper seems to be saying that really, the marketing is accurate, and it is urban fantasy by the current definition — “buyers of urban fantasy are getting what they’ve come to expect”. I guess I’ll have to sample farther, or wait for some more reviews, before I decide whether to buy it.

  23. I just assumed the girl on the cover was a modern valkyrie and thus fits on the cover of a book about modern vikings. It could be worse. They could have put a woman in leather armor, wolf skins, and a horned helmet holding an M4.

    Actually, wait. That would be pretty awesome.

  24. It looks more like “Female butt kicking heroine” and less sex oriented. I’d say if the first chapter was good, go for it. I’m moderately interested myself.

  25. I think the phrase urban fantasy is perfectably good label for all sorts of books which are not necessarily “chick-lit”. The Dresden Files come to mind. The Norse Code may also qualify, though the cover does it a disservice. I’ll take a look at it anyway, but I won’t be caught in public with it if I decide to buy.

  26. At the point I buy/don’t buy a book because of it’s cover, I will stop reading.

    I first bought Scalzi because I like his style here, and am now working on the 4th book, having skiped the 3rd because B&N didn’t have it on the shelf.

    I’m 61 and chair of a major section of a major technical professional society. I read sf waiting for meetings to start.

  27. I’ve read the first chapter and have really enjoyed it. I’ve don’t think I’ve ever bought a book based on its cover but have occasionally been in a bookstore looking for a good read and understand the importance of an eye-catching cover in that setting.

    And yes… Greg had me at Ragnorak.

  28. stevem,

    You want odd looks in public, try reading children’s literature! Perhaps you could invest in some sort of stealth book covers……..

  29. Just popping up again to say that, in my completely objective and unbiased opinion, the book is urban fantasy to the extent that it’s fantasy, and significant portions of the book take place in an urban setting. But significant portions also take place in mythological locales, such as Valhalla and Helheim. Mist (the valkyrie) is one of two main characters, the other being the male Norse god, Hermod. Hermod probably gets more point-of-view pages than Mist by a margin of 55/45, or maybe even 60/40.

    Does Mist kick ass? Yes. Does she have a lot of sex with demons or vampires or frost giants or trolls? No, I’m afraid not. Is the book devoted to how hot she is? No, not really. She’s a rather ordinary person put in an extraordinary situation, just as Hermod is a rather ordinary god put in a rather extraordinary situation.

    Anyway, I don’t think urban fantasy is necessarily the wrong description, but the term doesn’t mean what it used to mean, so there’s bound to be some confusion.

    I would say this: I was much more influenced by Zelazny than I was by any urban fantasy novel I can think of.

  30. @ Greg- The cover is targeting Urban Fantasy readers, for sure. It’s got a woman, a weapon, she’s looking over her shoulder, and the moon is there. No tattoo on the woman or animal companion, though. I can find quite a few covers that have all of those elements.

  31. @Josh – Can’t blame the author for the cover. Arguing with him over it is foolhardy.

  32. Josh Jasper:

    Have you read the book? If not, how do you know that it — the book, that is, not the cover — is “giving urban fantasy readers what they’ve come to expect”? In light of Greg’s comment that no, actually, that’s not what it’s doing (by the odd current definition of the subgenre), I’m rather skeptical.

  33. @ Blue Raven – Where did I say I was arguing with him about the cover, or telling him it should be under his control? It’d be silly to deny the trend in covers, though. It’s really blatant, once you look at a few of them.

    @ Andrea – The book is being marketed at readers of urban fantasy. I’m not saying it’s the same as what Greg might define as urban fantasy, or even what Emma Bull might define as urban fantasy, but the design fits a fairly standard pattern, which gets slapped on what the industry calls “urban fantasy”. I don’t make the news. I just report it.

    Everyone seems to be jumping to the conclusion that because I’m talking about the cover that I’m saying it’s bad, or that its a commentary on the content of the book. It’s not.

    But I am talking about how the cover design is part of a trend in the marketplace. I even tried to correct stevem’s impression that the target market *based on the cover* was 18 year old men.

    I’m not even saying “judge a book by it’s cover”. Just that, if you look at a books cover, you may get a sense as to who it’s being marketed towards.

    Judge a *marketing and art department* by the book’s cover? Hell yes. That’s what they’re trying to do.

  34. Personally, I don’t see ‘urban fantasy’ as a term to scare me away from reading anyone’s work. (Nor ‘paranormal romance)

  35. Greg at 39: You’ve sealed the deal for me. Zelazny is my favorite writer of all time (to date). Brust, Gaiman, Williamson, Martin, Glenn Cook, and John Scalzi are to drawer writers, IMO, and I’ll read anything they care to write, but Zelazny resides in Olympus, so far as I am concerned.

    Josh at 43: My impression regarding covers arose years ago based on what I perceived as video game companies try to sell games based on having the players control a large busted protaginist. The eye candy was a large part of the draw, IMO. The Tomb Raider games come to mind. I’ve assumed since that time that some book covers are practicing the same marketing ploy, as I don’t understand why a hot chick with a weapon draws women.

  36. This turned up in today’s mail along with the rest of June’s Spectra/Del Rey paperbacks. I admit I initially looked askance at it, because it’s got one of those covers. But I think I’ll bump it up the review queue now, as it appears to have quite a bit more going on under the hood.

    Lots of sweet stuff happening for summer: new China Mieville (great one!), Brandon Sanderson, Jay Lake, Jaida Jones & Danielle Bennett…. It’s a good time to be an SF/fantasy reader.

  37. I think sometimes marketers, in their zeal to attract one market forget to check if they are turning off another. It’s not so much of whether the cover is “accurate” or not as it is how I, as a father in his forties, feels about seeing on the train reading it.

    I had the same trouble with Saturn’s Children, to be honest. The cover was completely accurate in terms of the story yet I really wasn’t looking forward to the mockery I’d get from my non-SF reading wife when I dropped it on the coffee table. I ended up chickening out and reading the ebook version.

    I’ve certainly seen this in videogames to, and as a forty-something gamer, I appreciate companies like Valve, who make female characters who aren’t teenage boy wet dreams.

    But anyway, I’ll by the book *despite* the cover because it sounds good…well, to be 100% honest even more because of that blurb by Brust.

    (Brust who I first read almost entirely because of a blurb by Zelazny.)

  38. I took the plunge on the Kindle edition – story looks very good and I loved The Osteomancer’s Son on escape pod. As far as the cover goes, I quit paying attention to book covers as purchasing tool (at least consciously) a long time ago. Too often the covers have little to do with the story, our hosts German laser shooting space ships as example

  39. Well, I read the thread at the end of a session at the conference I’m at, walked across the street to the bookstore, and bought it. It’s looking promising (the text, that is.)

    First time I actually did this right after reading a Big Idea thread. The description (the Ragnarok angle and the particular writers who blurbed or inspired it) helped a lot. Though other books in this post series have similarly impressed me in their description. For this one the price point (mass market paper, rather than hardback) and convenience (100 feet to the store) helped get me to go out and buy the book without further ado.

    I don’t know an ebook device, but I’m gathering from other comments that those price/convenience aspects of the purchase experience are also what drive the purchases of many Kindle owners.

  40. Ooh, shiny! And another book to add to the long list of things I really want to read and don’t have the time for. Well, it’s almost summer, I suppose.

    Anyway, I’ve always found Norse mythology kinda cool, and this sounds like a really interesting take on things. It is definitely on my list, however long it might be already. :P

  41. This sounds interesting. I like the idea of stories involving destiny and people trying to avoid it or manipulate it.

    In particular I think of a scene in Babylon 5 where one of the characters thinks he will avoid death because he has seen his death in a dream and he was an old man. To which he is told…

    ‘Prophecy is good guess that comes true, when it doesn’t it is a metaphor. You could put a gun to your head tomorrow and the dream would just be a dream and prophecy would just be a metaphor… and so are you.’

    I wonder if there is a metaphor here? If so, is it explicit or is there a subtext running through the story?

    Rob.

  42. @ 50:

    I’m in the same boat. This was the first time that within an hour of reading the Big Idea that I ordered the book discussed. Not to say I haven’t read other Big Idea books before. Maybe it’s because I re-read American Gods recently.

  43. Jason Longon: He had me at valkyries wielding biotech.

    Lost me at talking ravens.

    I’m still a sucker for anything related to any mythology though. So I’ll probably check it out when my June book-buying budget hits.

    For the couple of people who said the cover was a turn-off, I have to agree with that. To me it looks like the cover of a romance version of Buffy. I wouldn’t take a chance on an unknown book with a cover like that.

  44. I don’t understand why a hot chick with a weapon draws women.

    Because us hot chicks like to imagine ourselves kicking some mythological-critter ass with sweet weapons, is why.

  45. And having sex with monsters, and killing them. Possibly killing them while having sex with them. At least, that’s the impression that glancing at the “Sci Fi” and “horror” bookshelf at Hastings is starting to give me.

    Oh, I’m starting to miss the days when Warhammer-esque military Sci Fi was taking over the Sci Fi bookshelf. At least I could count on Gaunt never borking the Chaos Lord before killing it. Anything’s better than the UrbFantSpam that we have now.

  46. Also, if this is a book about Norse mythology, why is she carrying a Katana? Why not a long-handled axe, or something more Norse like that?

    Although this does make me want to go play Scion: Hero.

  47. Static-X, she’s a modern-day valkyrie. Before she was a valkyrie, she was an MBA student. She’s not even Scandinavian. She’s from California. Her parents came over from Mexico. So I figured she could have any kind of sword I wanted to give her. (Though, actually, in the book it’s a Chinese broadsword, which I chose because it was the only kind of sword I have in the bedroom closet.)

  48. Chinese broadswords look cooler than Katanas anyhow. Katanas are like the Stairway To Heaven of the sword scene in fantasy set in the contemporary world (See? Urban fantasy is easier to say.)

  49. Josh @43:

    Everyone seems to be jumping to the conclusion that because I’m talking about the cover that I’m saying it’s bad, or that its a commentary on the content of the book. It’s not.

    Speaking purely for myself, my confusion came from your statement in 29 that So in this case, buyers of urban fantasy are getting what they’ve come to expect which I took to mean they were getting the kind of book they expected from the cover, not that they were getting the kind of cover they expected. I agree it’s clearly being marketed at urban fantasy readers, as defined as “hot chick sleeps with monsters, kills other monsters” — but it appears to not actually be that sort of book. So once they open the book, the people expecting that sort of book aren’t, as I understand it, “getting what they expect”. (Which is good. Because it means I will probably read it.)

  50. Not all urban fantasy with tough women has them sleeping with monsters, or even human beings, but the butt-kicking woman part is a fairly common theme.

    Having had a conversation with agent Dianne Fox, she tells me that the books with lots of sex are more classes as paranormal romance, and have men on the cover who’re (usually) shirtless, holding the woman, and frequently only appear as torsos – the head being somewhere off the top of the page.

    Live and learn.

  51. Lest anyone think the “Big Idea” doesn’t work – I’d skipped Norse Code on my weekly sweep through new releases over at Fictionwise as a just another Hot-Asskicking-Babe-Softcore-Demon-Sex-Call-It-Urban-Fantasy entry, after reading the “Big Idea” post I immediately logged on andbought it. By the way, because of the promotional MicroPay rebate, the effective cost at Fictionwise was uncer $4.50 and the .pdb files used for secure eReader work just fine on the iPhone/iPod Touch with Stanza.

  52. Well, a Dao (or a Jian, for that matter) is cooler than a Katana, so I suppose I can let that slide. The overall cover looks quite good, though.

    If the book is *not* a stereotypical vampire-porn romp, but actually an interesting story, I may check it out.

  53. There’s nothing wrong with Katanas, just like Stairway To Heaven is actually a decent song. They’re just both overplayed :-)

  54. Ok, broke down, bought it, and just finished reading it. It was very, very good. I’ll be re-reading it for detail, as there is a LOT of detail.

    The cover art is spot-on in a way, but the story is much more in a category with Zelazny (myriad realities intertwined)and Gaiman (gods and mythical creatures blending into the mundane world) than with the urban fantasy/romance that I have seen.

    Thanks, Greg. I’ll be looking for more of your work in the future.

  55. Josh@62
    “…and have men on the cover who’re (usually) shirtless”
    Ha! I enjoy urban fantasy but it can be hard to distinguish (based on the blurb anyhow) decent urban fantasy with/out romantic elements from what are basically soft porn/romantic fantasies with a Fantasy setting. My own litmus test over time is: if it has a man’s naked torso on the cover, don’t buy it. Good to see my own rule of thumb validated!
    BTW, Hello. I’m from Belfast, Ireland and this is my first post on this website.

  56. Static-X, At the Mysterious Galaxy signing yesterday Greg cited as influences (in addition to Gaiman and Zelazny) Tim Powers, The Twilight Zone and Thor comics.

    QueenTess, If you want a feel for how the ravens are used in the story, you can check out the prologue. The Norse Code page on randomhouse.com includes the prologue. I love these ravens, “Thought” and “Memory.” Hugin (Thought) makes for a spectacular narrator when he has PoV.

    After finishing Norse Code, I found it quite neat to go back and read “Wolves till the World Goes Down,” which you can find online pretty easily.

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