Category Archives: Big Idea

The Big Idea: Brian Catling

In describing how The Vorrh came out of him, author Brian Catling pretty accurately makes a point about creation that I think many creative people can agree with — before it comes out, there’s so much that has to go on inside.

BRIAN CATLING:

I have answered more identical questions about The Vorrh than anything else in my life. The core ones being about its origins and the process of its construction. When I explain that it was probably brewing for thirty years and that once it escaped it wrote me, then the problems begin, especially as I have not stopped writing since it was finished. Words like channelled and cathartic appear in other people’s mouths. So I did what I know best, I consulted perversity and made something else.  Made it out of lead, glass, Perspex and electrical motors, transparent piping, feather quills, wiring and pumps. An extension of my hand, tiny eccentric engines giving the tip of each finger a life of its own, eerie and totally against anatomical grace and favour. Instead of blood the quills and their nibs are pumped with warm water and compressed black ink. When it ‘goes off’ it surges and gushes, staining the room and its operator’s disability with saturated steaming shadows. I did not know it was literal until it was finished and switched on.

There is another tale of loose hands that I wrote in a grim poetic series many years before. Hands running through the back alleys and murder yards of Whitechapel, scratching sparks and gouges from the wet walls with hooked nails, fleeing, forcing themselves into flesh and infamy. I think they also wrote a true channel for The Vorrh to play, like a needle on black shining disk.

I always had the title, the opening scene and the conclusion and once the work finally began to turn, I had to invent everything else in-between. A wonderful savage awakening that had nothing to do with mapped out plot, or carefully observed character. I became each personality and principle in the book. Living equally the events of each man, demon, woman, monster and ghost. Each writing themselves visually. Without a pennyweight of the critical skills, or a daub of the doubt. A necessary blindness to let the mystery and the presence of The Vorrh overwhelm me. In all modesty, I thought I was writing a slender obscure surrealistic work that would hopefully exist in the sacred margins of esoteric imagination. What arrived was quite different. An enormous birth without a shadow of pain.

The Vorrh is the vast African forest that Raymond Roussell invited in his masterpiece of surrealism, Impressions of Africa. He never much cared for its detail and used it only as a painted backdrop. I have put aside my reverence and dragged him screaming into the depth of this new Vorrh, along with several other ‘actuals’, such as Edweard Muybridge. The Vorrh is the first book in a trilogy, with the unwanted forth already remotely clawing at the inside of my skull, like another disembodied hand.

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The Vorrh: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: Tim Lees

The good news: In his novel Devil in the Wires, author Tim Lees has solved our energy crisis! The bad news… well, let’s just say that you’re the sort to blaspheme, your electricity might flicker a bit in protest. Here’s Lees to explain it further.

TIM LEES:

You don’t have to be religious to feel a sense of awe when you stand in some big temple or cathedral, especially if it’s old, or built on the site of a still older shrine, as many are. Places of worship can date back millennia, and through more than one faith. Sacred sites are sacred for a reason. Whatever they may now be, once upon a time, they were home to strange, inhuman forces – beings which, for want of a better term, we might call “gods.”

From the ancient, to the modern. We all know about the energy crisis. Fossil fuels are running out, alternative energy supplies – we’re told – will never match the shortfall.

It’s a grim scenario. But what if there was something else, a source of power till now almost untapped? What if you could mine the psychic energy stored in churches, shrines and other sacred places? Energy built up through years of worship, prayer and entreaty – what if you could take that and convert it into usable electric power?

Sound good?

Well, that’s the first Big Idea. Those gods are still there. They’re what gets turned into electric power. They’re what lights our cities, cooks our meals, powers our Playstations and TVs. Ancient gods: the latest source of fuel.

I love mash-ups. Genre-wise, ramming together two totally disparate elements (and making them work) is just about my favorite activity. Back when I still had musical ambitions, I was once asked for a keyboard solo on a reggae track. I looked at the range of sounds available and thought, Ah-ha! Church organ! Why not? Nothing, of course, could have been less appropriate, which was exactly why I chose it. To me, it sounded great. To everybody else… well. Let’s just say there was no subsequent boom in church organ reggae, and I am now a writer, not a musician.

So, with Devil in the Wires, I’ve taken an element from genre fantasy – the kind of gods that Conan or Elric were always running into – and kicked it into the present day. Needless to say, the gods have undergone some changes in the process. They are still genii loci – spirits of place – and repositories of immense power, but for the most part (and with one exception) they’re a lot less humanized, a lot more alien. To stand before them can be a bit like suffering a seriously bad acid trip. Simply to perceive them can be dangerous. As for actually collecting them, that’s the sort of job which requires a specialist. Not just for specialized equipment, but also for a special frame of mind.

Enter Big Idea number two: Chris Copeland, professional god hunter, already worried he’s been in the job too long, and his luck (much like those fossil fuels) might soon be running out.

Have you ever wondered how the guys in fantasy stories make their cash? How they pay the rent? Batman, supposedly, runs a multi-billion dollar business empire, and still stays out all night crime-fighting. (Really?) Indiana Jones works at a university which requires neither the grading of papers nor writing of research publications, nor, presumably, returning from the wilds in time for class. Great fun, but I wanted something I could actually believe, and a counterpoint to the massive, numinous forces at work throughout so much of the book.

I mentioned mash-ups. There’s the concept of burning gods for energy – pure fantasy. So to ground it all, I thought I’d put it in a context so familiar everyone can recognize it: the daily grind of company drudge work.

Chris works for the Registry. It’s a business. It’s secretive, but it’s not the secret service. It’s not some underground cabal. It’s the kind of place where you or I might work, though hopefully in a different capacity. And Chris is an employee. He has paperwork to file. He has bosses he doesn’t trust. Like most people on the ground floor of a business, he often has a better idea what’s going on than his managers do. And that’s the source of much of the humor in the book. Because humor is the way we survive, it’s the thing that gets us through our day-jobs, especially if our day-jobs might just threaten our health, our sanity, and our lives.

One final matter. I’m a Brit, now resident in the US. Devil in the Wires starts in Iraq, makes a couple of stops in Paris and London, then races on to Chicago, where I’ve lived the last few years. Here’s a thing about us SF/fantasy types: we never feel at home in a place until we’ve smashed it, shattered it, invaded it with aliens, sent monsters roaring through its streets and exposed its seedy, supernatural underbelly to the world. Now, at last, I give Chicago what it needs: an ancient god, a crazy scheme for powering a city, three or four assorted killers, and a hero who’s torn between earning a crust and doing the right thing (no prizes for guessing which side he comes down on).

Believe me: it’s an act of love.

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Devil in the Wires: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Google Play|Kobo

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

The Big Idea: Wendy Suzuki

Science says: You have a hypothesis? Test it! And see if the results you get match your hypothesis? Neuroscientist Wendy Suzuki has a hypothesis about the brain, and how certain activities and thoughts can influence them, which she expands upon in her book (written with Billie Fitzpatrick) Healthy Brain, Happy Life. How did this hypothesis come about? From an interesting personal experience.

WENDY SUZUKI:

Can I use my thoughts, intentions and beliefs to change my brain and make myself smarter and happier? That’s the question I have been asking ever since I inadvertently did an experiment on myself and noticed how much aerobic exercise combined with positive intentions transformed not only my body, but my brain and ultimately, my life.

After years of neglecting my body and focusing too much of my energy on my work as a brain scientist, I finally decided to begin a regular exercise routine. I started with a personal trainer and focused on increasing my overall muscular and cardiovascular strength. As I got stronger, I felt great and much more energized.

And then I found a class at the gym that shifted my workout routine into high gear. The class combined physical movements from kickboxing, dance yoga and martial arts with positive spoken affirmations like “I am strong!” or “I believe I will succeed!”. It’s called intenSati. And it’s hard. You have to master the moves and the affirmations that go with them and change moves every four to eight counts or so. Shouting out the affirmations increases the cardio load of the workout and makes it much more challenging than just doing the moves on their own.

I was already in pretty good shape when I discovered this class at my gym. I always felt more energized after any workout. But intenSati was different. After each class, I was full of energy, in a great mood, and felt like I could take on the world. Not only that, when I left the gym after class, I was already looking forward to the next time I could do the workout.

Over time I noticed something even better. As I upped my workouts with intenSati, it became easier to write my scientific grants. I seemed to be able to focus my attention better while writing and make more and better associations or links between the journal articles that I read in support of my points. I realized I had just done an experiment on myself and the results were these striking brain changes.

In fact, the shift was so noticeable that I decided to find out what we knew about the effects of exercise on brain function. I found a vibrant scientific literature focused largely in rodents showing profound effects of exercise on the anatomy, physiology and function of brain areas important for attention, memory and mood. In humans, there was good evidence that exercise improved mood and attention, and promising indirect evidence that exercise improved memory function as well. In my book Healthy Brain, Happy Life, I write about my transformative experiences with exercise, and also about the what neuroscience understands about the dramatic impact of exercise on specific brain areas.

In myself, I noticed improved mood, attention and memory functions with increased levels of aerobic activity. But I realized that with intenSati, I wasn’t doing just exercise alone – I was combining it with positive affirmations. And I wondered if the exercise alone that was causing the brain effects I was experiencing? Or could it be the combination of exercise together with the positive affirmations that was doing the trick? As a scientist, I knew I could not answer this question simply by introspection. Instead I went to the scientific literature to see if there were any studies on the brain effects of combining of exercise and affirmations, something I started to call “intentional exercise”.

No study had ever examined the effects of exercise combined with affirmations, but I did find studies examining the effects of affirmations alone, which indicated that reciting positive affirmations improved mood. This is not so surprising. Perhaps the affirmations were just adding additional mood boosting power to the workout.

Somehow that didn’t seem quite right. Then, I stumbled upon the psychological studies of something called mindset, defined as the established set of attitudes held by somebody. This is a hot area of research because of exciting findings showing that shifting a person’s mindset by simply providing information can have significant changes on people’s sensory experiences and physiological responses.

What does this mean? My two favorite examples from this area of study were done by Professor Alia Crum of Stanford’s Psychology department. In one study, she showed that people who thought they were drinking an indulgent high calorie milkshake showed faster declines in a hunger-inducing hormone than when they thought the same exact milkshake was healthy and low calorie. In another study, she showed that when hotel room attendants were told that, according to the surgeon general, their workload of cleaning rooms and changing sheets was considered a good amount of exercise, the workers lost significant weight and had lower blood pressure compared to the control group of hotel room attendants who were not given that information.

These studies are examples of how adopted beliefs can significantly change physiological responses including hormone secretion and metabolism/weight loss. Maybe that’s what the affirmations were doing to me. Maybe the affirmations shifted my mindset to a positive one that included belief in myself and my success. Maybe the affirmations are adding the key ingredient of motivation to my workout. And maybe we could actually modulate the effects of the affirmations to focus on attention or memory or happiness depending on what we actually said.

We don’t know the answer to these questions right now. But my “big idea” is that we can test these hypotheses systematically and scientifically in the lab. It could be that adding positive intention to exercise (any kind of exercise), could be the secret sauce needed to boost the effects of exercise on both our bodies and our brains to their maximum levels. That’s exactly the question I’m starting to answer with the experiments I’m doing in my lab.

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Healthy Brain, Happy Life: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: Naomi Novik

Memory is sometimes a tricky beast, but is that always a bad thing? Naomi Novik has some thoughts on this, and how memories, hazy or otherwise, relate to her latest novel Uprooted.

NAOMI NOVIK:

Here’s a test. Two scenes from movies. Tell me if you remember either of these. (The test is unfairly skewed towards people who were conscious in the eighties, sorry.)

In his underground lair beneath Metropolis, Lex Luthor keeps a nest of monstrous pet lion-alligator things. They mostly sound like lions, but he is living in the sewers of metaphorical New York City, so they clearly should have been alligators. Let’s call them alligators. At the end, he feeds Ms. Teschmacher to the alligators for having betrayed him (Superman rescues her, as comic book movies were not yet inhospitable to ten year olds).

Scene two: in Jabba’s stronghold, after Luke Skywalker has been dropped into the Rancor’s pit, he leaps straight up into the air and catches the grating above that just dumped him down. He dangles from the iron bars as Jabba’s courtiers bash his fingers with weapons, and then drops again to continue fighting.

For years, whenever I attempted to describe the alligators to people, they thought I was out of my mind, but they really do exist, in a pair of deleted scenes edited out of the theatrical release of the movie and included only in a later TV release (for it must be admitted very obscure reasons).

When I describe the scene of Luke jumping for the grating, mostly people have a vague feeling of familiarity. But it doesn’t exist. The moment was described in the novelization but never released, never filmed. I remember it as clearly and vividly as the alligators. I even remember clearly a page out of a photo storybook I had showing the scene, which also doesn’t exist. I spent a long frustrated time trying to track it down before I finally accepted that my brain had just put that scene together and quietly tucked it into my memory like a small deceitful landmine.

I have also forgotten and falsely remembered many other things — stories I myself have written, what my child was like a year ago, the names and faces of good friends. People have told me too often that’s not what happened! how could you forget? I’ve never doubted all those studies about the unreliability of witnesses, because I’ve been made palpably aware of my own unreliability over and over.

But the gift of a strangely terrible memory is to be set free from the tyranny of the correct. I’ve spent a lot of time with young children in the last few years, seen how their brains are still working out the most useful things to hold on to, the lines between the real and the false. “Is Hillary Clinton really alive?” my four year old asks me doubtfully as we watch her declaration of candidacy on the iPad, the same way we watch episodes of Star Trek and Wonder Woman. (A few days later she confidently explains to a group of our friends that a woman named Hillary, who is alive, is going to be president after Barack Obama dies, cheerfully discarding layers of metaphor between U.S. politics and the Hunger Games.)

She has not yet reconciled herself to the frustrating, repeated failures of magic. Neither have I. Making sense of things that don’t quite make sense, we fill in the missing pieces, retelling our own stories and accumulating embellishment along the way. And magic is in those missing pieces. When to remember is to create, to imagine is to make true. Why shouldn’t Mr. Spock be a real person when Hillary Clinton is? Why shouldn’t there be magic, if the past can change out from under us?

Uprooted takes place in a Poland that exists only in my own mind. It grew out of the fairy tales my mother read to me in Polish when I was a child, not older than my own daughter, before I was too old to really believe in forest fairies and mountains of glass. After I was five we stopped speaking the language at home, and I didn’t learn to read it until I was much older. Even now I’m not fluent enough to read the stories by myself without help, but when I plug uncertain words into translation sites, the meanings that come out aren’t the ones I am looking for. The word olbrzymi means enormous, but not to me; in my head it means monstrously overgrown, tangled, terrifying.

But I reject the dictionary entries: they are correct but untrue. I am not just making things up when I tell you a story about a valley of living water and tangled forests, a castle of many towers. I am telling you about a place that I have been. There are many dangers in the unreliability of memory, but in the realm of fiction it opens the possibility for the reader to believe in magic too, to feel it creeping up on them, the faint uneasiness of could that have happened? There’s magic in accepting the gap between physical reality and the shifting electrical sands of our brain cells, and allowing ourselves to visit a real and impossible place.

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

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

The Big Idea: Karina Sumner-Smith

We all wish for that big break, whatever that “big break” might mean — but will that big break cause more problems than it solves? It’s a question that Karina Sumner-Smith considers in Defiant. Here she is to explain how it manifests in the world she’s created.

KARINA SUMNER-SMITH:

Imagine you won the lottery.

At one time or another, most of us have imagined what we’d do with that money. Debts eliminated, bills paid without a thought. Buying a house or a car, a bigger house or a better car, a yacht or a new wing for the family mansion with a secret library, a trapdoor, and a bouncy castle. (Or am I alone in that last bit?)

Yet despite the odds against our tickets coming up the big winner, we still dream—because it is, however unlikely, possible. It’s that possibility that keeps people clamoring. It’s hope.

But what if money wasn’t something that you have or earn, but a part of something that you are? What if affluence is as much a biological trait as your skin or hair, the shape of your face or the color of your eyes?

That’s the big idea behind the Towers Trilogy. In this far-future society, magic is everything. A power naturally generated by the human body, magic is used as money and fuel. It heals illness and prolongs life, powers machinery and keeps the lights on, and is a critical part of countless everyday tasks, big and small. The magic-rich reside in living, floating Towers that play out an unending political dance for position and altitude. Yet the people without enough magic end up in the Lower City—a rough, dangerous society that exists in the ruined skyscrapers on the ground.

The first book of the trilogy, Radiant, tells the story of Xhea, a homeless girl in the Lower City who has no magic at all. She can’t buy food or clothing, can’t open doors; she can’t even work the simplest of spells. Then she meets the ghost of a girl who has not died, and everything changes. That ghost, Shai, is a Radiant, a person who generates so much magical energy that her body and soul are used as a power plant—even in death. Despite being very different young women from disparate ends of their society, the two form a bond and fight to free Shai from her fate.

The second novel, Defiant, sees the Lower City’s social structure begin to break down. Because in saving Shai, Xhea brings a source of untold wealth to the poorest of the poor. In effect, the people of the Lower City win the lottery—and that sudden influx of power creates more problems than it solves.

I thought, when I started, that I was writing a fun little cross-genre tale about magic, ghosts, and a friendship between two very different young women caught in strange circumstances. It was only when I was neck-deep in story and paused to look around that I realized that I was, of course, writing about inequality and economic disparity.

Because if affluence is a biological trait, a direct result of your ability to generate magic, then so by extension is poverty. “The value of a person” has a very literal meaning—and cascading consequences for concepts of social class and economic mobility within this constructed world.

Dark concepts, all. Yet I’m also just trying to write a fun, different fantasy with ghosts and magic, war and politics and friendship, bounty hunters and sentient buildings, and strange creatures that stalk the ruined streets when night falls.

These books are also, in the end, about hope. Because when we dream about winning the lottery, we’re looking for a huge, outside force to change our lives for the good—to save us from our circumstances and create possibilities that didn’t exist before. Yet that change can come from the  inside, too. There are a myriad ways to defy the fates that biology and money and societal structures create; and people, working together despite terrible odds, can find ways to save themselves.

Defiant: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound | Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: Sabaa Tahir and Renée Ahdieh

Sabaa Tahir and Renée Ahdieh are authors of young adult fantasy, with books releasing in April and May, respectively. Their novels are both inspired by unique settings, so they decided to interview one another for The Big Idea and share how they approached worldbuilding from different perspectives.

SABAA TAHIR & RENÉE AHDIEH:

RA: The desert is a huge part of An Ember In the Ashes, but it’s not a setting we see in a lot of YA high fantasy, except in passing. What led you to pick it as your primary setting?

ST: I grew up in the Mojave Desert of California, midway between the highest and lowest points in the continental U.S. Living in such an extreme place made me feel like the land had a distinct personality. Sometimes, the desert loved me, like in the middle of a thunderstorm, or in the early morning, when a breeze came off the mountains. Other times, the desert hated me—like when it was 115 degrees out and the asphalt melted beneath my feet.

But it was always beautiful and dramatic. When I started writing Ember, I knew it was going to be a story of extremes—so the desert seemed like the perfect setting for it. It’s the place I know the best, so in a sense, this was also my way of paying homage to that.

RA: I could absolutely sense that in your writing—a world of extremes. It was both beautiful and harsh. So wonderful.

ST: Thank you! Speaking of wonderful, one of the things that struck me in reading The Wrath and the Dawn was the way you depicted food and clothing. It was so rich and evocative. Tell me about your inspirations.

RA: Thank you so much! I used to write for a food magazine, and food is a great passion of mine. When I began writing Wrath, I spent a lot of time researching Persian cuisine, which provided much of the inspiration for the food in the book. I knew I wanted those particular scenes to resonate with a reader. Some of the books I remember most fondly as a child did that for me—The Redwall series, for instance. I still want to try hotroot soup and beetroot pie! Similarly for the clothing, I did a lot of research into sartorial trends during both the Sassanid Empire and the Abbasid Caliphate. The importance of authenticity was always at the forefront of my mind.

ST:  I’d say you pulled it off very well. The first time I read Wrath, I stopped to cook myself a kebab feast because I got so hungry.

RA: Ah, kebabs! I’ll have to make plans to stowaway for the next feast. But before that, I’d love to know how you went about building the world of Ember.

ST: Like most of my writing process, I did my worldbuilding in layers. I didn’t want something strictly Roman, strictly Middle Eastern—or really strictly anything. I wanted a setting that reflected the complexity of Ember’s world. Much of the book takes place in the desert city of Serra, a place that was once beautiful, but that has been conquered and transformed. To reflect this, I wanted a mix of architectural design: the mud-brick houses of a recently created ghetto; the gentle arches of an old, beautiful city; the brutal simplicity of a black granite military academy. I layered each style in over multiple drafts, in the hopes that they ultimately reflected a city with a complex history.

RA: I love hearing about how you approached the setting and the architecture in Ember because it’s so different from what I did and so reflective of Ember’s tone and themes.

ST: How did you approach creating setting in Wrath?

RA: I knew I was going for something atmospheric and almost dreamlike. The world of Khorasan is loosely based on ancient Persia, but the palace in which most of the action takes place is, in its own way, emblematic of the kingdom and its young ruler, Khalid. It’s cold and foreboding—made of marble and stone—but rich and full of history. I wanted the main character, Shahrzad, to realize that the palace—the kingdom—had many secrets in its shadowed corners.

ST: Shahrzad’s internal commentary on the palace and the world she’s thrust into is one of the best parts of Wrath. Specifically, I thought it was a great way to showcase her growth.

RA: I appreciate that so much, as the character development in Ember is done so well. I think a large part of that has to do with the fascinating backstories you created for each of them. Tell us about myth in your world. It can be such a big part of YA fantasy—what role does it play in yours?

ST: As with the setting, I blended various traditions to come up with the mythical underpinnings for Ember. Two quick examples:  I added middle eastern mythology based on the stories my mother scared me with when I was a little girl—Jinn, Efrits, Ghuls and other supernatural creatures. But there are also a group of seers called the Augurs in my book. Their myth is very loosely based off of the Pythia—more commonly known as the Oracle at Delphi.

RA: The scenes with the Augurs were some of my favorites in Ember.

ST: The inspiration for Wrath came about from The Arabian Nights. But I can also see some nods to Beauty and the Beast in it. How did you approach tackling such well-loved classics and making them your own?

RA: I think the key is just that: making it your own. It was daunting trying to shape something well-known and beloved into something fresh and new, but I think it’s important to step back and distance yourself from the source material, especially when you’re writing a retelling. You have to give yourself the freedom to make it your story.

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An Ember in the Ashes: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

The Wrath and the Dawn: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

 

The Big Idea: Joanne M. Harris

Things change, but people often stay the same. This may or may not be a good thing for the gods who meddle in the affairs of mortals. But, as Joanne M. Harris explains regarding her novel The Gospel of Loki, it can present an opportunity… for a god of, shall we say, flexible morality.

JOANNE M. HARRIS:

Ever since mankind began to look to the heavens and speculate on how and why we came to be, there have been creation myths and stories of an apocalypse. Almost all myths and religions share this vision of an ephemeral world at the mercy of powerful gods wielding the might of the elements, and of a day of judgement, when the gods and their enemies will finally meet in battle.

Of course, a myth is just a religion that has fallen into disrepute. A god who loses his followers can no longer be a god, and his fate is usually to be relegated to the mythology shelves as other beliefs take over. Such has been the fate of the Norse gods, once revered across Northern Europe and Scandinavia. Their influence, however, remains. For centuries, artists, writers and composers from Wagner, Tolkien and Tennyson to Marvel Comics have taken inspiration from these tales of conflict, companionship and adventure.

Why? In terms of content, Norse myth is frustratingly limited. The oral tradition has been lost. What has been saved is fragmentary, filled with inconsistencies. Worse, the Christian scholars to whom we owe their survival have added their own impressions; some scornful, some sympathetic, designed to help interpret something they themselves did not fully understand. Even so, the myths remain unusually fresh and immediate. Perhaps because of the characters; accessible, even today, with all their very human flaws, ambitions, fears and relationships.

There’s Odin, the one-eyed leader; solitary, mysterious, isolated from the rest by virtue of his occult knowledge and the burdens of leadership. There’s his son, Thor; strong, loyal, brave (though maybe not too bright). There’s Bragi, the god of music and song, and his gentle wife, Idun, the healer. There’s Heimdall, the watchman; eagle-eyed, suspicious. There’s Týr, the one-armed god of war, and Frey, god of battle and the harvest, with his sister Freyja, the goddess of desires both sacred and profane. A gallery of gods and goddesses, some better-known than others, but all with their distinct personalities and attributes; their personal feuds; their secrets. All living together in Asgard, the sky citadel, which joins onto the world of Men by a bridge in the form of a rainbow.

This living in such close proximity makes for frequent clashes between the gods. Power-struggles between factions; conflicts between fathers and sons; flaring sexual chemistries. And to cap it all, there’s a traitor on board; Loki, the trickster in the camp, an alien brought into Asgard for mysterious reasons of his own by Odin, who is willing to tolerate his disruptive nature for the sake of his wicked intelligence. The result is pure drama; some comic, some cruel, all wildly entertaining.

It’s a story of tremendous richness, some parts of it recounted in prose, some in verses of bleak and powerful beauty. One of the most famous of these is Völuspá, the Prophecy of the Seeress, which tells the story of the world, from creation onwards, including the rise of the gods of Asgard and predicting their eventual doom – at Ragnarók, the cataclysmic battle in which the gods will face their enemies and lose, and the world will be plunged into darkness and perpetual winter.

And this is where my story begins – after the end of the world. Because although every culture has its own apocalypse myth, the world has always somehow survived, even when the culture has died. As a student of mythology, folklore and religion, I tend to see these stories of creation and apocalypse as part of an expanding tapestry, woven by human beings across the centuries as a means of understanding the universe. Our stories, like our civilizations, come in cycles of expansion and decline, like the seasons of the year, ending in the promise of rebirth and new beginnings. And looking at our history, with its dark ages, its terrible wars, its fallen kings, forgotten gods and ruined empires, it’s easy to see, with hindsight, that what may have once seemed like the end of the world was only the end of another cycle.

This is perhaps the central idea in The Gospel of Loki. Ragnarók has come and gone, if not quite as literally as the Seeress predicted. Odin and his entourage have been deposed in favour of new gods, new religions. And yet human nature has not changed as much. We still have the same fundamental concerns. We look to the skies with anxiety. We’re not afraid of demon wolves swallowing the sun and moon, but we are conscious of pollution, and smog, and of the hole in the ozone layer. The monsters we see destroying the world are not frost-giants, but giant corporations.

And in this changing world, Loki, of all the gods, has adapted to suit the changing times, and survives to tell his own story, in his own words, from the beginning of the Worlds to Ragnarók. That he should have survived his own death is perhaps not so surprising: after all, he is a very modern antihero. His sense of alienation; his revolt against authority; his refusal to conform; his choice of intelligence over brute force; his gender fluidity (he changes sexes several times, and on one occasion, even gives birth); his almost existential sense of humour – all these things make him, if anything, easier to understand for the modern reader than in the twelfth century.

Loki is always asking questions. Who am I? What am I? Why am I here? What happens if I break the rules? Why does it matter, anyway? In a world striving towards order, Loki was chaos incarnate. Now, in a world growing increasingly chaotic, Loki’s influence, too, has grown. He is no longer the voice of the lonely outsider, but the spokesman of the human condition.

That’s why I chose to give him such a modern idiom – not the language of epic poetry, but that of adolescent protest – and this is why his story remains so relevant to our modern world, not because it’s exactly true (Loki is, after all, the Father of Lies), but because the stories we tell say more about us than we know.

—-

The Gospel of Loki: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: Judith Tarr

The revolution in publishing that’s happened in the last few years has shaken up things, in ways that are sometimes good, and sometimes bad. But as Judith Tarr tells it, in a very significant way the shake allowed her to tell, in Forgotten Suns, a tale she’s always wanted to tell — how she wanted to tell it.

JUDITH TARR:

Some writers start their worldbuilding early. Whatever the inspiration—gaming, fairy tales, Tolkien, favorite authors and worlds, their own imagination—they begin as kids or teens or young adults, and the structures of their personal universe build and build until at some point they burst out in publishable form.

We can go all the way back to the Brontë siblings’ Gondal, and all the way forward to the likes of Joy Chant and Sherwood Smith. Tolkien not only inspired generations of fantasy works and worlds; he created his own over a long lifetime and in obsessive detail.

I first started building a world a year or two before I discovered Tolkien. I’d been reading science fiction for years: all the Golden Agers, James Schmitz, Alan E. Nourse, Asimov-Clarke-Heinlein of course, basically every volume on the science-fiction shelves at my small-town public library (a couple of towns over from Stephen King, who seems to have been doing the same thing). Andre Norton’s Moon of Three Rings enthralled me. Magic and spaceships in the same book, and humans turning into animals and then back again, and alien cultures and alien life forms and that whole sensawunda thing—I couldn’t get enough of it.

So here I was, larval writer, chewing my way through anything and everything that tasted even remotely good, and spinning it out in teeny-tiny handwritten scribbles on purloined notebook paper, narrow rule, two lines per ruled line and four or five at the top (ah, young eyes!). It wasn’t Tolkienian at all; it was Nortonesque and space-opera-esque. It had a starfaring empire and wandering singers and byzantine (for a tweenaged kid) politics and family drama on a grand, indeed operatic scale. There was a whole army of nondead kings; I didn’t know anything about the Chinese terracotta warriors, but if I had, I would have fist-bumped old Qin Shi Huang. He got it right. Except mine were alive (eventually) and had a terrible lot to say.

Then because I could, I genderflipped the protagonist, to see what would happen. This was like 1967; nobody even knew what genderflipping was. I changed all the “he” to “she,” stood back and said, “Whoa.” And it was weird, in the very gendered, very sexist Sixties, but I liked it.

There weren’t any white people, either. One of the characters was an albino (with the vision problems that go with it), but everybody else came in colors, the darker the better. Except one of the main characters had red hair, because Drama. But otherwise he looked, basically, Tibetan.

When I finally decided to come out as a writer, I shopped this thing around. It was epic, some 987 space-and-half typed pages in 10-point Courier, painstakingly transcribed on my high-school-graduation Smith-Corona. Editors passed, of course, but Lester del Rey wrote back, three whole pages, explaining what I’d done right, but also why he wasn’t going to buy it. I’d managed to straddle the line between fantasy and science fiction, and that, he said, wouldn’t fly in the marketplace. Too much fantasy for the science-fiction readers, but too much science fiction to sell as fantasy.

After a round of editorial no-thankses I tried the agent route, and the agent who took me on said much the same—then glommed on to a little thing was I playing with for amusement, about a monk who couldn’t age or die, and King Richard the Lionheart. And that was both fully categorizable and not quite like anything else out there (though R.A. McAvoy was shopping her medieval fantasy at the same time, and Katherine Kurtz had risen to stardom with her Deryni books); so I was encouraged to pursue that, and my “first” novel was historical fantasy instead of unclassifiable space adventure.

But I still loved that world and wanted to keep writing in it. So I thought, hey, there are millennia of history in this universe. Why not go back to the Bronze Age and write the origin story, base it on my favorite ancient epic hero, Alexander the Great (Mary Renault: another of my heart-and-soul authors)—and sell it as epic fantasy. Which I did, and my agent did, and nobody was the wiser.

But I’d always worldbuilt with a science-fictional slant; my “elves” owed far more to the X-Men than to Tolkien. If I was playing with ancient history, I was also, in my head, plotting all the way into space and beyond. The market wouldn’t let me do anything about it, but it was still there.

Then publishing went down with the rest of the economic ship, and I was in steerage, so I sank with it. But ebooks had become a thing, crowdfunding was a thing, and I clawed my way to the air and realized…

I could write anything I damned well wanted.

I could write that space opera. I could set it on that world, in that universe. I could roll all those nondead opinionated kings into one highly opinionated individual, more or less credibly explain the how and why, and meanwhile, science had discovered the multiverse and psi powers were out of vogue but did I care? I could do whatever I wanted. I could even intersect the imaginary world and the more or less real extrapolated Earth of a thousand years or so in the future, with space travel and colonization and what the hell, evil Psycorps (thank you, Babylon-5) and financially strapped archaeologists and my favorite space-opera construct, the space whale or sentient starship (we love you, Moya, and commemorate you). There could even be real opera, and my head was giving me its own sound track for that; some of it made it into the book, and twisted the plot in oh so twisty ways in the process.

The whole point was to go wild in my own personal universe, but make it work as a long-form fiction. To have one whole hell of a lot of fun, in short, and rock that whole straddle-the-genres thing. Stop hiding from it or apologizing for it, and own it. Bloody-handed Bronze Age warlord, evil (and not so evil) psi masters, parallel universes, space whales, stargates (I had them first!), lost-world mysteries, and all.

—-

Forgotten Worlds: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|iBook|Powell’s

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

 

The Big Idea: Ryk E. Spoor

Writers, rejoice! Ryk E. Spoor has solved the Second Novel in a Trilogy problem! What soloution does he apply, and how did he apply it to his novel Phoenix in Shadow? The answers are below.

RYK E SPOOR:

All of my books came with their own unique challenges; Grand Central Arena was supposed to capture the old-era “sensawunda” while somehow staying in the modern sensibility, and then its sequel Spheres of Influence had to live up to its predecessor; the Boundary trilogy had all the restrictions of hard SF to address, plus the not-insignificant challenges of collaboration with a much more experienced author; and of course my self-published Oz-based novel Polychrome had the physical challenges of getting published at all.

But in some ways, Phoenix in Shadow, second in the Balanced Sword trilogy, presented one of the most daunting challenges of all. Like many epic fantasies, the Balanced Sword is really a single long story told in three novels, and anyone who’s read (or watched) any number of trilogies knows that there is a major problem with most second installments: they cannot resolve the major conflict, and in fact are supposed to continue building tension, and creating challenges, for the main characters. They’re not really even expected to have resolutions; more like cliffhangers, really; the middle’s there to bridge the gap between beginning and end. Frodo and Sam are stuck in Cirith Ungol and everything else is sort of hanging fire at the end of The Two Towers; Han Solo’s frozen and kidnapped, Luke’s lost his hand, and the Empire’s pretty much on top in The Empire Strikes Back; and so on.

I personally hate that. I like my heroes to get some kind of victory in every book. Yet I obviously couldn’t have the real plot of the Balanced Sword resolved at this point.

But I did have one saving grace: there was another major character with a separate quest. Tobimar Silverun, searching for his people’s lost homeland. When I originally worked out the plotline for what became the Balanced Sword, I didn’t know who would be with Kyri on her quest; Tobimar was one of several possibilities. Once I decided on him, I realized that the mysterious “Moonshade Hollow” was a perfect candidate for the lost homeland (I’d had a few other possibilities, but once he was linked to Kyri and Evanwyl, this one leapt out at me).

So there was this tantalizing possible way out of the Middle-Trilogy Trap: resolve Tobimar’s plot, in a suitably dramatic way, if I could show how that connected to Kyri’s mission; this would allow a real victory for the heroes, give them progress towards unraveling the main mystery, and still have plenty left for the final volume.

I also decided to completely discard a secondary plot I’d originally planned out – one in which we would follow Kyri’s Aunt Victoria and King Toron as they dealt with the invasion of Zarathan by the King of All Hells. I realized that this side plot split the focus of the novel; while it was very tempting to show some of that war directly to the readers, this would be taking up chapters of the novel with characters we hadn’t really gotten to know fighting battles that wouldn’t have any direct bearing on the main plot. It was a bit painful, but I knew once I thought about it that it was the right decision: I had to focus on Kyri, Tobimar, Poplock, and their personal adversaries, and let the rest of the world take care of itself.

I’d always had a vague idea of what Moonshade Hollow was like – a corrupted wilderness, yes, but there had to be people living there, too. Originally I envisioned a sort of grim fantasyland, something like the faux-Gothic villages of Hammer films or the Ravenloft setting of D&D (not surprisingly, as Kyri herself had originated in a Ravenloft-based campaign run by Jeff Getzin many years ago). I sketched out the interior, started figuring out details.

(SPOILERS coming! If you want to read Phoenix in Shadow without being at all spoiled, you probably don’t want to read farther!)

With Tobimar’s quest present, I immediately knew there had to be a link to his background – the “Seven Stars and Single Sun”, which quickly translated to a total of eight cities. Originally I envisioned a sort of spiral through this dark land, with them getting more and more evidence of some dark force running things, and an eventual confrontation with the demonlord Kalshae, who was trying to make use of the lost artifacts of Terian that were part of Tobimar’s heritage.

But I wasn’t satisfied with this; it was too simple. Kyri’s people knew dark and evil things came out of Rivendream Pass, from Moonshade Hollow, so everyone – readers and characters alike – would expect some monstrous dark realm. Dark and tragic gothic-y realms have been done to death in fiction.

So I thought: What if it wasn’t dark at all?

As soon as I thought that, it was obvious; the eight artifacts of Terian, one of the greatest of the gods of good on Zarathan, would fight any corruption in their area, provide safe havens for the humans left there, allow them to resist being corrupted themselves, and perhaps even allow them to rebuild a civilization. The dark forces that had caused that fall would perhaps try to guide that civilization’s development, but they couldn’t ignore the power of one of the greatest of the gods. The question then became what that civilization, and that place, would really be like.

The answer came from my son Christopher. He had recently become a fan of the Touhou series, mostly through the fan art, and he showed me the fan-produced animations “Memories of Phantasm.” As soon as I saw the images of Gensokyo, a shining land of beauty, and the innocent-looking inhabitants with godlike powers, I knew this was the kind of image I needed. Kaizatenzei, the Unity of Seven Lights, was born.

This would not be just a safe haven within evil; it would be a shining refuge, a perfect paradise, a place that would leave the heroes wondering from whence came the evil outside its walls, and where their true enemies could be, and because I knew how magic works I realized instantly that this would allow those enemies to remain well hidden. In addition, all of that deific power within the Stars and Sun would give them a suitably lofty goal to aspire to: the corruption and theft of the power of Terian itself. The demonlord Emirinovas emerged as a second major player, and I realized that there was a potential for considerable character progression with her present.

I had two last problems: first, where was all the corrupt power that warped the surrounding forest and Rivendream Pass coming from? The demons running the show would be hiding theirs, not releasing it to be wasted on the landscape outside. But what could possibly be powerful enough, huge enough, to corrupt an entire valley –

And I knew the perfect answer. There was the… worm, so to speak, in the apple of the whole valley, and the real final adversary they’d have to face. This also addressed my preference for dramatics; the final conflict of a book needs not just buildup, but sufficient complexity in the dénouement that it lasts a while – in general, several cycles of conflict, reversal, and triumph to give the reader a more satisfying end. Thus at the end of Phoenix Rising the final combat really starts with Kyri’s unexpected capture by Thornfalcon, then goes through cycles of hope and danger with Tobimar’s arrival, near-murder, Kyri’s escape and intervention, Thornfalcon’s death, the unleashing of the horde, the heroes nearly being overwhelmed, Xavier’s nick-of-time arrival, and the final destruction of the gateway of the monsters – and then, after an interlude, the confrontation with the remaining Justiciars at the Temple of Myrionar.

I now had a three-layered set of enemies, all of whom would have to be defeated in turn: the demons who thought they were running the show, the apparent servant of the demons who was actually running the show behind the scenes (and who had been the supplier of Thornfalcon’s monsters), and the source of corruption which had been sealed away by both.

More, as I developed this, I had a new place worth seeing, something that would make the journey to that battle one worth traveling, and new scenes came to life in my head – especially ones highlighting the character that most readers seemed to like best, the little Toad, Poplock Duckweed. Most importantly, I had a suitable climax to the second book… and the true Big Bad of the trilogy still waiting for the final showdown in Phoenix Ascendant.

I think that with all this, I’ve managed to evade the curse of the middle-of-trilogy. I hope readers will agree, because I want them to enjoy the journey as much as the conclusion!

—-

Phoenix in Shadow: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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The Big Idea: Ramez Naam

Very quickly, Ramez Naam has become a name to be reckoned with in science fiction, with a series of near-future novels that question reality — or what we use to perceive it, and how that can be manipulated. Apex, the final book in Naam’s Nexus trilogy, is out now, and Naam is here to explain how it interacts with his previous novels — and where it takes us from there.

RAMEZ NAAM:

Global protest goes techno-telepathic. Near-Singularity meets Occupy and the Arab Spring.

Apex is the third and final of my Nexus novels, concluding the trilogy started with Nexus and Crux.

The science at the heart of the books has been consistent. Nexus introduced a technology – packaged as a drug – that could link human brains, with their senses, thoughts, and emotions, across short distances or eventually across the net. That technology brought awesome potential to increase human communication and human innovation – or to be used for mind control, assassination, or political subversion. Swallow a dose and connect, if you dare.

The big idea at the heart of Nexus was a question of freedom and control. Who gets to decided whether you can put such a technology in your brain? Who gets to decide whether scientists can make advances in such technologies? What happens when the War on Drugs and the War on Terror smash into a promising technology that looks like a drug, that’s used as a drug, and that’s similar to other technologies abused by criminals and terrorists? That tension – and the very cool science – drove the book from San Francisco to the back streets of Bangkok; Shanghai and Washington DC to Buddhist monasteries in the mountains of Thailand and more.

Crux personalized that idea to one of consequences and responsibility. When you’ve built something that has a huge positive impact, but you find that it is, in fact, being abused, where does one’s responsibility end? How far would you go to stop the problems? What lines would you cross? Or, how far would you go to use the power that creating such a technology has given you, to make the world a better place, even if that meant crossing far more lines?

Apex is the end. And the big idea is now larger. In a world where people have been lied to by the powers above them, where they’ve had their freedoms curtailed, what happens when a radical new technology is inserted? What happens when all the hopes, and joys, and tools, and rage of humanity can be transmitted from mind to mind, even more intimately than the web allows us to do today?

Reading Nexus and Crux, people have commented to me on the linkage to the NSA spying programs that were revealed by Edward Snowden. I must say, that was accidental. I wrote those books before Edward Snowden ever stepped forward. But the War on Drugs and the War on Terror, and the ratcheting up of both surveillance and restriction in an attempt to protect people – even at the cost of their freedom – was very much on my mind.

In Apex the influences are more direct. From the Arab Spring, to Ukrainian uprisings that brought down a government, to environmental protests in China; from Occupy to Ferguson and now Baltimore; the last few years have been marked with protests – protests that are shareable in real-time with pictures, videos, and tweets that make it almost like being there. The real-time ability to share what we see, hear, and think is amplifying global protest movements. And that’s changing the world.

How much further would that go in a world where nearly-telepathic communication via a technology like Nexus existed? Would that be good? Would that be bad? Would the ability to actually experience someone else’s emotions, their life, and what they’ve been through fan the flames of protests? Could it bring more understanding, instead? Could groups of thousands or hundreds of thousands of neurallylinked protesters stay cohesive? Could they stay peaceful? Would they turn to riots? How would governments react? Can governments even survive such a world?

To ask such a question, I couldn’t restrict it to the United States. A lot of the action in Apex takes place on American soil. But just as much occurs in China, where technology is a double-edged sword when it comes to freedom, and nearly as much in India, the rising superpower we tend to forget. When technology smashes into society, the impact is global. And if protesters around the world are seeing their experiences and emotions go viral, directly from mind to mind, would something like the Arab Spring turn into a much more explosive Global Spring?

Those are some of the questions that fascinated me. The result, I’m told, is the most explosive of the Nexus novels so far. It’s also one that’s also shot through with the other questions the books have wrestled with: What defines the boundaries of human? Should we stop people from pushing farther?

And, looming in the background of all of these books until now: How will humanity react when it eventually comes face-to-face with a new generation, perhaps even a new species, with abilities that radically surpass our own? How should we?

I had a heck of a good time writing these books. I hope you enjoy them.

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

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The Big Idea: Hermione Eyre

For her novel Viper Wine, author Hermione Eyre decided to get naughty. Not in the way you might think, however — her particular brand of naughtiness involves time slips and the Thin White Duke. Here’s Eyre now to explain herself a little bit more.

HERMIONE EYRE:

I didn’t want to have a Big Idea. I wanted to write a conventional historical novel. Or at least, my conscious mind did. My unconscious had other ideas. I fought it, I really did. But in the end I wrote Viper Wine, a novel set in London in 1632 amongst King Charles I’s courtiers, featuring Neil Armstrong, Naomi Campbell, Java Script Code and David Bowie lyrics. Oh, and super-snails that skid as fast as mercury.

Time, in Viper Wine, is permeable. The intellectual world of the novel is elastic. There is no time-travel per se; only one character, the alchemist, scholar, lover, explorer, pirate and archetypal Renaissance over-achiever, Sir Kenelm Digby, is subject to premonitions of the future, which he barely notices except “in twitches and pratfalls and hypnogogic visions when he was on the edge of sleep”. To me this was an exhilarating Big Idea, allowing a historical novel open and letting in our modern preoccupations and concerns, conjuring both the comic and sublime ways time present is contained in time past.

I’m superficially a law-abiding, might-I-have-the-salt-PLEASE type of person. But when I’m writing I often seem to access another, less pretty part of myself, and I really liked the transgressive shock of introducing these anachronisms into an otherwise well-behaved, well-researched historical novel. And as anyone who paints, or crafts knows, sometimes you can cheat perspective, or intensify colours by jolting the eye, and on the same principle, these outlandish red herrings made the book’s 1630s setting feel more real.

Still, it took me a while to commit to the risk of this approach. For about a year (I was also working full-time as a journalist) I kept two versions of Viper Wine running concurrently on my desktop, one “with special effects”, one without. I was always drawn to the naughty version, had more ideas for it, and felt a buzz when I read it back. I decided to follow my heart and write the whole book that way, but I fully expected publishers further down the line to tell me to cut the Calypso ice cream wrappers (Sir Kenelm finds one on Mount Vesuvius) and produce a saleable, marketable piece of historical fiction.

Except they never did. The first 30,000 words of the novel was sold by my agent Charlie Campbell (then at Ed Victor) to the legendary editor Dan Franklin at Jonathan Cape, who has previously edited Salman Rushdie, Ian McEwan, Martin Amis, Audrey Niffeneger…. It was then bought by the brilliant Zachary Wagman at Hogarth in the USA. So the Big Idea was now legitimate.

Viper Wine is the name of an opium-rich beauty potion that was fashionable with the ladies of Charles I’s court – until May morning 1633 when the famous beauty Venetia, Lady Digby, was discovered lying dead within the blue drapes of her four-poster bed. Her fondness for Viper Wine was popularly believed to have killed her, although suspicion also fell on her poor grieving husband, Sir Kenelm Digby, who was known to have access to many rare poisons in his alchemical laboratory. The Digbys were a golden couple, slightly exotic due to their Catholicism, and frequently painted by their friend the great artist Anthony Van Dyck, who rushed to Venetia’s bedside to paint a deathbed portrait, and then immortalized the grieving Sir Kenelm dressed as a hermit, his eyes red from crying. So far, so true.

Why improve on reality? Except the side of the story I really wanted to tell – Venetia’s – has, like so many women’s perspectives, fallen out of the official records, her letters and writings lost, even the number of children she bore unremembered. We know that she was aristocratic, motherless and scandalous in her youth, going about unchaperoned and nicknamed “bona roba” for her curves. We know that her reputation was growing rackety, with one Lord killed for her in a duel, when marriage to Sir Kenelm redeemed her and she became penitent, publishing pious writings much in the same way a reformed celebrity hellraiser publishes organic cookbooks today. But she was not entirely suited to this new persona, and we know that she gambled, and drank Viper Wine. Anachronistically speaking, she was a total diva, proud and self-hating, magnificent and vulnerable all at once. She was a character I could work with. Time, to her, is mortal, linear, fixed. Her desire not to age brings her to an early death. She comes to no understanding, to no agreement with time.

For Sir Kenelm, on the other hand, time is circular, elastic, eternally recurring. As an alchemist who was once taught transcendental meditation by a Brahmin, he was open to eastern-inspired theories about the circularity of time, represented by the ourobouros eating its own tail. He lived at a time when men (sadly, usually only men) were not restricted to one specialism or expertise, but behaved as if their time were limitless, mastering all the Arts: he had a never-quenched thirst for travel, knowledge, experiment, friendship and fame. Zelig-like, he pops up in the most unexpected places. He visited the hysterical nuns at Loudun (subject of Huxley’s book and Ken Russell’s film starring Oliver Reed and Vanessa Redgrave); he is a cameo in a novel by Umberto Eco; I believe he was also painted by Picasso*.

Thinking Big and exploring the concept of time in the novel meant that I could include those extraordinary serendipities we all experience in life but which rarely fit neatly into received fictional genre norms. For example, I went to visit Gayhurst House in Buckinghamshire, formerly Sir Kenelm’s home, now luxury apartments – and stood where he would have practiced the semi-devotional, occult and repetitive work of alchemy, which he believed would hasten the age of universal peace and plenty. I discovered, with rising goosebumps, that in 1945 Gayhurst was part of Britain’s top secret code-breaking mission run by Alan Turing to decipher Hitler’s orders to his army. On the same spot where Sir Kenelm would have made the white sulphur rise, Turing’s decryption machines whirred and hummed, bringing peace.

When you take a leap and create an alternative universe, it begins to gather its own momentum. “That’s so Viper Wine!” I would think on the subway, looking at a poster of an airbrushed megastar. Or, “I’m having that in the book,” while cutting out an advert for a “must-have” beauty serum. Snake oil in new bottles, indeed. The historical novel is a wonderfully elastic genre and permitted me to graft our age together with the decadent court of Charles I, soon to be engulfed by civil war and regicide.

Sir Kenelm believed that we are all links in the golden chain of knowledge, and Van Dyck painted a famous self-portrait with a golden chain around his neck. Before I committed to my Big Idea, I thought that those chains were just mysterious Renaissance symbols. But as I wrote the novel I wanted to write, rather than the one I might cynically have believed would be popular, I began to see to see that we are connected to the past and future, ourselves links in an ongoing chain. Viper Wine is intended to make us question how future generations will link back to us. It is the same with the process of writing and reading, since one is nothing without the other. So thank you for reading this, and I wish you all the best of your own Big Idea; may it also take you to places you never expected to go.

*actually this is more likely to be Velasquez’s portrait from Picasso’s Las Meninas suite, although it does look uncannily like Sir Kenelm, in costume and appearance.

—-

Viper Wine: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound

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The Big Idea: Lev AC Rosen

“Worldbuilding” isn’t always about building a world — sometimes it’s about taking the world and tearing it down it in one way or another. Lev AC Rosen wanted to use New York City for his novel Depth, but first it needed to be… distressed. Here’s how he went about that.

LEV AC ROSEN:

I’ve always loved noir. Hard-boiled detectives in particular, but I don’t mind an everyman in over his head, either. And I always knew I wanted to write a detective story at some point. I knew I wanted it to be in New York, because I was born and raised here and love my city, and more specifically in my neighborhood, Manhattan’s financial district, because the buildings here are old and look the way I think a noir should look. I also knew I wanted it to feel like the movies I grew up on, movies like The Big Sleep, The Maltese Falcon, The Blue Dahlia, Laura

The issue I had was combining those two ideas.I don’t know if you’ve been in the financial district lately, but it’s not so gritty anymore. My neighborhood is losing its old school charm in many ways. We have shiny, thousand-foot high rises going up all over the place. Down the street from me is a “modern” building which from a distance looks like a stick of melting rancid butter.

I could have done a period piece. I thought about it. But I also wanted to write a female Bogart, and while I’m sure someone could write that as a period piece, it wasn’t working for me.

So my Big Idea was this: go forward to go back. Flood the world (or at least the new ugly high rises in my neighborhood).Take shiny, cleaned up Manhattan and bring it back to when it had some grit.I just looked ahead to where I thought we could be headed, and melted the ice caps. I even threw in some more ice to raise the sea level higher and faster than most estimates. Then I used some technology to save all the buildings I wanted and strung rickety bridges and decommissioned boats between them. I lit the city with the green glow of algae generators. It may not have had the same old grit, but it had salt, and that was close enough. This was a world I could shape in a classically noir mode, with shady dealings, hard-boiled banter, conspiracy… and, of course, murder.

That was the general idea, anyway, but as often happens with writing, it got a little away from me. Simone, my private eye protagonist, became something more than just a female Bogie – her friendships became stronger, her ex more important, her flirting and flings… well, those stayed pretty Bogie-like, though without the “can’t show this” aura of 1930s Hollywood. I also brought in new characters from the mainland, and from Europe, to show what was happening to the rest of the world and to offer differing viewpoints on it. These new characters and their experiences helped to build the book up in more complex ways.

We only catch glimpses of life beyond New York City in Depth, but thinking about it helped me understand what sort of people would live in this flooded world. Sometimes I felt I was creating too bleak a future, while other times I worried I was in danger of glamorizing global warming—noir, even when gritty, is still glamorous in many respects. Ultimately, I think, the tension between those two concerns helped to make Depth feel more noir. Because noir does walk the line between glamour and horror, righteousness and despair. My Big Idea became bigger than I meant it to, but I’m pleased with the results. It’s the noir world I wanted and I love it and am terrified of it at the same time.

__

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

Visit the book page at Regan Arts. Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s site and his blog. Follow him on Twitter or Facebook.

The Big Idea: Bud Sparhawk

Bud Sparhawk is not only possibly the best treasurer that the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America has ever had (says a guy fortunate enough to have been on the organization’s board with him), he’s also a hell of a writer, as evidenced by his latest novel, Distant Seas, which garnered a coveted starred review from Publishers Weekly. Bud’s here now to talk about the book, and what previously earth-based skill takes to other worlds in it.

BUD SPARHAWK:

The really big idea in this make-up novel is that sailing, balancing the forces of wind and water, is as much an art as a science. Running a true line with your hand on the rudder and the mainsail’s line in hand is both an expression of love between you and the boat and calculating the solutions to multiple simultaneous equations.

This story is my way of conveying the experience of sailing to readers who have never felt the responsiveness of a lively hull, heard the thrum of the wind on the lines, or felt the wind and water’s tension that integrates sailor, sail, rudder, hull, and keel into a single living creature.

I’ve always thrilled to reading about sailors racing around the world, braving mishaps, and surviving terrible weather by taking every precaution to avoid disaster.  I learned to sail on the Chesapeake Bay as a teen and was able to renew my love of sailing after we returned to the Annapolis area (aka Sailing Capitol of the World[1].)

There were several streams that brought Distant Seas into reality.  The first of these was my second professional short story, Alba Krystal[2], which described miners plunging into the dense atmosphere of Grimm, a gas giant, to collect volcanic gems thrown into the planet’s fierce winds.  That idea popped back into my head when, twenty years later, I read an article[3] on surface gravity and realized that a survivable two-gravity field would be well within Jupiter’s atmosphere.

And if, at that two-gravity level, there was as sharp a density divide as between air and water then someone could build a sailboat and, wherever there are sailboats, there will be a race.

But sailing on Jupiter is only one part of the story.  The “seas” on which Louella and Pascal race include Earth’s dangerous Southern Ocean, the wine-red seas of Jupiter, and the arid high plains of Mars.

The most difficult part of writing these stories was to imbue the protagonists and their sponsors, partners, and competitors with life, to give each of them individuality in speech patterns, personalities, and histories as well as delve into their motivations.  I worked hard to subtly show the forces that shaped each of them by continually trimming long and boring narrative passages until only the essence remained and then seeding these fragments among conversations, asides, and observations.

The second hardest part was making the sailing technology realistic. I did this by giving first general descriptions and then focusing on specific parts of the design; efficient for Earth’s around-the-world single-handed sailboats, rugged for the Jupiter dirigible/submarine craft, and light for Mars’ sand racers.

Do not for a moment believe that any of these plot lines emerged pure and unsullied from my brilliant mind. Much was composed while sailing on the Bay, sweating at the computer, and at random and unpredictable times. Paragraphs were shifted, descriptions changed, and entire swathes of passages obliterated.  I even typed the Martian race while wearing an arm cast that forced me to use a single finger of my write[4] hand.

But aside from developing interesting characters and believable technology, I wanted to get across the pure joy of balancing wind and water when carving a smooth line across the “seas” of the title.  I wanted to put reader in the cockpit with lines in hand, an eye to the sail, and a firm hand on the rudder.  I want you to be there, in the moment, as the protagonists deal with their problems in a realistic way. There are no unflinching heroes in this book, no miraculous salvations, and no mystical forces.  There are only people doing their best while fighting the winds and handling whatever fate deals them.

This is a book about being a sailor!

[1] Capitol refers to the State’s capitol, not sailing’s.

[2]  Analog Science Fiction/Science Fact, January 1977

[3]  “Quantized Surface Gravity?” Analog, March 1994

[4] I apologize.

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Distant Seas: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: Bishop O’Connell

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

BISHOP O’CONNELL:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Forgotten: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound

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

The Big Idea: David Walton

 

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

DAVID WALTON:

I love stories that tie my mind in knots.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Big Idea: Betsy Dornbusch

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

BETSY DORNBUSCH:

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

It’s send him back home, of course.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Big Idea: Ken Liu

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

KEN LIU:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Two Narrative Traditions

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

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

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

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

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

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

Re-imagining

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Big Idea: Cat Rambo

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

CAT RAMBO: 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Big Idea: Brian Upton

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

BRIAN UPTON:

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

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

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

And then things got weird.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Big Idea: Catherynne Valente

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

CATHERYNNE VALENTE:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Adulthood is not very different, honestly.

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

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

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

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

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

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