The Big Idea: Jacqueline Carey

Shakespeare is a font of inspiration for writers, not only for the words he put to paper, but for the worlds built around the words. For her new novel Miranda and Caliban, Jacqueline Carey explores the world of The Tempest, one of the bard’s greatest plays. What does she find there? Here she is to tell you.

JACQUELINE CAREY:

In William Shakespeare’s The Tempest, the action of the entire play unfolds over the course of a single day. But what happened in the twelve years on the island leading up to that day? Why does the magus Prospero keep his daughter Miranda ignorant of her history? Why does he take the supposedly monstrous Caliban under his wing, and keep him there after Caliban attempts to rape Miranda?

Telling the story of those twelve years and answering those questions was my Big Idea.

From the beginning, I had a strong sense that this story ought to be told in the alternating narrative voices of the two characters in whom I was most interested, Miranda and Caliban.  I also wanted to work within the structural confines of Shakespeare’s text, which presented an immediate challenge, as we’re told in The Tempest that Caliban didn’t possess the gift of language until Prospero and Miranda taught it to him. But challenges are interesting things, because they force you to stretch and grow as a writer.

I envisioned my Caliban as we first encounter him not as a grown man, but a “wild boy,” as Miranda calls him; essentially, a feral child born on the island and left to fend for himself after the death of his mother. In the course of researching children raised without human contact, I learned that children who had acquired language skills prior to their isolation were in some cases able to reacquire them.

This, then, determined the arc of my two narrative voices. Over the course of the book, Miranda grows from a precocious, tender-hearted six-year-old girl to a frustrated young woman grappling with adult issues she hasn’t been given the tools to understand, and her voice reflects this evolution. By contrast, Caliban’s voice emerges in a halting and tentative fashion, at first a mere handful of words repeated in a rhythmic manner. At times in The Tempest, he sings ditties to himself and I chose to incorporate that element, giving his evolving narrative voice a singsong quality laced with guttural and susurrant notes, a tendency toward onomatopoeia, and an inconsistent grasp of grammar and tense.

I gave him desire.

I gave him anger, too.

Once you start delving under the surface, there are a lot of ideas to be unpacked in The Tempest. Many scholars believe that Shakespeare was influenced by the essays of Michel de Montaigne, one of the early proponents of the “noble savage” notion of humanity, which provided one motive for Prospero’s academic interest in Caliban, a figure raised without the benefit—or taint—of human civilization.

Speaking of Prospero, the nature of his magic was another one of the greatest challenges this book presented me. Although the magus is a distant, cold and controlling character in my vision, I wanted to offer a genuine depiction of a Renaissance magician, so I immersed myself in the study of Renaissance magic.

That shit is mad complicated, you guys.

And the complex chemistry and detailed mathematical calculations involved in alchemy and astronomy don’t lend themselves to good storytelling, so I chose to focus on the one element of Renaissance magic that offered the most vibrant symbolism—the depiction of specific images representing the decans of the thirty-six degrees of the Zodiac utilized to evoke celestial correspondences.

See what I mean?

But it was a decision that allowed me to give my Miranda greater agency within her own story. I made her an artist, a painter, a keen observer of the natural world, able to translate the image of a slit-eyed goat into a proud-necked horse, of a hissing and coiled serpent into a defiant and foot-trodden dragon.

To what end?

That, she does not know.

Yet.

—-

Miranda and Caliban: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s page. Follow her on Twitter and Facebook. View the book trailer here.

The View From the Top of Amazon’s Heap

Yesterday nine of my novels were on sale for $2.99 in ebook format, across a bunch of different retailers, but most prominently on Amazon, because, well, Amazon. Amazon has a number of different ways to make authors feel competitive and neurotic, one of which is its “Amazon Author Rank,” which tells you where you fit in the grand hierarchy of authors on Amazon, based (to some extent) on sales and/or downloads via Amazon’s subscription reading service. And yesterday, I got to the top of it — #1 in the category of science fiction and fantasy, and was #4 overall, behind JK Rowling and two dudes who co-write business books. Yes, I was (and am still! At this writing!) among the elite of the elite in the Amazon Author Ranks, surveying my realm as unto a god.

And now, thoughts!

1. To begin, it won’t last. The thing that got me into the upper echelons of the Amazon rankings was an unusual sale of a large number of my books for what is (for me) a very low price point, and that sale is meant to be of a short duration, i.e., one day. When that price point goes away, my Amazon sales will go back to their usual level, and my Amazon Author Rank will decline to its usual ranking, which is — well, it kind of bounces around a bit, because honestly that’s what most Amazon Author Rankings do. I’m often somewhere in the top 100 for science fiction, but I’m often somewhere not in the top 100, either.

2. Why? Got me, and this is the point I often make to people about Amazon Author Rankings (and other various rankings on the site): They’re super opaque. I mean, in this case, there’s a direct correlation between my $2.99 sale and the boost in my author ranking. But it’s also the case that sales are not the only criterion — a large number of top Amazon authors are ones who sign their books up for Amazon’s subscription service, for which they don’t make sales, but make money based on however Amazon decides to track engagement with the book via Kindle. How much is that criterion weighted versus sales? I don’t know, nor, I suspect, does anyone outside Amazon, nor do we know what other criteria go into the rankings.

3. This opacity works for Amazon because it keeps authors engaged, watching their Amazon Author Rankings go up and down, and getting little spikes or little stabs as their rankings bounce around. I mean, hell, I think it’s neat to have a high ranking, and I know it’s basically nonsense! But I do think it’s important for authors to remember not to get too invested in the rankings because a) if you don’t know how it works, you don’t know why you rank as you do, at any particular time, b) it’s foolish to be invested in a ranking whose mechanism is unknown to you, c) outside of Amazon, the ranking has no relevance.

4. Which is also a point I think people forget about: Amazon, despite its dominant position in the bookselling industry (particularly in eBook), is not the entire market. Regardless of my day-to-day Amazon ranking, I generally sell pretty well and pretty steadily in book stores and other eBook retailers, and in audio and in translation, none of which is tracked by Amazon for its rankings. Most authors who are not wholly committed to Amazon via its subscription service likewise have outside sales and attention channels. It’s in Amazon’s interest to keep authors’ gaze on it, and especially to have authors sign on to its subscription service, with a bump in Amazon Author ranking a potential and implicit part of that deal.

5. This doesn’t make Amazon malign, incidentally. Amazon’s gonna Amazon. And in a mild defense of Amazon, one reason that Amazon’s rankings, of authors and books, weighs so heavily on the psyches (and neuroses) of authors is that author-related data in publishing is often either equally opaque (in the case of publishers) or effectively non-existent (in the case of self-publishing, which would rely on thousands of authors accurately self-reporting data to some informational clearinghouse). I mean, here’s Amazon saying “Look! We have rankings! Tons of rankings! Rankings for every possible subdivision of writing! And your book is probably a top ten bestseller in one of those!” Amazon gets authors. Authors love validation, even if that validation comes in the form of a “bestseller” label in a genre subdivision so finely chopped that the ranking is effectively a participation ribbon. As I write this, Old Man’s War is #1 in the following Amazon subdivision: “Kindle Store > Kindle eBooks > Science Fiction & Fantasy > Science Fiction > Military > Space Fleet” That’s pretty finely chopped, and I might argue not especially useful (there’s not really a “space fleet” subgenre in SF). But if I were a newer author, I’d be thrilled! Even as an established author, it doesn’t suck! Hell yeah, space fleets!

6. The flip side of all of this is that it’s very easy, if you’re the sort of personality inclined to do so, to transmorgify your Amazon ranking into a dick-waving contest. Every now and again I see authors who don’t like me much crow about beating me or one of my books in an Amazon ranking, as if this were a sort of personal victory against me. My responses to this tend to be, a) congrats, b) you know it’s not actually a contest, right, c) and if you want to assert that it is anyway, well, then, bless your heart. If you believe the world is truly a zero-sum contest in which evanescent book/author rankings promulgated by a corporation for its own interests represent the final word on your self-worth, which apparently must be assessed in relation to me (or any other author you might have a bug up your ass about), then please, take this victory. I want you to have it. Everyone else should maybe not do that.

7. Which is not to say one shouldn’t have fun with rankings, when the opportunity presents itself:

8. And that’s really the point of Amazon Author Rankings (and other rankings Amazon might offer): Enjoy them when they’re up but don’t stress about them when they’re down. One’s writing career will have many moving parts, and Amazon’s rankings are only about Amazon’s part in that, and then only opaquely. I’m having fun being at the top of Amazon’s heap. It won’t last, and when it doesn’t, I’ll still be fine. And I’ll still be writing.

One Day eBook Sale: Old Man’s War series + Redshirts, Lock In and Fuzzy Nation, $2.99 Each

Hey, if you live in the United States or Canada and like your books in electronic form, then for today only (February 11, 2017), a whole bunch of my ebooks are on sale for $2.99 each. Which books?

Old Man’s War
The Ghost Brigades
The Last Colony
Zoe’s Tale
The Human Division
The End of All Things
(So, really, the entire Old Man’s War series of novels. Plus:)
Fuzzy Nation
Redshirts
Lock In

Which is a very large number of my books you can get really cheaply, today.

Where can you get this price? Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Google Play, iBooks and Kobo. Basically, pick your favorite online retailer.

(Canada, I only checked Amazon for you. It’s also $2.99, Canadian.)

So, a fine day to add to your collection of Scalzi eBooks! Enjoy! And also hurry, this deal is only for today.

Today’s New Books and ARCs, 2/10/17

As we move into the weekend, here’s another stack of fine books and ARCs that have recently come into the Scalzi Compound. Which of these titles moves you? Tell us all in the comments!

Three Weeks Into Trump’s America

Hey, Scalzi! It is I, your fake interlocutor! I wish to ask you about your thoughts on Trump and the news this week!

Ugh. I mean, okay? I guess?

You don’t sound excited!

I’m at this place where I do want to talk about what’s going on with our government, and at the same time I don’t, because it’s fucking tiring and depressing to think about for longer than a tweet.

Well, you have been tweeting about politics a lot. 

Exactly — bang out 140 characters, say something snarky, and then bug the hell out. But, fine, let’s talk about stuff in a slightly-longer-than-tweet form.

Hooray! First up: Thoughts on the 9th Circuit Court stay on Trump’s Muslim ban?

Unsurprising.

That’s… not longer than a tweet.

Fine. It’s not surprising for me for two reasons. One, because the executive order was so sloppily constructed, and so clearly targeting Muslims as Muslims, that the constitutional issues with it were obvious to even a layman such as myself (Also, pro tip: If you don’t want your executive order limiting travel from seven Muslim-majority countries to be seen as an actual ban on Muslims, maybe don’t call it a ban when you tweet about it and maybe don’t have one of your pals brag about how cleverly you made a ban on Muslims without actually saying “DUDE THIS IS SO TOTALLY A MUSLIM BAN” in the executive order itself).

Two, because the administration’s argument to the 9th Circuit vis-a-vis the executive order was basically “not only should you pretend that Trump and his pals never said this was a ban elsewhere, but you shouldn’t even be able to review the constitutionality of this executive order for reasons,” followed by an attempted Jedi handwave designed to block the memory of the Constitution and two centuries of precedent regarding judicial review. Unsurprisingly! This did not work! Nor should it have. And now as a result, we have a circuit court very firmly on the record as saying that the Trump administration’s attempted rule by executive order is not going to be the fast track to blithely uncontested authoritarianism that they hoped it would be.

What about the Supreme Court?

What about it?

They could overturn the 9th!

Yeah, but they probably won’t. Even if one were to assume a standard ideological split (which I wouldn’t in this case but even so), it would be 4-4, and in the case of ties, the lower court stay would stand. But in this particular case, if SCOTUS takes it up at all, I think it’s more likely to see a 6-2 or 7-1 or even (really unlikely because Thomas is Thomas but still) a unanimous ruling because, again, one substantial part of the Trump administration’s argument is “the courts shouldn’t be able to review executive orders” — or at least this one, because national security, harumph harumph. I don’t see the Supreme Court, the highest judicial platform of our nation, saying, “oh, right, we shouldn’t do our job,” especially when told this by the nincompoops of this administration, and especially with such a bullshit, poorly-constructed executive order like this one, and especially especially when the administration’s evidence that this executive order is necessary for the protection of the nation is “trust us on this.” I mean, these motherfuckers literally cannot find light switches in the White House conference rooms.

So, really, no. I don’t see the Supreme Court siding with the Trump administration on this. Nor should they.

You’ve been wrong before.

Yes I have.

Speaking of the Supreme Court, any thoughts on Neil Gorsuch?

Uuuuuhhhh, he’s probably the best-case scenario for the Supreme Court in this particular adminstration?

But how can you say that? He’s a conservative! 

I don’t know how to break it to you, but we elected a GOP president. Also, I’m not saying he’s my choice for the Supreme Court. What I am saying is that we’re goddamned lucky Trump didn’t offer up someone from his own stable of cronies, because he doesn’t know anyone else. Gorsuch appears to be a solid, legit choice for the Court, who I am very sure will take sides on rulings that I will be entirely unhappy with.

But Merrick Garland!

Garland should be on the court, yes. He’s not. He’s not going to be.

The Democrats should block Gorsuch! Just like the GOP blocked Garland!

I don’t think that will be possible in the long run, and I think the nation is generally best served with the Court at full capacity. If they want to try, I don’t think it’s going to hurt them much, politically. But the Democrats are also in the minority in the Senate, which I suspect matters.

What do you think about Gorsuch’s “Fascism Forever” club in high school?

You know, when I was in high school, I put out a flyer for “The Elitist Club,” which I meant as a joke, but which some kids at my school signed up for, because they didn’t know it was a joke. It was an obnoxious bit of humor on my part, but that was it. Knowing that about my own past as a smug teenage dude, I’m willing to cut Gorsuch a little slack for being an asshole back in the day; his club name was even more obnoxious than mine, but as far as I know he wasn’t in fact goosestepping around the quads as a kid.

Also, as a general rule, barring actual criminal activity or an active thread of asshole behavior from then to now (see: Ted Cruz), I’m usually willing to say what happens in high school and college stays there. I did a lot of asshole things in high school and college myself; I don’t know that they’re entirely indicative of who I am as a 47-year-old person engaged in the adult world.

Thoughts on the cabinet hearings?

They’re actually going better than I expected!

But DeVos! And Sessions! And Price in the middle of the night!

The fact Mike Pence had to drag his ass over to Capitol Hill to push DeVos over into the win column is a pretty substantial thing. I would have preferred her not getting the nod, but all things considered this was a decent showing by the Democrats. Likewise Sessions, for which there was only one defection, and the vote on Price was similarly lopsided. I don’t think that vote happening in the middle of the night matters for anything, incidentally; the vote totals wouldn’t have changed, and it’s not like people didn’t find out in the morning.

Anyway, look: The Democrats are in the minority right now. If they held the Senate, things might be different, but they don’t. Be happy they seem to have found their spines. Their spine-finding is going to be important over the next few years, especially because, if memory serves, 25 of them are up for re-election in ’18.

Okay, time for some quick takes.

Do it.

Flynn talking to the Russians about sanctions?

Stupid, possibly illegal, and in any other administration would be grounds for him to be removed. He will not be removed.

Conway pimping Ivanka’s fashion brand?

Really stupid, definitely against the rules, and in any other administration would be grounds for her to be removed. She will not be removed.

Spicer lying his motherfucking ass off all the time in the press room?

Also appallingly stupid, not against rules, but again in any other administration he’d be fired. And he might eventually be fired because apparently Trump doesn’t like him much! And I suspect that on that day, he will say thank you Jesus to himself and then wander off to be a talking head and write a memoir.

I will note that of all the people in the administration, I feel sorry for Spicer the most — I think he has a thankless task where people like Flynn and Conway (and DeVos and Sessions, etc) are actively malign. But on the other hand, he took the job, so I only feel a little sorry for him, and less so every single time he opens his goddamn lying mouth.

Bannon?

Man, don’t get me started on that racist piece of shit right now. I will be here all day.

Trump: possible dementia?

This is a thing that’s going around, I know. One, I’m nowhere near qualified to make an assessment; two, you know what? I don’t want to give him an excuse for being such an awful president. Unless definitely shown otherwise by medical experts, I am going to assume that Trump is both in complete charge of his faculties, and a historically awful president.

Is Trump the Worst President Ever™?

I still hold that spot for James Buchanan, who broke the country in a way that required fighting a war to fix, and also we’re still just three weeks into this administration, so it might be a little early for definitive pronouncements. But it’s also pretty clear that just three weeks in, if Trump is not the worst president since Buchanan, it’s not for lack of trying. His administration is hopelessly corrupt, he’s incurious and a bigot, his advisers are motherfucking white nationalists who aren’t even trying to hide that fact, and he literally has no idea what he’s doing.

In a way it’s exhilarating! Because this administration is entirely outside the experience of anyone, ever — it’s never been this bad, this fast. But then, it’s easy for me to say it’s exhilarating, since I’m one of those people who will be the last to be affected by the immense damage this administration has the potential to cause, and is indeed already causing. Let’s face it: Trump and his party pals are all in for me, Mr. Straight White Rich Dude, whether I want that or not. It’s everyone else they’re screwing, especially if they have a skin shade darker than my own fish-pale pallor, and even more so if they’re Muslim.

Again: I’m embarrassed that my president and his administration are corrupt, ignorant bigots, and I’m embarrassed that when given a choice between corrupt, ignorant bigots and not corrupt ignorant bigots, enough of us decided the corrupt, ignorant bigots would somehow be a refreshing change to make the electoral college go in that direction. But here we are, and this is what we’ve got.

Do you have advice for anyone following politics these days?

Briefly, until otherwise proven:

  1. Assume any utterance from Trump is a lie and/or grossly misinformed;
  2. Assume that Trump’s lieutenants will support that lie/ignorance and add their own;
  3. Assume any executive order from Trump is unconstitutional, impractical and unvetted;
  4. Assume the guiding principle of the administration is white power;
  5. Assume the rationale for any administration initiative is “because fuck you, that’s why”;
  6. Assume the Congressional and national GOP organization is all in for each of the above;
  7. Assume this is how it’s going to be until January 20, 2021 at the earliest.

That’s pretty bleak.

Yeah, well. Welcome to your refreshing change.

Last time you wrote on Trump you said you were strangely optimistic. Would you care to revise that statement?

Nope! Three weeks in, as many people want to impeach this asshole as don’t, his unfavorables are up, and GOP congresscritters are literally running away from their constituents, who are angry as hell with what’s going on. Again — Trump and the GOP are in power right now and there’s nothing that can change that in the short run. But in the last week it appears the courts are willing to put on the brakes, the Democrats in Congress are willing to stand up (just a little!) and people are ready to confront the government. Life is not optimal. But it’s better than it would be if everyone was rolling over and just talking it.

So, yeah! I’m still feeling not entirely horrible! Let’s see how long that lasts.

The Big Idea: Kameron Hurley

I start this Big Idea for The Stars Are Legion, by Kameron Hurley, with a disclosure: I liked the book enough to blurb it (you can see the blurb right there on the cover, above). Why did I like it? Well, as it happens, Kameron’s piece today will go a long way to explain.

KAMERON HURLEY:

Humans are not suited for travel between the stars. We are fleshy bags of delicate meat, able to survive within a limited temperature range, and we are particularly sensitive to the circadian rhythms of our own planet; many of us get depressed, angry, even suicidal, when confined to dark, tight spaces. We require clean air, constant nutrition, and water in abundance. These are not optimal survival characteristics for a species that wants to navigate the extremes of space.

The cold equations can be depressing, but we must also discuss the assumptions that led us to make those equations in the first place before we dismiss our options. To make epic space operas work in the past, many writers have relied on advances in powering dead hunks of metal around in a vacuum, hand-waving the laws of physics as we currently understand them and the limitations of our own bodies and psychology to simply get us where we need to go for the story to start. Kim Stanley Robinson addressed these limitations succinctly in his article, “Our Generations Ships will Sink” and explored the issue in his own novel, Aurora.

But as a speculative fiction writer, I have to reject these limitations. I understand that we need to think beyond what we are now and explore what we could be. Equations, after all, are human constructs. I wanted to write a space opera with a gooey living starship that challenged our ideas of how we could navigate through space – and what we would become in order to do it.

The idea behind my massive generation starships in my space opera, The Stars are Legion, then, required me to research not hunks of dead metal but living, breathing organisms and their ecosystems. I looked at parasites and symbiotic relationships between animals and the bacteria in their guts and the creatures on their skin. I found that life was both horrible and wonderful, with parasites that can change the behavior of hosts and eat them alive, but also parasites that can enable hosts to endure the unendurable.

It was this idea of interconnected systems that I used to develop not dead starships, but living world ships, organisms that contained entire ecologies on their various levels that all worked together to sustain themselves. The ships could live, die, and reproduce. The human passengers, too, were just another part of the system, tied to it as we are tied to earth. They weren’t particularly special, just as we are not particularly noteworthy here on earth. They were simply another part of the whole.

To build that legion of worldships also required an eye toward human failings and psychology. As the purpose of the journey faded into memory and worlds began to die around them, petty wars, insurgencies, and alliances would play out among the survivors. The two warring families at the edge of the legion became the subject of the story, each fighting to take control over a worldship with the power to leave the dying legion to places unknown.

As a trained historian, I often look back at the past and consider what people thought was possible five hundred, a thousand, ten thousand years ago. And I cast my net into the future and try and look back at us, now, from the vantage of that future. That’s how I create my worlds, not by looking at what is probable or possible according to our current understanding, but what is considered possible by some far-future generation.

Seeking the unreal and challenging the impossible is one of my greatest delights as an author. I chose speculative fiction because I could create other worlds whose only limits were imposed by my own biases, and failures of imagination. When you have the power to shape worlds, you might as well use it.

—-

The Stars Are Legion: Amazon|Barnes and Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

“The Dispatcher” a Finalist for Two Audies + Locus Award Voting + Nebula and Hugo Award Voting + Print Preorder Info

So, this is a good day for me: The Dispatcher, my novella that was released as an audiobook from Audible, is a finalist for two(!) Audie Awards, first in the category of Science Fiction, and second in the category of Original Work (meaning, first published in audio form). I’m thrilled about both, and it’s lovely to see the story, and the narration by Zachary Quinto, so honored. We’ll find out if it wins either or both categories on June 1st. It’s in very good company in both categories. Congratulations to all the other authors and narrators!

Also! The annual Locus Poll & Survey is up, open to everyone who chooses to vote, and The Dispatcher is one of the works you may vote for in the novella category (actually, you can vote for any speculative fiction novella published in 2016, but The Dispatcher, because it was part of the Locus’ Recommended Reading List, is preloaded into the category as an option). If you listened to The Dispatcher and are inclined to vote for it, then please do. If you see other novellas there you liked, vote for them, too (or add the title of a novella you liked). And also vote in the other categories as well, as there are several, all with very good works to consider.

Also! Also! If you are voting for the Hugos or the Nebulas, The Dispatcher is eligible this year in the novella categories of each. For the record, I knew that it was eligible for the Hugo, because a couple of years ago they clarified that audio publication counts toward consideration. But I wasn’t sure whether the same could be said for the Nebulas, so I asked. The official response from the Nebula Awards Committee: Yup!

So Nebula award nominators: If you liked The Dispatcher, please consider it in the novella category. Thank you.

(And obviously in all cases if you didn’t like it, don’t nominate it. Because that would be silly.)

Also! Also! Also! Remember that if you prefer your stories in text form, the print version of The Dispatcher is now available for preorder from Subterranean Books and from online and offline retailers, with cover and interior art from the fantastic Vincent Chong. The book will be available May 31, 2017, including in ebook.

And that’s all the news I have about The Dispatcher today.

OR IS IT?!???!??!??!???!!!!?!?!??

(Spoiler: It is.)

Announcing the 2017 Audie Award Finalists in the Fantasy Category

Hey! I get to tell you which works, authors and narrators are finalists for the 2017 Audie Award in the category of Fantasy. The Audies are the highest award in the audio book industry, so being a finalist for one of its categories is a very fine honor indeed.

This year, the finalists for the Fantasy category are:

That’s a very excellent slate of finalists! The winner of the category will be announced on June 1. Congratulations to each of them, authors and narrators both!

The Big Idea: Stephen H. Provost

It can happen that writing a book of one sort can be the genesis for a book of another sort entirely: Writing a non-fiction book inspired Stephen H. Provost to have a big idea for a fictional tale, one that developed into his new novel Memortality. Here’ he explains how he got from the one to the other.

STEPHEN H. PROVOST:

I’m sure you’ve wondered what it would be like to bring someone back from the dead. Who would you bring back?

And what would happen then?

These questions inspired me to write Memortality, the story of a young woman named Minerva who uses her uncanny memory to reconstruct people’s lives – to literally bring them back from the dead. But there’s a catch: She has to keep remembering them, or they’ll slip back into the afterlife and become lost to her forever.

Minerva discovers her gift when her childhood friend Raven, killed in a car crash fifteen years earlier, suddenly materializes out of a dream. He helps her learn to use her gift – which makes her the target of a top-secret government agency and a rogue operative seeking to use it (and her) for their own purposes.

That’s the Big Idea behind Memortality. I wanted to write a new kind of paranormal adventure without any of the usual suspects: vampires, zombies, werewolves and the like.

It’s a paranormal tale, action/adventure and psychological thriller rolled into one, with a dash of romance thrown in. The concept is pure fantasy, but it was inspired by the real-life stories I’ve been telling for thirty years as a journalist and a writer of historical nonfiction.

Most recently, I wrote a history of my hometown (Fresno Growing Up) in 2015, and a book on the history of U.S. Highway 99 that’s due out in June. As I was working on these projects, I realized my number one goal was to bring the past to life. I was doing much more than reciting dead facts; I wanted to create a form of virtual reality and project it onto the mind’s eye. I wanted my readers to feel as though they were experiencing the events as I described them, through the power of shared memories.

Then it occurred to me: What if someone could literally do that? What if someone had the power to reconstruct the past, to make it tangible, through the power of memory? Such a person would have to have a perfect memory – or as close as you could get to one: an eidetic or “photographic” memory. Then she would need a psychic gift that could re-create the subjects of that memory in the here and now.

That’s how Minerva Rus was born.

As a character, Minerva’s a bit like me: a loner who spent a lot of time in her room as a teenager, reading voraciously and creating her own worlds to explore. I do that now as a writer, so not much has changed – although I do venture out into the sunlight more these days.

But in terms of inspiration, Minerva owes more to my mother than to me. If I could bring anyone back from the dead, she’d be the one. During my own adolescent “dark ages,” she was the one person I could confide in, and she’s still the person I admire most, even though she’s been gone more than 20 years.

Mom was unique. She was unlucky enough to be hit by the polio virus as a teenager, just a year before the vaccine came out. Her doctors put her in an iron lung and gave her a 50-50 chance of living; regardless, they said, she’d never walk again.

But she was determined, even though her entire right side was paralyzed as the result of her illness. Not only did she survive, she managed to climb three flights of stairs every day at UCLA and earn a bachelor’s degree. Then she got married and had a son (yours truly) – something else she wasn’t supposed to be able to do.

Minerva does a lot of things she’s not supposed to do, too. She’s not supposed to be able to raise the dead, but she can. And she’s not supposed to overcome her paralysis, but … well, you’ll find out when you read the book.

Ever since I can remember, I’ve been drawn to underdogs: to people who don’t fit in with society’s expectations, who are shunted to its margins but who have a unique gift to offer if the rest of the world would just pay attention. I revel in the underdog’s triumphs, whether it be in athletics, in life or in fiction. I grew up reading fantasy, with its reluctant heroes and epic quests, and watching explorers like Kirk and Spock go where no one had gone before. I became absorbed in stories of misunderstood superheroes like the Incredible Hulk, the Amazing Spider-Man and the Uncanny X-Men.

In a way, Minerva is very much like one of Charles Xavier’s mutants, trying to master a gift that delivers her from society’s disdain … and gives it another reason to spurn her.

The theme is a familiar one, but it inspired me to explore new possibilities as I wrote. I delved into everything from history to mythology to time travel and the depths of the human mind – a blend that led my publisher to describe Memortality as “a genre-breaking new contemporary fantasy.”

It’s hard to find an original idea these days, especially in a market that thrives on reboots and retreads. But as an explorer, I take that as a challenge: I want every story I write to be new and intriguing. I don’t want the reader to know exactly what’s behind the door before it opens. Mysteries, twists and surprises are part of what makes the journey fun.

I certainly had fun writing Memortality. I trust Minerva had fun living it. I hope you have as much fun reading it.

—-

Memortality: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Visit the author’s site. Follow him on Twitter.

Announcing The Expanding Tour 2017! 24 Cities! Five Weeks!

It’s now officially announced: My tour dates for The Collapsing Empire! I’m calling this one The Expanding Tour 2017, and here are the venues (follow the links for times and details):

Tuesday, March 21
Joseph-Beth Booksellers
Lexington, KY

Wednesday, March 22
Quail Ridge Books & Music
Raleigh, NC

Thursday, March 23
Flyleaf Books
Chapel Hill, NC

Friday, March 24
Fountain Books
Richmond, VA

Saturday, March 25
Parnassus Books
Nashville, TN

Sunday, March 26
BookPeople
Austin, TX

Monday, March 27
Brazos
Houston, TX

Tuesday, March 28
Half Price Books
Dallas, TX

Wednesday, March 29
Volumes Bookcafe
Chicago, IL

Monday, April 3
Books & Co
Dayton, OH

Tuesday, April 4
Cuyahoga County Library
Parma, OH

Wednesday, April 5
Brookline Booksmith
Boston, MA

Thursday, April 6
Gibson’s
Concord, NH

Friday, April 7
Odyssey Bookshop (with Elizabeth Bear and Scott Lynch)
South Hadley, MA

Saturday, April 8
A Room of One’s Own and the Wisconsin Book Festival, at the Madison Public Library
Madison, WI

Monday, April 17
Jean Cocteau Cinema
Santa Fe, NM

Tuesday, April 18
Boulder Bookstore
Boulder, CO

Wednesday, April 19
University Bookstore at University Temple United Methodist Church
Seattle, WA

Thursday, April 20
Mysterious Galaxy
San Diego, CA

Saturday, April 22-Sunday, April 23
Los Angeles Times Festival of Books
Los Angeles, CA

In addition I will be doing three dates with Cory Doctorow:

Tuesday, April 25
Vroman’s Bookstore
Pasadena, CA

Wednesday, April 26
Bookshop Santa Cruz
Santa Cruz, CA

Thursday, April 27
Borderlands Books
San Francisco, CA

Friday, April 28-Sunday, April 30
Penguicon
Southfield, MI

So that’s 24 cities over five weeks. That’s a lot!

Now to answer some of the usual questions:

Why aren’t you coming to [Insert Town Here]?

Because as ever, I go where where we receive requests (by bookstores and libraries) and there are only so many places I can go while on tour. There are as usual new places — four new cities I’ve never visited before! — but as always we’re going to miss some places. There will be other tours; let your local bookstores know you want to see me.

Also, I will be doing a number of other events in other cities in 2017, so if your city isn’t here, I still may show up in it at some point (for example, I’ll be in NYC in early June). Stay tuned for more information on those appearances.

Are the events free to attend?

Most are but some aren’t. Some stores have ticketed events, which means you have to RSVP. Please RSVP in those cases. Some stores will also require you to purchase the book at the store if you want to get the book signed. And in at least one case, you’ll need to buy a ticket (good for admitting two) that includes a copy of the book.

In each case, click on the links above for details or (if details are not up on the site yet) call the store and ask.

May I bring other things to sign?

I’m fine with it but check with the store. That said, and I can’t stress this enough: If you’re coming to an event at a bookstore, please buy something at the store. Typically my book (especially if the purchase is required in order to get in the signing line), but honestly any book would do. Support your local bookstore, please!

May I give you a gift?

You may but understand that I will be unlikely to travel with it; I will probably ask the store to ship it to me. This is because I travel very light (it’s a long tour) and don’t have much space to carry things. If you bring me edible things (cookies, etc), I’ll likely snack on them back at the hotel room. Please do not poison me.

What will your event be like?

On tour events I will usually read something exclusive to the tour that no one else but people who see me on tour will hear (likely a selection from an upcoming work), and then a couple of shorter pieces, and then a question and answer session followed by a signing. My events are usually PG rated; there might be some adult themes and light swearing but nothing too out there.

If I bring a ukulele will you sing a song?

Yes, people bring ukes to my events, and yes, I will sing a song (or at least part of one) if someone brings one. BUT: Make sure it’s tuned! If the uke is out of tune I can’t use it; nothing stops an event like me trying to tune a uke for five minutes.

Hey, will you come and hang out with us after the event?

Probably not, but not because you’re not fabulous people. It’s because I usually have to get up at an ungodly hour the next morning for the next stop on my tour and/or because I already have a previous commitment with friends, whom I’ve already scheduled with. I promise you’ll get a full dose of me at the event.

I have another question you have not answered here.

Ask it in the comments!

The Big Idea: Lara Elena Donnelly

Difficult times are complicated, not only for themselves but what they do to people — who are themselves complicated even at the best of times. Or so Lara Elena Donnelly might argue, both here in this Big Idea piece, and in her novel Amberlough. Is she correct? Read on for her argument.

LARA ELENA DONNELLY:

Amberlough is not a book filled with characters whose moral conviction burns like a fire. These people aren’t going to end up on the right side of history. They’re criminals and collaborators. They commit a multitude of sins from infidelity to murder.

But are they bad people?

It’s a book set in a socially-diverse and democratically-governed country, but that government is riddled with corruption. Exploitative taxation maintains an unequal economic status quo. A nascent fascist movement promises to end corruption, end unfair taxation. The movement’s only price is social conformity.

Which political option is better? Which is worse?

Ambiguity has been a central theme of Amberlough from its inception. It began life as a short story about a city auditor in love with an emcee, in a city sliding inexorably into the grips of a repressive regime. But even as the newspapers showed fascist flags unfurling from capitol buildings, even as police made violent arrests and the government came down hard on vice, the glittering nightlife roared on. People had a good time, got high, got laid. The story existed in a nebulous area between hedonism and totalitarianism.

But in the first draft, the main characters fell utterly flat. Their straightforward love story felt unrealistic in that setting. In the next draft—the one that sold; my first published piece of fiction!—I realized they couldn’t approach their relationship so simply.

Relationships are not easy under the best of circumstances—that had been driven home to me pretty hard during the time I was revising. But when you’re trying to stay in the closet so a fascist mob won’t tear you apart, when you’re fleeing your home to save your life, when you’re separated from your lover by sinister forces beyond your control, how could you love easily? How could you love unconditionally? How could you love at all?

When I asked those questions, lines blurred. Love became awkward, unwanted, an inconvenience, a trap. The story was still a romance, but the “happily ever after” was called into serious question.

The origins of Amberlough stemmed from another short story, too (I was thinking of writing a series.): a theatrical manager turned informant, trying to protect his cast of satirists, queer folk, women, dissidents, and weirdos by selling out other people, earning the goodwill of evil men and another day of dubious safety.

That short didn’t work. The scope was too large to fit into 10,000 words or less. And part of what made it so big was multifaceted reactions from a cast of characters in the midst of an intricate political situation.

Emotional complexity is completely doable in short fiction—in fact, it’s vital. But when emotional complexity is built on events years in the making, when it’s reliant on shifting public opinion and government policy, when it’s extrapolated from characters’ various reactions to those shifts, you need room to flesh it out. The  book got bigger and the spectrum between black and white blurred further to accommodate even more gray.

No one is morally pure in this book. Blackmailed into a corner, secret agent Cyril DePaul turns into a fascist collaborator, sacrificing thousands of lives for his own, and for the slim hope he can save his lover, cabaret emcee Aristide Makricosta.

Aristide, who has hauled himself out of bitter rural destitution on a ladder of sex and ruthlessness, is a blackmarket kingpin who sells drugs, arms, and stolen goods. He’s a man who has finally created an identity for himself that fits, even if he’s done it on the backs of others. He’s a man who will help just about anybody in a tight spot, but never out of the goodness of his heart. Except for Cyril, and maybe Cordelia Lehane.

Stripper and small-time drug dealer, Cordelia doesn’t double-deal and she doesn’t play puppet master. But she breaks hearts and she hurts people who love her. Her mother died of an overdose but she sells narcotics to pay rent. Initially, she’s complicit in Cyril’s collaboration, until the consequences of the new regime strike her personally.

Everyone has good intentions; they all end up hurt. Everyone is selfish, but only because they value their lives and the lives of people they love.

Part of me is ashamed that my view of humans is so cynical: that this tangle of secrets, confusion, and crossed purposes feels more vital, more genuine to me than a short story about true love conquering adversity. But another part of me revels in the messiness of people and their contradictions. We can love someone who hurts us, or hurt someone we love. Sometimes in seeking to do good, we do great evil, or vice versa. We are strange and imperfect and fascinating creatures, and fiction is richer when it explores our ambiguities.

—-

Amberlough: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

In Which the Eternal Question of “What Would It Sound Like If Morrissey’s ‘Every Day Is Like Sunday’ Was Covered as Dark Ambient With a Cookie Monster Singer?” Is Answered

It would sound like this.

And now you know.

The Big Idea: Ryan David Jahn

Author Ryan David Jahn has given a fair amount of thought into the nature of violence, and guilt, and other primary emotions and urges. They’re present in his novel The Breakout; Jahn explains why, and how they influence him as a writer.

RYAN DAVID JAHN:

In daily life, I’m surrounded by a cloud of free-floating guilt. I’ll apologize when I’ve done nothing wrong. Sometimes, when I hear sirens, I momentarily think the police must be coming for me. Not really. I know they aren’t. I haven’t done anything.

But, for a split second, part of me kind of believes they are.

If I hadn’t lost my religion twenty years ago, I might think it had something to do with original sin. Chalk it up to being home-schooled with fundamentalist Christian texts for the first several years of life. It’s part of my personality, even if it’s no longer part of my world view.

I suspect this is one of the reasons my books focus on violence. After all, a person need only feel guilty if he or she has done something to hurt someone, either emotionally or physically. Victimless crimes are crimes only technically. Guilt is, so far as I can tell, an internal reaction to the harm you’ve done to another, even if they don’t know you’ve done it. It’s your heart’s way of letting you know you screwed up. Or are about to.

Most of us try to get through without hurting anybody, maybe helping those we can if it’s not too inconvenient. Being human, we understand that at times life is difficult for almost everyone.

We are all so tough and fragile. We survive terrible events, a house burning to the ground or the death of a loved one, then six months or six years later might wake up and decide we simply can’t bother to put on our pants even one more time. Maybe if a stranger had smiled at us, or made us laugh at a stupid joke, it would have provided just enough light to help carry us through. It sounds trite, but I also think it’s true.

Most of us try to have a positive impact on the world and those around us — even if we sometimes fall short.

But the worst among us don’t care about the emotional or physical violence they do to others, and these people are the engines that drive much of my fiction. They destroy lives, leaving pain in their wake, and they feel none of the guilt the rest of us would in similar circumstances.

I’m not concerned with these people as much as I’m obsessed with what an average person might do in response to such an individual because, it seems to me, these people have a disproportionate amount of control over the lives of others. They treat humans like chess pieces to be moved about for ends that have nothing to do with their lives as they live them.

I’ve written three novels that deal in some way with revenge, and in two of them the revenge is never acted out, in part, I think, because while I understand the urge for violence, I don’t think violent acts themselves should be used as catharsis. And, in my experience, they only rarely — but sometimes — are cathartic.

I also believe that, even when necessary or justified, violence is corrosive. It is rust for the soul, and it eats away at what you are in your center.

My little brother, who joined the Navy, ended up stationed in Afghanistan with the Marines (he was a mechanic whose specialty was needed there). He watched a kid with an I.E.D. run up to his platoon and, before anyone could react, the makeshift bomb went off. He took shrapnel to the shoulder and hip and found himself hospitalized in Germany. When he told me about it late one night while we were both drinking, his eyes went far away and glossy. He’s a generally cheery guy and I’m not sure I’d ever seen him look genuinely sad before, not in that deep way you can empathetically fall into. It broke my heart to see it.

And, on the other side of the violence, was that act cathartic for the little boy’s mother? For his father? I suppose it’s possible. But one thing is certain: it was not cathartic for the child who ceased to exist the moment the act was completed.

All of which is to say, for a person whose novels tend to be obsessed with violence, I have an ambivalent relationship with it, both in fiction and reality.

My new novel, The Breakout, is the third book I’ve written that deals with revenge in one way or another. It is, at first glance, a straight-forward thriller. A marine’s sister is killed south of the border and he goes about seeking vengeance. Before he has a chance to act upon his violent urges, however, he ends up in a Mexican jail, arrested on trumped-up drug charges. Members of his platoon, as well as his girlfriend, go about trying to break him out, not sure what they’ll unleash if they succeed.

This is, in essence, the story, and if I’ve done my job well, it moves quickly, is fun to read, and has a satisfying ending.

I also hope that those who want to think a little bit about guilt and violence and where the two intersect will find something more than air to chew on. I do my best to write novels that are true, approaching them with as much honesty as I know how to and hoping something real comes out of them.

But above all, I aim to be entertaining. I want folks having a bad day to pick up The Breakout, lose themselves in the story, and forget their troubles for a while. As implied above, I think there’s honor in simply helping a person get through a tough time, and if my book can do that, I think it’s done its job.

—-

The Breakout: Amazon Barnes & Noble Indiebound Powell’s

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

New Books and ARCs, 2/3/17

They say that when a stack of books and ARCs this high pops its head out during the first week of February, you’ll have lots of good reading for months afterward. I would tend to agree. See anything here that you’d like to curl up with during the winter cold? Tell us in the comments!

The Big Idea: Fonda Lee

There’s more to alien creatures than green skin or an extra set of eyes. Fonda Lee, author of Exo, comes around to tell you why, and how it affects her new novel.

FONDA LEE:

You know, there just aren’t enough aliens in YA science fiction these days.

I’d argue there isn’t enough YA science fiction in general, but where are all the aliens? That was the random thought that gnawed at me a few years ago, when YA was dominated by dystopias to the extent that seemingly anything science fiction was lumped in with The Hunger Games. It seemed to me that a significant number of the extraterrestrials to be found in current YA SF fell into two categories: the hot alien boy next door, or the scary type that want to wipe out the human race. Good (sexy) aliens and evil, apocalypse-bringing aliens. And yes, we’ve had plenty of both in adult fiction as well, but those aren’t the ones that stand out to me.

I wanted more aliens like the Oankali, or the Hoots, or the Formics, or the Moties. Because all alien stories are actually human stories. Non-human characters in fiction provide a means for us as writers and readers to hold up a mirror to humanity. More complex and interesting aliens with nuanced motives, who have varied and multi-dimensional interactions with humans, show us a picture of ourselves that is more honest, more candid, higher definition. Like seeing our own faces filmed in 70mm and projected on an IMAX screen. Simple, reassuringly good and evil aliens offer up a reflection that’s more like a smiling selfie taken with an old camera phone.

There are some who would argue that teenage readers don’t want, or wouldn’t appreciate or comprehend, more thoughtful alien stories. Kids want lots of action and romance! To which I say, first of all, the teen readers I’ve met are remarkably savvy and intelligent and more than capable of appreciating the complexity and shades of gray in society. And second, why not have it all? Why couldn’t I write an action-packed YA novel that was also ethically complex?

That’s what I set out to do. I wanted to tell an alien invasion story that was different from anything else I’d read or seen in YA fiction by getting past the arrival, invasion, and war part of the narrative to explore the idea of a world post-colonization, one in which humans have both benefited and suffered. I wanted aliens on Earth to be the norm, not the event itself.

And I wanted to tell the story from the other side. In YA fiction there is no lack of plucky, brave, teenage rebels who want to overthrow the system. Could I make the reader root for someone who enforces alien rule over Earth? Someone who is in the system, who benefits from it and defends it despite its flaws, yet is still heroic and tries to do the right thing, even when he is not always sure what the right thing is?

As a writer I see gray instead of black and white. I dislike easy answers and I put my characters in situations where there are none. We Americans absolutely adore our stories of rebels vs. oppressive powers but in real life we proudly celebrate our military forces who wage war on insurgents in countries where we are considered the evil empire. I have no political axe to grind in my fiction, but I love making people question themselves and was eager to write a story in which the reader could conceivably sympathize with either the “terrorists” or the “oppressors.”

Layers started naturally developing in my story that made it more personal to me. The protagonist, Donovan, comes from a broken family and has to deal with conflicted feelings about his parents’ choices. (My own parents had a rocky marriage and eventually divorced.) He also faces the continual dilemma of his in-between identity: as a human with alien alterations, he is considered too alien by other humans, but of course to the aliens he is still just a human. At the time I was writing Exo, I honestly didn’t even realize that I was infusing the story with an allegory for second-generation or mixed-race children until my editor pointed it out a long time later. Which goes to show that sometimes we writers can be all deep and subtextual without even meaning to be, just by bringing more of ourselves to the page.

Exo is, at the end of the day, a story about why people take the sides they do, and how difficult it is to be torn between one’s own parents, and how to grow up and figure where you stand as an adult when the world is such a complicated place. It’s almost funny to me now that the Big Idea that sparked the whole thing was as simple as: give me more and better aliens!

—-

Exo: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt (pdf link). Visit the author’s site. Follow her on Twitter.

The Big Idea: Jess Nevins

One day author Jess Nevins decided to see how far back the origin story of “superheroes” went — it wasn’t Batman or Superman, folks — and the answer to the question (or the answer he arrived at) was both further back in time and more complicated than he could have ever expected. The result: His new book, The Evolution of the Costumed Avenger. And also: This Big Idea piece.

JESS NEVINS:

The Big Idea behind The Evolution of the Costumed Avenger was my attempt to answer a long-running question in the comic book community: where did superheroes come from? In my Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana I had said that the superhero arose not out of twentieth century cultural movements and dynamics and cultural trends, but out of nineteenth century movements, dynamics, and trends. (Sorry, partisans of Johnston McCulley and Baroness Orczy, but it’s true: Zorro and the Scarlet Pimpernel were inheritors of a tradition, not inventors of one).

But when I was observing the latest in attempts to answer this question and was shaking my head (more in sorrow than anger) at the answer given, it occurred to me that perhaps my answer wasn’t that much better, and that I hadn’t give the question its due. Did the superhero come from the nineteenth century? That’s how I’d written it, back in 2004–but was there more to it than that? Did the superhero’s roots lie deeper still, and farther back than Victoria’s reign?

It’s rare that one gets or takes the opportunity to correct Internet Misinformationtm in print, and I intended to treat the question seriously in a reasonably-sized monograph, but as I soon discovered, the question of the superhero’s origins isn’t easily answered to anyone’s satisfaction. First I had to define what I meant by a superhero, something that proved to be surprisingly tricky. (For every definition of what a superhero is, there are exceptions to it. Every definition. Yes, even yours). After a lot of thought I came up with a better way of approaching the matter of definitions, but simply writing out that new method took up most of chapter one. (And I hadn’t even gotten started on the history of superheroes yet!)

The big problem, I quickly discovered, is that there’s no real starting point for something like this. After I’d run back through the pre-Superman superheroes of twentieth century popular culture, and back through the superheroes of nineteenth century popular culture, I discovered that the eighteenth century had its share of proto-superheroes, those extraordinary characters who have most if not all of the elements of the superhero but which appeared before Superman’s debut. And these eighteenth century proto-superheroes were influenced by characters from the seventeenth century, who in turn were derived from the heroes of the sixteenth and fifteenth centuries.

And then I reached Robin Hood, a significant proto-superhero, who is the most famous of the noble outlaws of the Middle Ages–not the only one, merely the best-known. And beyond the noble outlaws are the knights of King Arthur, and beyond them are El Cid and the heroes of medieval epics and ballads, and then Roland and Beowulf and the Alexander of the Alexander Romance

…and so on and so forth, always working backwards, always tracing influences, until I reached the first major work of literature in human history, The Epic of Gilgamesh. (By now I’d abandoned all idea of my “History of the Superhero” being either reasonably-sized or a monograph). Gilgamesh as the first superhero? Okay, cool, that would make a good beginning for what I now knew would be a sizable book.

Except–and here was the part that complicated the writing of the book–I had to take a good look at Gilgamesh, the way I did at all the proto-superheroes, and I concluded that he made a great epic hero but not a particularly good superhero. Briefly: he lacks what we would think of today as a heroic, selfless motivation. Gilgamesh is a great epic hero, but not a great person–not “heroic” as we’d now think of it. Gilgamesh’s sidekick and B.F.F. Enkidu, on the other hand, has the selfless motivation as well as the other elements of the superhero.

So Enkidu it was, to begin with, and after him the major heroes of literature and popular culture. But research on a subject like this is exponential and fractal; there’s always more of it to do, more items of interest or awesomeness to discover, more connections to make, more inferences to draw. So I found out about the latrones, the heroic outlaws of ancient Rome (and the forefathers of Robin Hood). And about Nectanebo II, last pharaoh of Egypt’s Thirtieth Dynasty and the ancestor of every heroic sorcerer in comics. And about the delightful Mary Frith, grandmother of Batman and every other urban vigilante. And about medieval proto-superheroines of color; if Enkidu was the first POC superhero, the “lady knights” of the middle ages were the first POC superheroines. And about Talus, the first heroic android (and from the sixteenth century, to boot!).

And so on. It all turned out to be more fascinating and complex than I’d ever anticipated. Superheroes didn’t evolve linearly; they are a river with many tributaries, whose source lies four thousand years ago but whose individual elements are disparate and widely scattered in time and place. That’s what I hope readers take away from The Evolution of the Costumed Avenger (I mean, besides the fact that Mary Frith was freaking cool): that the superhero is neither American nor twentieth century–nor white or male, for that matter–but belongs to everyone, and has deep, deep roots in human culture.

—-

The Evolution of the Costumed Avenger: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

Crescent Moon, 2/1/17

Proof the what the eye sees and the camera sees are different things: When I was looking through the viewfinder I could see details in the crescent and nothing of the non-illuminated part; here in the picture it’s entirely the other way around. I like it.

In Which a Cover Strapline Does Not, Alas, Reveal a Vast Conspiracy For My Benefit

I was pointed this morning to a blog post by an author not previously of my acquaintance who was making a bit of noise about the UK cover of The Collapsing Empire; the June 2016 cover reveal of the UK cover featured the strapline “The New York Times Bestselling Series” (above, to the left), and the author was questioning how Tor (he was apparently not aware that Tor and Tor UK are separate companies under the overall Macmillan umbrella) could make such a statement. He also then suggested that “after noise was made,” a new cover was created, i.e., the US cover for the book, which in point of fact was publicly debuted before the UK cover.

A little further digging revealed that this author almost certainly got this idea from one of my usual suspects (i.e., the same poor wee racist lad whose adorable mancrush on me has gone unabated for a dozen years now), who trumpeted the strapline as evidence that Tor is planning to fake a position for me and TCE on the New York Times bestseller list. As apparently they have done with all my work, because as you know I don’t actually sell books; Tor and Tor UK and Audible and a couple dozen publishers across the planet give me lots of money strictly because I am the world’s best virtue signaller, and therefore worth propping up with byzantine schemes to fake my standing on bestseller lists, because who doesn’t like virtue.

Well, it could be that! Alternately, here’s another theory, which is that the UK cover reveal last June featured a mock-up cover with text from other Tor UK covers standing in for straplines and blurbs to come. Like, say, the Tor UK version of The Ghost Brigades, which as you see has the same strapline and blurb as the cover reveal for The Collapsing Empire.

This sort of thing, as it happens, it not entirely unusual; lots of cover reveals happen before covers are finalized for printing. Why? Well, because of marketing, of course — the publisher wants to generate excitement for an upcoming book. Covers are good for that, and cover art is also often done and completed long before the book is in — as it was in the case of both the UK and US versions of The Collapsing Empire.

Covers are tweaked constantly prior to publication; I know of one recent cover that was changed literally as it was about to get printed, because of a late-coming blurb for the book. Nor are the cover tweaks finished when the book is printed: if a book wins an award or shows up on a bestseller list, for example, the cover will often reflect those things in subsequent printings. So long as a book is in print and being reprinted, a cover is never final; it’s always subject to tweaking.

Now, as it happens, I have seen the final pre-pub cover of the UK edition of The Collapsing Empire; I included it as part of the first image in the entry, to the right. You’ll note the strapline has changed; it now says “The New York Times Bestselling Author.” You might also notice the cover blurb has changed, from one from the Wall Street Journal to one from Joe Hill.

I’ll also note this is not the first time for me where there’s been a difference between a cover reveal and a final cover. Usually the changes are on the level of what we’re seeing here — verbiage tweaked and blurbs replaced — but sometimes the changes are more dramatic. Some of you might remember that between cover reveal and publication, The God Engines cover was completely swapped out: new art, new typeface, new everything. As noted, tweaking happens sometimes literally right to the moment of printing, and then beyond, when appropriate.

So, while it’s possible the Tor UK cover reveal accidentally let slip the vast and complex conspiracy on the part of several multinational corporations to falsely position me as a bestselling author, for reasons, the rather less exciting but, alas, more likely explanation is that in June Tor UK just put up placeholder text to be swapped out later (as indeed, it was). You can believe what you like!

For the record, the wee little racist almost certainly knows there’s no vast conspiracy on my behalf, he just likes to lie about me. The other author in question here I don’t suspect of willful obtuseness; he appears to be self-published and may just not know how all of this stuff works, because this stuff is pretty opaque until you’re doing it, or have it explained, and he has the misfortune of believing this other fellow is giving him information that’s anywhere near accurate.

Also for the record, I wish I did have a vast conspiracy on my behalf! My life would be easier then. Heck, if I had a conspiracy working for me, I probably wouldn’t even have to actually write books. I could just sit back while minions did everything and I drank Coke Zeros on the beach. Sadly, I actually have to do the work myself. It’s so unfair.

The silver lining to not having a vast conspiracy on my side, however, is that I do get to geek out about things like covers and the mechanics of how they come together. The reality of how covers get made and tweaked and sent out into the world is all kinds of good, nerdy fun. I like it, and it’s fun to share it with you. I mean, I think it’s silly these folks think there’s something nefarious about it, but it’s given me a chance to go “okay, so here’s how this really works.” And now you know!

(P.S.: If you would actually like to see me get on the New York Times bestseller list with The Collapsing Empire — or in the UK, the Times bestseller list (that’s the Times in the UK, that is, these newspapers with the same names are confusing) — then be part of the vast conspiracy of people who pre-order the book, either from your local bookseller, or via your favorite online retailer. Sadly, my publishers don’t actually prop me up. I really do have to sell books for a living. Again: Sooooooooo unfair!)

The Big Idea: Thoraiya Dyer

Bread is the staff of life, as it said, but what happens when bread doesn’t make sense for your world? Thoraiya Dyer has given this question some serious thought for her novel Crossroads of Canopy, and invites you to discover with her where these thoughts lead.

THORAIYA DYER:

I’ve always wondered, even as a child, why elves in tree-cities ate bread.

Because bread is made of wheat or other grains, right? Which is grown in fields. But all the tree-dwelling elves in stories seemed to do was hunt deer with yew longbows, drink wine and frolic along their gloriously elaborate paths made of oak tree branches.

Say what? Oak trees? My father comes from a tiny rural village where he learned that acorns were starvation rations. And yew berries are poison. Call me finicky if you like. It led to something wonderful.

Once I started imagining the kinds of trees you would actually want to have in an arboreal city where folk rarely went down to the ground – forget about farming! – it quickly became obvious what kind of forest the elves would actually have to live in.

A rainforest.

Probably up in the canopy. At least, the royalty would be up there, in the sunshine, snacking on fruit, not eating the usual fantasy fare of stew because they wouldn’t have metal for pots and pans. Or would they? Maybe they’d have a magical way of getting metal. Plus a magical way of keeping predators from climbing up and snacking on them.

And if they had bread at all, it would have to be made from tree-nuts that weren’t acorns.

And what would they have instead of wine?

I couldn’t seem to stop inventing the world of Canopy. The next question became what plant and animal species to include and which to omit. I’ve already confessed to being picky about mixing ecosystems, but this wasn’t going to be science fiction, it was going to be fantasy, and fantasy means freedom, doesn’t it? Especially after I guest-blogged about my meticulousness at SF Signal and not one single over-scrupulous scientist piped up to agree with me! Clearly, nobody else cared; I was like the toddler who doesn’t like her peas to touch her carrots on the plate.

So, in went Moreton Bay figs and mango trees, monitor lizards and toucans. A glorious mix, which gave me permission, I felt, to mix other things that I hadn’t mixed before.

The very Western Greek and Babylonian pantheons with the Eastern concept of reincarnation, for example.

I also got to mix up my protagonist, Unar, a blend of hero and villain, saviour and destroyer. How I loved her, for the freedom I had with her! She’d never seen the ground. Or an ocean. Yet she was among the lucky ones to have felt sunshine and wind, to know about things like the moon changing shape and the sun setting.

Maybe the very wealthy would even have bread. And it would be this ridiculous luxury. As opposed to fresh fruit, which would be boring and plentiful.

I contemplated the symbolism of lembas bread in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings: A cross between hardtack, the sustenance of seafaring adventurers, and the church wafers that substitute for the body of Christ. Maybe in the world of Canopy, fresh fruit would be the thing to have religious significance. Fruit would be one of the offerings to the gods that helped to give those gods their powers. It would also be something that the people below might not have as much of.

With social stratification developing in my head, mimicking the strata of my rainforest, the next thing the people of Canopy needed, obviously, was a magical horizontal barrier to keep the riff-raff out. Those pasty, malnourished Understorians. Gods know what they get up to, down in the dark.

And there was the seed of Unar’s story. Her sister, lost on the other side of the barrier. Literally and figuratively fallen.

I quite like bread. Most people do, I think. Maybe after you’ve read Canopy, though, you’ll give macadamia nuts and magenta cherries a try. Maybe you’ll find they’re even better than bread!

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Crossroads of Canopy: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Indiebound | Powell’s

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