The Big Idea: Chuck Wendig

When Chuck Wendig is not drinking Febreeze smoothies or arguing with people about their burrito choices, he writes books! For example: Thunderbird, the newest entry in his Miriam Black series. In today’s Big Idea, Chuck talks about what it took to extend the series into new territory… and how the real world might have caught up with it along the way.

CHUCK WENDIG:

I’ll preface this by saying: I had no idea what was coming.

Two years ago, I wrote the fourth book in my Miriam Black series: Thunderbird. In it, Miriam seeks to end the curse that causes her see how people are going to die, but that path cuts straight through a right-wing militia nesting in Arizona.

It’s a militia, but it’s also a cult of personality, run in part by a charismatic man and his psychic wife. They have visions of an America in ruins, left so in part by those “others” who come across the border or from overseas. They also distrust their own government—these people are paranoid, driven by visions of a new world order or state-sponsored super-flu or other forms of impossible control. They want to break it all down. Blow it all up. They want to heal the divide by eradicating the other side in a civil war that proves their version of justice. They have weapons. They have bombs. They’re going to kill people to—in their minds—save people. And then they have visions of taking over the government that they destroy.

The book comes out this week, and suddenly it seems hopelessly naive. It now seems like a thing less out of fiction – or, at least, less a thing at the fringes and the margins – and is now a very real infection slithering right to the heart of American life and discourse. It’s gone off the pages. It’s gone off the rails. Here we are, in thrall to a cult of personality who sees enemies everywhere, who imagines threats that aren’t real, who seems to distrust the government even as it takes it over. It’s a group that claims that it wants to heal the divide, but its mechanism to do so again seems to be to create unity by destroying those would disagree.

Well, shit.

At the time, I thought, I’m going to talk about this thing, this sickness forming in the roots of the tree, and I was stupid enough to think that’s where it would stay. Trapped in those pages like a prisoner behind paper walls. But here we are. The big idea, the bad idea, has taken over. It’s escaped the prison. It’s gone beyond just the roots—it’s in the trunk of the tree and in the soil around us. I didn’t think the ideas I put forth in the book would become mainstream, in a way. I didn’t know we would climb so high only to fall back so far, so fast, to a broken world.

The Miriam books have always posited a broken world, of course. The characters contained within – save maybe one or two – are never really good people, they’re all just varying shades of bad. Some are bad because they are made that way, some are bad because it serves them. Some are bad because they’re as broken as the world around them, some are bad because they want to break the world further. There’s bad, then there’s real bad, and sometimes, there’s downright motherfucking evil.

I try to look at the book now, long after I wrote it, as it’s coming out onto bookshelves in a world whose own special horrors have exceeded the story’s own in many ways, and now I’m forced to find a different big idea contained within, one that maybe seeks to find hope in the hellmouth. And I’m forced to look at Miriam herself, because though she’s by no means a good person, she still tries to be better. Her capacity to do the right thing when surrounded by wrong is something noble. Her drive to be better even when she knows she’s easily one of the worst people in the room gives me a weird kind of hope. And the fact that even in all the darkness, the book still lets in rays of light—grimy light, light that flickers, but still light that clarifies and chases away shadows—well, I find that hopeful, too.

And sure, it’s just a book. It’s just a story. But like I said, sometimes the things inside books find a way outside the books. Sometimes they were never really the realm of fiction. Sometimes stories know things and tell us things even before we’re really aware of them. So that’s what I’m hoping is happening here. Maybe Thunderbird is showing us not only the reality of the darkness, but also that there’s a way through, too, toward the light. Maybe the big idea is that no matter how bad it gets, we can always make it better.

—-

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

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

The Big Idea: Erika Lewis

Ghosts! How do they play a role in the genesis of Erika Lewis‘ new novel, Game of Shadows? Lewis is about to tell you. You’ll just have to imagine her telling you, in the dark, with a flashlight illuminating her face from under her chin…

ERIKA LEWIS:

It all started when I was seven. I remember how cold the graveyard felt in the middle of that hot and sticky summer day. Not the entire yard, mind you, but one particular spot. The marker said his name, which I can’t remember, and his age, which I can’t forget. He was seven when he died. Seven. And he died fighting in the Civil War. That’s when it happened. The gentle wave of a little hand that wasn’t really there. Or was it? I ran that day. Scared of what I saw. But that moment was enough to keep me curious for the rest of my life. Did the boy have something he wanted to say? Was that why he was still in that graveyard so long after he’d died? Obviously, I believe in ghosts. Could that incident have been a figment of my imagination? Maybe…

I lost my stepfather when I was seventeen. We were close but I hardly saw him the year he died. So much time spent in and out of hospitals. We never got to say too much, and there were things left unsaid after he was gone. And I wondered if he, like the little boy in the graveyard, would ever wave at me. Or whisper in my ear, letting me know that he was still around, hearing me tell him the things I never got to say, like thank you for being there when others weren’t. But he didn’t. And at seventeen, I stopped believing…for a little while.

Larger than life, my grandmother was my hero. She made life look easy, even when it wasn’t. She never minded a midnight call during my turbulent college years when I needed to bend her ear. She was always there. Always up! The woman never slept until after 3 a.m. After I moved to California, and she became ill, I knew she didn’t have long. I had visited, but she was so sick, it was hard for her to talk. Then one morning, a few months later, before dawn, I knew her soul was moving on. How did I know? Because she told me. Do you know that feeling between sleep and awake, when you don’t know if you’re dreaming or hearing voices? Maybe that’s just me. I doubt it though. That was the last time I saw her, well, heard her. She said, “Lovey,” that’s what she called me, “I have to go now. I want you to know I love you and am so proud of you.” Me, being me, asked, “Is Grandpa here?” Grandma giggled. She did this from time to time, not often, but every once in a while, particularly when she talked about my grandfather who had died when I was eight. So she giggled and said, “oh yes, he’s over there. See? The one with the sexy legs.” Seriously. Sexy legs. God, I loved her.

As you can see The Big Idea behind Game of Shadows was something percolating for a long time. An emotional journey that felt like it needed to start from where we all did, in our youth. Right in the middle of those golden years when you feel invincible. Unbreakable. A time in your life when you never think that anything bad could happen—especially to you. After all, when you’re young, it could never be you who had something left to say, and now can’t, right?

Ethan Makkai is a freshman at Venice High School. He’s in that sweet spot, feeling immortal, but he has something that grounds him. Ethan can see ghosts. He knows life goes on in some form or fashion. Life and death is the ultimate great divide, but is it when you can still talk to those you’ve lost? Can still feel their presence blanketing you, giving you warmth and comfort when you need it them most? Ethan Makkai’s life is touched by death all the time. But it isn’t until he’s dying that he realizes what death would mean, that there would be things left unsaid—by him.

In bringing Game of Shadows to life, I wanted to combine Ethan’s personal story with something else that I found incredibly interesting: Irish Celtic mythology. During the first cycle of Ireland’s history, the Mythological Cycle, bards passed on legends of tragic heroes and great loves. A time when the Tuatha De Danann, the gods and goddesses, walked the Emerald Isle, and their seat of power was at the Hill of Tara, not far from Dublin. It’s still there. You can wander through it if you like. I don’t recommend getting too close to the hawthorn trees through, not without a fairy offering! Anyway, in the legends, when the Tuatha De Danann lost the war with the Milesians, the humans, they departed through the mounds to the Otherworld. But I always wondered: what ever happened to the mythical races and magical Druids that lived in Ireland with them? Well, that’s when I got to thinking. Maybe they’re still here…

TARA

Welcome to Tara, a hidden continent where, post losing the war, the Irish god of the sea sailed their kind, and magically hid the lands so humankind could never, ever find them…

I spent a few years writing, and researching, then writing some more, and then researching some more. I wanted the lands to feel unique, but also connected to what I love so much about the Irish myths, and about Ireland itself. In building out the realms, the landscape, the inhabitants, and magical rules in this new Tara, it all had to be tied to their ancient past, and yet different, brought into present day.

After making the biggest mistake of his life that allows his mother to be kidnapped, Ethan Makkai leaves Los Angeles, the only home he’s ever known, on mission to get her back or die trying. In an epic journey through unfamiliar lands Ethan must rescue his mother before a murdering sorcerer can kill her. He is the quintessential reluctant hero. Not that he’s unwilling to do whatever it takes to save Caitríona Makkai from her terrible fate, but rather unwilling to take on his new destiny, a destiny shaped by the fact that he can see ghosts…

It’s rather amusing in a chilling kind of way that The Big Idea for this story all started with the simple wave of a ghost-boy’s hand that may, or may not have been in that graveyard at all… but it did!

—-

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

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s page. Follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

The Big Idea: Jake Bible

What’s in a name? Sometimes, as Jake Bible relates about his new novel Stone Cold Bastards, there’s quite a lot there indeed.

JAKE BIBLE:

Stone Cold Bastards.

I have no idea the exact date or what influence triggered the name to pop into my head, but I do know I was in bed, it was late, and I had just turned out the light.

Stone Cold Bastards.

I switched the light back on and grabbed my phone to jot it down before I forgot it. My wife didn’t even ask why the light was back on; she was used to me taking random notes at random times on my phone. It’s part of being a writer’s spouse, just like me running last minute, random errands for her is part of being a public school teacher’s spouse. These things happen.

No clue what the novel was going to be about or even if it would become a novel. I have about 200+ titles/ideas/notes on my iPhone that I doubt I’ll ever get to in my lifetime, so there was a distinct possibility that SCB would amount to nothing.

Except that’s not what happened.

On March 16th, 2013 I jotted down a quick description “Like The Dirty Dozen meets Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles meets The Omen”.

Damn. That’s one serious mashup right there.

A day later I wrote “Old school, crack military team of gargoyles holds a Sanctuary against a Demon Siege”.

What the hell is an “old school, crack military team of gargoyles”? Were gargoyles in the military? And what’s up with capitalizing “Demon Siege”? My brain is weird.

I eventually fleshed it out some more and added the idea to my pitch sheet. Pitch sheet? Yep. Like I said above, over 200+ notes on my iPhone. I take the ones that refuse to let go of my mind and I add them to a pitch sheet. This is something I can email to publishers if I ever get asked “So, what ideas do you have?” Best to be prepared when opportunity knocks and all that jazz.

I was pretty stoked about this idea and constantly pitched it to publishers. It was gonna be a throwback to the old military movies of the late sixties and early seventies. You know, the ones with the misfit band of soldiers that have to come together and save the day while also sacrificing themselves because, hey, misfits die, it’s what they do.

Except I write genre fiction, so I switched out the human soldiers for gargoyles come to life when the End of Days shows up. I also switched out Nazis for demons. Well, humans possessed by demons. I wanted flesh and blood. I wanted a body count. I needed human bodies that could get hacked and slashed and shot and clubbed and crushed and just completely obliterated by some seriously badass stone fists.

I was in love with the entire idea.

Publishers weren’t.

I pitched it to five or six different publishers and they all passed.

Until I found Bell Bridge Books. They got my pitch sheet and to my complete surprise, Stone Cold Bastards was at the top of the list of what they would like me to write. Holy snack crackers! The Bastards’ time had finally come! Three years after I had originally come up with the idea.

Man, I was ready to get to the writing. Three years of those Bastards in my head meant I knew exactly what I wanted to write. And when I sat down to write the novel, it flowed so easily.

The gargoyles came to life when the Gates of Hell opened. There was a Sanctuary where the last humans left on Earth were being protected. Lots of action, violence, intrigue, snark, and blood. It was perfect.

Except it wasn’t. There is a reason editors exist. A big reason.

You see, I had been so focused on the gargoyles, and creating these badasses made of stone that would fit the title, that I forgot about why they were there in the first place: to protect the last humans. And, man, my human characters? They sucked.

Generic, cardboard cutouts. Unlikable. Boring. I gave the reader zero reason to care at all whether they lived or died. It didn’t matter how much ass the gargoyles kicked if the reason for kicking ass was to save a bunch of losers. The demons had more humanity than the actual humans.

Time to fix that!

I fleshed out the humans, I gave them souls, I gave them lives that readers cared about. I wove relationships and friendships into the story. I brought the gargoyles and the humans closer together. Stone hearts warmed as flesh hearts began to beat like they should have from the beginning. I not only gave the gargoyles a reason to care, but I gave the readers a reason to care.

Which is my job. I should have seen that from the start, but it’s hard when you have a burning idea and that idea eclipses everything else. A killer title. Gargoyles come to life. Demons to kill. End of Days. Except none of it worked without humanity at the core.

A couple more passes and the novel was done. And it was so much more than what I had hoped.

I had set out to write a novel steeped in pulp fiction with a seventies grindhouse ethos, but in the end I had a contemporary fantasy that not only had all of those elements, it had depth and heart and soul. I’ll admit that I grew a little teary when I re-read the ending.

Now it’s out in the wild. The Bastards have been set free.

In a way, so have I.

All because of a title.

All because of Stone Cold Bastards.

—-

Stone Cold Bastards: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound

Visit the author’s blog. Follow him on Twitter.

The Big Idea: Meg Elison

Ideals are a great thing, if you can afford them. In The Book of Etta, award-winning writer Meg Elison takes a look at ideals and what they cost, and who can afford to have them in a world where ideals are very dear indeed.

MEG ELISON:

There comes a time in the life of every idealist when they must come to terms with real life. Many of us find ourselves in this terrifying era with unpleasant tasks ahead: conversations with racist family members on Facebook are just the beginning. Over and over we have to confront the reality that we are not on a non-stop flight, headed inevitably toward progress. A more apt metaphor would be that we are rowing arduously upstream toward progress, and many of our fellow rowers are openly wearing MAGA hats and rowing backward, or else nurturing secret misinformation and grievances and choosing not to row at all.

The Book of Etta is about an idealist. It’s about a fighter, a queer survivor who wants to kill fascists, free slaves, and give no quarter. However, Etta learns to row for progress alongside people who see progress differently, and are willing to obtain it by any means necessary.

That essential conflict is the Big Idea in The Book of Etta that I’d like to share, because it’s one that plagued me while I was writing it and plagues me still.

If you can free a slave by buying them, have you done enough good to negate your own support of the slave trade? If the women in your village are safe and cared for, but not allowed to leave or speak in your presence, are they free? If they’re better off than most, is that enough? If you venerate motherhood and treat all mothers with respect, isn’t that enough to make sure that all women choose that path? If humanity is in danger of extinction, isn’t it only fair to suppress same-sex love?

Etta’s answers to all of the above are no, no, and no. She inhabits a world of absolutes and cannot reconcile herself to compromises or to accepting what is good enough or safe enough or too important to question.

Etta meets Flora, who inhabits a world with no absolutes where each of these questions must be weighed against survival. An apprentice to a slaver herself, Flora understands the trade. A subject to fascist regimes, she makes allowances and avoids conflict as a way to keep out of trouble. Flora would rather live than insist on her principles, while Etta is ready to die on every hill she climbs.

I began as a writer, as a woman, as a person in that idealistic mode. I wanted to be the guy who stood in front of a tank in Tiananmen Square and said no, things must not go on this way. What my public school education did not show me was the aftermath of that moment: Tank Man was dragged into the crowd by friends who knew it was better to live and fight another day than be flattened into another martyr, another statement, another idealist lost.

I had to face the idea that we need each other, that we are better off rowing together, even arrhythmically and begrudgingly, than we are on our own. We are capable of more if our friends keep us from becoming street pizza beneath fascist tanks.

Etta has to learn that, too, but for her the stakes are higher. Etta is born into a world created out of my terror and dread; a world where the tanks just keep rolling and most people row backwards and we all stop fighting the current.

But Etta’s fight never ends, and her book is just beginning.

—-

The Book of Etta: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: Matt Ruff

Books are often turned into television series — but what about stories going to the other direction? As Matt Ruff shows you in this Big Idea for Lovecraft Country, stories intended for one medium sometimes find their full flower in another entirely.

MATT RUFF:

Lovecraft Country started out as a TV series pitch. The big idea was to create a show like The X-Files, in which a recurring cast of characters had weekly paranormal adventures—only instead of being white FBI agents, my protagonists are a black family who own a travel agency in 1950s Chicago. The agency publishes a quarterly magazine, The Safe Negro Travel Guide, that lists and reviews hotels and restaurants open to black customers. (Such travel guides actually existed during the Jim Crow era, and contrary to what you might expect, they were most useful to travelers in the northern and western U.S., where discrimination was just as common as in the south but explicit “Whites Only” signs were rarer.)

My lead character, Atticus Turner, is a 22-year-old Army veteran who works as a field researcher for the Guide. Atticus is also a nerd whose familiarity with genre fiction comes in handy when things start to get weird, as they do: It turns out Atticus is the last living descendant of Titus Braithwhite, an 18th-century wizard and slave trader who founded a cabal called the Order of the Ancient Dawn. Now the modern incarnation of the Order has plans for Atticus.

In addition to occult forces, Atticus and his family have to deal with the more mundane terrors of American racism, such as sundown towns. Lovecraft Country’s title is a nod to this duality of horrors—H.P. Lovecraft being known for both his tales of cosmic dread and his embrace of white supremacy.

While transforming my original idea into a novel, I kept the structure of a season of television. The long opening chapter, like a two-hour pilot, introduces the main characters and sends them on a dangerous cross-country journey. Each subsequent chapter offers a self-contained weird tale—a “monster of the week” episode—starring a different member of Atticus’s extended family. In “Dreams of the Which House,” Atticus’s friend Letitia buys a haunted house in a white neighborhood and has to play the dead off against the living to keep what’s hers. In “Abdullah’s Book,” Atticus’s uncle George enlists his Freemasons’ lodge to stop an ancient treatise on magic from falling into the wrong hands. In “Hippolyta Disturbs the Universe,” Atticus’s aunt discovers a portal to another world. In “Jekyll in Hyde Park,” Letitia’s sister Ruby goes home with the wrong guy and wakes up to find that she’s been turned into a white woman. In “The Narrow House,” a dead man forces Atticus’s father to revisit the 1921 Tulsa race riot. In “Horace and the Devil Doll,” corrupt Chicago police detectives use sorcery to terrorize Atticus’s 12-year-old cousin. All of these episodes fit together to form a larger arc story about Atticus’s struggle against the Braithwhite clan and the Order of the Ancient Dawn.

For me, Lovecraft Country demonstrates the real power of diversity in art. By focusing on people who were traditionally excluded from genre fiction, I’m able to do interesting new things with some very old tropes, while simultaneously exploring aspects of our shared history that aren’t as well-known as they should be. Combining fantasy with realism produces a richer story than would be possible with either alone. And despite being set sixty years in the past, this is easily one of the most topical books I’ve written—though that says less about my skills as an author than it does about the state of the country that I live in.

—-

Lovecraft Country: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: Jacqueline Carey

Shakespeare is a font of inspiration for writers, not only for the words he put to paper, but for the worlds built around the words. For her new novel Miranda and Caliban, Jacqueline Carey explores the world of The Tempest, one of the bard’s greatest plays. What does she find there? Here she is to tell you.

JACQUELINE CAREY:

In William Shakespeare’s The Tempest, the action of the entire play unfolds over the course of a single day. But what happened in the twelve years on the island leading up to that day? Why does the magus Prospero keep his daughter Miranda ignorant of her history? Why does he take the supposedly monstrous Caliban under his wing, and keep him there after Caliban attempts to rape Miranda?

Telling the story of those twelve years and answering those questions was my Big Idea.

From the beginning, I had a strong sense that this story ought to be told in the alternating narrative voices of the two characters in whom I was most interested, Miranda and Caliban.  I also wanted to work within the structural confines of Shakespeare’s text, which presented an immediate challenge, as we’re told in The Tempest that Caliban didn’t possess the gift of language until Prospero and Miranda taught it to him. But challenges are interesting things, because they force you to stretch and grow as a writer.

I envisioned my Caliban as we first encounter him not as a grown man, but a “wild boy,” as Miranda calls him; essentially, a feral child born on the island and left to fend for himself after the death of his mother. In the course of researching children raised without human contact, I learned that children who had acquired language skills prior to their isolation were in some cases able to reacquire them.

This, then, determined the arc of my two narrative voices. Over the course of the book, Miranda grows from a precocious, tender-hearted six-year-old girl to a frustrated young woman grappling with adult issues she hasn’t been given the tools to understand, and her voice reflects this evolution. By contrast, Caliban’s voice emerges in a halting and tentative fashion, at first a mere handful of words repeated in a rhythmic manner. At times in The Tempest, he sings ditties to himself and I chose to incorporate that element, giving his evolving narrative voice a singsong quality laced with guttural and susurrant notes, a tendency toward onomatopoeia, and an inconsistent grasp of grammar and tense.

I gave him desire.

I gave him anger, too.

Once you start delving under the surface, there are a lot of ideas to be unpacked in The Tempest. Many scholars believe that Shakespeare was influenced by the essays of Michel de Montaigne, one of the early proponents of the “noble savage” notion of humanity, which provided one motive for Prospero’s academic interest in Caliban, a figure raised without the benefit—or taint—of human civilization.

Speaking of Prospero, the nature of his magic was another one of the greatest challenges this book presented me. Although the magus is a distant, cold and controlling character in my vision, I wanted to offer a genuine depiction of a Renaissance magician, so I immersed myself in the study of Renaissance magic.

That shit is mad complicated, you guys.

And the complex chemistry and detailed mathematical calculations involved in alchemy and astronomy don’t lend themselves to good storytelling, so I chose to focus on the one element of Renaissance magic that offered the most vibrant symbolism—the depiction of specific images representing the decans of the thirty-six degrees of the Zodiac utilized to evoke celestial correspondences.

See what I mean?

But it was a decision that allowed me to give my Miranda greater agency within her own story. I made her an artist, a painter, a keen observer of the natural world, able to translate the image of a slit-eyed goat into a proud-necked horse, of a hissing and coiled serpent into a defiant and foot-trodden dragon.

To what end?

That, she does not know.

Yet.

—-

Miranda and Caliban: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s page. Follow her on Twitter and Facebook. View the book trailer here.

The Big Idea: Kameron Hurley

I start this Big Idea for The Stars Are Legion, by Kameron Hurley, with a disclosure: I liked the book enough to blurb it (you can see the blurb right there on the cover, above). Why did I like it? Well, as it happens, Kameron’s piece today will go a long way to explain.

KAMERON HURLEY:

Humans are not suited for travel between the stars. We are fleshy bags of delicate meat, able to survive within a limited temperature range, and we are particularly sensitive to the circadian rhythms of our own planet; many of us get depressed, angry, even suicidal, when confined to dark, tight spaces. We require clean air, constant nutrition, and water in abundance. These are not optimal survival characteristics for a species that wants to navigate the extremes of space.

The cold equations can be depressing, but we must also discuss the assumptions that led us to make those equations in the first place before we dismiss our options. To make epic space operas work in the past, many writers have relied on advances in powering dead hunks of metal around in a vacuum, hand-waving the laws of physics as we currently understand them and the limitations of our own bodies and psychology to simply get us where we need to go for the story to start. Kim Stanley Robinson addressed these limitations succinctly in his article, “Our Generations Ships will Sink” and explored the issue in his own novel, Aurora.

But as a speculative fiction writer, I have to reject these limitations. I understand that we need to think beyond what we are now and explore what we could be. Equations, after all, are human constructs. I wanted to write a space opera with a gooey living starship that challenged our ideas of how we could navigate through space – and what we would become in order to do it.

The idea behind my massive generation starships in my space opera, The Stars are Legion, then, required me to research not hunks of dead metal but living, breathing organisms and their ecosystems. I looked at parasites and symbiotic relationships between animals and the bacteria in their guts and the creatures on their skin. I found that life was both horrible and wonderful, with parasites that can change the behavior of hosts and eat them alive, but also parasites that can enable hosts to endure the unendurable.

It was this idea of interconnected systems that I used to develop not dead starships, but living world ships, organisms that contained entire ecologies on their various levels that all worked together to sustain themselves. The ships could live, die, and reproduce. The human passengers, too, were just another part of the system, tied to it as we are tied to earth. They weren’t particularly special, just as we are not particularly noteworthy here on earth. They were simply another part of the whole.

To build that legion of worldships also required an eye toward human failings and psychology. As the purpose of the journey faded into memory and worlds began to die around them, petty wars, insurgencies, and alliances would play out among the survivors. The two warring families at the edge of the legion became the subject of the story, each fighting to take control over a worldship with the power to leave the dying legion to places unknown.

As a trained historian, I often look back at the past and consider what people thought was possible five hundred, a thousand, ten thousand years ago. And I cast my net into the future and try and look back at us, now, from the vantage of that future. That’s how I create my worlds, not by looking at what is probable or possible according to our current understanding, but what is considered possible by some far-future generation.

Seeking the unreal and challenging the impossible is one of my greatest delights as an author. I chose speculative fiction because I could create other worlds whose only limits were imposed by my own biases, and failures of imagination. When you have the power to shape worlds, you might as well use it.

—-

The Stars Are Legion: Amazon|Barnes and Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: Stephen H. Provost

It can happen that writing a book of one sort can be the genesis for a book of another sort entirely: Writing a non-fiction book inspired Stephen H. Provost to have a big idea for a fictional tale, one that developed into his new novel Memortality. Here’ he explains how he got from the one to the other.

STEPHEN H. PROVOST:

I’m sure you’ve wondered what it would be like to bring someone back from the dead. Who would you bring back?

And what would happen then?

These questions inspired me to write Memortality, the story of a young woman named Minerva who uses her uncanny memory to reconstruct people’s lives – to literally bring them back from the dead. But there’s a catch: She has to keep remembering them, or they’ll slip back into the afterlife and become lost to her forever.

Minerva discovers her gift when her childhood friend Raven, killed in a car crash fifteen years earlier, suddenly materializes out of a dream. He helps her learn to use her gift – which makes her the target of a top-secret government agency and a rogue operative seeking to use it (and her) for their own purposes.

That’s the Big Idea behind Memortality. I wanted to write a new kind of paranormal adventure without any of the usual suspects: vampires, zombies, werewolves and the like.

It’s a paranormal tale, action/adventure and psychological thriller rolled into one, with a dash of romance thrown in. The concept is pure fantasy, but it was inspired by the real-life stories I’ve been telling for thirty years as a journalist and a writer of historical nonfiction.

Most recently, I wrote a history of my hometown (Fresno Growing Up) in 2015, and a book on the history of U.S. Highway 99 that’s due out in June. As I was working on these projects, I realized my number one goal was to bring the past to life. I was doing much more than reciting dead facts; I wanted to create a form of virtual reality and project it onto the mind’s eye. I wanted my readers to feel as though they were experiencing the events as I described them, through the power of shared memories.

Then it occurred to me: What if someone could literally do that? What if someone had the power to reconstruct the past, to make it tangible, through the power of memory? Such a person would have to have a perfect memory – or as close as you could get to one: an eidetic or “photographic” memory. Then she would need a psychic gift that could re-create the subjects of that memory in the here and now.

That’s how Minerva Rus was born.

As a character, Minerva’s a bit like me: a loner who spent a lot of time in her room as a teenager, reading voraciously and creating her own worlds to explore. I do that now as a writer, so not much has changed – although I do venture out into the sunlight more these days.

But in terms of inspiration, Minerva owes more to my mother than to me. If I could bring anyone back from the dead, she’d be the one. During my own adolescent “dark ages,” she was the one person I could confide in, and she’s still the person I admire most, even though she’s been gone more than 20 years.

Mom was unique. She was unlucky enough to be hit by the polio virus as a teenager, just a year before the vaccine came out. Her doctors put her in an iron lung and gave her a 50-50 chance of living; regardless, they said, she’d never walk again.

But she was determined, even though her entire right side was paralyzed as the result of her illness. Not only did she survive, she managed to climb three flights of stairs every day at UCLA and earn a bachelor’s degree. Then she got married and had a son (yours truly) – something else she wasn’t supposed to be able to do.

Minerva does a lot of things she’s not supposed to do, too. She’s not supposed to be able to raise the dead, but she can. And she’s not supposed to overcome her paralysis, but … well, you’ll find out when you read the book.

Ever since I can remember, I’ve been drawn to underdogs: to people who don’t fit in with society’s expectations, who are shunted to its margins but who have a unique gift to offer if the rest of the world would just pay attention. I revel in the underdog’s triumphs, whether it be in athletics, in life or in fiction. I grew up reading fantasy, with its reluctant heroes and epic quests, and watching explorers like Kirk and Spock go where no one had gone before. I became absorbed in stories of misunderstood superheroes like the Incredible Hulk, the Amazing Spider-Man and the Uncanny X-Men.

In a way, Minerva is very much like one of Charles Xavier’s mutants, trying to master a gift that delivers her from society’s disdain … and gives it another reason to spurn her.

The theme is a familiar one, but it inspired me to explore new possibilities as I wrote. I delved into everything from history to mythology to time travel and the depths of the human mind – a blend that led my publisher to describe Memortality as “a genre-breaking new contemporary fantasy.”

It’s hard to find an original idea these days, especially in a market that thrives on reboots and retreads. But as an explorer, I take that as a challenge: I want every story I write to be new and intriguing. I don’t want the reader to know exactly what’s behind the door before it opens. Mysteries, twists and surprises are part of what makes the journey fun.

I certainly had fun writing Memortality. I trust Minerva had fun living it. I hope you have as much fun reading it.

—-

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

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

The Big Idea: Lara Elena Donnelly

Difficult times are complicated, not only for themselves but what they do to people — who are themselves complicated even at the best of times. Or so Lara Elena Donnelly might argue, both here in this Big Idea piece, and in her novel Amberlough. Is she correct? Read on for her argument.

LARA ELENA DONNELLY:

Amberlough is not a book filled with characters whose moral conviction burns like a fire. These people aren’t going to end up on the right side of history. They’re criminals and collaborators. They commit a multitude of sins from infidelity to murder.

But are they bad people?

It’s a book set in a socially-diverse and democratically-governed country, but that government is riddled with corruption. Exploitative taxation maintains an unequal economic status quo. A nascent fascist movement promises to end corruption, end unfair taxation. The movement’s only price is social conformity.

Which political option is better? Which is worse?

Ambiguity has been a central theme of Amberlough from its inception. It began life as a short story about a city auditor in love with an emcee, in a city sliding inexorably into the grips of a repressive regime. But even as the newspapers showed fascist flags unfurling from capitol buildings, even as police made violent arrests and the government came down hard on vice, the glittering nightlife roared on. People had a good time, got high, got laid. The story existed in a nebulous area between hedonism and totalitarianism.

But in the first draft, the main characters fell utterly flat. Their straightforward love story felt unrealistic in that setting. In the next draft—the one that sold; my first published piece of fiction!—I realized they couldn’t approach their relationship so simply.

Relationships are not easy under the best of circumstances—that had been driven home to me pretty hard during the time I was revising. But when you’re trying to stay in the closet so a fascist mob won’t tear you apart, when you’re fleeing your home to save your life, when you’re separated from your lover by sinister forces beyond your control, how could you love easily? How could you love unconditionally? How could you love at all?

When I asked those questions, lines blurred. Love became awkward, unwanted, an inconvenience, a trap. The story was still a romance, but the “happily ever after” was called into serious question.

The origins of Amberlough stemmed from another short story, too (I was thinking of writing a series.): a theatrical manager turned informant, trying to protect his cast of satirists, queer folk, women, dissidents, and weirdos by selling out other people, earning the goodwill of evil men and another day of dubious safety.

That short didn’t work. The scope was too large to fit into 10,000 words or less. And part of what made it so big was multifaceted reactions from a cast of characters in the midst of an intricate political situation.

Emotional complexity is completely doable in short fiction—in fact, it’s vital. But when emotional complexity is built on events years in the making, when it’s reliant on shifting public opinion and government policy, when it’s extrapolated from characters’ various reactions to those shifts, you need room to flesh it out. The  book got bigger and the spectrum between black and white blurred further to accommodate even more gray.

No one is morally pure in this book. Blackmailed into a corner, secret agent Cyril DePaul turns into a fascist collaborator, sacrificing thousands of lives for his own, and for the slim hope he can save his lover, cabaret emcee Aristide Makricosta.

Aristide, who has hauled himself out of bitter rural destitution on a ladder of sex and ruthlessness, is a blackmarket kingpin who sells drugs, arms, and stolen goods. He’s a man who has finally created an identity for himself that fits, even if he’s done it on the backs of others. He’s a man who will help just about anybody in a tight spot, but never out of the goodness of his heart. Except for Cyril, and maybe Cordelia Lehane.

Stripper and small-time drug dealer, Cordelia doesn’t double-deal and she doesn’t play puppet master. But she breaks hearts and she hurts people who love her. Her mother died of an overdose but she sells narcotics to pay rent. Initially, she’s complicit in Cyril’s collaboration, until the consequences of the new regime strike her personally.

Everyone has good intentions; they all end up hurt. Everyone is selfish, but only because they value their lives and the lives of people they love.

Part of me is ashamed that my view of humans is so cynical: that this tangle of secrets, confusion, and crossed purposes feels more vital, more genuine to me than a short story about true love conquering adversity. But another part of me revels in the messiness of people and their contradictions. We can love someone who hurts us, or hurt someone we love. Sometimes in seeking to do good, we do great evil, or vice versa. We are strange and imperfect and fascinating creatures, and fiction is richer when it explores our ambiguities.

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

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

The Big Idea: Ryan David Jahn

Author Ryan David Jahn has given a fair amount of thought into the nature of violence, and guilt, and other primary emotions and urges. They’re present in his novel The Breakout; Jahn explains why, and how they influence him as a writer.

RYAN DAVID JAHN:

In daily life, I’m surrounded by a cloud of free-floating guilt. I’ll apologize when I’ve done nothing wrong. Sometimes, when I hear sirens, I momentarily think the police must be coming for me. Not really. I know they aren’t. I haven’t done anything.

But, for a split second, part of me kind of believes they are.

If I hadn’t lost my religion twenty years ago, I might think it had something to do with original sin. Chalk it up to being home-schooled with fundamentalist Christian texts for the first several years of life. It’s part of my personality, even if it’s no longer part of my world view.

I suspect this is one of the reasons my books focus on violence. After all, a person need only feel guilty if he or she has done something to hurt someone, either emotionally or physically. Victimless crimes are crimes only technically. Guilt is, so far as I can tell, an internal reaction to the harm you’ve done to another, even if they don’t know you’ve done it. It’s your heart’s way of letting you know you screwed up. Or are about to.

Most of us try to get through without hurting anybody, maybe helping those we can if it’s not too inconvenient. Being human, we understand that at times life is difficult for almost everyone.

We are all so tough and fragile. We survive terrible events, a house burning to the ground or the death of a loved one, then six months or six years later might wake up and decide we simply can’t bother to put on our pants even one more time. Maybe if a stranger had smiled at us, or made us laugh at a stupid joke, it would have provided just enough light to help carry us through. It sounds trite, but I also think it’s true.

Most of us try to have a positive impact on the world and those around us — even if we sometimes fall short.

But the worst among us don’t care about the emotional or physical violence they do to others, and these people are the engines that drive much of my fiction. They destroy lives, leaving pain in their wake, and they feel none of the guilt the rest of us would in similar circumstances.

I’m not concerned with these people as much as I’m obsessed with what an average person might do in response to such an individual because, it seems to me, these people have a disproportionate amount of control over the lives of others. They treat humans like chess pieces to be moved about for ends that have nothing to do with their lives as they live them.

I’ve written three novels that deal in some way with revenge, and in two of them the revenge is never acted out, in part, I think, because while I understand the urge for violence, I don’t think violent acts themselves should be used as catharsis. And, in my experience, they only rarely — but sometimes — are cathartic.

I also believe that, even when necessary or justified, violence is corrosive. It is rust for the soul, and it eats away at what you are in your center.

My little brother, who joined the Navy, ended up stationed in Afghanistan with the Marines (he was a mechanic whose specialty was needed there). He watched a kid with an I.E.D. run up to his platoon and, before anyone could react, the makeshift bomb went off. He took shrapnel to the shoulder and hip and found himself hospitalized in Germany. When he told me about it late one night while we were both drinking, his eyes went far away and glossy. He’s a generally cheery guy and I’m not sure I’d ever seen him look genuinely sad before, not in that deep way you can empathetically fall into. It broke my heart to see it.

And, on the other side of the violence, was that act cathartic for the little boy’s mother? For his father? I suppose it’s possible. But one thing is certain: it was not cathartic for the child who ceased to exist the moment the act was completed.

All of which is to say, for a person whose novels tend to be obsessed with violence, I have an ambivalent relationship with it, both in fiction and reality.

My new novel, The Breakout, is the third book I’ve written that deals with revenge in one way or another. It is, at first glance, a straight-forward thriller. A marine’s sister is killed south of the border and he goes about seeking vengeance. Before he has a chance to act upon his violent urges, however, he ends up in a Mexican jail, arrested on trumped-up drug charges. Members of his platoon, as well as his girlfriend, go about trying to break him out, not sure what they’ll unleash if they succeed.

This is, in essence, the story, and if I’ve done my job well, it moves quickly, is fun to read, and has a satisfying ending.

I also hope that those who want to think a little bit about guilt and violence and where the two intersect will find something more than air to chew on. I do my best to write novels that are true, approaching them with as much honesty as I know how to and hoping something real comes out of them.

But above all, I aim to be entertaining. I want folks having a bad day to pick up The Breakout, lose themselves in the story, and forget their troubles for a while. As implied above, I think there’s honor in simply helping a person get through a tough time, and if my book can do that, I think it’s done its job.

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The Breakout: Amazon Barnes & Noble Indiebound Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: Fonda Lee

There’s more to alien creatures than green skin or an extra set of eyes. Fonda Lee, author of Exo, comes around to tell you why, and how it affects her new novel.

FONDA LEE:

You know, there just aren’t enough aliens in YA science fiction these days.

I’d argue there isn’t enough YA science fiction in general, but where are all the aliens? That was the random thought that gnawed at me a few years ago, when YA was dominated by dystopias to the extent that seemingly anything science fiction was lumped in with The Hunger Games. It seemed to me that a significant number of the extraterrestrials to be found in current YA SF fell into two categories: the hot alien boy next door, or the scary type that want to wipe out the human race. Good (sexy) aliens and evil, apocalypse-bringing aliens. And yes, we’ve had plenty of both in adult fiction as well, but those aren’t the ones that stand out to me.

I wanted more aliens like the Oankali, or the Hoots, or the Formics, or the Moties. Because all alien stories are actually human stories. Non-human characters in fiction provide a means for us as writers and readers to hold up a mirror to humanity. More complex and interesting aliens with nuanced motives, who have varied and multi-dimensional interactions with humans, show us a picture of ourselves that is more honest, more candid, higher definition. Like seeing our own faces filmed in 70mm and projected on an IMAX screen. Simple, reassuringly good and evil aliens offer up a reflection that’s more like a smiling selfie taken with an old camera phone.

There are some who would argue that teenage readers don’t want, or wouldn’t appreciate or comprehend, more thoughtful alien stories. Kids want lots of action and romance! To which I say, first of all, the teen readers I’ve met are remarkably savvy and intelligent and more than capable of appreciating the complexity and shades of gray in society. And second, why not have it all? Why couldn’t I write an action-packed YA novel that was also ethically complex?

That’s what I set out to do. I wanted to tell an alien invasion story that was different from anything else I’d read or seen in YA fiction by getting past the arrival, invasion, and war part of the narrative to explore the idea of a world post-colonization, one in which humans have both benefited and suffered. I wanted aliens on Earth to be the norm, not the event itself.

And I wanted to tell the story from the other side. In YA fiction there is no lack of plucky, brave, teenage rebels who want to overthrow the system. Could I make the reader root for someone who enforces alien rule over Earth? Someone who is in the system, who benefits from it and defends it despite its flaws, yet is still heroic and tries to do the right thing, even when he is not always sure what the right thing is?

As a writer I see gray instead of black and white. I dislike easy answers and I put my characters in situations where there are none. We Americans absolutely adore our stories of rebels vs. oppressive powers but in real life we proudly celebrate our military forces who wage war on insurgents in countries where we are considered the evil empire. I have no political axe to grind in my fiction, but I love making people question themselves and was eager to write a story in which the reader could conceivably sympathize with either the “terrorists” or the “oppressors.”

Layers started naturally developing in my story that made it more personal to me. The protagonist, Donovan, comes from a broken family and has to deal with conflicted feelings about his parents’ choices. (My own parents had a rocky marriage and eventually divorced.) He also faces the continual dilemma of his in-between identity: as a human with alien alterations, he is considered too alien by other humans, but of course to the aliens he is still just a human. At the time I was writing Exo, I honestly didn’t even realize that I was infusing the story with an allegory for second-generation or mixed-race children until my editor pointed it out a long time later. Which goes to show that sometimes we writers can be all deep and subtextual without even meaning to be, just by bringing more of ourselves to the page.

Exo is, at the end of the day, a story about why people take the sides they do, and how difficult it is to be torn between one’s own parents, and how to grow up and figure where you stand as an adult when the world is such a complicated place. It’s almost funny to me now that the Big Idea that sparked the whole thing was as simple as: give me more and better aliens!

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

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

The Big Idea: Jess Nevins

One day author Jess Nevins decided to see how far back the origin story of “superheroes” went — it wasn’t Batman or Superman, folks — and the answer to the question (or the answer he arrived at) was both further back in time and more complicated than he could have ever expected. The result: His new book, The Evolution of the Costumed Avenger. And also: This Big Idea piece.

JESS NEVINS:

The Big Idea behind The Evolution of the Costumed Avenger was my attempt to answer a long-running question in the comic book community: where did superheroes come from? In my Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana I had said that the superhero arose not out of twentieth century cultural movements and dynamics and cultural trends, but out of nineteenth century movements, dynamics, and trends. (Sorry, partisans of Johnston McCulley and Baroness Orczy, but it’s true: Zorro and the Scarlet Pimpernel were inheritors of a tradition, not inventors of one).

But when I was observing the latest in attempts to answer this question and was shaking my head (more in sorrow than anger) at the answer given, it occurred to me that perhaps my answer wasn’t that much better, and that I hadn’t give the question its due. Did the superhero come from the nineteenth century? That’s how I’d written it, back in 2004–but was there more to it than that? Did the superhero’s roots lie deeper still, and farther back than Victoria’s reign?

It’s rare that one gets or takes the opportunity to correct Internet Misinformationtm in print, and I intended to treat the question seriously in a reasonably-sized monograph, but as I soon discovered, the question of the superhero’s origins isn’t easily answered to anyone’s satisfaction. First I had to define what I meant by a superhero, something that proved to be surprisingly tricky. (For every definition of what a superhero is, there are exceptions to it. Every definition. Yes, even yours). After a lot of thought I came up with a better way of approaching the matter of definitions, but simply writing out that new method took up most of chapter one. (And I hadn’t even gotten started on the history of superheroes yet!)

The big problem, I quickly discovered, is that there’s no real starting point for something like this. After I’d run back through the pre-Superman superheroes of twentieth century popular culture, and back through the superheroes of nineteenth century popular culture, I discovered that the eighteenth century had its share of proto-superheroes, those extraordinary characters who have most if not all of the elements of the superhero but which appeared before Superman’s debut. And these eighteenth century proto-superheroes were influenced by characters from the seventeenth century, who in turn were derived from the heroes of the sixteenth and fifteenth centuries.

And then I reached Robin Hood, a significant proto-superhero, who is the most famous of the noble outlaws of the Middle Ages–not the only one, merely the best-known. And beyond the noble outlaws are the knights of King Arthur, and beyond them are El Cid and the heroes of medieval epics and ballads, and then Roland and Beowulf and the Alexander of the Alexander Romance

…and so on and so forth, always working backwards, always tracing influences, until I reached the first major work of literature in human history, The Epic of Gilgamesh. (By now I’d abandoned all idea of my “History of the Superhero” being either reasonably-sized or a monograph). Gilgamesh as the first superhero? Okay, cool, that would make a good beginning for what I now knew would be a sizable book.

Except–and here was the part that complicated the writing of the book–I had to take a good look at Gilgamesh, the way I did at all the proto-superheroes, and I concluded that he made a great epic hero but not a particularly good superhero. Briefly: he lacks what we would think of today as a heroic, selfless motivation. Gilgamesh is a great epic hero, but not a great person–not “heroic” as we’d now think of it. Gilgamesh’s sidekick and B.F.F. Enkidu, on the other hand, has the selfless motivation as well as the other elements of the superhero.

So Enkidu it was, to begin with, and after him the major heroes of literature and popular culture. But research on a subject like this is exponential and fractal; there’s always more of it to do, more items of interest or awesomeness to discover, more connections to make, more inferences to draw. So I found out about the latrones, the heroic outlaws of ancient Rome (and the forefathers of Robin Hood). And about Nectanebo II, last pharaoh of Egypt’s Thirtieth Dynasty and the ancestor of every heroic sorcerer in comics. And about the delightful Mary Frith, grandmother of Batman and every other urban vigilante. And about medieval proto-superheroines of color; if Enkidu was the first POC superhero, the “lady knights” of the middle ages were the first POC superheroines. And about Talus, the first heroic android (and from the sixteenth century, to boot!).

And so on. It all turned out to be more fascinating and complex than I’d ever anticipated. Superheroes didn’t evolve linearly; they are a river with many tributaries, whose source lies four thousand years ago but whose individual elements are disparate and widely scattered in time and place. That’s what I hope readers take away from The Evolution of the Costumed Avenger (I mean, besides the fact that Mary Frith was freaking cool): that the superhero is neither American nor twentieth century–nor white or male, for that matter–but belongs to everyone, and has deep, deep roots in human culture.

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The Evolution of the Costumed Avenger: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: Thoraiya Dyer

Bread is the staff of life, as it said, but what happens when bread doesn’t make sense for your world? Thoraiya Dyer has given this question some serious thought for her novel Crossroads of Canopy, and invites you to discover with her where these thoughts lead.

THORAIYA DYER:

I’ve always wondered, even as a child, why elves in tree-cities ate bread.

Because bread is made of wheat or other grains, right? Which is grown in fields. But all the tree-dwelling elves in stories seemed to do was hunt deer with yew longbows, drink wine and frolic along their gloriously elaborate paths made of oak tree branches.

Say what? Oak trees? My father comes from a tiny rural village where he learned that acorns were starvation rations. And yew berries are poison. Call me finicky if you like. It led to something wonderful.

Once I started imagining the kinds of trees you would actually want to have in an arboreal city where folk rarely went down to the ground – forget about farming! – it quickly became obvious what kind of forest the elves would actually have to live in.

A rainforest.

Probably up in the canopy. At least, the royalty would be up there, in the sunshine, snacking on fruit, not eating the usual fantasy fare of stew because they wouldn’t have metal for pots and pans. Or would they? Maybe they’d have a magical way of getting metal. Plus a magical way of keeping predators from climbing up and snacking on them.

And if they had bread at all, it would have to be made from tree-nuts that weren’t acorns.

And what would they have instead of wine?

I couldn’t seem to stop inventing the world of Canopy. The next question became what plant and animal species to include and which to omit. I’ve already confessed to being picky about mixing ecosystems, but this wasn’t going to be science fiction, it was going to be fantasy, and fantasy means freedom, doesn’t it? Especially after I guest-blogged about my meticulousness at SF Signal and not one single over-scrupulous scientist piped up to agree with me! Clearly, nobody else cared; I was like the toddler who doesn’t like her peas to touch her carrots on the plate.

So, in went Moreton Bay figs and mango trees, monitor lizards and toucans. A glorious mix, which gave me permission, I felt, to mix other things that I hadn’t mixed before.

The very Western Greek and Babylonian pantheons with the Eastern concept of reincarnation, for example.

I also got to mix up my protagonist, Unar, a blend of hero and villain, saviour and destroyer. How I loved her, for the freedom I had with her! She’d never seen the ground. Or an ocean. Yet she was among the lucky ones to have felt sunshine and wind, to know about things like the moon changing shape and the sun setting.

Maybe the very wealthy would even have bread. And it would be this ridiculous luxury. As opposed to fresh fruit, which would be boring and plentiful.

I contemplated the symbolism of lembas bread in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings: A cross between hardtack, the sustenance of seafaring adventurers, and the church wafers that substitute for the body of Christ. Maybe in the world of Canopy, fresh fruit would be the thing to have religious significance. Fruit would be one of the offerings to the gods that helped to give those gods their powers. It would also be something that the people below might not have as much of.

With social stratification developing in my head, mimicking the strata of my rainforest, the next thing the people of Canopy needed, obviously, was a magical horizontal barrier to keep the riff-raff out. Those pasty, malnourished Understorians. Gods know what they get up to, down in the dark.

And there was the seed of Unar’s story. Her sister, lost on the other side of the barrier. Literally and figuratively fallen.

I quite like bread. Most people do, I think. Maybe after you’ve read Canopy, though, you’ll give macadamia nuts and magenta cherries a try. Maybe you’ll find they’re even better than bread!

—-

Crossroads of Canopy: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Indiebound | Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: Mur Lafferty

Rules for clones? According to Mur Lafferty, you need to have them. But why do you need to have them? And what are the rules, as far as they apply to her new novel Six Wakes? She’s here to give you the details.

MUR LAFFERTY:

Cloning stories are hard to tell because they’re such a staple in SF history that it’s challenging to come up with a new twist. But I tried to do it with Six Wakes by combining a few different Big Ideas.

You know, there are some weird sex things in a lot of cloning stories.

It seems in classic SF, any man who clones himself will inevitably end up having sex with himself. (I am including stories where a character travels to the past and meets an earlier or later version of himself in this category.)

Having a bunch of clones running around willy-nilly, sexing the place up, messing with their children’s inheritance, and giving each other alibis when they commit crimes, seemed… irresponsible. Most religions also wouldn’t like it. Authorities would come down pretty hard on cloning once these things became possible to the populace at large.

Thus, I first thought about what kind of international rules involving cloning would have to be developed. They might include no multiplying yourself, sterilization, and no changing of the DNA matrix stored on the computer…. among other things. These are some of the basic rules governing cloning in Six Wakes.

Another key element of the story came to me when I was playing the game FTL, a space battle game where you manage the lives of your crew and the state of your ship. One of the technologies available to your ship in the game is a cloning bay to extend your life if you die. It’s not foolproof, though; if your cloning bay goes down during battle, and someone dies, they have to wait for someone to fix the system so they can be cloned again. But, I wondered, what would happen if the whole crew died at once?

Six Wakes is set on a generation ship. When I read books with similar settings, I thought it was sad that generations (hence the name) of people are born and live and die on a ship for the benefit of the future, knowing they will never set foot on the planet upon which their whole existence is built around. What if the ship had the same crew the whole time, cloned whenever they die, while the rest of the population slept?

My opening scene was the first one I thought of, with the crew all waking up in vats. Usually, in this world, when you wake up in a new cloned body, doctors and lab techs are there to help you out, help you acclimate, and get you clothes – and there certainly weren’t any dead bodies all around you. But our crew all wake up on their own, have to handle their own way out of their vats, and figure out what the hell is up with the gore floating around their heads. Someone has killed them, turned off the gravity drive, and damaged their AI. Time has passed and memories are missing, so each person doesn’t know which of the six was the murderer; they have to suspect even their former self.

So those were the building blocks. Murder clones in space. Or “Murder Clone Space Bastard,” as a friend calls it. I made it my working title.

I worked out the laws governing clones, and then of course looked to see how many of them my characters could break. You see, the crew are all criminals, promised a clean slate and a bit of land at the end of the road if they can get the ship to its destination. Rot as a clone in prison on Earth, or help humanity get to a new planet with a new life at the other end? Pretty clear decision. Worried about the implications of the nature of their crimes being known, the powers that be declared an absolute gag order regarding the clones’ past. Only the AI, the ultimate overseer in case the clones got out of hand, knows what everyone had done.

Lastly, I’d like to talk about the title. When beloved writer Jay Lake was in his last days, he threw himself a wake so that people could come and say good-bye. I loved the idea as a poignant way to celebrate someone’s life when they were still around to appreciate the party. The idea of the living wake stayed with me, and I thought if the clones woke up with their cloning technology smashed, they would fear death for the first time in their lives. It would still be forty to sixty years in the future, but they would have a clear death sentence after living for hundreds of years. The title of Six Wakes is a tribute to Jay’s memory.

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Six Wakes: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: Charles Stross

Hey! It’s Charles Stross! One of my favorite writers! And he has a new book! Empire Games! And it’s cool! And he’s here to talk to you about it! Yeah, and that’s my intro today. Take it away, Charlie.

CHARLES STROSS:

Take one science fiction series setting with parallel universes where history has proceeded along divergent tracks. Add people with an inheritable ability to move between time lines — precise mechanism unclear, but research hints that it’s the product of a long-forgotten and disturbingly high technology paratime civilization — and allow information leakage. What are the political, military, and economic effects of inter-time line cultural contamination?

If you think that’s a big idea — too big to tackle in a single novel — you’d be right: it’s the premise of my Merchant Princes series, originally published from 2003 to 2009, and set in multiple parallel versions of 2001-2003. And in Empire Games I’m returning for a look at how those worlds have changed by 2020 – and a creepy surveillance state espionage thriller, because First Contact between time lines ended really badly in the first series, for Doctor Strangelove values of “bad”.

(But there were enough survivors for a sequel: and so …)

One of the themes I dug deep into in the first series was the question of why some cultures fail to develop a modern economy. The usual narrative about colonialism is only part of the explanation: while it’s indisputable that nations that fall under the boot-heel of an imperial power are exploited as sources of raw materials and captive markets, some other nations with access to huge amounts of wealth — the Middle East OPEC members spring to mind — are, if anything, too rich to develop: the rulers can buy anything they want from elsewhere, including enough guys with guns to keep the lower classes in their place.

In the first series, the Clan — a group of six extended families of world-walkers originating in a technologically backwards time line (of approximately mediaeval levels of development) — became wealthy in the United States because they could shift high value freight (like cocaine) across borders without fear of interception. In their own time line they became politically powerful, as the only people with a communications network that could get messages anywhere along the settled eastern coastline of North America in hours rather than weeks. But their very wealth proved problematic, because they could import any luxuries they wanted from the United States … at least, until the DEA caught on to them. They were caught in what economists call a development trap, a culture unable to progress because development would actually reduce the Clan members’ status relative to the other nobility in their own culture. (And they ultimately weren’t able to adapt and survive in the USA because they were descendants of an hereditary aristocracy — a social structure that isn’t terribly compatible with rapidly accelerating change.)

But Empire Games is set seventeen years after Clan conservatives inadvisably assassinated President Bush in the White House using a nuke stolen from the US inactive inventory: seventeen years after the news about parallel universes got out (leading to a brief Indo-Pakistani nuclear war and various geopolitical excitement that puts our just-past 2016 in the shade), and seventeen years after the USAF was ordered to send paratime-capable B-52s to nuke the Gruinmarkt — home of the Clan — until it glowed in the dark.

I mentioned survivors and development traps, didn’t I?

In the universe of Empire Games, the survivors of the Clan, led by Miriam Beckstein, went into exile in yet another time line — one in which the 18th century Enlightenment and the age of revolutions and democracy had stalled, leading to a world dominated by two superpowers: the New British Empire (capital: New London, on Manhattan Island) and the French Empire (capital: St Petersburg, in the French Russian Territories). The New British Empire has just lost a non-nuclear world war and experienced the sort of revolution that gives rise to the curse, “may you live in interesting times”, and Miriam, who is an inveterate meddler, is in deep with the leadership of the Radical Party in the newly-coalescing New American Commonwealth. Miriam has seen the development trap that the Gruinmarkt drove into up close and personal; she also knows that the US government have world-walking tech (extracted from the pureed brains of captured Clan members) and is going to stumble across them eventually.

With the rallying call, “The United States is Coming”, she convinces the revolutionary government to put her in charge of a Ministry of Intertemporal Technological Intelligence, with a remit to conduct industrial espionage on a scale not seen since the hey-day of the Soviet Union. Because, although the Commonwealth is relatively backward (not Victorian-age backward, as Miriam thought when she first discovered them, for the future is already here, just unevenly distributed: more 1940s-backward), its leaders understand the benefits of modernization and know they need it, to survive the inevitable oncoming clash of civilizations with the Ancien Regime over the water.

So in this new trilogy I get to ask, “given perfect foreknowledge of the next sixty years of technological development, a government on an emergency footing, and a budget, just how fast can you play catch-up?”

(Here’s a big clue: when the first US paratime reconnaisance drones arrive in Commonwealth skies, they get a series of very nasty surprises.)

If this trilogy was about nothing but economics you could be forgiven for yawning and saying “next”. But the dismal science is only part of the process. The post-paratime USA is a deeply traumatized place — imagine the psychological shock of 9/11 squared, then turn the dial up to 12 and break it off the control panel — and has gone deep into spooky surveillance state territory. The Department of Homeland Security is tasked with protecting the USA from all possible attacks from elsewhere in the multiverse, a new high water mark for agency mission creep. There are CCTV surveillance cameras on every city block, a national DNA database with random checkpoints testing swabs from anyone who can’t show biometric ID, cash is on the way out, and the act of taking your battery out of your smartphone is a suspicious act that justifies activating the bug built into the battery. On the other hand, monster trucks are in: with access to all the oil under all the uninhabited parallel universe versions of Pennsylvania and California, never mind Texas, and parallels just waiting to receive all the toxic waste and captured CO2, this isn’t a Solar City world.

It’s in this world that we meet Rita Douglas, an interracial child adopted by expat East Germans. She’s struggling to make a career as an actor, all other avenues having been inexplicably blocked (scholarships turned down, student loans unavailable): but despite her low profile, Rita is about to come to the attention of very important people. Because what they know (and she doesn’t) is that her birth mother was one Miriam Beckstein, the big government research labs have finally cracked the problem of how to activate the world-walking ability in someone who is an inactive carrier, and DHS has a perceived need for human field agents able to infiltrate hostile civilizations and report back …

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Empire Games: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: Lawrence Millman

A horrific event took place decades ago — but could the key to explaining it exist in the modern day? Author Lawrence Millman asked himself that question as he undertook the writing of At the End of the World, and the answer to it surprised even him.

LAWRENCE MILLMAN:

Here are the bare bones of the book’s story: One man declares himself God, another man declares himself Jesus, and any person who doesn’t believe in them is Satan.  How do you deal with Satan or, indeed, a plethora of Satans? You dis-pose of them, of course.  And so there were 9 deaths in a relatively short period of time.

What I’ve just described is not an attempt by rabid Christians to emulate ISIS terrorists or perhaps a previously undocumented episode from the Spanish Inquisition.  Rather, the murders occurred in 1941 in the Belcher Islands, a remote archipelago in Canada’s Hudson Bay.  So remote were these islands that their Inuit inhabitants experienced First Contact with qallunaat (white people) only 25 years earlier.

During my visit to the Belcher Islands in 2001, Inuit elders talked to me about the 1941 tragedy.  Talked to me, I should say, with some difficulty, for their memories of the events were quite painful. Yet the book I expected to write about this virtually unknown tragedy refused to be written.  One year passed, then another year, and — nothing.  It was as if the story was downright hostile to the idea of being put down onto paper.

In 2013, I was in Tasiilak, East Greenland, researching another obscure story, one that concerned a cannibalistic monster called a tupilak attacking a village, when I heard about the following incident: A local teenager was so busy texting that she didn’t see the polar bear that was approaching her. At the last minute, however, she saw it and screamed, whereupon the bear loped away.

Suddenly I had my first Big Idea — screens can deprive us of our lives, just as the would-be deities deprived the Inuit in the Belcher Islands of their lives…

Head upon heels with this realization came my second Big Idea — namely, that I couldn’t write about the past (i.e., the Belcher Island murders) without also writing about the present. Denizens of the present age have exchanged their human selves for screened selves, their actual faces for a Facebook profile, and real weather for weather on a screen. An example of this last exchange: a woman avidly fingering her iDevice smashed into me on a Boston street, then said, “Sorry, but I was just trying to find out the weather…”

So we have murder in the name of God in a remote part of the Arctic and perhaps murderous obsession with what might be called iGods — each represents a particular world coming to an end. Taken together, these two themes danced a sort of pas de deux in my mind. The book now demanded to be written, and my pen went flying across the page, sometimes bearing my own words, sometimes the words of the Inuit elders I talked to about the murders. Sometimes, too, my pen would fly into a rant, as when it wrote: “Better tango rhythms than algorithms!”

At the End of the World concludes with the present, with one of the Belcher Island elders — once upon a time a highly traditional hunter-gatherer — e-mailing the following note to me: “Everyone here…they’re all going digital now, and they look at nothing else. Me, too! I am how you say it screened in…”

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At The End of the World: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: Tim Lees

For today’s Big Idea, author Tim Lees thinks on the interactions of gods and humans, what the gods represent, and what it all means for his new novel, Steal the Lightning.

TIM LEES:

So, in my last couple of books, I solved the energy crisis. No big deal; you just dig up a few ancient gods, extract the power from them, and run it through the electricity grid. Except, as readers of The God Hunter and Devil in the Wires will know, it’s never quite that simple, or that safe. The gods are alive. They have an undefined yet powerful influence on us poor humans, and – inevitably – things go wrong.

That’s where Chris Copeland, professional god hunter, gets called in. He’s something of a reluctant hero, and experience has made him a little too aware of the dangers in the job. But every now and then, something happens to get him personally involved, and that’s when his flare for the work really shows.

In the new book, Steal the Lightning (HarperVoyager), I wanted to take a closer look at the relationship between gods and men. Now, the book itself is a thriller – there’s mystery and double-dealing and some big action sequences, plus a fair amount of humor, too. But I hope that there’s another layer, one the reader might consider once they’ve reached the story’s end, and which was there, in the back of my mind, while I was writing it. This isn’t allegory – the gods don’t actually stand for a specific thing – but they belong to a class of phenomena that exists here, in the real world, and which has a huge and complex influence upon our lives. I’m talking about any powerful force that affects how people think and act and interpret reality; a force which, in this case, is not of itself allied to any particular cultural, political or ethical notion; that is, as it stands, neither good nor evil, but reflects the values placed upon it by its adherents.

To take the obvious first, I might say the way I use the gods in the book reflects my own feelings about religion. I realize this may be a hot button for some of you, but if you think of all the things done in the name of religion, you’ll maybe see what I’m getting at when I say this covers everything from alms-giving to terrorism. It inspires the most generous of acts and also the most hateful. I’m not religious myself, but I’ve known a lot of people who are, some of whom I’ve admired greatly, and others, I’ve thought were pretty despicable. My conclusion, as an outsider, is generally that, whatever you are, religion is likely to make you more so. If you’re a self-righteous prick, it gives you permission to be an even bigger self-righteous prick. If you’re a person who tries to do good, it can focus you and make you resolute in your aims. I’ve seen both. And, while I say again, the gods don’t represent religion per se, some of my feeling about that went into their depiction in the book, and into the motives and responses of the various human characters with whom they interact.

Then again, maybe they represent drugs – medical or recreational, all with the ability to change people both physically and mentally – yet frequently, with a whole bunch of unwanted side effects, as well.

Or they reflect technological and social forces. The mass media, perhaps – a great source of information and entertainment, but, likewise, a distorting lens through which we view the world, and the promoter of a vacuous celebrity culture that these days dominates everything from sport to politics.

Or, to take a direct analogy, drawn in the earlier books, they’re on a level with other sources of power – coal, oil, nuclear. Electricity’s a wonderful thing – you wouldn’t be reading this without it – but its production still holds risks for someone, somewhere, whether it’s nuclear meltdown or a mining disaster. Nothing is ever truly safe.

It was soon apparent that I’d have to explore these issues from a variety of angles, and with a variety of different characters. And the best way to do that –

Cue: road trip! I’m a Brit, and I love traveling in the US. There are a million places I could have taken in – Arizona, or the Pacific North-West – unique landscapes with truly iconic scenery and extraordinary histories. But I had to limit myself, and let myself be driven by character, rather than scenery. The big question was this: what sort of people would want their own, personal god? And what effect would it have on them?

You see, this isn’t so much about the gods, as what human beings want from them. You take this immensely powerful, unpredictable force, and drop it in the laps of people who are desperate, or greedy, or lost, or disturbed – and then what happens?

So we meet a woman trying to extend her life, unaware she’s picked the worst possible way of doing it. A preacher, bringing false hope to the rust-belt with his very own performing deity. A multi-billionaire with an eye on the presidency, and a conviction that the country took a wrong turn in the Civil War…

Then there’s Chris’s partner, Angel. When she was young, she dreamed of writing music. A close encounter with a god sets all those dreams whirling through her head again, but now she can hear the music – she just can’t remember it afterwards.

I wanted to watch the chemistry when gods and humans interact. When individuals acquire a power they can’t control – but think they can – and certainly don’t understand. Because to some extent, we’re all in that situation, at one time or another. How we deal with it – selfishly or generously, foolishly or wisely – is a measure of the kind of people that we are.

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Steal the Lightning: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: Veronica Roth

It’s no surprise that fantasy and science fiction authors do a lot of worldbuilding for their novels, but it’s one thing to say “worldbuilding” and another thing to offer a glimpse of what the work of worldbuilding entails. The good news is, bestselling author Veronica Roth is here you to offer that very same glimpse, getting into the nitty gritty of what she had to do to build up the universe of her latest novel Carve the Mark. Ready to dig in?

VERONICA ROTH:

A lot of ideas led me to Carve the Mark. Too many, probably! But the basic plot– that of a young man who is kidnapped by the leader of an enemy country– has been with me for years. I kept thinking about how that would change a person, for better or worse. At first, he sees them all as enemies, but once you’ve lived among people and experienced their culture, is it possible to maintain that kind of unambiguous hatred? (Personally, I don’t think so.) And what if, in some ways, he understood those people better than his own? Would that make him feel guilty? Would he open himself up to friendship? Will I ever stop asking rhetorical questions?

In thinking about all these things, I had to create a world around him that felt complicated and real to me. I decided to use a highly sophisticated approach I call the “follow your gut” method of world-building. Okay, it’s actually not sophisticated at all– all it means is, I pay attention to what I find interesting, and I trust my curiosity to take me wherever it wants me to go. And here are some of the places I went while writing this book:

Politics: the thing about world-building is, even if you think you’re making it all up, you can’t really do that if you don’t know how things work, or have worked, in our world up until this point. Which meant, if I wanted to build a dictatorship that felt real, I needed to research dictatorships. I had lived in Romania for five months as a freshly married person on an adventure, and it’s a place that wears the scars of Ceausescu Communism everywhere (most apparently, in the Communist Bloc housing that towers over certain parts of Cluj-Napoca, where I lived). I had heard stories from the older people we knew there, and I had watched a fascinating documentary (The Lost World of Communism: Socialism In One Family (BBC Documentary Series, Part 3). Rather than dig in deeper to Ceausescu, I opted for a little more breadth– I turned, instead, to a different dictatorship that we frequently joke about here in the States, but is nonetheless horrifying: North Korea.

The interesting thing about researching North Korea is that you very quickly run out of new information about North Korea. (Book recs: Nothing to Envy by Barbara Demick, The Impossible State by Victor Cha, Without You There Is No Us by Suki Kim.) We just don’t know a lot of the things that are going on there. One thing that came up that I found darkly fascinating was that the power of Kim Il Song, Kim Jong Il, and now Kim Jong Un’s regimes comes in large part from their limiting information. The Internet there reportedly looks more like a card catalogue of resources the government has deemed acceptable. Visitors from outside the country stay at a hotel in Pyongyang that is literally on an island, separated from North Koreans who are not pre-approved. It’s easy to understand how a person might believe the misinformation provided by the government when that is the only information available. Knowledge, as we say, is power– and so is withholding knowledge. This is something North Korea has in common with Ceausescu’s Romania, the wielding of knowledge like a weapon against one’s own people.

I have no interest in directly adapting a country’s tragedies, whether it is Romania or North Korea, to flesh out my own work, but I decided to implement this basic principle– that power can be maintained by limiting information– in my work. So, in Carve the Mark, the Shotet dictator, Ryzek Noavek, maintains his power in no small part by outlawing the learning of any language aside from Shotet, which means the Shotet people have to rely on translations to understand the news. Translations that are obviously full of propaganda and lies.

Language: I wanted the language in Carve the Mark— down to the names– to feel new to me, a subtle way of forcing myself to question my own assumptions about what these people were like. That meant I didn’t want to base it on any existing languages, which meant I would have to…make one up.

And this was before David Peterson’s The Art of Language Invention came out, God help me.

But as it turns out, there are whole communities of con lang (read: constructed language) people out there, people who just make up languages for fun. They have helpful guides. And word generators. Observe:

David Peterson’s big list o’ conlang links – http://dedalvs.conlang.org/links.html

Awkwords – http://akana.conlang.org/tools/awkwords/

Conlang word generator 2.0 – http://klh.karinoyo.com/generate/words/

Scratch – https://scratch.mit.edu/projects/109739636/

I wanted the Shotet language to be a little like German or Hungarian– harsh-sounding to those who don’t speak it, but oddly beautiful when you get to know it. My husband and I went to a Hungarian Reformed Church while we lived in Cluj, and let me tell you, there is nothing cooler than being surrounded by people singing somewhat dirge-like Christmas songs in Hungarian while a huge organ plays in the background. It made a language that otherwise made no sense to my ears into something haunting and beautiful.

So because I’m That Sort of Person, I made up a few simple rules for how I wanted the language to sound. Shotet’s language rules are: hard sounds instead of their softer counterparts– K instead of C, Y instead of I– few “th” or “sh” sounds, and long “o”s and “a”s, among others. I used the sounds in Hungarian as a jumping off point, though the result bears little to no resemblance to it. The result are names that sound unfamiliar to me, and, unfortunately, are difficult to pronounce, something I…didn’t quite consider at the time. Whoops.

Ritual: I fell about a credit short of a religious studies major in college (damn you, capstone class!), and I’ve always been fascinated by rituals. They are a way of understanding a person’s priorities and something of their inner life–and they don’t have to be religious, either. I find them to be a powerful way of building a fictional culture.

The most significant ritual I devised for this story was the sojourn– a rite in which the Shotet pile into a giant spaceship and cruise around the galaxy for awhile, to honor their history, then descend on a planet (a different planet each year) to scavenge from it. The scavenge is poorly understood by outsiders, who look down on people rifling through garbage, as it were, but to the Shotet it’s a way of recognizing the strengths of other cultures, of repurposing the things they discard that still have value and giving them new life. As the wife of a man who is constantly pointing out objects that other people neglect or turn their noses up at– Dacia cars from the 90s, red enamel radiator knobs, and blazers with GIANT SHOULDER PADS come to mind– this felt like an oddly endearing practice, something that Akos could initially scorn but come to appreciate as he learns that his enemies are not mustache-twirling Snidely Whiplashes, but real, complicated…and, indeed, not all enemies, period.

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Carve the Mark: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: Nick Cutter

Author Nick Cutter has an obsession, and it’s in his latest novel, Little Heaven. It’s an obsession with an aspect of human nature that involves spirituality, and possibly, gullibility. It’s an obsession he’s here to explain to you now.

NICK CUTTER:

You write enough, you likely reach a point of familiarity with your obsessions. Those bugaboos that seem to crop up your books. The things that vex or intrigue or drive you. Now sometimes they creep in insidiously—often, in my case, against my best efforts to keep them at bay. Other times they mosey on in bold as a bull, just kinda squatting in the middle of your narrative and taking up space. You might try to shoo them away, or ignore them, or write around them—sometimes you even succeed—but often they’re there, they’re loud, proud, and most fundamentally, they’re you. That’s the nature of obsessions.

Sometimes these obsessions don’t fully reveal themselves until you find them cropping up over and over again in your work. People will tell me, “Craig (or Nick, as may happen), you are clearly consumed by the concept of time” or memory, or pancakes or sloths or whatever they see cropping up over and over in my books. Sometimes I’m aware of those things, whereas other times I’m like, “What? Really?” And that person says, “Really!” and points those instances out to me. Sometimes they’re right, and I’m gobsmacked. Other times they’re kind of seeing things they want to see in the text (which is totally their right as readers) moreso than that which might actually exist on the page.

But one thing that I know to be a personal obsession, and which drove the conception and plot of Little Heaven, is religion. Or maybe more fanaticism.

Or maybe to distill it to its core: False prophets. Profiteering prophets.

This is too big a topic to plumb in depth—and the word limit of this column is clearly stated—so I won’t say much beyond: I don’t trust prophets. Of any stripe. Whether they preach from a pulpit or a boardroom or a Dianetics center or barstool or a milk crate in the town square. At no point and in no place would I believe or (as I like to assume, perhaps only because I haven’t sampled every moral poison on offer) would I follow someone whose agenda, to me, always seems pretty plain. That is, to assemble a flock in order to shear them down the road. All the Popes and Timothy Ferris’s and Napoleon Hills and Benny Hinns and John Edwards and Tony Robbins of this world—fah! To the devil with them all. They’re all snake oil peddlers; their tonics might be differently-flavored and brightly-and-bouncily colored, but they all taste the same: the sour, gamey funk of subservience and obediency.

Call me a cynic. Lord knows I am. But everywhere I look, whenever I set my gaze on these fellows (and they’re almost always fellows, with the odd Rhonda Byrne or Long Island Medium melted into the fetid stew) I see shysters. People who have happened upon some universal infirmity or fear that’s knitted tight to the human condition, and instead of helping, really helping, they prey on that infirmity under the guise of guru-ism or religious subservience.

It makes me sick, it really does. But it also obsesses me.

That’s the way it is with a lot of obsessions. They repulse and fascinate in equal measure.

So. The preacher character in my book Little Heaven. It won’t take a scholar or historian to see who he’s loosely based on. The mirrored Aviator shades. The greasy duck’s ass hairstyle. Yup. Ole Jim Jones. A lot of people followed Jimmy, too. Followed him out into the middle of the jungle. Followed him right down to the bottom of those Kool Aid pitchers. And that horrifies me. The power the man had over his flock (and that’s really the right word, isn’t it? A flock. And too often those flocks have a sociopath as a shepherd—perhaps it’s that sociopathy that made them want to be shepherds in the first place, and maybe it’s that fundamental distance from true human emotion that allowed them to be so good at their chosen path)—anyway, that power astonishes and terrifies me.

And that was the Big Idea that propelled and directed a large part of the novel’s narrative. That Idea’s done the same work in other books and stories of mine. Which is how I know it’s one dilly of an obsession.

I could point towards certain recent political events, too, that illustrate the toxic power of demagoguery of the sort Jim Jones practiced . . .

But anyway. That’s a story for another day.

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Little Heaven: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s 

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

The Big Idea: Rusty Coats

I’ve known Rusty Coats since he and I were twenty-something newspaper columnists geeking out over Coen Brothers films together, so it’s no surprise to find him today with a novel, Avalon, full of noir and speculative elements. Today in 2017’s first Big Idea essay, he’s talking about how to build a virtual city, meant to be a haven, but ending up as something else entirely.

RUSTY COATS:
The Big Idea behind Avalon is a dystopian future where a virtual reality city, once built as a beacon of hope for a world that has fallen down, has become a hedonistic destination full of brothels and bloodsport. Basically, VR meets Prohibition, with a conspiracy to seize control of the city – and humanity itself.

Avalon is told in the first person by Jack Denys, whose parents were part of the global project to build the virtual city. Jack had grown up on Campus, believing in the promise of a city that would unite a world scarred by nuclear exchanges, pandemic and economic collapse. But his encryption program was deemed an act of treason, and Jack, the last privacy hack, was sent to prison.

Now it’s eight years later. Still incomplete, Avalon was outlawed after a mysterious “programmer’s disease” killed thousands and left millions hopelessly addicted. The United Nations tried to destroy the metropolis but failed when a new mafia called the Digerati seized control. In an age of Prohibition, the Digerati have retooled the City of Light into an online Babylon. And Jack, who has vowed never to return to Avalon, has been hired by one of them for a job that turns out not be so simple.

I had been on a noir kick, reading a lot of Raymond Chandler and James M. Cain, while talking a lot with a friend who was launching a virtual reality company to document big-building construction. (Bonus: You can see through walls.) Throw in my love of Depression Modern design, an infatuation with FDR’s Works Progress Administration and a love of all forms of encryption and you get the major ingredients. I wanted to blend the language and style of Depression-era and noir fiction with an alternate future where VR is simultaneously a source of hope and despair, told through the flawed voice of an antihero.

To design the virtual-reality city, I turned to Norman Bel Geddes, the early 20th Century designer responsible for the iconic designs of the 1939 World’s Fair. Since Depression and Prohibition historically breed fanatics, I added an agrarian/Luddite sect called the Sons of David – a blend of my former work as a reporter covering Amish and Northern Californian off-the-grid communities. And, since everyone likes a good global conspiracy, I created technocratic cult, the Neuromantics, which promotes itself as benevolent caretakers of a wounded populace but, well, we’ve all seen how that usually turns out.

The Big Idea, then, is an amalgamation, and a bit of an homage. My grandfather worked in the Civilian Conservation Corps, part of FDR’s New Deal, and it was the first step in moving my family out of poverty in Southern Indiana. The designs of Bel Geddes and others were symbols of hope – that a streamlined, futuristic design could accelerate the country out of the Depression. And, as someone who has worked in media for 25 years, I’ve seen how every digital development – from AOL chat rooms to virtual reality immersions – are met with equal parts ecstasy and dread.

And we all need a little privacy in the promised land.

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Avalon: AmazonBarnes & NobleInk n Beans Press

Read an excerpt.