Monthly Archives: September 2009

On Being the Stargate Universe Creative Consultant: Answers!

Having given you most of a day to ask questions about my gig as the Stargate: Universe Creative Consultant, I will now start answering them. Prepare yourselves!

Roger E: I’d like to hear a bit of the story of how you came to get the actual gig. (Are the producers fans of OMW?, etc.)

Well, the short version of the story is that a couple of years ago I got an e-mail from Joe Mallozzi, who was a producer on Stargate: Atlantis, letting me know how much he enjoyed Old Man’s War. We started up a friendly correspondence after that, and at some point he asked if I might be interested in doing something for Atlantis, or possibly for another Stargate series they were thinking of for the future. I demurred on Atlantis, because I hadn’t watched enough of it to feel qualified to do anything for it, but I said when or if they got the new series off the ground I might be interested in doing something.

And that was that for about a year. Then about a year ago Joe pinged me again, told me they were getting the new series off the ground, and wanted to know if I was still interested. I was, and in our discussions we decided the best fit for me might be as the creative consultant. Last January I flew out to Vancouver to meet the producers and writers to make sure it was indeed a good fit, and when we decided it was, I got the gig.

Justatech: As a creative consultant, do you stand back and keep an eye on the “big picture”, making sure that if the writers/crew wander off on a tangent they don’t end up down a dead-end, or are you a fixer who saves the day when they have painted themselves into a corner? Or is it something else entirely? Also, will you get your very own SG:U uniform?

No SG:U uniform, although I suppose if I asked for one I could get one.

But yes, I do two main things as the creative consultant:

1. I advise on technical, scientific and character issues as they present themselves in the scripts;

2. I keep an eye on the overall arc of the series and help to make sure the show stays consistent over the course of the season.

What this means is that I’ll get early versions of the scripts, and I’ll go through them and give notes, pointing out where I think the science could be tightened up, or where I think a character is doing something inconsistent, or where I think there might be a real world repercussion for something that’s been put into the script. While I’m doing that I’m also looking at where the script and the events fit into the larger picture, and calling attention to things I think are significant, which the producers and writers will have to deal with later. This latter bit is particularly important in the case of SG:U because the nature of the series — a bunch of people thrown to the ass-end of space with very limited resources — means that they have to pay attention to things other series can take for granted.

To give you a very small example: bullets. The characters come into the ship with a certain number of bullets. It is very difficult for them to get any more of them. So I count the scenes where bullets are used and I send notes that say “now, you know you have that many fewer bullets now, right?”  The point is not just to be OCD anal (although there is value in that in this case), but to remind everyone that realism is something we’re looking for, and the choices we make now will have an influence later. So what the producers and writers have to do is to decide whether they want to spend their bullets now, or find some other, non-bullet-related way to solve a particular problem. Sometimes you need a bullet, sometimes you don’t.

As to being a “fixer” — no, not really. Part of this is because the writers and producers are smart people who know their own universe, but the other part is because when a script comes to me, it’s an early draft, and scripts are understood to change over time. I’m not a last-minute part of the process; I’m somewhere in the middle of it.

Rabid Android: How much input/control do you have over the plot/storylines? Do they come to you for ideas or do they simply bring ideas your way for feedback? When is your cameo?

I do have a cameo of sorts at one point in the series; I won’t tell you what it is but you’ll know it when you see it.

As for input: At this point as noted I offer suggestions on the scripts as they come in, and some of the suggestions will have have an effect on the plots and storylines, although those effects are usually minor (in terms of a specific episode) and cumulative (in that some changes make a difference for future scripts). A lot of what I do isn’t changing plot, it’s making sure that the mechanics of an episode support the plot in a way that resembles realism. And in a very real sense, the way a TV show works is collaborative; I might suggest something, but one of the writers or producers might take that suggestion and turn it into something workable, and also a bit different from my original suggestion. It’s not proper for me to take credit for that; I’m part of the process.

That said, one of the effects of looking at all the scripts and seeing the overall arc of the first season is that I have some definite ideas about where things could go in the second season, so presuming that I’m asked to stay on for season two (assuming that you all watch the show enough to justify season two, HINT HINT), I’ll have some stuff to share before the scripts start getting written, which the producers/writers will be free to use or not.

Arthur D: Do you get to consult on each script, as part of the overall writing process, or are your services mostly on demand?

I’ve consulted on every script of the first season, and I’m generally available for the producers and writers if they want/need a consult on any particular thing, even if it’s not related to a specific script.

Nisleib: How does it feel to be in the same position as Harlan Ellison? Do you like or hate that comparison?

I’m assuming you’re talking about Harlan Ellison being a creative consultant on Babylon 5. I neither like nor dislike the comparison; being a creative consultant is a nice gig, and I’m happy for anyone who gets to do it. I don’t know how much his own experience as a CC is like mine; frankly, I haven’t talked to any other CCs about how they do their job. If I ever meet Harlan, maybe I’ll ask him.

Robert Cruze, Jr.: How does being a Creative Consultant stack up with being a writer in terms of workload, fun factor, and sheer coolness?

Well, I like the gig, to be sure, and I think it’s a pretty cool job. But as to workload, it’s hard to answer directly in comparison to writing, simply because it’s a different kind of work. I mean, it takes me more time to do this  than to write my AMC movie column but less time than to write a novel, which is the sort of comparison that’s not very helpful.

As for fun factor, it is fun, although I don’t know that “fun” is the right word. One of the things I like about the job is that it allows me to do something different than writing; I lot of what I do is problem-solving, for lack of a better phrase to describe it, and the dynamics of the gig are closer to that of being an editor than a writer. When a script is sent to me, I don’t ask how do I make this better, because by and large the writers are pretty damn good, and “better” isn’t the right word. What I ask is, how do I help the writer do what he or she wants to do here, and then I go through and make those suggestions. A lot of what I do is to come in from an informed perspective on science and technology and otherwise offer another perspective on character on story — which is where my writing experience comes into play, in a distaff way.

I don’t have the final word on a script — that would make me a producer — but I will say it’s cool when a suggestion I’ve offered gets incorporated or is a launching point for something else new in the script. I derive a lot of satisfaction from the process, basically.

Johan Larson: Do you have more or less influence than you expected?

I didn’t know what to expect when I started, to be honest. When they asked me to come on as a consultant one thing I did say to them is that while I understood that it would be unrealistic for them to take every suggestion I offered (which was of course absolutely correct), at the same time I didn’t want to be a consultant in name only — if they weren’t going to use me, they might as well save the money in hiring me. What makes me happy is that I do feel the producers listen to me and rely on me to help them do the show, and that the advice I offer gets into the show in a practical and relevant way.

So, I think I have influence on the show, and I’m happy with the amount of influence I have. I do recognize (prepare yourselves) that in many ways I’m an outsider to the television process, so the producers would have to filter my suggestions and advice through the practical, real-world considerations of getting out a television show that costs millions, employs dozens (if not hundreds) and has deadlines to meet. I don’t get bitchy if they pass up a suggestion I make. I do think what suggestions they have taken so far have been to the benefit of the show.

The Other Keith: Do you encounter- and if so how do you handle- the “Never let facts get in the way of a good story” school of thought?

Heh. Well, let me say two things here:

1. One reason they hired me was to have someone who could help make the “science” part of their science fiction more realistic.

2. In this scenario “more realistic” does not mean “totally realistic.” It means “realistic enough to get through the episode while at the same time letting us do the cool stuff we want to do.”

I take both of these points seriously. At the end of the day, what Stargate: Universe is, is entertainment; we have people in an impossible situation, trying to get through the best they can, and our job is to package it into one-hour bits with sufficient drama and action and special effects to get you all the way through it. That’s the deal; that’s the gig. And I get that, because in my job as a novelist, my gig is to do the same thing, just over 100,000 words instead of one hour at a time.

That said, whenever possible — and it’s often possible — it’s nice to get your facts right, or at the very least not get them so wrong that it throws your audience out of the moment. So what I do is go into the script, look at the science bits, and write up notes that say “just so you know…” and drop a few hundred words of geek on them, explaining how what it is they’re trying to do works in the real world, and then offering suggestions to get what they’re trying to do closer to the way it might work in the real word — or, equally usefully (from the point of view of the story) offering a suggestion that, if it’s not exactly how it works in the real world, at least hasn’t been disallowed by our current understanding of science. Hey, the other word in the phrase “science fiction” is fiction. I’m a big believer that both words in the phrase carry equal freight.

The goal is not to get the science 100% verifiably right; it’s to get you all the way through the entire episode and to the credits before you say “hey, now, wait a minute…” Because if we get you to that point, that means you’ve suspended disbelief long enough to enjoy yourself for an hour with what we’ve done. And then maybe you’ll come back next week for more of the same.

David Carrington, Jr: Like others, I wonder if you will do any writing for the show. Which I guess means: do you WANT to, and would they want you to?

For the first season, I and the producers felt my job should be to focus on the entire series rather than to drill down and write a single script, and I think that was the smart thing to do. Does that mean I won’t ever write a script? Nope; presuming the series is renewed and the Stargate folks were interested in me doing it, I might try my hand at one. But, you know. I do like the gig I have, too, and they already have lots of good writers.

So, the short form: Maybe, maybe not. We’ll see.

Rob: If I’ve seen the movie, and a few episodes of the original series, will SG:U make any sense to me, or is there too much to catch up on?

Inasmuch as my experience with Stargate more or less mirrors yours, Rob, you can believe me when I say that someone who doesn’t have a huge amount of Stargate experience will still get a lot out of this show. I also showed it to Krissy and my in-laws, none of whom followed the earlier shows, and they had no problems enjoying it. So you’re good.

Thanks everyone for the questions! Given the number of questions remaining, I might do a follow-on piece on Friday, so if there’s still something you’d like to know, go ahead and ask.

My Comment Deletions Policy

This is another “put it up to point people to later” posts:

In the space of 24 hours I’ve been e-mailed by three people asking if I wouldn’t mind deleting the comments they’ve posted here. They have various reasons for the request, not the least of which is that this site has sufficient Google gravity that their comments here are the first thing that show up when someone searches on their name. So this seems like a good time to create a policy on requests to delete comments.

Henceforth, the policy is: Barring the ones that run afoul of my comment policy, No, I won’t.

Reasons for this:

1. Because it takes time and effort, and I don’t want to bother.

2. Because the comment threads are (sometimes) numbered and people often respond to previous comments by noting the number of the comment, and deleting your comment will mess that up, making future readings of the thread more difficult.

3. Because sometimes people have responded to the comment requested for deletion, and removing that comment makes it look like the respondent is talking to themselves, which is silly and which also degrades the reading experience for others.

4. Because I think it’s a bit silly worrying that a comment here might show up in your Google searches. Yes, it might. So what? The vast majority of comments here are not in the least objectionable and will not likely have an effect one way or another on how anyone (potential date, potential employer) sees you. It might annoy or distress you that a comment here ends up high on your Google search (or other search engine searches), but you’ll have to take that up with Google, not me.

5. Philosophically, I’m of the opinion that people need to own their words, and yes, that includes the words that they toss off in a comment section of a blog. I’m also of the opinion that people need to realize that barring some horrible catastrophe that will mean we all have bigger problems, the Internet is forever, and anything you display on it will be archived in one form or another, until the end of time and/or electricity.

For example, even if I delete your comment, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s gone: The site archive.org takes a snapshot of this site on a regular basis, including the comments. They do such a good job of archiving the site that even I go to it when I need to find something that was on the site that no longer is. I also back up my site on a regular basis in case something goes horribly wrong, so the comment lives there too, ready to spring back to life should I ever have to reload my site. And in a more temporary sense, anything that is deleted here lives on in Google Cache for whatever period of time it takes for Google to spider that page again. And so on.

Knowing this, there are two ways of dealing with the Internet: One, never put anything on it, lest one day you regret your words; two, own your words and realize they may have consequences in the future, including consequences you won’t necessarily anticipate now. I can go on Google and find words of mine going back fifteen years. Between then and today, are there things I’ve written online I hope will never again see the light of day? Oh, my, yes. But I accept that they might, and that this is just the nature of the online beast. Welcome to the Internet. And no, posting under a pseudonym won’t save you from owning your words — it’s not at all difficult to connect those sorts of dots online.

Does this mean you should think about what you write here and elsewhere online before typing it in and clicking “Submit Comment”? Quite obviously, yes. It also means, however, that later, when you’re having second thoughts about whatever it is you posted, you should ask yourself if it’s really worth stressing out about. Generally it’s not, and on the rare occasion where it might be, I find the line “lots of people do stupid, ill-advised things on the Internet and I was one of them once” serves very well as an explanation. People who don’t understand that explanation are people you don’t want to spend time with anyway, like the people who are still under the impression here in 2009 that a tattoo or two means you’re automatically smoking crack and giving handjobs to sailors for ready cash.

So, no. Once you post a comment here, it stays up. Don’t like it? Don’t post. Simple.

Terrifyingly Plausible

From the horrifying clothes to the Cooper Black typeface, this dead-on fake ad suckered me for a whole 2.3 seconds before I realized it must be fake. Your two hints:

1. The game pictured is actually Activision’s 1980 video game Dragster, which I spent a fair amount of my 11-year-old life playing;

2. The video game “end” of the 8-track tape rather more accurately resembles like a Nintendo cart than an Atari 2600 cart.

Also, unless my memory fails me, the very first rock band-related Atari 2600 game was Journey Escape. Yes, I know it’s pathetic and sad that I remember these things. Yet I do. Get off my lawn, junior.

Here’s the essay this picture comes from.

On Being the Stargate Universe Creative Consultant: Get Your Questions In

Me, pointing at the Stargate room last January. Photo: Joe Mallozzi

Update: First set of answers up here. I may do a second set on Friday, so feel free to pose a question that hasn’t already been answered.

As you may have heard, I’m the Creative Consultant for Stargate: Universe, which debuts this Friday night on the Syfy channel here in the US (and on the Space channel in Canada, and on Sky 1, uh, wherever it is Sky 1 does its thing). I thought it might be fun to finally get around to answering some of your questions about what a “creative consultant” does on a television show (or at least, what one does when I am him) and other things about SG:U that you may want to know about.

So: Got any questions? Leave them for me in the comment thread. I’ll go through them later today and write up a Q&A for tomorrow. You can also send them to me in e-mail if you prefer.

Go on, don’t be shy. Ask away.

Liar Out Today

It’s a busy day for excellent books hitting the market – Harry Connolly’s Child of Fire (today’s Big Idea feature) and Cherie Priest’s Boneshaker are just two examples — but I also want to make sure I take a little time to mention Liar, by Justine Larbalestier, which also hits today. I mention it to you not only because Justine’s one of my favorite Australians of all time — and heck, I like a lot of Australians — but also because I’m of the opinion that this is her best book yet, which is saying a fair amount because she’s written a number of good books. It’s not just me who thinks so, either: The book got starred reviews from Publishers Weekly, Kirkus and School Library Journal, and foreign rights were secured for seven languages before publication. That’s not a bad trick.

Here’s an excerpt, from Justine’s site, and here’s a page with all those reviews gushing over the book. I do hope you’ll check it out. This is a really good book.

The Big Idea: Harry Connolly

This is one of those “in the family” moments – Harry Connolly is a long-time commenter here at Whatever, who has also been plugging away at the writing thing all the way. It’s paid off today with the publication of his debut fantasy novel Child of Fire, which earned a big fat starred review from Publishers Weekly (“[it] will enthrall readers who like explosive action and magic that comes at a serious cost”). Excellent. It’s fun when people you know do well right out of the gate.

How did Child of Fire get that coveted star? In part because of the way Connelly approaches the subject of magic and those who use it: Both in a decidedly non-romantic way. He’s here to explain it all for you.

HARRY CONNOLLY:

I want to talk about negative space.

The most famous use of negative space is probably the Rubin vase but I think the one I want to talk about is a painting called “The Big N” by Al Held. Here it is.

For those of you who don’t want to click on a random link, here’s a brief description: It’s a huge white canvas, nine feet by nine feet, with two tiny black triangles on it. One triangle is on the top edge pointing down, and the other is on the bottom edge pointing up.

Together, those two triangles create, out of all that blank canvas, a really humongous letter N.

I first saw it I was on a school field trip, and my friends and I were just dorky enough to think it a Very Cool Thing. It was one of only two paintings I remember from that trip, but I’ve thought about it often over the years.

See, I construct stories out of negative space.

When I sat down to develop the setting, plot and characters for Child of Fire, my debut novel, I had no clear idea what it was going to be. I knew it would be a contemporary fantasy and I had a very vague idea of the story, but nothing else.

What I had instead were two simple ideas about what I was not going to do. They were my two tiny triangles.

The first triangle (I think of it as the one at the top, but maybe that’s a little weird) was that I wanted a setting without religious magic. In fact, I wanted to push all folklore off the canvas (with one small exception–see below). I didn’t want demons from a Christian Hell or rakshasas or skinwalkers or vampires who cringe away from crosses (seriously, don’t get me started on vampires and crosses). I didn’t want the sorcerers to speak with angels or higher powers, and I saw no reason for them to know all the rules of the afterlife–or if an afterlife even existed. Why should the magical community have certitude where we other people have only faith and skepticism?

Essentially, I wanted a kind of magic that altered the way the universe works, that opened portals into Other Places so unlike our own that humans can’t truly understand what they discover there, and that could call beings to our world that… well, maybe I should save some stuff for the book.

For the second triangle (at the bottom), I decided I wanted to do away with “cool.” No dusters or trench coats. No steel-toed boots. No “leathers.” No centuries-old katanas, Harley-Davidsons, wide-brimmed hats or all the other trappings that so much of modern urban fantasy uses to signify that characters are seriously kickass-cool people.

Ray Lilly, the protagonist in Child of Fire, isn’t a operative in a secret government agency or a bounty hunter who works the fringes of society. He’s a low-level car thief who tried and failed to go straight after a miserable stint in prison. He’s been forcibly conscripted into working for a sorcerer who hates him, and all he knows at the start of the book is that he’s driving her somewhere so she can murder someone.

And he’s wearing a windbreaker, because what if it gets a little chilly out?

Don’t get me wrong. I have nothing against books with vampires, leather dusters, or swords sheathed on the sides of high-end motorcycles. I buy and read those books, and when they’re very, very good I hug them to my chest on crowded buses without any embarrassment at all.

But I didn’t want to write one.

Oh, and that single exception? A few secondary characters are werewolves, because werewolves freak me right out and no matter how big your idea, every writer should respect the freak out.

—-
Child of Fire: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Powell’s | Indiebound

Read a sample chapter. Visit Harry Connolly’s blog.

Boneshaker Book Giveaway

UPDATE, 1:36pm: All the copies are claimed. But you should still get a copy for yourself in the old-fashioned “go out and buy one” manner, because it’s excellent.

Hey, kids! My pal and Subterranean Press publisher Bill Schafer is having a giveaway of Boneshaker, the absolutely spectacular new novel by Cherie Priest, which officially hits stores tomorrow. Bill’s got 25 copies, and one of them could be yours. Here’s what he has to say about that:

Folks who want a copy (US residents only, sorry) should drop me an email (subpress@gmail.com) with the subject line “BONESHAKER.” In order to be eligible for a copy, they must be willing to read the book in the next two weeks and post a review to Amazon.

Note: when we run promotions like these, we receive far more emails than we can respond to, so please don’t query to see if you’ve won a copy. You’ll just have to wait and see if a happy extra package shows up in your mailbox in the next few weeks.

Don’t delay people! Do it now! NOW!

And also, for those of you who want to know more about the book, check out Cherie’s steampunklicious site The Clockwork Century. We also have Cherie scheduled for a Boneshaker Big Idea in a couple of weeks, so you have that to look forward to as well. Life is good.

The Next Couple of Weeks, Schedulewise

Because I like to get ahead of these things, I should note that this week and next it’s likely to be slow around here, on account that this week, I have a couple of projects I absolutely need to finish up (which will likely involve me yanking out the DSL line for several hours a day until they’re done) and next week I’m at Viable Paradise, brutally dismantling genially encouraging novice science fiction/fantasy writers. I’m busy with work both weeks, basically.

Yes, I know, I always say I’m going to be scarce and end up blogging silly amounts. However a) if I do, it’ll be after I have actual work done, b) it’ll be a bonus. Just managing expectations, is all. That said, over the next couple of weeks I have a lovely line-up of Big Idea entries scheduled, so there’s always that to look forward to. See, even when I’m busy I’m thinking about you. I’m just that way.

Martian Sky

The sky this evening being the shade of salmon that makes one suspect one is on Mars, or in Australia after a dust storm. In fact, this is neither; it’s just a lot of haze right after sunset taking pink rather further up the bowl of the sky than it would normally. Still, nice to have an otherworldly sky, while it lasted.

Dear Toad in My Front Bushes: It’s Totally Not Safe Here

I mean, dude: Did you not see that three cats live here? And cats, as I’m sure you know, love to take toads like you and do all sorts of horrible, unspeakable things with them. Starting with their intestines.

So while I’m perfectly happy to have you around, eating up bugs and look adorable in that bumpy amphibian way of yours, I really do suggest that you head off before one of the trio of obligate carnivores who reside at the house decide they want to make you a gift to us humans. I think neither you nor I want to be part of that gift-giving scenario.

All best,

JS

P.S. Seriously, man. Run.

YBF, PoD and Other Such Acronyms

It was noted to me last week that this year’s edition of Year’s Best Fantasy is published by Tor.com (that is, the Web site, as distinct from Tor Books), and that it is Publish on Demand — which is to say, when you order the book, the call goes out to a printing machine, which whomps it up for you, and then presumably shipped to you whilst it is still warm. I was also asked what I thought of this particular delivery system for books.

Well, I think the more accurate question to ask is: Is it a good delivery system for this book? In the case of YBF, at this point in the series life cycle it may very well be. In a general sense “Year’s Best” anthology numbers have been declining year to year, and in the particular case of YBF, over the last couple of years it’s been distributed by a small press, which almost certainly had an impact on the series distribution and sales numbers. At this point, a shakeup in the way things are done might be in order. That being the case, there are worse things than for this series to hook up with a young and hungry imprint which also happens to be nestled in the bosom of one of the planet’s largest publishing empires.

In a larger sense there are trade-offs. The first trade-off is that when you have a PoD book, at this point you’re writing off bookstores. I imagine one could special order the book from one’s favorite brick-and-mortar store, but on a practical level, the only way to get this book is to buy it online. As someone who has sold books primarily online before (most of my limited work through Subterranean Press, for example) I think it’s doable but it comes with implicit assumptions. In my case, the stuff I do with SubPress is primarily pitched to people who already know my work, not new readers. This fine because the runs are generally meant to be limited in scope. I think in the case of YBF, they’re also going to find themselves primarily pitched to people who are already fans (both in the sense of “SF/F Fandom” and “fans of the series”).

In the short run I don’t suspect it will be a problem; in the long run it may be. One of the reasons that offering stuff primarily to existing fans is not an issue for me is that I still have ScalziProduct™ in the bricks and mortar channel to reach new people, and that my personal presence online, via Whatever/Twitter/Facebook, is still generating new readers. I’m expanding my audience, in other words. YBF also has to do this. It has an engine for this in Tor.com, which I suspect strongly is still growing, but it will still be a challenge.

As for PoD in a general sense, at the moment I think it’s still primarily going to be a small volume business; with one or two exceptions the online sales channel is still tiny relative to the other places books sell through. It will almost certainly grow, although I don’t suspect my as much as some people suspect or possibly hope; I think in the long run most of the lunch PoD is eyeing is going get eaten by eBooks.

That said, for the right project, pitched to the right audience, a PoD book could do just fine. Perhaps YBF is that project.

The Big Idea: Paolo Bacigalupi

If you read science fiction short stories, the name “Paolo Bacigalupi” has become a familiar one recently, in no small part because it keeps cropping up during awards season: four Hugo nominations in five years, Locus and Sturgeon award wins, and general praise from all quarters.

The work in short fiction is the foundation for Bacigalupi’s debut novel The Windup Girl, set in a world where aggressive genetic engineering sometimes leads to crop blights and food shortages — “calorie plagues” — and where that pretty girl you see walking down the street might not be human at all. As with Bacigalupi’s short work, The Windup Girl is already generating enormous praise (“clearly one of the finest science fiction novels of the year,”  wrote Publishers Weekly, which gave the book a coveted starred review) and is already a contender for the next awards season.

So it’s interesting that this book finds its start in something very humble indeed: The work of garlic farmers…

PAOLO BACIGALUPI

The Windup Girl is set in a future Bangkok where sea levels have risen and oil has run out, and where a company man named Anderson Lake is on the hunt for a hidden seedbank. The Thai Kingdom, unlike almost every other country in the world, has managed to fend off the calorie plagues with aggressive isolationist polices, and now—much to the surprise of the calorie companies, who control agriculture—the Thais are engineering their own competing seedstock. Lake wants access to the genetic gold mine of the Thai seedbank, and to find the man who is engineering their plague-resistant crops. Obviously, this isn’t in Thailand’s best interest, and mayhem ensues.

The novel is partly inspired by couple friends of mine who are garlic farmers. Every summer they dig up their garlic crop, separate it into bulk garlic and braids, and sell the majority of it. But a few garlic cloves–the biggest, fattest, finest ones–get saved for planting the following year. The cloves they retain guarantee the future of their garlic farm, and the slow improvement of the crop as it becomes bigger, hardier, and more productive over successive generations. That garlic, grown on a single mesa in Colorado becomes more unique and more productive with every season. It’s the slow version of genetic engineering.

Contrast with this with a major agricultural company like Monsanto or ADM. As opposed to a creating a unique product from a unique place, they’re interested in creating uniform products that will be sold everywhere. And because of profit concerns, they need to do it quickly, with the best technologies available. Of course, engineering something like Roundup Ready soybeans isn’t cheap, so they would very much prefer that farmers not replant the seeds that they develop, because it’s not very profitable if a farmer just keeps recycling the product s/he bought twenty years ago.

These two versions of genetic engineering, both of them for profit, and both of them aimed at increasing crop quality over time, fascinate me. They each have merits, depending on what sort of outcomes you expect from food production, but around the time corporate research created something called the Terminator gene so that farmers could never replant their seeds, I started feeling a little concerned about where we were headed.

Based on what I’ve seen of global food companies, and my own–admittedly megalomaniacal―impulses, I started scheming about how I’d run an international food corporation if I really wanted to get profits rolling. First, I’d want to get rid of competing crops. So I’d manufacture food blights to kill anything that wasn’t my own genetically resistant seedstock. Then I’d bring out the Terminator gene, so that no one could ever replant my patented seed. And then of course I’d jack up the price, and wallow in all that money.

In The Windup Girl, the calorie plagues that some food executive created in a moment of inspiration have evolved and gotten out control. Corporate genehackers are just one step ahead of the next blister rust mutation. Crop blights have jumped from plants to people and now spread with horrifying speed through human populations, and as food becomes more and more centralized in its production and desperately needed in the world, agricultural corporations have become the most powerful organizations on the planet.

Depending on your level of paranoia, this will seem either nuts or all too likely (just don’t put me at the helm of an international corporation). But profit scheming aside, the thing that fascinates me about complex technologies like genetic engineering is how many things can go wrong. Good ideas, even the best ideas, have unexpected and disruptive consequences, and I like seeing how those cascading effects work out in society and on people. As a writer, I love it when things go wrong. So The Windup Girl takes place in a world almost everything has.

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The Windup Girl: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Powell’s

Read sample chapters of the novel. Read “Windup Stories,” two Hugo-nominated tales set in the same world (pdf link).

Moon’s Oscar Chances and More

I’m answering mail in this week’s AMC column, talking about which science fiction movies have a chance at next year’s expanded Best Picture nominee slate (including Moon, pictured above), offering suggestions for good cheap SF films, and speculating on how long 3D will stick around this time. Go on, you know you love to read me ramble on about such things. And of course feel free to leave questions of your own for future “mailbag” entries.

Distant Early Warning

For Torontonians and others of a Canadian persuasion, I will be in your midst in early April 2010 (specifically, the weekend of the 9th 23rd), when I will speak at the Merril Collection, and do other such things of a public and/or science fictional nature. More information to come as details get sorted and we get closer to the date. But I just wanted to put it on your radar.

The Big Idea: Diana Peterfreund

A word for you: “Unicorns.” Did you roll your eyes? Oh, come on, yes you did. And yet, some part of your brain knew that one point, unicorns were actually cool. What happened to them? Can anything be done to return them to their former status?

Diana Peterfreund has a few ideas on the subject, and in her new novel Rampant, she lays them out, offering a take on unicorns that is both new and yet also refreshingly old school. I’d tell you more, but then that’s not why you read these Big Idea pieces — here’s Peterfreund on bringing the sexy back to the unicorn.

DIANA PETERFREUND:

I feel sorry for unicorns. No other mythical monster has suffered such brand degradation. Nowadays, unicorns are synonymous with weak, childlike, unrealistic naivety. You don’t see folks dissing dragons the way they do unicorns. No one ever equates griffins with rainbows, glitter, and six year olds. The sphinx isn’t cheesy. But the unicorn? The symbol of kings, the darling of artists, the keeper of a magical horn whose rumored mystical properties once made it worth more than its weight in gold and almost drove a real species (the narwhal) to extinction? The unicorn has become laughable.

I could postulate a dozen theories on why this happened. I could blame Lisa Frank, she of the rainbow-colored unicorn Trapper Keepers. I could talk about our society’s willingness to devalue anything associated with girls or women (dragons, overcome by a knight, are badass; while unicorns, conquered by a damsel, are wimpy). I could discuss how the combination of its lack of fire-breathing reptilian characteristics and its passing resemblance to a pretty horsey might not be doing the creature any favors. Except, it seems even the horse gets more street cred than the unicorn. Think about it. Stallion. Mustang. Charger. Steed. Colt. People don’t name sports teams or cars after unicorns.

But they do for beers: Kirin Ichiban. A kirin is a type of unicorn, with characteristics, magical powers, and legends very, very different than the sparkly, horse-like creature Lisa Frank and Peter S. Beagle have trained us to keep an eye out for. In fact, there are lots of unicorn legends from all over the world, and some of them would make the little old lady with the crystal unicorn figurine on her mantelpiece reach for her smelling salts.

And that’s the Big Idea behind Rampant: these other unicorn legends, the ones that feature unicorns as dangerous creatures, as man-eating beasts. After all, the monster has a big sharp horn on its head. You don’t think there are stories in which the animal uses it?

One day, I stumbled across a description of a mythical monster called a karkadann, a type of unicorn from the Turkish peninsula who sounded—to be honest—more than a little like a rhinoceros. A one-horned beast, it was ravenous and deadly, could kill lions, eat people, and could never be captured or tamed, except by a select few, like maidens…or Alexander the Great. Seems some people had a few theories about Alexander’s famous and beloved warhorse, Bucephalus. Man-eating Bucephalus. Enormous Bucephalus. Bucephalus, which meant “ox-head” in Greek. He may have been called that because he had a horn and was not really a horse at all, but this deadly Macedonian monster. There’s a lot of art depicting Alexander conquering Asia on the back of a unicorn. There’s even more depicting the unicorn Bucephalus surrounded by piles of human bones.

Now there’s a badass unicorn.

And then there’s the little goat-like zhi, or xiezhi, a unicorn of ancient China. During the Han dynasty (~200 B.C.), this unicorn supposedly filled in as judge, jury, and executioner in the courts. It could magically separate the innocent from the guilty, and would gore the latter through the heart. In fact, the modern character for “fa” (“law”) incorporates the ancient symbol of the xiezhi, a symbol that early Chinese magistrates used to wear on their official robes.

Even the Western unicorns of history didn’t necessarily adhere to their modern, glitter-farting reputation. Far more deer-like than horse-like, unicorns were described in medieval bestiaries as possessing dangerous horns and horrible bellows, and being impossible to catch. Sometimes, they were depicted locked in battle with elephants—and winning. No wonder so many people, including the kings of Scotland, put such a fierce creature on their coats of arms.

I visited the Cloisters in New York, where I saw the tapestries depicting a unicorn hunt, a bloody battle in which the unicorn is more than willing to fight back and gore its attackers, be they dog or human. And what of the maiden they use as bait? Many of the bestiaries say the only way to catch a unicorn is to send out a virgin as a lure and wait for the unicorn to come and fall asleep in her lap. There’s tons of medieval and Renaissance art showing a man stabbing—with a long spear, lest anyone missed the metaphor— at a unicorn lying in a young woman’s lap.

The more I looked, the more I discovered a whole world of unicorns that had been practically forgotten. I wanted to bring the monster back to its full glory, to shine a spotlight on all the cool and dangerous myths we’d put aside.

Of course, I also had to find the people for my book, the ones who were going to deal with these very dangerous creatures. And then I remembered the maidens, and thought how unlikely I’d be to just hang out passively and pretend to be bait for a man-eating beast. If I were a maiden who could lure the unicorn in, I could certainly kill the darn thing myself.

So I had unicorns, and I had unicorn hunters. I had a story about revisionist history, about extinction and animal rights, about feminism and society, about monsters and magic. I had all the ingredients for a rip-roaring modern fantasy novel about killer unicorns and the teen girls tapped to stop them from running Rampant.

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Rampant: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Go to the “Killer Unicorns” minisite. Visit Diana Peterfreund’s blog.