It’s a nice one.
In other news, I am back home — for three whole days! And then I’m off to Portland, Oregon, for Westercon 69. I think I’ll spend most of the next couple of days sleeping.
It’s a nice one.
In other news, I am back home — for three whole days! And then I’m off to Portland, Oregon, for Westercon 69. I think I’ll spend most of the next couple of days sleeping.
I’m in Connecticut at the moment, for a wedding, and the view is leafy, and also, of my feet. Hope your weekend is fabulous, folks.
In no particular order, as I’m writing them off the top of my head:
1. So, the pound has crashed to a 30 year low, trading was halted on the Japanese stock market, other markets are plunging, David Cameron is resigning, Scotland wants another independence referendum, Sinn Fein is pushing for Irish reunification, Nigel Farage went on TV and said, basically, “Hey, remember when we said we were gonna put that EU money into our health service? We lied,” and the EU is saying to the UK, you want out, fine, but let’s make this quick. Yup, welcome to Brexit!
2. If you want an inside view of this mess, I suggest Charlie Stross’ take on it. His opening line is “Okay, so the idiots did it; they broke the UK,” which as far as I can see is entirely accurate.
3. From the outside, I wish I could say it looks totally unfathomable, but it doesn’t, because, hello, Donald Trump is the GOP nominee for president over here. The same bigoted, emotional, don’t-need-to-know-facts impulses that powered the Brexit vote to 52% put Trump into general presidential race. The irony is that some of these UK voters are apparently surprised that they carried the day. News folk over in the UK are now telling us that a fair number of people who voted “Leave” didn’t really think it was going to happen, so what was the harm in voting for it. Cornwall, which voted to leave, is now saying the UK government must replace its EU subsidies. Good luck with that, Cornwall. Maybe get in line behind the NHS for that money.
It should be noted that all the horrible things that are currently happening because of Brexit were called by the very experts that Michael Gove asserted, correctly, alas, that voters were tired of. This does seem to suggest that perhaps, for future reference, experts might be listened to from time to time. Also that a protest vote is still a vote, and as Nader voters learned (or, sadly, didn’t), you shouldn’t protest vote if you’re not willing to live with the implications of your protest, the implications, having been outlined to you by, you know, experts.
(This is where a few Nader voters spin up and whine that nuh-uh, they totally didn’t throw the election to Bush. Dudes, sit the fuck down, already.)
4. To make this about the US for a moment: Could the same bigoted, emotional, don’t-need-to-know-facts impulses that pulled Brexit over the line actually put Trump into the White House? They could, sure! It’s not likely, because a) the Democratic advantage in the Electoral College, b) Trump to date running the most incompetent general campaign in the modern history of US politics, but there still are relevant lessons to be learned from Brexit. First and foremost, that it won because the people who voted for it the most were exactly Trump’s demographic here in the US: Older white folks from economically shaky areas — and they turned out in force, voting in substantially higher numbers than, say, the younger UK voters, who were overwhelmingly for remaining, but who didn’t vote anywhere near the numbers of older voters.
Which is the second thing, of course: folks, when it comes to politics, if you don’t vote, what you think kinda means dick. Here in the US, the people who love Trump are gonna show up on election day. 100% sure of that prediction. We know they will because they already did. And you can say, yes, but there’s not enough of them overall, and I will say to you, fuck you and your complacent ass, I want him to lose in a goddamn landslide. I want him electorally nuked from orbit. It’s the only way to be sure. Everyone needs to vote. It’s really that important.
With that said, it should be noted that Trump is currently blathering that he thinks that the Brexit, which is plunging the British economy into a trench and giving the global economy a haircut, is perfectly fabulous. He literally just said that he thinks Brexit is great because the pound dropping means more people will come to his golf course, which I think is the 21st century’s gold standard entry in the “fiddling while Rome burns” sweepstakes. So maybe, perhaps, the combination of economic implosion and Trump’s smug wanking about it will be the thing that convinces any fiscal conservative still holding out on Clinton to pinch their nose and vote for her in November, because she’s not in fact a raging cauldron of economic stupidity? Maybe? But probably not? We’ll see.
So yeah: Trump could take it. Brexit shows us how. Don’t get cocky. And vote, for fuck’s sake.
5. To get personal for a moment, over on Twitter I was asked whether or not, as an American, Brexit was actually going to have an impact on my life. Yes, it surely does! For one thing, I sell books in the UK, through my UK publishers (Gollancz and Tor UK), and I get paid in pound sterling, which is currently being punched in the throat, in terms of exchange rate. For another, the UK economy is likely to plunge into a recession, which will make it harder to sell books there, so that’s not great either. I also sell in other territories around the world, particularly in Europe, and Brexit is a destabilizing force there, which is likely not good for me. And of course the US economy is itself likely to get some buffeting from it, too.
But wait, there’s more! I like many Americans have retirement stock investments, which look to take a 2008-sized pummel. I should also note that 2008’s global recession was pretty terrible for publishing, the field I’m in, and writers in particular got it high and hard, so if things go south in general, that also makes things more difficult for folks in my field.
So, yes, directly and indirectly, Brexit is going to have an impact on my life, as an American and also as a working writer. Thanks, UK.
The good news for me, such as it is, is that last year I signed long-term publishing contracts with Tor (for printed/electronic books) and Audible (for audio). Those contracts basically act as an economic hedge for me, which is a thing I entirely intended them to be when I signed them — not against Brexit, to be clear, but against general instability in the publishing world. But they work for Brexit, too, as well as any knock-on economic fallout that might come from it. So, yay, go me and my fundamentally fiscally conservative nature.
6. But let’s be honest, if the world economy goes to shit, my contracts aren’t going to save me any more than they’re going to save anyone else, they’ll just slightly delay my fall into the abyss. The best case scenario at this point is merely that the UK is screwed for a while, and the rest of the global economy routes around it. The worst case scenario is, well, a bit grimmer, economically and otherwise. I’m hoping for the best case scenario (sorry, UK). I’ll be financially planning for other things.
(However, people in the US, etc — please do not panic about your retirement accounts just yet, unless you are, in fact, just about to retire. The whole point of retirement accounts is you sock money away in them and then let them do their thing. There will be ups and downs. This is a down. There will, hopefully, be more ups to come.)
To my friends in the UK who have to deal with this directly: My sympathies. May the pain be relatively brief. You can come camp out on my lawn if you need to. To my friends in the US: Fucking vote in November, already.
On Monday my old phone, a Droid Turbo, met up with an accident, and it became incumbent upon me to replace it. Fortunately, life had prepared me for this because I spend a lot of time looking at reviews of new phones just in case my current phone should be carelessly dropped, or hurled, or whatever, so when I walked into my local store to get another I had a pretty good idea of what my top candidates were. For the past few phones I’d been using the Motorola Droid line, and if the new Droid Z had been available yet, there’s a pretty good chance I’d’ve picked it up.
But it’s not, so instead I decided to pick up a Samsung S7 Edge, which aside from various good reviews, also came with a deal that threw in one of their VR goggle sets (I have to mail away for it, so I don’t have it yet). So I figured, what the heck. I’ve had it now for four days, which is enough time for some first impressions.
Briefly: So far, so good. There’s no doubt that it is the prettiest cell phone I’ve ever owned, although I will be first to note this is not a difficult competition to win — I’ve been going with the Droids these many years for their massive batteries and Motorola’s better-than-any-other-manufacturer take on Android skinning, not their esthetics, which can be summed up as “look chunky and don’t give a shit about it.” The S7 Edge, on the other hand, has a gorgeous, curving screen that falls away in a lovely fashion, and feels (especially coming from the Droids) deceptively thin and light. It’s a phone that you can pet and call your precious, basically.
But the good news, for me, anyway, is that there is more there than just the pretty screen — notably the 3,600 mAh battery, which means that like the Droids this is a phone that can actually go an entire day without needing to be recharged (this is where iPhones, also pettable, fall down in my opinion), which for someone like me who travels a stupid amount, is actually a critical thing. It’s also got the other hardware bells and whistles — better than retina-level screen, decent camera, fast processor and ample RAM — which make me happy. So it’s pretty and practical, which is nice. The phone also allows for expandable storage, which is great.
With that said, there are a couple of things anyone thinking of picking it up should know about. Specifically, if you pick up the “Edge” iteration of the S7, you should be aware that the fact the (yes) edges of the phone are now touch-sensitive may require you to retrain yourself in terms of how you hold the thing, lest your beefy mitts cause your phone to register touches where you do not intend, just by how you hold the thing. I’ve had this happen to me more than a few times already. It’s a small annoyance and definitely not a deal-breaker, but it’s something to be aware of. Also annoying and possibly more so: the positioning of the speaker at the bottom of the phone is in a place where it gets covered a lot by my hand, which means that as I’m listening to things, the sound would seemingly drop out for several seconds, just because I moved the phone in my hand. This is not pleasing to me.
My other complaints (mostly about the layout of buttons, both physical and capacitive) are less about Samsung’s choices and more about the fact that they’re not laid out like Motorola’s Droid phones, which were my last several phones, and thus are not where my memory tells me they are. This is a personal issue, and I suspect I will get over it.
So overall I’m happy with my purchase, although I am still getting used to Samsung’s interface not being Motorola’s. For anyone looking at the Edge as a possible next phone, be aware the edge aspect, while cool-looking, also requires getting used to. But if you can do that, it’s a lovely phone so far.
In some ways, I’ve been writing Duskfall my entire life.
Wait, that sounds too grandiose. It’s not like Duskfall is my darling or anything.
…okay, it is in a way, but more like a Frankenstein-y conglomeration of a bunch of little darlings I’ve killed, put through a wood chipper, and stitched back together. Gruesome, but true.
That fact has actually made it tough for me to choose a “big idea” to talk about. I’ve thrown dozens of them into Duskfall over the years, and the book itself seems to outgrow each one as I’ve revised and edited the thing. One idea does stand out, though, and that’s the magic system of Duskfall: psimancy.
There’s a lot to talk about in regards to psimancy—like the fact that it is psionic in nature, has three distinct branches (a telekinetic branch, a telepathic branch, and a prescient branch), and the roots of the magic system are actually based in Quantum Electrodynamics. But the big idea behind the magic system that I’ll focus on today is a bit more personal in nature.
Many of the characters who use psimancy in the Chaos Queen ‘verse require the ingestion of a narcotic to access that power. The narcotic is highly addictive—one of the major costs of using psimancy. The central character of Duskfall, a young woman named Winter, discovers she can access psimancy through the drug. A large part of the plot then revolves around her attempting—and usually failing—to deal with the addiction that threatens to destroy her and her connection to reality. As is the case with just about every addiction, I try to show how Winter’s dependency on faltira not only destroys herself, but her relationships with all of the people she cares about as well.
I’ll get back to the addiction stuff momentarily, but let me switch gears for a sec. There’s a saying in writerdom to “write what you know.” As someone who writes speculative fiction, I’ve always taken this advice with a grain of salt. It can certainly be helpful, and potentially very powerful, to draw from personal experience and emotion when writing, but I also don’t think it’s entirely necessary. And the strange truth is, it seems readers often connect with the things I simply research or conjure out of my own imagination far more than the things I’ve actually experienced.
Being honest, I didn’t even know I was writing a story about addiction until I was partway through the novel. It was one of those things that crept subconsciously into the storytelling, and into Winter’s character in particular. I realized some time later how much all of the addiction stuff I was trying to express in the novel reflected what I and some people very close to me have experienced. Addiction and its consequences have threatened to destroy my own life as well as the lives of a number of loved ones and close friends, and once I realized how much it affected my writing, addiction seemed almost an inevitable, and certainly an integral, part of Duskfall.
You can imagine my surprise when my agent’s first notes about Duskfall focused heavily on how the addiction sequences in the novel didn’t feel genuine or real at all!
I was shocked and a bit bewildered at first, but listening to how my agent described things, I knew he was right. The addiction sequences weren’t working. They were disjointed and shallow. I’d let my subconscious include them without thinking deeply about how they should all work together in the story, and that was a mistake. So, I went to work.
One of the most difficult aspects to handle was the resolution of Winter’s addiction storyline at the end of the novel. It was problematic for a number of reasons, not the least of which was that I wanted some kind of denouement for Duskfall while at the same time leaving the addiction storyline some room to expand into later books—quite a bit of room, actually. But the more immediate problem was how I wanted Winter to feel about choosing to take the drug to access psimancy—given the choice between the immense power she could access in taking the drug, and keeping her relationships with her loved ones and her grip on reality intact, what would she choose? Could she find a balance? And what if choosing the drug was the only way to protect those close to her, but made her lose them in the process?
I won’t spoil it, of course, but I think I found a satisfying conclusion.
Writing about personal experiences—especially difficult, profound, and/or emotional ones—is one of the bigger challenges I’ve faced as a writer. Taking specific, personal experiences, and trying to tell them in such a way that they can be universally applied while still feeling uniquely personal…that’s a tough balancing act, but when it works out, the results are pretty incredible.
So I actually do stand by what I said in the beginning. I’ve been writing DF my entire life— but I think that’s pretty normal. The stories we tell, the things we write for others to read and hear, incubate inside us for a lot longer than perhaps we realize. I think that’s really what all stories are, anyway—conglomerations of emotions, experiences, knowledge, imagination, and little darlings we’ve thrown in the wood chipper.
Why, yes! Yes, I do!
Bear in mind that the United Kingdom is not my state, and there may be some subtleties to the arguments for and against the UK leaving the European Union that I don’t get. Nevertheless I’ve been following the back and forth for a few months, not only out of my own interest, but because a great number of my friends are British and it’s of interest to them as well — not to mention the UK moving out of the EU would have repercussions that would would likely reach to the US, primarily economically. So, just as UK folks might have an opinion on the US presidential race, so too do I have an opinion on Brexit.
And it is: Were I voting in tomorrow’s referendum, I would vote for the UK to remain in the EU.
Much of that vote, I would note, is based on negatives out of the leave camp, more than a great affinity for the EU. One, the leave camp seems to be playing rather fast and loose with facts, regarding the benefits of leaving, and it’s the sort of obvious lying and exaggerating that doesn’t even allow one to admire the craftsmanship of the effort. I dislike this both as someone who likes his facts truthful, or at least with effort put into their spin.
Two, while not everyone who might vote “Leave” is an appalling racist and/or low-information nationalist, it’s pretty clear that nearly every appalling racist/low-info nationalist is voting “Leave,” and that the people engineering the Leave vote are perfectly happy to leverage those folks to get what they want. If you find yourself on the same side as appalling racists/ignorant “patriots”, you might ask yourself why, and additionally whether you might be more appalling and/or ignorant than you’d like to admit.
Three, it seems to me that near the heart of the Leave vote is an internecine struggle for the soul of the UK’s Conservative party, which, while probably important to David Cameron and a few other folks, is also almost certainly not important enough to have created this particular referendum. The Brexit vote solidifies my opinion that Cameron is not especially canny as a politician; he’s likely to have to resign as Prime Minister if the “leave” vote succeeds, and it’s not entirely out of the question he could be made to resign even if “remain” wins, but only by a small margin.
Fourth, and most significantly, it does seem that even if the UK wants to extricate itself from the EU, it will still have to deal with the EU and conform to EU standards and practices if it wants to trade with the EU, which it will, because the EU is one of the largest single markets on the planet. So essentially the UK gains nothing with respect to the EU, and the EU still gets to dictate to the UK, with the only difference being the UK no longer gets a hand in making the EU policy.
There are other things to think about as well (the possibility of the UK breaking up as Scotland decides to stay in the EU, the Brexit encouraging other EU defections, possibly destabilizing Europe, what happens to the millions of UK citizens living in Spain, France, etc), but the sum up is: Leave seems dishonest, courts bigotry, and doesn’t actually appear to have any real benefit to anyone whose name is not Nigel Farage, Boris Johnson or Michael Gove. The fact that the latest polls show the UK population evenly split on it is a little frightening.
That said, Donald Trump is the presumed nominee for president for the Republican Party, so far be it from me to cast any stones.
And of course, both Trump and the “Leave” initiative seem to be two strains of the same virus, i.e., a few massively entitled folks harnessing for their own benefit the furious yawp of a group of people for whom things are not currently going well, who want to find someone to blame, and who just want things to go back to a time when they are certain things were better — if not in general, then at least for them. In both cases this larger group is very unlikely to get what they want, even if they get their way at the ballot box.
In any event: Remain would be my vote, if I got a vote, which I do not. Hopefully enough folks in the UK will vote that direction anyway.
Family. Most of us have them, does that mean we do well with them? Sometimes we don’t — and as E. Catherine Tobler explains in this Big Idea for The Kraken Sea, that can offer an interesting area to explore in writing.
E. CATHERINE TOBLER:
I’ve never been good at family.
My parents divorced when I was three and when I was older, joint custody meant summers spent with my father and his new family—including a brother I saw no need for. Who was this person? These visits were like marches through enemy territory; I never knew exactly where I was, and never managed to make a reliable map. Likewise, my brother thought I was there to capture his space and his father, who I still thought of as my father. Of course he was—even if he never felt like that, because we remained strangers to each other. Family gatherings contained a plethora of cousins who always knew their place and who they were to each other. I was someone from far away, someone from a branch of the family tree that had been severed.
When I started writing The Kraken Sea, it wasn’t my intent to explore family, though I quickly realized I had been doing that from the start with my circus stories (the first of which appeared in Sci Fiction, in 2005).
Still, I’d never told the story of the man who started the circus, the enigmatic and strange Jackson. He’s in the business for the profit, but beneath the greedy exterior, there’s a curious kindness that he won’t readily explain. His story has been glimpsed on a smaller scale in every short circus story I’ve written, but The Kraken Sea is the first place I actually take it apart and explore. The more I look at it, the more I see pieces of my own childhood.
Maybe it’s something a lot of people do—waiting for your proper family to show up and carry you away. Maybe plenty of people feel like aliens within their own family and think well this is a mistake, my people will be here for me soon. Maybe it’s something speculative fiction writers do more than most.
I’ve always known Jackson was separated from his birth family, having been left on the steps of an orphanage as an infant. The priests and nuns did not hesitate to take him in, despite all evidence that he was Not Quite Right. The priests were certain with the right guidance, Jackson would grow up proper and not at all bizarre. Or evil. Sister Jerome Grace takes a special and specific interest in Jackson: she knows what he cannot, that he is destined for inexplicable things, but that he will also come to make his own family, just as he makes his own fate.
Jackson’s never been very good at family, either. The priests were never fathers to him, and Sister Jerome Grace was never quite a mother. The orphans always maintained an Other quality to them, though for them, Jackson was the outsider. Jackson never wanted to invest in anyone—he likes penny dreadfuls and his personal space because these are both easily defined within the world of the orphanage. Outside those walls, he’s staggered when the whistle of the orphan train feels the same way. Books and my room did the same for me; they gave me a guaranteed place where I knew I could escape, safely.
The Kraken Sea is less about a person finding their place, and more about a person making their place. Of course, this place is never completed, but remains in a constant state of being created. Everywhere Jackson arrives, amid a flurry of new people, there’s a mental map to assemble; there’s territory to navigate and treaties to negotiate. How does he fit, given all he’s stuffed deep under his skin? Metaphorically and not.
How do we fit into the spaces we visit? How do we fit with our families and peers? Are we forever Outsiders, or do we find ways of fitting into circles and society, no matter our perceived strangeness? Or are we forever the child waiting to fly away into lands unknown where our own brother thinks we mean to conquer his people?
It’s no wonder I keep writing circus stories.
Old Man’s War recently came out in Brazil as Guerra Do Velho, and is apparently doing pretty well there, I suspect in no small part thanks to the efforts of publisher Editora Aleph, who made some nice swag for it, as you can see here along with the books itself. I especially like the poster.
Fun fact: The artist for Guerra Do Velho is Sparth — who you may recall is also doing the art for this book of mine. This is pretty nifty. Also, if you want to see the full cover artwork, here you go.
Hey! Curtis C. Chen is a former student of mine! And now he has his debut novel, Waypoint Kangaroo! Naturally I take all credit for his success. Now, pay attention while Curtis tells you about his book.
CURTIS C. CHEN:
My debut novel Waypoint Kangaroo exists because of a robot cat from the future. Lemme ‘splain.
Though I grew up in the United States, I was born in Taiwan, and my late paternal grandfather owned a bookshop, so as a young child I had access to a variety of reading materials. One of the book series I discovered and fell in love with as a child was Doraemon, a popular Japanese manga that had been translated into Chinese. It was probably also my first contact with science fiction in book form, and it influenced me pretty deeply.
Oddly enough, Doraemon is still virtually unknown in the Western hemisphere, despite enjoying immense popularity all across Asia since his introduction in 1969–he’s even been called “the Mickey Mouse of Japan.” The good news is, US residents can now watch episodes of the 2005 Doraemon anime on the cable channel Disney XD, where he’s billed as a “Gadget Cat from the Future.”
I won’t get into Doraemon’s backstory here (you can read about that at doraemon.com). The important thing is that Doraemon keeps all his futuristic gadgets in a “4th Dimensional Secret Gadget Pocket,” a pouch built into his belly–and that was the inspiration for my character Kangaroo’s superpower, which he simply calls “the pocket.”
However, since my goal was to write a spy novel for grown-ups, not a comic strip targeted at pre-teen children, I wanted to be more rigorous in terms of how Kangaroo’s pocket works and what its limitations are. I wanted his superpower to be internally consistent and to generally adhere to the laws of physics as we understand them today.
I also didn’t want the pocket to be useful in every situation, which meant coming up with very clear rules for when and how Kangaroo could use it. My friends and fellow writers helped me think through those issues by asking many questions of the “Can he do X? What if he does Y? Why wouldn’t he do Z?” variety.
Here are the basics of what I came up with:
Once I had a general idea of what Kangaroo could and couldn’t do with the pocket, I started thinking about “edge cases.” How do I set up situations where the pocket is the only or best way to solve a certain problem, but it’s going to be a challenge for Kangaro to use it in that particular way? And given that he’s not so great at all the other spy stuff–his bosses really only want to use him as a courier–what does he do when things go sideways in the field, and he can’t use the pocket at all for some reason?
I hope you have as much fun reading about Kangaroo’s adventures as I did making them up. And if you don’t see your favorite “stupid pocket trick” in Waypoint Kangaroo, don’t panic–book two is coming soon!
It’s a pretty good one, I have to say.
Someone’s phone met with a bad end today. Guess whose!
Spoiler: It was mine.
And now I am the owner of a band new phone, specifically the Samsung S7 Edge, which is a very nice phone although it will take me a bit to get used to it since I’ve been on Motorola phones (specifically the Droids) for the last five years or so. I’m now doing all the update-y things you need to do when you get a new phone. Whee!
How was your day?
Just in time for the weekend, another fine stack of new books and ARCs that have come to the Scalzi Compound. Which of these books call to you? Tell me in the comments!
YOON HA LEE:
Once upon a time, as a young, impressionable Yoon, my boyfriend-now-husband introduced me to BattleTech. One of the parts that fascinated me about BattleTech’s backstory was the bit where the well-respected Genereal Aleksandr Kerensky was so disgusted with his regime that he and six million followers abandoned the Star League to found their own nation. I was impressed by how charismatic Kerensky would have had to be to pull this off.
Fast forward some years, after I’d decided to write a space opera, as one does. I’d been nosing about the TV Tropes website, specifically my favorite pages, Moral Event Horizon, Chessmaster, and Magnificent Bastard. What if I ran Kerensky backwards, I wondered? Take a charismatic, brilliant general–and instead of him being so well-respected that he could secede from an interstellar nation and take six million people with him, make him feared and reviled. Say that he massacred a million people at his last battle: civilians, the enemy army, and his *own* army. (How’s that for a Moral Event Horizon?) He’s been preserved as an undead tactician for four centuries because he was just that good, and because they think they’ve tamed him–even though no one *still* knows why he did what he did, or if he just went mad and might do so again.
Ta-da! I had my antagonist, General Shuos Jedao.
And then imagine an infantry captain in her mid-twenties with Jedao as her advisor, trying to make use of him in a hardfought space siege while ensuring that he doesn’t betray her and everything she stands for. My protagonist, Kel Cheris, is smart–even brilliant in her own way–but Jedao may be deadlier than all the enemy soldiers she faces.
Sure, I was going to have battle scenes and bloodthirsty science fantasy weapons and so on, but I knew the most important thing would be selling the tense relationship between Jedao and Cheris. From the beginning I constructed them as complements. Jedao is extroverted, persuasive, intuitive, devious. So Cheris is introverted, self-contained, calculating, honest. So far, so good?
Not so fast. Both of them were also supposed to be geniuses: Jedao at tactics and psychological warfare, Cheris at math. It’s possible that writing geniuses is easy when one is a genius oneself; I wouldn’t know, because I’m definitely not a genius. (I have since sworn that maybe the next thing I should do is write slapstick comedy about stupid-ass generals, not brilliant tacticians.)
So I cheated. A lot. One of the first things I did was to reread James Dunnigan & Albert A. Nofi’s Victory and Deceit: Dirty Tricks at War. I wrote down all the stratagems I liked, then tried to shove all of them into the rough draft. (And then there was too much plot so I had to take some of them out.) And of course, their opponent also had to be smart. I’d learned this from reading Gordon R. Dickson’s Tactics of Mistake, a novel I found infuriating because the “tactical genius” mainly geniused by virtue of the opponent being stupid, which I’m sure happens all the time in real life but makes for unsatisfying narrative. Besides all the military reading I did, I also hit up social engineering and security engineering.
But I still wasn’t done. I had to sell Cheris and Jedao as characters. Characterization has always been the part of writing that I find the most difficult. I also had to portray both characters in such a way that Cheris, while outmatched, wouldn’t be totally overwhelmed. I wanted her to be the underdog, but not to have no chance whatsoever! So part of writing her involved setting up her arc so that she grew into a true ally/opponent.
The other thing that gave me difficulty when writing Cheris is that she’s a woman, and I had to be in her head for large chunks of the novel. I’m trans, identifying as male, and while I try to make a point of writing female POVs in my short fiction, it’s not without its cost. Growing up, I got caught writing trans protagonists in my fiction in middle school, and my teacher notified my mother. This was before I had any vocabulary for this stuff, but when my mother made a concerted effort to shove me into skirts and dresses and get me to behave in more conventionally “feminine” ways, I had a hard time dealing. It wasn’t until much later that I felt comfortable coming out even to people very close to me. Even today, spending extended periods of time writing a female POV is painful not because women are evil–I have a twelve-year-old daughter and I would very much like for her to grow up in a world where she has all sorts of great female role models, fictional and real–but because of my own baggage. Writing male POVs is the only place in my life where I get to “be” male, and it’s hard to give that up. So part of writing Cheris involved working through that.
Jedao was a challenge for a different reason. He’s undead, and part of the complication is that he has no body; he pretty much exists as a disembodied voice. So (with a few exceptions) I couldn’t rely on body language, or facial expressions, or any of that. Everything had to come through on the strength of the dialogue. The good part was that Jedao was an astonishingly cooperative, talkative character and I got a clear sense of his personality pretty quickly. The scary part was that once he got going he wouldn’t shut up. And as Cheris discovers, Jedao may be a mass murderer, but that doesn’t automatically mean that his critiques of their government are automatically wrong.
I don’t know if I succeeded in writing a chessmaster (or two, or three), let alone a Magnificent Bastard, but at least the attempt was fun! You’ll have to let me know how I did.
There, that should hold you. Hope you had a fine Thursday.
Book ideas can come from anywhere — but the time they take to get to an author can, well, vary. In the Big Idea for her novel False Hearts, author Laura Lam traces the path of the idea that became to dual hearts of her story.
Sometimes book ideas hit you in a sudden burst of inspiration. You want to yell “Eureka!” even if you’re at your desk in your day job, or in the middle of the aisle while shopping for food. All the pieces tumble into place and you have a plotted book sitting in your head within a couple of hours or a few days. Other times, it seems to come in frustratingly small dribs and drabs: you love this premise or this idea for a character, but you don’t yet know how to work it into a plot and what world it should take place in, so it ends up percolating for a while before finally coalescing into something you can work with.
False Hearts was more the second process. I had the Eureka premise hit me clear on the side of the head and I was really excited by it, but then the idea had to marinate a little. I can pinpoint to the exact moment I had the idea; it was lunchtime on February 25, 2013, less than a month after my first book, Pantomime, had been released. I’d finished the sequel, Shadowplay, and I was slowly working on the third book, Masquerade, even though it didn’t yet have a contract. I figured I should work on something else, too, just in case. This proved to be a good move, as the imprint of the publisher that released my first books folded a few months later.
That lunchtime, I read this article on io9 by Annalee Newitz about conjoined twins Daisy and Violet Hilton. Daisy and Violet were conjoined at the hip and famous on the vaudeville circuit. They were sadly treated badly by their family and various managers, and their lives were a series of ups and downs. When vaudeville started winding down, they ended up moving into cinema. The article had a clip from Chained for Life, where both twins have to go on trial for a murder one of them committed.
Wham. Book idea: what if your literal other half was accused of murder, and you weren’t entirely sure whether or not they’d done it? How far would you go to find out the truth?
I have identical twin nephews and see how close they are. They fight, sure, but at the end of the day, they are inseparable. I started researching conjoined twins, watching interviews, documentaries, and reading a lot of nonfic. But it took a while to figure out what I should actually do with that idea—what genre, where it should be set, how everything was going to actually fit. In little dribs and drabs, it came together. With each new snippet, I did more research (subjects included futuristic architecture, possible medical advancements, how mobs work, how cults work, neuroscience, how drugs and dreams affect the brain). In the end, I wrote a thriller set in near-future San Francisco. I grew up in the Bay Area, but moved to Scotland when I was 21, so it was a nice excuse to go home in my imagination for a while.
The San Francisco of False Hearts looks like a utopia at first glance. Poverty is all but erased. There aren’t any major world-scale wars. Health care is free and advanced. Crime seems a thing of the past. The SF bay glows green at night from the algae they farm to bolster the food supply, along with orchard skyscrapers and vat-grown meat. Everyone has ocular and auditory implants, streaming information directly into their cortex. When pent up emotions grow overwhelming, people go to one of the many Zeal Lounges throughout the city, plugging into the drug that lets you exorcise your dark desires in dreams. They come out of the trip refreshed and soporific. A little more tractable. A little easier to control.
The twins in False Hearts, Taema and Tila, were born conjoined at the chest in a cult set where Muir Woods is now. This cult, Mana’s Hearth, has been completely cut off from modern technology, and they essentially live like 1969 summer of love hippies. Like many cults, there’s a sinister undertone. Changing yourself in anyway is considered sacrilege—if you’re ill, you can use some rudimentary herbs, but otherwise you must bow to the will of the Creator.
At sixteen, when their shared heart starts to fail, Taema and Tila do not bow. They run.
In San Francisco, there is a pressure to fit into the narrow confines of what society considers perfection. Thanks to gene therapy and walk-in flesh parlours, people rarely let themselves age. Society has no idea what to do with conjoined twins, and, though the twins don’t really want to, they are pressured into being separated and fitted with mechanical hearts. Over the next ten years, the sisters subtly drift apart.
Then, one night, Tila stumbles into Taema’s house, covered in someone else’s blood. She’s arrested by the first murder from a civilian in decades. It’s all kept out of the papers, and soon Taema is given a proposal: they think her sister was involved with the Ratel, the underground mob of San Francisco that deal in a dangerous new dream drug called Verve. If Taema takes her sister’s identity and works with an undercover detective and finds out what’s going on in the Ratel, then SFPD might let her sister live rather than being thrown into stasis for her crimes.
Taema can’t stand that her sister has kept such a big secret from her. It eats at her. So she follows her sister into the dark underbelly of San Francisco, and ends up realising they didn’t leave their past as far behind as they’d hoped. At first, Taema is sure that her sister was not capable of murder. The father she falls down the rabbit hole, the less sure she is: and if Taema’s sister is capable of murder, what does that say about her?
Sometimes you get what you ask for. What then? It’s a question both for Bryon Quertermous and Dominick Prince, the protagonist of his new novel, Riot Load. Quertermous is here to go into slightly more detail about it.
Very rarely am I able to capture the entire Big Idea of a book in the opening sentence, but for my current book, Riot Load, it happened like this:
I was two hours into my thirty-minute lunch break and taking in a baseball game on a stuffy mid-July day in Detroit when it occurred to me that getting everything I ever wanted was the worst thing that could have happened to me.
I finished my first novel when I was 24 and was immediately ready for literary fame and riches to descend upon me. It didn’t matter that I had already blown a number of great opportunities in my life; I was certain I was ready. Luckily for all involved I was the only one who thought that and it took another 13 years for me to sell my first novel.
By that point I was married, had two kids, a stable job, and a decade worth of experiences and connections to draw upon. I genuinely was ready. Had I been published at 24 with that book and tried to write a Big Idea essay then, it almost certainly would have declared myself the voice of my generation and would have been insufferable to a weaponized degree.
Dominick Prince, the main character in Riot Load, is not so lucky. He was given a book contract and a lot of money before he was ready as a writer and well before he was ready as a person. When I started writing this book, I tried to put myself in his place and figure out what I would have done with more money than common sense and no direction in my life because the one single thing I had been striving for already happened. The answer of course is nothing.
That doesn’t make for a very good book though so I gave him one more dream he had been harboring: a marriage to his college crush. That’s when things really got going and I found myself working out a lot of issues of my own through Dominick’s adventures. The novel grew out of a short story I wrote years ago about a sperm bank robbery. The story itself was disgusting and when I pitched the idea to my publisher he was rightly concerned about the market potential of a disgusting book. But as I sold him on a new interpretation of the idea, I was also selling myself on it. A sperm bank robbery turned out to be a great forum to talk about my parenting fears and the weight of legacies humans have a tendency to saddle themselves with.
I did not take to being a parent easily. I was selfish and bitter and all-together insufferable about the whole thing. It wasn’t until my third kid I finally grew the hell up and stopped whining about it. But as I was writing about fatherhood with this book and weaving in this idea of having dreams come true too early I found myself also writing a lot about the idea of tying one’s identity to what they do.
Dominick achieved in a year everything he’d hoped to spend a lifetime pursuing and with that he lost who he was as a person. But with a new wife and an impending child he finds himself with the opportunity to recreate himself as a husband and as a father. He’s just as bad at it as I was, but he also has to deal with his wife being a bounty hunter and her family being in the middle of a struggle for control of their fading criminal empire. I had to deal with losing my dream job.
I’d been an editor for almost as long as I’d been a writer and those two pursuits made up the core of my identity so it was no surprise to me that in the space of three months I was hired to run the new crime fiction imprint of a respected publisher and then sold my first novel. I had absolutely no conflict in my life. I was enjoying two great careers, I had an amazing marriage and I was settling in and finally enjoying being a parent. That made the early writing of this book very hard.
The fates took pity on me though and ripped the job away from me after seven months sending me into a spiral of self-pity and anger. Suddenly I had no problem writing, but everything I wrote came out angry. I’m not an angry person I told myself. I’m easy going and optimistic. But it turned out Dominick was very angry. While I wasn’t looking this character I had created as an avatar for my wasted years had become his own person independent of the autobiographical traits I had created him with.
And he was exactly the right character for me to be writing at that time.
What happens when you achieve your dreams too early? You find new dreams. The same is true if you fail to achieve a dream. Or if your dream morphs into something else. How a dream is achieved is as an important to the identity of a character, or of a real life person, as the dream itself. I’m lucky the pursuit of my dreams has led to success and failure in equal doses on a time frame that I’ve been able to handle. Dominick Prince has not been as lucky.
But his story is far more interesting to read about.
Spice, discovering trees have birds.
Hope your day has been a good one.
We’re all connected — although perhaps not to the extreme the people in Adam Rakunas‘ new book Like a Boss are. In this Big Idea, Rakunas muses on the costs and benefits of connection… especially if someone wants to disconnect.
Three years ago, Paul Graham Raven posted a link to an essay by Venkatesh Rao, and it broke me. Rao’s thesis in The American cloud is that the everyday experiences of our lives are dependent on distant industrial-scale processes that might as well be high up in the sky. Flip a light switch, eat an apple, read a book: all of these are the end points of vast networks of raw materials passing through the hands of many, many people until they get to you.
What would happen if they all went on strike?
For the people of Santee Anchorage, the world of Like a Boss, it would be catastrophic. The little agricultural world is an Information Age outpost on the edge of Super Duper Future society. All of the supply lines are so compressed and interdependent that if one person quits, everything collapses overnight. If the woman who runs the local metal fabrication shop closes up, then the delivery company that depends on her parts will have to close when their carburetors fail, which means that the farmers won’t be able to bring their eggplants to town in time for the Baba Ganoush Festival, which means the family that just opened a pita bread bakery will have a pile of rotting product, which means the neighborhood garbage digester will overfill, which means a sudden increase in the rat population, which means a sudden uptick in ratborne meningitis, which brings the already-stretched medical system to its knees, et cetera.
And that’s just one shop. Imagine everyone walking out.
Padma Mehta, the book’s two-fisted labor organizing heroine, knows that there’s a time and place for a strike, and right now is neither. Santee Anchorage is still recovering from the economic disaster of having its space elevator blown up (by Padma, a fact that everyone is more than happy to remind her every chance they get), and, even though the new elevator has been up and running for the past eight months, people are still on edge. The medicine and technology that the citizenry gets in exchange for its industrial sugarcane is running low, and any disruptions to the local economy will empty those stocks.
Padma’s been too busy digging her way out of debt to want to do anything about it, though. She’s got what she’s always wanted: retirement from her gig as a Union recruiter, ownership of the Old Windswept Rum Distillery, and a life free of people bringing their troubles to her and expecting her to Do Something About it. She did that for long enough, and where did it get her? On the hook for blowing up the space elevator, that’s what. If the Union can’t do anything about fixing Santee’s current mess, then why should she bother?
Because it will get her out of debt, of course. That’s the deal the Union President offers if Padma can head off the looming strike. Everyone’s pissed off, everyone want someone to Do Something About It, and Padma’s just the person with the knowledge, the charm, and the ready right hook to get it done. Will she stop the strike in time?
No. Oh, God, no. Not even close. But you’ll have a hell of a time finding out how.
Mehta’s former employer.
A man goes into an immigration services center in Binghamton New York, blocks the exit in the back with his car, goes through the front door with handguns, body armor and ammunition. He shoots the receptionists and opens fire on a citizenship class. He murders thirteen. This is horrific. I offer my thoughts and prayers.
A psychiatrist trained to help others with the stress of combat goes to Ft. Hood, the army base at which he is stationed, and opens fire on his fellow soldiers and some civilians, too. Another thirteen people are murdered there. Three are killed charging the shooter. Words cannot express my sorrow. I offer my thoughts and prayers.
A professor is denied tenure at the University of Alabama at Huntsville. She goes to a department faculty meeting and in that conference room pulls out a nine-millimeter handgun and shoots six people, three of whom she manages to murder. Those people were just doing their jobs and what happened to them is terrible. I don’t want to have to think about it any further. I offer my thoughts and prayers.
A truck driver in Manchester, Connecticut comes out of a company disciplinary hearing for allegedly stealing beer and starts shooting up his place of work. He murders eight people, calls his mother and tells her about it, and then shoots himself. Gun control discussions are a mess in this country and they never go anywhere productive, there’s no middle ground, and they make me tired thinking about them. I offer my thoughts and prayers.
In Tucson, Arizona, a member of Congress is meeting with her constituents in the parking lot of a supermarket, and a 22-year-old man comes up and shoots her straight in the head. A representative to Congress, can you believe that! She somehow survives, but he murders six others, ranging in age from nine to 79. That’s quite a range. Surely the attempted assassination of a US Representative will start a substantive discussion by someone. In the meantime, I offer my thoughts and prayers.
Seal Beach, California, where a man and a woman are having a custody dispute. His solution: Enter his wife’s place of work, a hair salon, and open fire on anyone there. He murders his ex-wife and seven other people, including one man not even in the salon. He is in his car in the parking lot outside the salon. Bad luck. Here’s an interesting thing: there is a sort of magical power to saying that you offer your thoughts and prayers.
Oakland, California, and at a small Christian college, a man who had been expelled for behavioral and anger management problems decides that he’s going to find an administrator he has issues with. He doesn’t find her, so instead grabs a secretary, enters a classroom and orders the students there to line against a wall. Some refuse. He shoots, reloads and shoots some more. Seven people are murdered. The shooter later says he’s sorry. The magical power of saying that you offer your thoughts and prayers is that once you do it, you’re not required to do anything other than to offer your thoughts and prayers.
In Aurora, Colorado, a midnight audience of Batman fans are half an hour into the final installment of Christopher Nolan’s superhero trilogy when a man enters the theater, clad in protective armor, sets off two gas canisters and starts shooting. Some audience members think this is a stunt tied into the film. It’s not a stunt, and the shooter, armed with an assault rife, a shotgun and a glock, murders a dozen people, ten of whom die right there in the theater. When police visit the shooter’s home, they find it rigged with explosives. The shooter placed a camera to record what happens if the police just barge in. Saying “thoughts and prayers” is performative, which is to say that just in saying it, you’ve performed an action. Prayers leave your mind and go to God. It is a blessed, holy and as such apparently sufficient thing, to offer your thoughts and prayers.
Sunday morning, and in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, members of the Sikh temple there have gathered for services and meditation and are preparing a communal meal when a white supremacist and Army veteran starts shooting, murdering six and wounding a police officer before killing himself. Did you know that Sikhs are often confused by the unknowing and possibly uncaring for being Muslim, and that the excuse of “I thought they were Muslims” is itself a sign of racial hatred? Mind you, there are people who will say to you that it’s not enough, only to offer your thoughts and prayers.
In Minneapolis, a man is called into an office by his supervisor and told he is losing his job. The man replies, “Oh, really?” and pulls out a handgun, shooting the supervisor after a struggle for the weapon, eventually murdering five others before killing himself. Indeed, people particularly expect more from lawmakers, who have the ability to call hearings and allow government studies and even change laws, rather than only to offer their thoughts and prayers.
Brookfield, Wisconsin, another hair salon, another estranged couple. The wife seeks a restraining order when the husband threatens to burn her with acid and set her on fire with gasoline. He does neither. He does, however, murder her, along with two other women. Witnesses say the wife tried to protect the others before she died. But again, even if you’re a lawmaker, with the ability to do things that could have concrete impact, you might argue that your responsibility to women being murdered by husbands, workers murdered by co-workers, religious minorities murdered by bigots, soldiers murdered by other soldiers, innocents murdered by those who are not, ends when you, in a tweet, Facebook post or press release, offer your thoughts and prayers.
A man enters an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut, and with a Bushmaster XM15-E2S carbine rifle, murders twenty children, all of whom are either six or seven years old.
We pause here a moment to think about that.
Twenty children. Ages six, or seven.
And here maybe you think to yourself, this is it. This is the place and time where thoughts and prayers in fact aren’t enough, where those who only offer their thoughts and prayers recognize that others see them in their inaction, see that the convenient self-absolution of thoughts and prayers, that the magical abnegation thoughts and prayers offer, is no longer sufficient, is no longer proper, is no longer just or moral, or even offers the appearance of morality.
We pause here a moment, and wait to see what happens next.
And then they come. One after another.
I offer my thoughts and prayers.
And it keeps going.
Five murdered in Santa Monica, California by a gunman. I offer my thoughts and prayers.
12 murdered in a running firefight through the Washington Navy Yard in DC. Like a ritual, I offer my thoughts and prayers.
Ft. Hood, Texas again, for another three murdered. Like a litany, I offer my thoughts and prayers.
Six murdered in Isla Vista, California. Violence against women is horrible, and I offer my thoughts and prayers.
Nine murdered in Charleston, South Carolina. It’s unspeakable that violence against black Americans has happened like this, and I offer my thoughts and prayers.
Five murdered in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Muslims should answer for the crimes of this person, even if they do not know him or would in any way condone the action, and I offer my thoughts and prayers.
Nine murdered in Roseburg, Oregon. I offer my thoughts and prayers.
Three murdered in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Thoughts and prayers.
Fourteen murdered in San Bernadino. Thoughts. Prayers.
Fifty murdered in Orlando.
Fifty people, in a gay club, by a shooter who his father says was disgusted by the sight of two men kissing, and who news reports now tell us had pledged allegiance to ISIS.
And what do we do now, I wonder, when the victims are who they are and the perpetrator is who he is, the situation is ripe for posturing, and there’s a phrase to be used that allows one to assert maximum public virtue with minimum personal effort or responsibility?
What do we do now, when thoughts and prayers are easy, and everything else is hard?
Here is the thing: In the aftermath of terrible violence, offer thoughts, and prayers, if it is your desire to do so.
Then offer more than thoughts and prayers. Ask for more than thoughts and prayers. Vote for more than thoughts and prayers. Help those for whom thoughts and prayers are the start of their responsibilities, not the abdication of them. And as for the others, you may politely remind them of Matthew 6:5-6, and perhaps also Matthew 7:21-23. Perhaps they will see themselves in the words there. Perhaps not. They’re worth thinking on regardless.
“I offer my thoughts and prayers.”
It’s not enough.
It never was.
What more do you have to offer?