Author David J. Schwartz is offering his latest, Gooseberry Bluff Community College of Magic: The Thirteenth Rib, as an Amazon Kindle Serial: Buy it, and every couple of weeks a new episode drops into your eReader. A neat concept (and I know from episodic content), but what’s the story? Well, as Schwartz explains, head to the 1940s… and swerve.
DAVID J. SCHWARTZ:
I don’t know about you, but I spend an embarrassing amount of time wishing some things had never happened, or had happened differently. Part of what’s embarrassing is that a lot of these events I think about changing happened in high school, and the changes I would make mostly have to do with helping me appear a lot more With It than I was then or indeed ever have been since. My own personal alternate history, in other words, with divergence points like that time in ninth grade when–to be honest, I’ve blocked most of those things out by now. Trauma, you know.
A divergence point, as you probably know, is the event upon which an alternate history hinges. Take the battle of Gettysburg. Back in 1931 Winston Churchill wrote an essay from the point of view of an historian in a world where the Confederacy won the American Civil War, titled “If Lee Had Not Won the Battle of Gettysburg.” Alternate histories tend to focus on big events, because big events tend to have more consequences. Lee wins at Gettysburg, so the South wins the war, so–well, that changes everything. And that’s how science fiction is supposed to work: you change one thing and explore the implications.
My serial Gooseberry Bluff Community College of Magic: The Thirteenth Rib isn’t science fiction; it’s contemporary fantasy with an alternate-history backstory. The primary divergence point, and in some ways the central idea for the entire world and story, is this: there was a top secret research project in the United States during World War II, but its object wasn’t the development of an atomic bomb. Instead, a team of magicians–including the late Aleister Crowley–found a way to weaponize demonic energy. As a result, magic has at least temporarily supplanted science as the preferred way of doing things. Instead of microwave ovens there are salamander-powered MagicWaves. Teleportation (known as “portalling”) is mainstream. Computers and the internet exist, but aren’t as reliable–or as relied upon–as in our world. Cellphones were never invented, but most people carry personally attuned crystals that allow them to place person-to-person calls–they never drop a call, but there is the occasional problem with ghosts picking up the line.
As you might imagine, magic has become a gateway for dozens of careers. File clerks and travel agents get certified in Spatial Distortion. Want a job with Dow or GE? An Alchemy degree might get your foot in the door. If you want to freelance for the rich and famous, putting up security wards around their lavish homes, Security Magic might be the path for you.
The school of the title is, in many ways, an unremarkable one for its world. It’s located in Gooseberry Bluff, Minnesota, just across the St. Croix River from Wisconsin. It’s more or less a technical school, not a fancy school for higher magic studies, like its crosstown rival, Arthur Stag College. It’s a good school as trade schools go, but not one that attracts much attention, until a couple of events attract the attention of the Federal Bureau of Magical Affairs.
That’s another thing that Aleister Crowley did, in this world; the U.S. government was so pleased with his research in weaponizing demonic energy that they asked him to head up a new law-enforcement agency, charged with protecting the public from the threats and abuses of magic. And there are plenty of those. Among the most frightening and mysterious are the Heartstoppers, terroristic attacks in which dozens–sometimes hundreds–of people are left lifeless, though not technically dead. The attacks are fueled by demonic energy, and have taken place all over the globe.
That’s the world in which my protagonist, undercover FBMA agent Joy Wilkins, has to maneuver. It’s a world that’s been dealing with the implications and complications of magic for seventy years, and I try to reflect that. Some of the most fun I’ve had with the story has been in making up things like the Magical Currency Destabilization Act, figuring out how a conflict over magical/intellectual property rights might influence an interrogation, or all the utterly awesome ways in which libraries might exploit magic to, say, make Inter-Library Loans obsolete by enabling you to simply walk through the stacks to the library in the next town.
Joy has her own built-in challenges. She’s a rookie agent who comes into Gooseberry Bluff to investigate the disappearance of a professor and the illegal trafficking of demons. She sees auras, but she has trouble with faces; she has prosopagnosia, or face blindness. In a way, I think that has determined what this story is about, at least thematically: it’s about the deception of appearances. The deeper she gets into her investigation, the more difficulty she has deciding who to trust, and where to turn for help.
That’s the story, but the story doesn’t happen without the world, and the world of Gooseberry Bluff is built on that simple science fictional premise. Demons instead of atoms. That could change everything.
Gooseberry Bluff Community College of Magic: The Thirteenth Rib: Amazon