Category Archives: Big Idea

The Big Idea: Bishop O’Connell

For The Forgotten, author Bishop O’Connell thinks very seriously about a famous Arthur C. Clarke quote and how it can apply to the world of fantasy. Would Clarke be proud? Perhaps!

BISHOP O’CONNELL:

Let me preface by saying that I’m not a scientist. I’m just a layperson who took some classes in college and enjoys researching and learning on my own. That being said, I love science! More specifically, I love physics and quantum mechanics. That might sound strange coming from a fantasy author, but I love how physics can put complex ideas into relatively simple terms: force equals mass times acceleration, every action has an equal and opposite reaction, etc.

But, I really geek out about quantum mechanics and how it seems to turn everything we understand about the universe on its head. Concepts like wave-particle duality, superposition, entanglement, and the uncertainty principle are endlessly fascinating to me. As our understanding expands, it seems that the lines between not just science fiction and science fact blur, but also science and fantasy. With that in mind: can a system of magic be explained using quantum mechanics? That is my Big Idea, or perhaps I should call it my Big Theory.

My novel, The Forgotten, has two points of inspiration. The first is Arthur C. Clarke’s third law: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” It seems straight forward. Without understanding the scientific principles behind something, it might as well be magic. An LCD screen would be like a magic window to someone from the Dark Ages.

The second point of inspiration is the double-slit experiment. To grossly oversimplify, the premise is this: if you shoot particles at a screen through two slits, you would expect to see two stripes on the screen, mimicking the slits. But you don’t, not even if you send the particles through one at a time. Instead, you see an interference pattern of many alternating bars. That means that individual particles are actually behaving like waves and interfering with themselves.

However, when you place detectors at the slits to see what’s happening, the interference waves go away and you get two straight lines, matching the two slits. The particles cease to exist as waves of probability—existing in all possible locations at the same time—and coalesce into a single location just by observing them! Even more remarkably, setting detectors anywhere after the two slits produces the same results. If they’re on, you get two lines. If they’re not, you get an interference pattern. So not only does observing the experiment change the results from that moment on, it changes the results before being observed.

These two concepts birthed a single question in my mind. What if the observer is what changes the outcome, rather than just the act of observing? That would mean we’re actually, unconsciously, altering reality. The next logical question is: could someone do so consciously and to what extent? If so, how would this be at all distinguishable from magic? After all, every magical effect you can think of can be explained scientifically. Teleportation? There’s quantum teleportation and worm holes. Throwing fireballs? Fire is just particles moving at an energy level that generates sufficient heat to combust a fuel. It’s theoretically possible, or rather not theoretically impossible, for particles to be acted on by an outside force to generate enough heat to combust the oxygen in the air.

Now, I hear you saying, “But Bishop, some of those effects require vast amounts of energy!” You’re right, and there are unimaginable amounts of energy all around us—dark matter and dark energy to name just two. We just don’t know how to utilize them…yet. What if our will, our belief, was the key to harnessing them?

Enter my main character, a homeless girl named Wraith. She sees the waves of probability all around us in the form of equations and symbols——quantum information. With conscious effort, she can alter those equations, thus changing the probability of specific outcomes and, in turn, the very nature of reality itself. Things that are so astronomically improbable that they can be called impossible become certainties. But what impact would this ability have on a person? And what if the person in question already had little more than a tenuous grasp on reality to begin with?

What I found was that I couldn’t imagine any situation where a person could do all this and stay sane or even maintain a sense of self. Who we are is defined by how we act and what we think. But if the structure of existence is less like a bedrock foundation and more like a giant sand dune, shifting and ever changing, how do we define ourselves? How do we know who we are? That’s exactly the question Wraith has to face. Naturally there are complications to answering that question. She isn’t sure how she attained this ability or how to control it. All the while, street kids—her friends and peers—are vanishing, some turning up dead.

Perhaps all these questions are just a sign that my own grasp on reality is less than firm. Luckily, I’m a writer, so that would actually work in my favor. But, to quote Dr. Sheldon Cooper (The Big Bang Theory), I’m not crazy, my mother had me tested.

(For a video demonstration of the double-slit experiment, see this video clip from Through the Wormhole)

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The Forgotten: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound

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

The Big Idea: David Walton

 

Quantum physics gets a workout in Superposition, the new novel from Philip K. Dick Award winner David Walton. He’s here to catch you up on how abstruse, higher-order physics works for action and adventure.

DAVID WALTON:

I love stories that tie my mind in knots.

Stories like the film Inception, that juggle multiple layers of reality, each of them affecting the others in complex but logical ways. The kind of stories that take big chances and then deliver. I wanted to write a novel like that, but how? What idea could I have that would be big enough to drive such a story?

Two things happened to answer that question for me. One, I was reading non-fiction books about quantum physics. Two, I had jury duty and was picked for a trial. The trial was a doozie: a grown brother and sister were illegally spying on their father, trying to catch him having an affair. The father, however, had plans to fake his own death, collect his own life insurance, and flee the country with his mistress, a Russian native with mob connections. It wasn’t until the father turned up murdered that the police got involved. The femme fatale herself took the witness stand, hostile as a wolf, defending her dead lover’s good intentions. Sometimes, reality is stranger than fiction.

And nowhere is that more true than in the world of quantum physics. At the subatomic level, nothing behaves the way we expect. Particles exist in more than one place, or more than one state, at the same time. Electrons move from point A to point B without ever existing in some of the places in between. Measurement of one particle instantaneously influences another, regardless of the distance between them.

From these two unlikely parents, the Big Idea for my novel Superposition was born.  In the novel, as you might have guessed, the crazy properties of the quantum level start showing up in the larger world—thanks to a new technology and the interference of an alien quantum intelligence. Everyday objects jump through walls.  Bullets diffract instead of photons.  People exist in more than one place at the same time.

Superposition is mind-bending, but it’s no cerebral drama. It’s a fast-paced thriller, with high-stakes danger and a race to the finish. It starts when a former colleague shows up at Jacob Kelley’s door full of unbelievable tales and fires a gun at Jacob’s wife.  When the colleague shows up dead, Jacob is accused of murder. Soon he and his teenage daughter are on the run, pursued by the police and by a quantum intelligence unconstrained by the normal limits of space and matter. Father and daughter have to pick up the pieces, following multiple paths of possibility to get to the truth and put their lives back together again.

It’s a whirlwind from beginning to end, and it was great fun to write. I hope you’ll give it a try!

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

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

The Big Idea: Betsy Dornbusch

Wherever you go, home draws you back — for good or ill. This is something the hero of Emissary learns in the course of novel; author Besty Dornbusch is here to expand on the concept for the rest of us.

BETSY DORNBUSCH:

A decade ago I wrote a book called Exile in which a man called Draken is (predictably) exiled for a murder he didn’t commit and has to scrape together a new life in an enemy country. I’d thought upon writing it would be a standalone, but a few years ago I realized I wanted to torment Draken some more. The idea for Emissary took root when I asked, What’s the worst you can do to a guy who’s been exiled?

It’s send him back home, of course.

You can’t every really go home again, or so Wolfe’s book title has passed into adage, but a lot of us try. Even if we were unhappy there, early homes often draw us back, even the places where no one we knew lives anymore. I just saw got a text from my brother who visited our grandparents’ town in Kansas. (Grannie and Granddad’s house is gone, but the town pool and park and water tower look just the same.) For other people, it’s taking school breaks from university, or bringing our children to visit family, or returning to help a loved one die. It can be simple economics: after trying to make a go of it on their own, many young people move back to cramped childhood bedrooms and even more cramped lifestyles.

Sometimes it’s tough to decide which is closer to exile, the new life or the old. In Draken’s case, his old life started with abandonment by his mother, a disgraced royal cousin. All he built for himself, despite never fitting in with the royal family, ended with the murder of his wife. Draken crawled ashore in his new country with nothing.

Still, with help, he made a decent success of his exile. When Emissary starts, he has a girlfriend and a baby on the way. A stable career. Friends. Money. Magic. Sure, he’s got secrets. Who doesn’t?  His are an ocean away and the people here regard him as a hero.

But when old compatriots blackmail him into helping his cousin-King settle a religious revolution back home, he has no choice but go back. Upon his return, Draken sees the cultural and family dynamics with the fresh vision of a man who has traveled the world and changed his life. What he once believed to be a magnificent, enlightened country is rife with gilded flaws—not the least that the revolutionaries crave Draken’s magic for their own. Ugly undercurrents threaten the foundations of an ancient city; betrayals pit nobility against kings and priests against gods; and a pervasive new faith in magic has parents willingly sacrificing their children to protect it.

Emissary tells the story of Draken’s struggle to stop a war that could destroy both his old and new countries. But more importantly, his journey home forces him to shed the assumptions, habits, and hatreds that kept him going in the darkest of times. Like many people returning to their childhood homes—and the same old hurts and dynamics—he must decide if he’ll succumb to the wounds from his past or fight for a better future.

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

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

The Big Idea: Ken Liu

Myths and legends and ancient stories come down to us to be told and retold, but what needs to be done to keep those retellings fresh — and to avoid cliched narrative traps? Ken Liu gave this question very serious consideration for The Grace of Kings, and presents his own solution here.

KEN LIU:

At its heart, The Grace of Kings is a re-imagining of the rise of the Han Dynasty in a secondary world fantasy setting. It is the tale of two unlikely friends, a prison-guard-turned-bandit and a disinherited heir of a duke, who lead a rebellion against tyranny only to find themselves on opposite sides of a deadly rivalry over how to make the world more just once the ancien régime is overthrown.

The aesthetic of the book is what I call “silkpunk”: filled with technologies inspired by predecessors from Classical Chinese antiquity: soaring battle kites, silk-draped airships, chemistry-enhanced tunnel-digging machines, prosthetic limbs powered by intricate mechanisms made of ox sinew and bamboo. There are also jealous gods and goddesses, magic books, wise princesses, heroes who follow a heroine with a greater share of honor, women and men who fight in the skies, and water beasts who bring soldiers safely to stormy shores.

These are things I’ve always wanted to see in fantasy fiction. I want my book to be fun.

But it all started because I wanted to find a fresh way to tell an old story that is at the foundation of my own transcultural literary upbringing.

When I decided that I wanted to write a novel, I examined a list of favorite stories I’d written and noticed a constant theme running throughout: the idea of crossing boundaries, of translating between languages, cultures, ways of thinking, of disassembling a literary artifact in one frame of reference and reassembling it in another—challenging viewing communities and artifact alike.

“You and I both grew up osmosing Chinese historical romances,” my wife, Lisa, said to me. “Echoes of these stories can be heard from time to time in your work. Why not embrace this aspect of your writing and give an old tale a new life?”

And a light came on in my mind. I had found my novel: I wanted to re-imagine the story of the Chu-Han Contention.

Two Narrative Traditions

Like many of my fellow writers in the Anglo-American tradition, my literary models are drawn from a long lineage that pays homage to Greek and Latin classics, starts with Anglo-Saxon epics and histories, runs through the great poets and novelists on both sides of the Atlantic whose names are found in various Norton anthologies, and ends with the increasingly diverse, contemporary literary marketplace that gives more room for the voices of the historically marginalized.

But at the same time, I’m also indebted to a parallel Chinese tradition that starts with classical Western Zhou poetry, traverses Spring and Autumn philosophies, Han Dynasty histories, Tang Dynasty lyrical verse, Ming and Qing Dynasty novels, oral pingshu performances, and ends with martial arts fantasies of the 20th century and contemporary web-based popular serials.

Just as readers in the US often absorb the stories of Achilles and Odysseus, of Aeneas and Beowulf, of Hamlet and Macbeth not by reading the original, but through simplified children’s versions, popular film adaptations, and re-tellings and re-imaginings, readers in China absorb the stories of great historical heroes like Liu Bei, Guan Yu, and Zhang Fei (Romance of the Three Kingdoms) in similar ways.

The Chu-Han Contention of the third century B.C., an interregnum between the Qin and Han Dynasties, is a historical period that has proved especially rich for fictional treatment. Many important ideas about Chinese politics, philosophy, and identity can trace their origin to stories from this era. Upon the foundation of the core events and biographies penned by the historian Sima Qian, countless mythical legends, folk operas, oral traditions, and poems have accumulated over the millennia. The literary re-imaginings continue to this day in new media like video games, TV miniseries, and scifi adaptations (see Qian Lifang’s Will of Heaven).

As I grew up, I absorbed tales of the friendship and rivalry between wily, gangster-like Liu Bang and noble, cruel, proud Xiang Yu along with lessons about Chinese characters (I share Liu Bang’s family name), with Chinese Chess (the board is modeled upon the standoff between the two factions), with references and allusions in popular entertainment and textbooks, and with schoolyard games.

This is a story that is at once deeply Chinese and personal; mythical, historical, political, and fantastic; I wanted to try my hand at re-creating it for a new audience and readership.

Re-imagining

There is, of course, a long Western tradition of literary creations based on re-interpreting and re-imagining the old: James Joyce’s Ulysses, John Gardner’s Grendel, countless contemporary stagings of Shakespeare’s plays in new settings that the Bard never imagined, and even Milton’s Paradise Lost can be understood as a reworking of the tropes of classical Greek and Latin epics in the service of a new Christian epic.

But re-imaginations must be done with a purpose, and to be successful, they must appeal both to those who are familiar with the source material and those who are not.

Early on, I rejected the idea of setting the story in a secondary world version of Classical China, in the same way that Middle-earth is a secondary world version of Medieval Europe. Faced with the long history of colonialism and Orientalism in Western literary representation of China dating back to Marco Polo, I felt that it was no longer possible to tell a story of “magical China” without having it be lost through the mediation of centuries of misunderstandings and stereotypes.

And so I went with a bolder plan. I decided to create a new fantasy archipelago—as different from continental China as possible—in which the peoples, cultural practices, and religious beliefs are only remotely inspired by their source material. This was a way to strip the source story to its bare bones and to give them new flesh that would better serve my vision.

But it is in narrative technique where I took the most risk. Melding traditions from the Greek and Latin epics, Anglo-Saxon poetry, Miltonic verse, wuxia fantasy, Ming Dynasty novels, and contemporary chuanyue stories, the novel is told in a voice and style that should be at once familiar and strange. Here you’ll find kennings and litotes, gods who speak like a chorus and Water Margin-style backstories, dead metaphors from another language given a new periphrastic sheen. The title is an allusion to Henry V while the core chrysanthemum-dandelion image is inspired by a Tang Dynasty poem. I tried to write something that reads at the same time as both old and new, and which interrogates its source material as well as our assumptions about what is West and what is East.

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The Grace of Kings: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|IndieBound|Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: Cat Rambo

How long does a world exist for an author before it makes it into a novel? Sometimes it can be a long time indeed. As Cat Rambo explains, the world in which her novel Beasts of Tabat takes place was a land she knew and wrote about well before this novel came to be.

CAT RAMBO: 

The big idea behind my book, Beasts of Tabat, is an exploration of oppression and how it’s justified and organized, played out against a backdrop of a fantasy city that I’ve written in time and time again.

That city is Tabat, which is situated on the southern coast of what’s called the New Continent. Its counterpart, the Old Continent, lies far to the east, and is primarily a devastated landscape ravaged by the magic of the warring sorcerers that once battled there. The New Continent fears and immediately kills sorcerers, but the humans living there also depend on something supposedly initially created by those sorcerers: Beasts.

“Beast” is the term applied to any intelligent magical creature, ranging from dragons to dryads, and the city of Tabat depends on both their labor and sometimes their physical bodies. Beasts of Tabat focuses on the city at a moment of intense political upheaval, when the Beasts are first starting to rise up. We tend to both demonize and infantalize those who we oppress, and I’ve tried to show some of that in the book.

That’s a hard theme to grapple with, and not one to lends itself to light banter. One of the things I’ve worked hard at is not making it an unrelentingly grim book, and I think I’ve succeeded, though that remains to be seen. I’ve tried to make Tabat a place of wonder, like the fantasy cities I’ve loved: Lankhmar, Ambergris, far away Kadath. That’s the backdrop against which this theme plays out, a world full of entrancing things like a College of Mages, and the overhead trams that take Tabatians from one of the city’s fifteen terraces to the next. But it’s a world that depends, economically, on oppression.

It’s not a new theme for me, and I’ve written multiple stories set in the world of Tabat. Next month “Primaflora’s Journey,” a novelette based on a chunk that got excised from the book, will appear in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, which has previously published “Love, Resurrected,” which is set on the Old Continent in the days of the sorcerer kings. Other stories have appeared in Realms of Fantasy, Fantasy Magazine, Clarkesworld, and Weird Tales.

It’s a world that I love, and that I know well, not just from the stories I’ve written in it, but because it originally started as a game area for a MUD that never saw daylight. The room descriptions had a pretty intricate way of altering themselves according to factors like season, time of day, moon phase, etc, which made writing descriptions laborious but beautiful, and in many ways it helped me fleshing out Tabat: the smell of fish on the wind when you’re near the fish market, the shifting colors of the Moonway tiles, the great waterfall that falls into a circle of nothingness in the center of the Duke’s Plaza.

That’s been a big advantage, but at the same time, making the city as much a character as anyone else in the book has been a challenge, sometimes leading me to mistakes that sent me down wrong paths. At one point the book had eight different POVs, plus notes in between each chapter. Splitting some of that into book two has been a smart move, and has let me rely on two point of view characters: Teo, a young boy who’s just come to the city, and his hero, Bella Kanto, one of the gladiators who enact Tabat’s ritual battles.

This is the first volume of a quartet, and I’m hard at work on book two, Hearts of Tabat, which moves to a different set of characters centered on Bella’s best friend and former lover, Adelina. It’ll be followed by Exiles of Tabat and then Gods of Tabat. I’m very excited to have the book that I’ve worked on so long finally go out into the world.

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Beasts of Tabat: Amazon. Beasts of Tabat also debuts this weekend at Emerald City ComicCon.

Read a short excerpt, plus some ancilliary material about Tabat. Visit the author’s site. Follow her on Twitter.

The Big Idea: Brian Upton

It’s fair to say that Brain Upton knows about a bit about video games: He’s the co-founder of games studio Redstorm Entertainment, was the lead designer of several games there, and currently works at Sony. It’s also fair to say that Upton has thought about what game design means more than most people ever will. The result of both that experience and that theorizing is The Aesthetic of PlayUpton’s here to explain how this book differs from other treatsies on game design, and why it matters.

BRIAN UPTON:

The Aesthetic of Play exists because I was unhappy with other books on game design. They were good at explaining the mechanics of playable systems – how to build fun levels or write interesting rules – but they were not so good at explaining how meaning emerges from the experience of interacting with those systems.

The idea of meaning-making with games is important to me because I believe that games have tremendous untapped artistic potential. Many designers are groping toward something bigger, and recently there have been some games (Journey, Portal, The Last of Us, to name a few) that have hinted at the possibilities of the medium.  But we’ve been held back by the lack of a critical methodology. We’ve tried to adapt literary theory to our purposes, but it’s been an uncomfortable fit. (If you’ve heard of the “narratology/ludology wars” you know just how uncomfortable a fit it’s been.) Books are made of words, and so the meanings they generate are often easy to articulate. But games traffic in the ineffable. A great game can change us, but it’s frequently hard to describe exactly what the change was, or how it came about.

So The Aesthetic of Play began with me sitting, alone and dissatisfied, at a table at the Game Developers Conference in 2008. I was thinking about a future talk I might give about meaningful play, and I sketched out a rough set of diagrams to help me organize my thoughts about how players experience games. Instead of concentrating on rules and interactions, I focused on players’ moment-to-moment intentions and beliefs: What did the player think was happening? What moves did he think he was making? Or even … what moves was he making without thinking? Over the course of several months following the conference, this player-centric model of game analysis gradually coalesced into a set of design heuristics – a list of “rules for interesting experiences” that was significantly different from the “rules for interesting systems” that most game design books teach.

And then things got weird.

It was my wife’s fault. She’s a professor of music history at UCLA and she’s interested in songs, both old and new. Songs are a hard thing to be interested in if you’re a music history professor because they’re seriously under-theorized. If you study symphonies (for example) there’s a huge body of scholarship you can draw on that’s directed toward how symphonies operate as systems. But songs are so simple that there’s not a lot to be gained by that sort of structural analysis. You can catalog the chord progressions in “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” but that doesn’t get you very far toward understanding why listening to a Beatles song is so powerful.

As my wife and I talked to each other about our work, we slowly came to realize that I was answering many of the questions she was asking. The same methods I was using to analyze player experience could also be used to analyze listener experience. In fact, they could be used to analyze any sort of aesthetic experience.  I’m not a musicologist, so I didn’t feel comfortable writing up our observations in musical terms. But I do know a fair bit literary theory, so I wound up translating our conversations about aesthetics and play and music into a methodology for close reading of texts. Basically, instead of trying to adapt literary theory to analyze games, I invented a new way to use game design to analyze literature.

All of this came together in the first draft of a book near the end of 2010. At the time it was called Gaming the System (which I can see in retrospect was a horrible title). I sent it off to MIT Press, my first-choice publisher, and was rejected. It was a “revise and resubmit” though, not an outright “no”, which was encouraging. The editor said he liked a lot of what I’d written, but that the manuscript felt like two books stitched together. He had a hard time understanding how the heuristics of game design related to the analysis of narrative.

Fixing this problem was hard. I could feel the connection between the two halves of the book, but I didn’t have the language to articulate it. So before I started revising, I spent several years researching philosophy, neuroscience, and semiotics in order to construct an explanation for how these seemingly disparate ideas are linked. This deep dive strengthened the book in unexpected ways. Not only did I rewrite the entire manuscript from start to finish, but I wound up adding four new chapters exploring the philosophical ramifications of this approach to thinking about games and art.

The final draft of The Aesthetic of Play is as much about epistemology as it is about games. It uses play as the starting point for investigating how we exist as thinking creatures within an unfolding universe. It explores how a tendency toward play is an unavoidable byproduct of a particular epistemological stance – we don’t play to learn; we play as a consequence of being able to learn. And it shows how adopting this model of aesthetic reception offers surprising insights into narrative questions – why certain plot structures work better than others, for example, or how foreshadowing functions.

I realize this probably sounds ridiculously ambitious for what started as a simple book about game design. I didn’t set out to write a philosophy book, or a narratology book.  The manuscript just went in that direction because I couldn’t figure out any other way to answer the questions I found myself asking. My wife is happy though. We joke that I gave her a critical theory as a present. The two of us are currently collaborating on a book about play and music. It’s not clear yet where that book is going either, but we’re certainly asking ourselves some interesting questions.

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The Aesthetic of Play: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Visit the book page at MIT Press. Follow the author on Twitter.

The Big Idea: Catherynne Valente

For the fourth book in Catherynne Valente’s wildly acclaimed and bestselling “Fairyland” series, The Boy Who Lost Fairyland, the author has made a slight change in the nature of the protagonist. And just why did she do this, and what does it mean for the world she’s created? We’ve got the answers for you today.

CATHERYNNE VALENTE:

Long before the fourth book in the Fairyland series came out, I knew I’d be writing this essay. I looked forward to it. I may be a silly person, but I am not a silly author, and I knew very well that The Boy Who Lost Fairyland would be a giant elephant in the room—an elephant in the series. There would be a Question most would be too polite to ask. Those are my favorite kinds of questions.

So here I am, present and accounted for, ready to ride that big beautiful elephant through the sofa set and the good curtains.

Cat, why, after three books about one plucky female protagonist that most readers think is pretty swell, would you suddenly start writing about a boy? And baseball? With a short title?What’s going on? Have you been replaced by a mirror universe Cat?

I think you can see by my lack of goatee that I am, in fact, this universe’s Cat. I have not lost my mind. Nor my protagonist. Do not be afraid. September has not decided to go on a coffee break. She is very much present and active in the fourth installment of her story. I will never give my girl up. But sometimes a story is bigger than one protagonist.

The simplest explanation is that I didn’t know how else to tell this part of the story than by moving the camera onto someone else. I never want to write the same book twice. I always want to do something new, something that shakes up the previous books and my own writing comfort zone. And I’d wanted to write about the Changelings for ages. Since the second book I knew that they’d be the key to the resolution of the whole series. The fourth book was always going to be the Changeling book, because those kids wanted to be heard.

The thing is, we’re all Changelings. Every child and every adult. We all feel alone sometimes, like no one can understand us no matter how hard we try, like we come from somewhere else and everyone has life figured out but us. Some of our bodies don’t match our hearts. Some of our minds don’t match the world around us. Some of us are isolated because of what we look like or how we talk or a thousand other reasons. We’re all the stranger in the house at one time or another.

And kids quite literally are Changelings. They are brand new. They don’t know the rules. They came from somewhere else and are making some stab at being a hero in this new land. Ever wonder why it’s such a common fantasy for kids to think they must be adopted? It comes from this feeling of not fitting into the world at hand. They are full of impulses they don’t understand and the world constantly tells them not to follow those impulses—but it’s plainly impossible not to. Everything is bizarre and magical and unbelievable because childhood is a foreign country where a child can only learn the language and the customs slowly, and with a lot of mistakes. And because the human world really is a bizarre and magical and unbelievable place. Part of the reason children love fantastic literature so much is that to them, it’s not really fantastic. It accurately reflects their experience—they’ve been dropped into a world of wonder and power, a world in which they are helpless, but growing stronger every day.

Adulthood is not very different, honestly.

So book four was always going to be a Changeling book. But for a long while the protagonist was female, because that was the nature of the Fairyland series, and the dominating mission of the series was to write about a girl who embraced the magical world rather than rejecting it, as Dorothy and Alice had.

But as I planned out the book, I turned it over and over in my head. There is more to feminism than turning the focus from boys to girls. We’ve presented so many new literary roles and places for women in the last few decades, and that’s been a huge part of my whole mission statement as an author. But boys need new roles and new places, too. We encourage girls to take on the mantle of the male hero—and I wanted to encourage boys to take on the mantle of the female hero, as well. A boy hero can be gentle and artistic and bookish and afraid of the world—and still be a hero while staying gentle and artistic and bookish and afraid of the world. He can be friends with girls without it being weird. He can wear weird clothes and his mother’s jewelry, he can have beautiful penmanship and talk to his stuffed animals well into middle school, and those can be heroic attributes just as much as punching and running and yelling and swinging a sword. Sure, I gave him a baseball. But it’s what you do with a baseball—and what it does to you—that counts. And maybe, just maybe, boys in the real world will find it a little easier to be gentle and wear jewelry and be friends with girls and ask their librarian for a book with Fairyland in the title.

September will be back in the driver’s seat (quite literally) in the fifth and final book of the series, The Girl Who Raced Fairyland All the Way Home. The Boy Who Lost Fairyland is the story of Fairyland itself, and what it gets up to when September isn’t looking. Hawthorn the Troll and Tamburlaine and Scratch the gramophone and Blunderbuss the scrap-yarn combat wombat will join Saturday and A-Through-L and the Marquess and the Green Wind to make one giant king rat of a tale—a tale that couldn’t be told without every single one of them.

In the meantime, come be a Changeling with me, and I promise we’ll make some fine trouble together.

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The Boy Who Lost Fairyland: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|IndieBound|Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: Genevieve Valentine

So, how does one go from the swirly, chiffoned world of pageant dresses to the corridors of international diplomacy? In Persona, the journey is neither as strange nor as difficult as it might seem. Author Genevieve Valentine is here to explain why.

GENEVIEVE VALENTINE:

Once a year (or whenever Donald Trump remembers), they hold Miss Universe in a photogenic city, where photogenic ladies line up for swimsuit shots and candid footage of them laughing and embracing and loaded interview questions. And, somewhere between the golf outing and the evening gown competition, they hold a parade of national costumes.

The spectacle is sublime: the National Costume segment is particularly amazing for fans of sartorial patriotism and/or fans of watching people trying really hard to sell an awkward concept. (This isn’t just the fault of the inevitable collection of halfhearted capes; a few years ago, Holland sent its contestant out with a windmill strapped to her back, and America, one of the biggest repeat offenders, sent an actual Transformer across the stage last year.) Of course, some of the contestants decide to stick to more direct interpretations of national costume, and from saris to bunad, it’s a beautiful parade.

The trick is: It isn’t up to the contestants, is it? The national costume designer was selected by committee long before that contestant came along; she’s just the walking hanger on which it needs to be fitted. These contestants are a big deal to many countries, of course, and have to undergo all the usual rigors of being subjected to competitive public presentation, from swimsuit competition to interview answers. Even the pageant calls them ambassadors –  ambassadors who have to keep a flawless complexion, procure identical noses, and remain a size 2. They still have to take responsibility when pageant politics leaks into the real world (this year, Miss Israel appeared in a Miss Lebanon selfie and Miss Lebanon caught scandal for allowing it), but their actual power, of course, is – literally – slim.

Still, after reviewing the Miss Universe costume contest for a year or two, the question seems unavoidable: What if the world had made room for a celebrity culture of statecraft? What if the pageant never stopped?

The answer, of course, is that those who can’t deal openly would deal in the shadows, and get angrier by degrees. To me, one of the most interesting aspects of a spy story has always been how it overlaps in form and function with more visible statecraft; how, almost by default, everything that happened at royal courts were a series of spy novels overlapping. Every cabinet meeting was Operation Witchcraft; every marriage was a political contract; every public appearance was a chance to state your intentions and an obligation to reaffirm your alliances. (And what you wore did half the work for you: Red for England, blue for France, black and white to catch the eye of the queen. It’s a system that’s grown with us onto the red carpet: white for the virginal and young, black for the vampy, every premiere a chance to chat to the press that’s been instructed to be nice, and to reaffirm your alliances.) The idea of hitting the red carpet and grinning for cameras on your way out from negotiating someone’s death sentence is hard to shake.

Turns out it was so hard to shake, I wrote Persona, which folds not-quite politics into a not-quite United Nations with some not-quite celebrity culture to go with it. Suyana Sapaki, the delegate of the United Amazonian Rainforest Confederation, is a C-lister by diplomatic standards: the country’s still young (an uncomfortable marriage of two disparate states out of desperation to protect natural resources), and it’s had a little trouble, and Suyana is constantly at war with herself about how much to give in to the publicity machine – if that would even help; there’s no knowing if it will until you’ve already given in. And this is before she gets shot.

As it turns out, there isn’t any pageant in Persona – not technically – but there are definitely recognizable elements, right down to a glamour shot of Suyana standing amid the rainforest green, clearly meant to look approachable and absolutely unable to manage. (I’d never imagined we’d get a real-life version of that shot that so exactly captured the mood I imagined; the photo looks, if you discount her expression, exactly like the endless scrolling list of swimsuit shots on the official Miss Universe site. If you count her expression, of course, the game changes.)

There’s no shaking the inherent comedy of Miss Universe, which has managed to become its own real-time example of a good idea taken by commercialization to its logical conclusion. (This year’s national-costume winner, Miss Canada, showed up as a hockey game. Yes, the whole game. But some of those dresses were statements of pride, and some were just plain statements, and they’re all a reminder that those who control the image control the story; Suyana knows it, too, if she lives long enough to use it.

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

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

The Big Idea: Tansy Rayner Roberts and Tehani Wessely

It’s Monday, and what better day than this to explore the realm of the cranky? But as Tansy Rayner Roberts and Tehani Wessley, editors of the Cranky Ladies of History anthology explain, “cranky” shouldn’t always be considered a negative. In fact, in this context, it’s meant to be pretty damn awesome.

TANSY RAYNER ROBERTS and TEHANI WESSELY:

Cranky Ladies of History was one of those projects that basically sprang fully formed into being. It began with a face, glaring out from an oil painting. Australian social justice and media blogger Liz Barr posted an image of Tsaritsa Sophia Alekseyevna of Russia on her Tumblr account and then, receiving a hugely positive response to Sophia’s fierce expression, wrote a short essay about the woman in question, calling her a “would-be usurper, all-around cranky lady”.

There’s something about that phrase: cranky lady. There was a time when it would have been seen entirely as a put-down, a dismissal of female strength and power. Yet the idea of celebrating women for their crankiness—rather than their beauty, their docility, their compliance—feels empowering and deliciously rebellious. It was a phrase that struck us immediately, and when we tweeted about how much we would love to read stories about cranky ladies of history by some of our favourite authors, the response was instant and immediately positive. Within hours, the idea had coalesced into a concept, and then into a plan, which continued to grow as the interest did.

From the start, when we talked about ‘Cranky Ladies of History’ as an anthology concept, people got excited. These days, when we give people advice about setting up successful crowdfunding campaigns, one of the first things we tell them is to choose the idea that sells itself—where people get excited from the first sentence, from the title of the project, before you’ve even explained all the nuts and bolts and rewards and payment options, you know you’re on a winner.

Cranky Ladies was one of those ideas. We found ourselves in a whirl of positive interest, not only from writers who wanted to pitch stories to us, but from mainstream media and many people who didn’t have the time or the inclination to write for the book, yet still wanted to support it, to promote it, and to help out with the campaign. So many people we talked to wanted this book to exist, even if they weren’t personally involved, and that turned out to be crowdfunding gold. We pulled in many of our most enthusiastic activists to help with the campaign, to blog about their favourite cranky ladies, and to spread the word.

We had chosen March (Women’s History Month) for the campaign almost on a whim, thinking it would be cute, but the further we got into the month the more we realised that people were hungry for these stories, not even just the fiction that we promised, but the anecdotes and essays about lost and misquoted and reclaimed women from history who were fierce, uncompromising and yes, cranky.

The positive response we received to the Cranky Ladies crowdfunding campaign was invigorating and inspiring—especially when International Women’s Day brought national media attention to a book that didn’t even exist yet. When you’re making art that you think is challenging, rebellious and potentially controversial, there is nothing better than the feeling of having a crowd at your back, putting their money where their mouth is, cheering loudly, and keeping you company every step of the way.

Twelve months later, the journey to publication is complete. We read so many pitches about amazing women of history who damn well deserved to be cranky that we could have filled three volumes. Though there was no way we could publish all of them, we can only hope this book shines some light on a few women who may otherwise be buried under the weight of the years, and maybe inspire our readers to seek out even more.

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Cranky Ladies of History: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|iBookstore|Kobo

Visit the book Web site. Follow the book’s Twitter.

The Big Idea: Carrie Patel

When you build on secrets you never know what you’ll find. Just ask Carrie Patel, whose novel, The Buried Life, includes secrets literally built upon. What’s going on there?

CARRIE PATEL:

The Buried Life is about lost history, a forgotten catastrophe, and the city that springs up in its wake.

It started with the city: an underground metropolis where squalid, smoke-choked burrows nestle next to magnificent caverns framed with fire and stained glass. It was a place of glamor and grime.

I suspect that lots of speculative fiction begins with a setting. You take a mental snapshot of a new world that captures the atmosphere and the highlights. It’s a start, but it’s not enough. You need something you can walk around in.

So, you sketch the landmarks that exist just outside the frame—historical context and regional conditions. Things that anchor your new city and prevent it from drifting off into the stratosphere. Next, you sharpen the image to bring out the colors and details so that your snapshot will look just as bright and vivid to everyone else when you finally share it.

That leaves you with a fabulous backdrop, which isn’t the same thing as a story.

However, it’s the process of building the city up and out that can turn a Nifty Idea into a Big Idea. The Big Idea is what gives logic and context to the details that make up a vibrant, unique world. At some point, when you’re rooting around in the bones of your city, stringing all those tendons together and trying to get the blood flowing from one end to the other, you stumble upon its DNA.

Suddenly, you know what it’s really made of and where it’s really going.

That’s when you find your story.

For me, the “aha!” moment came when I saw Recoletta, my new city, for what it was: one civilization built in the hollowed-out corpse of another.

At that point, all of the cool flourishes and atmospheric touches were tied together by the inextricable bonds of context. Recoletta was built underground because it had started out as a city-sized bunker in more desperate times. A strict social hierarchy developed because, in the early days, people handed the reins over to individuals with practical skills—engineers, doctors, miners, and so on—and left the grunt work to the lawyers and politicians.

By the time events in The Buried Life roll around, people have stuck to their underground homes because old habits die hard. And the “whitenails,” the people with enough clout to keep their hands clean, are still at the top of the food chain. It’s the post-post-apocalypse.

But the most interesting detail for me was how these fictional citizens related to their troubled history. In the world of The Buried Life, they don’t reconstruct it. They hide it.

The widespread fear of history becomes a superstition. Ideas of the past are seen as dangerous and virulent—after all, didn’t they drive humanity to mass destruction centuries before?

And that’s where the story came from—the tension between a history that almost no one wants to face and the intrepid few who are trying to uncover it. The Big Idea is about constructing a city built on secrets and leading the heroes to its heart.

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The Buried Life: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: Kirby Crow

Life doesn’t always give us a happy ending. Should fiction? Kirby Crow ponders this question in relation to her new collection of stories, Hammer and Bone. Let’s see what she has to say on the matter.

KIRBY CROW:

I think of stories like wagons or carts, one of those cute, rustic ones you see being pulled by a shaggy pony in Lord of the Rings. I load the cart up with things that appeal to me or that I need, beautiful things and grotesque, things I want to say or things that just need saying, and then I choose a street to wheel it down. Anything at all can be inside the cart, but the street is crucial.

Okay, it’s weird. Bear with me… The street is everything, because it doesn’t just represent the genre; it’s the unity that binds the story together, the reason for its existence, why I’m telling the story, how I’m telling it.

Hammer and Bone has a long history, and the original idea was to bring together a collection of diverse tales featuring non-white heroes. I knew that was going to be a hard sell to a publisher, but I got lucky and found a great one. Despite the triple-threat gamble of being a collection rather than a single story (difficult to market in any genre), non-white characters inhabiting most of the pages (ditto), and overall a wicked and occasionally disturbing read, Riptide believed in Hammer and Bone, and here we are.

I didn’t set out to write such a sinister book, but occasionally stories have a will of their own and depart on journeys you never considered, or expected to have to write your way out of. At one point, the process stalled completely. I was stuck and growing very frustrated with the path one of my characters was taking to resolve his troubles in the Southern gothic story, Sundog. Where some people might burn bridges, Michel would walk into the fire. It was the same with Bellew in the speculative world of Crank, who was inclined to hack through the middle of an obstacle, and Angelo in Hangfire, who took a road that only the most wronged would even consider.

My heroes were strolling willingly down the most painful streets, when taking a detour or even walking away would have been so much easier. I wondered what kind of courage that was, if there was a name for the kind of bravery that smiles at the devil just until his back is turned.

I began complaining to my husband about them. I drank too much coffee and slept poorly and I wondered loudly and dramatically if I should rewrite their existence. Life had given them options that were too narrow. Their worlds were too frightening. Things probably weren’t going to turn out well for them.

He shrugged. “It sounds like life to me.”

There is that, yeah. Every life is backbreaking in its own way, even fictional ones. The main quality I’d struggled to reflect in the stories was honesty, and although steering your readers to a fair sunset is usually the point of storytelling, it isn’t always what happens in real life.

Sometimes it’s not what should happen, either. Not every character deserves a pretty sunset.

That was when I stopped trying to push it all down the road to Happily Ever After, or any destination that didn’t feel true. I wanted readers to turn the page thinking Yes. That’s exactly how that would have gone down.

Don’t worry, it’s not all constant anguish and despair. Sometimes there’s a happy ending and sometimes not, but the somber, seductive travelers of Hammer and Bone hereby promise to charm and entertain you in their own grim ways, as they invite you to question what perilous roads you might choose if you were snared into their worlds.

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Hammer and Bone: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: Bruce Schneier

What’s your electronic data worth to you? What is it worth to others? And what’s the dividing line between your privacy and your convenience? These are questions Bruce Schneier thinks a lot about, and as he shows in Data and Goliath, they are questions which have an impact on where society and technology are going next.

BRUCE SCHNEIER:

Data and Goliath is a book about surveillance, both government and corporate. It’s an exploration in three parts: what’s happening, why it matters, and what to do about it. This is a big and important issue, and one that I’ve been working on for decades now. We’ve been on a headlong path of more and more surveillance, fueled by fear – or terrorism mostly – on the government side, and convenience on the corporate side. My goal was to step back and say “wait a minute; does any of this make sense?” I’m proud of the book, and hope it will contribute to the debate.

But there’s a big idea here too, and that’s the balance between group interest and self-interest. Data about us is individually private, and at the same time valuable to all us collectively. How do we decide between the two? If President Obama tells us that we have to sacrifice the privacy of our data to keep our society safe from terrorism, how do we decide if that’s a good trade-off? If Google and Facebook offer us free services in exchange for allowing them to build intimate dossiers on us, how do know whether to take the deal?

There are a lot of these sorts of deals on offer. Waze gives us real-time traffic information, but does it by collecting the location data of everyone using the service. The medical community wants our detailed health data to perform all sorts of health studies and to get early warning of pandemics. The government wants to know all about you to better deliver social services. Google wants to know everything about you for marketing purposes, but will “pay” you with free search, free e-mail, and the like.

Here’s another one I describe in the book: “Social media researcher Reynol Junco analyzes the study habits of his students. Many textbooks are online, and the textbook websites collect an enormous amount of data about how — and how often — students interact with the course material. Junco augments that information with surveillance of his students’ other computer activities. This is incredibly invasive research, but its duration is limited and he is gaining new understanding about how both good and bad students study — and has developed interventions aimed at improving how students learn. Did the group benefit of this study outweigh the individual privacy interest of the subjects who took part in it?”

Again and again, it’s the same trade-off: individual value versus group value.

I believe this is the fundamental issue of the information age, and solving it means careful thinking about the specific issues and a moral analysis of how they affect our core values.

You can see that in some of the debate today. I know hardened privacy advocates who think it should be a crime for people to withhold their medical data from the pool of information. I know people who are fine with pretty much any corporate surveillance but want to prohibit all government surveillance, and others who advocate the exact opposite.

When possible, we need to figure out how to get the best of both: how to design systems that make use of our data collectively to benefit society as a whole, while at the same time protecting people individually.

The world isn’t waiting; decisions about surveillance are being made for us – often in secret. If we don’t figure this out for ourselves, others will decide what they want to do with us and our data. And we don’t want that. I say: “We don’t want the FBI and NSA to secretly decide what levels of government surveillance are the default on our cell phones; we want Congress to decide matters like these in an open and public debate. We don’t want the governments of China and Russia to decide what censorship capabilities are built into the Internet; we want an international standards body to make those decisions. We don’t want Facebook to decide the extent of privacy we enjoy amongst our friends; we want to decide for ourselves.”

In my last chapter, I write: “Data is the pollution problem of the information age, and protecting privacy is the environmental challenge. Almost all computers produce personal information. It stays around, festering. How we deal with it — how we contain it and how we dispose of it — is central to the health of our information economy. Just as we look back today at the early decades of the industrial age and wonder how our ancestors could have ignored pollution in their rush to build an industrial world, our grandchildren will look back at us during these early decades of the information age and judge us on how we addressed the challenge of data collection and misuse.”

That’s it; that’s our big challenge. Some of our data is best shared with others. Some it can be “processed” – anonymized, maybe – before reuse. Some of it needs to be disposed of properly, either immediately or after a time. And some of it should be saved forever. Knowing what data goes where is a balancing act between group and self-interest, a trade-off that will continually change as technology changes, and one that we will be debating for decades to come.

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Data and Goliath: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: Ferrett Steinmetz

Flex-144dpi

In his novel Flex, author Ferrett Steinmetz comes up with a rather ingeniuous way of controlling the ultimate cosmic power that magic-wielders could have against the rest of the world — and suggests why maybe magic isn’t always what’s it’s cracked up to be.

FERRETT STEINMETZ:

We all have obsessions. I have a friend who’s played through Dragon Age eighteen times so she can hear every one of the 80,000 potential lines of dialogue. I have a friend who scrutinizes the Internet code that determines where text is placed in your browser, in the hopes of discovering that the webkit-transform property actually rotates an image 7.3 degrees, not 7.0 as promised.

What if those obsessions started to wear holes in the universe?

What if, merely by pouring so much attention into some random hobby, the laws of physics would soften to fit your outlook on life?

And what if the universe hated you for bending its rules?

Personally, I’ve always hated those stories where magicians a) had no limitations on their power, and b) weren’t ruling the world. If magic came with zero drawbacks, then wizards would clobber the paranormally-illiterate with magic missiles in less time than it takes to say Neanderthals went extinct.

So when I wrote Flex, I wanted a really good reason why magicians hadn’t kicked Obama off the White House and installed themselves as the Eternal Emperor-Kings of Washington.

The key was obsession. I liked the idea that every ‘mancer would have their own set of powers keyed to whatever snared their attention – illustromancers, videogamemancers, origamimancers, deathmetalmancers – but that tight focus would be as much a hindrance as a help. By the time that Crazy Cat Lady has crossed the event horizon to become a felimancer, her priorities had warped. Does a crazy cat lady want to rule the land with an iron fist? No! She wants a house with infinite corridors so her kitties can roam safely under her benevolent cat-centered pocket empire.

Yet when my sister-in-law almost died, what I needed was a bureaucromancer.

See, I fantasized about having a magical power over paperwork when I was fighting the insurance companies to get life-saving surgery for my sister-in-law. She had a rare disease (at the time, her malady didn’t even have a Wikipedia entry). The insurance company kept returning our paperwork because we filled out the wrong form, even though that was the form they’d sent us. They claimed her treatment was experimental (and hence uncovered), when in fact so few cases of this disease had surfaced that every treatment counted as experimental. They refused claims for ridiculously trivial reasons, hoping my sister-in-law would quietly kick the bucket before they’d have to shell out $200,000 for her kidney surgery.

You can get wrapped around the axle, seeing that kind of injustice. My sister-in-law’s okay now… but even the slightest discussion of medical paperwork can send me into a frothing tirade.

So when I envisioned a magic system based on obsession, the first thing that came to mind was the living hell of a compassionate man working at a cut-rate insurance company like the kind that almost killed my sister-in-law.

That man would hate his employer. Except instead of quitting, and letting the insurance company win, a truly compulsive man would sabotage the system from within. He’d spend years mastering the insurance company’s paperwork, staying at the office after dark, filling out the right forms for customers so the insurance company would have to pay for their surgeries.

And so I created Paul Tsabo, employed him at crappy ol’ Samaritan Mutual, and drove him magically insane.

To Paul, paperwork is power. Fill out the right requests for information, and governments will fall. Now Paul can send SWAT teams crashing through your door by magically dropping warrants onto the right people’s desks.

He is righteous. He is pure.

He is hopelessly, hopelessly naïve.

Now, I don’t plot my books extensively; I just find a person I like well enough that I’d be willing to follow them through four hundred pages’ worth of book. Paul was the kind of stand-up dude I personally would root for.

But sadly, the grand tradition of fiction is this: choose your hero. Yank him out of his comfort zone, plop him into a new battleground where all of his strengths no longer matter, where in fact all those grand ideals may be liabilities. Make sure he’s going to have to either grow new talents to survive, or die horribly as he clings to the wreckage.

I needed to make Paul’s life a nightmare. And having watched my sister-in-law’s health dwindle, I can tell you that there’s no greater hell than watching someone you love hurt and being unable to help.

So when Paul’s daughter gets burned in a terrorist incident, he doesn’t have the skills to magically summon up the money he needs to get her the reconstructive surgery. Because, he’s new to this whole “bureaucromancy” schtick, a complete novice at his powers – and as mentioned, the universe hates ‘mancy. Do enough magic, and the universe rains horrific coincidences down upon your head, sabotaging you with bad luck until the scales are balanced out.

(We’re not even going to talk about the Bad Thing Paul accidentally did to his kid the first time he tried to save her.)

He’d do anything to save his kid, of course. So what profession, I asked, was a paperwork-loving, government-adoring bureaucromancer least suited for?

Brewing magical drugs, of course.

And who’s the only person who can help him to master his magical backlash so he can get his daughter the treatment she needs?

That’s right; the videogame-playing, magical terrorist who burned his daughter. Who happens to need some help brewing magical drugs.

Ladies and gentlemen, explosions are about to begin. Big magical battles. The quiet implosion of ideals meeting a raw and ruined reality on the ground. Obsessions compromised.

Let’s hope the kid doesn’t get hurt.

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

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

The Big Idea: Justine Larbalestier

People aren’t the only characters in books. Sometimes the most important characters can be places, and certain times. This is relevant to Justine Larbelestier, who found an important character in her novel Razorhurst just by looking around in the place where she lived.

JUSTINE LARBALESTIER:

Before Razorhurst all my novels began with the voice of the main character. Often that’s all I knew: how the main character talked. It would take awhile—sometimes most of the first draft—to figure out where they were and what their story was. For Razorhurst the big idea was starting with a place, not a person.

Razorhurst grew out of my inner-city Sydney neighbourhood of Surry Hills. One day I noticed a sign at a local park called Frog Hollow, explaining where the name came from, and illustrated with photos of how the pretty little park used to look. It had not been a pretty little park; it had been a dark, dank slum and, according to the sign, home to the notoriously violent Riley Street Gang.

I live around around the corner from Riley Street. It once had a cut-throat razor wielding gang? I had to know more.

I’ve always been a history nut but I’d never been interested in Sydney or Australia’s history. The way it was taught in high school was dire. Yet it turned out the history of Surry Hills in the 1920s and 1930s, back when Frog Hollow was a slum, was in no way tedious. This now hyper-gentrified Sydney neighbourhood had been full of sly grog shops, opium dens, brothels (there are still brothels but they’re legal now) and every business had to pay protection money to the local crime lords.

Or, rather, crime ladies. Surry Hills back then was under the control of Kate Leigh. Nearby Darlinghurst was controlled by her crime boss rival Tilly Divine.

Oh my God! Two of the toughest crime bosses back then were women!

They’d risen to power because of a law that said men could not make their living from immoral earnings. Men, not women. Women could be madames, which Kate and Tilly were. They parlayed that into selling illicit after-hours alcohol, as well as all-the-time-illicit drugs—mostly cocaine and opium. At the height of their power they were making annual turnovers of millions in today’s dollars.

Under their—and the other crime bosses’—reign the streets of Surry Hills, Darlinghurst, and other inner-city neighbourhoods ran with blood. So much so that one of the tabloids of the day dubbed them collectively “Razorhurst.”

Razor, because that was the weapon of choice on account of handguns were banned. If you were busted by the coppers with a handgun you were sent straight to gaol, but if you were caught with a cut-throat razor? Well, officer, I was just about to shave, wasn’t I?

While researching I discovered this extraordinary collection of police photos from the period. Now I could see what Razorhust looked like back then—her people, her streets and the insides of her homes.

I started to write characters based on those photos—crime bosses, coppers, and standover men with cold, dead eyes and razor-etched scars—something else I’ve never done before. It turned out I was writing a novel about a street urchin named Kelpie and gangster’s moll, Dymphna Campbell, surviving on those bloody streets while being pursued by rival crime bosses and dealing with (un)helpful ghosts.

Ghosts?

Those mug shots and crime scene photos began to haunt me. It’s an odd feeling looking at decades-old photos of a place I know well and recognising buildings, streets, signs, even some of the trees. If I squinted I could almost see the people in those photos walking these streets now. (Though what they’d make of all the fancy hairdressers, gelato and yakitori bars crowding them today. I can’t say.) Surry Hills and Darlinghurst are full of ghost buildings. Why not ghost people?

If you want to know more about the real ghosts of Razorhurt, take a look at the Justice and Police Museum. My fictional ghosts arrive in North American bookshops on Tuesday, 3 March.

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

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

The Big Idea: Matt Richtel

In his guise as a reporter for the New York Times, Matt Richtel won a Pultizer Prize writing on the intersection of technology and the fallible humans who use it. In fiction, and in his new novel The Doomsday Equation, Richtel does the same… but this time the results may be apocalyptic.

MATT RICHTEL:

Thank you for clicking on this. In doing so, you’ve done your little part to help predict the next world war.

Yes, you (I do mean you, clacking away on the keyboard) are part of a remarkable development, one that is not nearly so farfetched as it may sound. It’s the newfound capacity of computers to help predict – and shape – human events. Including war.

The premise stands at the heart of The Doomsday Equation, near-term science fiction that lives just on the other side of real, and borrows from the exploits of a real person. His name is Sean Gourley. A Silicon Valley darling, fairly called a wunderkind, he created an algorithm to help predict the outbreak of armed conflict and project its length. When will war come and how long will it last?

Do you doubt the concept? As it is, computers use Big Data to make all kinds of predictions, involving weather, stock markets, retail supply and demand. The more information you put into a computer, the more scenarios it can measure, the more it can do what the human brain cannot: see patterns that are the precursors to events. Sean figured out the kinds of patterns that precede a war, “the mathematics of war” he called it in an article in the esteemed journal “Nature.”

The paper proposed an algorithm that its authors called “The Power Law.”

I call it: The Doomsday Equation. In the book, hundreds of inputs – from weather patterns to stock market indices to shifting demographics to our daily surfing Internet patterns – contribute to predicting the stability of the world. Or, rather, impending instability – Armageddon. The implications become staggering (I hope) and, in the end, the world’s fate left in the hands of a protagonist who shares all of Sean’s intellect but none of his grace. The made-up man at the center of The Doomsday Equation is named Jeremy Stillwater. He’s a wonder with computers but he’s terrible with people.

He’s self-righteous, maddeningly so, aggressive and impetuous, driven by conflict himself and, as a result, he’s the last person in the world who should be in a position to prophesize and prevent doom. Over the years, he’s infuriated and alienated all those who had invested and believed in him: his girlfriend, not least, but also the well-heeled investors, academics and even military liaisons who had hoped to use Jeremy’s digital oracle to predict the next terrorist attack.

And so, having isolated himself from the world, there is nowhere for Jeremy to turns when his computer gives him ominous news: global nuclear war, three days and counting.

Is it a joke? A bug? Someone out to settle a score with Jeremy? Or the most important computer message anyone has ever received?

Frantic, skeptical, Jeremy begins a lonely hunt to figure out if his computer is telling him the truth. That’s half the equation, and it is borrowed from real life.

So is the other half of the equation, namely, the conspiracy that has put the world in such a precarious position. I don’t want to give too much away, but what Jeremy discovers is an ancient plot, a network as old as parchment and the Biblical Scrolls, devoted in its own way to keeping the world pure of modernity.

Put another way: the tools that Jeremy must use to save the world are the most modern. But the foe he faces is as ancient and inborn as human nature itself. And their clash gets at the heart of questions we have begun to face: what price modernity? Where it heals does it also betray? Is it salvation or damnation?

With each page of Doomsday Equation, the clock clicks down, heading inexorably to zero, as Jeremy can only save the world by coming face-to-face with the fact that his own craving for interpersonal conflict – his default embrace of self-righteousness – may well be a big part of the reason the world stands on the brink of war. Can computers tell us that war is coming? Can they save us from ourselves? Or will they, by extending the darkest parts of us, merely hasten our demise?

The Doomsday Equation.

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Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s site. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

The Big Idea: Peter Darbyshire

In today’s Big Idea, author Peter Darbyshire casually subverts the Bible, Shakespeare and the reasons why one might choose a pen name, all in the service of his latest novel, The Dead Hamlets.

PETER DARBYSHIRE:

What if Christ left his body behind on our earthly realm when he went off to the undiscovered country?

And what if some other soul happened to find its way into Christ’s abandoned body and re-animated it?

This was the idea my demented muse burned into my mind with a mad cackle a few years back. When the smoke cleared, I had my Cross series of supernatural thrillers, written under the pen name Peter Roman*.

Cross was inspired in part by an Old English poem I read in university more years ago than I care to remember. I’ve forgotten most of what I learned while getting my English degree — there’s been little need for the politics of iambic pentamer since I fell out of the ivory tower and found myself in the real world, red in tooth and debt. But “The Dream of the Rood” has stuck with me over the decades, thanks to its intriguing perspective on the Crucifixion. It tells Christ’s story through the point of view of the cross that bore Christ.

I started thinking about the poem again one night when I was facing a relative’s death and had to deal with the practicalities of what to do with the body. When loved ones die, we tend to think of them in terms of memories or, if you’re so inclined, souls. We disconnect the dead from their bodies, which are soon to be hidden away somewhere out of sight and forgotten. The body becomes an afterthought to us, simply a carrier for the person, or at least what the person once was.

And then the muse struck, and I thought: what if the Rood from Christ’s story wasn’t a cross of wood but was instead the physical body that bore Christ’s soul during his time on Earth? What happened to that body after Christ left? What if, unlike all the other buried bodies, it didn’t stay forgotten?

And so I came up with the character of Cross, the poor soul who wakes up in Christ’s abandoned body in that cave all those centuries ago, with no idea of who he is or how he got there. He quickly learns that he can harness the supernatural powers of his body, and he discovers that he’s sort of immortal — he gets himself killed with disturbing frequency, but every time he does so the body resurrects with him still inhabiting it.

As it turns out, Cross is no saint. The first book in the series, The Mona Lisa Sacrifice, opens with Cross hunting down and killing an angel for its heavenly grace, which is the power his body needs to perform its magical tricks. That particular misadventure leads him unwittingly into the middle of a war between the seraphim, who are divided about what to do with themselves ever since God abandoned the lot of them on the mortal realm. Cross also has to deal with a colourful and dangerous cast of characters, including a vengeful faerie queen he once wronged, the real Alice from the Alice in Wonderland books, a curious gorgon — and Judas, who was not a misguided human but in fact an ancient trickster god.

I can’t say too much else about The Mona Lisa Sacrifice because, well, spoilers. At the end of the book, though, I was left with an unfinished relationship between Cross and the faerie queen. I began thinking about where to go with the series next, and lo and behold, I remembered another ancient text I’d studied in university: Hamlet.

Actually, I thought of A Midsummer Night’s Dream first, as the faerie feature prominently in that play, and their sense of mischief in Shakespeare’s text largely informed the way I wrote them in The Mona Lisa Sacrifice. But I quickly moved on to Hamlet because of its preoccupation with mortality and death — something that Cross grapples with on a regular basis. I started flipping through my battered university copy of Hamlet until I read the line “Enter Ghost,” and suddenly I had the idea for my next book.

The Dead Hamlets features a mysterious and deadly spirit haunting the faerie court, and it is somehow tied to the Shakespearian play Hamlet. Cross is the only one who has the ability to stop it, thanks to his own peculiar nature. But he quickly discovers that everything is not what it seems to be with the spirit, and that Shakespeare himself hid a terrible and deadly secret about his greatest play.

Some familiar characters from The Mona Lisa Sacrifice return in The Dead Hamlets — the faerie queen and her court, the eerie Alice, the mysterious and horrifying Royal Family — but the book also introduces some new players, including the eccentric Scholar, the undead playwright and demon hunter Christopher Marlowe, and a very supernatural and very dangerous Shakespeare.

If you like the first two Cross books, the third instalment in the series, The Apocalypse Ark, is due out in the fall of 2015 and I’m starting to outline the fourth book. Cross is a character that won’t die. Just like that Old English poem I read all those years ago.

*Why the pen name Peter Roman? The official story is I use the pen name to distinguish my genre books from my other novels, written under my real name, Peter Darbyshire. It’s a case of branding my different author streams. The true story is that “Roman” is shorter than “Darbyshire,” so I get to see my name in bigger type on the cover.

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The Dead Hamlets: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: Randy Henderson

In which author Randy Henderson and the protagonist of his novel Finn Fancy Necromancy have a conversation about things and stuff.

RANDY HENDERSON:

“The Big Idea of Finn Fancy?” Finn asked. “Let’s do it!  Time to get all introspective, Mork from Ork wrap-up style.”

“Fine,” I replied. “For this book, the big idea was simply to have fun.  I –”

“Hang on.  That’s your standard answer. But let’s get real here, shall we? This is the BIG Idea, so let’s talk about what that really means. I mean, you did turn forty shortly before writing this book.”

“Uh, yeah?” I said, shifting uncomfortably in my chair.

“Well, this book is about a guy who’s banished from our world as a teen in 1986 and comes back in 2011 as a forty-year-old. So first, let me ask, what band’s playing on your computer right now?”

“The Smiths, but –”

“Uh huh. And what’s the last game you invested serious time into?”

“Well, Shadowrun on my Genesis emulator. But — do you have a point with all this?”

“I’m just establishing some context here. Along those lines, let me ask what made you a fantasy junkie? What do you remember most fondly of those books you read growing up?”

“Um, I guess a sense that the author geeked out as much about the magic as the reader, that they were having fun. Not that they were trying to be gritty and hardcore.  Not that they were trying to be especially clever, or ultra-realistic, or exploring the metaphor. I mean, some books had layers and seriously dark and ugly moments of course. But I just imagine the authors were mostly grinning ear to ear and saying ‘this is frickin wonder, baby! This is magic!'”

“Funny, I don’t remember Hitchhiker’s Guide having magic.”

“No. That had humor. Humor was also a big draw for me. Adams and Pratchett, obviously, and the Xanth novels, they were clearly having fun. But I also love the humorous characters in serious fantasies as well. The rogues and the rascals, the imps and the wits.”

“And of course you were a sucker for romance.”

“Who? Me?”

“Uh huh. So, now, flash forward, you’re sitting down to write Finn Fancy Necromancy, and –?”

“Well, I was pretty burned out from previous writing projects. I didn’t want to jump right back into months of constructing another epic plot spanning multiple points of view and the fate of nations, I didn’t want more deep research. I just wanted to write.  And have fun.”

“So?”

“So, I faced a blank page, and wrote a guy narrating in a humorous voice while a magical meteor plummeted at his head.”

“Jerk.”

“What?”

“Nothing. Then what?”

“Well, then I had to ask, why? Who was he? What story can I tell from here that will be dramatic and have tension and suspense of course, but above all, one where I can just have fun writing it. So I set it in our world, but made him be an exile from the 80s, added a misfit cast of supporting characters he could interact with, and wrote it in first person with a humorous voice. Basically, I focused on the things that I enjoyed reading in fantasy — magic, humor, and relationships — and the things I enjoy personally. I deliberately set up the conditions of the story in favor of me just having fun with it.”

“And there wasn’t anything deeper?” Finn asked.

“Like?”

Finn sighed. “Like how, in this book, I’m worried about where I fit in, what I really want to do with my life. I’m looking back on the dreams of my youth and pondering my future. I’m questioning what is best in life, and it certainly isn’t to crush my enemies, see them driven before me, and hear the lamentations of their women.”

“Well, yeah,” I replied. “But that’s natural for your character. You’d been absent from our world for twenty-five years.”

“Riiight.  For me, the forty year old child of the eighties. Okay. Fine, then mind if I ask you a question about me now?”

“Sure,” I replied.

“Why the heck did you write me as a necromancer?”

I blinked. “Uh, well, what’s wrong with being a necromancer?”

“My biggest skill is I can talk to the dead! Woo-friggin-hoo!”

“Hey, you can also rip the souls out of people.”

“No, I can’t. You created me half-trained and nowhere near strong enough, remember?”

“Oh. Sorry. I might be thinking ahead a few books. Still, it gives you room to grow, something to look forward to, right?”

“Uh huh.  Wizards, now they’re awesome. They’re, like, the Swiss army knives of magic users. Lightning, magical shields — Zeke, that ex-enforcer you stuck me with?  He can even pee fire like a flamethrower. Not something I want to watch, but still, if you knew you were going to be throwing sasquatch mercenaries and angry leprechauns at me, a power like that might have come in handy. Just saying.”

“Dude, I’m sorry,” I replied. “I just thought the lone wizard bad-ass was well covered territory. Besides, I decided to make this a story about your family, not just you; and a family of necromancers just worked better.”

“Oh.  Yeah. Thanks so much for that. Were you reading books on torture psychology when you came up with that brilliant idea, Oh Master of My Fate?”

“Um, no,” I said. “I was binge-watching Arrested Development.”

“Lucky me. You couldn’t have given me your family?”

“No,” I replied. “I couldn’t do to my family what I do to yours.”

“Nice. Okay, there is one area I do wish you’d made us more alike though. Did you have to make me a virgin?”

“Well, you had been out of your body since you were fifteen,” I said. “And you do know this is going on the internet, right? Anyone can read it.”

“Bat’s breath.” Finn sighed. “I miss the days when everyone just used their Commodores to play Zork and write bad allegorical fantasies with Paperclip.”

“Not everyone did that,” I said. “I think that was mostly just dorks like you.”

“But I’m mostly you, right?” Finn asked.

“Whatever.”

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

The Big Idea: Brian McClellan

When you’ve written a half million words in a world of your own devising, it’s okay to stop, look around, and take stock of what you’ve wrought. Thus does Brian McClellan look upon his works in the Powder Mage Trilogy, here on the release of the final book in the series, The Autumn Republic. Take it away, Mr. McClellan!

BRIAN McCLELLAN:

As the final book in the Powder Mage Trilogy, The Autumn Republic is the climax of a five hundred thousand word epic fantasy. By now many of you are familiar with the sorcerers powered by black powder, returning gods in an industrialized world, and a nation caught in a world-class conflict. These are all the big ideas of the series, but now that I’ve reached the final book I need to stop and examine what this story is really about.

One of the biggest tropes of epic fantasy is that of the fool: the young farm boy or neglected orphan who learns of his destiny and goes off to fight the good fight, gaining wisdom and experience along the way. It’s the very first trope I wanted to throw out when I started this trilogy, and doing so gave me Field Marshal Tamas—a living legend, a man at the very height of his power who decides that, for the good of the people, he will overthrow his king and send the nobility to the guillotine. Promise of Blood opens with this revolution and the entire trilogy deals with the ramifications of one man’s action against his government.

Without Tamas, the conflict that takes place in the Powder Mage Trilogy would never have happened.

Tamas was not originally meant to be a viewpoint character. My original plan was to tell his story from the point of view of his son but I quickly became enamored with his character. How often in fantasy do we get to see the narrative from the point of view of a man who answers to no one? The wise man well into his journey instead of the naive youth at the beginning of his?

What, I wanted to know, would bend or break a man like that?

More than anything else, The Autumn Republic is the tale of Field Marshal Tamas coming to grips with his own legend. He is powerful, driven, already immortalized on the pages of history. He has spent decades planning the revolution that opened the trilogy and he is fully committed to it, willing to become history’s villain for the greater good. Willing to sacrifice anything for his goals. Or so he thought.

Tamas may be an old man, much further along in his hero’s journey than some whippersnapper fresh off the farm, but that does not mean that his journey is complete. His ideals have been corrupted by old wounds and a quest for vengeance, but he still has the ability to regret, grow, change, and adapt to fight the new challenges thrown in his path.

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

The Big Idea: Amy Bai

Who will your heroes be? How and why are they as they are? Amy Bai gave serious thought to these questions when writing Sword, and found the answers for her through a most circuitous path.

AMY BAI:

I grew up, as so many of us did, on Hans Christian Andersen, the Grimm brothers, Charles Perrault, and Disney; on destiny and good girls with shining hair, golden boys on tall horses bending over them to save them with kisses; on the wickedness of evil stepmothers and the last wishes of dying kings. I believed in the power of enchanted swords, wise old mentors, fate, and the deadly secrets of the spinning wheel. I never doubted that the serving girl was disguised royalty and that someday her prince would come. I knew that gentleness and kindness won you the help of the furry woodland creatures, that beauty was worth more than confidence, and that if you waited patiently and were good, if you suffered with grace, you would be swept out of an ordinary life into jeweled-encrusted slippers and true love.

As I got older, I found myself princes more well-rounded than Gallant and Charming—Will Stanton, Cefwyn Marhanen, Rand al’Thor, Frodo and Aragorn, Bastian and Atreyu, King Arthur and Lancelot. They saved the kingdom, defeated the big evil, and changed the world: they lived large.

I was twelve when I discovered Robin McKinley’s The Hero and the Crown, and my world opened up. There was destiny and magic, dragons and world-ending threats, and hey presto! there was also a girl protagonist who wasn’t passive, graceful, decorative, or a damsel. Aerin-Sol’s power had nothing to do with beauty, and she neither waited for nor expected a rescue. She worked for what she wanted. This is much, much more of a thing now than it was then, thank frak, but for an early-90s tween living in an isolated rural town in Maine with a teensy library, it was a Big Deal of the mindblowing variety. I still reread The Hero and the Crown pretty often, because I am obsessive that way, and damn if I don’t get that same little thrill of vicarious power every time. Girl fighter. Girl ruler. Girl hero.

So all things considered, it shouldn’t have been a surprise that when I finally mustered the courage to try writing novels, this kind of story was what came out.

By that time I was a veteran of the sort of undergraduate writing workshops where you begin by talking about theme, then move on to some more theme, and bring it home with a really deep discussion about theme… and along with a diploma and a lifelong partner, I’d emerged from college with a vague sense of shame for my love of fairy tales and SF/F. When I started Sword, I had a handful of ideas and absolutely no clue what I was doing. (I’d love to say this process has undergone a vast metamorphosis since, but alas, several hundred thousand words later, I think I’ve just gotten more comfortable with the initial state of confusion.)

In spite of the confusion, I’m glad I didn’t know how to outline a book back then, because I’m almost certain I would have censored myself. I’d have edited out the influence of all those well-loved fairy tales and books, spent the entire first draft trying to recreate everything I’d been taught to value about words up to that point, and the end result would probably have been something along the lines of the world’s worst Great Gatsby fanfic.

Many long nights, the thunderous arrival of the ebook, a vast shift in the publishing industry, and a complete rewrite later, what I arrived at was a coherent story, and also an homage to everything I love to read… but most of all to that amazing moment when I realized that heroism and agency weren’t the sole purview of men.

Gender flipping of genre tropes is hardly a new thing: it’s been done badly, done well, and done better than I could ever hope to do it myself, but one thing I personally don’t think it will be anytime soon is done to death. (If you’re wondering why, just visit VIDA’s site and take a look at the numbers there. Enough said.) So when I decided that Sword required a twisted nursery-rhyme-turned-vague-prophecy and three reluctant and/or outright disgusted heroes, it was natural to me that the Sword of that prophecy who guides the hands of men and commands the army, and the Crown who harbors all their hope and also rules a kingdom should be my two female main characters—while Song, a Bard who has the more traditionally feminine role of easing their sorrow with music, emotional stability, and a lot of snappy one-liners, would be the brother and friend of my two ladies.

Natural, because those were the stories that spoke loudest to me; natural because I could see me in them. And natural because although years and countless improvements in gender equality have passed since I read a book with a girl hero for the first time, it’s still more likely that in the movies I watch and the books I read, I’ll be expected to identify with a sidekick or a love interest, rather than a hero.

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

The Big Idea: Rebecca Adams Wright

Rebecca Adams Wright was one of my students at the Clarion Writer’s Workshop. I’m delighted beyond words to spotlight her first, terrific, collection, The Thing About Great White Sharks, here on the Big Idea. As she explains, the title may say “sharks” but what it all really comes down to is people.

REBECCA ADAMS WRIGHT:

My stories begin with people. People from all walks of life, people in unlikely circumstances, people that I can’t get out of my head. An old man, stroking the head of his robotic dog.  A young girl, befriending a man made of glass. A husband, obsessed with the furnace his wife maintains on their claustrophobic space station.

My great delight in the sculpting of character means that when I was first working on the stories that would later make up my collection, The Thing About Great White Sharks, I didn’t intentionally set out to tackle any ideas of Great Meaning. Mostly, I set out to write about people who were confronting ghosts, odd golems, alien invasions, hordes of murderous bees, flying circuses, and talking gardens. All of these situations were all interesting to me. I cared intensely about my protagonists but I didn’t yet grasp what their stories had in common. My characters came from so many different backgrounds, were evenly split between men and women, ranged in age from twelve to their seventies, lived on different planets and existed in different eras (sometimes millennia apart).

Basically, I wasn’t sure my little band of narrators was united by any Big Idea. But hey, they were all living inside their own self-sustaining story pods, so what did it matter? They had rations in there. They had oxygen. They were fine trundling along their small orbits alone.

Then a few of the stories got picked up by magazines, and a few others won awards, and I started to think about putting them together in a collection.

Now, to me, the best story collections are often—I’m going to date myself here—like great mix tapes. The mix tapes your closest, coolest friend made for you in high school.  The voices on the tracks may be wildly disparate, some of the songs may scream in thrash metal and others may whisper to you in velvety jazz, but that juxtaposition is part of the appeal. Placed so improbably back to back, well-selected songs speak to you in ways you don’t expect. All of a sudden you’re looking at your own complicated jumble of perceptions from a new perspective.

I wanted my collection to work like that ideal mix tape. I gathered my stories together and panicked. I despaired. I stacked and shuffled, trying to find a way to make all the seemingly disparate narratives fit together in such a way that the sum total would take on Lofty Overtones. Finally, I realized that the only way to make any progress toward a book was to stop trying to paint apples to look like oranges. I decided I would simply do my best to polish each individual story and damn any thematic union between them.

It was only then, as I released desperation and re-immersed myself in the individual narratives, that I began to see the Big Idea peeking out of all of them. The unifying factor was coming out of character, of course. How had I missed the pattern?

The grieving couple in “Tiger Bright,” who inherit a big cat and devote themselves to the animal’s care.

Ed, the Korean War veteran and traveling salesman in “Storybag,” who quickly becomes protective of the very strange item that appears in his magical sample case.

The artist in “The White Chalk Road,” who manufactures an entire world in an effort to make it home to one fiercely-loved old dog.

My protagonists have a tendency to be isolated—by war, by work, by sickness, by life on alien planets, by their own neuroses. But over and over again, these characters were trying to climb out of isolation, to make contact. Sometimes they could only manage a small wave from a long distance. Sometimes they stood screaming directly into each other’s ears. Sometimes they missed the potential for communication entirely and went sailing out into some weird stratosphere, raving. But the point is that they were all battling to communicate, to build connections, to form relationships.

The idea that humanity is defined by our need to connect to one another, that we all, every one of us, require at least one meaningful relationship to hold us together.  That’s the Big Idea and the unifying theme running throughout the stories in The Thing About Great White Sharks.

There are a lot of other ideas here, too—about animals, and what they mean to us, and how both strange and familiar they are.  About violence. About humor and wonder, and how we should never stop looking for either one. But the very human need to make contact—that’s what drives all the rest forward.

This book about ghosts and golems and aliens and robots and bats and sharks is really about people.

I should have known.

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The Thing About Great White Sharks: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read a story in the collection. Visit the author’s site. Follow her on Twitter.