All posts by Kate Baker

The Big Idea: Hannah Strom-Martin & Erin Underwood

Facing a horrifying dearth of available science fiction YA anthologies, Editors, Erin Underwood and Hannah Strom-Martin sought to rectify the problem. Crowd-funded through Kickstarter, Futuredaze: An Anthology of Young Adult Science Fiction aims to make a dent in the market, complete with 33 short stories and poems aimed toward the younger fans of the genre.  Here are Erin and Hannah to explain the genesis behind their Big Idea.

Erin Underwood & Hannah Strom-Martin:

Our big idea for Futuredaze: An Anthology of Young Adult Science Fiction was born out of a discussion about a lack of short SF for teens.  If you haven’t heard of The Hunger Games by now you’re probably living in District 13—but while we both enjoyed Suzanne Collins’ series and looked forward to a Harry Potter-esque revival of science fiction stories for teens, we ended up holding our breath a long time, at least as far as short stories were concerned.  (Erin nearly passed out at a Boston B&N when she realized the lack of SF anthologies. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.)

Since our Big Idea evolved as a dialogue it seems fitting for both of us to share the story here.

Erin: In early 2012, the Earth stood still. That was the day I entered a Boston Barnes & Noble’s YA section, really “looked” at what they had to offer.  I didn’t see a single SF anthology for teens. Standing there among the paranormal romance, urban fantasy and horror anthologies, I felt a bit betrayed. I’m a girl who grew up consuming a regular diet of geek fiction, and finding an absence of geek among the sleek, shiny anthologies told me that something had gone desperately, horribly wrong with the world. We were being invaded by werewolves, vampires, and witches, and there wasn’t a single space alien to blast them off the anthology shelves. That’s when I called Hannah and the Big Idea for Futuredaze: An Anthology of YA Science Fiction began to germinate. From there, our Big Idea grew into a Kickstarter campaign that gave life to Futuredaze.

Hannah: I’d noticed that, despite the Susan Collins juggernaut, comments about SF or the classic tales from which The Hunger Games derives appeared limited to a few mentions of Battle Royale.  As someone who remembers hearing audio broadcasts of Ray Bradbury’s short stories on NPR I kept waiting for some snarky critic to point out the grand tradition of ersatz future fiction that The Hunger Games had drawn on for inspiration.  I also noticed that dystopian SF seemed like the only sub-genre to have really gripped the public imagination—and while I adore those kinds of tales, there is much more to the SF universe.  This is the genre of James Tiptree, Ursula K. LeGuin, Kurt Vonnegut, and Stephen King’s Bachman books (I can’t read The Hunger Games without thinking of “The Long Walk”).  When we started reading for this anthology, we wanted to explore the possibilities of SF written for young adults, but we also wanted stories that hearkened back to our own formative reading experiences and gave us that special thrill of discovering characters who reflect a bit of your own experience—even if they’re in a far different time and place.

Erin: I agree with Hannah. I looked for the stories that made me “feel” something while reading because those are inevitably the stories that stay with me long after the last word is gone. If a story from our submission pool didn’t have that effect on me, I couldn’t imagine it within the anthology. Eventually stories began rising to the top, and we saw several standout stories per subgenre.  This encouraged us to move toward a much more generalized anthology that could showcase the best of what science fiction can offer. Except…..

Hannah: Except then we were invaded by robots.  My favorite aspect of YA is that it doesn’t talk down to its audience.  Likewise, I feel it must be said that our early submission period saw a deluge of what I nicknamed “white-girl robot” stories.  Speculative fiction has been going through some self-analysis lately and this sudden influx proved why.  A good chunk of those early stories not only thought “inside the box” when it came to the possibilities of scientific advancement—they were also obsessed with the idea of white-girl robots.  Not just the obvious sex-bot variety (although those were there, some even well written).  The robot horde came from white suburbia and, relentingly, had white suburban concerns.  There’s nothing inherently wrong with that—but the sheer volume of such submissions proved why we need more projects like Futuredaze.

Erin: The robots were tough. We received so many we had an abundance of “mech” stories to choose from, but “The End of Callie V” was our favorite because it approached the idea of life and love in a unique way. For me, the biggest concern was the number of stories that, while well-written, didn’t fit the contemporary definition of young adult fiction. By this point, I’d been promoting and working with YA authors long enough to start wondering if there was a fundamental misunderstanding of what constitutes “YA fiction” within parts of the science fiction community. That realization was a bit of a shock for me.

Hannah: My one frustration with this anthology was that the overall submission pool wasn’t quite at the level I would have hoped for—either in terms of cultural awareness or an ability to think outside the box and get away from typical SF cliché’s like rocket ships.  However, the stories that were really thoughtful and original had a way of popping out so we quickly had more than enough entries for a highly entertaining, book length project.

Erin: My biggest challenge was to stop being nice. (If you know me, you’re laughing right now. I know it!) But seriously, once these gems floated to the top, it became a lot easier to cut the other pieces. Eventually, I learned an invaluable lesson: each anthology must have a story that sets the bar for every other story, if you want to avoid publishing an average anthology. For me, that story was “A Voice in the Night” by Jack McDevitt. I’d been a fan of his Alex Benedict series for years, and when Jack agreed to write a YA story for us featuring a young Alex (a teen with his very own “big idea”), I was thrilled. Once I read Jack’s piece, I saw what Futuredaze could be. The bar was set.

Hannah: While I would have liked to see a bigger representation of cultures from our submissions I really think this anthology will be a good jumping off place for kids who may have read The Hunger Games and are wondering what other sorts of characters and situations they can find.  We’ve got stories set in the near future, grand space opera type stuff and unique tales from emerging writers like Alex Dally MacFarlane whose “Unwritten in Green” was one of my favorite pieces.  This is a story that straddles the fantasy and SF genres in a really interesting way, ups the level of writerly craft, and points the way towards what this nascent rebirth of young adult SF can be.  We also decided to include poets in our line-up, which I feel provides yet another avenue for exploration.  Exposing our audience to new things—that was the idea all along.

Futuredaze: An Anthology of YA Science Fiction: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powells

List of Contributing Authors. Visit Erin Underwood via her website.

Obligatory Guest Cat Post

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As you are probably aware by now, John is away from the intarweebs. The last I heard, he battled a rather large, fire-breathing dragon in the foothills of some foreign land with nothing more than a piece of crispy bacon, a tub of frosting and a rubber chicken.*

In his absence aside from gleefully wielding the mallet with tender rage, I figured you would appreciate this rather lovely picture of Chloe that I took right after Christmas. By no means is Chloe trying to usurp the hold on your heart that the animals of the Scalzi compound currently enjoy. I just happened to be trying out my new 35mm lens on my Nikon D3100. The lens is one of the least expensive out there and does a fantastic job. Although, Chloe does not look as impressed as I was with the new toy. Also, look! It’s a cat picture! We need those!

*Unconfirmed and conflicting reports. Some accounts say Krissy defeated the dragon with her bare hands, while John ate the bacon, the tub of frosting and the rubber chicken. What happens in the foothills, stays in the foothills, people.

The Big Idea: Jamie Mason

The “whydunit”, is arguably the more intriguing of questions asked along a literary journey suggests Jamie Mason, author of Three Graves Full.  In today’s Big Idea, Jamie explains the method and mentality that went into polishing her debut novel.

Jamie Mason:

I’ve never written anything that went theme first, story second. Probably someone could do it. No doubt someone has – or likely many someones. Lord knows maybe even I could do it if I wanted to or was paid a million dollars to do it that way. It’s just that neither of those scenarios has presented itself yet.

So, I got a Big Idea: There is a man, a mild man, not a bad guy, but a guy prone to doing the wrong thing. Then he kills somebody. In a panic, he plants the problem a little too close to home, if you know what I mean. And because, in fine non-psychopathic form, he can’t stand doing any yard work after that, he hires a landscaper to keep the front of his house − just the front – nice and presentable. He’s concerned that that the neighbors will start looking at him funny if his grass grows up to the windows and the hedges jump their beds.

Wouldn’t you know it, those landscapers discover a buried body on his property – only it’s not the body this guy buried.

And then this guy has about 300 pages of problems after that.

Since the foundation of Three Graves Full is one hell of a coincidence, I realized as I went along that the characters were going to need to be latched onto this ridiculous ride with some thematically very sound bolts. I noticed that, within the bounds of this story, everything seemed to turn on how inclined each character was to take the bald truth full in the face. The more they lied – and there were little lies and great big whoppers in the spectrum from omission to full on fabrications – the more the breadcrumbs fell to lead me back to why they were the way they were, and why they did the things they did.

I became fascinated with the idea of what I called “The Liar’s Margin” which was, in fact, the original and working title of the book. Here’s a little of what I had to say on it:

“Every event is boxed in by a set of facts; the truth as it were. There’s the what and the when of a deed; there’s where it happened and how it was done. But it’s at the why that the liar’s margin begins. It’s from this border that we launch the justifications for everything we do, and for all that we allow to be done to us. Only our distance from the hard truth and the direction of our push—toward or away from it—is the measure of our virtue.”

What I’d set out to do, and hope I’ve managed, is to take one fictional character’s worst nightmare, and gild that nightshade flower with a caper at the intersection of a few more fictional character’s worst nightmares. Then, as we seem more readily able to do with someone else’s problems, I wanted to find the humor there − and most importantly, to find the why. For me whodunit is almost always less interesting than whydunit.

The Big Idea of the liar’s margin is that it is the perfect laboratory for distilling ‘why’. If we know that she won’t face her reasons for putting up with a cheater, or that he’s not entirely ashamed of the murder he committed, or that another person is unwilling to admit how very like his father he really is – well then, we’ve done more than solved a fictional crime. We’ve earned ourselves a Diploma of Advanced Amateur Anthropological Studies from The University of Armchair.

And that’s not too shabby for just the price of a book.

Three Graves Full: Amazon|IndieBound|Powell’s|Barnes&Noble|Simon & Shuster

Read an excerpt.  Jamie Mason can be found via:  Website|Blog|Facebook|Twitter

The Human Division, Episode Five: Tales From The Clarke is Now Live!

It’s Tuesday and by now, you know what that means! The Human Division, Episode Five: “Tales from the Clarke” is now live. (Oh, a rhyme!) Links to this week’s piece are below and the description blurb is as follows:

Captain Sophia Coloma of the Clarke has a simple task: Ferry around representatives from Earth in an aging spaceship that the Colonial Union hopes to sell to them. But nothing is as simple as it seems, and Coloma discovers the ship she’s showing off holds surprises of its own…and it’s not the only one with secrets.

You can also continue to read along with Ron Hogan over at Tor.com.  As Ron cleverly teases for the future installment:

Join us next week, when we meet a familiar face from The Last Colony, and get to see a character from Zoe’s Tale in a whole new light, in Episode 6, “The Back Channel.”

Reviews are always appreciated, so if you do like the episode (or even if you don’t),hit your favorite social media or online bookstore to leave your thoughts and stars. Above all else, thank you for riding along on the journey thus far.

Tales from the Clarke: Amazon|Barnes & Noble |iBookstore | Google Play |Kobo|Audible (Audio) (all links US)

So Long, Farewell, Auf Wiedersehen, Goodbye

The sun has gone to bed and so must I.

I’ll try to make this as short and as sweet as I can as I return the keys to John.

Thank you. To all of you for making me feel at home for the short time I was here. It was an honor to meet and interact with some of the best and brightest the interweebs has to offer.

Thank you to Mykal, Mary, Nora and John (and Brandon) for wonderful guest posts during my stay.It was truly amazing to be surrounded by such esteemed company.

Lastly, a thank you to John for entrusting me with such a huge and humbling responsibility. I had an absolute blast.

Goodnight.

Postmodernism in Fantasy: An Essay by Brandon Sanderson

Today is my last day as site manager here at the Whatever.  As I prepare to hand the blog back to John, I thought I’d give you a surprise for making me feel so welcome. At first, I was going to tape bacon to my kids, but I figured someone would call CPS on me. Instead I’m happy to present Brandon Sanderson as a last-minute guest blogger! He has written a terrific and engaging essay concerning postmodernism in fantasy. Which is super fantastic as I’m taking multiple literature courses this fall. Thanks, Mr. Sanderson!

Brandon Sanderson is the author of Elantris,  the Mistborn trilogy, the Alcatraz series of novels and Warbreaker. He was personally chosen to complete the Wheel of Time series originally penned by Robert Jordan, with the latest installment due in November. If his packed panels and readings at Dragon*Con were any indication, he is an author well on his way to rock star status. If you haven’t jumped in and bought some of these books, you are truly missing out on wonderful reads. So without further ado, I’ll let him talk about his new novel, The Way of Kings.

You’re welcome.

POSTMODERNISM IN FANTASY

The Way of Kings is out. I’ve been thinking a lot about the novel, what it has meant to me over the years, and why I decided to write it as I did. I’ve had a lot of trouble deciding how to pitch this novel to people. It’s a trouble I’ve never had before. I’m going to explain why this one doesn’t work as easily. But I’m going to start with a story.

There’s a particular music video I saw quite often when working the graveyard shift at the local hotel. I worked that job primarily because it allowed me to write at work (I wrote some eight or so novels while sitting at that front desk, including both Elantris and the original draft of The Way of Kings). However, part of my job there was the do the night audit of the cash drawer and occupancy, that sort of thing. As I worked, VH1/MTV would often become my radio for an hour or so, playing on the little television hidden behind the front desk.

The video was by Jewel, and was for the song “Intuition.” We’ll pretend, for the sake of defending my masculinity, that I paid special attention for the literary nature of the video, and not because I have a fondness for Jewel’s music. And there was something very curious about this video. In it, Jewel transitions back and forth between washed-out “normal world” shots of her walking on a street or interacting with people, and color-saturated “music video”-style shots of her engaging in product promotion while wearing revealing clothing.

The tone of the video is a little heavy-handed in its message. Among other things, it is meant to parody rock star/music video culture. It shows Jewel in oversexualized situations, having sold herself out in an over-the-top way. It points a critical finger at sexual exploitation of the female form in advertising, and juxtaposes Jewel in a normal, everyday walk with a surreal, Hollywood version of herself promoting various products.

Now, what is absolutely fascinating to me about this video is how perfectly it launches into an discussion of the literary concept of deconstructionism. You see, Jewel is able to come off looking self-aware—even down-to-earth—in this video, because of the focus she puts on how ridiculous and silly modern advertising is. The entire video is a condemnation of selling out, and a condemnation of using sexual exploitation in advertising.

And yet, while making this condemnation, Jewel gets to reap the benefits of the very things she is denouncing. In the video, her “Hollywood self” wears a tight corset, gets soaked in water, and prances in a shimmering, low-cut gown while wind blows her hair in an alluring fashion. She points a critical finger at these things through hyperbole, and therefore gains the moral high ground—but the video depends on these very images to be successful. They’re going to draw every eye in the room, gaining her publicity in the same way the video implies is problematic.

Deconstructionism is a cornerstone of postmodern literary criticism. Now, as I’m always careful to note, I’m not an expert in these concepts. A great deal of what I present here is an oversimplification, both of Jewel’s video and of postmodernism itself. But for the purposes of this essay, we don’t have time for pages of literary theory. The title itself is already pretentious enough. So, I’ll present to you the best explanation of deconstructionism I was given when working on my master’s degree: “It’s when you point out that a story is relyin’ on the same thing it’s denyin’.”

That will work for now.

THIS APPLIES TO FANTASY

Before postmodern literature can start appearing in a genre (and therefore, before deconstructionists can start pointing out the irony inherent in that postmodern literature) you need to have a body of work with dominant themes and concepts. You need an audience familiar enough with those themes to recognize when they are being molded, changed, and built upon.

Fantasy (and the epic in particular) hit a postmodern stage with remarkable speed. Tolkien was so remarkably dominant, so genre-changing, that reactions to him began immediately. And, since so much of the audience was familiar with his tropes (to the point that they quickly became expected parts of the genre), it was easy to build upon his work and change it. You could also argue that the Campbellian monomyth (awareness of which was injected into the veins of pop culture by George Lucas) was so strong in sf/f that we were well prepared for our postmodern era to hit. Indeed, by the late ’70s, the first major postmodern Tolkienesque fantasy epic had already begun. (In the form of the Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, the Unbeliever.)

During my early years writing, I mixed a lot with other aspiring fantasy novelists. A great number of us had grown up reading the Tolkien- reaction books. Brooks, Eddings, Williams, Jordan. You might call us of the rising generation Tolkien’s grandchildren. (Some of you may have heard me call him, affectionately, “Grandpa Tolkien” when I talk about him, which is an affectation I think I got from a David Eddings interview I once read.) A lot of my generation of writers, then, were ready for the next stage of fantasy epics. The “new wave,” so to speak.

During those years, I read and heard a lot of talk about “taking the next step” in fantasy. Or, “making the genre our own.” It seems that everyone I talked to had their own spin on how they were going to revolutionize the genre with their brilliant twist on the fantasy epic. Unfortunately, a lot of us were a little unambitious in our twists. (“My elves are short, rather than tall!” or “I’m going to make orcs a noble warrior culture, not just a group of evil, thoughtless monsters!”) Our hearts were good; our methods were problematic. I remember growing dissatisfied with this (specifically with my own writing, which was going through some of the same not-so-original originality problems), though I couldn’t ever define quite why.

I think I have a better read on it now. It has to do with a particular explanation one writer gave when talking about his story. It went something like this: “Well, it starts out like every other ‘farmboy saves the world’ fantasy novel. You know, the plucky sidekick rogue, the gang of unlikely woodsmen who go on a quest to find the magic sword. But it’s not going to end like that. I’m going to twist it about, make it my own! At the three-quarter mark, the book becomes something else entirely, and I’ll play off all those expectations! The reader will realize it’s not just another Tolkienesque fantasy. It’s something new and original.”

There’s a problem in there. Can you spot it?

Here’s the way I see it. That book is going to disappoint almost everyone. The crowd who is searching for something more innovative will pick up the book, read the beginning, and grow bored because of how familiar the book seems. They’ll never get to the part where you’re new and original because of how strongly the book is relying upon the thing it is (supposedly) denying. And yet, the people who pick up your book and like it for its resonant, classical feel have a strong probability of growing upset with the novel when it breaks so solidly out of its mold at the end. In a way, that breaks the promise of the first three-quarters of the book.

In short, you’re either going to bore people with the bulk of the book or you’re going to make them hate your ending.

That’s a tough pill to swallow. I could be completely wrong about it; I frequently am. After all, I’ve often said that good writing defies expectations. (Or, more accurately, breaks your expectations while fulfilling them in ways you didn’t know you wanted. You have to replace what they thought they wanted with something so much more awesome that they are surprised and thrilled at the same time.) But I think that the above scenario exposes one of the big problems with postmodern literature. Just as Jewel’s music video is likely to turn off—because of the sexual imagery—people who might have agreed with its message, the above story seems likely to turn away the very people who would have appreciated it most.

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I Remember

I remember laughing in my blue Saturn at NPR as they discussed Bushisms. I remember carrying my infant daughter up the stairs to our house. I remember sitting on my couch, opening the bag of donuts. I remember turning on my TV to the Today Show.

At first it was awe. At first it was confusion. At first it was an accident.

Matt Lauer interviewed a woman who described the first tower. The first plane. The first fire.

Then the second hit. Live on TV. Live in front of the world.

Confusion turned to fear, anxiety and determination.

I left the uneaten donuts, the live TV, scooped up my daughter and raced back to the school to get my son. Never noticing how blue and beautiful the sky was that day.

The sky is beautiful and blue today and I remember.

To all those who were lost 9 years ago, to those who have served us and protected, to those who raced in when lower Manhattan was covered in ash, I remember you.

How could I ever forget?

To those who’ve preached tolerance amidst fear and misinformation, to those who’ve started to rebuild, to those who’ve carried on despite their losses, I thank you.

How could I not?

It is more than a moment of silence. It is a lifetime of memory and slowly healing wounds. It is a day for every American, every citizen of the world, every human to reflect on an event that will never be forgotten.

How could we?

The Big Idea: Sheri S. Tepper

Sheri Tepper is one of my favorite science fiction authors of the last double decade, for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that she’s perfectly willing to ask the inconvenient questions in her books, and in answering those questions, give you a story whose narrative you don’t always expect. I first encountered her with the planetary epic Grass (which along with its quasi-sequel Raising the Stones rank in my personal Top Ten of science fiction novels) and since then have kept coming back for more. So it’s with no small pleasure that I host her here today, to discuss her latest book The Waters Rising, and the ideas within. It’s clear she’s not yet done with the inconvenient (but necessary) questions.

SHERI S. TEPPER:

The big idea of The Waters Rising is the same idea The Author has been agitating about ever since she worked for CARE and then for PPWP (Planned Parenthood-World Population, which it was at the time) as a young woman.

It’s a simple idea: “Hey, people, the world is drowning . . . in people.”

Beating a dead horse: Nobody’s listening.

OH-kay. Can’t talk about that. Several religions say we can’t have too many people. Male egos (some female, too) says can’t have too many. “Lookee me, how prolific I am, world’s biggest mommy, eight at a whack, just like a mommy jack rabbit.” Instinct says can’t have too many. This was a very good instinct back when every cave held a saber-toothed tiger or a cave bear or something more deadly. Back when infections had no medications, wounds had no sutures, breaks had no casts. Back when three or four out of five humans died before they grew up. Back when creatures ate people more than the other way around. Not such a good idea now.

Talking to the wind: Nobody’s listening!

OH-kay. Leaders make pronouncements: We have to feed generations yet unborn! We have to provide for generations yet unborn! We (who?) have to do this and have to do that for generations yet unborn! Leaders are paid to say these things by the housing industry (build, build, build), the oil industry (drill, drill, drill), the all-everything-all-the-time industry (more, more, more), all for the generations yet unborn –

Just try to drown out that noise! Nobody’s listening!

OH-kay. So, generations yet unborn will inherit a barren. A warren. A world devoid of trees. A world devoid of animals. Protein grown in factories. Plastic made in factories. People living like termites in termite hills. A world in which the ocean is poisoned, in which there are no fish. ALL RIGHT! Talk about oceans. Not a flood of people, because nobody’s listening, but a flood of water. Talk about people being the prey instead of the predator. Talk about a Big Kill. About what life was like after a Big Kill. Talk about threats to the human race . . . a natural killer, the flood. An unnatural killer . . . one left over from the time before. Plus a few villains because human nature hasn’t really changed.

And a character from a time before. At the end of A Plague of Angels, Abasio, the male lead, was left alone and grieving with only his horse for company. That, too, was a world made barren by a time before. The Author had not intended him to be alone. She had thought he deserved to have his partner, but Charlie Brown (of Locus), who was visiting at the time, read the manuscript, and Charlie said she had to die. The Author did not like this at all, but what can one do when confronted with superior knowledge and firepower? The Author has felt guilty about this ever since.

So, bringing Abasio and his horse back will be a kind of expiation. They fit very nicely into that sort of world, and we let the waters rise and see what happens, with only one very definite end in mind: this time we will not kill off his beloved. The “we” referred to is the Author and the characters, because once they are on the screen—they appear, as on a TV or movie screen, in a setting and the Author’s immediate task is only to record where they are and what they are doing—they do things that they want to, even when the Author has not foreseen any such thing! They get involved with other characters; they develop their own points of view, they see fit to argue and scream and refuse to do certain things (usually something agents or editors think they should do) and eventually have a decisive voice in the matter. In the Author’s head, this character was born and reared in a certain fashion, and when this character must suddenly do something entirely different than his birth and upbringing would lead one to expect (which birth and upbringing exist, mind you, only in the Author’s head and sometimes tenuously at best), the Author feels obliged to rebirth them. Rebirthing is not done at the keyboard, obviously. It is done while sulking. In bed. Reading something else. (People unfamiliar with the Author may or may not know she is a longtime sufferer with arthritis, now having more titanium than bone in her body, so sulking in bed is not as irresponsible as it might appear in a younger and more elastic person who might choose instead to get drunk or have a fit of depression. The Author in general eschews depression as a waste of time, since she doesn’t have much more of it left.)

But of course, each rebirth is only the beginning of other problems, because the characters have to decide where the water is coming from. How high it will get. What will happen to people when it gets there. The answers are always surprising! “My heavens,” says the Author to herself, “how did that happen?” One cannot argue. It did happen. It’s right there, in black and white.  Several characters are in agreement that it did happen, and it seems fairly logical. Author in her role as inventor. But, the solution to each problem changes everything else. This summons the Author in her role as mediator. So, that, at the end, when everything is tied together fairly sensibly, the story goes forward and back, millennia, perhaps, in both directions involving unforeseen octopi and sea bottom castles and how wolves may learn to talk.

The last role is agent and editor, of course. Trying to make it all flow sensibly and of a piece. In this, thank God, we are helped by our real agents and real editors at publishing houses who are not occupied by the entire cast of characters and who are instead people of infinite tact, wisdom, and ability.

—-

The Waters Rising: Amazon|Barnes&Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt from the novel. Visit Sheri S. Tepper’s biography page.

The Big Idea: Michele Lang

It’s one thing in fiction to change a little bit of history to fit your story plausibly inside it. But what happens when you change whole, vast chunks of it? On one hand, you’ve got the “alternate history” genre. But on the other hand, you may have a voice whispering in your ear, asking you if you really think you’re going to get away with that, when everyone knows how things really went. Michele Lang knows of this whisper, because in writing Lady Lazarus (which recently garnered a coveted starred review in Booklist), it was right with her the whole time. Here’s how she’s dealt with the whisperer.

MICHELE LANG:

I first read the poem “Lady Lazarus” as a literal-minded freshman in college. I knew it was supposed to be an extended metaphor for Sylvia Plath’s suicide attempts and her fraught relationship with her father, but I preferred to read it straight up, as a revenge anthem of a Jewish woman who returns from the dead to kill the Nazis who had murdered her.

I liked my interpretation way better. I mean, how can you read lines like these:

Out of the ash
I rise with my red hair
And I eat men like air

And not consider the possibilities for mayhem? Even better, what if this girl, who could die and die again, had some way to stop the murderers before they killed anybody else?

I wanted to write that story for myself, wanted it bad. My parents are both Holocaust survivors, and to me the poem “Lady Lazarus” was an exercise in fantasy, the ultimate “what if.”

But such ponderings are fraught with danger. As an interviewer pointed out to me recently, the Holocaust is the third rail of historical fantasy — a million volts of energy humming there, don’t touch it or you’re dead.

I’ll be honest with you. I was afraid to write this book. The seed of this story stayed dormant in my mind for many years. It took a lot of writing, and a lot of living, before I had the guts to try to write Lady Lazarus.

Before that, I did everything I could to avoid touching that third rail. Magda Lazarus, the girl who refused to stay dead, kept following me as I moved to Boston, to Buffalo, to Connecticut. As I developed my writing muscles, I tried to satisfy her with a story set in a different, less challenging place. I tried writing her story set on another planet (really!). In contemporary New York. And all the while, she kept whispering, “No. You know where I belong.”

I didn’t want to go there, the nightmare country where my parents come from.  But Magda Lazarus herself insisted. I didn’t pick this story, it followed me into the dark alleys of my mind and pinned me against the wall. It wouldn’t let me go until I wrote it.

My book Lady Lazarus is essentially about the power of our individual choices to change our lives, and consequently the world.  To write Magda Lazarus’s story, I had to choose to face my own fears head on, and imagine a world in which magic could serve as a countervailing force against evil.

At bottom, I was afraid to write about the war because it wasn’t my story to tell. I didn’t want to hurt my family by leaping across the wall of fire they had passed through at such a cost to survive.

In the end, I had to weigh my fears against the raw need to tell this story. And the story won. I resolved to write this book if I could, and to fix my commitment I told someone in my family, someone I adore, my decision to write Lady Lazarus.

“You can’t write about that!” this beloved person instinctively said. “You can’t stop the whole war. Maybe you can save a little village, but you can’t stop what happened. It’s wrong. You can’t.”

At the time, I couldn’t articulate the well-thought out considerations of alt-hist pros like Debra Doyle and Jim Macdonald (see the Making Light post that Scalzi linked recently).  People in other quarters have implied to me that a topic like World War II is sacred, and a mere genre writer like myself should not sully the real-life history with my imaginings.

But what about Sylvia Plath? Quentin Tarantino and Inglourious Basterds? This is my third rail, dammit, and I have the same right to hit those million volts as everybody else.

I wish I’d had the presence of mind to say to this dear family member, “The question ‘what if’ is the basis of all creative thought. My imagining a different past doesn’t trivialize what actually happened, it explores the ways in which all of us can transcend, or not transcend, the evils that beset us. Asking ‘what if?’ doesn’t negate the lives of Grandpa Gyula, Grandma Tosca, and all the others. It is a way to honor them.”

But none of these noble sentiments came up in our conversation. It’s as simple as this: saying “you can’t” to a writer is like waving a red cape in front of a bull. And Magda Lazarus, the apparition who haunted me and who wouldn’t stay dead, insisted I choose to follow her into the fire.

And, well, here we are. Here she is.

—-

Lady Lazarus: Amazon|Barnes&Noble|Powell’s

Read an excerpt from the novel. Follow Michele Lang’s blog. Michele Lang on Twitter.

In Honor of AussieCon4, Here’s Looking at the Finest Sci-fi Films to Be Filmed Down Under

John spent the last week in Australia attending AussieCon4 and has finally returned home. Through the haze of jet lag, he mumbled something about poisonous spiders, rocket statues and a filmcritic.com column.

This week, he examines some of the finest sci-fi films to come from where the women glow and men plunder. As usual comments are closed here, so hop on over and add to the discussion.

They Blew Up My Little Pony, Mommy!

You know you are losing the imaginary war when a toy pony brings law enforcement to their knees.

The bomb squad sent a robot to investigate the toy pony.

Robot: Dude, are you a bomb?

Pony: No, my forgetful human left me here when the bell rang. She even left the brush she uses to comb my glittery tail. See, glitter. I look fabulous! She’s coming back, right?

Robot: Sucks to be you, man.

Pony: Why is that?

Robot: My “all clear” sensor was sent in for repair yesterday.

—–

Some little girl is weeping now in Orlando. Can’t you hear her pitiful cries?

The Awesome Side of SF Fandom

My time at Dragon*Con really opened my eyes to how dedicated and loyal some fans can be.

Here we have Amy Pond and the 11th incarnation of the Doctor. I saw fans who loved Star Wars, Star Trek, Final Fantasy, Borderlands, Halo and many others. Some were simple costumes and some went all out on the pageantry.

An incredible example of dedication is this one man’s quest to reforge a lightsaber.

So have you ever done anything as elaborate in a quest to be the ultimate fan?

Dragon*Con!

Okay, DragonCon is a blast. Internet connectivity sucks as usual with a convention this size, so updates will be brief.Yesterday, I am pretty sure that George Lucas was roaming the halls of the Marriott. He was standing next to Chad Vader, while wearing a Jar Jar tee shirt. I do have a picture and will try to post it tonight.

I also went to Mary Robinette Kowal’s reading as well. It was highly entertaining. If you ever have a chance to hear her read, take advantage of it.

As usual, the costumes here are fantastic. This con is as much for people watching as it is for everything else. More updates soon!

Free Fiction & An Open Pimp Thread

Because free is awesome, I wanted to share some free fiction links with you as I fly over the mid-Atlantic on my way down to DragonCon.

Clarkesworld Magazine just came out with a new issue on September 1st. Along with the beautiful cover, there are stories by Robert Reed and Stephen Gaskell. Non-fictions brought to you by Bill Spangler and Jeremy L.C. Jones. As always, you can hear me podcasting the first story of the month. The second audio will be ready for download on September 15th.

Also, John Joseph Adams is looking for braaaaaiiinnnnssss. The new website celebrating the The Living Dead 2 has eight stores in their entirety and are available both as regular web pages and in a downloadable ebook sampler (currently available in epub and pdf format, with additional formats forthcoming from the Baen Webscriptions store).

There will also be 36 different author interviews with the contributors. They’re scheduled to appear daily, starting on August 30th, with the final one scheduled to run on Oct. 4. And last, but not least, you can also read the introduction and the header notes to each story in the anthology. (Okay, maybe that IS least!)

The anthology all-new, original stories by zombie masters Robert Kirkman, Max Brooks, David Wellington, Brian Keene, Jonathan Maberry, Carrie Ryan, John Skipp, and Mira Grant, for a grand total of FORTY-FOUR STORIES. This includes a mix of originals (27) and reprints (17) (none of which have ever appeared in a zombie anthology before).

The free stories, which you can find here, are:
The Skull-Faced City — David Barr Kirtley
And the Next, and the Next — Genevieve Valentine
Flotsam & Jetsam — Carrie Ryan
Mouja — Matt London
Who We Used to Be — David Moody
The Days of Flaming Motorcycles — Catherynne M. Valente
Obedience — Brenna Yovanoff
Rural Dead — Bret Hammond

So now that I’ve totally worn that pimp hat (John has totally got to wash that thing now when he returns). I’m passing it along to you. We haven’t had a great pimp thread in awhile. So what do you have to show me? Feel free to pimp friends, media that you love, books you’ve read, anything, really. Just keep in mind that more than two links will probably put you into moderation. I will get you out of that prison, but it might be later in the day.

Pimp away!

The Movie-Adaptation Chances for This Year’s Hugo Class

While John prepares for the Hugo Awards ceremony this coming weekend in Australia, his filmcritic.com column discusses a very familiar question. Fans will eventually ask when their favorite book will be swept-up by Hollywood and made into a movie. Who doesn’t have a list in the back of their heads as to who will play John Perry or perhaps, Harry Creek? In a clever tie-in, John tackles the topic of movie – adaptation chances in relation to this year’s Hugo nominees for Best Novel.

As usual, comments are closed here. Click on the link above and add your two cents.

The Big Idea: Jennifer Ouellette

I’ll make a confession here: I was the only person in my class at my very-competitive college prep high school who did not take calculus. Which is a fact which bothered the calculus teachers immensely – the would come up to me and warn me I was throwing my life away, or at least my chances to attend a good college, by not taking the course. The irony of course is that I went on to write science fiction, a genre which benefits from a knowledge of calculus. The sound you hear is the teeth of those teachers, grinding away.

So it was with some considerable interest that I came to science writer Jennifer Ouellette’s new book The Calculus Diaries: How Math Can Help You Lose Weight, Win in Vegas, and Survive a Zombie Apocalypse. Like me, she was a math class refusnik; like me, she writes in a field where a knowledge of calculus comes in handy. How does she handle coming to calculus at a later point in her life? I’ll let her tell you.

JENNIFER OUELLETTE:

There’s an episode of the TV series House that opens with a group of students taking the AP calculus exam. A boy collapses and is rushed to the hospital. When Dr. House is told of the circumstances of the boy’s collapse, he quips, “That’s the way calculus presents.”

So calculus has a formidable reputation. I have always been among those non-mathematical sorts who viewed it with trepidation and preferred to keep a safe distance. And I’m not alone: a large chunk of the population finds math in general, and calculus in particular, intimidating and distasteful. I have friends who break into a cold sweat at the sight of a simple algebraic equation. The fact that math has its own language — a sort of symbolic secret code to which only a select few hold the key – only makes matters worse.

So I figured it was time someone wrote a book about calculus from that perspective, and who better to do so than a former math-phobic English major who went on to become a science writer specializing in physics? Most popular math books are written by people who already love the subject and are quite knowledgeable – i.e., actual mathematicians.

The problem is, they’re so familiar with the topic that they forget what it’s like to know nothing. The most basic concept can be a challenge for a rank beginner. For instance, how do you explain what a mathematical function is to someone who doesn’t “speak math”? I can parrot the technical definition. But that doesn’t mean I fully understand the concept. 

Of course, this meant I had to actually learn calculus before I could write about it coherently. When I started, The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Calculus proved a little over my head. Fortunately, my Spousal Unit is a physicist at Caltech. He helped me find real-world examples of calculus, and gamely answered all my pesky “why is the sky blue?” questions.  The result is The Calculus Diaries: How Math Can Help You Lose Weight, Win in Vegas, and Survive a Zombie Apocalypse. It’s less about teaching the nuts and bolts of calculus and more about turning the world around you into your mathematical playground.

We learned to shoot craps in a Vegas casino to demonstrate the calculus of probability. We indulged in the rides at Disneyland, and I learned about freefall and parabolic curves, and how to apply vector calculus to Space Mountain. I went surfing in Hawaii to learn about sine waves and the Fourier transform, and our house-hunting expedition turned into a multivariable optimization problem.

I even chatted with an epidemiologist about how to use differential equations to analyze an outbreak of zombification. (Worse-case scenario: the zombies wipe us out in four days, unless we go all Zombieland on their undead butts and kill them as fast as possible. So now you know. Read the appendix and you’ll also know the derivation, and can impress your friends at parties.)

Writing the book also forced me to ask some deep questions about where my kneejerk rejection of equations originated. It would be easy to simply blame the patriarchy, but it’s far more complicated than that. It’s true that there is lingering gender bias about women in math – and lots of women have the horror stories to prove it – but my own negative reaction stemmed from a weird form of Imposter Syndrome.

Even though I’d done well in my math classes and earned top grades in high school, deep down I knew I was just memorizing patterns and didn’t really understand the subject deeply. I was terrified that my ignorance would be discovered and I would be publicly humiliated as an academic fraud. Even though this never transpired, that fear colored my attitude towards math for much of my adult life; I avoided it like the plague.

I talked to lots of very smart people with varying degrees of math-phobia, and they all had one thing in common: an early negative experience with math that shattered their confidence and instilled a deep-seated fear and dislike of numbers. As one woman memorably described her feelings: “My initial reaction to the word ‘calculus’ is not unlike a caveman throwing rocks at the moon in ignorance and fear resulting in blind rage. There is no such thing as ghosts creeping up behind me on the stairs, but there is such a thing as a polynomial monster, and it has hooked teeth and causes chronic yeast infections, I’m sure.”

The truth is, the Calculus Monster isn’t all that scary once you face it head-on. We all do some form of calculus all the time, without realizing it. A baseball outfielder has to estimate where the ball is likely to land after the batter gets a hit. Whether he knows it or not, his brain is calculating the trajectory of that ball, then sending a signal telling the outfielder where to place himself in order to make the catch. Lurking somewhere in that process is a calculus problem. Or two.

I think scientists have a valid point when they bemoan the fact that it’s socially acceptable in our culture to be utterly ignorant of math, whereas it is a shameful thing to be illiterate. We could all be just a little bit mathier. I hope my book will encourage others like me to give this much-maligned subject a second chance.

—-

The Calculus Diaries: Amazon|Barnes&Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read more about the novel here. Follow Jennifer Oullette’s blog. Jennifer Ouellette on Twitter.

The Big Idea: Laura Resnick

Saving the world. Paying the rent. Are these mutually incompatible activities? Laura Resnick ponders this very subject as she discusses Unsympathetic Magic, the latest installment of her fantasy series featuring the quirky character Esther Diamond. And while it might seem at first blush that one have to prioritize these desires (after all, if one does not save the world, paying the rent becomes a moot point), Resnick makes a good argument why both are important in the end.

LAURA RESNICK:

I love juxtaposition. I love the salty-and-sweet flavor of peanut brittle, and the sinus-clearing heat of a spicy curry accompanied by the creamy coolness of raita. I love the close-to-laughter close-to-tears experience of a well-acted Chekhov play, and the mingling of today’s grief with yesterday’s joys that you get from a good funeral eulogy.

I also like a healthy dose of comedy with my drama, and a generous helping of life-and-death stakes with my farce.

Hence the ethos of my Esther Diamond urban fantasy series, of which Unsympathetic Magic is the newest release. When the brilliant cover artist for this series, the award-winning Daniel Dos Santos finished this cover, he told me that coming up with images that have the right combination of menace and comedy is the big challenge of illustrating these books. (And he keeps getting it just right. So hats off to Dan!)

Esther Diamond is a struggling actress in New York City who gets involved in supernatural adventures along with her friend Dr. Maximillian Zadok, a 350 year old mage whose day job is protecting the Big Apple from Evil. They are assisted in their activities by Nelli, Max’s inconveniently-large canine familiar; and they’re occasionally dogged, thwarted, or beaten to the punch by Detective Connor Lopez, a skeptical cop who would be Esther’s boyfriend if he weren’t so concerned about his growing conviction that she’s a deranged felon.

Esther’s vocation as an actress is similar to mine as a writer; she loves it, it’s the work she was meant to do, and she is fiercely dedicated to it. Like writing, acting is a highly competitive profession, a very unstable way to make a living, and often doesn’t pay that well. Consequently, while fighting Evil and confronting the forces of darkness, Esther is also always looking for work, making sure she can pay her bills (no mean feat in Manhattan!), and vexed about any circumstances that interfere with her ability to earn income or pursue her career.

And that’s an example of the sort of juxtaposition that I’ve enjoyed playing with in this series: While confronting supernaturally powerful adversaries and their rapaciously murderous plans, Esther Diamond has to give equal attention to holding down paying jobs, covering her rent, and watching her budget. These constant obligations characterize life as I have always known it, and since I don’t believe these responsibilities will disappear for me if I wake up tomorrow to discover I’m being menaced by zombies and a voodoo curse, I don’t make them magically vanish for Esther, either.

Thus, Esther is working at three jobs throughout Unsympathetic Magic. Her “real” job is acting in a guest slot on The Dirty Thirty, a TV show about corrupt cops which is widely loathed by the NYPD—including Lopez, as well as the cops who arrest Esther for prostitution one night in Harlem. (There is, as she assures Lopez when she asks for his help, a perfectly reasonable explanation for why she was assaulting strangers at midnight while dressed like a crack whore.) Her regular day job is working as a singing server at Bella Stella, a restaurant in Little Italy that featured prominently in her previous misadventure, Doppelgangster. And her other day job is teaching acting classes at the Livingston Foundation in Manhattan’s lovely old Mt. Morris Park neighborhood.

And while tracking down a mysterious sorcerer who’s using the dark side of voodoo magic to raise zombies, call up dark spirits, and terrorize Harlem by night, Esther makes sure she never misses a minute of work at any of her three jobs.

Pursuing her professional vocation, meeting her fiscal needs, and stomping Evil into the ground before it can swallow her city whole and cancel all auditions forever, in addition to trying to have a love life with her almost-would-be boyfriend (Detective Lopez), keeps Esther pretty busy.

Similarly, making sure that I find the comedy in stories about Evil, homicide, abduction, rapacious greed, and attempts to destroy the world as we know it keeps me pretty busy. The stakes in any story have to be high or there’s not much reason for a reader to get invested in it for 400+ pages; and in fantasy, the stakes are traditionally very high, i.e. the struggle between Good and Evil. So Esther Diamond’s action-packed adventures consist of fantasy drama with one more layer—the funny layer, the layer where absurdity is juxtaposed against menace, the mundane is juxtaposed against the earth-shattering, and the pettily irritating is juxtaposed against the truly terrifying.

Unsympathetic Magic attempts to bring together all of these elements and balance them against each other, while also adding a dash of sex appeal, some fun facts I’ll bet you never knew about traditional voodoo, and the dark stormy climax of a mid-August heat wave.

—-

Unsympathetic Magic: Amazon|Barnes&Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt from the novel. Follow Laura Resnick’s news page. Laura Resnick on Facebook.

Caption Contest Winner

Movieguy @ Comment 79 wins it! I’ll send you an email to which you can reply with your home address for the books!

It was a really tough choice to pick the winner. Ultimately, Movieguy’s comment made me laugh as I thought about the famous scene between Jack and Rose on the ill-fated Titanic.

Honorable Mentions include:

Mordron: Put the money on the dresser….no don’t hand it to me…put it on the dresser.

Latasha Ewell: Well, it all started a few years ago… when he taped bacon on me.

SarahB: Youz want me tah do whut?! Dat’s it, whut kinda maguhzeen is dis?

Thank you to everyone for participating!

The Big Idea: Harry Connolly

Monsters: you know, those big, hairy and scaly things with the claws and teeth and the overwhelming desire to do nasty bad things to you? But then there’s Harry Connolly. No, he’s not a monster (I mean, as far as we know), but he has definite ideas about monsters, and what they should be – and what they don’t have to be. Explains himself, and how his thoughts on the subject inform his latest novel, Game of Cages.

HARRY CONNOLLY:

In The Philosophy of Horror, Noel Carroll nobly attempts to define the monster. To paraphrase him (in a way that would certainly make him cringe): a monster is a threatening and impure creature that violates the natural order as it’s defined by contemporary science.

“Threatening” is pretty straightforward. “Impure,” though, is more complicated. Monsters can be mixtures of things that do not belong together: man and wolf, living and dead, animal and machine. They can be incomplete: a living hand, a bodiless ghost. They also be magnified in size, like a giant shark, or in number, like a swarm of rats.

(And so on. It’s an  interesting book with much to quibble over. I think of it often when I’m planning a new novel.)

And while I don’t write horror (my agent says so), I do write thrillers about extra-dimensional beings who make incursions into our world to feed and reproduce. That means I need a monster for each book–maybe more than one–and being me, I wanted them to be original.

Now for a short but important digression: One thing that bothers me about modern monsters in fiction (aside from seeing the same ones over and over) is the reliance on creative choices designed to work in movies. I’m talking mainly about huge claws and teeth, usually accompanied by animal growls.

There’s a good reason for this–the sight of a gigantic jaw full of long, sharp teeth (another example of magnification) evokes a powerful subconscious fear response. Unfortunately, filmmakers have been one-up each other for decades, finally creating monsters that verge on the  ridiculous.

But fiction isn’t an image medium, so why do so many books try to copy movie monsters?

Once again, I was defining myself by what I didn’t want to do.

I decided to make the monster beautiful rather than ugly, and to have it inspire love instead of fear. Buffy the Vampire Slayer (inspiration to so much modern contemporary fantasy) had already shown that frenzied, irrational love could be scary as hell in “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered,” the episode where Xander Harris casts the love spell. But in this case, I wanted to replace romantic love with the love between human and pet.

And here I must tread carefully. Our good host has (I’ve learned not to say owned) several pets and one recently passed away. I offered my sincere condolences, but to be honest, the love between a human and a pet is mysterious to me. I grew up surrounded by pets–dogs, cats, snakes, fish, hamsters, guinea pigs–but once I moved out on my own I realized that, whatever feeling people get by sharing their homes with an animal, I don’t share it.

Intellectually, I know the feeling exists. Emotionally, I don’t understand it and maybe never will. That’s not meant to be a criticism, implied or otherwise; it’s simply an acknowledgement of one of the ways I’m different from most people.

And that’s the idea behind Game of Cages: a creature that could force you to love it so much you’d sacrifice everything for it. You’d give up your job, your friends, your life, your children just to be near it and care for it. Instead of magnifying its size, or its teeth and claws, I magnified the emotional connections it created until they became irrational and destructive.

—-

Game of Cages: Amazon|Barnes&Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt from the novel.Visit Harry Connolly’s blog. Follow him on Twitter.