The Big Idea: Ryan David Jahn

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

RYAN DAVID JAHN:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Breakout: Amazon Barnes & Noble Indiebound Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: Fonda Lee

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

FONDA LEE:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Big Idea: Jess Nevins

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

JESS NEVINS:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Big Idea: Thoraiya Dyer

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

THORAIYA DYER:

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

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

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

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

A rainforest.

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

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

And what would they have instead of wine?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Big Idea: Mur Lafferty

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

MUR LAFFERTY:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Big Idea: Charles Stross

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

CHARLES STROSS:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Big Idea: Lawrence Millman

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

LAWRENCE MILLMAN:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—-

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

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

The Big Idea: Tim Lees

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

TIM LEES:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—-

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

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

The Big Idea: Veronica Roth

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

VERONICA ROTH:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—-

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

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

The Big Idea: Nick Cutter

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

NICK CUTTER:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—-

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

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

The Big Idea: Rusty Coats

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—-

Avalon: AmazonBarnes & NobleInk n Beans Press

Read an excerpt.

The Big Idea: Alan Baxter

In today’s installment of “write what you know — and then make something up,” author Alan Baxter describes how two of his loves — fiction and martial arts — combine together in Bound, the first of his Alex Caine series of books.

ALAN BAXTER:

The Big Idea behind Bound is a collision of two big ideas. In previous work, I’d often been commended for writing great fight scenes. This isn’t too much of a surprise given that I’m not only a writer, but also a career martial artist. I’ve been training and teaching for more than 30 years, and competed a lot in my youth. I won a British National Championship title in 1996. But while many of my characters could fight and my books often had combat scenes, I’d never written a protagonist who was first and foremost a martial artist. Not simply a fighter, but someone who embodied the full ideals of wu de, or martial virtue. After all, every long-term martial artist will tell you that combat is the least of our training. Discipline and self-expression, determination and personal development, inner peace and outer calm, these things are greater. So Alex Caine, top-of-his-game MMA contender, was born. He eschews the bright lights and complications of big events like the UFC and has made his name in underground contests around the world, especially in Sydney, Australia, where the story starts. That was the first big idea.

But of course, it’s not enough to have a good character without a story, and that’s where the other big idea, the main one really, came in. I’ve long wanted to write a book that’s essentially a reworking of the big fat fantasy quest, but set in our world in the modern day and paced like a thriller. Alex Caine was the ideal person to use for this story, and Bound started to take shape. That’s where some challenges emerged.

The big fat fantasy quest relies on building a world that the author can shape to fit the ideas they want to use. They create a magic system, societies, the “thing” the hero is chasing or saving, the type of bad guys the hero has to fight or avoid, and so on. The way I wanted to do it, using a modern contemporary setting, meant I had to have to all that, but I also had the constraints of structuring my mythology to fit the existing world. Obviously, I’m not the first to have done this – it’s not even the first book of my own where I’ve done it – but the pace and ideas I wanted to use this time meant I needed to make a lot of disparate stuff fit together. That’s also the beauty of fiction. That creation is what drives me. I’m a shameless genre-masher too – I like to have elements of crime, mystery, noir, horror and other stuff wrapped up in my supernatural urban fantasy, and I wanted it to have thriller pacing. That page-turning quality is something I love to read, so it’s also how I like to write.

All those things seemed contradictory at first, but on starting the book, having to build a mythical world within our known world, actually helped to guide the process and shape the story. (I realized there was a lot more to the history I was building than I could tell in one book, which is why the Alex Caine Series is a trilogy, though each book is a standalone thriller.) I let our world guide me. Researching places to set the story helped me to create it. Taking the characters to remote islands off Canada to battle creatures corrupted by bad magic, or to the underworld of Rome to fight shapeshifting monsters, gave me unique perspectives to set my mythology against, and new secondary characters took shape as much from our world in which they exist as they did from the other world I constructed for them. In hindsight, that’s obviously no surprise, but it was a fascinating process in the writing.

This naturally coupled with the way the main character’s training transferred to this secondary world. Alex Caine is a skilled fighter but has no idea there’s latent magical energy in him, until someone points it out at the start of Bound. Alex wants nothing to do with this weird world underlying everything he knows, but the more he tries to escape it, the deeper he’s drawn in. So he falls back on his training and his martial philosophy. Through the book, Alex uses the physical, mental, and philosophical skills of his martial life against ever more dangerous and mystical beasts and situations. The voice of his teacher echoes in his mind, guiding him along. So I got to write a book that explores what it is to be a modern martial artist, against a backdrop of monsters, magic, and mayhem, all in a big fat fantasy quest contained in a 350-page modern thriller.

I love this job.

—-

Bound: Amazon|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: Monica Valentinelli

When Monica Valentinelli become annoyed with cliches in science fiction and fantasy, she didn’t get mad — she got creative. She’s here to explain how that lead to Upside Down: Inverted Tropes in Storytelling, the new anthology she’s co-edited.

MONICA VALENTINELLI:

I wish I could claim that I was brilliant enough to concoct the idea for Upside Down: Inverted Tropes in Storytelling with no inspiration or prompting whatsoever, but sadly that was not the case. In fact, the idea didn’t originate from my head at all, but my heart. After reading a flame war about how sloppy tropes and damaging clichés didn’t need to be changed, that Chainmaille Bikinis were just fine the way they were and it didn’t matter if the Black Man Died First, I became increasingly frustrated. Wait a minute, I told myself after a heavy sigh. Surely, these readers wanted stories that were achingly honest and reflective of the people and our world around us? Surely, they didn’t want to read yet another plot detailing how Scientists Cause the Apocalypse or the magic of Talking Animals? Or the Catholic Exorcism? Or the Villain Had a Crappy Childhood?

Surely? Maybe? Hopefully?

My frustration quickly devolved into angst in mere minutes the more I read, because I believe that tackling tropes in the context of a story is neither unusual nor politically-motivated. Many, many authors have utilized tropes in their stories either on a conscious or unconscious level to varying degrees in order to comment on them and manage audience expectations. Thankfully, as soon as I turned off Twitter my angst was quickly replaced with inspiration. It wasn’t enough for me to roll my eyes, I wanted to zero in on tropes in my own work in order to satisfy my creative itch. Initially, I had planned to write a collection specifically geared toward flipping tropes and clichés omnipresent in science fiction, fantasy, and horror. Not five minutes later, however, I realized how incomplete and misguided my efforts would be.

To do a proper job for the reader, I thought to myself, this wasn’t the sort of project that I alone should write. I recognized that if I were to approach the subject of tropes and clichés, I couldn’t ignore omnipresent and oft-repeated stereotypes about race, gender, sexual identity, etc. in addition to long-standing genre tropes. Excluding those tropes wasn’t an option for me. What’s more, I felt that my perspective would be so one-sided, the reader’s satisfaction would suffer as a result of my paltry attempt to satisfy my own ego. My big idea was bigger than me, and to pull it off I needed help.

After I came to this realization, I decided that my original idea would be best explored in an anthology filled with multiple authors. So, I asked Jaym Gates, who had worked with Jason Sizemore from Apex Publishing in the past, to be my co-editor. We pitched the collection to Jason, and it was approved contigent upon a successful Kickstarter. Then, we invited a core group of authors and asked them to write a story that flipped a trope they felt strongly about. Following an open call for submissions, we launched a Kickstarter in February 2016 and were able to buy more stories, bump the author’s rate per word, and incorporate more essays. As a result, we’ve produced a 400+ page, co-edited anthology filled with trope-smashing stories and essays penned by over two dozen writers.

Now that you’ve read how I got the idea for Upside Down: Inverted Tropes in Storytelling, you might be wondering if I feel I made the right choice. Was I correct in involving other authors? Or, should I have stuck to my original plan? Hands down, I absolutely feel I made the right decision. As a writer myself, I recognize that not all ideas I concoct are good or even great ones. Sometimes, though, good ideas evolve into something better when they involve multiple authors. Not only was this true for Upside Down, I am a different, kinder person after editing this project. I am very grateful I had the chance to work with such talented writers as Kat Richardson, Nisi Shawl, Maurice Broaddus, Anton Strout, Alyssa Wong, John Hornor Jacobs, A.C. Wise, Keffy Kehrli, and many others, because I learned so much. Together, our authors deftly accomplished a stellar commentary on tropes that, arguably, no one writer could do on their own. For, not only did every author choose a different trope, they tackled and subverted them in unique ways, too, through their art of storytelling and examination.

So there you have it. What started out as a feeling of angst, turned into a two-year successful project involving a few dozen people. The end result is a trope-smashing collection that — if we did our job right — will not only be satisfying for you to read, but thought-provoking as well.

—-

Upside Down: Inverted Tropes in Storytelling: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read “Super Duper Fly” from the anthology, by Maurice Broaddus. Visit the co-editor’s site. Follow her on Twitter.

The Big Idea: Corie Weaver

Picture a mad scientist in your head. Got it? Now, here’s editor Corie Weaver explaining why that image should be a more diverse one, and how her 2017 Young Explorer’s Adventure Guide anthology helps to make that possible.

CORIE WEAVER:

Mad scientist should be an equal opportunity career.

I firmly believe this. So when a friend mentioned that she was having a hard time finding science fiction books for her aspiring mad scientist daughter, I figured she just wasn’t looking hard enough.  (Sorry, Kim.)

How difficult could it be?  She wanted a science fiction book for an eight year old, with a female main character and no romantic subplot. A Wrinkle in Time, The City of Ember, Zita the Spacegirl – there were certainly stories that fit the bill, but not as many as I expected or desired.

Where were all the SF books for girls? I got curious and started digging. According to a 2011 study of 6,000 children’s books, only 31 percent had central female characters, and even fewer featured main characters of color.* The odds, apparently, were against me.

All of this happened about the same time I became aware of the Sad Puppies and their, shall we say, issues. I honestly don’t know how to argue with adults who are so convinced of their position that they can’t see outside their own bubbles.

But I do know how to reach children.

What better way to ensure the bright future of the genre I love than to encourage more kids to read science fiction? And not just great science fiction, but diverse stories where everyone is welcome?

In 2014, we put out a call for submissions for the first Young Explorer’s Adventure Guide, an anthology of science fiction short stories for middle grade readers.  We didn’t just want great stories. We wanted stories that showed the universe was big enough for everyone – that anyone can be a hero.

A wide variety of authors responded to the call, from relative newcomers to the field to award winners such as Beth Cato, Eric Choi, and Nancy Kress. Nancy has sent us a story for every year of the anthology, and as our author with the most time working in the genre, I couldn’t help but ask what had drawn her to the project.

She answered: “When I was a child, the school library had a Girls’ Section, which included fairy tales, and a Boys’ Section, which included all the science fiction. Things have changed, of course, but not enough. There is a strong need for science fiction, as opposed to fantasy, aimed at girls, especially in the middle grades. This anthology is an important contribution to the effort to fill that need, and I’m delighted to be a part of it.”

I think about how much things have changed.  As a girl I read all the fantasy and science fiction I could get my hands on. The library wasn’t divided by gender. But stories I read then I’d be reluctant to pass off to a kid now, at least without some disclaimer, some explanation. “Things were different then,” I’d say. “You should come talk to me when you’re finished reading the story, and we’ll talk about how some attitudes have changed.”

Sally Ride, first American woman in space and Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient, famously said: “Young girls need to see role models in whatever careers they may choose, just so they can picture themselves doing those jobs someday. You can’t be what you can’t see.”

Girls need to read stories where any number of possible roles are modeled for them. Just as importantly, boys need to read stories where girls are active participants in adventures. And children of all colors and backgrounds need to know the future includes them.

Which means there needs to be space for those stories to be told.  Every year we get a great mix of stories, and we comb through the submissions to try to make a perfect anthology to get kids hooked on science fiction. What’s it like to be a space station detective or reluctantly hold your society’s cultural knowledge for your return to Earth? What do you do when your robot gets you in trouble or when you’re homesick for Mars?

What we want, what all of our contributing authors want, is for all kids to be able to see themselves as active participants in the future.

The 2017 Young Explorer’s Adventure Guide is the third year of our journey.

Science fiction is for everyone. Girls, boys, robots – everyone is welcome here.

* “Gender in Twentieth-Century Children’s Books: Patterns of Disparity in Titles and Central Characters.” (http://gas.sagepub.com/content/25/2/197.full.pdf+html) The results of the study are also discussed in this Guardian article: (http://www.theguardian.com/books/2011/may/06/gender-imbalance-children-s-literature)

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2017 Young Explorers Adventure Guide: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|iBooks|Indiebooks|Kobo

 

The Big Idea: Ruth Vincent

Revenge: Is it all that it’s cracked up to be? Author Ruth Vincent asks this question, in relation to her new novel Unveiled, and also in a larger sense. What’s the answer? Read on.

RUTH VINCENT:

It’s often said that the role of the protagonist in a fantasy novel is to be the person we, the reader, wish we could be. But given how bloodthirsty this genre is, I’m not sure what that says about us.  It makes sense that our escapist literature is often about vengeance.  Speculative fiction is the genre of us “nerds,” and it sells us a feel-good fantasy of finally getting revenge on a realm’s too-mighty “cool kids.” We never tire of watching the scrappy hobbit/farmer/orphan defeat the slick, glib, arrogant monarch/mage/authoritarian; we cheer as they run this villain through with their sword, or shoot them with lasers, or light them up with fireballs, and we don’t stop to think about how horrifying we’d find these “heroes” if they were that quick to murder in real life.

Without giving away any spoilers for my novel, Unveiled, let’s just say that a bad thing happens to my heroine, Mabily Jones. In the end, she’s given the opportunity to kill the villain who wronged her. Because the bad thing occurred in the fairy realm, she will face no consequences for her action; the law of the land will be on her side, and she’ll probably be hailed as a hero for killing this character. But does that mean she should do it?

This was a soul-searching question, not only for my heroine, Mab, but also for me as an author. First, I had to examine if revenge would be consistent with her character? Mab is not at all prone to violence, but she’s been emotionally devastated, and revenge appeals to the emotions. What almost pushes her over the edge though, is that she won’t be held responsible for her deed. I’ve recently been riveted by the HBO drama “West World,” whose premise asks the question, who do we, as human beings, become when we think that our actions have no consequence? “The park shows you who you really are,” as one character put it, and the disturbing implication is that most of us are murderers, rapists, and generally horrible people if we’re given the chance.

The “Changeling P.I.” series exists partly in a realistic New York and partly in a parallel supernatural world. It’s an interesting thought exercise to realize that Mab probably wouldn’t have felt tempted to kill the villain if the crime had taken place in the “real world;” her temptation to violence is much stronger in the “other” world, especially since the would-be victim is nonhuman. Mab recognizes the primal pull of vengeance in herself, but is disturbed by what this says about her:

“I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that this power, the power to hold someone’s life in my hand like the most delicate egg, didn’t secretly elate me.  But I stopped myself. If I killed him […. ] what did that make me?

It makes her no better than the villain, she realizes, whose own actions were primarily motivated by revenge. She knows if she crosses that line, she’ll no longer be the same person. She’ll be a killer, and no matter how justified, even heroic the other characters will view her action, it will forever change the way she relates to herself.

However, as a writer, I was afraid that if Mab didn’t kill the villain, even if he was satisfyingly punished in other ways, readers would look at my heroine as being weak for letting him live. Creating a “strong female character,” is often narrowly and superficially viewed as making a female character violent, as if that’s the only way to show strength. If I chose this path, so that I could make my heroine look like more of a badass, was that a tacit approval of an over simplified moral system where every “bad guy” must be given the death penalty? If I didn’t believe in that in the real world, why would I make those the rules for my fictional universe?

I won’t say whether or not there’s an alternative ending of Unveiled on my hard drive, where my heroine gets sweet, gory revenge upon the villain, but ultimately Mab and I both chose to forebear. This doesn’t mean I had my villain and heroine holding hands and singing Kumbaya at the end. While I’ve always striven to create empathetic antagonists in this series, some characters cannot be redeemed. Mab ensures through her actions that the villain’s evil is contained, that he faces justice for his crimes, and that he is prevented from harming anyone else. But she steers clears of the vigilantism that’s fashionable in urban fantasy.

The reason I chose to write urban fantasy was the genre’s potential for realism, even if that potential isn’t always utilized. After all, in urban fantasy, one doesn’t have to travel to other realms or universes to find magic; these stories take place in our world. It’s accessible, relatable speculative fiction. But the thing about the real world is we rarely get the opportunity to take revenge on those who’ve done us wrong. Even if we do get the chance to give those jerks their just deserts, it doesn’t mean we should. It might feel good to fantasize about, but if we’re grownups, we understand that it won’t change the past, it won’t even make us feel better once the moment of sweet satisfaction is passed, and the act could cause rippling harm to ourselves as well as victims unintended. Because in the fantasy of revenge the act of justice always occurs in a vacuum, and that’s seldom the case in real life.

Once the villain is no longer able to harm others, Mab knows she must walk away from vengeance, turning her focus to her own healing and moving on. It’s doesn’t give her the satisfying snick of closure she’s emotionally seeking, but it’s the adult decision. To some genre critics, her choice may make her look weak. To me, it makes her strength believable.

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Unveiled: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Google Play|iBooks

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

The Big Idea: Patrick Sheane Duncan

A title like Dracula vs. Hitler kind of explains itself, but even so, author and screenwriter Patrick Sheane Duncan had his reasons for bringing these two villains of the past together for a nefarious confrontation in WWII-era Transylvania. What was it? Read on!

PATRICK SHEANE DUNCAN:

I’ve always been fascinated by the way that popular culture reflects and influences society. It’s been a concern of mine since some pandering politician banned my favorite comic book, stating that they “corrupted” the tender minds of kids like me and turned us into juvenile delinquents. I knew it was bullshit. I became a juvenile delinquent because I was poor. At various times these self appointed censors have condemned rock ‘n’ roll, television violence, “dirty” magazines and lately, video games, always using the same trumped up charge.

(To tell the truth, I admit to being corrupted by all of these – but not in the way those narrow-minded yahoos worried about. They all freed me and my imagination.)

But I do see how popular culture reflects our worries and problems. An obvious example is the science fiction films of the fifties and sixties. I’m talking about how some errant radioactive incident created a monster set out to destroy…well, everything. A fifty foot man or woman, giant insects and our good old buddy Godzilla. Our nation’s fears of an atomic holocaust were made simple in one conquerable but metaphorical creature.

And it isn’t a mental hurdle to jump forward and see the effects of 9/11 on our films. I mean, how many times can we blow up the White House and every other iconic landmark on the planet – just to be saved by someone in Spandex or the President’s handsome bodyguard?

So, when vampires became popular again in a multitude of movies and television series, I was curious. A good many of these, if not all, were aimed at teenagers. I’ve always been a fan of the theory (I wish I could remember who first proposed it) that vampires, and their mythological kin, werewolves, are powerful metaphors for the fraught transition from childhood to adult. The symbolism is pretty blatant and definitely relatable to confused adolescents. With profound, even violent changes in the body, the werewolf has hair sprouting in unexpected places (on the palms of his hands, what was he doing?! Oh my!), profound outsider status, and is wrought with sexual under- and overtones, including sexual aggressiveness after the change, (there are a whole lot of women being assaulted/seduced in their bedrooms by werewolves and vampires alike). And to cap it off, so often these modern fairy tales end in a marriage.

When the latest vampire films rose from the Hollywood graveyard, I went back to some of the originals and found myself watching a lot of great Universal movies from the late 1930s and ‘40s.  And I noticed something – there was no mention of the war in these films. Except for one, where a German bombing of a British graveyard disinterred Dracula, the war didn’t exist. Mostly this was done by making them period pieces, but even the present day set films avoided the topic. A pure definition of escapist entertainment.

My imagination made the short leap – what if those two worlds did intersect? Bring the gritty reality of war into that old time escapism? Aha!

I’m a history buff so I knew that at the beginning of WWII Transylvania was given to Romania by the invading Germans. I also knew that Vlad the Impaler, the model for Stoker’s Dracula, was a prince and a patriot. Thusly he would be a natural foe to fight the Nazis. Bam. I had a hero. Actually a super hero. Cool.

Then there was the fact that the Nazis, particularly Hitler, were fascinated by the occult, believers who sent people searching the world for magic relics to use in their cause. So why wouldn’t Hitler, discovering the existence of an immortal and powerful creature, want to be immortal himself and attempt to capture Dracula? Bam, I had a villain.

Dracula versus Hitler.

To bring in the rest of the cast, I had Van Helsing settle in Transylvania after defeating Dracula and I gave him an adult, ferocious daughter (The requisite sexual motif of the genre). These two would lead the partisans fighting the Nazis and be driven by German atrocities to revive the Professor’s great enemy to fight an even worse monster. Harker and Renfield were brought in to make the book as much fun as the title. I then had all the elements needed for a rousing action adventure story with an essence of the supernatural. Using the style of Bram Stoker’s original (diary and journal entries, letters, etc.) was a novelistic exercise for my own enjoyment and a tribute to the book I love so much.

And I did it because it looked like fun and I believe that if you entertain yourself in the writing you have a pretty good chance to entertain the reader.

As for Dracula vs. Hitler’s place and meaning in the gestalt, I’ll leave that to some other fan/over educated analyst in desperate need of a PhD thesis.

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Dracula vs. Hitler: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt.

The Big Idea: Dominik Parisien and Navah Wolfe

We live in an age of technological miracles and wonders, but do the humans underneath that tech still need the fairy tales that animated their ancestors? The editors of The Starlit Wood, an anthology of new fairy tales, say “yes.” And here’s why.

NAVAH WOLFE and DOMINIK PARISIEN:

We are children of starlit woods.

From the time we were small, stories were tools we used to navigate the world. We were both voracious readers, devourers of books of all kinds—and we never stopped reading fairy tales. Kids have a tendency to translate the world around them in terms that make sense—and nothing makes more sense, feels more familiar, than the stories that we’ve been reading for as long as we can remember.

Fairy tales may start for many of us as children’s stories, but—as people love to point out, once they discover the true gruesomeness behind some of their most beloved tales—they’re in fact very adult. Indeed, we’d argue that fairy tales are meant to speak to children and adults. The world can be an unsettling, terrifying place, no matter what age or stage of life you’re in—and familiar stories can be a safe language to use to navigate the dark woods of life.

The utter universality of fairy tales can give us the necessary vocabulary to make sense of the woods, to find a path out to safety—or to claim the woods for our own. They help us identify the wolves, witches and dangers lurking in the dark. When you can name something, you have power over it—the power to change the story, to remake it, to reshape it into our own happily ever afters. They’re narrative tools that we grab hold of as children, but they remain useful for our entire lives.

And us? We devoured the original fairy tales and lost ourselves in modern retellings, often edited by people like Terri Windling and Ellen Datlow. And somewhere along the way, our roads led us to co-editing our own anthology of fairy tale retellings for Saga Press, The Starlit Wood.

And the more we explored the world of fairy tales, the more clear it became to us that fairy tales are a lingua franca for everybody. They are a language carved onto bones—bones that can be covered in any skin. Fairy tales originate from anywhere or anytime, but you always know they are fairy tales. The same tropes and themes pop up again and again–terrible parents, wandering children, fantastical animals, enchanted items, moral components—to a point where even if we don’t necessarily recognize the source material, a story still feels like a fairy tale. Side by side with classic, traditional stories, The Starlit Wood contains retellings of a few fairy tales we had never encountered before—but even though they were new to us, they felt familiar, like old friends we had just met for the first time.

And that is the big idea of The Starlit Wood. Fairy tales are malleable stories that can be reskinned over and over as long as the skeleton underneath remains the same. We approached our phenomenal writers and asked them to view fairy tales through a new prism, to discover new hides for these old bones. Some of the stories they chose are very familiar. Others are newly discovered or are from less familiar fairy tale traditions. The contributors each took fresh angles, crossed genres, and found new geographies for their tales. Writers flipped character motivations or even removed elements that one would think are essential to a particular fairy tale, making these stories feel fresh, unexpected, urgent–but still true to their source material.

The resulting stories were beyond our wildest hopes. Seanan McGuire put Red Riding Hood in the desert. Daryl Gregory let his Hansel and Gretel consume something much more problematic than candy. Marjorie Liu wrote Sleeping Beauty as a lesbian romance. Garth Nix turned The Little Match Girl into a Western revenge story. Stephen Graham Jones retold The Pied Piper of Hamelin without any music. Max Gladstone wrote Jack and the Beanstalk–with a space elevator. Naomi Novik turned the ugliness of Rumpelstiltskin into a beautiful triumph for the miller’s daughter that upturns the uncomfortable caricatures of the original tale.

From the woods to the stars, The Starlit Wood contains eighteen extraordi­nary journeys into unexpected territories, uncharted lands, and unforeseen adventures that are strangely familiar and startlingly different at the same time. We couldn’t be happier with these amazing journeys—so come and be changed with us. All of us, after all, are children of the woods.

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The Starlit Wood: Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Indiebound, Powell’s, Simon & Schuster

Saga Press, Navah’s Twitter, Dominik’s Twitter

The Big Idea: Meg Elison

Well, this Big Idea, by Meg Elison, for a new release of her 2014 Philip K. Dick Award winner The Book of the Unnamed Midwife, is strangely and unfortunately well-timed.

MEG ELISON:

The biggest idea in The Book of the Unnamed Midwife is that women are people. I have read exhaustively in the genre of post-apocalyptic science fiction and more often than not the women in those books are sex-dolls and mommy-dolls: perfect eyebrows in starvation and smooth armpits in the Thunderdome, exiting cleanly stage right after their magical boys are born.

However, the idea of women as people is too big. Better writers than I have worked to sew it firmly to the edges of our collective consciousness only to find that the original fabric is stubborn stuff that was woven to resist truth or anything like equality. So when I wrote my apocalypse (worlds without end are always ending in science fiction and fantasy) I wrote it as Margaret Atwood and P.D. James did. I wrote an apocalypse of gender, where men outnumber women ten to one, and no woman is safe.

By writing a main character who is queer and secure in herself and a midwife, I set her boundaries pretty clearly. This is a woman who exists under her own authorization. By writing her as complex and flawed and not a steel-armored bad-ass Sarah Connoring her way across the competence porn convention with a gun where a protagonist’s penis ought to be, I wrote a book where women are not objects and not stereotypes, but people. When I was reading science and speculative fiction about the end of the world, this was the thing I craved most clearly. When I could barely get a crumb, I realized I’d have to bake the thing myself.

The Book of the Unnamed Midwife starts at the end of a plague that has wiped out most of the people on earth, but was particularly brutal to women. The women who have survived still carry the sickness, and childbirth is commonly lethal in its aftermath. The protagonist hits the road dressed as a man to help the few women who survived, and to seek safety for herself. The road is not kind to her.

However, since the idea that women are people is evidently still too big, I chose a specific strategy to address the universal challenge: namelessness. The Book of the Unnamed Midwife follows the story of a woman whose name is never told. She never says it, thinks it, or writes in the journals that make up about half of the book. Instead, she gives a variety of pseudonyms to friends, lovers, and the enemies around whom she attempts to pass as male. This is partly a safety measure, but it’s also something else.

Names have power. Any child who has heard the story of Rumpelstiltskin can tell you that.  The midwife herself thinks about her namelessness, her anonymity in this world where people have fallen out of their names and into savagery, and comes to the conclusion that a name is something one has for the benefit of other people. In a world where most women are property, she decides she will give no one her handle.

Nameless protagonists have always fascinated me. Daphne Du Maurier’s never-named ingenue in Rebecca seemed the best kind of literary proof: a woman is so defined by her place in the world that her own actual name is easily missed. As a child, I loved the Childlike Empress in Michael Ende’s The Neverending Story, but I saw the movie first. I could never hear the name that Bastian shouts over the thunder and I thought the author and screenwriter had wisely chosen to keep the name unknowable and preserve the empress’ power. Even if she had to beg for a new name from a boy, she could still keep it to herself.

Finding out that the name is written clearly in the book was one of the great letdowns of adulthood. I decided long ago to write a protagonist whose name is her own damned business.

The Book of the Unnamed Midwife was first published two years ago by a micropress. Almost nobody read it, but it won the Philip K. Dick Award anyway. When my new contract included a rebirth for the midwife, I reflected a little on what it is to twice debut my unnamed survivor. The book will be reborn in a time when a man who may be president has shared his views about his right to pick up an unsuspecting woman like a bowling ball, and immediately after the non-consensual outing of reclusive author Elena Ferrante. The midwife’s choice to remain nameless is my answer to these times. It was my answer to the War on Women that consumed the news when the book was first written, and it remains my answer as this tiresome year grinds torturously to its end.

My protagonist’s personhood and the violence of her story belong in 2016, just as they belonged in 2014 when the book was first published. They would have fit just fine in 1970. Or 1980. Or 1990.

I hope that one day there is an audience who doesn’t immediately recognize the unnamed midwife’s struggle as their own.

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The Book of the Unnamed Midwife: Amazon|Barnes and Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: Amy S. Foster

I liked reading Amy S. Foster’s Big Idea for The Rift: Uprising, because her idea is very much the same idea I have as far as my own teenager goes. What idea is that? Read on.

AMY S. FOSTER:

So I had this idea…This big, crazy, ridiculous idea to write a YA novel that my sixteen year old daughter and her friends would actually want to read. I don’t mean that in an “Oh My God Mom! You are so uncool why would I read anything you write?” kind of way. I mean that I wanted to write a book where the teenage protagonists acted and sounded like the teenagers who drifted in and out of my house in a never ending stream of Axe Body spray and with the moods! So many moods! Swinging from mania to indifference on a dime.

As annoying as these kids could be, they were also funny, messy (emotionally and literally,) complicated and misunderstood. Just like I was. Just like you were. Books were the thing that helped me grow up, that delivered me from my isolation. I was never alone, as long as I had a book and obviously, I still feel that way.

It was kind of amazing to me how the Media (and yes that’s a capital M because I mean it in the most all-encompassing way) pandered and courted my daughter’s demo when it came to TV and fashion and make up and one bizarre awards show after another- but somehow, when it came to literature, she felt sorely misunderstood and misrepresented. So yeah, addressing that issue for her was the first big idea.

The second big idea was creating normal acting and sounding teens when they were doing crazy, extraordinary things like policing a Rift into the Multiverse or fighting big scary monsters or throwing around tree trunks. How do I get those kids to sound like the kids in my house? I didn’t want to write Dystopian. I wanted these young people to have this weird job and then go home and watch Netflix. And I am happy to report that as far as those ideas went and according to my Beta Test subjects (who I occasionally had to bribe with dinners and Starbucks) I got it right. Truuuust…they told me when I got it wrong. Loudly. With enthusiasm.

So okay, you might be thinking, isn’t the Multiverse the big idea here? Because it’s like truly, literally, the biggest idea in the world(s). And it is…I love the science behind it. I love physics. I’m kind of obsessed with how I used sound to navigate these Rifts and as exciting a device as the Multiverse is, in my book, it ended up becoming a metaphor for something much more mundane. When you’re staring adulthood in the face, when you’re wondering who you are and what you are going to do forever, it might as well be the Multiverse. It feels that vast, that huge and that scary to navigate.

The main protagonist in my novel, Ryn, is facing this challenge daily. Sometimes she gets it right, sometimes she doesn’t. And today, at almost eighteen, my daughter is the same. I’m sure if given the chance she’d much rather fight a Snake Man (Sissnovars in the book) or a Viking (time is stable in the Rifts but depending on one small thing, think Butterfly Effect, an Earth could be thousands of years more or less advanced technologically) than take her SAT or apply to the dozen or more colleges she’s trying to get into. Like Ryn, my daughter is just beginning to understand her own power and also like Ryn it both thrills and terrifies her. But, like I say in my dedication, it was my daughter who taught Ryn how to be brave. Both of my girls will make it. Both of them will become the heroes of their own stories.

Eventually.

We’ve got an entire trilogy (and college!) to get through.

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The Rift: Uprising: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: Daniel Polansky

In the writing of A City Dreaming, author Daniel Polansky learned that staying in one place doesn’t necessarily mean settling into a rut. What did this mean for his novel of New York? Read on.

DANIEL POLANSKY: 

I moved to New York in 2013, after years of aimless wandering. Melancholic by nature, I feared waking up every morning in the same place, eating the same things, looking at the same people. Travel is a constant reminder that no man steps into the same river twice, as Heraclitus says, that our lives hold value if only by virtue of their brevity. To be in some strange foreign land to which you will never again return, or only return in some distant year, bent and infirm, is to know yourself mortal. Absent this encouragement it becomes easy to forget how terribly transient our lives are. Routine casts its long shadow over everything, months and then years swallowed up by the mundane. But this is a flaw in our own perception, a trick of the light. Life is extraordinary, filled with strange and horrifying and beautiful moments; it falls to us to seek them out, and to grab them as they pass.

A City Dreaming grew out of a conscious attempt to celebrate the surreal and wondrous in my day to day life, a task aided by the peculiar attributes of New York. Who could fail to see magic in so strange a metropolis, where storm-eyed Tatianas stalk in the shadow of towers that would have shamed Ludwig II, where billionaires and beggars share space on a crowded rush hour 4 train, where you might hear half a dozen languages being spoken on the way to the corner bodega. A city whose inhabitants are perpetually half-lying about themselves anyway, and thus under no compulsion to dispute your own delusions.

At night and over a drink I would rework the events of the day in a fashion just slightly more surreal than they had seemed to me while experiencing them. The constant expansion of coffee shops in my fast-gentrifying Brooklyn neighborhood became the workings of an unknowable alien intelligence, intent on overtaking the entire borough. An exhausting warehouse party was repopulated with pooka and naiad and elder gods and things still more unrecognizable. Bad dates became apocalyptic, sunny days divine. It was less a process of creation than of alteration, adding a dash of spice to a stew already rich and bubbling.

And at some point I looked up and realized I’d written a book, about life in the most populous city in North America here in the opening days of the 21st century. The misadventures of ‘M’, called by some a magician though he himself would never be so gauche as to use that term. M is not the son of a god, he is not the child of prophecy, he has no plans to champion light against the coming forces of the dark. M’s plans, like ours, don’t go much further than his next drink, his next meal, his next date, his own pleasures and interests the ne plus ultra of his own existence.

Around M grew a cast of characters; Boy, his best friend, a mercurial, brilliant, and terrifically violent ingenue; Stockdale, a hero sprung straight from an Edwardian children’s story, no bother that he was born in a distant southern corner of the Commonwealth; Celise, the Queen of Manhattan, and Abilene, her outer borough counterpart, their internecine plotting threatening constantly to force M out of his life of easy going debauchery. A world of magical duels, of turtles living beneath Manhattan Island, of demons big and demons small; but also a world in which everyone is worried about paying their rent, about finding someone to go home with, surviving into the next day and perhaps even enjoying it a bit.

The big idea behind A City Dreaming is a simple one; that the world is in turns wondrous, bizarre, and horrifying, and that New York is a particularly refined draft of this already heady vintage. That the fabulous and the banal are layered so closely atop one another that it can be difficult to distinguish between the two, but that we still have to. It was a true and authentic labor of love, and if the only copy had been tossed in a fire before I sent it to out to my editor, I would have counted the time writing it well spent. Since that didn’t happen, however, and we even went so far as to print it up and slap a pretty cover on the front, you might as well go out and find yourself a copy.

Take a bit of care, though – it’s a strange world that M resides in, very nearly as strange as our own.

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A City Dreaming: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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