Monthly Archives: April 2013

The Big Idea: Wesley Chu

You like odd couples? In The Lives of Tao, author Wesley Chu has got an odd couple for you. A very odd couple.

WESLEY CHU:

I originally had a little trouble pinpointing the Big Idea for The Lives of Tao. Should I use the big idea I had when I first conceived the story, or should I go with the other big idea that manifested at the end? After all, big ideas could morph, couldn’t they?

I’m not great at elevator pitching, so for The Lives of Tao, I developed a little skit between the aliens in the book and humanity:

Alien: I’ve possessed you. Now, do as I command.

Human: Hmm… yeah, no. I don’t think so. I’m going to go watch TV instead.

Alien: But I’m all wise and advanced and…and stuff.

Human: How about this? Make it worth my while.

I’m one of those writers who love to build a mousetrap, plop the little fuzzballs in, and watch them suffer. In The Lives of Tao, I began by asking this: “What if many important historical events since the beginning of time were just part of a war between two alien factions using humanity as pawns in a massive game of chess?”

Now, aliens messing with mankind is a time-honored tradition in science fiction. We’re just so easy to mess with. For some reason, they’re always here to eat us, enslave us, take our resources, or steal our women, and they usually have a pretty easy time of it. After all, they’ve got the ships, technology, and in Joss Whedon’s case, space chariots. Humans only ever win, thanks to good ole’ fashioned ingenuity, in the last thirty minutes of the movie.

So that was my original mousetrap. I had assumed we humans were the mice and the aliens, known as the Quasing, were part of the trap. But then, I made two crucial decisions that changed the entire concept of my original big idea. I decided that, in order to complicate the plot and the relationship between the humans and the aliens, the inhabiting Quasings couldn’t control the humans; they could only talk to them. Then I made it so that once the alien inhabited the human, they couldn’t leave until the human host dies.

Suddenly, the aliens weren’t part of the mousetrap. They were right there alongside the humans trying to figure things out. This is when the big idea morphed. See, it is one thing to be someone in a position of power: when you’re the boss, captain, or leader, you give orders and others follow. Easy as pie. There’s little deviation from that chain of command.

However, what if you’re not the boss? What if you’re an all-wise ancient alien inhabiting a human and you want him to do something, but he refuses? Toss in thousands of years of alien manipulation, a civil war over control of humanity’s evolution, and now the bigger, better mousetrap is set. Time to put the little fuzzballs in and see what happens.

At the beginning of The Lives of Tao, Tao’s host had just died while on a mission for the Prophus, one of the factions fighting in the alien civil war. Unable to survive long in Earth’s atmosphere, Tao fled into the first available human, Roen Tan, an overweight lazy guy meandering through life.

I had created complete histories for Tao and Roen, and wanted to see how their personalities clashed. On one hand, we had Tao who was an all-wise alien who usually inhabited super spies and once had inhabited the likes of Genghis Khan, Lafayette, and the first emperor of the Ming Dynasty. On the other hand, we had Roen, an overweight thirty-something loser who still ate frozen pizzas for dinner, got tongue-tied around women, and sucked wind every time he climbed a couple flights of stairs. As expected, the relationship started out testy, but what grew out of that trial by fire gradually turned into the highlight of the book, and it surpassed every other plot point in the novel.

So in the end, the big idea for The Lives of Tao is about the friendship that grew between Roen and Tao as they worked together to achieve both their objectives. Along the way, Roen helped Tao continue the fight against the humanity-manipulating Genjix while Tao helped turn Roen into a dynamic character who managed to lose weight, develop a stiff jab, find love, and ultimately discover a purpose in life.

All Tao needed to do was give Roen a reason to make it worth his while.

—-

The Lives of Tao: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powells

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s site. Follow him on Twitter.

Fiddly Administrative Post on the Next Several Weeks

But first, a milestone announcement: This is the 8,000th post on this iteration of Whatever. Go me!

Now, then: As most of you know, I have begun my book tour season, with events for the last two weekend, an event this next weekend, and then a full-fledged tour starting the weekend after that (here are the dates on all of that). This will, understandably, likely have an effect on my posting here, as will the work I need to get done between now and the formal start of my tour.

Which means: posts will tend to be shorter and (depending on how far along I am during the tour) possibly a little dazed. Don’t panic; this is all very normal. Things will likely return back to normal once I get back from the main portion of the tour, in June. In the meantime, however, don’t expect too many long, thinky pieces. You may have noticed this already the last couple of weeks.

(Or course having said that I will note that I was at the Nebulas last year when I wrote the “Straight White Male” piece, so honestly, who knows.)

It’s also possible that while I’m on tour I might do something fun (and easily programmable) on a daily basis to keep you all amused, but we’ll see how things go. It’s also possible but somewhat less likely that I may bring in (a) guest blogger(s). We’ll see how that goes, too. And before you ask, please don’t volunteer — if I decide on (a) guest blogger(s), I will ask them directly. There will be Big Idea posts through May.

Finally, I will be trying to keep on top of comments (and/or may bring someone in to help keep on top of comments), so we don’t have to worry about the site becoming a fulsome garden of trollage. That said, on the occasions when I am in one of those backwards aircraft that don’t have wifi or am busy doing an appearance (or, you know, sleeping), a troll might still wander by. Remember that the standard operating procedure is to ignore them until I or my appointed help come along with a Mallet. Please don’t feed the trolls; just let their stupidity stand as its own monument until it gets leveled.

And now you’re all caught up.

The German Cover to The Human Division

Interesting. I do like it, although it’s more about selling the book as science fiction than being 100% accurate to the content of the book (to be fair, there are soldiers in the book). It also keeps with the general German tradition of space ships on my cover, but they aren’t the main focus. They’ve also changed the title, as they sometimes do in Germany. This one means “The Last Unit.”

If you are a German speaker/reader, this edition will be out in December — just in time for Christmas. So that’s one bit of shopping done.

The Human Division Hardcover in the House

Zeus is obviously not impressed. Hey, cat, you’d be impressed if you knew this was paying for your kibble. Not to mention that chair you’re so comfortably napping on. Respect the novel, damn you cat.

Unimpressed cats aside, I have to tell you that I hope we never do go to pure digital output as far as books are concerned, because there really nothing like having a finished, printed, physical copy of your novel in your hands. It’s what makes it really really real. I never get tired of it. I hope I never will.

 

The Big Idea: Martin Berman-Gorvine

Sidewise Award-winning author (and my college classmate) Martin Berman-Gorvine likes playing with time, space and narrative forms, all of which combine not only in his latest novel, Seven Against Mars, but also in this very Big Idea, in which the heroines of his novel, shall we say, have their opinions on the book, reading and several other topics.

MARTIN BERMAN-GORVINE:

I sighed and took my fingers off the keyboard. “Girls, how can I finish this essay for John Scalzi’s blog if you keep interrupting me?” I said.

“But part of the point you’re making is that characters gain a life of their own and take over your story,” 15-year-old Rachel Zilber said in her lilting Polish accent. “So we’re not interrupting, we’re helping you!”

“Yeah, you writers think you’re all that,” Katie Webb said, her Texas Panhandle twang thicker than… I’d better not complete that simile, she’s pretty sensitive to any perceived slights to her country, and in the 22nd century, whence she comes, the Republic of Texas is one powerful piece of the former USA. “But without readers, your stories just lie there on the page like cow flops on my Daddy’s back forty. Ain’t that right, Rachel?”

Rachel’s red curls jiggled as she nodded agreement. “That’s what I found out, Katie. I mean, I sure was surprised when the silly stories I wrote on my typewriter to keep my mind off things…”

“…like the fact the Nazis had you and your parents trapped in the Warsaw Ghetto along with thousands of other Jewish people who hadn’t never done them no harm…”

“…somehow came to life, and I woke up on the jungle planet Venus, where my very surprised hero Zap-Gun Jack Flash practically tripped over me, and then you practically tripped over both of us! But even more surprising was…”

“The fact that your heroine, the beautiful Martian Princess Anya Olympulska, looked just like you and spoke Polish, only she thought she was speaking Martian?”

“She does not look like me—” Rachel said, as Katie snorted— “and stop interrupting, Katie.”

I put my head in my hands and groaned. “I wish you’d both quit interrupting and let me get back to work!” Why did I have to make them teenagers, anyway? I have two teenage sons, you’d think I’d have had my fill of annoying adolescents. But I’ll get my revenge on Rachel and Katie in the sequel, where they’ll have to rescue an even younger, much brattier girl from the tyrant of Venus.

“As I was saying,” Rachel said, “it was even more surprising that once I was there, in my own ‘fictional’ world, I couldn’t make any further changes to it just by writing about them.”

“Less’n you showed them to me first,” Katie put in. I eyed her warily. She was the same age as Rachel, a little shorter even, but with muscles solid from farm work in a country that had gone back to a pre-industrial age. But was her accent always this strong, or was she laying it on a little thick now for some reason? Testing me, maybe, to see if I was apt to confuse a rural diction with low intelligence? I hoped not, partly because I was the one who’d created her but mostly because I didn’t want to wind up with a black eye.

“Oh, and by the way, you can have these back,” Rachel said, handing me books by Roland Barthes and Jacques Derrida. “Neither of us could make head or tail of them.”

“But some people might say that Seven Against Mars is postmodernist science fiction, in the same vein as Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next books or the Zoe Kazan movie ‘Ruby Sparks,’” I said, carefully reshelving the books in the special section of my room I reserve for books I swear I’m going to get around to reading but never do.

“It’s a lot of hogwash, you ask me,” Katie said. “And I’ve washed a lot of hogs in my time, and let me tell you, when I’m done that water don’t half stink. I ain’t surprised I ain’t never heard of Monsieur Bar-thees and Monsieur Derriere in the universe Rachel and I live in, ’cause their stuff must come from some parallel universe where people find French literary theory interesting!”

I wasn’t surprised she felt that way. Postmodern theory never held much appeal for me, even when I had to study it as an English major at the University of Chicago, and in recent decades many of the novels written in this mode seem to have devolved into a game for readers, albeit a game with all the fun drained out of it.

“It’s not a game for us,” Rachel put in, as if reading my mind. “We only wanted to use our ‘powers’ to rescue our parents from the real world—mine from the Nazis and Katie’s from a bunch of marauding Alabamans.”

“Don’t give away the whole story, Rachel,” Katie said. “We still want people to read the book. It’s got an evil villain it, and laser guns, and space battles, and that dangerous mix of virgins and live volcanoes. What’s the matter? What did I say?”

Rachel was turning redder than the planet Mars.

—-

Seven Against Mars: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Visit the book’s Web page. Visit the blog of the book’s characters. Follow the author on Twitter.

It’s Friday! Time for Reminders!

And here they are!

One! You only have until Sunday to pre-order from Jay and Mary’s Book Center to get signed, personalized copies of The Human Division from me! Here are the details!

Two! Remember I will be in Chicago starting today for events at the University of Chicago (today) and C2E2 (tomorrow)! Here are the details for that!

Three! Hey, it’s soon to be the weekend! Relax and enjoy life!

Four: If you use too many exclamation points, they take them away from you for a while. Yes, I can now not use exclamation points until Monday. I know, right?

Be excellent to each other; I’ll probably check in a bit later in the day.

My Weekend Schedule at C2E2 and University of Chicago

Hey, if you’re in the Chicagoland area this weekend, you’ll have a chance to see me at C2E2, where I will be signing and doing a panel, and, if you are a University of Chicago student, at the UofC, where I will be doing a chat. Here is my official schedule.

Friday at University of Chicago:

4:00pm: Roundtable discussion, Taft House, Midway Room 108.

Please note this is for University of Chicago students only — and if you are a student, they would surely love for you to RSVP (so they know how many snacks to get). Here’s where to RSVP online.

 

Saturday at C2E2:

4:30pm: FUTURTISTIC FRIGHT: Science-Fiction Novelists Imagine Far-Future Worlds

Panel Location: W475b

Speakers: Alex Hughes, John Scalzi

Moderator: Colleen Lindsay

Description: Get your fill of Telepaths, Tech Wars, space odysseys and alien forces on this science fiction panel. What happens when technology takes over, aliens invade, and civilizations are on the brink of destruction? Authors discuss the technological catastrophes, supernatural occurrences, and galaxy quests in the pages of their science-fiction.

6:00pm: Signing (in the autograph area).

I’m also likely to be around for at least part of Sunday, wandering around and causing no end of mischief.

See you in Chicago, folks!

 

The Lowest Difficulty Setting as Teaching Tool

This is interesting: Writer and teacher Samantha Allen assigns my “Straight White Male: The Lowest Difficulty Setting There Is” piece in her Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies 100 class (along with her own, similar article) and then as a teaching exercise runs her students through Halo, with the game set at varying difficulties, to see if a video game can actually be a useful teaching tool with regard to discussing privilege and intersectionality.

Did it work? Read for yourself. This is worth sharing around, I think.

The Big Idea: Josin McQuein

Today’s metaphor for ideas comes to you from Josin L. McQuein, author of the new YA science fiction book Arclight. And what is that metaphor? Hint: They are small, they are many, and if you are not careful, they are coming for you — or at least at you, in their multitudes. Prepare yourself.

JOSIN L. McQUEIN:

I got my first big idea when I was an idiot.

I was a teenager, and had come to the conclusion that getting paid to make stuff up was the best invention of all time, so I was going to be a writer – YAY!

Honestly, that was entirety of my thought process. I wanted to write a novel. Any novel. The characters didn’t matter. The plot didn’t matter. Someone hand me a pencil and get out of my way. Unfortunately, those things that didn’t matter kind of did, and there was no story without them. Besides, novels were too long – I’d never be able to write that many words.

I was stuck.

Then the ants came.

They came by the thousands, descending on a rain forest hikers’ hostel in South America, skittering down walls in the pitch black of midnight. They terrified with their silence and their numbers. They spread out, filling every space, and covering every surface – human skin, included. And as they spread, they consumed. With one unimaginably tiny mouthful multiplied by a seeming infinity at a time, they devoured all of the vermin in the hotel – rats several thousand times their size, and scorpions who, by right, should have been the higher predator.

Even the hikers weren’t immune, because no matter how many they stomped, or sprayed, or torched, there were more ants waiting to replace the dead, and they had absolutely no aversion to trying a bite or twelve of human-on-the-run. By the time the sun came up, the hostel had become a battleground, barely held, where the humans chose to make their stand against the horde. In the silence that followed the struggle, they found themselves less victors, and more survivors left behind in a place that was fundamentally changed.

They were changed.

They had seen the superiority of human ingenuity fall to something that, in its individual form, was miniscule – insignificant. But together, all of those teeny tiny pieces became something fearsome and unstoppable.

And that became the big idea that mattered – the one that said “big” was the wrong way to go.

Rather than having a society fall to ruin beneath their own Tower of Babel, I wanted to go the other way, touting the brilliance of things that got smaller and smaller until those things could slip between particles, and alter the fundamental definition of reality.

Viruses were tiny enough to fit the bill, but those had been run into the ground lately. I wanted something different; I wanted my devourer. I wanted my ants with their singular focus and hive mind. And I had just enough knowledge of fact and fiction to create a use for them by pairing them off with nanotech run amok.

I started pulling scenes from different pieces I’d kept for years, and stitched them into a sort of Franken-novel that made absolutely no sense. (Zombies in space! Now, with extra vampires! Don’t ask about the unicorn. Seriously, you don’t want to know…) But it was a real start, and bit-by-tiny-bit, those ridiculous pieces transformed into something else.

A new setting came with hearing descriptions of the claustrophobia accompanying gradual blindness. Instead of starting the characters in a void, they were now on the edge of one, watching their world grow darker by the day. They’d fight it, of course, clinging to the daylight world they knew, but would also always be faced with the inevitability that the darkness was coming for them.

Local and world news fell into the mix, highlighting the dangers of viewing the world through the lens of a single opinion held by a single person. I wanted to explore how quickly paranoia can turn to mass madness, and how a charismatic individual with motives that seem logical, or at least well intentioned, can destroy a community. And with that, a queen stepped up to lead my little hive.

Each new idea bumped and jostled the others into line, creating the friction required for conflict, until, one day, I read through my notes and scribbles and realized they were all running together on a thousand tiny feet. Things clicked. They were no longer random pages or paragraphs or things I’d hastily written down while half-asleep. They’d become something both massive and cohesive, with a momentum I couldn’t stop.

I had characters! I had a plot! (I had an over attachment to ellipses, but I swear I’m getting help…) The important part was that the girl who couldn’t write a novel, now had one in her hands. And in the end, thanks to all of those little ideas, I finally had a big one.

—-
Arclight: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s blog. Follow her on Twitter.

Big Idea Gender Breakdown

Via Annalee Newitz’s Twitter feed, I see that Strange Horizons has done a gender breakdown of reviews in SF publications, and learns that more sf/f by men is reviewed than sf/f by women. This made me curious as to how my Big Idea feature here at Whatever has been doing, gender-wise, in terms of authors/editors featured.

So I tallied up the gender of writers who contributed Big Idea pieces between 4/23/12 and 4/24/13 (I’m counting tomorrow’s Big Idea piece, as I already have it in hand). Here’s how it turned out:

44 men wrote or co-wrote Big Idea pieces during that span of time;

48 women wrote or co-wrote Big Idea pieces.

Some notes on that: One, Big Idea pieces aren’t reviews, although they perform one of the publicity-related functions of reviews, i.e., raising awareness of the work in question. Also, not every Big Idea piece was for a science fiction or fantasy work, although most were (there were several works in other genres, including non-fiction), and a couple of them were for non-books, including one for a video game and one for a calendar. The male/female division on individual works featured is closer to 50/50 because three Big Ideas were co-written by women who wrote/edited the same book, while one book was co-written by a man and a woman.

(No trans authors in the mix, so far as I am aware; if there were I would have tallied them by their preferred gender. No authors who would identify as genderfluid, as far as I know.)

I should also note that I don’t generally actively check to see if I’ve gender-balanced Big Idea posts over any span of time; I mostly operate the Big Idea on a “first-come, first-served” basis in terms of slotting people in. It would be interesting to see whether the gender balance of the Big Idea feature is this balanced over time. Someone else will need to check that, however, since I’m not planning to do it at the moment.

But in any event, interesting data. And I don’t mind admitting being happy that the Big Idea gender mix seems to be mostly balanced.

Reminder About Signed Books From Jay & Mary’s Plus a Plea to Those Going to My Tour Events

First: Remember that through April 28 — that’s this upcoming Sunday — you can pre-order The Human Division hardcover from Jay & Mary’s Book Center (my hometown indie bookseller) and I will happily sign and personalize the book for you. All the details are here.

Second: If you are coming to see me on my book tour this May (tour itinerary here) and plan to have me sign books for you, may I make a small request?

Please purchase your copy of The Human Division from the store you will see me at.

The reason for this is simple: I want the store to see some benefit to me showing up. If you show up to the store with copies of the book that you bought elsewhere, and don’t otherwise buy any books from the store itself, then you’re not making a good argument for the store to bring in authors. And that will be no good for me, or for other authors who might otherwise come through town.

I’m not saying you have to wait until I show up in your town to buy the book; go ahead and buy it from the store earlier and then bring it in on the day of my appearance. Likewise, you can always pre-order the book from the bookstore and they will have it for you on the day or release or on the day I’m in town.

But please, support the bookstores that are gracious enough to lend me their space and attention. Buy the new book there. And maybe some of the other books I’ve written. Heck, even buy a few books I didn’t write! But let them know you appreciate that they are there. It actually does matter.

Thanks.

Yardwork, 4/23/13

No, not by me. I have allergies (which reminds me, time to take my Claritin for the day. Okay, there we go). But others are here to do a little work for me. This fellow for example, is doing a bit of reseeding; there are some bald patches in the lawn due to a few years of heat damage and dry spells, and if you leave them too long you start having erosion and other problems. So this guy’s out there putting down new seed over those spots. And not bad timing at all, because tonight and tomorrow have showers in the forecast, followed by a couple of days of temperate, partly sunny skies. Perfect for seed to take root. Grow, little grass, grow.