Category Archives: Big Idea

The Big Idea: A.J. Larrieu

Things have a cost. You buy a coffee, you pay the price for it. You stay up all night drinking, you pay for it with a hangover. But what cost comes from using magic — and how do you pay the price? A.J Larrieu is here to tell you how tallied the cost for her novel Twisted Miracles — and how that price affects her story.

A.J. LARRIEU:

I’ve always been drawn to speculative fiction that requires power to have a price. The price can come in different forms, but without it, the world just won’t feel real. In the Harry Potter books, one price of power is the training witches and wizards need to harness their innate abilities. In the Game of Thrones series, no one gets away without paying the “iron price,” and often paying more than they owe. Giving power a price creates natural balance in a fictional universe—and it makes things a lot more interesting.

The world of my debut novel, Twisted Miracles, is populated by shadowminds, humans with supernatural mental powers. They aren’t strictly telekinetic—they’re actually energy converters, able to use their minds to create motion, light or heat. This makes for some fascinating possibilities, but I knew I couldn’t let their powers be limitless. To make their gifts feel real, I had to understand how they worked. Not on a detailed level—it’s made-up magic, after all—but in a practical way. What’s possible, and what’s not?

I’m a scientist by training, so I began with one of the most fundamental, unbreakable laws of the universe, the First Law of Thermodynamics. It’s a famous one—simply put, it states that energy cannot be created or destroyed. As I move my fingers to type this post, I’m using energy I banked this morning in the form of peanut butter on toast and some disappointing strawberries.

I wanted the same general rule to apply to my converters. They can lift things with their minds, sure, but they can’t go around tossing SUVs like used tissues. If they don’t have the power to do it with their hands, they don’t have the power to do it with their brains. They have limits.

Of course, some of them can go beyond those limits. My heroine, Cass, can lift anything she wants, no matter how heavy, but that energy still has to come from somewhere. If she can’t find it in herself, her gift goes looking for it somewhere else, and the cost of stealing energy isn’t always one she’s prepared to pay.

It was this cost that led me to the thematic core of the story, the one I didn’t know about when I started writing. As it turns out, the big idea behind Twisted Miracles is a question: What are the limits of forgiveness? Cass’s dangerous gift has led her to do terrible things, some of them by accident, some of them not. Over the course of the story, she’s forced to make soul-rending choices about the price she’s willing to pay for justice. In the end, Cass’s journey is about learning how to live with her personal tab of decisions and mistakes—and learning that forgiveness might be the one thing in life without a price.

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Twisted Miracles: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Google|iBooks|Kobo

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

The Big Idea: Elizabeth Bear

Two things you need to know for today’s Big Idea: One, Elizabeth Bear is one of this generation’s best science fiction and fantasy authors, and Steles of the Sky is the latest in her acclaimed Eternal Sky series; Two, there’s a really big and awesome announcement in this Big Idea. Okay? Here you go, then:

ELIZABETH BEAR:

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.

So there’s this guy, right? And he’s the youngest son of a branch of the royal family, but his older brother, the heir-apparent, is killed in battle with another branch of the line, and he nearly dies himself–

Oh.

Hmm.

…okay, I’m yanking your chain. That’s not the Big Idea here. That all actually happened before the beginning of the first book, Range of Ghosts, which I Big Ideaed about here.

Yes, it’s a pretty traditional setup. But I just might have gotten lucky and done something interesting with it this time.

Today, though–today I’m here to talk about the third and final book in the trilogy*, Steles of the Sky, which releases today.

The Big Idea here is… well, there are a lot of them. Humanoid tigers with an esoteric religion; occasional megafauna (possibly the name of our illustrious host’s next band); the unreliability of history (which is generally being written by a lot of different people with different agendas over the course of centuries); all the things women actually did in the premodern era…

Wait. Let’s talk about those last two things.

Every so often we hear the excuse that women have no place in epic fantasy stories because medieval women didn’t actually do anything. They were simply fungible objects, pumping out babies and keeping house.

Even if one were to ignore the exceptional women of history–the Hypatias and Hatshepsuts and Hildegards, the Eleanors and Aethelflaeds and Nzinga Mbandes, the Ching Shihs and Khutuluns and Tomoe Gozens–the women who, more or less, took on roles usually identified as masculine–one is left with women who spun, who wove, who ran households, who served as the supply chain managers for their male relatives’ armies, who participated in their husbands’ businesses and explorations–or took them over, after those husbands died–who, in general, performed enormous amounts of unpaid labor on their families’ behalves and got absolutely no credit for it.

Tycho Brahe said of his sister, Sophie Brahe Thott, that she had as fine a mind as any man. She’s worth reading about. She is very far from alone.

These women are often erased in history. They took their husbands’ names. They lived in societies that believed the only time a woman’s name should be recorded was when she was born, got married, gave birth, or died.

And they are often erased in literature, as well.

(It’s interesting to me that at least one review of Steles of the Sky so far has said that every major character other than the protagonist is female. This is not actually true–the points of view are about equally divided between women and men) but it does go to show that if you start approaching parity, people think the women are taking over.)

Even in modern fantasy literature, where we ought to know better. Where we have the scholarship and the knowledge of history not to erase the accomplishments of historical women by treating each and every one as an exception, a lone thing, and not part of a tradition.

Capable women are not the exception. But women who have managed to make such nuisances of themselves that they cannot entirely be erased from history–they are harder to find.

So I wanted to talk about some of those accomplishments. I wanted to show some epic women who were not warriors, not fireball-throwing sorcerers, and who still managed to have an impact. (There are some warriors and sorcerers too, of course.)

I wanted to remind myself, as a writer and a human being, that capable women are not the exception in history. That they should not be in literature, either.

Also, if awesome women aren’t enough for you, this book has an amazing Donato cover, and an equally amazing Ellisa Mitchell map.

*And–here’s the even bigger idea! (and way to bury the lede, Bear!), but I have an announcement to make.

*ahem*

There are going to be more Eternal Sky books!

While Range of Ghosts, Shattered Pillars, and Steles of the Sky comprise a complete story arc in and of themselves, I can now reveal that Tor will be publishing at least three more books in this world. We came to an agreement late last month, and I can tell you this–here, exclusively:

This second trilogy, The Lotus Kingdoms, will follow the adventures of two mismatched mercenaries–a metal automaton and a masterless swordsman–who become embroiled in the deadly interkingdom and interfamilial politics in a sweltering tropical land.

Look for them starting in 2017.

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Steles of the Sky: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: Geoff Rodkey

Some stories are easy. Others fight you, pretending to be one thing but then turning into something else entirely. Geoff Rodkey knows about the latter — for his Chronicles of Egg series, of which Blue Sea Burning is the final installment, he had to play his story like a marlin before reeling it in. Here he is to talk about how made it all work.

GEOFF RODKEY:

Crooked Pete was a pirate. And all the other pirates thought he was cursed, so they wouldn’t let him on board their ships.

In the end, the only job he could get was working as a waiter in a pirate-themed restaurant.

He didn’t like it much.

Then one day during the lunch shift, a lawyer came into the restaurant. He had a proposition for Pete, on behalf of a mysterious client…

Crooked Pete and his employment problems–not a Big Idea so much as a punch line–popped into my head one day for no apparent reason, and eventually became the inspiration for the Chronicles of Egg trilogy, the final volume of which, Blue Sea Burning, came out this week.

But while the series is full of a lot of things–adventure, comedy, mystery, romance, political intrigue, and a whole lot of mutilated pirates–one thing it DOESN’T have is a character named Crooked Pete.

Or a pirate-themed restaurant.

Or even a lawyer. (No, wait…there’s one lawyer. But it’s a different lawyer.)

Because in the two years I spent thinking about the story before I started writing it, all of those things fell away. As a character, Crooked Pete turned out to be a dead end. The island full of rival pirate crews who’d blacklisted him became too realistic (and economically primitive) to accommodate a restaurant, let alone a pirate-themed one.

And the mysterious client, who I’d initially envisioned as an obnoxious 13-year-old rich kid with a family that had recently disappeared under suspicious circumstances, leaving him in sole control of their island plantation and possessed of a manic grandiosity that led him to hire Crooked Pete as muscle in a clumsy attempt to intimidate people…well, at first, I thought that kid was going to be the main character.

But he was kind of an asshole.

So he became a hapless, dirt-poor kid with the unfortunate name of Egg, who bears no resemblance to the original rich kid except in his core predicament: that his family’s accidental disappearance was no accident…and the sinister forces behind it are plotting to kill him next, even though he has no idea why.

In the end, almost nothing survived of my original idea except the setting, the tone, and the intent: to write the kind of funny/thrilling/emotionally resonant story I wanted to read.

(The fact that The Chronicles of Egg wound up being marketed as middle grade seems to indicate that I have the literary taste of a sixth grader. I’m not sure what to say about that, except possibly “sixth graders have awesome taste.”)

In my experience, which includes film and TV as well as books, the best stories are often like this–whether they’re the product of a Big Idea or not, the end result can look very different from its original inspiration.

You start out with one thing. And it seems kind of cool, but it doesn’t quite work, or it’s too slender to support a story. And if you try to write it, it falls over dead.

So you put it aside. But there’s a core element that’s compelling enough that you can’t let it go. It keeps percolating in your mind, sometimes for years, slowly morphing into something that’s unrecognizable except for some basic DNA it shares with the original thing that inspired you.

And one day, something clicks, and you can finally start writing it.

This was true not just of the Egg books, but of the first screenplay I ever sold. It started out as an idea for a novel about a small-town English teacher in Indiana who gets put on trial, Socrates-style, for corrupting the young.

By the time I sold it as a screenplay five years later, it had become a story about a shady sports agent who arrives in a small town in Texas to recruit the high school’s star quarterback and, in a convoluted turn of events, winds up coaching the football team, loses the big game, and gets hung under the goal posts by an angry mob.

Which had nothing in common with the original idea except the arrival of a stranger in a small town who, by the end of Act Three, finds himself hanging from a rope. But it was a fun script. (The townspeople cut him down before he actually dies; it was a dark comedy, but it wasn’t THAT dark.)

Unfortunately, since it’s currently buried in the underground facility in the San Fernando Valley where Universal Pictures stores all their unproduced screenplays, nobody can read it.

But that’s not true of the Egg books! Now that Blue Sea Burning is out, all three of them are available. If you want to check them out, it’s best to start at the beginning, with Deadweather and Sunrise (here’s an excerpt, to catch you up).

It’s a fun read, even if it doesn’t actually contain a disgruntled pirate waiting tables in a pirate-themed restaurant.

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Blue Sea Burning: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: Robin Riopelle

Our pasts shape us, build us and sometimes haunt us. So when part of our past is obscured from us, it creates a tension in our lives — the sort of tension that can, naturally enough, make for great stories. Robin Riopelle’s novel Deadroads looks at pasts, hidden and otherwise; Riopelle’s here to explain how they matter to her tale.

ROBIN RIOPELLE:

The Department of Motor Vehicles clerk was very helpful. “Would she have changed her name?” she asked me, peering at her computer screen. I nodded dumbly, elated and terrified.

I had been searching for years. My parents had given me my original paperwork; I had been Robin Riopelle for my first five days. I’d plied with wine the lawyer who had handled my adoption and he’d let slip my birth mother’s name. Deep in the stacks of the Toronto Reference Library, I had meticulously sifted through city directories, tracing her easily until 1983. Then, she’d vanished.

“She’s got a rural address now,” the clerk continued. “Here you go!” She tore the sheet of paper from the dot-matrix printer, and passed it over the partition. “Anything else I can do for you?”

I held the key to my past in my hand. Now what?

A character in my novel Deadroads faces the same dilemma, albeit via a demon rather than a nice smiley clerk at a government office. For that character, and for me, for anyone trying to make contact with their past, comes the moment of decision: Do I follow through? What the hell happens if I reach out into this unknown?

Reconciling the past with the present—or being unable to do it—is at the heart of a lot of fiction, my own included. Deadroads finds siblings reluctantly reuniting after a lengthy and possibly supernatural separation. I took that step into the unknown. I have now been in contact with my birth family for more than 20 years. I know how weird and wonderful—and awful and ferocious—getting in touch with the past can be.

Writer William Faulkner famously claimed, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Almost all of us consider this big idea at some time or another. Our self-identity depends so much on what we know about our past, and when the story is muddy or missing bits, well—it’s the stuff of myth and legend.

Adoption in Euro-cultural fiction usually results in one of three outcomes: the happy adoption of an orphan; an unhappy reunion with a birth family; or a happy reunion, usually after the adoptive parents have conveniently expired. Rarely does the tale end with the adoptee having it all, with two sets of functioning parents.

Take the Old Testament hero, Moses. Set adrift in a basket, scooped up by a fetching Egyptian princess, raised as a pharaoh’s son. Moses is an adoptee who chooses birth family over adoptive family. There’s lambs’ blood on lintels and rains of frogs and a final, brutal, parting of seas.

If I gave you 30 seconds, you could probably come up with a healthy list of orphans/bastards/adoptees in Western pop culture: the “bad seed” or conversely, the “chosen one”—heroes and villains raised by people who aren’t their “true” parents, growing into their inevitable “destiny”. A cage match between biology and upbringing.

Some are stupendously messed up by separation and reunion such as the Greek king Oedipus, who unwittingly kills his birth father and marries his birth mother (yikes). For other characters, like Oliver Twist, adoption provides the double-rainbow happy ending. I swear to god, Charles Dickens is responsible for an entire orphanage of displaced literary children.

Some characters overcome murky starts to embrace their destiny, such as Luke Skywalker and sister Leia (complete with icky “romance”, which is an entire sub-genre for both tabloids and adoption researchers). I haven’t read ahead in George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones, so don’t spoil me, but I’m betting Jon Snow’s mother isn’t exactly a nobody. Scott Lynch’s Locke Lamora is another puzzle, stymied by what he doesn’t know about his past.

In most of these cases, separation, discovery, and reunion drive the story, but there’s one striking similarity: The two sets of parents, birth and adoptive, rarely meet, and the adoptee doesn’t integrate them, either by choice or circumstance. Moses parts that sea, and doesn’t look back.

My experience tells me something else is more emotionally true: we are a fantastic mix of biology and circumstance, and we make our own destiny when we reconcile our divergent pasts.

In Deadroads, a sister reunites with her long-estranged family. It’s not easy for anyone. She doesn’t fit in. She’s grown up with a different worldview. There are ghosts, and disagreements about the best ways to deal with them.

Ghosts are nice, easy shorthand for “the past”. They are the chewy center of the unfinished business chocolate. Deadroads is full of them. The ghosts and demons haunting the now-grown children are an inheritance, the awful unclaimed baggage of parental misadventures. The problem of how to cope with this inheritance is what fuels the story.

As the characters in Deadroads struggle with both literal and figurative ghosts, they finally acknowledge that the past exists hand-in-hand with the present. When people ask me if I think adoption reunions are a good idea, I can only tell them what I know to be true for myself: by knowing both my families, I know myself better.

It’s what many literary heroes want, when you boil it right down: to discover who they truly are, and to know their place in the world.

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

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

The Big Idea: Emily Jiang

I don’t often get a chance to do a picture book on the Big Idea, so I’m pleased that one of the rare examples happens to be by a friend of mine, Emily Jiang, who wrote Summoning the Phoenix, illustrated by April Chu. The book received a coveted starred review by Kirkus (“[an] informative and gracefully illustrated twin debut.”] and covers an unusual topic (for here in the US, anyway): Chinese music instruments. How does one make this subject sing? Jiang is here to tell you.

EMILY JIANG:

I had always envisioned my first published book to be a novel, not a picture book. Writing a good picture book is difficult because of the need for economy of prose, the craft in conveying a ton of information in very few words. Plus, I’d been immersed in writing and rewriting young adult novels after graduating with my MFA in Creative Writing. I was certain something was going to happen with the novels, but somehow the picture book Summoning the Phoenix just caught fire.

The spark for Summoning the Phoenix came from researching and building my magic system for my YA fantasy novel, for which I had started world building a few years ago when I was in grad school. High fantasy is one of my favorite genres, yet as a reader I was over-saturated by fantasy worlds that were set in an alternate medieval Europe. I wanted to create a ancient alternate fantasy world that was All-Asian-All-the-Time, and I wanted my magic to have a uniquely Asian logic to it. Yet as an English major, my knowledge of European culture and history vastly exceeded my knowledge of Asian culture and history. So I researched.

My world building consultant and confidant in grad school was a renegade Buddhist nun who is the most unlikely nun anyone will ever meet. Instead of projecting a calm, pious aura, she is bubbly, irreverent, and sassy, always ready for a good laugh. Plus, she loves young adult fantasy, especially Harry Potter, both the books and the movies.

It was my renegade Buddhist nun friend who helped pick apart my magic system that I had designed to be All-Asian-All-the-Time. When I informed her that magic in my world would be based on Asian medical concepts and incorporating ideas like qi, or life force, and acupuncture points, she remarked that it sounded similar to Naruto, a popular manga and anime series. No, I replied, not bothering to let her know that I had never seen or read Naruto. My magic system was different and better because it would also incorporate the Asian elements layered on top of qi and acupuncture points. That’s when my unlikely nun friend started laughing, stopping only to tell me that now my world sounded like a cross between Naruto and Avatar the Last Airbender, the television series, not the movie.

She insisted I watch those shows, and I did, reluctantly, only to discover that she was right. My magic system was eerily similar to those found in Naruto and in Avatar the Last Airbender. It’s always a mildly horrifying experience to realize that you’re being derivative without even knowing that you’re being derivative. Or, to be more accurate, I was somehow in synch with other creative worldbuilders, but because my stories weren’t published yet, I needed to revise my All-Asian-All-the-Time magic system so it wouldn’t seem derivative. After a lengthy brainstorm, I decided that I would add a musical aspect to it. Some of my favorite genre novels featured musicians: Dragonsong by Anne McCaffrey, Archangel by Sharon Shinn, and most recently Seraphina by Rachel Hartman. Why not create magical musicians who were All-Asian-All-the-Time?

There was one problem. While I am a classically trained pianist and singer, my education was all Western music. A few years ago, I had very little actual knowledge about Asian music beyond the 1960s Tawianese pop music my parents loved to listen to while cleaning the house. A few years ago, I couldn’t name any of the traditional Asian musical instruments. So I researched.

During my research, I chose to focus on musical instruments from China because it would more directly reflect my cultural heritage. After reading books and countless articles, I gained a sense that perhaps traditional Chinese music was not considered as good as classical European music. I found this quite ridiculous, since Chinese music has a tradition of thousands of years compared to European music, which was only a few hundred years old. After acquiring all this interesting knowledge about Chinese musical instruments, I wanted to share what I’ve learned, to celebrate the creation of traditional music from China. Driven by this enthusiasm, I pitched this idea to an editor, who, coincidentally, had always wanted to publish a picture book about Chinese music.

It was not an easy path. I had to continue to research, rewrite, and revise my manuscript at least six or seven times before my editor gave me a contract to sign. Even after an illustrator was brought on board, I was still refining my words of the picture book until Summoning the Phoenix was ready to go to print. In the end, it was worth the work.

Now that my picture book is finally published, it’s time for me to return to writing novels, especially adventures of magical musicians in my YA fantasy world that’s All-Asian-All-the-Time.

And that’s Two Big Ideas for the price of one!

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Summoning the Phoenix: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound

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

The Big Idea: Katherine Addison

The worlds of fantasy offer up ample space for the imagination to play… but do they also and simultaneously constrict those same imaginations? Author Katherine Addison fears they might, and when it came to her novel The Goblin Emperor, Addison decided on a new world with a difference. She’s here to explain how, and why.

KATHERINE ADDISON:

By the time you finish writing a novel, it’s frequently somewhere between difficult and impossible to remember how you started, but in the case of The Goblin Emperor, I remember exactly: I wanted to write a story with both elves and airships. Because there was no reason I couldn’t, and it seemed like an awesome idea.

Once I’d thought of airships, it was inevitable that I would think of the Hindenburg. Although I love and write science fiction and fantasy–and don’t want to stop!–down at the bottom of my heart, in the darkness among the spiders and ghouls, I’m a horror writer. I tend to be interested in how things go wrong, and I’m drawn to catastrophe.

Everything else in the book came from that first decision to combine elves and airships and catastrophe and trying to think through the ramifications of each subsequent domino as it tipped to knock the domino behind it. As a part of this process, I found myself thinking a lot about science and technology and the conflicted relationship epic fantasy has with both of them.

By “epic fantasy,” I mean what Tolkien called “secondary-world fantasy” (which is a better name, but much more awkward): fantasies that take place entirely in made-up worlds with no reference to the real world at all. Tolkien himself is a prime example, and the genre continues to thrive. To give you some living practitioners, just off the top of my head: Kate Elliott, David Anthony Durham, Martha Wells, Scott Lynch, N. K. Jemisin, Laurie Marks, Ellen Kushner, Saladin Ahmed.

I love this genre and have since I was very small, but I do find its attitude towards science and technology frustrating. Somewhere along the line, we got it into our heads that any society with magic would, for some reason, stop advancing somewhere shy of the Industrial Revolution. The implicit (or explicit) assumption often seems to be that magic trumps gunpowder, like some weird game of Rock Paper Scissors. Or there’s been some sort of giant mysterious cataclysm that destroyed all the technology and (apparently) made everybody stupid. And we’ve all been brainwashed by Tolkien into believing that only evil people have (or want) technological advancements past the Spinning Jenny, and that a nostalgic pastoral technology-rejecting Arcadia is obviously better than, oh, I dunno, flush toilets. Or flashlights. Or fire alarms.

So we end up, most often, in some stagnated Hollywood version of “The Dark Ages” with castles and people in robes and no interest in science–because magic!–and the most technology you’ll see is maybe a catapult. Diana Wynne Jones’ brilliant Tough Guide to Fantasyland skewers this cobbled-together mess of assumptions and lazy thinking like it was a shish-kebab. The very fact that she could do so tells you just how codified this generic fantasy setting has become and how many writers use it.

The thing is, this set of assumptions and valuations becomes a cage. So even if you’re trying to write a society that has both magic and technology, it can be really hard to remember that the cage door isn’t actually closed. I had to keep reminding myself as I was writing The Goblin Emperor that technological progress is not bad, that scientific inquiry is awesome, that I wasn’t violating any genuine taboos by having steamships and factories and astronomers and clockmakers and gas lamps. And the enormous steam-powered drawbridge that the characters spend the whole book arguing about.

I don’t deny the appeal of a pastoral world, one without air-pollution or global warming or oil spills, and I think fantasy does provide a much-needed outlet for that craving of the imagination. I don’t want to do away with that. But fantasy can do so much more. There are so many other ways to imagine our relationship with scientific and technological progress than this Manichean either-or we’ve saddled ourselves with. I would love to see fantasy, as a genre, explore that, instead of cowering in the cage we’ve built ourselves, as it gets smaller and smaller every year.

As well as being a wicked satirist, Diana Wynne Jones was a brilliant fantasist (a propos of this discussion, I believe she was the author who introduced me to the radical idea that you could have magic and trains in the same world). In her short story, “The Sage of Theare,” set in a world hemmed about with rules and restrictions and lists, the anarchic Sage of Dissolution chalks this slogan on a wall: “IF RULES MAKE A FRAMEWORK FOR THE MIND TO CLIMB ABOUT IN, WHY SHOULD THE MIND NOT CLIMB RIGHT OUT, SAYS THE SAGE OF DISSOLUTION.”

Fundamentally, that’s what I want to say. These unwritten rules are a cage, and there is no reason we should not climb right out.

And that’s my Big Idea.

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The Goblin Emperor: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: Elle Cosimano

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 What’s in a name? If you’re author Elle Cosimano, it turns out quite a lot. The name of her protagonist in Nearly Gone was a key to unlocking the character — and the novel itself.

ELLE COSIMANO:

I don’t really feel like I know my characters until I know their names. The early stages of writing a book often feel like walking through a crowd at a party, trying to identify smiling faces that look only vaguely familiar across the room. There’s a comfort in knowing someone’s name, an implied closeness. So when my little brother turned eighteen and changed his name, I questioned whether I’d ever really known him at all.

Shannon had always been small, a wisp of a boy with a mop of hair that was bigger than he was. He was picked on mercilessly for years, for his too-petite size and his too-feminine name. He was the smallest kid on the wrestling team—hell, he was the smallest kid in all of his classes—and yet somehow, he managed to be the loudest and most troublesome, like he spent every waking hour trying to prove to the world that he was big.

The day he left for college must have felt to him like a fresh start. A way to become someone new. Someone stronger. He wrapped himself in the name Sean, burying Shannon inside him, expecting someone larger than life to come bursting through. And while I quipped to him that I didn’t know this boy named Sean, I don’t think I truly understood Shannon—his most deeply rooted fears and insecurities, or the acceptance he yearned for—until he chose to become someone new.

My main character’s name wasn’t always Nearly Boswell. Finding her name was a journey that seemed to mirror my brother’s search for a name that fit him inside. Thumbing through old journals and outlines, I could show you pages of ordinary names I considered: Rachael, Kate, Samantha—but none of these names called forth an image that fit the character I was creating. The girl I pictured in my head was inspired by a former co-worker, a single mother of two adrift in the aftermath of a painful divorce, who spent her lunch hours obsessing over the Missed Connections in the paper. She poked fun at the ads, as though it were only casual entertainment, but when she thought no one was watching, all that humor slipped away. She struck me as deeply lonely, as if she secretly hoped one of the ads had been written for her.

This image in mind, I tried on name after name, hoping one of them would ring true and help me see this character more clearly, but none of them fit. Who was she? What was she looking for?

Determined to find the right name, I started with a character sketch, a loosely scribbled outline of physical and personality traits. Her features were similar to, but not quite the same as her father’s, and while her hair was curly, it wasn’t as curly as her mother’s. She was good at math and science, almost top of her class. And she might have felt pretty sometimes, were it not for her second-hand clothes.

I ended up with a list of glass-half-empty words: almost, not quite, just about, sometimes. I found her name at the bottom of this glass. Here was a girl who was nearly.

Nearly. The word held a heartbreaking connotation that made me feel and relate to her more deeply. Because I’d felt nearly at points in my life, too.  I remembered the frustration of being a B+ student, the shame of being only worth kisses in secret but not being cute enough to date, and the pain of being loved, but not enough to hold my family together when it was tearing at the seams. Nearly became real, because she existed inside me.

Finally, my character had a name. And yet, something still didn’t fit.

Like my brother, I knew Nearly would never be satisfied to wear a name that mirrored her own sense of inadequacy. She wanted to be more. She ached to be enough. This girl, who dreamed big and set goals for herself despite odds and obstacles, would choose her own nickname, maybe even change it if she could.

And she did. As I wrote, Nearly took the nickname “Leigh”, a name that made her feel stronger and less ashamed. That choice helped me know her more deeply, just as my brother’s choice helped me to understand him. Nearly’s vehement rejection of her own name revealed her motivations and self-doubt. She wasn’t just looking for someone. She was looking to fill the void inside her—to feel whole.

My “Big Idea” revealed itself in this almost-missed connection between the significance of a search in the personal ads and the search for Nearly’s identity: that we are all, in some way, nearly—not just looking for someone else, but seeking to be someone else.  Like my brother who wanted to be bigger, Nearly who wanted to be more, and my co-worker pouring over the Missed Connections, we are all searching for our own missing piece.

—-

Nearly Gone: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: Adam Christopher

Author Adam Christopher believes two words are incredibly important to any writer, and those two words aren’t “get paid” (they’re important too, to be sure). What are those two words, and how do they relate to his latest novel, The Burning Dark (which, incidentally, received a coveted starred review in Library Journal)? Christopher’s about to tell you.

ADAM CHRISTOPHER:

What if…?

It’s the single most valuable question in a writer’s toolbox. From those two words, an infinite variety of story can flow. I might even go so far as to say it’s the foundation of storytelling.

Except, while you can reverse-engineer that initial question out of each of my first four published novels—Empire State, Seven Wonders, The Age Atomic, Hang Wire—I’m not sure any of those actually started from that point. There are as many ways to come to a story or idea as there are stories or ideas. “What if?” is a powerful tool, and although you’ll be answering that question when you write a book, you don’t necessarily need to be conscious of the fact.

But for The Burning Dark, my first foray into the kind of space opera-tinged science fiction that I grew up adoring, it wasn’t just one “what if?” question that gave me the big idea for the book. It was two.

I like science fiction of the kind that features spaceships and warp drives, federations that embrace a thousand different alien races and cultures, galactic empires that stretch across impossible distances. I was always going to write a book that had a least some of that in it.

But I also like ghost stories. From an early age, they were my favourite kind of story, and as I got older—helped, no doubt, by living right next door to a small library which had a remarkably well-stocked section on the paranormal—I developed into something of an armchair ghosthunter. From creaky old houses filled with shadows and cold spots and doors that open and close all by themselves, to people being thrown out of bed and living rooms trashed by poltergeists, I drank it all in. Whether such phenomena are real or not is beside the point—it’s a fascinating aspect of social and cultural anthropology. And they make for some damn fine stories.

So… what if you had a traditional ghost story, but instead of a haunted house, you had a haunted space station? What would that be like? How much of the trappings of old fashioned supernatural tales could you include, and what would be different?

The Burning Dark was born. Here I had an idea to combine two interests—space and ghosts—into a single story. Sure, it’s not like I’m the first person to have ever thought of that, but it immediately struck me as a fascinating idea. And one as creepy as heck.

I began to build the world. Space opera is science fiction on an epic scale, and while I was writing a small scale ghost story set aboard a decommissioned space station at the edge of nowhere, a larger universe unfolded. From that “what if?” question, I found myself describing the state of the human race a thousand years in the future, and the terrible war they were fighting against a machine intelligence, a hive-mind without reason or motive that was swarming across the galaxy with eight-legged killing machines.

And then I had another “what if?” question burning in my mind.

I don’t remember where I first heard the story, but the “urban” legend of the lost cosmonauts is something that has creeped the bejeezus out of me for years. As the story goes, before Yuri Gagarin’s historic space flight, the Soviets sent up a whole bunch of cosmonauts, each mission ending in failure and death, with capsules either burning up on re-entry or drifting off into the infinite black. It’s a slice of Cold War paranoia, backed up by the Soviet’s Orwellian habit of erasing people they didn’t like from history, literally airbrushing people from photographs and deleting them from records. It’s a scary and terrible story about sending heroes to their deaths, but there’s little evidence to support it.

Except for some audio recordings, made by a pair of Italian brothers, radio enthusiasts who managed to patch into Soviet communications. The recordings are indistinct and poor quality, and, to be totally honest, could be of anything. The most famous recording is of a female cosmonaut dubbed Ludmila, apparently reporting to Soviet mission control as her capsule burns around her. Listening to her is a very weird, even slightly disturbing experience. While there is no doubt that the recording came from the Italians—that the brothers picked up something—whether or not it is what it is supposed to be is, like a good ghost story, irrelevant.

But what if the lost cosmonauts were real? What if Ludmila really did send a mayday to Earth as her mission went fatally wrong?

What if someone, a thousand years later, picked up her signal, trying desperately to answer the call before realising the transmission was an echo from another time?

And… what if Ludmila answered back?

From two different but equally unsettling ideas I had something new, something that was as big as space opera but as claustrophobic and tense as an old ghost story told around a campfire. A story about space marines fighting alien war machines, while confronting an evil far stranger, darker and older than anything they have faced before.

All from two simple words: What… if?

—-

The Burning Dark:Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Indiebound | Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: Bill Quick

It’s the end of the world as we know it — and we do know it, because the end of the world has been essayed enough over the years. How to change it up and make things fresh? That was the question Bill Quick asked himself for his latest novel, Lightning Fall. This is how he decided to do it.

BILL QUICK:

I’ve been writing science fiction for going on fifty years now. I was weaned on the later Golden Age guys like Asimov, Heinlein, Clark, Niven, Pournelle, and the man who inspired me face-to-face, Ted Cogswell, who wrote a landmark story called The Spectre General back in the day, to whom I dedicated my first published novel, Dreams of Flesh and Sand.

I still like all these writers. For better or worse, their use of big canvases, themes, and concepts still inspires the way I write and what I choose to write about. In particular, I’ve always been moved by what were once called disaster novels, but now have been sliced and diced into several sub-genres, including apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic fiction.   There aren’t many books I still re-read. Books like Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land have not worn well with me, but every few years I pick up an book called Lucifer’s Hammer, written by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, turn to page one, and make the trek out of a burning Los Angeles once again.

I’d always intended to try my hand at this sort of epic, but somehow, in the course of writing and selling a few dozen other books, I never quite got around to it. Until now.

EMP (electromagnetic pulse) fiction has become almost a sub-genre of its own. I’ve read several examples, and found one or two impressive, but I noticed that most of them used EMP as a McGuffin: An EMP happens, and that’s the end. Everything else is all about surviving the sudden imposition of an 18th century environment on a technological civilization. A particularly risible example of this approach was a recent TV series, Revolution, which depicted young people contending against threats with steel swords.  Apparently none of the screenwriters had any idea just how much technology was involved in making swords, let alone making and working steel, and how rare that knowledge is in present day society.

My view of modern technological culture is that it is well-nigh impossible to understand how interconnected everything has become. But I wanted to write an EMP disaster novel that tried, as well as I was able, to show the social, political, technological, economic, and cultural brittleness and frailty inherent in the existence we take for granted.

The best way to do so, it seemed to me, was not simply to turn out the lights, but to turn out only some of them – and then tell the tale of the sort of problems modern America would face if somebody or something abruptly removed, say, California from our current scenery.

A book I read a long time ago, The Late, Great State of California, took a similar tack, but handled it as a laundry list of what America would lose if California sank into the ocean after The Big One.

After much thought, I decided that things would be considerably more complicated than that. It took me a couple of years of research and writing to work out those complications, and I discovered in the process that human factors and reactions would likely have at least as much effect, if not more, than the problems created by the technological disaster.

We like to console ourselves that things generally work out for the best, that our leaders usually make intelligent, rational decisions, and that tomorrow will be a better day.  Unfortunately, history teaches us this is not always, or even usually, the case.

Lightning Fall: A Novel of Disaster, is my attempt to explain, in classic hard SF tropes, why and how catastrophe has been such an enduring and intimate feature of human history.

And is there a happy ending?

Well…maybe. Depends on what you mean by happy, I guess.

—-

Lightning Fall: Amazon (Kindle)|Payloadz (ePub)|Createspace (paperback)

Visit the author’s Web site.

The Big Idea: Denise Kiernan

Fiction and non-fiction are different categories of storytelling — but in both cases the author has to decide what to tell and how to tell it, shaping the story so that it is a story, rather than just a leaden bundle of information. When researching the real-life information the would become The Girls of Atomic City, author Denise Kiernan found an interesting idea… now all she had to do was make a tale out of it. Here’s how she did it.

DENISE KIERNAN:

A story without conflict is like an inhibited lover. It just lies there. No matter how hard you try to get turned on, you lose interest. It can’t be over soon enough.

What attracts me as a writer to a particular story, what inspires that chemistry, is often—on the surface at least—unpredictable. Though there may not appear to be much rhyme or reason to my tastes, the one thing that always hooks me is that those tales keep me guessing. Their conversations grab me and I keep coming back to get to know them better, to keep turning their pages.

As a writer, sometimes it is just a look—photos, specifically. That’s what happened with my latest nonfiction book. I came across a vintage, black-and-white photo of some very young women operating some very odd-looking machines. The caption explained that many of these young women were recent high school graduates from rural Tennessee, and that they were enriching uranium for the first atomic bomb. The kicker: they had no idea that that was what they were doing.

Fantastic dramatic tension! I thought. You’re working on the most destructive weapon known to mankind and you have no idea until that very same weapon is revealed to the world? I dove in, and the story kept getting better. People were recruited from all over to live and work in a secret government city not found on any maps. They were highly trained to perform intricate tasks with no idea what larger purpose those tasks served. Better yet, if they asked too many questions, their stay living and working in this mysterious town was over in a hurry.

I was hooked by the Orwellian feel of it all. Looming billboards reminding everyone to keep their lips zipped. Undercover agents and citizen informants stealthily listening in on conversations in dorms and cafeterias. While I felt the story had all the hallmarks of an engaging novel, I figured that when truth seems stranger than fiction, why not stick with the truth?

This presented a couple of challenges. First, my subjects were in their eighties and nineties. If I  was going to write a work of narrative nonfiction, I wanted the women’s experiences to move the story forward. I wanted to stay with their voices and their perspectives. While I was routinely amazed at the level of detail many of them recalled regarding events that had transpired so long ago, there were certainly gaps in everyone’s memories. In order to tell what I considered to be a complete story about the town of Oak Ridge during World War II, I had to use multiple women. There was an incredible amount of time-lining and Post-It shuffling going on all over my living room floor (no computer screen was big enough in the early stages) in order to piece it all together.

Another central challenge revolved around the book’s big idea: Only they didn’t know… I wanted to embrace the “not-knowingness” of those characters, which was going to provide the most juice, dramatically speaking. So while the reader knows the story is headed to the dropping of the world’s first atomic bombs, I still needed a way to let the main characters drive that story, even if they were essentially driving blindfolded.

I considered various approaches. Omitting the entire behind-the-scenes maneuvering of the Manhattan Project officials and scientists kept my female leads in control, in a sense, but it risked leaving the reader too far behind. If he or she knew too little about the history of the Manhattan Project, the real stakes of that moment in history would be lost. Third-person omniscient seemed promising for a bit, but whenever I heard my inner voice beginning to say, Little did they know… I started to feel as though I was writing a cheesy movie trailer instead of a nonfiction book.

So I decided to take a hint from the Manhattan Project itself: I decided to compartmentalize. One of the ways the folks in the know kept a lid on the Manhattan Project was by keeping jobs, responsibilities and access to information as limited and as separate as possible. There were two worlds, really, one in which workers toiled away with little idea what they were working on and a much smaller, more exclusive world in which strings were pulled, strategies were devised and nuclear history was made.

I decided to create two worlds, too. I wrote interstitial chapters that took the readers out of the world of Oak Ridge and gave them a peek at what the was going on at the highest levels of the Manhattan Project. I deliberately kept my women, my characters, out of that world and those chapters. That separation reinforced one of the key strategic elements of the Manhattan Project, kept my characters in control of their piece of the puzzle, while helping the reader understand the larger stakes impacting my characters’ lives.

In the end, this freed up my characters to explore their own wartime dramas, ones I found were filled with the kinds of surprising twists and challenges that we all can relate to. They found loves and lost loved ones. They faced fears and forged unexpected friendships. They wondered what was going on around them, but put their heads down and got to work and I, in turn, got to work for them. They kept me hooked, and I was happy to let them take the lead.

—-

The Girls of Atomic City: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s 

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

The Big Idea: Leah Cypess

In this edition of The Big Idea, author Leah Cypess has a shocking confession about the genesis of her new novel Death Sworn! Which isn’t, uh, actually all that shocking for those of us who are writers, because I think most of us do something like it. I mean, I do. But even so! Remember to be shocked when she confesses! Now!

LEAH CYPESS:

I have a mental list of snarky answers to the “Where do you get your ideas?” question, things that I’d never say but that I sometimes think rather forcefully. Topping the Never Say list is, “I steal them from more popular books.”

I can’t say it for two reasons. First, because people would take me seriously; and second, because there is a germ of truth in it. Reading is my primary source of inspiration, and many of my ideas come from the spaces between other writers’ ideas.

I grew up on a steady, undiluted brew of epic fantasy and golden-age science fiction, but it was clear to me that wasn’t what I was going to write. (Well, it was clear after a few misguided attempts that will never see the light of day.) The ideas that caught my imagination as a writer, rather than a reader, were never those of the main character and his world-saving quest. They were the untold stories of the minor characters, the potential complications hidden in the world-building, the what-ifs that weren’t pursued.

I remember clearly when the idea for Death Sworn came to me. I was in my parents’ home, nursing my seven-month-old daughter while re-reading my much-worn copy of the first book in The Elenium, a trilogy by David Eddings. The main character in the trilogy is a soldier in a religious military order, and one of the secondary characters is a pacifist sorceress sent to tutor the soldiers in the arts of magic.

In Eddings’ books, this works out wonderfully; aside from the occasional icy stare and caustic comment, the knights and the sorceress get along swimmingly. But obviously, this scenario might not work out so well, which is where my “what if” came in. What if the pacifist sorceress wasn’t the slightest bit thrilled about tutoring a group of people she regarded as killers? What if she was being forced to do it, and found them repulsive?

And – because you have to mix in your own ideas, or what’s the fun? — what if she wasn’t really a sorceress at all? What if she had lost her powers, and had to keep that secret from her new students, who were all assassins-in-training?

By the time the baby was fed, the first scene of the book had come alive in my mind: a young woman who had lost everything was approaching an underground assassins’ stronghold, prepared to die. I handed the baby over to her grandparents (for writers with kids, I highly recommend coming up with new ideas when there are grandparents around), and started writing.

Despite that strong start, it took the book a long time to take shape; the seven-month-old is now seven years old. This is partly because ideas are just ideas, and it can take time to flesh them out, think them through, and hammer them into a story. It’s partly because grandparents aren’t around all the time. And it’s partly because my research into the historical sect of Assassins, from whom we derive the word, pulled my story in an entirely new direction.

The typical assassin in a fantasy novel is a murderer-for-hire. If they are the protagonist, the story usually revolves around them, at some point, balking at killing someone. But the historical Assassins didn’t kill for money (or at least, not only for money). Their assassinations were driven by ideology and politics, and their goals were often not understood by their enemies or even their allies.

It was the history and legends of that sect that kept coming to mind as I created my own society of assassins, rather than the lone dagger-wielders with tragic childhoods and hearts of gold I was used to reading about. I soon found myself writing a story very different from the one I had first envisioned.

In Eddings-style epic fantasy there’s good, and there’s evil… and there are, despite frequent diatribes to the contrary, gray areas. But all three tend to be clearly defined, to the reader if not to the characters. In my story, everyone starts out knowing that there’s good and evil, and that they are on the right side of that divide. But while a young sorceress struggles both to stay alive and to redefine who she is without her magic, she will come up against a worldview diametrically opposed to the one she has always believed. And she will discover that confronting other peoples’ certainties can cast doubt upon your own.

Not that I’ve turned my back on my epic fantasy roots. The fate of the world will indeed come into play… in Book Two. (This is a duology.) But Death Sworn is a contained murder mystery that isn’t about the world – not yet. It’s about a claustrophobic underground stronghold where two visions of right and wrong will meet and clash; and where what will be changed is not the world, but one powerless girl’s view of it.

—-

Death Sworn: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: Marjorie M. Liu

Short form intro: Marjorie M. Liu is awesome, and her Hunter’s Kiss series of books is awesome, and now there’s a new book in the series, Labyrinth of Stars. Marjorie takes a moment to look at the series and its heroine and where they both are, after all this time.

MARJORIE M. LIU:

The concept of the Hunter Kiss series is straight-forward:  A young woman is covered head to toe in living tattoos that make her invulnerable by day, and that peel off her body at night to form her own demonic army.  There are a million different ways I could have approached that concept, but as writers we’re often products of a particular moment in our lives.  Back in 2008 when I wrote the first book in the series, The Iron Hunt, I thought what I was trying to create was an urban fantasy about a girl who would solve supernatural mysteries.  Instead, what I wrote was something very different: a series of books about a young woman’s emergence from her mother’s long shadow.

For my heroine, Maxine Kiss, that’s easier said than done.  Those tattoos that protect her have been passed down from mother to daughter for ten thousand years, and it’s a tragic inheritance.  Every mother ultimately dies for her daughter – violently, terribly — and every daughter knows that, and knows she’ll do the same for her daughter, whether she wants to sacrifice herself or not.  That’s the price of their power.

But it sucks.  How do you live your own life, become your own individual self, when the only person you knew as family, — your mother, your world, your source of identity – is sacrificed so that you can go on living?  How do you carve your own path, when you feel compelled to follow the legacy of the woman who died for you?  Beyond all the demons and conspiracies, and otherworldly happenings of the Hunter Kiss series, that is the ultimate question – one I’ve tried to answer over the course of the previous four novels and two novellas.

And now I’ve come to Labyrinth of Stars, which isn’t the end of the road for Maxine – just the beginning, in fact – though it is the end of a particularly long chapter in her life, one that began with her as a daughter still struggling to follow her mother’s footsteps, and that ultimately finds her transformed into a woman about to become a mother herself, with her own legacy to pass down.

Mothers and daughters — the sacrifices we make for each other – the strength it takes to become women in our own right, with our own power: that’s the over-arching idea behind this latest novel, and all the Hunter Kiss books.  But it’s an old story with endless incarnations — and yet, for all of its familiarity, as intimate as skin.

—-

Labyrinth of Stars: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: Stephen Leigh

When writers start a book, there’s the idea, person or event that the book centers on. But when the writing starts in earnest, does that initial idea stay at the center? Does it have to? Stephen Leigh confronted these very questions while writing his latest novel, Immortal Muse. Here he is to talk about how it worked out for him… this time. 

STEPHEN LEIGH:

The first spark that resulted in Immortal Muse came in January, 2010. I habitually kick up the BBC’s “Day In Pictures” website in the morning — I love photography, and they always have incredible images. That day, I saw a shot of a woman reflected in curved metal elongating her figure, and that reminded me of my Fine Art undergrad days and dark mornings staring at slides in Art History class, and specifically the work of Amedeo Modigliani. So I googled Modigliani and glanced at several of his portraits. I happened to notice that many of his portraits were of the same person:  Jeanne Hébuterne.

So I googled her…

Ever felt a sudden, strong attraction to a person in a photo? That happened to me with Jeanne. I thought, gee, if I were much younger, unattached, and able to travel back in time, I’d love to hit Paris in 1918 and look her up. That being three successive impossibilities, there was zero chance of this happening, so it was a safe thought.  (You can see a photograph of Jeanne here).

I also read the biography and discovered a tragic and sad love story. Here’s the short, truncated version. Jeanne was Modigliani’s last muse. She met him in 1917; they fell in love. During their affair, Jeanne became pregnant, giving birth to a daughter in 1918.  Jeanne would become pregnant again, but by that time Modigliani was suffering from tubercular meningitis; he would die in January of 1920. Jeanne, eight months pregnant and exhausted from caring for him, was distraught. Her parents had taken her to their home, but the day after Modigliani’s death, Jeanne threw herself from the fifth floor balcony of her parents’ apartment, ending her life and that of her unborn child. She was twenty years old.

The whole story resonated. With novels (at least for me), Big Ideas come from several sources, not one. If you want the whole gory story of the genesis for the novel, it’s here. Suffice it say that I started thinking about a muse who would touch several historical figures… because then I could do something with Jeanne and Amedeo.

I proceeded to draft out the novel… where my muse protagonist shows up everywhere from the late 1300s to contemporary NYC. But I’ll admit that something was already bothering me even as I sent out the initial polished draft to my editor at DAW, Sheila Gilbert. I was hoping that Sheila wouldn’t sense that struggle, and tell me “Oh, this is wonderful and perfect and for you to change a single golden word would be a crime.”

Yeah. Right. I should have known better.

Sheila called after she’d read the draft, telling me how much she liked the overall book, but also (of course) mentioning a few things she felt I needed to work on. Chief among those was the Modigliani section. I’ll paraphrase what Sheila said:  “You have her pregnant twice here, and I know that’s because, historically, she was, but here’s the problem: if your muse can have children, than she should have had kids all throughout history; if she’s had those kids, then if she isn’t concerned with their welfare and their descendant’s welfare and so on, then she becomes a cold, selfish, and unsympathetic character. You don’t want that.”

My answer to Sheila was, well, I sorta gave a hand-wave explanation by saying that this happened because Jeanne was so deeply in love with Amedeo that something inside her shifted and she could become pregnant even though that had never happened before over the centuries, and gosh golly gee doesn’t that work?

There was silence on the other end of the line. Sheila uses silence well.  “OK,” I told her finally. “I don’t buy that either. Let me think about all this, and I’ll get back to you in a few days.”

I thought about it. I thought about it obsessively. I really loved the alternate history that I’d come up for Jeanne, and after all, she’d been the initial spark for the whole damn book.  I considered not giving Jeanne and Amedeo children at all, but for me the kick of writing historical fantasy is in actually using the facts and finding alternate explanations for them. Making Jeanne childless would be bending genuine history far too much for my comfort.

How else could I save this section? How could I make it work? After all, this was over 10,000 words of the novel. It had taken me months to write. I had to save it, right?

And I realized this: I couldn’t. The more I thought about it, the more I knew that the only good writerly choice was to jettison Jeanne entirely — which would involve re-envisioning the structure and much of the plot of the book. Here’s the truth: sometimes the Big Idea doesn’t make it into the book because it doesn’t work with what the book eventually becomes. That precious idea-child of yours has to be cast out and exiled, despite the pain.

Reluctantly, I deleted the section and began the process of re-writing from the beginning.

Well, I deleted the section from the book, but I kept the file. I’d worked on it too much to just toss it in the digital bin. If you’d like to see it, I’ll give you the link in a moment.  Mind you, the section isn’t sufficiently proofed, it’s missing several additional polishing passes the rest of manuscript received, and it also contains spoilers that might affect your reading of the “real” book. Worse, the ‘spoilers’ in the section are wrong — they don’t match events in the final revision.  Bear all this in mind if you decide to take a look. DO NOT CLICK HERE IF YOU DON’T WANT SPOILERS BEFORE READING THE BOOK!  

In the end, Big Ideas are wonderful things, and even though the one that started me on the path for this book didn’t make it between the covers, I’ll always be grateful to Jeanne for being my muse, if only for a time.

—-

Immortal Muse: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: Lynne Matson

Having just come back from a weeklong cruise that included stops at tropical islands, I can say they’re lovely to visit. But would I want to live there? Especially if I didn’t exactly choose to be there? It’s a question Lynne Matson considers in NIL — and here, she digs into the story behind a tropical paradise gone (possibly) wrong.

LYNN MATSON:

I can tell you the precise moment the idea for NIL fell into my head.

I had been in Hawaii (the Big Island) with my husband for all of thirty minutes. It was our first real vacation since the arrival of baby boy number four a few years earlier, and the lack of little Matson men under my charge was HUGE. It meant that as we got into our rental car, I didn’t have to wrangle anyone into a carseat, point out a passing bulldozer, or drive one-handed while I blindly fished around on the backseat for a wayward sippy cup (note: don’t do that; it’s NOT safe.) It meant that, for once, I could just look out the window, and relax. And think.

As we left the airport, we drove through miles of ancient lava fields. Broken red rock stretched endlessly both sides, gorgeous and desolate. There were no roads, no buildings, no people–only the eerie sound of wind blowing over the rocks. The silence pressed against us, powerful and real; it had a presence all its own. I specifically remember thinking how much the landscape looked like an alien planet, and thinking how creepy would it be to wake up there, alone, without a clue to tell you where you were? And what if you were a teenager, maybe one who wasn’t well-traveled? And what if–because let’s be honest, isn’t this every person’s worst nightmare?!-–you woke up naked?

NIL was born in that moment. That barren-red-rock visual locked in my head, and that’s what Charley sees when she first opens her eyes on the island of Nil. As soon as we checked into our hotel, I pulled out my laptop and my very-patient husband waited as I typed out the opening scenes of NIL.

From that point forward, the story exploded in my head with the island at the story’s core. I’ve always been fascinated with islands–and yes, I watched WAY too much Gilligan’s Island as a teen. (I was equally fascinated by Ginger’s perfect hair and the Professor’s inability to fashion a working raft even as he built a functioning receiver out of coconuts.) How could a three-hour-tour go so wrong?!

For me, islands offer the perfect mix of paradise and doom. The ocean provides a blatant and ever-present barrier to escape, but at the same time, beaches embody stunning natural beauty. The idea of being trapped in paradise gave me heaps of material to work with as I created the world of NIL . . . especially the idea of a dangerous paradise, one with cracks in the facade. What if there were other beasties trapped on the island too? Some friendly, some not so much? And of course, sometimes humans are the most dangerous creatures of all.

But let me clarify: NIL is not a contemporary Lord of the Flies re-telling; teenage savagery wasn’t my vision. Instead, my vision was one of teen survival: how do teens cling to their hope and humanity when faced with an expiration date?

I gave the teens in NIL a deadline, literally. They each have exactly one year–to escape the island, or die. It’s how the teens choose to spend those days that drives the book.

How do the teens adjust to the shock of arrival? How do they survive in a place they don’t understand, using skills they’ve never had to develop? Do they make connections with other teens, risk growing close to someone or falling in love, knowing that they might not have a future together? Do they choose to hope? Do they choose to help one another, or simply fend for themselves? How does the daily struggle to meet basic needs affect the teens’ broader hunger for understanding of the island itself? How do they fight the unknown? Or do they choose to fight at all? Do they give up? How do they cope every day with the knowledge their personal clock is winding down? I chose a veteran and a newcomer, and using a dual point of view, I worked though all of these questions and came up with different answers.

For all of us here, tomorrow isn’t guaranteed. And yet, would you live differently if you knew that you had a finite number of days left to live: a year, perhaps less? And what if you might live–but then again, you might not. So for the teens on the island of Nil, death isn’t guaranteed, but neither is life. And if they do escape, they’ll have to live with the consequences of decisions made back on Nil. Time is a worthy adversary all its own. On Nil, time–especially the lack of it–colors every character’s decision, but each character makes very different choices. Some selfless, some selfish. Some perhaps, a mix of both.

In the end, NIL is a survival story. It’s also a story of love and friendship and above all, hope. Because without hope, we have nothing. Many of my characters felt that way too.

So if you find yourself on the island of Nil, hold your hope tight. Oh, and run. I’ll be rooting for you.

—-

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

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

The Big Idea: Pamela Ribon

Every time Pamela Ribon does a Big Idea here, I inevitably note she is one of the funniest humans that I know. I note that because a) she is, b) I think at least some of her humor springs from a place I recognize — that is, being a yearny, awkward teen whose internal world of feeling things massively outstripped the ability to express those things in a manner comfortable to one’s self or others.

This is why, even though I am a boy who likes girls, Ribon’s memoir Notes to Boys (And Other Things I Shouldn’t Share in Public) is hilariously perfect. It’s a combination of the teenage Ribon’s letters to boys and the adult Ribon’s commentary on the letters, and reading it, I was cringing and laughing simultaneously, because I was there, man, or somewhere close enough to there that I could wave. I’m happy to say we both survived.

Here’s Ribon now with her notes to you on Notes to Boys.

PAMELA RIBON:

High school sucks. It sucked then, it sucks now, it sucks in theory, and it sucks in memory. Those four years stretch time and become infinite. Every day is all the days ever. If you were anything like me, back then you found yourself sitting in Pre-Cal with a million factorial amount of insecurity.

Even worse: this was back when there wasn’t an Internet to reach out to. No world that would listen, no place for me to carve out my “voice.” There was no way to tweet the injustices I suffered in the lunchroom. I couldn’t Tumblr my way out of a broken heart.

All I had was a whole lot of loose-leaf three-hole punch paper, and a handful of crushes.  So, I started writing notes to boys.

Sure, sure. Lots of teenage girls write notes to boys. “Hey. How are you? I’m in English. Bored. Should we see a movie on Friday?”

Not mine. My notes stuck with you.  …Probably because they were sort of stalking you.

“How can I tell you how much you mean to me? Shall I harness the sun to show you how bright my love for you burns? I will do it! Just tell me to do it and I will obey.”

I know I was only thirteen, but I was just so ready to be a woman. I wanted a loving, mature relationship that would help me survive the four years of hell I had before me. I knew if I kept writing, I would one day find the boy – nay, the man! – who was ready and willing to handle all of me. My heart. My brain. My mixtapes. My notes about my mixtapes.

I wrote hundreds of notes to boys, and almost always delivered those notes to those boys – but not before making a copy. The boys got the second, more carefully handwritten draft.  But I saved every scribbly, emotion-soaked, hormonal first draft for myself.

And I still have them.

There’s the eight-page note I’d written to a boy in my homeroom class. He sometimes talked to me on the phone after school while we did our homework and watched television. I wrote asking for advice about a boy I liked – acting like he wasn’t the boy I was talking about – hoping he could help me tell a boy who doesn’t know I like him that I might actually love him. Yeah, I was smooth like that.

Eight pages of awkward love, and then I immediately called that boy and I read him the entire letter.

Over the phone.

Things ended there. So, I spent another month writing notes to other boys I liked, wondering what I’d done wrong with this boy.

Basically, I was Carrie Bradshaw without a nightlife. Veronica Sawyer minus all of the cool.

There’s a giant folder stuffed with handwritten letters I’ve carried from city to city, apartment to house, for decades. I’ve shared some of these letters in the past at stage shows or readings, but this is the first time I’ve ever pieced them all together to try to understand why my teen self needed to share just so much of herself with boys who didn’t really want to handle that much me. I mean, they physically couldn’t: the pagecount alone was probably pretty taxing on their backpacks.

It’s scary to share them in such a permanent way as a book, that’s for sure. But every time I’ve read these letters in public—when I’ve stood in front of people and let them hear what it’s like to be in the middle of such raw, teenaged angst – a funny thing happens. Almost all of them shelter their faces as I talk, as if my words become air daggers, slicing the vulnerable spots. Other people make that gut-deep sound – that horrified moan that turns into a belly laugh – which I love so very much.

But the best part is that at some point someone will come up to me or write to me later to say, “I was just like that. I thought I was the only one. I wish teenage me could’ve been friends with teenage you. I think we would’ve helped each other through it.”

All these retroactive best friends and bodyguards, protective of my younger self. It is both beautiful and humbling. I might have felt alone, but I wasn’t. You were all there, each in your own bedrooms, wondering how you’d ever get out alive.

That’s the big idea behind Notes to Boys (And Other Things I Shouldn’t Share in Public). I’ll tell you the most mortifying things I’ve done in the name of teenaged love, and in exchange, I’ll just blindly assume you did pretty much the same. (I mean, we all almost accidentally lost our virginities to a Skinhead, right? No? Just me? It was a small town in Texas, you guys. I didn’t know.)

I’ll remind you of that time when not having the right lunch period could pretty much destroy your social standing. Of those days when your heart could slam into your throat because The One You Love But Does Not Know You Live unexpectedly walked past you in the hall. I will remind you of that time you tried to be a vegan (because you love animals), listened to Metallica (because boys love Metallica), or started an underground newspaper (because you love Pump Up the Volume and Sassy and you are afraid of getting grounded if you put your name on something protesting the dress code).

This is a memoir for the misfits of grunge. For the ones who walked around looking like they’d just left the set of Reality Bites. But it’s also for anybody who is fifteen or was once fifteen or might have to be fifteen someday. It’s both a warning and a little therapy.  I’m sorry it’s so awkward at times. It’s because I didn’t understand how sex worked.

—-

Notes to Boys: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

 

The Big Idea: Andy Weir

Congratulations! Humanity has made it to Mars! And now, as they say, the real troubles are about to begin. For Andy Weir, the author of The Martian, the challenge was not in stranding his hero on the red planet. The challenge was making that stranding exciting and fun to read. How did he do it? Partially by what he didn’t do.

ANDY WEIR:

I’ve always had a great love of science, especially anything related to space travel. So it’s little surprise that my first book, The Martian, is about just that. The protagonist, Mark Watney, finds himself abandoned on Mars after his crewmates leave during a critical mission abort. Events conspire to convince the crew and NASA that he died in the disaster, but he is very much alive and needs to work out how to stay that way with the resources he has on hand.

It’s a very simple premise, and certainly one that’s been done before. It’s basically Robinson Crusoe on Mars. In fact, some of you Whatever readers might recall a movie from the 1960’s that was actually called Robinson Crusoe on Mars. That’s how unoriginal the concept is. But my “Big Idea,” such as it is, was to hit that premise with a hard sci-fi approach. I wanted to tackle the question of how a marooned astronaut might actually survive on Mars, using real science to back it up.

That’s where things got fun for me. Being a nerd, I love doing research and science to make sure everything is plausible. Every part of the book is as scientifically accurate as I could make it, from the energy consumption of a rover to the exact process for reducing hydrazine fuel to liberate the hydrogen with which the protagonist could make water.

I spent weeks on research. The hard part was not bragging about it to the reader in the pages of the book itself. “Hey! Reader! I wrote my own software to calculate constant-acceleration orbital trajectories so I could define the path Hermes took to get from Earth to Mars!” It was a constant internal battle to remind myself that the book should be fun to read, not a testament to my ability to do math. So I frustratingly had to leave the bulk of that information out. Though it did make me feel good inside my geeky little soul to know all the math checked out.

And doing all the math had an unexpected and awesome side effect. It provided me with half the plot events in the story. For instance: Mark has to trick out a rover so it has enough power to travel long distances. I could have just hand-waved things and said he made some minor mods like adding a spare battery from the second rover on site. But when I did the math, I discovered that even a backup battery wouldn’t give him enough power to get where he needed to go. That limitation gave Mark a whole new set of problems to tackle and forced him to come up with an ingenious solution that could actually work.

I almost feel like I cheated. I put numbers into equations and plot came out. And of course, poor Mark ended up the victim of every problem I could think of.

Then, there was the issue of exposition. The story features an enormous number of MacGyver-like solutions to complex problems, using space-mission equipment for purposes other than its design. How do I explain all that to the reader? Mark’s on Mars all by himself. He doesn’t have a plucky lab assistant to explain things to and thus inform the audience. The solution I hit on was telling the story mostly through log entries in his journal. And once I started doing that, the novel’s voice immediately fell into place: These were the words of a man who didn’t know if he was going to survive from one day to the next and therefore had no reason to censor himself. I already knew I wanted Mark to be an irreverent smart-ass, but once I had him directly addressing the reader in that format, that voice had found the perfect outlet and the humor started flowing.

I never intended for the book to be as funny as it ended up being, but looking back, I think it had to be—with a premise that has so much potential to be claustrophobic, it’s Mark’s voice and his gallows humor that keep things light and fun for the reader.

In the end, I guess “The Big Idea” is really simplicity: A man is trapped on Mars and wants to survive. Simple as that. It’s something the reader can immediately get behind. And my goal as a writer was equally simple: all I wanted was to do justice to that premise, to play fairly with it and explore all its implications. Following through on that goal ended up giving me all the plot twists and surprises I needed, along with a voice that would keep readers entertained and rooting for my hero.

I’m certainly no more qualified than anyone else to say whether that makes a good book or not, but I do know what I personally like to read—and I think I ended up with a book that readers like me will enjoy.

—-

The Martian: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s site. Like him on Facebook.

The Big Idea: Myke Cole

It can be a strange thing when the real world intersects with your fiction, particularly when you’re writing a work of fantasy. Myke Cole knows what that’s like, since it happened with his latest, Shadow Ops: Breach Zone. A strange thing — but is it a good thing? Well…

MYKE COLE:

Let’s say you make a mistake. This one’s a whopper. You didn’t just zig when zagging was called for. You left the road, headed out into the bush, dug up about a few good size boulders and made damn sure they covered the way so the person behind you could enjoy them. This one was bad. This one will take you a while to live down.

What do you do?

Most of us are good folks. We might cling to pride for a spell, dig in our heels and argue against a preponderance of the evidence. But us regular folk, we come around in the end. We wring our hands, hang our heads and admit fault. We say we’re sorry. We’ll do better next time.

But what about when you’re not average folk? What happens when your mistakes impact not just yourself or even a few people, but an entire country, a country that you’ve been entrusted to lead? What happens when your errors, should you admit them, could destroy not only your life and your freedom, but your legacy? What do you do when billions of dollars and thousands of lives hinge on the myth that you haven’t done anything wrong?

Do you toe the line and take your licks? Do you stick your fingers in your ears and chant until the angry shouting of the protesters stops? And to prove you’ve done nothing wrong, do you keep moving in the same rut you’ve dug?

Do you double down on error?

What do you do when the chickens of a failed policy come home to roost?

That’s the Big Idea behind Breach Zone.

The Shadow Ops series chronicles a United States desperately attempting to come to grips with the sudden return of magic into the world. That magic is wild and powerful. That magic is a weapon as deadly as a nuclear warhead. That magic threatens the government’s monopoly on force. The government’s reaction makes sense. Magic is dangerous. Magic must be addressed. The McGauer-Linden Act is the framework our leaders come up with. It is the best they know how to do.

It isn’t good enough.

Control Point examined one life caught in the cracks between that policy and the gray shades of reality. Fortress Frontier watches as the tension builds, the dissonance between law and a people who prize freedom above all else, who realize what they have sacrificed to feel safe.

In Breach Zone, the joint comes unglued.

Law is binary. Policy doesn’t work well with vagaries. It knows 0 or 1. Obeyed or broken. And it has to. The whim of the individual cannot govern the lives of millions. We have to have some sense of what to expect.

But people aren’t binary. Life isn’t interested in “zero tolerance.” Sometimes we do things just because. Sometimes the thing we want most is the thing we’ve been told we can’t have.

Sometimes, smart people have a tough time with policy. They want an explanation. “Thou shalt not” doesn’t cut it. They want to know why. They want a chance to argue the case. The Democratic process is slow. It’s easily subverted. There are people with more money and more connections who seem to have an easier time making the wheels turn.

Those smart people see that. It burns them. Sometimes, they’re smart enough to know that flying in the face of that has a price higher than they’re willing to pay.

Sometimes, they’re smart enough to not give a fuck.

I have always avoided political sentiment in my writing. I never set out to write a topical piece. But as Breach Zone came together, the Manning sentence was handed down. The Snowden case broke, our SIGINT program was laid bare, and the people reacted. I watched the government respond. Then I looked down at my manuscript, and I shuddered.

Life imitates art, they say. But the truth is that art takes tiny, subconscious cues from the world the artist lives in. Breach Zone was born in the ferment of a society at war with itself, in a country that is more divided than I, than my father, have ever seen.

I didn’t set out to write a topical piece. But in this final volume of the Shadow Ops series, I might have anyway.

—-

Shadow Ops: Breach Zone: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: Delilah S. Dawson

Life is a circus — but is the circus all it’s cracked up to be? Delilah S. Dawson ponders this very question, on several different levels, in her latest novel Wicked After Midnight. We now place her in the center ring to address the topic. Here’s your popcorn, and there’s her spotlight…

DELILAH S. DAWSON:

Here is a painful truth: the circus is a magical place only so long as you’re allowed to leave when the show is over.

That’s the first sentence of Wicked After Midnight, and that’s also the Big Idea behind the book. And at the heart of that sentiment is the same thing that’s at the heart of every creature alive, including me: murderous clowns.

Just kidding. It’s actually fear.

And, more importantly, gaining the courage to break past it.

The steampunk fantasy world in which my Blud series takes place was built to be the perfect backdrop for magic, adventure, and sexy romance, and yet the books have deeper, darker themes that explore my own fears and past wounds. One heroine is escaping from rape and parental abandonment, another is nursing her dying grandmother and has just left an abusive relationship to find herself. Demi, the heroine of Wicked After Midnight, was a depressed art history major in our world who went into a coma from alcohol poisoning, woke up in a parallel universe, and was nearly killed by a warren of vampire rabbits.

Um, none of that is in any way autobiographical. At least not the bunnies.

Demi would have died twice had a certain blood-drinking ringmaster not found her and turned her into a Bludman like himself. After six years as a contortionist in a traveling carnival, Demi is an immature vampire caught in arrested development, an older version of Claudia from Interview with the Vampire. Her life seems carefree and exciting. But from her viewpoint behind the velvet curtain, it’s a cage.

Our heroine’s biggest fear is that she’ll be forever the same, so it’s no surprise when Demi escapes the carnival life to seek her destiny. But when her best friend is stolen by slavers during their journey, she has a new fear: losing what she holds dear.

If you’re a parent, perhaps you know this shift, too. When I was young, I thought I would live forever, and I was terrified of living a boring life. Now that I have children, I often feel that I’ve traded possibilities and excitement for safety and security. Losing one of my kids is now my greatest fear. And like Demi, I would fight any fight to save them.

So on one level, Wicked After Midnight is about facing fears and breaking past them. Fear of stasis, fear of moving forward, fear of loving, fear of being caged again, fear of losing what you love most, fearing of opening up to the vulnerability of loving someone with all your heart. And considering it’s the last book in my Blud series, it’s my attempt at facing some of my own lesser fears. When I was writing it, I couldn’t help thinking that it might be my last chance to write stories in a world I’ve come to love. I wanted to make it the biggest, most exciting, most fun adventure to date. But what if people didn’t like it? What if it was too ridiculous? What if I never got another book deal?

So I did what Demi did: faced fear head-on and had as much fun as I possibly could.

This book has cameos from most of my other characters, including the lizard boy and the kilted version of Thor. It has bone-filled catacombs and clockwork foxes and vampire poodles and runaway elephants and breaking into the Louvre and sex acts on a trapeze. It has Easter eggs based on art history and quotes from pop culture and Your Mom jokes. The hero is a person of color, and there’s a loving family with two moms who are cabaret girls. It’s the longest book I’ve ever written, and it’s a testament to feminism, to smashing down the walls of prejudice, to being exactly who you are, and to breaking out of the mold set for you by society.

In short, even if this book doesn’t do well, it’s going to feel like a triumph because I told fear to go screw itself and wrote the wildest adventure I could. Since the first Blud book sold in 2011, I’ve sought experiences to broaden my writing: I’ve flown on the flying trapeze, learned the twirls of Spanish web, and done vaulting on horseback. This series was my circus, and as safe as it felt to play my part behind the curtains, I’ve made peace with pulling down the big top and moving on to the next great adventure. This show is officially over, and as much as I used to fear it, now I’m excited about the future.

In my last e-novella, “The Damsel and the Daggerman,” intrepid journalist Jacinda Harville finds Demi moping around the caravan and tells her, “I very much advise determining the boundaries of your comfort zone and getting the hell out of it.”

This book is what happens when Demi follows her advice.

And every book I write is what happens when I follow it.

—-

Wicked After Midnight: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: James L. Cambias

I can say this with some authority: I’ve known longer than anyone else working in science fiction today that James Cambias is a terrific writer. I know this because when I was editor of my college newspaper, James turned in some fantastic articles about the history of the university and of Chicago, the city our school was in — so good that I was always telling him he needed to write more (he had some degree program that was also taking up his time, alas. Stupid degree program). After our time in school, James made it into science fiction and has since been nominated for the Campbell, the Nebula and the Tiptree.

So it comes as absolutely no surprise to me that James’ debut novel, A Darkling Sea, is racking up the sort of praise it is, including three starred reviews in Publishers Weekly, Kirkus and Booklist, and comparisons to the work of grand masters like Robert Silverberg and Hal Clement. He’s always been that good, in science fiction and out of it.

Here’s James now, to tell you more about his book, and how one of the great tropes of science fiction plays into it — and why that great trope isn’t really all it’s cracked up to be. 

JAMES L. CAMBIAS:

Small groups of people can have a huge impact on history. The Battle of Bunker Hill was fought by two “armies” which could easily fit into Radio City Music Hall together, without any need for standing room.

I wanted to tell the story of a tiny, remote outpost which becomes the flashpoint for an interstellar conflict. But I had a problem: most of the reasons for interstellar conflicts in science fiction are actually pretty lame.

Seriously: who’s going to fight over gold mines or thorium deposits when the Universe is full of lifeless worlds with abundant resources? And even if we find worlds with native life, it’s fantastically unlikely that humans will be able to live on them without massive technological support.

So there’s not going to be range wars, or fights over the oilfields, or whatever. The sheer size of the Universe makes conflict difficult and unnecessary.

Which means a war with an alien civilization has to be about something other than material wealth. It has to involve the most dangerous thing we know of: ideology.

In my new novel A Darkling Sea, a band of human scientists are exploring a distant moon called Ilmatar. Like Europa, Ilmatar has an icy surface but an ocean of liquid water deep below. The humans have built a base on the sea bottom in order to study Ilmatar’s native life forms, including the intelligent, tool-using Ilmatarans.

But they aren’t allowed to make contact with the Ilmatarans, because of another star-faring species called the Sholen. The Sholen are more advanced scientifically than humanity, and have adopted a strict hands-off policy regarding pre-technological societies. A policy which they insist the humans follow — or else.

That’s all very well, but there’s a problem with that attitude. The native Ilmatarans aren’t passive beings. They are curious and intelligent. One group in particular are very interested in preserving and expanding scientific knowledge, and it’s that band of scientists who come across a reckless human explorer. He winds up advancing the cause of science in a very unpleasant way, and the violation of the no-contact policy inflames the Sholen suspicions of the humans.

The humans resent what they see as bullying by the Sholen. The Sholen suspect the humans have imperialist ambitions. Tensions keep rising and eventually explode into outright war — a war fought by two dozen individuals on each side, at the bottom of a black ocean under a mile of ice.

Alert readers may notice that the ideology which creates this powderkeg in the first place is nothing less than Star Trek’s famous “Prime Directive” — a noble ideal and a hallmark of science fiction optimism.

I’ve always hated the Prime Directive.

The Prime Directive idea stems from a mix of outrageous arrogance and equally overblown self-loathing, a toxic brew masked by pure and noble rhetoric.

Arrogance, you say? Surely it’s not arrogant to leave people alone in peace? Who are you, Cortez or someone?

No, but the Milky Way Galaxy isn’t 16th-Century Mexico, either. The idea of forswearing contact with other intelligent species “for their own good” is arrogant. It’s arrogant because it ignores the desires of those other species, and denies them the choice to have contact with others.

If Captain Kirk or whoever shows up on your planet and says “I’m from another planet. Let’s talk and maybe exchange genetic material — or not, if you want me to leave just say so,” that’s an infinitely more reasonable and moral act than for Captain Kirk to sneak around watching you without revealing his own existence. The first is an interaction between equals, the second is the attitude of a scientist watching bacteria. Is that really a moral thing to do? Why does having cooler toys than someone else give you the right to treat them like bacteria?

“But what if they come as conquerors?” you ask. “That’s not an interaction of equals!”

That’s entirely true. And of course an aggressive, conquering civilization is hardly going to come up with the idea of a Prime Directive. It’s a rule which can only be invented by people who don’t need it.

Which brings me to the second toxic ingredient: self-loathing. I’d say that only post-World War II Western culture could come up with the Prime Directive, as that’s about the only time in human history we’ve had a civilization with tremendous power that’s also washed in a sense of tremendous shame. Previous powerful civilizations felt they had a right, or even a duty, to conquer others or remake them in their own image. Previous weak civilizations were too busy trying to survive. Only the West after two World Wars worries about its own potential for harm.

The Sholen in my novel have that same sense of shame. Their history holds more horrors than our own, and their civilizational guilt is killing them. They’re naturals for a “Prime Directive” philosophy. For them, humans are an ideal object for their psychological projection. They see all their own worst traits in humans, and assume the worst about the motives and intentions of humanity. The result confirms each side’s fears about the other.

As to what happens then, well, read the book.

—-

A Darkling Sea: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s blog

The Big Idea: Lillian Stewart Carl

In today’s Big Idea, author Lillian Stewart Carl has a bone to pick with Sherlock Holmes — a bone that informs The Avalon Chanter, the latest novel in her paranormal mystery series. Take that, Sherlock!

LILLIAN STEWART CARL:

In “The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire,” Sherlock Holmes proclaims, “This Agency stands flat-footed upon the ground and there it must remain. The world is big enough for us. No ghost need apply.”

My imagination being what it is, I envision ghosts lined up at a paranormal job fair, muttering about discrimination, perhaps even filing suits against Holmes’s agency with the Equal Employment Commission.

But, I hear Holmes say, ghosts aren’t real.

Really? Ask people who’ve seen one. Or who think they’ve seen one. As my character Jean Fairbairn would say—and does, multiple times—seeing might be believing, but believing is seeing.

No, my Big Idea is not the nature of reality (I’m not that ambitious) but our perception of reality—especially historical reality, where fact slips as easily into legend and myth as ghost stories slips into tourist brochures. It doesn’t matter whether ghosts (or the Loch Ness monster, or the deeds of a historical character) are factual or not, if people believe they are. Because beliefs make people act.

Jean Fairbairn and Alasdair Cameron are the protagonists of seven mystery novels. She’s a former history professor now writing for a Scottish history-and-travel magazine who inadvertently becomes an amateur sleuth. He begins the series as a professional sleuth, a Scottish police detective.

In the first book, The Secret Portrait, Jean sees a ghost and realizes Alasdair, of all people, can see it, too.

Jean looked around, not knowing whether to hug him or hit him. “No snappy comebacks? No skepticism? Or have you known all this time you’re allergic to ghosts, too?”

“Well then,” he said, with a crimp of his mouth that was almost a rueful smile, “I suppose I was wrong about all the ghosts being tired. Not for those with eyes to see and hearts to know.”

The like us hung unspoken in the air.

No surprise that Jean’s stock-in-trade is history and legends, the facts behind them and the way they can be distorted by true believers. Or, as she says, “Where the legend hits the road and blows a tire.” Having a skeptical significant other dovetails neatly with her work, even as it leads to heated discussions and more than a little eye-rolling.

Okay—I hear you backing away slowly and muttering about high school history class, where a football coach between practices droned the textbook out loud. Boring! Irrelevant! Eyeroll.

So how can I hit the road with my Big Idea and not blow a tire on potholes filled with boring?

Because history isn’t boring. It’s gossip shared over time’s back fence: Sex! Scandal! Thud, blunder, and bad choices!

Every day we citizens of the twenty-first century apply these clues from the past, be they fact or be they fantasy, to solve the mystery of just how the heck we ended up here and not down some other rabbit hole of memory and desire.

The muse of history is named Clio. I don’t know whether she’s a proper Athenian miss or a wild-eyed maenad—I only deal with her indirectly. My personal muse is a punk bagpiper wearing an earring, a kilt, and combat boots. When he’s good, he’s very good. And when he’s uncooperative to the point of hostile, I lure him out by offering him the history of Great Britain in general and Scotland in particular.

It’s great sweeping drama and odd little incidents. It’s bravado and lament. It’s my own ancestry, a paradoxical and pixilated blend of Celt, Norseman, and Anglo-Saxon. My maiden name, Stewart, is a rich source of historical material.

For example, I may well be descended from Robert the Bruce, whose grandson was the first Stewart king of Scotland. Do I fume at the Bruce’s depiction in Braveheart? Does my keyboard have an indentation from my forehead?

But then Braveheart, having about five seconds of historical verisimilitude, is an example of the smackdown between fact and fallacy that Jean and I love to write about. Relatively benign conflicts, not the full-bore international disaster of, say, the Nazis’ Aryan Myth.

Historical wishful thinkers make great characters. So do ghosts, who are manifestations of the past lingering into the present, of unresolved mysteries and uneasy memory. And who often depart this Earth thanks to murder.

If that coach had been sharing juicy details about a murder, you’d have stayed awake during class, right?

The victims in my mysteries die because of legends not only about the lost gold of Bonnie Prince Charlie, but about Charles Edward Stewart himself, goat or hero, depending. They die because of the possibility of the Loch Ness monster and the certainty of black magician Aleister Crowley, whose home above Loch Ness still creeps out the local people.

My victims die because of the mytho-babble behind The Da Vinci Code and others of its dent-in-the-keyboard ilk. They die because of legends of witchcraft in the American colonies, because of a decaying estate on the Isle of Skye named for the wee folk, the fairies, and because Edinburgh’s claustrophobic catacombs make good business.

In The Avalon Chanter, I take my odd couple from their usual haunts in Scotland to small Farnaby island just across the border in England. Here my historical maguffins are King Arthur and Queen Guinevere. Is Farnaby the Isle of Avalon? Archaeologist Maggie Lauder has personal reasons for trying to prove it is. But (of course) neither the body she finds in a medieval tomb nor the history of her own family are what she believes them to be.

Because history, both in the national and in the personal sense, doesn’t trace a direct line from past to present. It’s interlaced like the patterns decorating the Lindisfarne Gospels, as generations of men and women weave desire with destiny.

And if the thing going bump in the night is doing so only in your imagination, that doesn’t make it any less real—never mind Sherlock Holmes and his flat feet.

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The Avalon Chanter: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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