If you were waiting to hear if you were scheduled for July and have not heard from me, a) Sorry, b) Yup, they’re all scheduled.
Still taking queries for August.
If you were waiting to hear if you were scheduled for July and have not heard from me, a) Sorry, b) Yup, they’re all scheduled.
Still taking queries for August.
Hey! I’m going to Denver Comic Con this weekend! I’ll be on panels and signing books! Here is my schedule!
Laughter in the Face of Disaster (Friday 6/30 11AM Room 407),
Military Scifi an Institution (Friday 6/30 3PM DCCP4 – Keystone City Room),
Fight the Power! Fiction for Political Change (Friday 6/30 4:30PM Room 402),
The Writing Process of Best Sellers (Saturday 7/1 12PM Room 407),
The Hardness Scale – Is Fiction Better Squishy or Solid? (Saturday 7/1 3PM Room 407),
Economics, Value and Motivating Your Character (Sunday 7/2 11AM Room 407).
Friday 6/30 from 1PM-2:50PM at Tattered Cover Signing Booth 2,
Saturday 7/1 from 10:30AM-11:50PM at the Tattered Cover Signing Booth,
Sunday 7/2 from 2PM-4PM at Tattered Cover Signing Booth 2.
Come see me!
Also, thanks to Sisters in Geek, who collected up this information in this article on my and other authors’ schedules, so I didn’t have to. You’re the best, Sisters in Geek!
We interrupt this Tuesday afternoon to bring this fresh stack of new books and ARCs that have arrived at the Scalzi Compound. What here is a book you would like in your possession? Tell us in the comments!
There are key moments and motifs in fiction that we latch onto as readers, and as writers. Symbolic scenes that loom large for us because they connect in some deeper way with our own buried nightmares and past traumas.
For me one of those moments is in C.S. Lewis’ The Silver Chair, where every single day, bound to that chair, the prince remembers how much he’s forgotten. Fleetingly, he understands he’s a prisoner and also that he can do nothing about it, imprisoned equally by his own enchanted brain.
I was just six or seven when I read this and the horror of it simply overwhelmed me and then infiltrated me: that moment when you know, and simultaneously know the knowledge won’t last.
I think it terrifies me because the vulnerability and powerlessness of that moment is so crushing and absolute.
In Never Now Always, I set out to explore the terror of that moment. And also to face it and conquer it, putting my characters in the same predicament, yet giving them tools to fight.
So the story centers on Lolo, a child who finds herself trapped in a mysterious labyrinth under the supervision of a horde of voiceless alien Caretakers. She is surrounded by many other children, but none of them know how they ended up there, or what happened before. And as the Caretakers subject the children to psychological experiments focused on trauma and memory, their ability to form short-term memories is limited, too. Everything they learn, or think they learn, just slips between their fingers like water.
Then Lolo hits on the concept of writing — scrawling drawings and pictographs as simply as possible, designed to represent these fleeting pieces of story to her future self. Hoping that she stays the same, that her perception persists enough from day to day that when she sees those scribblings later, she’ll still know what they mean.
For me, as the writer of the novella, it was more complicated. The deeper I got into the story, the more I realized how truly challenging it would be to tell a story where the mechanics of narrative are broken, where one thing doesn’t always lead to another and pieces of story don’t necessarily add up.
In some ways every scene felt like a first scene. There are gaps in this story, and continuity errors.
But I also realized that while I wanted my reader to feel somewhat disoriented, I could not let them remain as disoriented as the characters, because that would really not be an enjoyable story to read.
So I also ended up depending heavily on language to do the work — I tried to anchor everything in touch and taste and feelings, always in the present tense, a language reinvented for children whose sense of time is confined to a narrow slice of perpetual now. Everything that’s happening to them is happening in the immediate, and the present is the only moment that matters.
And in that perpetual now is where I think my characters — and I, myself — find redemption and solace. Because love is deeper than language. Because my dog doesn’t need to remember all the days of his life with me to know that with me he’s loved and safe and home; “yesterday” and “tomorrow” don’t actually mean anything. As always, my dog is wiser than I am. So I gave Lolo a dog, too, to help her figure it out.
In the end, the story returns to the one idea I find most comforting: that in this world and the next, life after life, we always make our way back to protect those who’ve protected us, and to be reunited with the souls we’ve loved.
I hope it’s true.
The first time I personally encountered Harry Potter was not long after the third book, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, came out. I was 30 and my daughter was an infant, so in neither case were these particular Scalzis the target demographic for the books, but by that time the buzz (and sales) of the series were pretty significant. So one day in the airport, while I was browsing in a bookstore, I picked up Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets and opened it up near the end, to the part where Dobby the House Elf is given a sock.
I read it for a few pages to get the sense of Rowling’s style, and then put the book back on the shelf and thought, “well, okay, that’s not for me.” Why not for me? In this case, it was something about the writing of that particular scene. I could see how all the pieces fit together, and I could see how it was working, and I could also see that all of it seemed pitched to someone who wasn’t me, 30-year-old John Scalzi. This didn’t mean it wasn’t a good book or the right book for someone else; by the age of thirty I had gathered enough wisdom (and, dare I say it, humility) to recognize that “not for me” was not the same as “not for anyone.” But I didn’t feel the click that made me want to keep reading. Evidently, Harry Potter was not for me.
And that was okay! There is a lot of stuff in the common culture that is not for me, particularly when it’s pitched to people who are younger or older than I am. Dawson’s Creek and The Vampire Diaries are not for me, just like My Three Sons or Dark Shadows were not for me. Emerson Lake and Palmer was not for me, nor was N*Sync, nor is Ariana Grande. Doctor Who’s first iteration was not for me and I have to admit I’m only passably interested in the current version. I could be here for days with a list of all the things that are not for me. Again, which is fine! There are lots of things that I decided are for me. I was happy with them.
And so with Harry Potter and J.K. Rowling, whose niche in my mind I pretty much figured had been occupied by Will Stanton and Meg Murry, and Susan Cooper and Madeleine L’Engle. I didn’t worry too much about whether Kids These Days were reading The Dark is Rising or the Wrinkle in Time series, for the same reason I didn’t worry too much if today’s kids were really into Tears for Fears or the Go-Gos, to name but two bands whose discographies were pertinent to my teenage years. Every generation finds their storytellers, in literature and music and art in general. I was okay letting J.K. Rowling and her stories belong to the generation of young people after mine. Yes, I know, very gracious of me.
But as it turns out neither Harry Potter nor J.K. Rowling were done with me. First, of course, it turned out that Harry Potter, Hermione Granger and Ron Weasley (and Rowling) weren’t Tears for Fears; they were the Beatles. And like the Beatles they weren’t just popular. They materially changed common culture — for a start, because they also changed the industry that they came out of, and the work of everyone in their field, who either responded to them or were influenced by them. Now, one may, like me, decide a phenomenon like that isn’t for you, but when literally(!) the world is changing to deal with and make room for that phenomenon, you still have to acknowledge that it’s there and work with it, or at least around it. Particularly when and if, like me, it comes out of the fields (in this case publishing and writing) you hope to be in, and in my case were eventually part of.
Second, I found another way in to Rowling’s wizarding world: through the movies, which were for me in a way that I, from that snippet of the second book, assumed the books were not. In retrospect this is not at all surprising — I was a professional film critic for several years, and I’ve written two books on film, and, as anyone who has ever read my novels can tell you, the storytelling structure of film is a huge influence on my storytelling in prose. My professional and creative interest in film helped that version of Harry Potter’s story speak to me.
(And in point of fact this is not the first time I had found the film/TV version of a story working better for me. I’ve written in detail about how I think the Peter Jackson’s take on The Lord of the Rings is better — or at least better for me, in terms of story presentation — than the Tolkien books; likewise I am deeper into the Game of Thrones universe through the TV series than I was through the books. In all these cases, I’m not suggesting the prose version has failed in some way and the films “fix” them. They obviously work for millions of people. More to the point, different media allow creators to do different things, and reach different people. As was the case here.)
Having gotten through the door with the series via film was a good thing, because as it turned out Harry Potter is for me — which is to say that I find the world that Rowling created to be deep and thoughtful and interesting in ways I didn’t expect. And because it’s interesting and engaging to me as someone who approached it as an adult, I understand better why it’s so very deeply affecting for the readers who literally grew up in tandem with Harry and Hermione and Ron and all the rest of the students at Hogwarts. They aren’t just characters to them, any more than Will Stanton or Meg Murry were just characters to me. They were and are contemporaries and friends. Harry Potter’s Hogwarts year had several million students in it. It’s a miracle they all fit in the dining hall.
One way or another, lightly or deeply, it’s turned out Harry Potter is for more people than I would have expected, all those years ago. This is one reason why 20 years after the release of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, we’re getting the sort of retrospectives on the series that Sgt. Pepper’s got 20 years down the road from its release, and why, just like everyone knew which Beatle was their favorite, now everyone knows which Hogwarts house they’d personally be sorted into, or would want to be.
(Personal moment here: I assumed I was a Ravenclaw, because come on, but then went to the Pottermore site and was sorted into Gryffindor, which annoyed me but on reflection I realized was correct, damn it. Also, re: the Beatles, John is Slytherin, Paul is Gryffindor, George is Ravenclaw and Ringo is so very Hufflepuff. Fight me on this).
This is not to say the Potterverse is perfect or that J.K. Rowling is infallable as a writer or human. It’s not and she’s not. But then again, none of the universes I’ve written are perfect, and I sure as hell am not infallible, either. Fictional universes don’t have to be perfect, they just have to be a space people want to explore and keep exploring, year after year. I can’t say that I know Rowling to any great extent — we’ve exchanged pleasantries on Twitter, which I try not to let her know I’ve geeked out about — but I do admire her, as a writer and a worldbuilder, and as someone who has decided that she needs to be engaged in our world and time. From her public persona at least, it’s no great surprise that Harry and Hermione and Ron came out of her brain, or that she created such great antagonists for them. I think she sees what the world can run downhill toward, and how quickly that can happen, and that people need to stand against that, and stand with each other as they do so.
Which is another reason I’m glad that I found Harry Potter is for me, and for millions of other people. We need that now in 2017. I need it now. There’s very little chance J.K. Rowling knew, 20 years ago, that her books and her characters would be needed like this today. But I hope she knows it now, today and every day.
Conversation between me and Krissy yesterday:
Me: With all this bullshit around health care, and the possibility of pre-existing conditions and insurance caps coming back, we should probably look into supplemental insurance.
Krissy: I got us supplemental insurance years ago.
Me: You did?
Krissy: Yes. I even have policies for very specific things.
Me: Like what?
Krissy: I have an insurance policy on your hands.
Me: My hands?
Krissy: You’re a writer. You use your hands. If something happens to your hands, it’s a problem. We’ll need to pay for someone for you to dictate to.
Me: You’ve insured my hands.
Me: I’m not going to lie. That’s literally the sexiest thing you’ve said to me this whole damn month.
I finally got out the tripod, and it makes a difference. This is one you’ll want to see the big version of.
Gotta be honest, I had entirely forgotten I’d done this interview last year when I was in Iowa City for a book festival. But eventually it all came back to me. Also, it’s a pretty good interview. Enjoy.
Hey, did you know I’m currently writing a novel? I am! It’s called Head On, and it’s coming out in ten months. Also, it’s not done yet, and the deadline is real soon now. I need to make some real progress on it in the next few weeks or else my editor will give me highly disapproving looks. Which would be no good. My problem is that whenever I make any real progress and take a break to see what’s going on in the news, it looks like this:
And, well. That’s not great for my focus.
The world is not going to stop being like this anytime in the near future, alas, but I still need to get my work done, and soon.
So: From now until the book is done, my plan is to avoid the news as much as possible, and also, to the extent I do see news, to avoid writing about it in any significant detail. Tweets? Maybe. 1,000+ word posts here? Probably not.
Note that I’m going to fail in avoiding the news entirely — I live in the world, and next week I’ll be at Denver Comic Con, which means that at the very least in the airport CNN is going to come at me, and anyway whichever way the Senate plan to murder the ACA falls out, I’m pretty sure I’m gonna know about it. Be that as it may I’m going to make an effort to keep as much of it out of my brain as possible.
Incidentally, yes, just in case you were wondering, this is confirmation that at least one of your favorite writers — me! — finds it hard to get work done in these days of the world being on fire. “The art of the Trump era is going to be so lit!” people have said. Dudes, when you’re worried about friends losing access to health care and American democracy being dug out from below because the general GOP attitude to the immense corruption and bigotry of the Trump administration is “lol, as long as we get to kick the poor,” just to list two things about 2017, the creative process is harder to get into, and stay inside of. I’m not the only one I know who is dealing with this right now.
But the work still needs to get done — and not just for you folks. I like getting caught up in my work. It feels good when the writing is moving along.
So, again: News break.
This doesn’t necessarily mean fewer Whatever posts over the next few weeks, since I’ll have July Big Idea pieces and other posts in the pipeline. It does mean the posts that show up probably won’t touch much on world/national news or politics.
I mean, I hope they won’t. But I also know this is a thing, especially with me:
So. I will try to be strong.
Also, when the book is done, oh, how I shall opine.
In the meantime, I don’t suspect you will have difficulty finding other opinions on news and political events. It’s called “the Internet.” You may have heard of it.
If you’re a fan of the Midnight Star video games I helped create, here’s something fun for you: John Shirley, legendary writer and lyricist, has written “Purgatorio,” a serialized story set in the Midnight Star universe. He’s written it for Bound, a new company (and iOS app) specializing in serialized fiction. Which is pretty cool.
And, it’s the first time someone’s done media tie-in work for a universe I helped to create. Which is also pretty damn cool, if you ask me.
Here’s the post on Bound’s site talking about the story. If you have an iOS device you can also download the app there.
Big Ideas are great for a book (I mean, that’s kind of the whole point of the “Big Idea” pieces). But as Laura Lam explains about her novel Shattered Minds, sometimes the Big Idea is just the jumping off point.
Sometimes you get the big idea for the story. Sometimes that’s not enough, even when you’ve written the damn thing.
My first idea excited me and got that fire of creativity going. I wanted to play with the Dexter notion—the serial killer who feels conflicted about it. A character who loves killing in rather inventive ways, who thrives off violence, but has enough of a glimmer of a conscious to want to change. A serial killer who doesn’t want to kill innocents is sort of like a vampire who doesn’t want to drink human blood—can they suppress that thirst or will they succumb? We as humans love staring into that darkness. It’s why we read about serial killers, about mythological creatures who prey on humans, or it’s why we watch horror. Carina, the protagonist of Shattered Minds, is a serial killer who becomes deliberately addicted to a dream drug called Zeal so she’s only killing people in her imagination.
The first big idea: serial killer lost in dream drugs. I knew this book would be more violent than my other work and have some cool, trippy dream sequences. I also wanted to build on the world I created in False Hearts, which came out last year (the Pacifica novels are a series of standalones set on the West Coast of the formerly United States). This book is set in Los Angeles instead of San Francisco. The series blends psychological thriller and near future tech, with a big nod at 80s and 90s cyberpunk. Shattered Minds has hover cars, floating skyscrapers and mansions, bright moving ads against the sides of buildings. People can change their appearance at will thanks to flesh parlours. Moving tattoos are etched on their skin, and their eyes might glimmer in the dark from extra implants. Pacifica is a shiny ecotopia that’s an ugly dystopia once you scratch the surface.
I wrote Shattered Minds, and the plot worked, for the most part. Carina scared me, but not quite as much as the villain, Roz (if you watch Orphan Black, Rachel is a big inspiration for her). I did a lot of research on serial killers, especially female ones, and neuroscience, hacking, corporate espionage, and more. But something was missing. All the pieces were there, made sense, but it was just . . . lacking. The puzzle pieces had the right images but they weren’t slotting together. And that was terrifying. This was going to be my fifth published book. Shouldn’t I have a better handle on this by now? I’d put in all this work, and I could tell something was wrong. This is where good editors are worth their weight in gold. Together, we found the second big idea to bring the project back to life.
It became a Frankenstein retelling. I struck the thing with lightning, basically (har, har). In the first draft, Carina was a serial killer just because . . . she was. There wasn’t much explanation or reason. No purpose (to use the most overused word said in lectures on the MA in Creative Writing I help teach at Napier in Edinburgh). In the next draft, Roz experimented on Carina when she was a teen, reprogramming her brain to be cool and collected—the perfect unbiased scientist, unbothered by things like empathy or ethics. (Note: this isn’t a spoiler—you find all this out in chapter three after the third murder in a row). However, Roz’s experiment went wrong. Carina started feeling things again, with the side effect of her also wanting to kill everything around her. Now Roz has a much stronger reason to want to take down Carina rather than just greed. Carina is the broken experiment that much be eradicated. The one who got under her skin. The one she couldn’t let go.
The next draft just worked. I loved editing Shattered Minds as much as I had hated writing the first draft. Scenes slotted into place, Carina and Roz finally worked, circling each other like sharks. It was glorious fun to make my dark, bloody book even darker and more twisted.
Sometimes, maybe a book needs more than one big idea. More than just “what if” question. Maybe something is missing in the first draft and you just need to add a little lightning to revitalise the corpse.
First, my initial thoughts, as rendered on Twitter.
Now, let me talk a little bit more about the part where I say “rich people don’t miss their taxes,” since I think there are people who may be reasonably skeptical about this. Warning: I’m going to talk about my money. Then I’m going to talk about other people’s money.
To begin: I pay taxes on a quarterly basis, because I’m self-employed and the IRS, alas not entirely unreasonably, questions whether self-employed people will keep track of their money for a full year in order to pay off one big tax bill. So every quarter, I pay taxes. And in each of those quarterly tax payments, I pay in taxes roughly what I grossed (and definitely more than I netted) in income from the entire four-and-half years of my first job out of college, working for a newspaper. Add up my yearly tax bill, and it’s close to what I grossed my first ten years of being a professional writer — and there was never a time in there I didn’t do okay; it was a solid continuous progression up the middle-class income ladder.
So these days, whenever I see how much I pay in taxes annually, my first thought is always something like HOLY CRAP that’s a lot of money. I could totally use that! As someone who grew up poor and has worked his way steadily up the income ladder, it’s a freakin’ huge amount in terms of the raw dollars.
And then I pay my taxes and I discover that anything I would have used that ridiculous wad of tax money for, I still have enough in my net income for. I literally cannot think of a thing I want — or need — that my post-tax income can’t handle. Because as it happens, even with federal, state and local taxes, my tax burden is reasonable. I don’t pay taxes in 1980, when the highest marginal federal income tax rate was 70%; I pay taxes in 2017, where top federal tax bracket maxes out at just under 40%. With state and local taxes, I have to break a sweat to have a total top marginal tax rate of 50% — and my real world taxes indebtedness doesn’t come anywhere near half my income, because of how marginal tax rates work and because like lots of people in my position I have a very smart accountant who finds me lots of deductions.
So even with literally the full (pre-deduction) tax burden someone in Ohio can pay — we max out all the marginal rates — there is more than enough left over for pretty much anything that we want to do, individually, as a couple or as a family. We save a lot, invest a bunch, and thus take that money out of the short-term income pool we use for bills, household spending and, uh, “consumer activity,” and we’re still just fine, thanks. I suppose it’s possible that we could spend so much of our post-tax income that we’re left with little or nothing and thus would wish we had some of the money that we paid in taxes back into our hands, but speaking from experience, this takes effort, and some willful stupidity about your money. Yes, I’m looking at you, Nick Cage and Johnny Depp. But if you’re not the sort of person who spends $30,000 a month on wine, you’re probably going to be fine.
We do just fine. The other people I know who have similar or better incomes than we have also do just fine. The ones I know with substantially better incomes than we have are also doing just fine. No one at my income level or better actively misses the money they spend on taxes, because they’re still rich after they pay taxes.
Would I like to pay less in taxes? When I look at the raw number of dollars I send to the IRS, sure. When I think about the actual impact on my day-to-day life having that money would make, versus the actual and positive impact on the day-to-day life of millions of other people, when people like me pay our taxes? Nope. I have certain (in more than one sense of that word) opinions about how those taxes I pay in should be used, and whether they are being used effectively, and whether I’m getting value for what I pay, to be sure. Those are different issues, however.
Cratering health care for millions in the United States (and crippling Medicaid in the bargain) in order to give people like me a tax cut means that we are taking something from people who need it, often desperately, to give something to people who don’t need it and may not even notice it in any substantial way. In the House version of this legislation, you have to make more than $200k to get any tax benefit from it; people with incomes between $200k and $500k a year would get a tax break of $510 on average. $510 is not a lot to get in return for asking millions of other Americans to be potentially priced out of health coverage, have lifetime insurance caps reinstituted, be denied for pre-existing conditions, get sicker and die earlier. And the roughly 95% of Americans who don’t make $200,000 a year won’t even get that.
Rich people don’t need any more tax cuts. They’re doing just fine. They will continue to do just fine. And no, their tax burden isn’t onerous. Trust me, I know. I live that tax burden daily. It doesn’t hurt. What does hurt is knowing that people I know and care for will likely die sooner and sicker than they should just so someone like me gets back a few more dollars they won’t notice. Don’t come at me with “but the rich earned those dollars.” Dude, I earned my dollars, too. I earned them in a country that helped me get where I am in part through taxes. I earned them understanding that getting rich came with an obligation to the society I live in and benefit from, an obligation discharged, in part, by paying a perfectly reasonable amount of taxes.
The motto of the United States is not, in fact, “Fuck you, I got mine.” It was, and should have remained, “E Pluribus Unum” — out of many, one. We’re all Americans. We all deserve the blessings this country can provide. This one is willing to pay his taxes for the benefit of the many.
CURTIS C. CHEN:
It is very likely that I set Kangaroo Too on the moon because of The Fifth Element.
In that movie, there’s a throwaway line of dialogue when Korben Dallas’ mother telephones him and complains that he never visits her on the moon. I had totally forgotten this until I went to see a 20th anniversary screening this year (yes, we really are that old), but it must have been stewing in my subconscious all that time.
Because why wouldn’t you put a retirement community on the moon? Gravity there is only one-sixth of Earth’s, so elders with mobility issues will find it easier to get around. Every habitat needs to be pressurized and climate-controlled anyway, so it can be as tropical as residents want. The only downside is that your family will have even more excuses for not visiting. Q.E.D.
Using the moon as a setting also let me put characters in a wider variety of awkward situations. Most of the first novel took place in a single location—a cruise spaceship traveling from Earth to Mars—but each hemisphere of the moon is roughly as wide across as the entire continental United States. Add a futuristic high-speed subway connecting population centers, and a reckless secret agent can get into plenty of trouble all over the place.
One lunar feature I latched onto early in my research was a “crater of eternal darkness.” The moon is tidally locked to the Earth (i.e., one hemisphere always faces toward us), and there are places along the day/night terminator that either always or never see sunlight. If you want continuous free electricity to power a transportation network, put solar panels on mountaintops near the north pole; if you want to keep something hidden, bury it under the deepest crater at the south pole.
And, of course, I had to include visits to at least a couple of Apollo landing sites, which are preserved as historical museums in this future. I’m sure the same thing will happen in reality. As soon as people can affordably travel to other planets, there’s going to be a booming space tourism industry. Everybody wants to stand on the Lunar surface, see the Earth rise over the horizon, and cover that blue marble with their thumb.
But back to aging on the moon. NASA recently conducted a Twins Study in which they followed identical twin astronauts Scott and Mark Kelly for one year, while Scott lived aboard the International Space Station and Mark remained on Earth. The final report isn’t out yet, but researchers are already seeing unexpected results (e.g., telomere lengthening) which raise many interesting questions. It seems possible that humans could naturally live longer in low gravity environments.
Of course, the most important scientific question raised in Kangaroo Too is: could we actually keep chickens on the moon, and therefore have fresh eggs? The only way to know for sure is to establish a Lunar base and start breeding livestock up there. Make me a liar, Fish!
I’m getting a smidgen better at taking pictures of these little glowy dudes. The secret, which is not a secret at all, is long exposures on steady platforms, and low ISO settings so you don’t blow out the picture. This one, which is actually a detail of a larger photo, is a 20 second exposure at ISO 250 at late dusk (close to 10 pm here because it was literally the night before the solstice), so the sky was darker than it is here. I used the birdbath in the front yard as a platform.
I was focused on the fireflies but as you can see a little here, and rather better in the photo linked above, I caught some stars in there too, as well as twenty seconds of their movement across the sky, which was apparently just long enough to catch some streaking. I think this is pretty cool.
I’ll probably post one or two more firefly photos before the season is done. I think they’re pretty.
For The Last Good Man, author Linda Nagata decided to take a risk with one of her characters, who is not the usual sort for the literary milieu Nagata has her story inhabit. Who is this character? And what were the repercussions of that risk?
For most of my career, I’ve written novels based only on what was intensely interesting to me at the time. In the early days it was nanotechnology, cryonics, the vastness and wonder of space, biotech, and artificial worlds. My settings would regularly shift between near future and far.
And then, abruptly, I abandoned science fiction and took a turn into pure fantasy.
“With magic?” one hard SF writer asked me in dismay.
So much for author branding. Clearly, market savvy was not part of my process.
But older and wiser, right?
Not exactly. I made another abrupt turn and dove into military science fiction with the Red trilogy—high-tech thrillers published by Saga Press in 2015. The books were well-reviewed. The first volume was a Nebula-award nominee and named as a Publishers Weekly best book.
It seemed logical to follow up on that seeming success so I resolved that for the first time I would approach my next book with a little market savvy. I would write another military-themed story, again with a near-future, high-tech setting. That way, I told myself, I’d have a better chance of holding on to the readers I’d gained with the trilogy because I’d be giving them something similar-but-different.
Next, it occurred to me that if I set the new book even closer to the present time, I might have a chance of pushing beyond the science fiction genre and making inroads into the military thriller market.
Hey, we can all dream.
The Red trilogy was written around a unit of US Army soldiers. Following that similar-but-different philosophy, I decided the new novel would involve a private military company, because that would allow for more freedom with the plot.
Even with the benefit of hindsight, this all still makes sense to me. But in selecting my protagonist, I embarked on a major gamble.
My version of brainstorming is to engage in swiftly typed stream-of-consciousness question-and-answer sessions. It’s the best way I know to develop ideas. I was brainstorming the possible identity of my main protagonist when I typed this:
Hey. Maybe she’s middle aged. (How to kill a novel in one bad move.)
Generally speaking, middle-aged women are not considered to be cool main characters of the sort that commonly inhabit techno-thrillers. So this was a perfect example of the creative and logical parts of my mind contending with one another. The logical part immediately recognized the risk, but the obstinate, defiant, creative part turned out to be in charge. Later on, in the same session, I typed:
Man, I like the retired-army-woman character.
I liked her—at that stage it was just the idea of her—because she was an atypical protagonist for the sort of book I wanted to write.
On Twitter there has often been talk of how middle-aged women don’t exist in science fiction. That’s an exaggeration, of course. Looking back at my own work, the protagonist of the second novel I ever had published was a woman of “mature years.” Still. I felt as if a gauntlet had been thrown down and I wanted to pick it up, accept the challenge, and write a riveting but realistic story about a can-do, older woman. I knew it was a market risk. Nevertheless, I thought I might persuade at least a few readers to go along with me, and besides, it’s fun to kick clichés to the side of the road.
So my “retired-army-woman character” stayed, becoming the Big Idea behind The Last Good Man.
Of course there is a lot more going on in this novel. The Last Good Man is a fast-paced, high-tech, military thriller that deals with autonomous weapons, big data, A.I., surveillance, remote warfare—and their effects on human relationships. But from the first day that the story truly started to take shape, I knew it would be centered on a woman. Specifically, True Brighton, retired US Army soldier, former helicopter pilot with frontline experience, a forty-nine-year-old mother of three who’s been happily married for three decades, and who is not at all ready to retire.
True works for a private military company and despite her husband’s misgivings, she is a valued part of the company’s hostage rescue team. She’s also realistic about the limits that aging will place on her. I’m reasonably athletic, so it was fun to foreshadow those limits, working from my own experience.
Middle age is an interesting time. There can be more freedom as children reach adulthood, but there is also a sense that time is getting short and that old age with all its limitations is just around the corner.
True feels the pressure of time, and she also carries an extra burden. She is haunted by the death of her oldest son, a soldier too, who was brutally killed in the line of duty. When a chance discovery during a hostage rescue mission indicates there is more to his death than she’s been told, a mother’s resolve comes over her to uncover the truth, regardless of the cost.
This was a challenging novel to write, I think in part because deep down, I doubted the marketability of it from the start. Somewhere along the way though, it became a novel I needed to write.
Still, my doubts were not misplaced. New York publishing houses didn’t know what to make of it. No one said specifically, Middle-aged mom? No way! But it was implied that marketing The Last Good Man would be a challenge that no one quite knew how to handle.
So The Last Good Man went out under my own imprint—and I’ll admit to sweet satisfaction when it earned a starred review from Publishers Weekly.
I hope you’ll give it a try. After all, it’s readers who ultimately decide if a Big Idea is “market savvy.”
I mean, I was happy to give Entertainment Weekly an exclusive for a day, but now this cover needs to here at home.
Also, I really like it. Credit to Irene Gallo, Tor’s art director, and Peter Lutjen, the cover designer (he also did the design for Redshirts and Lock In). Tor always does right by me in terms of covers, and this is no exception.
In her Big Idea piece for The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter, author Theodora Goss makes an observation about classic monster stories that I, personally, never picked up on, but now that she’s pointed it out, seems obvious. It says something about me that I missed it, and something about her that she’s used it as a cornerstone for her novel.
“The remains of the half-finished creature, whom I had destroyed, lay scattered on the floor, and I almost felt as if I had mangled the living flesh of a human being.” –Victor Frankenstein
It’s hard to identify where a novel comes from, but if The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter comes from anyplace specifically, it’s that moment when Frankenstein, having created a female counterpart for his creature, disassembles her. Then, not wanting to leave her remains for the peasants to find, he puts them in a basket, weighs it down with stones, and throws it into the sea. There goes the Bride of Frankenstein…
I was studying Frankenstein and his creature because I was writing a doctoral dissertation on late Victorian gothic monsters–Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Count Dracula, the Beast Men on the Island of Dr. Moreau. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein isn’t late Victorian, of course, but I wanted to understand this iconic monster narrative so I could apply some of what I learned to those later works. Well, one thing I learned is that there’s almost always a female monster, and she’s almost always destroyed.
Let’s take some examples from the later works I was studying. Some of these you’ll recognized, but some may be obscure enough that you won’t know what I’m talking about. That’s all right! Late Victorian gothic is like a wonderfully fearsome labyrinth. The fun is in exploring . . . So let’s start with Sheridan Le Fanu’s Camilla, in which the titular vampire is destroyed according to standard vampire protocols for the crime of seducing the innocent Laura and trying to turn her into a vampire as well. (Bonus: lots of sexual subtext from an era when books about same-sex romantic relationships were still banned.)
In Bram Stoker’s Dracula, which was deeply influenced by Carmilla, both vampire Lucy and Dracula’s brides are staked and beheaded. In H.G. Wells’s The Island of Dr. Moreau, the Puma Woman escapes from Moreau’s terrible House of Pain and kills him, but is herself shot. In Arthur Machen’s The Great God Pan, the mysterious Helen, who has the power to summon Pan and his minions, is forced to hang herself. You don’t even have to be a technical monster: in H. Rider Haggard’s She, the irresistibly beautiful Ayesha burns in the fire of immortality–which is a good thing, because she was thinking of claiming the British throne. And where would that leave Queen Victoria, I ask you? Ayesha isn’t a monster, but she is monstrous–a woman who has the power to kill with a gesture, and whom no man can resist. No wonder the novel has to get rid of her.
We find the same thing earlier in the century and across the pond with Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Rappaccini’s Daughter,” the beautiful but poisonous Beatrice, who kills herself so that her lover may live. Beatrice gets more sympathetic treatment than other monstrous women–she is, at least, a romantic heroine. Like Ayesha, she gets to tell part of her own story, although the focus of the narrative is not, finally, on her, despite Hawthorne’s title. But she too dies in the end. They all do. One exception is Queen Tera in Stoker’s less-known novel The Jewel of Seven Stars, where the resurrected Egyptian queen triumphs at the end–but guess what? In the second edition, the ending was rewritten (perhaps by Stoker, perhaps by his editor), and she too is exterminated.
(Perhaps most strangely, women creep into these works even when not officially present . . . In Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, which contains almost no women at all, Hyde himself is feminized, suffering from “hysteria,” and Jekyll tells us that he finds turning into his alter ego “unmanning.” Of course, Hyde has to die, taking Jekyll with him.)
The field of monster literature is strewn with female bodies. Why? Well, monsters die just in general, so it’s not all about being female. But female monsters are presented as particularly dangerous. Frankenstein does not complete his creation because she might breed with the male monster, and their progeny might outcompete man. Beyond that concrete biological danger, a female monster does not fit the cultural category “female” as it was conceived in the nineteenth century (or earlier: we have a fearsome female monster who must be destroyed in the classical figure of Medusa). Carmilla must be destroyed specifically because she threatens the good women. She might–gasp–turn them into monsters like herself!
So the big idea behind my novel is really very simple: the female monsters did not die. They’re alive, and they’re telling their own stories. That doesn’t mean all the female characters in the novel are good–villainesses are too delicious to dispense with, and anyway, I wanted to make sure that in my narrative, female characters got to be all sorts of things, both good and evil.
But it started with the idea that female monsters have served, throughout literary history, as supporting characters for primarily male stories. They have been the sirens or harpies at the edge of the hero’s journey, the sphinx posing riddles . . . The late nineteenth century was particularly obsessed with monstrous women, as we can see from the many pre-Raphaelite and Aesthetic paintings of these mythical figures. (It’s probably not a coincidence that this was also the era of the New Woman and the suffrage movement, when “unnatural” females were agitating for such shocking things as the right to vote or attend university.)
In my novel, the women talk–a lot, sometimes over each other. But hey, they’ve been silent (and silenced) for so long that once I let them start, they had an awful lot to say. They tell us their stories as they really happened. (Jekyll had a daughter! The Puma Woman survived! Frankenstein’s female creature was not disassembled after all!) I wrote The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter because I love the older novels–I can’t imagine a better afternoon than one spent with nineteenth-century monsters, with tea and cookies on a nearby table, while outside the mist and rain create a suitably gothic atmosphere. But this time, I wanted the women to have their say . . .
You know, just in case you’re curious. Here’s the link.
It was a good day. And a good life since.
Every year we have fireflies in our yard, and every year I intend to go out with a camera and take a picture of them, and then I always forget. Not this year! Last night and went and made a first attempt. It turned out… adequate! I need to take a longer exposure, I think, and put the camera on a tripod. But as a proof of concept, this will do for now. Also, now I know how to take a long exposure on my camera. Go me.