Time Travel! It’s a thing in science fiction. But after all this time, and time-travel stories, what is the thing about time travel that can still make it fresh for readers? In Time Salvager, author Wesley Chu thinks he’s got a wrinkle in time travel. What is it? Read on below.
Remember that classic 80s cartoon Voltron? That was one badass robot. Not the stupid Vehicle Voltron but the real deal Lion Force Voltron with primal roars and shit. The Big Idea for Time Salvager is like that, a bunch of bad ass lions forming Voltron, except there’s only two ideas (instead of five), no sword, and nothing is color coded. I’m Asian, so that has to count for extra Voltron points, right?
Let’s start with the first and obvious idea: time travel. Time travel stories that try to change history need to check themselves. I guarantee you, any scientist, real or fictional, who is developing time travel technology, knows about the butterfly effect and the consequences of changing history. So, why the hell would anyone mess with that? You mess with science, you get the horns. Trust me.
I mean, sure, killing Hitler or preventing Yoko Ono from breaking up the Beatles is all well and good, but have you really thought it through? We’ll give Yoko a pass. News flash, Sir Paul already debunked that little rumor.
Hitler, however, deserves killing. He deserves killing bad. Maybe more than any other asshole in history. We’re on the same page here. But, let’s say some dumb genius invents time travel with the express purpose of killing Hitler. He goes back and whacks twelve year old Adolf walking out of water coloring class.
Yay, Hitler’s dead. What happens next? The scientist doesn’t know. I sure as hell don’t. For all we know, the Third Reich happens anyway and instead of Hitler’s insatiable craving for St. Petersburg, they have a leader who reads a little Napoleonic history, looks at the map, and thinks, “Man, that’s a lot of land to cover. You know what? Maybe attacking Russia is a bad idea.” Before you know it, we’re seventy years into the Thousand Year Reich. Well done, Mr. Scientist, well done. You just ruined the future for everyone.
So, if changing the past is too dangerous and we’re not here to kill Hitler, what is time traveling good for? Since the 1980s hold the answer to everything, I want you to remember Biff Tannen. He used a Grays Sports Almanac to win a crap-ton of money. Before you get excited, sorry, that counts as changing history. However, Biff had the right idea. The answer to the question is all about profit. How does a time traveler make it rain in the present by plundering the past?
Thankfully, I had one of those trippy Wayne’s World dream sequences. I was a time traveler on the Titanic, tasked with stealing the Hope Diamond. My job was to jump onto the ship, locate the rock, and get out as she was sinking so that any traces of my activities would be washed away (literally) when she went down.
I woke up, thinking, “I need to write this down five minutes ago.”
In a resource-starved dystopian future, what if the past is the primary source for power, technology, and materials? And what if the only way to safely retrieve these resources, without affecting the time line, was to jump back to the moment right before a disaster occurs so that the time traveler’s activities are easily ignored by the space time continuum?
Now, as much I’d love to ice Hitler, making fat stacks is a decent consolation prize. As I delved deeper into time travel profiteering, another idea from the darkest reaches of my psyche also crept to the top. This one wasn’t quite as romantic as Leo painting French girls.
I read an article about a South African photojournalist named Kevin Carter. He took an iconic photo (warning: graphic) of a child during the Sudan Famine crawling toward an aid station. There was a vulture behind the child, just hopping along, waiting for him to die. At the time, Kevin thought it was his job to record the events, but not intervene. He took the picture and left. He won a Pulitzer and then, haunted by the things he saw, committed suicide a few months later. Some of the facts have been subsequently contested, but that was the version I read.
The more I explored the idea of these time travelers (or chronmen as I called them) jumping into the past to witness the last terrible moments of someone’s life, the more I saw Kevin Carters, people whose job gave them front row seats to terrible events but were unwilling to do anything about them. I began to wonder about that mental toll. How do they cope? What happens when they break?
In the end, the Big Idea for Time Salvager isn’t about time traveling or resources or saving the world (though the world does need saving). The Big Idea for Time Salvager is about coping, and how we deal with pain, sorrow, regret, and, hopefully, find the redemption Kevin Carter never did.
And, fuck it, we also kill some Nazis along the way.
Big idea Voltron, folks. We’ve formed the feet and legs; form arms and body; and you, dear reader, form the head. Let’s go, Voltron Force!
There’s what we know, and what we used to know — and sometimes the latter might be more valuable than the former. What does this have to do with the new novel, Linesman? S.K. Dunstall, the author(s), is ready to explain.
Two images—neither of which made it into Linesman —were precursors to this book.
In the first, we read about an early Comdex or Macworld exhibition where the first Apple Mac was on show. An old man stopped to look at the Mac. He picked up the mouse and moved it in front of the screen to see what would happen. Not surprisingly, nothing did, for this was an early generation trackball mouse that you had to roll along the desk.
The two young guys manning the booth laughed and laughed. For they ‘knew’ the complex, intricate, not-really-natural ways you had to move the mouse around on the desk to make something happen on the screen.
You know what? That old man had the last laugh, for nowadays we use touch screens, which is a lot closer to what he was trying than it is to moving a piece of plastic around perpendicular to the surface.
The second thing that inspired us was an article about old ways of healing which had fallen into disfavour but were coming back, because there was a scientific basis in their use and they worked. Maggot therapy, where a diabetic woman’s heel became infected and she was close to having her foot amputated. The doctor went along with her request to use live maggots onto the infected skin to eat the necrotic flesh. It saved her foot. Leeches, used as far back as Ancient Egypt, which are nowadays sometimes used to drain blood from limbs after reconstructive surgery, particularly in places were blood clots form easily.
It was the article on maggots that got us talking one night after dinner (we’d finished eating by then). The old techniques—like the maggots and leeches—are still dismissed by most medical practitioners. Humans don’t look back much. We like to look forward. Unfortunately, it means we lose a lot of knowledge that we once had.
Out of that dinner came one idea that stuck. How little we know and how much we have lost.
More, what if we didn’t know it to start with?
For example, we have no idea what the statues on Easter Island were built for. We can make educated guesses, but we’ll never know for certain. The only people who do know are the people who built them.
History is littered with artefacts we can only guess about.
Take it even further. What if the artefact wasn’t of human origin?
What if the first humans in space found an alien spaceship? A sentient alien spaceship?
Would they recognise it for what it was?
Probably not. Especially not if humans had been slowly expanding outwards on old generation ships that they had cannibalised over the years so they were nothing like the original ships. They had lost contact with Earth a long time ago. If the ship was abandoned, how were they to know it was alien? And how could the ship communicate with them, for it wasn’t built to interact with humans?
Going back to our Apple exhibition. Who is more likely to finally communicate with the ship? The two young guys who ‘knew’ that you had to roll the mouse along the table? Or the old man who waved the mouse in front of the screen?
Better yet, a child, still young enough not to question an alien ship talking to her, still young enough to listen when the ‘lines’ on the ship spoke to her.
That young girl was Gila Havortian, and she opened the way to the stars. Instead of travelling at sub-light speed, taking years to get to other worlds, humans learned to clone the lines of the alien ship and jump through the void to get from one place to another instantaneously. They gained instant communication within sectors of space.
Humanity expanded, and was still expanding five hundred years later.
In five hundred years the initial knowledge of what the ship could do—small as it was—would be lost as people discover new ways to use the technology. Like maggots as medicine, we find better ways to do things.
At the start of Linesman, line ships underpin the galactic economy. The small number of humans who can ‘feel’ the lines and mend them are in high demand. Especially the tens, who can fix the full set of ten lines. Higher level linesmen are contracted to cartel houses and work from there.
Then humans find another alien ship.
Enter Ean, who came into the cartels late and is mostly self-taught. Even though he’s a certified ten, he is more akin to the old man holding the mouse up to the screen than he is to the young kids who ‘know’ what to do because they’ve been shown.
Sometimes the band breaks up and the members go solo — but is the resulting music triumphant or discordant? Ask John Hartness, because in In the Still of the Knight, the latest installment of his Black Knight Chronicles, the band breaks up, so to speak… and the tone changes.
JOHN G. HARTNESS:
What do you have when you lose everything? Who are you when there’s no one around? Are you as good as you think you are when your support network is gone and it’s all on you?
These are the questions I wanted to play with when I started working on In the Still of the Knight, the fifth book in my Black Knight Chronicles series. Over the first four books I built a pretty solid ensemble of protagonists, a good little team of X-Men (or Avengers, if you prefer), and now it was time to see if I had a Wolverine in the bunch. In other words, it was time to see if my protagonist, Jimmy Black, could stand alone and become the hero he needed to be.
Let’s back this up a little, because there’s some credit due that I need to give. I’m a big Kim Harrison fan. Her Hollows series was the first urban fantasy I read, and it dragged me deep into the genre and never let me go. In one of her books, she does exactly what I’m doing here – she breaks the band up to force her character to stand alone and become stronger. So it’s not like I’m doing anything terribly original. Hell, the WWE is doing the same thing right now with its champion, Seth Rollins. They’ve taken away a lot of his supporting characters to make him become (or appear to become) a stronger villain.
So I wanted to see what would happen if I took everything away from Jimmy. I’ve spent four books giving him a girlfriend, slowly building their relationship through all the troubles a poor vampire nerd has while trying to date a living cop in today’s world. Now I yank that away from him.
I’ve spent four books giving him a best friend that will stand by him through thick and thin, and you know that no matter how much they fight and bicker, these blood-sucking besties will have each other’s backs no matter what. Until Jimmy makes a decision that’s the straw that breaks the camel’s back, and suddenly his best friend isn’t there anymore.
I’ve given him secondary characters that are willing to pitch in whenever they can – gone. I’ve given him connections to the local police force that he can use to solve crimes – gone. I’ve given him a tense but cordial working relationship with the city’s Master Vampire – gone. I’ve given him a human Jiminy Cricket, a conscience with legs to help keep him on the straight and narrow – gone.
And then I put him into a fight he can’t possibly win, and can’t afford to lose.
All of this to see what kind of character I’d truly crafted. Had I built someone strong enough to stand alone and take up arms against a sea of troubles, and by opposing end them? Or would he be unable to bear his fardles?
Of course, right about the time I really got rolling on the writing of the book, life decided to imitate art and I got far closer to Jimmy Black than I ever wanted to. A series of unfortunate events led me to leave two different jobs over the course of one year, so I spent about half of 2014 unemployed and looking. And let me tell you, unemployed at forty with a theater degree is not where you want to be.
While I was looking for work, and trying to work on the book, I was also dealing with my mother’s declining health. She battled Alzheimer’s and dementia for well over ten years, and at the beginning of last year, her health took a nosedive. On Labor Day, on the last day of DragonCon, I got the call that she had died.
I thought I was ready, but I wasn’t. I guess no matter how it happens, you’re never prepared, no matter how you intellectualize things. I found myself sitting at this computer the day after we buried my mother, staring at a screen and feeling very much like someone had done to me what I was doing to Jimmy Black. I felt like my whole reality had been stripped away, and that all that was left was the raw core of me.
Turns out that raw core can crank out some words. I finished the last 20,000 words in the book the month we buried my mother, and when I finally typed “The End,” I put my head down on the keyboard and wept.
Don’t do that, it types all kind of stupid letters at the end of your manuscript. Much better to close the laptop first.
Last year taught me that if you strip away all the extras, you find out who you really are. In the rewrites and edits of In the Still of the Knight, the amazing Deb Dixon worked with me to do that to this book. I’m pretty sure we’ve done that to this character. Over the course of early 2015, Deb and I took out the parts that were “too much John, not enough Jimmy,” and left me with a deeply personal book that still fits with the series and everything that’s come before.
Jimmy Black and I have run through the fires together, and we’ve come out tempered, hammered, and sharpened. I hope that you enjoy the forging process I put myself and my character through; I think it made a hell of a story.
What happens when two authors with combined decades of experience working in and chronicling the defense industry attempt to plausibly devise a war scenario only a few years into the future? You might find the book has uncomfortable parallels with the real world. But of course, as P.W. Singer and August Cole might tell you about their book Ghost Fleet, perhaps that’s the point.
P.W. SINGER and AUGUST COLE:
The two of us didn’t meet until we were in our 30s, but both grew up on a similar diet of science fiction, technothrillers, and big sprawling novels. We’d prepare for summer vacation trips by getting a stack of books from the library, that might range from Tom Clancy’s Red Storm Rising and Herman Wouk’s Winds of War to William Gibson’s Count Zero and Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles. A classic Sir Arthur Conan Doyle read on the beach might then be followed by staying up late to cram in just one more chapter from Michael Crichton.
Both of us would go on to become professional writers in the non-fiction world: August as a journalist working the defense beat at places like The Wall Street Journal, and Peter writing books on topics like private military contractors, drones, and cybersecurity. It was this work in the real world of DC policy that we met, as August explored topics like the story of China hacking our fighter jet programs and Peter writing books on the ramifications of cybersecurity becoming a new realm of battle.
But when we decided to team up on a book exploring the future of war and technology, we kept coming back to this summer reading list we had in common. So we set out to write a book that wouldn’t just peer into the potential future, but also try to take readers back to that kind of experience.
Ghost Fleet: A Novel of the Next World War, out on June 30, explores what would World War Three be like. The idea that the looming Cold War between the US and China/Russia could ever turn hot is fiction today, but a real risk in the years ahead. After Russian landgrabs in Ukraine, NATO is on its highest alert since the 1980s , while China’s regime newspaper declared “war is inevitable” if the US doesn’t change its policies in the Pacific. Indeed, a US Navy P-8 patrol plane was chased away from a Chinese military facility this month…which happens to be the opening scene in our “fiction” despite being written 18 months ago!
The structure of Ghost Fleet reflected this idea of returning to the books we enjoyed . Rather than following one character or a single story thread, the story follows multiple characters and settings, akin to the structure of Red Storm Rising, World War Z or Game of Thrones. This allows us to cover more ground and play with more “what if’s?,” as well treat the war itself as a character. But here also, there was a point in this structure in how fiction can be useful in laying out the underlying truths: the novel lays out how a 21st century war between the great powers would be different than the wars of today. Battles will take place not just on the land, but also at sea and air (where US forces haven’t had to face off against a peer power since 1945), and in two new places since the last world war: space and cyberspace. So to tell the story of the war, you have to dance across the settings in a way beyond anyone character’s single journey.
But what makes Ghost Fleet perhaps something different is we’ve experimented with melding two classic book genres, the technothriller and the nonfiction book. Think of Ghost Fleet as a new kind of “novel,” where the story is backed by 400 endnotes that show how real it all is. Every technology and trend in the book, no matter how science fiction-seeming, is drawn from the real world. The realistic scenarios and moments that we hope will thrill and chill were actually built by using nonfiction research that included everything from unearthing DARPA contracts to sharing lessons from various Pentagon war-games that we organized. Moreover, we put facts to work for our fictions, including using the story to reveal real world concerns from new Chinese drone prototypes to how certain US weapons have already been hacked. Similarly, we met with real people who would fight in such a war (from US Navy destroyer captains and fighter pilots to Chinese generals and Anonymous hackers), which improved the realism but also let us really get to know our characters.
Even the name reflects this approach. “Ghost Fleet” has a cool, ominous sound to it, but it is actually the real nickname of the National Defense Reserve Fleet. These are the old Navy ships kept in mothballs in places like Suisun Bay near San Francisco, just in case we ever need them again; they are the Navy’s version of the Air Force’s “Boneyard” of retired planes kept in the desert. Those dusty warplanes get their day too in our book.
There is a real world policy question of just why we keep these old ships around, which connects to bigger issues of whether a world war could happen again? But this then raises an uncomfortable issue: Could it go badly enough that the US would actually need to bring back these faithful old ships and planes? Answering these questions also led us down neat story and plot pathways that are often overlooked when planning for future conflict, like how would the old gear, and the old sailors who know them, relate (or not) to digital age warships and sailors?
It has been rewarding to see how people are reacting to the project so far, which we think reveals that the mix of fiction and nonfiction can be both entertaining and helpful in thinking about the unthinkable. We’ve been able to talk about the real world lessons from the novel with groups that range from 600 Navy officers at the Naval War College to the Defense Science Board, as well as share early versions with readers who range from 4 star Navy Admirals (for the military side) to one of the inventors of the Internet (for the technical side), to the writer of HBO Game of Thrones and producer of Hunger Games (for the entertainment side). The result is perhaps the strangest ever Venn diagram of blurbs and reviews, but hopefully one that entices people to check it out, whether they are a military officer looking for insights into the future, or someone just looking for a read with a beer in hand at the beach. Or maybe both.
So that’s our big, but also classic, idea: that you can enjoy a novel, but also find the fiction “useful.”
If I knew nothing else about the book, I would give a thumb up Sam Munson’s novel merely for the title alone: The War Against the Assholes. Fortunately, there’s more to the book than the fabulous title, as Munson explains below.
What animates The War Against the Assholes philosophically (its author asked, rhetorically and pretentiously)? I am too close to the book to speak with critical authority, here, but I suppose there are two questions or two groups of questions.
Why do clerical, hierarchical ideas of magic dominate our thinking on the subject in literature? From the unfortunate Lucius, protagonist of Apuleius’s The Golden Ass, to the eager students at Hogwarts and Brakebills, we can find a deep-rooted view of magic as governed by learning, by essentially academic ability: mastery of rituals and formulae, penetration into theories of physics and biology, philological skill. This view — which it is quite reasonable to find so widespread, being, it seems to me, anchored in the real-world history of magic — informs even departures from the trope, where magic that exists outside the ambit of a secret clerisy carries with it a tint of darkness, excites suspicion, and often undoes its practitioners.
As a lifelong poor student and reader of novels of the fantastic, I found this preponderant view fascinating and also provoking. The basic principle of magic, as it has been understood historically and in literature, is the unmediated effectuation of one’s will. It seems psychologically unlikely, to say the least, that defeating the immutable physical laws of the universe would leave one much attached to the reclusive and repetitive tasks scholarship entails.
This is doubly true, it seems to me, in the case of young people, of adolescents – a perennial subject in fantastic works. Here the fidelity of literary magic to historical magic diverges: the magical young appear most often as studious, serious, well-intentioned, and highly moral bearers of a world-shaking imperative (the discovery of which is inseparable from their initiation into magic). The youth of this world, sadly and joyously, are free of such burdens by nature; if they bear them they amount to little more than an affectation. And how could they not? To be young is to be more or less a sociopath, more or less a fragment, more or less nothing; add to this the world-defying power magic by definition brings with it, and the idea of
being at once a young magician and scholarly do-gooder seems like a contradictio in adjecto. I do not want to cite any such figures by name; I do not want to be invidious, here — merely to point out that this is a trope and as such warrants investigation. Why not posit, for example, a theology of magic that rests far more on the ability to harness willpower, irrespective of academic ability? Why not posit a formal theory of magic that does not rest on reliable tools — fetishes or incantations — but rather on the particularities of the magician’s personality? Why would magic, being the effectuation of a will, necessarily be uniform from one practitioner to another?
The magicians who form the narrative core of The War Against the Assholes practice that form of magic — and they and their colleagues suffer massive and violent oppression as a result, albeit oppression totally invisible to larger, non-magical society. Mike Wood, the narrator, is an academic failure, a violent football player; his close colleagues are, for the most part, his equals in animal cunning and suspicion of received authority. Their opponents, the titular assholes, are the academic magicians, servants of authority. This antinomy is of course an oversimplification – compromise, often at a murderous cost, forms another central narrative strand in the book. But the idea of approaching the formal side of building a magic not from a clerical standpoint but from an anticlerical one, I admit, was a task that drew me on and on into the book.
This of course leads into the other central question: whence authority? Whither authority? Does it proceed from expertise or from innate virtue? Does talent justify its own excesses? Is the power to command purely and solely resident in a system or does it spring from the person commanding? The hierarchical world Mike and his colleagues struggle against is opulent — they own, for example, a private magical academy on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, one that obtrudes into an enormous forest in another reality, making them masters in two worlds, not just one. They nepotistically promote their own kind above objectively more talented magicians. And they greet any threat to their authority, even a comparatively mild one, with orders-of-magnitude-greater-than-necessary violence and speed.
Again, this tension is not meant to be taken as a formula for moral understanding: Mike is a child of real-world privilege, as are all of his younger colleagues (his older ones less so), and their insurgency is colored by concomitant anxieties. The war he and his friends conduct is blessed by no obvious superiority to the war being fought against them. Authority comes, as much for Mike as for his opponents, from the will to seize it.
At least he’s not an asshole, though.
Aliens threaten to destroy the Earth in any number of sf books and movies. In most cases, daring space heroes defeat them and all returns to normal. In the rare cases when they don’t, it usually spells the end of the human race, at least as an independent civilisation; individuals might survive, but only by hitching a ride to safety with more benevolent aliens.
The big idea of Belt Three is that neither of these extremes happens. By cosmic coincidence, the Worldbreakers arrive during a quite narrow window in human development: we’re not advanced enough to defeat them, but we’re advanced enough to survive. Three hundred years later, people live in cities built into the asteroid belts that once made up the planets. The Worldbreakers are still around, destroying these debris pieces one by one (they’re slow but thorough), and populations scramble to evacuate whenever they approach. To build the world of Belt Three I tried to imagine what life would be like under these conditions.
The details of the evacuation of Earth would leave a large mark on the society that would emerge. I’d read somewhere that there may have been a human population bottleneck around 70,000 years ago, in which the human race was reduced to a few thousand individuals, and I decided that a similar thing happened here: only around a thousand families managed to evacuate in time. These near-future refugees had more resources than our prehistoric ancestors, though, and they also managed to save banks of genetic material from a larger population, and the technology to create clones from this material. However, a flaw in the hurriedly-designed cloning system meant that the clones were sterile. Three centuries later, the most important social divide is between the “true-born” ruling class and the “tank-born” majority, and the mythology of the thousand surviving families is an important part of true-born identity.
Secondly, the way people understand their place in history wouldn’t be as straightforward as “alien robots destroyed the planets and now we’re living in the debris.” That’s too cold for most people to find comforting. Instead, various religious groups offer their own explanations for the Worldbreakers; and because these religions pull in different directions, the society-wide consensus has become a sort of agnostic shrug: “No one knows what the Worldbreakers are.”
I find religion fascinating, and I wanted to make it an important part of my worldbuilding. I decided that creating a single dominant religion would be too neat, so I invented several small religious groups. The one that features most prominently is Scriberism, which teaches that the Worldbreakers are angels sent by God to dismantle the universe and bring the spiritually pure into paradise. At the highest level of the religion, believers purify themselves then board ships that fly into a Worldbreaker’s energy beam. Other religions include the Arkites, who interpret the Worldbreakers as a second Flood, which will eventually end and reveal a new set of planets; the Eternalists, who believe that the planets are destroyed and recreated in an endless cycle; and the True Belters, who believe that the planets are a myth and the universe has always consisted of belts and asteroid cities.
Outside of religion, society’s received wisdom would reflect its circumstances in more subtle ways, common assumptions that no one questions because no one thinks about them at all. Whatever the Worldbreakers are, everyone knows that they can’t be fought, and that the human race is living through its last few hundred years. That’s enough time to grab the best life you can for yourself and (if you’re a true-born) your children, but not long enough to think about grand projects for improving the world. For someone who’s grown up with the idea of the doomed human race, it wouldn’t be frightening, and might even be a source of comfort; nothing you do really matters, so there’s nothing to worry about. When one character has this belief challenged, they react not with hope but with bafflement.
That’s some of the thinking that went in to the background of the novel. In the foreground is the idea that there are always a few individuals who don’t accept society’s commonly accepted wisdom. The main character isn’t such an individual (at least not at first), but the pirate who kidnaps him is: she knows it’s impossible to strike back against the Worldbreakers, but she’s on a personal quest do do so anyway, and she’ll tear down any part of belt-dwelling society that tries to stop her.
Can a library change your personality — and the things you can do? It depends on the person… and the library. Scott Hawkins has a very interesting one in The Library at Mount Char, and if you’re not careful, you may be a different person coming out than when you went in.
The magic library is one of the great devices of fantasy. Like bottle genies, a magic library empowers characters to do pretty much anything imaginable. After he became Sorcerer Supreme, Stephen Strange was finally able to pay off his medical school loans. Lev Grossman’s disaffected crew flew to the South Pole sans airline. Susannah Clarke’s Victorian wizards dispensed a good smiting to the French.
Magic libraries have another feature that makes them even better than genies, at least from a storytelling standpoint. Apprentice magicians are obliged to do at least some work if they hope to accomplish anything. Better still, the very act of studying magic changes people. If magicians aren’t careful in their studies—sometimes even if they are–they can be badly hurt.
In my debut novel, The Library at Mount Char, I thought it would be fun to throw a bunch of more or less normal people into a spectacularly dangerous magic library and see what happened. There are books on flying, yes, but there’s also stuff that makes the Necronomicon seem PG-13. They have a wise mentor—not ‘kindly,’ but wise–who shows them around the place and helps ensure they don’t make any of the classic mistakes. When the head librarian says “don’t read that book,” you don’t read it. There are consequences for disobedience.
Still, even with their access strictly controlled, these librarians learn some interesting stuff. One guy talks to animals. Another spends weekends commuting to the twenty-third millennium to go clubbing with friends. There’s a woman who keeps a spy army of ghost children, invisible to anyone but her.
Unless you’ve got the soul of a Peter Parker, just living in the vicinity of that kind of power would affect your personality.
For instance, imagine one of your buddies has, through diligent study, learned how to raise the dead. She’s the real deal. She doesn’t turn people into George Romero monsters or something from the Pet Sematary. No. Your buddy, who you get tacos with every Tuesday, has an actual cure for death. There are no major side effects to this cure—at worst, you get a slight headache when resurrected. Your friend is the only one who knows how to do this neat trick.
But lately she’s been kind of a bitch.
How would you handle that? Realistically? My thinking is that even if she’s no longer my absolute favorite person, I would still invite her to parties. At a minimum, I’d stay friends with her until my biopsy results came back.
And anyway it’s not really lying because she’s basically nice.
When she’s not being a bitch.
Along those same lines, what if the guy you room with has, through diligent study of his corner of the magic library, become the most dangerous person alive? He’s invulnerable-ish. Maybe he’s not quite at the Superman level, but he’s more than a match for, say, a battalion of infantry with artillery and air support. Your roommate is the absolute pinnacle of the Earthly food chain, and he just drank your last beer. Again.
Maybe when you first moved in together he was nice enough—or not. But over time, the knowledge that he’s completely immune to any sort of discipline has had an impact on his manners. He never vacuums. There are dishes in the sink. The last time he stole your beer you left him a polite note. He broke your arm. Your buddy who resurrects people fixed it—you got her a pint of Haagen-Dazs the last time you bought groceries, so she didn’t even keep you waiting for long–but it still smarted like a sonofagun.
Do you leave another note? Or just suck it up and go to bed?
Say that you yourself are a magic librarian who is diligent, humble, and not in charge of a dazzling section of the books. You study something mundane—cooking, maybe, or languages. Still, you’re in this environment. Would simply being exposed to that level of power change you? All of your buddies are getting drunk on it. Probably you’d be fine for a while, maybe even a long while. You’d stay humble. You’d go along to get along. But I bet that over time all of the little frustrations and insanities would pile up.
What if you decided you wanted out?
How would that even be possible? Even if you did escape after a lifetime in that environment, what would normal people seem like to you?
What would you seem like to them?
These are some of the questions I play with in The Library at Mount Char.
The Big Idea behind The Clockwork Dagger series is pretty straightforward: healers are heroes too, darnit. Not just sidekicks, but full-on protagonists.
I grew up on old school role-playing video games. In order to survive games like Final Fantasy or Dragon Warrior III, you needed a white mage, a cleric, some kind of magic user with healing power. They enabled your party to stay alive… if you could keep them alive. Because let’s face it, a white mage had the offensive and defensive skills of a paper bag. One solid thwack and they keeled over. You needed strong fighters up front to take the worst of the damage.
That’s the usual way of things with healers in games, whether the medium is 8-bit, Playstation, or MMORG. Healers are sidekicks. They buff the Big Damn Heroes and then cower in the back row.
Fantasy novels pretty much follow the same pattern. If the hero has some healing skills, it’s part of a demi-god prize pack of superpowers. It’s not their primary trait.
I searched for years for books that made healers into heroes. I didn’t find it, so I wrote it myself. I wanted a heroine who would stand in the middle ground between real world battlefield medics and the grand magical powers of video game clerics. She needed to be a warrior, but one who wielded herbs and compassion.
Meet Octavia Leander, the heroine of The Clockwork Dagger and the brand new sequel, The Clockwork Crown.
Since childhood, Octavia has understood that she’s different from most folks and even most medicians (magical doctors). When she’s near other people, she hears their injuries and diseases in the form of song and intuitively knows the right herbs to heal them. Through her magic she can even cause patients to float or create defensive barriers around them. Her heightened skills have made her an outcast among her fellow medicians. Even her mentor has succumbed to jealousy and turned against her.
Octavia’s physical strength is a more noteworthy attribute than her appearance. She can haul hay bales or drag a comatose body. She’s against violence, but if need be, she’ll defend herself. She’ll also rush to heal her assailant afterward.
During the events of the first book, Octavia’s magic changed in new, alarming ways and she realized she could become a deadly tool for the enemy. As the sequel opens, her powers have deepened in a manner that challenges her faith in the source of her power, a world tree known as the Lady. Octavia is on the run for her life as she’s caught in a vicious tug-of-war between terrorists and her own corrupt government. Everywhere she turns, there are assassins, kidnappers, and people who want to exploit her incredible magic.
Octavia is the kind of literary heroine I’ve searched for since my teens. She’s strong, compassionate, and resourceful. You won’t catch her cowering in the back row of battle. She’ll be on the front lines, her satchel at her hip, ready to fight Death one on one. And win.
When I first got heavily involved with science fiction and fantasy fandom, I was surprised at how frequently I saw knitting going on at conventions and other geek events — which only showed how little I knew, as geekdom and knitdom always has significant overlap, and that overlap has only grown over time. Now Joan of Dark (aka Toni Carr) has brought together the two in book form with Geek Knits, which features nifty knit projects for crafters, modeled by geek notables and celebs in photos by Kyle Cassidy (disclosure: I and Krissy are featured in the book). Here’s Joan to explain how the book got crafted in the first place.
JOAN OF DARK:
“You know what would be cool?” I tend to say that sometimes to people, and miraculously, sometimes they listen. (This is why there is a roller derby knitting book in the world) I think the first time I uttered those words about Geek Knits was after a visit with Neil Gaiman, when he wore the softest, blackest angora sweater that a friend of his had made for him. As my companions and I were heading home I said, “You know what would be cool? A knitting book with novel writers and scientists and comic writers and you know, GEEKS wearing knit stuff. Really good photos too. A knitting book that could almost double as a coffee table book. That would be really cool.” I mused on it a little bit, mentioned it to friends, and tried to let the idea go while I worked on other projects.
Then I hung out with photographer Kyle Cassidy a few times, and mentioned the idea to him. We started running over our dream list of geeks to photograph and what we would have them wear. Then we started talking seriously, who did we know? And the people we knew, who did they know? Could we make connections and make this happen? How could we do over 30 photographs in less than a year without having to fly to 30 different locations? This was madness. So naturally, I pitched it to my agent. She agreed. Wonderful, magical, madness. Let’s do this thing!
Selling the idea of the book was the easy part. It’s difficult to narrow down an idea as broad as “Geek Stuff” when working on a pattern book. Should everything be cosplay, mostly unwearable in real life, and probably hard for the beginner or average knitter to complete? Or should everything be fairly simple, such as sweaters worn in the Harry Potter movies and scarves worn in Doctor Who? Or how about general geekiness like ties and pocket protectors? Obviously, part of the fun of making a book like this is making things that people want to recreate!
Luckily, I realized that trying to please everyone is a quick path to the bad sort of madness. I decided the best thing to do was to design the patterns I wanted to design, and enlist the help of other designers to bring some dimension to the book. Which is how we came to have wonderful things like a stuffed Bunnicula Vampire Bunny (permission granted by James Howe to make him), an amazing sweater inspired by the question “What would Molly Weasley knit for Arthur?” and Cthulhu gloves.
I wanted to bring my favorite ideas about knitwear to life. I love that knitting can be either average or absurd and no matter what, it is, it’s a work of art. A bit of string looped around some needles becomes a sweater! Sure, a sweater is a pretty basic piece of clothing, but to those who know the hours it takes to create one, it’s sort of an amazing concept. Then there’s the slightly absurd. Could I design a knit fez? Could I get my talented designer mother to create a snow beast balaclava inspired by the alien that scared me in Star Wars? These are things most people aren’t going to throw on when they run out to the grocery store, but they fall into the “so weird it’s wonderful” category for me.
My initial idea, the “You know what would be cool?” concept of getting geek celebrities to do the modeling was almost as hard as the designs themselves. Writing to my heroes and asking if they would mind being a little silly, donning socks and hats and sweaters for my knitting book. Those were pretty tough emails to write. Luckily I have friends, and friends of friends who helped make connections. Even luckier, I realized that lots of celebrities don’t mind being silly. Paul and Storm serenading a stuffed worm comes to mind.
I’m going to keep saying “You know what would be cool?” and working to bring those ideas to life. Because you know what? This project was really cool!
Writers sometimes take the long way around to find “home” — the world and characters where they find the most stories to tell. Martha Wells has found her home with the world she’s created in Stories of the Raksura, Volume Two. Here’s how she found it.
In many ways, the Raksura books are the books I’ve always wanted to write, it just took me writing a bunch of other books to figure it out.
I always wanted to be a writer, from the time I was a weird, lonely little kid in elementary school haunting the public library and writing and illustrating (in crayon) my Godzilla fanfiction. I’ve always been drawn to fantasy that was outside the marketing box, maybe because my first experience with the genre was weird horror comic books and the pulp paperbacks the library had stuffed into the back corner. I never liked imaginary worlds that had boundaries. I never wanted the characters to know what was on the other side of the mountains or the sea; I wanted to think there was a whole planet out there to explore. (Preferably a planet with multiple moons, maybe rings, and some unlikely microclimates.)
I liked Tolkien, but I loved Andre Norton better, her fantasy and her space opera and the way she combined them, psychic powers that were almost like magic and magic that was almost like technology. I loved the way she would start out with the characters in a strange world and then take them somewhere else even stranger. I wanted to write stories that captured that feeling.
With the Raksura books, I think I finally got there. I’ve tried to create a world that feels limitless, that has room for any amount of stories, where anything could happen. And where I could write about anything, say, matriarchal bisexual shapeshifting flying lizard people, to my heart’s content. It’s a world with a huge variety of strange species, and there’s lots of adventure, exploration, ancient ruins, cultural conflict, assigning blame, fighting, running for their lives, flying for their lives, and trying not to get eaten.
Besides the adventure aspects, the books are also about finding a family, even if it’s a huge, sometimes dysfunctional family, and fighting to keep it together against all odds. (Because the weird lonely little kid I used to be really loved those kinds of stories.) They’re about trying to find a place to call home, learning to trust, and learning to cope with your past, and what happens after you find the thing you’ve always been looking for. It just happens that all this takes place with characters who are, you know, matriarchal bisexual shapeshifting flying lizard people.
Stories of the Raksura vol. II: The Dead City & The Dark Earth Below contains one long novella and one longer novella/short novel. Both expand the world of the Raksura further, and also show it in more detail. The Dead City takes place before the first four Raksura books (The Cloud Roads, The Serpent Sea, The Siren Depths, Stories of the Raksura vol I: The Falling World & The Tale of Indigo and Cloud) and The Dark Earth Below is set afterward.
Hopefully, readers will find this world almost as much fun to read about as I do to write about it, and I’ll be able to keep expanding it in the future.
One issue urban fantasy stories often deal with is: If magic is real in the modern world, how exactly have we not noticed this? Now, there many excuses (pardon me…rationales) as to why magic gets away with murder in today’s society. It could be anything from plain old human refusal to believe “the impossible” to supernatural beings protecting their own from discovery to realities where magic is entirely public knowledge, whatever the consequences of such.
In Enter the Janitor, the Big Idea was that magic is actually hiding in plain sight. It’s evolved alongside humanity and taken on quite a different role than it used to hold. Rather than a religious function or mystic mumbo-jumbo, magic could be connected to our history of sanitation and hygiene. Think about how many little health rituals we practice every day; at the same time, keeping things clean is often done on auto-pilot, meaning we may miss very obvious clues that something supernatural might be in the works. How many commercials and ads treat cleaning tools and chemicals as literally magical implements? Animated soap bubbles…talking sponges…even the genie-like Mr. Clean.
Magic also could have become more of a corporate affair, staffed with janitors, plumbers, maids, and more who dedicate their lives to the craft, much like ancient wizards and mages and witches would’ve. Rather than saving the world from eldritch towers, they began to do so in plain sight, one clean window and one mopped floor at a time. They swapped out wands and staffs for squeegees and mops and spray bottles.
And they’re everywhere. They work throughout practically all city buildings, including government and educational institutes. We hire them to clean our homes. Sanitation workers are so ubiquitous, but how often do we really pay attention to them?
In early drafts, I tried to write the story with a much more serious tone, but it ended up lacking a vital energy. When I first started playing around with the idea of a supernatural sanitation company, I couldn’t stop laughing to myself at how absurd it seemed—and yet the characters were taking everything oh-so-seriously.
The more I thought about this, the more I realized I needed to revel in exploring this ridiculous version of reality. And that’s when both the characters and the world they inhabited came fully to life in my mind. Janitor closets could be mystic portals. Garbage dumps could be repositories of power. Sewers could be…well…still sewers, but with stranger creatures slithering through them.
Ben, the titular janitor, has reached the point in his career where retirement seems to be swiftly approaching, but it’s not exactly the sort of work he can retire from. And so he’s on what feels like one last job, even if it does require using his magical powers to clean toilets at the local mall. After all, he takes pride in his work and knows even one stall left un-scrubbed could mean an innocent life getting flushed.
In the end, I had so much fun writing this story because no matter where I looked, it was already embedded in modern life in bizarre ways. And so the Cleaners were born.
Or maybe they’ve been here all along.
An idea can seem silly, wacky or frivilous — which can be great — but there’s always a chance it can bloom into something else… bigger. In Wolf, this was Alma Alexander’s experience. She’s here to tell you how.
When the original call came for an anthology featuring “unusual” stories about Were-kind, one that specifically specified that writers should try and be a smidge more original than wolves howling at the full moon, I had a brainwave which I think might be the closest thing to an actual Original Idea™ that I’ve encountered in a long time – the concept of a Random Were, a creature which doesn’t have a “fixed” form as such but can Turn into the last warm-blooded creature observed before the metamorphosis begins. ANY warm-blooded creature. The potential for merry mayhem was obvious and hilarious, and that was the way the story originally went – it was funny. (One of the characters – via an unfortunate farmyard accident – was thus transformed into a Were-chicken…)
The deeper I got into what was supposed to be a short story, the more I realized that I was trying to stuff a triple-layer chocolate cake into a cupcake baking mold. Not only did this thing not want to be a “short” anything, it wanted to be far bigger than I realized. It wanted to be a novel. And then it decided it wanted to be three novels. (Not a trilogy, mind you. A sort of triptych, where a central story arc was seen through three different points of view (with ramifications specific to the POV character). An ambitious and intense structure on which to hang what had very quickly outgrown the original amusing little concept.) This story was bigger and darker than I could have imagined from its humble beginnings. And its gifts, in the end, were many – not least the three POV characters, one better than the other, some of the best people to grace any of my stories ever.
But the Random Were – big as that idea was –proved to be just the beginning. The bigger idea by far was the creation of the world in which all this happened. A world very much like ours but with the addition of an under-class of Were creatures who live amongst us constrained by rules and laws imposed on them by a fearful majority which does not Turn. The Were live and work and go to school among us… but they are obliged by law to be locked away during their three days of Turn, and if they cannot oblige adequately by themselves then they are forced to report to places known as Turning Houses where they can be kept sequestered and away from the public eye (out of sight out of mind) for the duration. The Turning Houses are terrible places. And underneath even that evil lurks something deeper and greater still.
Most importantly… the Were aren’t just beleaguered by the mundanes of their world. They are slaves to their own biology and physiology… and there are those within the Were kindred itself who have agendas of their own and are pursuing them in secret and ruthless ways. And to get here, I had to do something that I had not done before now.
I had to go back to my educational roots.
I hold a MSc in Molecular Biology, but that has long been left behind, receding in the rear view mirror as I move forward in life. I worked in a research lab, briefly, but I bailed before I pursued a PhD and then went sideways into first scientific and then general editorial work, and then into writing my own books. My chosen genre had never really approached that original layer of science education… until now, until the novel called “Wolf”, until I was suddenly faced with the surprisingly enthralling opportunity to do something that I don’t think I’ve ever really seen done before: figure out the genetic basis of the Were (including the curve I had just thrown myself, the concept of the Random Were, which changed all sorts of fundamental ideas). On a molecular DNA level, I was going to work out exactly what kind of creature they were, and why, and how they were different to the rest of us.
And I loved it. And I loved the idea that I had wrapped empirical science (the basic building blocks of an entire species) into social science (creating a society where all of this functioned, warts and all) into a layer of fantasy that makes it all so much larger than life and easy to sink into.
With this kind of depth, with a complex and tightly woven structure of a kind I have never attempted before, with the kind of characters who stepped up to carry the story… the Were Chronicles (“Random”, “Wolf”, and the forthcoming “Shifter”) may be the best thing I’ve ever written. And on so many levels, quite possibly the most important. The Big Idea here surprised even me; I often tell people that I am an instinctive writer who plants a story seed into fertile ground and then waits to see what kind of thing pops up, a daffodil or an oak tree. With these particular books, what grew was a redwood. And I am left – grateful, and not a little astonished – sitting in its shadow.
How many worlds must a people travel before they are at peace with themselves? Greg Keyes asked himself this question while writing Footsteps in the Sky, and the answer takes us back to our world, and his studies in graduate school.
Once, at a book fair in Belgium, I was asked what purpose science fiction and fantasy should serve. Put on the spot, I somewhat glibly replied that science fiction helps us imagine the future, and fantasy helps us decide what is relevant to bring with us from the past. By that (flawed) definition, Footsteps in the Sky is fantasy, because the central questions are how, why, and in what form belief is transmitted through and affected by time, technology, and social change.
When I wrote Footsteps, I was a graduate student in Anthropology, and I was writing a thesis detailing the change in belief and mythology of the native peoples of the Southeastern U.S.—the peoples now known and Choctaw, Chickasaw, Creek, Cherokee—over a nearly 500-year span. The first century of that period saw an enormous demographic and social collapse due to the introduction of European diseases, followed by centuries of natives being victims of and participants in slaving, warfare, and a trade system that left them dependent on European powers for weapons and other commodities. Eventually, most were removed from their homelands entirely. A few tribes—such as the Apalachee—were exterminated.
Not surprisingly, their belief systems underwent a significant amount of restructuring over the centuries. For instance, they stopped telling stories about hereditary elites being descended from the gods, because hereditary elites were long gone. Yet certain elements of belief remained consistent for a very long time, even in the face of considerable social stress. The stories of their ancestors weren’t so much abandoned as adapted to changing circumstances.
That’s part one of what was happening in my life when I wrote Footsteps. Part two is that I was also involved in a Choctaw game called kapucha toli, a relative of lacrosse. I played on a Choctaw team, but I also started a club at the University of Georgia, which in turn brought me into the world of the Pow Wow festivals where we were often asked to play exhibition games. In that subculture, there existed a good bit of tension between people who were unquestionably Native Americans—genetically and culturally—and those who were seen as “playing Indian” or Wannabees. The latter of which, my team, the Flying Rats, was often seen as belonging to. To curb this perception, we added “Naholo” to our team name, which is the Choctaw word for a white person. We wanted to be clear that we just wanted to play the sport.
Others, however, were trying to do much more. I met and associated with certain people who were desperately trying to “rediscover” their lost heritage or “recreate” a pre-European religion and way of life.
Here, my academic studies and my personal experiences collided, and from that pileup emerged my Big Idea. I thought there was a story there, about a group of people who manage to isolate themselves on a remote planet so they can return to a past way of life. I imagined that at least some of the grandchildren of those people would be pretty pissed off at being stuck on a barely habitable rock because of their ancestors’ good intentions.
I tried using the Choctaw first, since it was that culture and those beliefs I was most intimate with. It was probably for that reason that I couldn’t make it work. I was too close to it, and I just couldn’t see my way in. Another problem was that returning to pre-Columbian way of life for the natives of the Southeast would mean reverting to powerful chiefdoms ruled by divine elites. This sort of culture would probably not be the best fit for a story about terraforming.
And then I remembered the Hopi.
When I was a child, my father took a job in the Navajo Nation, so at an early age I became fascinated with southwestern cultures. The Hopi, in particular, with their baroque pantheon of gods and spirits, captivated me. It dawned on me that the Hopi were perfect for what I had in mind because they believe that they have already lived on four different worlds.
In the First World, they weren’t human, but rather insect-like creatures who quarreled a lot. The creator realized he had botched the job in making them, so he sent Spider Woman to lead them to the Second World. On the journey, they transformed into creatures with fur, webbed fingers, and tails. Things went well for a while, but they began to fight again, and the creator saw they still didn’t have an understanding of how to live properly.
So he made a third world, and on the journey there, the creatures became human. They built villages, farmed corn, and at first had good lives. But some of these people became sorcerers and two-hearts, and eventually corruption and evil became overwhelming. Once again, the people began to look for a place to start over. They found refuge in the Fourth World, ruled by Masaw, the god of death. It was a cold, hard place that they would have to work at to make livable, but they set themselves to the task because they wanted to live proper lives.
So here was a story that had transformation built into it already, which, in essence, harmonized with the narrative of persistence, change, invention, and adaptation I wanted to tell. Better yet, according to some Hopi authorities, they are destined to one day move to a Fifth World when this one becomes too corrupt. I imagined a future in which only shreds of pueblo culture remained; one in which some group of people who consider themselves to be the rightful inheritors of that culture take the opportunity to put it back together and begin again.
But just as in the first four worlds, things don’t go smoothly or according to plan.
In describing how The Vorrh came out of him, author Brian Catling pretty accurately makes a point about creation that I think many creative people can agree with — before it comes out, there’s so much that has to go on inside.
I have answered more identical questions about The Vorrh than anything else in my life. The core ones being about its origins and the process of its construction. When I explain that it was probably brewing for thirty years and that once it escaped it wrote me, then the problems begin, especially as I have not stopped writing since it was finished. Words like channelled and cathartic appear in other people’s mouths. So I did what I know best, I consulted perversity and made something else. Made it out of lead, glass, Perspex and electrical motors, transparent piping, feather quills, wiring and pumps. An extension of my hand, tiny eccentric engines giving the tip of each finger a life of its own, eerie and totally against anatomical grace and favour. Instead of blood the quills and their nibs are pumped with warm water and compressed black ink. When it ‘goes off’ it surges and gushes, staining the room and its operator’s disability with saturated steaming shadows. I did not know it was literal until it was finished and switched on.
There is another tale of loose hands that I wrote in a grim poetic series many years before. Hands running through the back alleys and murder yards of Whitechapel, scratching sparks and gouges from the wet walls with hooked nails, fleeing, forcing themselves into flesh and infamy. I think they also wrote a true channel for The Vorrh to play, like a needle on black shining disk.
I always had the title, the opening scene and the conclusion and once the work finally began to turn, I had to invent everything else in-between. A wonderful savage awakening that had nothing to do with mapped out plot, or carefully observed character. I became each personality and principle in the book. Living equally the events of each man, demon, woman, monster and ghost. Each writing themselves visually. Without a pennyweight of the critical skills, or a daub of the doubt. A necessary blindness to let the mystery and the presence of The Vorrh overwhelm me. In all modesty, I thought I was writing a slender obscure surrealistic work that would hopefully exist in the sacred margins of esoteric imagination. What arrived was quite different. An enormous birth without a shadow of pain.
The Vorrh is the vast African forest that Raymond Roussell invited in his masterpiece of surrealism, Impressions of Africa. He never much cared for its detail and used it only as a painted backdrop. I have put aside my reverence and dragged him screaming into the depth of this new Vorrh, along with several other ‘actuals’, such as Edweard Muybridge. The Vorrh is the first book in a trilogy, with the unwanted forth already remotely clawing at the inside of my skull, like another disembodied hand.
The good news: In his novel Devil in the Wires, author Tim Lees has solved our energy crisis! The bad news… well, let’s just say that you’re the sort to blaspheme, your electricity might flicker a bit in protest. Here’s Lees to explain it further.
You don’t have to be religious to feel a sense of awe when you stand in some big temple or cathedral, especially if it’s old, or built on the site of a still older shrine, as many are. Places of worship can date back millennia, and through more than one faith. Sacred sites are sacred for a reason. Whatever they may now be, once upon a time, they were home to strange, inhuman forces – beings which, for want of a better term, we might call “gods.”
From the ancient, to the modern. We all know about the energy crisis. Fossil fuels are running out, alternative energy supplies – we’re told – will never match the shortfall.
It’s a grim scenario. But what if there was something else, a source of power till now almost untapped? What if you could mine the psychic energy stored in churches, shrines and other sacred places? Energy built up through years of worship, prayer and entreaty – what if you could take that and convert it into usable electric power?
Well, that’s the first Big Idea. Those gods are still there. They’re what gets turned into electric power. They’re what lights our cities, cooks our meals, powers our Playstations and TVs. Ancient gods: the latest source of fuel.
I love mash-ups. Genre-wise, ramming together two totally disparate elements (and making them work) is just about my favorite activity. Back when I still had musical ambitions, I was once asked for a keyboard solo on a reggae track. I looked at the range of sounds available and thought, Ah-ha! Church organ! Why not? Nothing, of course, could have been less appropriate, which was exactly why I chose it. To me, it sounded great. To everybody else… well. Let’s just say there was no subsequent boom in church organ reggae, and I am now a writer, not a musician.
So, with Devil in the Wires, I’ve taken an element from genre fantasy – the kind of gods that Conan or Elric were always running into – and kicked it into the present day. Needless to say, the gods have undergone some changes in the process. They are still genii loci – spirits of place – and repositories of immense power, but for the most part (and with one exception) they’re a lot less humanized, a lot more alien. To stand before them can be a bit like suffering a seriously bad acid trip. Simply to perceive them can be dangerous. As for actually collecting them, that’s the sort of job which requires a specialist. Not just for specialized equipment, but also for a special frame of mind.
Enter Big Idea number two: Chris Copeland, professional god hunter, already worried he’s been in the job too long, and his luck (much like those fossil fuels) might soon be running out.
Have you ever wondered how the guys in fantasy stories make their cash? How they pay the rent? Batman, supposedly, runs a multi-billion dollar business empire, and still stays out all night crime-fighting. (Really?) Indiana Jones works at a university which requires neither the grading of papers nor writing of research publications, nor, presumably, returning from the wilds in time for class. Great fun, but I wanted something I could actually believe, and a counterpoint to the massive, numinous forces at work throughout so much of the book.
I mentioned mash-ups. There’s the concept of burning gods for energy – pure fantasy. So to ground it all, I thought I’d put it in a context so familiar everyone can recognize it: the daily grind of company drudge work.
Chris works for the Registry. It’s a business. It’s secretive, but it’s not the secret service. It’s not some underground cabal. It’s the kind of place where you or I might work, though hopefully in a different capacity. And Chris is an employee. He has paperwork to file. He has bosses he doesn’t trust. Like most people on the ground floor of a business, he often has a better idea what’s going on than his managers do. And that’s the source of much of the humor in the book. Because humor is the way we survive, it’s the thing that gets us through our day-jobs, especially if our day-jobs might just threaten our health, our sanity, and our lives.
One final matter. I’m a Brit, now resident in the US. Devil in the Wires starts in Iraq, makes a couple of stops in Paris and London, then races on to Chicago, where I’ve lived the last few years. Here’s a thing about us SF/fantasy types: we never feel at home in a place until we’ve smashed it, shattered it, invaded it with aliens, sent monsters roaring through its streets and exposed its seedy, supernatural underbelly to the world. Now, at last, I give Chicago what it needs: an ancient god, a crazy scheme for powering a city, three or four assorted killers, and a hero who’s torn between earning a crust and doing the right thing (no prizes for guessing which side he comes down on).
Believe me: it’s an act of love.
Science says: You have a hypothesis? Test it! And see if the results you get match your hypothesis? Neuroscientist Wendy Suzuki has a hypothesis about the brain, and how certain activities and thoughts can influence them, which she expands upon in her book (written with Billie Fitzpatrick) Healthy Brain, Happy Life. How did this hypothesis come about? From an interesting personal experience.
Can I use my thoughts, intentions and beliefs to change my brain and make myself smarter and happier? That’s the question I have been asking ever since I inadvertently did an experiment on myself and noticed how much aerobic exercise combined with positive intentions transformed not only my body, but my brain and ultimately, my life.
After years of neglecting my body and focusing too much of my energy on my work as a brain scientist, I finally decided to begin a regular exercise routine. I started with a personal trainer and focused on increasing my overall muscular and cardiovascular strength. As I got stronger, I felt great and much more energized.
And then I found a class at the gym that shifted my workout routine into high gear. The class combined physical movements from kickboxing, dance yoga and martial arts with positive spoken affirmations like “I am strong!” or “I believe I will succeed!”. It’s called intenSati. And it’s hard. You have to master the moves and the affirmations that go with them and change moves every four to eight counts or so. Shouting out the affirmations increases the cardio load of the workout and makes it much more challenging than just doing the moves on their own.
I was already in pretty good shape when I discovered this class at my gym. I always felt more energized after any workout. But intenSati was different. After each class, I was full of energy, in a great mood, and felt like I could take on the world. Not only that, when I left the gym after class, I was already looking forward to the next time I could do the workout.
Over time I noticed something even better. As I upped my workouts with intenSati, it became easier to write my scientific grants. I seemed to be able to focus my attention better while writing and make more and better associations or links between the journal articles that I read in support of my points. I realized I had just done an experiment on myself and the results were these striking brain changes.
In fact, the shift was so noticeable that I decided to find out what we knew about the effects of exercise on brain function. I found a vibrant scientific literature focused largely in rodents showing profound effects of exercise on the anatomy, physiology and function of brain areas important for attention, memory and mood. In humans, there was good evidence that exercise improved mood and attention, and promising indirect evidence that exercise improved memory function as well. In my book Healthy Brain, Happy Life, I write about my transformative experiences with exercise, and also about the what neuroscience understands about the dramatic impact of exercise on specific brain areas.
In myself, I noticed improved mood, attention and memory functions with increased levels of aerobic activity. But I realized that with intenSati, I wasn’t doing just exercise alone – I was combining it with positive affirmations. And I wondered if the exercise alone that was causing the brain effects I was experiencing? Or could it be the combination of exercise together with the positive affirmations that was doing the trick? As a scientist, I knew I could not answer this question simply by introspection. Instead I went to the scientific literature to see if there were any studies on the brain effects of combining of exercise and affirmations, something I started to call “intentional exercise”.
No study had ever examined the effects of exercise combined with affirmations, but I did find studies examining the effects of affirmations alone, which indicated that reciting positive affirmations improved mood. This is not so surprising. Perhaps the affirmations were just adding additional mood boosting power to the workout.
Somehow that didn’t seem quite right. Then, I stumbled upon the psychological studies of something called mindset, defined as the established set of attitudes held by somebody. This is a hot area of research because of exciting findings showing that shifting a person’s mindset by simply providing information can have significant changes on people’s sensory experiences and physiological responses.
What does this mean? My two favorite examples from this area of study were done by Professor Alia Crum of Stanford’s Psychology department. In one study, she showed that people who thought they were drinking an indulgent high calorie milkshake showed faster declines in a hunger-inducing hormone than when they thought the same exact milkshake was healthy and low calorie. In another study, she showed that when hotel room attendants were told that, according to the surgeon general, their workload of cleaning rooms and changing sheets was considered a good amount of exercise, the workers lost significant weight and had lower blood pressure compared to the control group of hotel room attendants who were not given that information.
These studies are examples of how adopted beliefs can significantly change physiological responses including hormone secretion and metabolism/weight loss. Maybe that’s what the affirmations were doing to me. Maybe the affirmations shifted my mindset to a positive one that included belief in myself and my success. Maybe the affirmations are adding the key ingredient of motivation to my workout. And maybe we could actually modulate the effects of the affirmations to focus on attention or memory or happiness depending on what we actually said.
We don’t know the answer to these questions right now. But my “big idea” is that we can test these hypotheses systematically and scientifically in the lab. It could be that adding positive intention to exercise (any kind of exercise), could be the secret sauce needed to boost the effects of exercise on both our bodies and our brains to their maximum levels. That’s exactly the question I’m starting to answer with the experiments I’m doing in my lab.
Here’s a test. Two scenes from movies. Tell me if you remember either of these. (The test is unfairly skewed towards people who were conscious in the eighties, sorry.)
In his underground lair beneath Metropolis, Lex Luthor keeps a nest of monstrous pet lion-alligator things. They mostly sound like lions, but he is living in the sewers of metaphorical New York City, so they clearly should have been alligators. Let’s call them alligators. At the end, he feeds Ms. Teschmacher to the alligators for having betrayed him (Superman rescues her, as comic book movies were not yet inhospitable to ten year olds).
Scene two: in Jabba’s stronghold, after Luke Skywalker has been dropped into the Rancor’s pit, he leaps straight up into the air and catches the grating above that just dumped him down. He dangles from the iron bars as Jabba’s courtiers bash his fingers with weapons, and then drops again to continue fighting.
For years, whenever I attempted to describe the alligators to people, they thought I was out of my mind, but they really do exist, in a pair of deleted scenes edited out of the theatrical release of the movie and included only in a later TV release (for it must be admitted very obscure reasons).
When I describe the scene of Luke jumping for the grating, mostly people have a vague feeling of familiarity. But it doesn’t exist. The moment was described in the novelization but never released, never filmed. I remember it as clearly and vividly as the alligators. I even remember clearly a page out of a photo storybook I had showing the scene, which also doesn’t exist. I spent a long frustrated time trying to track it down before I finally accepted that my brain had just put that scene together and quietly tucked it into my memory like a small deceitful landmine.
I have also forgotten and falsely remembered many other things — stories I myself have written, what my child was like a year ago, the names and faces of good friends. People have told me too often that’s not what happened! how could you forget? I’ve never doubted all those studies about the unreliability of witnesses, because I’ve been made palpably aware of my own unreliability over and over.
But the gift of a strangely terrible memory is to be set free from the tyranny of the correct. I’ve spent a lot of time with young children in the last few years, seen how their brains are still working out the most useful things to hold on to, the lines between the real and the false. “Is Hillary Clinton really alive?” my four year old asks me doubtfully as we watch her declaration of candidacy on the iPad, the same way we watch episodes of Star Trek and Wonder Woman. (A few days later she confidently explains to a group of our friends that a woman named Hillary, who is alive, is going to be president after Barack Obama dies, cheerfully discarding layers of metaphor between U.S. politics and the Hunger Games.)
She has not yet reconciled herself to the frustrating, repeated failures of magic. Neither have I. Making sense of things that don’t quite make sense, we fill in the missing pieces, retelling our own stories and accumulating embellishment along the way. And magic is in those missing pieces. When to remember is to create, to imagine is to make true. Why shouldn’t Mr. Spock be a real person when Hillary Clinton is? Why shouldn’t there be magic, if the past can change out from under us?
Uprooted takes place in a Poland that exists only in my own mind. It grew out of the fairy tales my mother read to me in Polish when I was a child, not older than my own daughter, before I was too old to really believe in forest fairies and mountains of glass. After I was five we stopped speaking the language at home, and I didn’t learn to read it until I was much older. Even now I’m not fluent enough to read the stories by myself without help, but when I plug uncertain words into translation sites, the meanings that come out aren’t the ones I am looking for. The word olbrzymi means enormous, but not to me; in my head it means monstrously overgrown, tangled, terrifying.
But I reject the dictionary entries: they are correct but untrue. I am not just making things up when I tell you a story about a valley of living water and tangled forests, a castle of many towers. I am telling you about a place that I have been. There are many dangers in the unreliability of memory, but in the realm of fiction it opens the possibility for the reader to believe in magic too, to feel it creeping up on them, the faint uneasiness of could that have happened? There’s magic in accepting the gap between physical reality and the shifting electrical sands of our brain cells, and allowing ourselves to visit a real and impossible place.
We all wish for that big break, whatever that “big break” might mean — but will that big break cause more problems than it solves? It’s a question that Karina Sumner-Smith considers in Defiant. Here she is to explain how it manifests in the world she’s created.
Imagine you won the lottery.
At one time or another, most of us have imagined what we’d do with that money. Debts eliminated, bills paid without a thought. Buying a house or a car, a bigger house or a better car, a yacht or a new wing for the family mansion with a secret library, a trapdoor, and a bouncy castle. (Or am I alone in that last bit?)
Yet despite the odds against our tickets coming up the big winner, we still dream—because it is, however unlikely, possible. It’s that possibility that keeps people clamoring. It’s hope.
But what if money wasn’t something that you have or earn, but a part of something that you are? What if affluence is as much a biological trait as your skin or hair, the shape of your face or the color of your eyes?
That’s the big idea behind the Towers Trilogy. In this far-future society, magic is everything. A power naturally generated by the human body, magic is used as money and fuel. It heals illness and prolongs life, powers machinery and keeps the lights on, and is a critical part of countless everyday tasks, big and small. The magic-rich reside in living, floating Towers that play out an unending political dance for position and altitude. Yet the people without enough magic end up in the Lower City—a rough, dangerous society that exists in the ruined skyscrapers on the ground.
The first book of the trilogy, Radiant, tells the story of Xhea, a homeless girl in the Lower City who has no magic at all. She can’t buy food or clothing, can’t open doors; she can’t even work the simplest of spells. Then she meets the ghost of a girl who has not died, and everything changes. That ghost, Shai, is a Radiant, a person who generates so much magical energy that her body and soul are used as a power plant—even in death. Despite being very different young women from disparate ends of their society, the two form a bond and fight to free Shai from her fate.
The second novel, Defiant, sees the Lower City’s social structure begin to break down. Because in saving Shai, Xhea brings a source of untold wealth to the poorest of the poor. In effect, the people of the Lower City win the lottery—and that sudden influx of power creates more problems than it solves.
I thought, when I started, that I was writing a fun little cross-genre tale about magic, ghosts, and a friendship between two very different young women caught in strange circumstances. It was only when I was neck-deep in story and paused to look around that I realized that I was, of course, writing about inequality and economic disparity.
Because if affluence is a biological trait, a direct result of your ability to generate magic, then so by extension is poverty. “The value of a person” has a very literal meaning—and cascading consequences for concepts of social class and economic mobility within this constructed world.
Dark concepts, all. Yet I’m also just trying to write a fun, different fantasy with ghosts and magic, war and politics and friendship, bounty hunters and sentient buildings, and strange creatures that stalk the ruined streets when night falls.
These books are also, in the end, about hope. Because when we dream about winning the lottery, we’re looking for a huge, outside force to change our lives for the good—to save us from our circumstances and create possibilities that didn’t exist before. Yet that change can come from the inside, too. There are a myriad ways to defy the fates that biology and money and societal structures create; and people, working together despite terrible odds, can find ways to save themselves.
Sabaa Tahir and Renée Ahdieh are authors of young adult fantasy, with books releasing in April and May, respectively. Their novels are both inspired by unique settings, so they decided to interview one another for The Big Idea and share how they approached worldbuilding from different perspectives.
SABAA TAHIR & RENÉE AHDIEH:
RA: The desert is a huge part of An Ember In the Ashes, but it’s not a setting we see in a lot of YA high fantasy, except in passing. What led you to pick it as your primary setting?
ST: I grew up in the Mojave Desert of California, midway between the highest and lowest points in the continental U.S. Living in such an extreme place made me feel like the land had a distinct personality. Sometimes, the desert loved me, like in the middle of a thunderstorm, or in the early morning, when a breeze came off the mountains. Other times, the desert hated me—like when it was 115 degrees out and the asphalt melted beneath my feet.
But it was always beautiful and dramatic. When I started writing Ember, I knew it was going to be a story of extremes—so the desert seemed like the perfect setting for it. It’s the place I know the best, so in a sense, this was also my way of paying homage to that.
RA: I could absolutely sense that in your writing—a world of extremes. It was both beautiful and harsh. So wonderful.
ST: Thank you! Speaking of wonderful, one of the things that struck me in reading The Wrath and the Dawn was the way you depicted food and clothing. It was so rich and evocative. Tell me about your inspirations.
RA: Thank you so much! I used to write for a food magazine, and food is a great passion of mine. When I began writing Wrath, I spent a lot of time researching Persian cuisine, which provided much of the inspiration for the food in the book. I knew I wanted those particular scenes to resonate with a reader. Some of the books I remember most fondly as a child did that for me—The Redwall series, for instance. I still want to try hotroot soup and beetroot pie! Similarly for the clothing, I did a lot of research into sartorial trends during both the Sassanid Empire and the Abbasid Caliphate. The importance of authenticity was always at the forefront of my mind.
ST: I’d say you pulled it off very well. The first time I read Wrath, I stopped to cook myself a kebab feast because I got so hungry.
RA: Ah, kebabs! I’ll have to make plans to stowaway for the next feast. But before that, I’d love to know how you went about building the world of Ember.
ST: Like most of my writing process, I did my worldbuilding in layers. I didn’t want something strictly Roman, strictly Middle Eastern—or really strictly anything. I wanted a setting that reflected the complexity of Ember’s world. Much of the book takes place in the desert city of Serra, a place that was once beautiful, but that has been conquered and transformed. To reflect this, I wanted a mix of architectural design: the mud-brick houses of a recently created ghetto; the gentle arches of an old, beautiful city; the brutal simplicity of a black granite military academy. I layered each style in over multiple drafts, in the hopes that they ultimately reflected a city with a complex history.
RA: I love hearing about how you approached the setting and the architecture in Ember because it’s so different from what I did and so reflective of Ember’s tone and themes.
ST: How did you approach creating setting in Wrath?
RA: I knew I was going for something atmospheric and almost dreamlike. The world of Khorasan is loosely based on ancient Persia, but the palace in which most of the action takes place is, in its own way, emblematic of the kingdom and its young ruler, Khalid. It’s cold and foreboding—made of marble and stone—but rich and full of history. I wanted the main character, Shahrzad, to realize that the palace—the kingdom—had many secrets in its shadowed corners.
ST: Shahrzad’s internal commentary on the palace and the world she’s thrust into is one of the best parts of Wrath. Specifically, I thought it was a great way to showcase her growth.
RA: I appreciate that so much, as the character development in Ember is done so well. I think a large part of that has to do with the fascinating backstories you created for each of them. Tell us about myth in your world. It can be such a big part of YA fantasy—what role does it play in yours?
ST: As with the setting, I blended various traditions to come up with the mythical underpinnings for Ember. Two quick examples: I added middle eastern mythology based on the stories my mother scared me with when I was a little girl—Jinn, Efrits, Ghuls and other supernatural creatures. But there are also a group of seers called the Augurs in my book. Their myth is very loosely based off of the Pythia—more commonly known as the Oracle at Delphi.
RA: The scenes with the Augurs were some of my favorites in Ember.
ST: The inspiration for Wrath came about from The Arabian Nights. But I can also see some nods to Beauty and the Beast in it. How did you approach tackling such well-loved classics and making them your own?
RA: I think the key is just that: making it your own. It was daunting trying to shape something well-known and beloved into something fresh and new, but I think it’s important to step back and distance yourself from the source material, especially when you’re writing a retelling. You have to give yourself the freedom to make it your story.
Things change, but people often stay the same. This may or may not be a good thing for the gods who meddle in the affairs of mortals. But, as Joanne M. Harris explains regarding her novel The Gospel of Loki, it can present an opportunity… for a god of, shall we say, flexible morality.
JOANNE M. HARRIS:
Ever since mankind began to look to the heavens and speculate on how and why we came to be, there have been creation myths and stories of an apocalypse. Almost all myths and religions share this vision of an ephemeral world at the mercy of powerful gods wielding the might of the elements, and of a day of judgement, when the gods and their enemies will finally meet in battle.
Of course, a myth is just a religion that has fallen into disrepute. A god who loses his followers can no longer be a god, and his fate is usually to be relegated to the mythology shelves as other beliefs take over. Such has been the fate of the Norse gods, once revered across Northern Europe and Scandinavia. Their influence, however, remains. For centuries, artists, writers and composers from Wagner, Tolkien and Tennyson to Marvel Comics have taken inspiration from these tales of conflict, companionship and adventure.
Why? In terms of content, Norse myth is frustratingly limited. The oral tradition has been lost. What has been saved is fragmentary, filled with inconsistencies. Worse, the Christian scholars to whom we owe their survival have added their own impressions; some scornful, some sympathetic, designed to help interpret something they themselves did not fully understand. Even so, the myths remain unusually fresh and immediate. Perhaps because of the characters; accessible, even today, with all their very human flaws, ambitions, fears and relationships.
There’s Odin, the one-eyed leader; solitary, mysterious, isolated from the rest by virtue of his occult knowledge and the burdens of leadership. There’s his son, Thor; strong, loyal, brave (though maybe not too bright). There’s Bragi, the god of music and song, and his gentle wife, Idun, the healer. There’s Heimdall, the watchman; eagle-eyed, suspicious. There’s Týr, the one-armed god of war, and Frey, god of battle and the harvest, with his sister Freyja, the goddess of desires both sacred and profane. A gallery of gods and goddesses, some better-known than others, but all with their distinct personalities and attributes; their personal feuds; their secrets. All living together in Asgard, the sky citadel, which joins onto the world of Men by a bridge in the form of a rainbow.
This living in such close proximity makes for frequent clashes between the gods. Power-struggles between factions; conflicts between fathers and sons; flaring sexual chemistries. And to cap it all, there’s a traitor on board; Loki, the trickster in the camp, an alien brought into Asgard for mysterious reasons of his own by Odin, who is willing to tolerate his disruptive nature for the sake of his wicked intelligence. The result is pure drama; some comic, some cruel, all wildly entertaining.
It’s a story of tremendous richness, some parts of it recounted in prose, some in verses of bleak and powerful beauty. One of the most famous of these is Völuspá, the Prophecy of the Seeress, which tells the story of the world, from creation onwards, including the rise of the gods of Asgard and predicting their eventual doom – at Ragnarók, the cataclysmic battle in which the gods will face their enemies and lose, and the world will be plunged into darkness and perpetual winter.
And this is where my story begins – after the end of the world. Because although every culture has its own apocalypse myth, the world has always somehow survived, even when the culture has died. As a student of mythology, folklore and religion, I tend to see these stories of creation and apocalypse as part of an expanding tapestry, woven by human beings across the centuries as a means of understanding the universe. Our stories, like our civilizations, come in cycles of expansion and decline, like the seasons of the year, ending in the promise of rebirth and new beginnings. And looking at our history, with its dark ages, its terrible wars, its fallen kings, forgotten gods and ruined empires, it’s easy to see, with hindsight, that what may have once seemed like the end of the world was only the end of another cycle.
This is perhaps the central idea in The Gospel of Loki. Ragnarók has come and gone, if not quite as literally as the Seeress predicted. Odin and his entourage have been deposed in favour of new gods, new religions. And yet human nature has not changed as much. We still have the same fundamental concerns. We look to the skies with anxiety. We’re not afraid of demon wolves swallowing the sun and moon, but we are conscious of pollution, and smog, and of the hole in the ozone layer. The monsters we see destroying the world are not frost-giants, but giant corporations.
And in this changing world, Loki, of all the gods, has adapted to suit the changing times, and survives to tell his own story, in his own words, from the beginning of the Worlds to Ragnarók. That he should have survived his own death is perhaps not so surprising: after all, he is a very modern antihero. His sense of alienation; his revolt against authority; his refusal to conform; his choice of intelligence over brute force; his gender fluidity (he changes sexes several times, and on one occasion, even gives birth); his almost existential sense of humour – all these things make him, if anything, easier to understand for the modern reader than in the twelfth century.
Loki is always asking questions. Who am I? What am I? Why am I here? What happens if I break the rules? Why does it matter, anyway? In a world striving towards order, Loki was chaos incarnate. Now, in a world growing increasingly chaotic, Loki’s influence, too, has grown. He is no longer the voice of the lonely outsider, but the spokesman of the human condition.
That’s why I chose to give him such a modern idiom – not the language of epic poetry, but that of adolescent protest – and this is why his story remains so relevant to our modern world, not because it’s exactly true (Loki is, after all, the Father of Lies), but because the stories we tell say more about us than we know.