Category Archives: Big Idea

The Big Idea: M.K. Hutchins

Worldbuilding is complex enough when you stick to some commonly-accepted fundamentals, like, oh, let’s say, land. What happens when you decide to shake up those fundamentals? M.K. Hutchins decided to make an aquatic change-up in Drift, and the results of that choice surprised even her.

M. K. HUTCHINS:

10,000 B.C.E. was not a good time for the Natufians — or, more specifically, the stands of wild cereal that they utilized for food. A shift towards a drier climate yielded fewer plants. So the Natufian changed, too. Instead of just gathering, they began clearing other plants off the land and scattering the seeds of rye, wheat, and barley. Over time, artificially selecting plants with desirable characteristics led to domestication — the greatest genetic engineering projects humans have ever undertaken — and to an agricultural lifestyle.

Okay, that’s a gross simplification of an exciting time in human history, but it’s a story that still fascinates me. Human culture changed because of the environment, and that environment in turn was drastically altered by human culture. Exploring way culture and environment interact — or cultural ecology — isn’t something I see a lot of in fantasy novels.

Completely reshape the environment — throw in magic, dragons, or some liches — and society still tends to look a lot like pseudo-Medieval Europe. Don’t get me wrong; there are outstanding books written in look-alike Earth analogues from all over the globe. I’m glad I get to enjoy them.

But if physics, if the laws of nature themselves, were different, wouldn’t we expect culture to be radically different, too? Often in worldbuilding it seems there’s an emphasis on physics-building and a dearth of culture-building.

When I first heard a professor talk about how the Maya envisioned the world on the back of a turtle surrounded by a watery hell, I knew I wanted to write a story inspired by that setting. Watery hell sounded fun. And instead of one great turtle, how about a bunch of drifting turtle-islands, all competing with each other?

But physics-building alone didn’t feel right for this story. My mind latched onto cultural ecology. How would this different environment shape culture?

Small islands would need to be fast to avoid larger islands that could conquer them. Heavy populations would slow them. But an agrarian society would need children — especially to care for the current population when it aged.

From here, the culture-building took off. Marriage, children, and romantic love all became stigmatized things of the poor. Married men, especially, were mocked for not being able to support themselves but having to rely, eventually, on their own children for support. Skilled artisans adopted apprentices instead of having children themselves, and the Handlers — those that fought hellish monsters and ruled the islands — set up a tax system to care for their elderly members.

I loved having not just the inherit conflicts of surviving on an island surrounded by monster-infested waters, but abundant social conflict. I loved setting up the three different systems for end-of-life care (farmer, artisan, and Handler). This left me with different classes of people, and different attitudes in those classes. I could have Handlers who were haughty and Handlers who pitied the poor for lacking the magical or mundane talents to become a Handler or artisan, respectively. I created farmers who honorably delayed marriage, and farmers who struggled with the stigma of being from a large family. Into the middle of all this, I threw my protagonist, a young man still deciding who he wants to be as he’s figuring out the way his world works — both physically and socially.

There’s lots of physics-building in my new novel, Drift. But it’s the cultural ecology — the integral way physics and culture interlink — that got me excited about this story.

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Drift: Amazon | Barnes & Nobel | Indiebound | Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: Matthew Johnson

Matthew Johnson writes short stories and thinks about words apparently quite a lot. Those two enthusiasms collide in his collection, Irregular Verbs and Other Stories, which I read in a pre-press version and was rather impressed with. Below, Johnson muses on words, their provenance, and their power over us.

MATTHEW JOHNSON:

I’ve always loved the phrase “irregular verbs.” It conjures an image of something you might find at a yard sale or a bargain store, a box labelled One dozen verbs — slightly irregular. Inside you’d find a collection of words you’d never seen before: all of them weird, broken or misshapen in its own way, different not only from those regular verbs we use every day but from each other as well. What writer could resist?

To language nerds like me, though, irregular verbs are plenty interesting on their own. English has a lot of them — possibly more than any other language — and despite their name, they aren’t weird, rarely-used words that have survived due to obscurity. Instead they’re the most common verbs in our language, the heart of English: to be, to run, to sing, to fight, to grow, to read.

Unlike some other unusual features of English, like its vast vocabulary, irregular verbs aren’t a result of its tendency to assimilate undigested lumps of other languages. Instead they’re linguistic coelacanths, living relics both of the earliest roots of English — most English irregular verbs preserve what was the regular form of conjugation in early Indo-European languages, which was by changing the middle vowel sound of the word — and of the diversity it once had, now mostly lost to the printing press and mass media. In Chaucer’s day verbs, plurals and adjectival forms varied widely between different regions, cities, and even families, but by Shakespeare’s time we can already see a selection process happening: eggs winning out over eyren and kine giving way to cows. The rise of nation-states had something to do with it, too: “a nation is a language with an army,” as the saying goes, and if you want to have one nation then you need to have just one army and just one language.

Irregular verbs have to resist a more fundamental force as well: regularizing verbs and plurals is actually hard-wired into us, a basic part of how we develop language. Every mother and father has seen their children go through phases of first under-regularizing verbs and plurals and then over-regularizing. These mistakes, like goed, foots and boxen, can be such powerful symbols of childhood that we keep using them long after our children have learned the “correct” forms — private jokes that reaffirm our love by reminding us, parents and children both, that you were once my baby.

My own family had a rich dialect of words like these, from a variety of sources: over-regularized words (“gruntled,” an imaginary antonym to “disgruntled”), pronunciation errors (“squiddles” for squirrels), folk etymology (“hard work store”) and references to shared culture (“grundoon” for groundhog). This, in a roundabout way, is how I had the idea for the title story in Irregular Verbs and Other Stories: thinking about the way families, friends and couples develop their own private languages and imagining a place where this process is so accelerated that new languages spring up like mushrooms — and imagining what it would be like when someone you loved died, and the language you shared died with them.

Except that’s a lie. Or at least a simplification, the where-do-you-get-your ideas version of how the story came to be. The truth is that while it does have a Big Idea in it, it was just as much the product of a bunch of little ideas. There was the idea of “catching” a language, inspired by the famous William Burroughs line about language as a virus; an Indonesian phrasebook I had bought ten years before (part of a collection of phrasebooks and dictionaries, the crown jewel of which is a text on how to learn Haitian Creole that includes useful phrases like “He’ll die for sure this time” and “They beat the man so hard he soiled himself” and which illustrates the simple past tense with the sentence “He looks at the man’s head. He pulls out his machete; he strikes; he cuts it off”); even the pattern of the linoleum on the floor of my wife’s grandfather’s bathroom, which inspired the village in the story where people’s houses each have a private floor, where they’re free to speak their own languages, and the public floor where everyone takes part in the daily conversation that keeps their common language alive and intelligible.

Most of the stories in the book have similar origins. “Lagos” was inspired by a book about the World Bank, a New Yorker article, and email spam; “Long Pig” by a restaurant review and an unusually solicitous waitress; “Public Safety” by an article on fingerprints and a high school history lecture on the secret history of the metric system. The characters in them are similarly bad fits for their times and places: Inspector Louverture in “Public Safety,” the half-Haitian detective in a society where racism is science and reason is law; Safrat, the telepresence worker in “Lagos” who spends her days running vacuum cleaners half a world away, and tries to ignore what they whisper in her dreams; Geoffrey, the refugee from ancient Rome whose job is to help his countrymen adapt to life in 21st-century Canada, in “Another Country”; Sendiri Ang, in the title story, who risks isolating himself from his people and family to keep his wife’s language and memory alive. Like all of us, and the languages we share, the stories and the people in them are made up of odd parts — taken from a box of irregular verbs.

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Irregular Verbs: Amazon|Barnes and Noble|Powells|ChiZine

Visit the book’s page at ChiZine, which includes eBook samples. Visit the author’s blog. Follow him on Twitter.

The Big Idea: Daniel H. Wilson

Look out! It’s a robot uprising! Yeah, okay — but what then? That’s what Daniel H. Wilson was wondering in Robogenesis, his sequel to the massively successful novel Robopocalypse. Does he have answers? Find out below.

DANIEL H. WILSON:

Recently, I was talking to an older engineer-type gentleman at a cocktail party and trying to explain my career path from scientist to science fiction writer. In the middle of the conversation, he blurted out: “Wait, you’re telling me that you wasted ten years of your life!?”

He kind of had a point.

Despite ten years spent studying robotics, the most technologically advanced project I have worked on in the past year is a pretend space ship simulator in my basement – for my kids, I swear. Don’t get me wrong, the S.S. Coraline Wilson required the wiring of buttons and the scripting of space simulation software, but no machine learning algorithms or articulated arms were employed.

Even so, I don’t think I could have written Robogenesis without spending a decade in the trenches, desperately trying to learn math and science.

The biggish idea behind Robogenesis is that I did my best to realistically consider how human beings might survive a war between multiple titanic artificial intellects.

On its surface, Robogenesis is a thriller – a novel that follows regular people (and a few robots, and some in-betweens) who are fighting and surviving in a world transformed by the collapse of technology. There are no equations or Hidden Markov Models or Monte Carlo methods in Robogenesis, yet the story and its players are deeply rooted in what I have learned about how machines think.

Unlike creatures in the natural world, fellow members of an AI species do not form a natural class – each one may be radically different from the next, depending on what architecture they were built on and which datasets they were trained on. The AI may have completely different priorities when it comes to interacting with humankind. Was the machine even designed to interact with people? Or is it a deep thinker, built only to probe the mysteries of the universe? Would the machines try to manipulate us, ignore us, or eradicate us (as I considered in the Big Idea I wrote for Robopocalypse in 2011)?

So, my job writing Robogenesis was simple: just describe god-like artificial intelligences with truly alien perspectives and devilishly complex motivations. Oh, and I needed to make it damned realistic, because if I have anything unique to offer to this trope it is my perspective as a former roboticist.

I began by looking at the current state-of-the-art.

As you know, we already live with a lot of low-profile artificial intelligence. When you speak to Siri on an iPhone, your voice is sent to the cloud, processed by AI algorithms, and the translation returned. Facebook has AIs that sift through your photos and perform face recognition. Google’s AIs read your gmail and target ads accordingly. At the airport, whole body scanners literally see us naked and then an AI decides whether to pass on the image to a human screener.

(Yes, the robots see us naked.)

I extrapolated these trends into the future, ignoring the simplistic scenario in which a haywire AI wants to kill all humans. Instead, I considered what happens when really complex, incredibly disparate, and potentially bizarre artificial intelligences proliferate across the world’s technological infrastructure?

As I wrote Robogenesis, it dawned on me that an “apocalypse” is not really the end.

When we say apocalypse, we usually mean the fall of civilization (aka “the end of life as we know it”). But every new technology alters life as we know it. Automobiles, phones, computers, TV, the Internet – all have radically changed society and life as we knew it.

We all live through a mini-apocalypse with every new technology that is introduced. The disruptive effect of technology is so pervasive throughout history as to be a part of the human condition. Civilization has been under assault since its inception, and we have always found a way to survive.

In Robogenesis, I tried to take this basic human struggle to a frightening next level – pushing my characters to the limits of their ingenuity as they struggle to adapt to powerful sentient technologies. Only time will tell if I succeeded, but I sure do hope that those ten years in the trenches were worth it.

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

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

The Big Idea: Greg Van Eekhout

Los Angeles is often seen as a magical city, but it’s never been magical in quite the same way as it is in California Bones, the latest novel by Greg Van Eekhout. Here it’s dark and noirish and sinister in all the good ways — and yes, before you ask, not only did I like the book, I gave it a cover blurb. Here’s Greg to give you a glimpse of how California Bones came to be.

GREG VAN EEKHOUT:

Wizards get their powers from eating the remains of extinct magical creatures, and the La Bra Tar Pits in Los Angeles are a particularly rich source of such remains. There, osteomancers have retrieved the preserved skeletons of mammoths, dire wolves, Colombian dragons, American wyverns, Western griffins, and suchlike. Eat the creatures’ bones, get its power. Eat an osteomancer who’s eaten the creature’s bones, and you get not just the creature’s power, but remnants of whatever the osteomancer has eaten before.

That’s the basic premise of California Bones, the first volume in my osteomancy trilogy, and much like the bones, the idea came right from the tar pits. I grew up in Los Angeles, and I don’t remember a time when I didn’t think the tar pits were the most amazing things in the universe. Ponds of dark, bubbling, eldritch goop lurk in the middle of town, and concealed by the goop are the bones of some of the most charismatic megafauna that ever walked the face of the Earth. And that’s not even made up. It’s for reals. And it’s awesomely weird. All it took was a bit of a nudge to push it over into fantasy.

I wanted to write about a place where the tar pits were the de facto center of the city, where the Los Angeles that grew up around them matched their weirdness. I drew upon the Venice canals, built in 1905 by Abbot Kinney to replicate Venice, Italy, complete with gondolas and the whole works. In my version of LA, the city’s chief hydromancer, William Mulholland, has grown the canals into a major transportation network and expanded them to form a mandala of churning hydraulic power that generates a magic to rival that of the osteomantic bones. Disney’s theme park pumps an extract of unicorn horn in the air to make visitors feel like they’ve come to the happiest place on earth. Griffith Observatory, the copper-domed landmark building overlooking the Los Angeles basin, is a royal palace. Tito’s Tacos is still Tito’s Tacos. Likewise, Roscoe’s Chicken and Waffles. I wanted readers familiar with LA to take pleasure in how I’ve altered things, and those who aren’t familiar with or don’t particularly care about LA to still find it interestingly strange.

I wanted to tell a heist story, and I wanted to tell a story about living and surviving under an oppressive regime, and I wanted to tell a story about how, in a world where you can trust no one, forming a created family of friends whom you trust with your life can be a powerful, subversive act.

I wanted to write about all these things. So I wrote a short story. Because novels? Novels are hard. Who writes novels? Weirdoes write novels. And when I was forming all these ideas, I wasn’t yet that kind of weirdo. The result was “The Osteomancer’s Son,” which appeared in Asimov’s, and if you want you can listen to a very fine podcast version at the venerable PodCastle. Long after the story was published, ideas and the world and the characters kept scratching at me, and I took that as a sign that maybe I wasn’t done with them yet. I was also encouraged by a non-dismissible number of people who told me they wanted more. There was even a Hollywood nibble that ultimately amounted to nothing but at least made me feel shiny for about a week. So, when I finished the second of two middle-grade novels I was contracted for, and I wanted to spend some time writing stories about adults who use adult language and find themselves in adult situations, the time felt right to step into the tar.

If you decide to give California Bones a try and end up liking it, I can tell you that you won’t have to wait long for the rest of the trilogy. Book 2, Pacific Fire, is scheduled for January 2015, and Book 3 is already in my editor’s hands. Along the way, there’ll be dead seas, evil twins, sabotage missions, scams and heists, catacombs beneath Beverly Hills, a patchwork dragon, scary children, palace intrigue, family legacies, and tacos. These are the things. I had a lot of fun writing about them, and I hope you enjoy some of the same things I do.

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California Bones: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|IndieBound|Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: Jo Anderton

As the title of this feature suggests, big ideas are important to the writing of books. But big ideas aren’t the only thing about writing a book — and as Jo Anderton found out writing Guardian, other aspects of what make a novel fly will find their way into writing, sometimes almost without the author intending it.

JO ANDERTON:

The Veiled Worlds books are all based on one Big Idea, but it’s taken me this long to work out that’s not really what they’re about.

It all started with me wondering why so many of the fantasy stories I know and love are set in pre-industrial worlds. So you live in a world with magic in it? That’s great. I’m jealous of you (yes, I actually am), but let’s see what we can do with that magic. Can we make it more accessible to more people? Can we make it more efficient? Let’s use it to create cities, to run industry, to wage wars. Essentially, let’s industrialize it.

A magical industrial revolution was my Big Idea. A world where technology is built on, and run by, magic. So I needed a kind of magic that could be industrialized, and ended up with pions: semi-sentient particles that can be persuaded to rearrange matter itself. Instead of a select few magicians living in towers, everyone has access to pions – to some degree. If you’re particularly well educated or connected, you can create art or command armies. Everyone else gets to work in factories.

But everything has its cost, doesn’t it? The cost of our industrial revolution is pollution, and the same rule applies. Instead of smog and rubbish, however, the cost of this particular magical revolution is debris. A waste product that interferes with the pion systems that run so much of the world, from food production to sewerage to weaponry. Someone has to go around collecting debris before it becomes a problem, and these people are essentially magical garbage collectors, performing a dirty, underpaid job at the bottom of the social heap.

Except maybe debris isn’t quite what everyone thinks it is…

There you have it, that was the Big Idea. Industrialized magic and a mystery at the heart of the world. But you know what? That’s not what the books are about.

I love Big Ideas, I’m addicted to them. But I’m learning that ideas are all well and good, and they might be the creative spark that drives you to write a story or even read one, but they are meaningless without the personal.

Let’s backtrack a little. There was stuff happening in my life while I developing this Big Idea. My husband lost his job in nasty, stressful circumstances. That kind of thing can hurt a person. It knocked around his sense of identity and self worth, and of course I felt every blow.

In Debris, the first book in the Veiled Worlds, the main character, Tanyana, loses her job too. She starts the book as a highly skilled pion binder, at the top of her profession, but by the end of the first chapter she’s lost her skills and her employment, and is forced to become a debris collector. The very lowest rung of society. Her struggle to reestablish a sense of identity and, ultimately, find purpose in her life again, that’s what this trilogy is about.

Thing is, that just kind of happened. Unplanned. Maybe there was some part of my writerly brain figuring all this stuff out – I’d like to think so. But I was so fixated on my Big Idea that I didn’t notice the personal weave its way in and around the telling. Only while I was working on the third book, Guardian, and trying to work out what the point of this whole trilogy thing was, did I understand.

Each book in the Veiled Worlds trilogy explores a different aspect of that original Big Idea. Guardian is about gods. When magic is technologized and no longer spiritual, what role do gods, demons and the figures from myth play? Do they become nothing more than quaint morality stories to teach children, or cultural symbols institutionalized by government? Or is there a hidden truth behind the legends? And, most importantly, if you were one of those figures from myth, marginalized and forgotten in the modern age, how would you feel?

What if you sacrifice everything to save the world over and over again, but no one believes in you anymore? What does that do to your identity? Your sense of purpose?

So you see, that same, deeply personal struggle found its way into Guardian too. Only this time, it’s not just Tanyana trying to work out how to keep her sanity and pay the rent. It’s forgotten constructs, abandoned people and lost ‘gods’ (or whatever we should call them) all fighting for identity and a reason to be.

The personal journey from loss of identity to reestablishing purpose is central to the entire trilogy, and intricately connected to the Big Idea. Industrialization and modernization are about just this same kind of change – a broad loss and rebuilding of social identity.

Which all sounds awfully fancy. But really, it happened almost by accident. I just wanted to see what a world with industrialized magic would look like, and then my husband lost his job, and they joined forces to make a story. The Big Idea, and the personal.

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Guardian: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: Sarah Beth Durst

Stoplights can change your whole life — or at least the course of your fiction. Ask Sarah Beth Burst about this: A moment at a light helped her get lost — that is, The Lost, her latest novel.

SARAH BETH DURST:

This book was born at a stop light.  One random day, I waited, blinker on, to turn left and thought, “What if I didn’t turn?  What if I never turned?”

I turned.  But Lauren doesn’t.

In The Lost, Lauren is supposed to go to work at her dead-end job while she waits to hear the results of her mother’s latest medical test.  But instead of taking that left, she drives straight.  And drives and drives until she runs out of gas in a town called Lost, which is full of only lost things and lost people.

So that’s the big idea behind The Lost:  What happens when someone is lost in every sense of the word?

Lauren feels as empty as her gas tank, and her life feels meaningless.  But she’s terrified that her sick mother might be dying without her.  In order to escape from Lost, she’ll have to (quite literally) find herself, with the help of a mysterious man called the Finder and a knife-wielding six year old girl.

I started this book with a list — a three page single-spaced list of everything I could think of that could be lost:

socks

shoes

coats

keys

cell phones

umbrellas

sunglasses

tennis balls

dogs

children

hope

memories

dreams

minds

This list is the oldest thing in my drafts folder for the entire trilogy, and I kept coming back to it as I built and populated the town.

The concept behind the town is that it’s filled with lost things.  Only lost things.  To live, people have to scavenge through the piles of lost baseball hats and lost cell phones, and then barter for what they need.  Ice cream, for example, is nearly impossible to find, but there’s no shortage of half-eaten sandwiches and soggy French fries.  Mail piles up in the post office but can’t ever be delivered.  Feral dogs roam the alleyways.  And a single red balloon always floats over the town.

I fell in love with this quirky, creepy town.

I also played “Hotel California” pretty much on repeat.

Writing this book turned out to be a surprisingly intense experience.  I wanted to create a dreamlike feel, so I chose to use first-person present tense.  This makes the pov very, very tight.  I laughed when Lauren laughed, and I cried when she cried.  I also spent many late nights wanting to shake my fist at the sky and shout, “Verbs!!!”  Dratted present tense.

The other choice I made while writing this book was to write it more organically than I usually do.  Usually I love my outlines and don’t veer from them.  But for this book, I let myself get lost with Lauren and followed her where she led.

Best part about getting lost in the writing is the surprises.  Like Claire.  Claire is a six year old girl who wears a tattered princess dress and carries a teddy bear and a very sharp knife.  She wasn’t in my original outline, but when Lauren got cornered by an angry mob, she walked out of the crowd, took Lauren by the hand, and calmly led her out:

Glancing back, I see the mob has spilled back onto the street.  They are watching me.  So far, they aren’t following, but that could change.  “If you know a place to hide…”

The girl switches direction, pulling me into the alley between the barber shop and a decrepit triple-decker house.  She still doesn’t speak.

I don’t know why I’m trusting her.  “Are you helping me, or dragging me someplace private to cut me to pieces and feed me to your teddy bear?  Just curious.”

The girl looks at me with her wide eyes.  “My name is Claire.  And my teddy bear is not hungry today.”

She became one of the major characters, of course.  I mean, seriously, what writer in his/her right mind would let a knife-wielding six year old just walk away?

In a way, she’s emblematic of the entire trilogy: the good that can come from loss, the surprises you can find when you are lost, and the way your life can change in a moment.

The Lost will be followed by The Missing in December and then The Found in April.  And I am happy and excited and thrilled to introduce you to Lauren and welcome you to Lost!

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

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

 

 

The Big Idea: Michael Martineck

The concept of economics is one that wends through our entire lives — but what if we lived in a world where economics were even more pervasive than it is right here and right now? Michael Martineck has been thinking about just that world in his novel The Milkman, and today he’s here to offer you a tall, frosty glimpse of what that world would be like.

MICHAEL MARTINECK:

The big idea of The Milkman is a world with no governments. It didn’t start out that way. I was going to write about a guy who brings milk to your home. Can you imagine? You wouldn’t have to go to the store for it. The guy would traverse his neighborhood, getting little glimpses of peoples lives. Turns out that was a real thing, not that long ago, so I needed a new idea.

I entered college in 1984, intending to learn whatever I needed to be a writer. This would be easy. My father raised an eyebrow and said, “You’ve got to write about something.” I picked economics because of course everyone wants to read about economics. It’s right up there with dairy delivery.

Studying economics is actually more interesting than it sounds. It’s not about money. It is about people interacting with people. It only looks like it’s about money because capitalism is so profoundly powerful. The fears that George Orwell spells out in 1984, of a world gone terribly to the left, are ironic. It is now the other way around. Which got me thinking.

What would capitalism look like, cut from the ties of sovereignty? No laws. Hell, no rules. We are taught that markets are self-regulating. They urge themselves ever toward harmonious equilibrium. The invisible hand of the great and powerful market guides us all. It should be heeded, not impeded. Big government is the villain, caging our animal spirits, wrestling the market’s hand to the table.

How would society function without legal structure? I’m not talking about weak governments. I’m talking gone. What happens when people are governed only by the laws of economics and physics? It’s a big idea. Huge. Too big for me to write about. For 30 years it tumbled about in my head like a nickel in a dryer. Clunk, clunk, clunk.

One day I listened to Robert Parker talk about how Boston shapes his Spenser novels. The setting is almost a character, a participant in every mystery. I had a setting that acted like a character. Why not put the character in a mystery. Except, murder in the Free World – the world of The Milkman – breaks no laws because, well, there are no laws.

There are budgets, bottoms lines, and expectations regarding return on investment. Killing has costs. Someone should be made to pay for it. Literally. Breaches in corporate policy and suspected sabotage need to be investigated and assessed and liabilities appropriately assigned.

Not that this is justice. Funds are impersonal. Money cannot make you stop missing a person, place or thing. Sometimes you miss something even more when it’s gone, when it was taken for granted. For example, maybe you don’t think about how – I don’t know – milk is safe to drink from any old carton you grabbed at the grocery. You don’t ponder whether or not it is free of hormones and harmful bacteria because it has to be by regulation. Until there is no regulation.

The most cost-effective way to make milk is to not worry so much about the safety. Sure, it might kill off an infant here or there. Nothing’s perfect.

That doesn’t mean we stop trying. As my characters work through my setting they try to right wrongs. Regardless of how heartless the environment, they act like people and people care. Under the oppression of emperors and czars, bureaucracies and banks, people love and live. We still try to make things right. We fight for fairness, forcing it into the equation even when it doesn’t fit the math. When it means nothing to the bottom line.

The structure of the Free World is different from our own. The people in it are very much the same. The biggest idea in my novel is the one I didn’t have. It emerged through the characters. The world’s always been screwed up. I screwed it up a new way and realized there would still be some who would chip and chisel, carving out decency. I wrote a story about the dispassionate cruelty of economics through a milkman who touches a number of lives. So I kept my original title.

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

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

The Big Idea Artist Spotlight: John Harris

AO John Harris - Hi-res Cover

If you’ve read science fiction in the last quarter century, then you know the work John Harris: His artwork has graced the covers of writers such as Ben Bova, Allen Steele, Orson Scott Card among others, including, of course, me, specifically on my Old Man’s War series of books.

For those folks who want to get a closer look at his work, there’s The Art of John Harris: Beyond the Horizon, a very handsome collection of covers and other SF-related work, for which I was honored to write the introduction.

As a special treat, Harris has offered up some commentary on a selected covers that he’s created for my work; I’ve put them into a gallery and added some comments on my own.

Click on any picture to begin the slideshow.

The Art of John Harris: Beyond the Horizon: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Signed, limited edition available here.

The Big Idea: Howard Tayler

In today’s Big Idea, Howard Tayler, the brains behind the multiply-Hugo nominated Schlock Mercenary Web comic, tells you how the little things — the really little things — mean a lot for his latest graphic novel compilation, Longshoreman of the Apocalypse.

HOWARD TAYLER:

So, I had this image in my head. Someone was firing artillery inside a rotating space-city, but was missing their targets because the artillery piece wasn’t smart enough to aim correctly within a rotating reference frame. The obvious solution, the soldier’s solution, is not “quick, do the math!” No, the solution is “I’m going to have to walk my shots.”

Rotating space-cities are standard fare in science fiction. This wasn’t really a “big idea,” but it was the awesome moment I found myself aiming for, and as a discovery writer, “aiming for” is an awful lot like “walking my shots.”

The big idea? That was collateral damage, struck by a stray shell as I walked round after round toward the moment I wanted to hit.

See, for somebody to be playing with artillery indoors, something has to already have gone very wrong. The alternatives to using the artillery need to be worse. And more than that, there needs to be some complexity to the problem, something that will justify far more than just the preventative abuse of ballistic rounds.

Have you ever considered just how fortunate we are that nuclear weapons are phenomenally difficult to build? The key materials are rare, and the equipment required to work with those materials is expensive, and when all of the other complications are factored in, it’s far more likely for the back-yard nuclear engineer to die of radiation poisoning than to create anything more potent than a very toxic hand-warmer.

But what if something with nuclear yield was easy to build? What if you could carry it around and it wouldn’t make you sick? What if you could carry it around and nobody could tell you had it, and you could set it off by pulling a pin?

The Schlock Mercenary universe is an energy-rich place. “Annie Plants” convert teency pellets of neutronium into energy (via some black-box handwavium that I introduced back when I sloppier), but those devices are so heavy, and so full of fail-safes, that they don’t fit the bill.

Schlockiverse engineers can, however, create and contain antimatter, one atomic nuclei at a time, inside carbon fullerene buckyballs. And if I let them do that, my story has some ultra-fine black dust in it, a teaspoon of which can level a city.

Schlock Mercenary is, at its heart, comedy. And I suppose it says something about me that when I go looking for a funny story, I arrive at multi-megaton yields being juggled by non-engineers who want to protest the way their clunky, stupid government is handling the food shortage.

Longshoreman of the Apocalypse is a fun title, and it promises an apocalypse. Oh, look! I have antimatter in a brown paper bag…

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Longshoreman of the Apocalypse: The Schlock Mercenary store. Orders between now and June 3rd will signed.

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

The Big Idea: Sarah Lotz

Airplanes make you nervous? You’re not alone — Author Sarah Lotz, for one, feels your pain (or at least, your anxiety). But where Lotz diverges from most people who get twitchy about air travel is that she used that unease as a launching pad, as it were, for creativity — resulting in her new novel, The Three. She’s here now to tell you how this story took flight.

SARAH LOTZ:

I’ve always wanted to write a novel about plane crashes. Part of this is because I’m flight-phobic, so air travel has always held an extra dollop of dread and fascination for me. Those of us who suffer from aerophobia are aware that it’s an irrational fear – we all know that statistically we’re more likely to die in a freak shopping trolley incident than in a plane crash. This doesn’t stop us from mainlining valium and secretly believing, like Charles Grodin’s character in Midnight Run, that planes are just too big to stay in the air.

So that’s where the initial idea came from – a phobia. Then came: but what if there wasn’t just one air accident, but several on the same day? That would send the world’s media into a frenzy. Plane crashes tend to dominate the news – the recent global coverage of the Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 tragedy is a case in point. Next, I started thinking about survivors. What if they were children? And what if they’d escaped what should have been certain death relatively unscathed? The tabloids would be all over the story with the fervour they’d display if Princess Di rose from the dead. Then came: What if a bunch of conspiracy theorists or religious fundamentalists decided to focus on the ‘miraculous’ child survivors, and began to spread the notion that their survival and the tragedies were signs of alien activity or evidence of the forthcoming apocalypse? How would that play out? And how would it play out if they were right?

I know: So. Many. Questions.

I decided that if I wanted to make this a truly global story, the planes needed to crash on four different continents, which would also feed the conspiracists’ theories. And as it would be lazy to choose cities and countries I was familiar with simply for convenience, I made a shortlist of possible locations. In the final draft, one of the planes crashes into Florida Everglades, another into the heart of the notorious Aokigahara ‘suicide forest’ at the foot of Mount Fuji in Japan, the third slams into Khayelitsha, Cape Town’s most populous township, and the fourth, a British low-cost charter flight, falls out of the sky off the coast of Portugal. As the survivors, their guardians, the conspiracists and those investigating the crashes would all be from diverse backgrounds and cultures, I knew I’d have to do a great deal of research to have any hope of making their narratives believable.

Turns out ‘a great deal’ was an understatement. The research took months, and included interrogating commercial pilots and air crash investigators, travelling to Japan to visit the Aokigahara forest, studying NTSB reports, riding along with South African paramedics, delving into eschatology, looking into Japanese economic history, dallying on conspiracy forums chatting to people who believe that aliens really are here, and investigating the influence of the religious right on the US political landscape. I also read several CVR transcripts of pilots’ last words as their planes went down – never do this, it’s incredibly upsetting.

At the end of all this, I had too much material, too many characters and I needed to find a way in to the story that would reflect the global scope of it, but wouldn’t involve 400 pages of exposition and info-dumping. And I’ll be honest, my first three attempts were awful. Taking a leaf out of Max Brooks’s brilliantly structured World War Z, I chose to write it in a way that wasn’t necessarily conventional, marrying first person ‘interview’ narratives with non-fiction accounts and framing it as a book within a book, written by a possibly biased journalist. This also allowed me to play around with potentially unreliable narrators.

Have I pulled it off? I honestly don’t know. But I’m glad I took the risk. Writing a novel about air disasters may have made my aerophobia worse, but stepping way outside my comfort zone has meant that whenever I’m asked for writerly advice (admittedly, this doesn’t happen often), I can now say, with complete honesty, that sometimes it’s best to write what you don’t know.

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

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

The Big Idea: Steven S. Drachman

People! I am traveling in time (literally, as I wrote up this entry last night and then scheduled it to go live in the morning) to tell you about Steven S. Drachman’s latest book, Watt O’Hugh Undergroundthe second in his series about a time-traveling adventurer. And here in the present, Drachman is here to tell you what it is about time travel that makes it such a fine subject for fiction (and for his series).

STEVEN DRACHMAN:

Why are time travel books so popular? It really has nothing to do with meeting George Washington. (You wouldn’t get a meeting with him anyway, even if you could time travel!) And the idea of wandering through Paris in 1742, while thrilling, has the same sort of exotic tourist appeal as any locale you will never visit – the mountains of Kazakhstan, for example. Rather, we love the idea of time travel because as human beings, we inevitably try without success to undo the mistakes of the past, or the missed opportunities. The longer we live, the more we have to undo. And for most of us, it all comes down to one foolhardy instant after which everything changed. We are regret machines.

Most people have that moment; does the human race have one too, a split second after which nothing can ever be the same again?

I’ve written a couple of books about a late19th century gunslinger named Watt O’Hugh. Watt is a man who occasionally must (reluctantly) shoot people, and even more occasionally (but less reluctantly) engage in a bit of “pully hawly.” We called hanky-panky “pully hawly” in the 1870s for reasons today remembered only by G-d, and it was more frequent than you might think; note the success of Madame Restelle, abortionist to the children of the wealthy, who earned herself an imposing mansion on 5th Avenue and 58th Street. So: in the 1870s, everyone loved a bit of pully hawly.

My books have demons and oracles, floating silver orbs, a woman who can turn into a swarm of butterflies, a mysterious world with two moons, and flying peacocks. They’re books about shooting, time Roaming, terribly evil villains, valiant but flawed heroes, punching, spitting, dragons and PG-rated sex. They are books about robbing trains and prison breaks. The biggest idea in the series is that pully hawly is more fun than shooting a guy. The shooting makes the yarn more ripping.

When I started the series, its structure – a nonagenarian writing the fantastical story of his life as fast as he can – was an amusing framing device. Now as an older man, I’m more reflective; next to my inevitably comical death, this is what I will be remembered for. And some ideas have slipped in there somewhere.

Thus:

Time Roamers (a group Watt O’Hugh eventually joins) can visit the future and the past, but unless they have an “utterly pure heart” – which the redoubtable Watt certainly does not – they can leave not so much as a footprint, and they float past you like a breeze.

This is, after all, what we all do, Roamer or not. We revisit that moment in the past, and we can change nothing.

For Watt, that day is May 13, 1863, when, still a New York city clerk in his early twenties, he takes the beautiful socialite Lucy Billings on a midnight boat ride across the Upper Bay, docking on a highly fictional towhead with a rocky shore and a couple of trees. While he has asked the glamorous Miss Billings to marry him on many occasions, it should be clear to him that tonight is the night. Still he stays quiet, and two months later, the Draft Riots take Lucy from him forever, and, with her, a life of love and also tremendous wealth.

He will go on to fight in the Civil War and in a now-forgotten battle in the Chinese Hell of the Innocent Dead, run cattle across the plains, roam Time to its very dawn, feud viciously with J.P. Morgan, lead a spectacular Wild West Show and escape a deadling-infested Leadville, Colorado in the company of Oscar Wilde and a Tzadik from Kaifeng. His life will be heroic, but filled with regret over a few words not uttered during one Magic instant. Of course, once he learns to roam Time, Watt will revisit that evening, hiding among the trees, impotently urging his younger self to say the words, just as you or I might revisit such a pivotal moment, just as hopelessly, in our minds.

When did humanity itself jump the shark?

For my novel, I chose a day in October, in the First Century, in China.

In the year 9, upon ascending the throne, Emperor Wang Mang ordered that every peasant should be a landowner; he abolished the slave trade; he decreed that the power of the moneylenders be broken; and he commanded China to begin working as one family, and to grow great together.

The Yangtze overflowed its banks, famine ensued, and not only did Wang Mang lose his throne and his life during the following October’s Red Eyebrow rebellion, but historians repudiated his ideas. They vilified an Emperor whose arrival into this world was heralded by the flight of a thousand dragons in the early morning skies, and whose ideas grew naturally from the Earth, like a lovely blue dragonberry flower.

Without Wang Mang’s murder at that one fateful second, my novels surmise, the peasantry and the aristocracy would have become like brother and sister, and other nations would have sought to emulate China’s success.

We would have been spared Communist revolutions that ended with purges and bloodshed. Spared our corrupt, murderous, extremist, bloody and heartless capitalism, and the quick toxic death from which only roaches and gigantic sheep-sized rats will emerge alive a hundred years from now.

My novels imagine a character named Billy Golden, the one Roamer with an utterly pure heart, who sees a future that could have been and grows obsessed, over thousands and thousands of lifetimes, with undoing Emperor Wang’s murder; and my novels imagine the reincarnated bastard son of the Emperor’s crippled court poet, Yang Hsiung, traveling the 19th century globe to save humanity.

“Here was Wang Mang, the one for whom we’d been waiting,” sadly sighs the Tzadik from Kaifeng. “The one for whom we still wait.”

We all still wait for the past.

Lest my Big Idea sounds too serious, I will assure you again that Watt O’Hugh’s Memoir is mostly a series of weird books about derring do, flitting through time, flying in the clouds, fighting various monstrosities (including a ferocious pond monster), shooting people, and enjoying the occasional pully hawly.

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Watt O’Hugh Underground: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read excerpts from the series. Visit the author’s blog.

The Big Idea: Monica Byrne

First, a disclosure: I read a galley of Monica Byrne’s debut novel The Girl in the Road and liked it enough to give it a blurb — as did Neil Gaiman, Helene Wecker and Kim Stanley Robinson. And so in reading this particular Big Idea, I find myself not entirely surprised that a book this strong has come out of an equally strong moment of emotion, and, yes, despair. Byrne tells you now of that moment, standing by a set of tracks.

MONICA BYRNE:

Was my life worth continuing after trauma?

On the morning of July 22, 2012, I was standing by railroad tracks in Geneva, Illinois. I’d just come from a successful reading of one of my plays, commissioned by a local company; and was waiting for the train into Chicago to meet a dear friend for lunch.

But I’d just gotten some bad news that had triggered a lot of old pain. I’d slept badly, dreaming over and over that I was at a glamorous dinner party, rising in a gown with my champagne flute to insist to the gala that I was happy. But no one believed me.

I saw the train coming down the tracks, with its triad of bright lights, like a celestial insect, and the thought came into my head: “In the next thirty seconds I could lie in its path and lay this burden down.”

Instead, I focused on the dear friend I was going to have lunch with, and pointedly walked away from the tracks.

A few minutes later, shaky but safe in my seat with Illinois suburbs passing by, I thought, Well, that’s what The Girl in the Road is about.

I put that scene right in the beginning of the novel. But instead of being set in Illinois, it’s in Kerala, India; instead of 2012, it’s 2068. My hero Meena Ramachandran is waiting for a train to Mumbai and steps out onto the tracks. She’s pulled to safety at the last second. But the act continues to haunt her.

Meena and Mariama—the other hero of The Girl in the Road—live forty years apart and on different continents. They experience severe trauma and are abruptly catapulted out into the world. One stows away on an oil caravan headed east across the Sahara and falls under the spell of an enigmatic patroness who calls herself Yemaya. The other swims out to a floating pontoon bridge called the Trail, an energy-harvesting device largely abandoned by its makers, that spans the Arabian Sea. They’re both headed to Ethiopia, the home of Dinkenesh (known in the west as “Lucy,” the skeleton of our earliest human ancestor, Australopithecus afarensis) where their stories—and their traumas—converge.

Along the way, both Meena and Mariama are repeatedly tempted to “lie down in the road”—to die, to stop existing, to opt out early from the web of karma that plays out, not for moral reasons, but simply because love and violence are both forms of energy, like heat or light, which have already set us in motion from the moment we’re born, from the actions and choices of thousands of ancestors who’ve come before us, and knock us across the world like billiard balls until we come to rest, by nature or by choice.

And yes, the choice to exit early does exist.

But so does the choice to continue living. And not only to keep living, but to radically choose life, to grapple directly with the energies you’ve inherited, and so use them and transform them to build an entirely new life that is more bold, more bright, and more beautiful than you’d ever imagined you could have.

Meena learns what happens when you make that choice, instead.

In other words, The Girl in the Road is my 90,000-word answer to the question “Was my life worth continuing after trauma?”

But I could also say it in one word: “Yes.”

The Girl in the Road: Amazon|Barnes&Noble|IndieBound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s site and read her blog. Follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

The Big Idea: Will McIntosh

The Bad Guys: You know ‘em, you hate ‘em. But there’s also some truth in the saying that everyone is the hero of their own story — and that it’s not always clear cut that in a conflict one side is purely good and the other purely evil. Will McIntosh wrestled with the ideas of villains and heroes for his novel Defenders; here’s what he found out.

WILL McINTOSH:

I don’t particularly like stories with villains. I prefer the good and bad in characters to be more a matter of degree, and, ideally, subject to individual interpretation.

I prefer Frankenstein to Dracula, for instance. Count Dracula is a bad guy, no doubt about it. Stab him in the heart and no one sheds a tear. But what are we supposed to feel as the Frankenstein monster burns? He kills people, he’s a psychopath, but he was thrust into the role of monster–he didn’t choose it. Maybe Victor Frankenstein is the villain of the piece, but here again, it’s complicated. The good doctor screwed up royally, but that wasn’t his intent, and intentions count when we’re judging good versus evil.

When I set out to turn my short story “Defenders” into a novel, I didn’t want one species to be the clear cut villains. This was challenging, because the alien Luyten invade Earth, unprovoked, electrocuting and melting billions of people. The path of least resistance would have been to cast the Luyten in the role of villain, but I wanted things to be more ambiguous.

Without giving too much away, there are three species in Defenders: 1) humans, 2) the invading Luyten, who can read human minds, and 3) the defenders, genetically-engineered warriors humans create to battle the Luyten.

My aim was to weave a story where at various points each of these players feels backed into a corner, with no choice but to lash out. Often they do have a choice, but their nature, their limitations, lead them to conclude they don’t.

To partially absolve the Luyten, for example, I created a backstory where they were forced to flee their home planet, and spent decades heading toward Earth–the closest viable refuge. It never occurred to them that Earth might be inhabited by another sentient species, and when they arrived and surreptitiously sampled humans’ minds, they realized humans didn’t have the constitution to share their world with millions of clairvoyant aliens. They decided their options were to invade, or perish.

As the story unfolds, the defenders make a strong case as the villains of the piece. They have the emotional maturity of adolescents, they’re socially inept, and they’re apt to fly into a violent rage over petty grievances. Whose fault is that, though? They were made that way. They were created to be warriors, knowing and loving nothing but war. They’re Frankenstein monsters.

The defenders are also war veterans, and my hope is that this makes them sympathetic as well. Without their sacrifice, humanity might have ceased to exist.

Does that make humanity, who created the defenders, the real villains? Well, what choice did they have? Clairvoyant aliens had invaded, and were wiping them out. They had to do something, and fast.

Which brings us full circle, back to the Luyten.

My hope is readers will feel that a case can be made for any of the three species being most responsible for the cataclysm that unfolds.

While there are unquestionably villains in the world, I think most human conflict takes this form, where the villain of the story depends on your perspective. While I was planning this post, my wife reminded me of the ever-shifting alliances in the novel Nineteen Eigthy-Four, where Oceania is at war with Eurasia and allied with Eastasia on one day, and allied with Eurasia and at war with Eastasia the next. Yes; one day someone is your sworn enemy, the next, they’re your ally. Maybe that’s why I’m uneasy writing about villains.

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

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

The Big Idea: Rose Fox and Daniel José Older

When editors Rose Fox and Daniel José Older started out to create their anthology Long Hidden: Speculative Fiction from the Margins of History, they did so with a mission: To offer stories with more than the “usual suspects” of fantasy characters and tropes — to give space to stories and people outside of the expected. Here’s how they went about doing it, and how they went about getting the means to make the anthology happen.

ROSE FOX AND DANIEL JOSÉ OLDER:

How do you transform a longstanding vacancy into an opportunity? How do you take an empty, unfriendly space, air it out, and make it welcoming? These are the challenges we faced when we set out to edit Long Hidden: Speculative Fiction from the Margins of History.

The vacancy, of course, exists in the hallowed halls of fiction—specifically historical and speculative fiction. Here we find one dominant narrative, that same singular narrative that Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie warned us about: the story of the anointed white heterosexual cisgender man saving the world. We’re over it. We’ve seen it countless times. It’s boring. And what good is a solitary thread to depict a world that’s a vast, complex, multicolored quilt?

Where one story reigns supreme, thousands and thousands of others languish untold. This is not accidental, though it’s also not always conscious. Marginalization of people and stories doesn’t come out of thin air. It’s created by a thousand decisions on the part of writers, agents, editors, publishers, librarians, and booksellers:

  • “I don’t want to write marginalized characters because I worry about getting it wrong.”
  • “An egalitarian culture wouldn’t be realistic.”
  • “I invited submissions from authors who were already notable in the field, because their names will help sell the anthology.”
  • “We’re looking for books that we know will do well in the current marketplace.”
  • “Readers won’t pick up a book with a character like that on the cover.”
  • “I have no idea how to promote this story. It’s really cool, but who would read it?”
  • “Boys don’t read as much as girls do, so we need to encourage them with more books about boys doing boy things.”

Collectively, over a period of decades, these individual decisions steamroll non-dominant voices right off the map.

Meanwhile, our author friends have been saying very different things:

  • “My story was rejected because the editor ‘couldn’t relate’ to the main character.”
  • “I built a story around something that happened to me, and was told that things like that don’t happen anymore.”
  • “I wanted to submit to that magazine until they published a story that was full of stereotypes about my culture.”
  • “My professor told me that people like me don’t write SF/F.”
  • “My fantasy novel, set in a world that’s completely different from ours, was shelved under ‘African-American Literature’ just because I’m Black.”

We decided it was time—really, long past time—to take part in the fight against the dominant narrative and make space for the truths that have gone untold. We wanted to tell the truth about our histories, not the stories that make it into textbooks, and we wanted to decolonize speculative fiction. That was the big idea that became Long Hidden.

With the expert guidance and support of our publishers, Bart Leib and Kay Holt at Crossed Genres, we set out to create an atmosphere of bravery with precision and gentleness, free from deception. Our submission guidelines (http://longhidden.com/submissions/) asked for care and empathy, because we knew we would be seeing stories of violence and sorrow as well as bravery and triumph. We couldn’t pretend away the pain that oppression has caused throughout history. We weren’t interested in narrative of the privileged savior and we said so; we also asked authors to approach the concept of revenge with subtlety and caution, knowing that the truth of history is more complex than the tables being turned. We asked for stories of friendship and family and community, because in hard times those personal connections are both threatened and vital. And we encouraged speculative elements that incorporated real-world religion, superstition, and folklore, because the supernatural has its dominant narratives too.

We invited everyone to contribute, not just big names, because we know how hard it is for even tremendously talented authors to break in. We were intentional about reaching out into communities that don’t usually see calls for submissions for speculative fiction anthologies. We extended our call out far beyond the traditional boundaries of mainstream SF/F. We approached writers who had never published before and writers who had never written speculative fiction before. We explicitly requested and welcomed stories from women, writers of color, queer and trans* writers, and disabled writers, knowing that it takes a clear invitation to overcome the general feeling in the industry that such authors and their stories are unwelcome. We offered SFWA pro rates to honor the hard work it takes to write a story of the painful past, and asked the wider community of readers to fund our project through Kickstarter so we could afford to pay our authors and artists something close to what they were worth.

The response was tremendous. Submissions and pledges poured in. In a few days, the Long Hidden Kickstarter met its goal, and soon after we’d doubled it. By the end, we’d shot far past the initial goal and beyond what any of us had thought possible. People gathered en masse to declare that this was a space that needed to be opened in the closed ranks of both speculative and historical fiction.

Twenty-seven stories emerged from the many, many amazing ones we’d been sent. They were stories that collectively held a vast range of voices, scopes, characters, and unspoken truths. They were from authors around the world. They were heartbreaking and hilarious and true in the way all great fiction is. They were challenging. And most of all, they were in conversation with one another, despite depicting many different people, places, and eras. We enlisted artists with diverse backgrounds and styles to give them the illustrations they deserved.

Each story challenged our assumptions, privileges, stereotypes, doubts, fears, and uncertainties. As we worked with the authors and artists and each other, we were profoundly moved and changed by these tales of struggle, survival, triumph, and pain.

The “long hidden” stories have been here all along, as have the voices that tell them, but the industry hasn’t been listening. We’re thrilled that social media and crowdfunding have opened up new avenues for untold narratives to get their due, and we look forward to a great many more emerging into the light. Long Hidden isn’t the beginning, or the end.

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Long Hidden: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Createspace

Read a story excerpt with commentary by contributor Sunny Moraine. Visit the book’s Web site. Follow editor Rose Fox on Twitter. Follow editor Daniel José Older on Twitter.

The Big Idea: Stephanie Saulter

Humanity: It’s a big subject. What “humanity” entails as an overall concept, an even bigger one. But that doesn’t scare off Stephanie Saulter – indeed, in Gemsigns, it’s a topic she runs toward, to explore what it means in her novel’s world.

STEPHANIE SAULTER:

What makes us human?

Not so much a Big Idea as a Big Question, perhaps; but as the story that would in time become Gemsigns started to take shape in my head I knew it was one of the themes I wanted to explore. It’s a question that most of us will think we know the answer to – but try to pin it down to a simple definition and I suspect you’ll find it’s not that easy. Is it purely a matter of biology? What then if a person’s biology is altered, either by accident or design? What about behaviour? Are the people whose actions we find incomprehensible and appalling really as human as we are?

It’s a subject that fascinates me, not least because of how deeply it underpins the way society is structured. Our value systems – and therefore our prejudices – are all based on an idealised conception of humanity; a notion of how people should be. Deviations from the ideal are met with varying degrees of revulsion, rebuke and reduced social capital.

On one level this is a pretty logical moral structure; few, for example, would argue against condemnation of a murderer (always assuming that your Ideal Human is one who cares about the safety and wellbeing of others). But the metrics of humanity can prove tricky. What if that unconscious mental ideal happens to be constructed as a white person? Or a male person? Or a fit and healthy person whose physical capabilities fall within a statistically standard range? What does that imply for the perceived humanity of brown people, or female people, or people with different physiques and capabilities?

There’s no shortage of discussion, online and elsewhere, of the consequences in our own societies. It’s a rich subject for fiction and polemic; and the narratives and debates predictably tend to divide along the same oppositional us/them lines as does the tribal dynamic itself.

I wanted to find a new angle, a different approach to the question. I wanted to start from first principles, and to ask: How do we form that initial notion, of how people should be? How rational and rigorous is it? How often do we examine it? How easily do we allow ourselves to be swayed, by the pronouncements of others or by our own self-interest?

So I set about creating a world in which those questions could be formulated free of the weight of contemporary disputes or politics. It was important for it to be recognisably a human environment, populated by characters and conflicts that readers would find relatable; but it was equally important that it be different enough from our everyday reality for the answers not to be obvious. I also decided early on that I didn’t want to employ the standard science fictional trope of a society in existential crisis – because that makes it too easy to wave ethical concerns away under the rubric of, ‘It’s an emergency.’

Instead I constructed a post-crisis society: one still recovering from a biological catastrophe which the human species had only survived by employing widespread genetic modification. For the majority of people that modification had been minimal; in theory just enough to ensure their lifelong health. In practice, by reducing the variations that can lead to disease and defect, it has created a far more homogenous populace. For a significant minority, however, the alterations were extensive, resulting in a chattel class of people with radically modified physiques and abilities, easily identified by their altered anatomies or phosphorescent, jewel-coloured hair – the gems. Not only are they distinct from the majority, they’re also generally distinct from each other.

That allowed the us vs. them dialectic to be framed a bit differently. Given that gems are known to have been artificially engineered in a way that norms have not, the question becomes: to what extent does this matter? Does the sameness of the norms really represent the way people should be? And getting away from genetics, what is it reasonable to expect of people who were raised in industrial créches and lived under conditions indistinguishable from slavery? How much violence, anti-social behavior and suspicion of authority can be explained by this? What’s the differential between them and those who’ve led safe, happy, comfortable lives? Is it possible to determine how much of the variation is down to engineering, and how much to environment?

Who is made more – or less – human as a result?

I didn’t want to provide answers from a single perspective. It’s another common fictional device: a clearly identified hero whose worldview is the only one the reader gets to really inhabit – and thus ends up largely inclined to agree with. Within the world of the novel, that protagonist acts as the benchmark for the Idealised Human. But if you’re trying to get away from oppositional I’m-right-you’re-wrong dynamics, then as a writer you have to open it out a bit; you have to try to put the reader behind the eyes of characters who see the world differently. You have to try to imagine what it would be like to share their hopes and fears and beliefs. You have to see them from the inside.

You have to show that all of them – even the ones you most dislike and despise – are, within their own frame of reference, human.

If you think that creating a balanced, coherent narrative out of such essentially conflicted viewpoints sounds like a challenge, you’d be right. Humanity’s relationship with the idea of humanity turned out to be at least as fraught within the world of the ®Evolution as it is out here. My Big Idea was to take a huge, complex, difficult question and not reduce it to a simplistic answer; but to try and examine it honestly, in all its complexity.

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

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The Big Idea: Jeff VanderMeer

Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy chronicles the thirty-year attempt by the Southern Reach, a secret government agency, to solve the mystery behind Area X, a mysterious coastal region closed off from the rest of the world by an invisible border. The first novel, Annihilation, documented the disastrous twelfth expedition, narrated by a nameless female biologist. The second novel, Authority, published May 6, is an exploration of the Southern Reach agency. The series concludes in September with Acceptance.

JEFF VANDERMEER:

How do you make a novel haunted? Especially if you’re not dealing with ghosts? That question came to mind when, just before writing Authority, I watched the documentary Room 237, about Stanley Kubrick’s movie version of The Shining. Room 237 explores the startling number of meticulously thought-out crackpot amateur theories about the movie’s symbolism and underlying messages. One theory even tries to provide evidence that Kubrick is telling viewers the moon landing was faked.

Room 237 contains so many of what might be called “single-use universes” that it mesmerized me—especially in the context of also reading several accounts of scientific endeavor that stressed the subjectivity of research. Just how much our world is built from actual facts? How much is a fiction that we construct about the world?

The conspiracy theorists in Room 237 so firmly believed their version of the truth that I began to think at times that their ideas might have merit. But my own personal obsession with the documentary mostly concerned perception and technique. For example, in Kubrick’s slow fades as he cuts away to the next scene you often see characters and places coming into contact for a brief moment…hauntings created by juxtaposition. There’s also a scene in the movie with a television playing in the middle of a room…but the television has no cord, impossible for the time period. Watching The Shining, you may not consciously notice the lack of a cord, but your subconscious goes on red alert. Something is wrong, even if you can’t put your finger on it.

Seeing all of this excited the writer in me. I wanted to figure out ways to translate that kind of technique to text, in a way that’s invisible but that you can still feel in some way. In Authority, my protagonist, John Rodriguez, inherits a truly demoralized agency as its new director: A dysfunctional culture in a downward spiral, haunted by thirty years of being unable to solve the mystery behind Area X. He deals with outdated tech, bears witness to outlandish procedures, and meets resistance from people who resent the interloper.

So I worked hard to find the parallels. I don’t want to give away all of my secrets, but one “translation” involved deliberate but subtle continuity mistakes with regard to the Southern Reach building itself—for example, places that seem narrow in one context and then wider in another. This “trick” and others support a recurring joke in Authority that at times becomes deadly serious. Throughout the novel, Rodriguez walks down many corridors, lingers in many doorways, without ever getting where he wanted to go in the first place, sidetracked by some new issue or someone else’s priorities. In many of those scenes, the incidental hallway dialogue comes from Annihilation: a kind of haunting of one novel by another.

Thinking about technique in this way raised a larger question: “What would a non-supernatural novel be like if it employed, on some level, supernatural tropes?” This led to dividing the novel into sections entitled Incantations, Rites, Hauntings, and Afterlife, which correspond to states of understanding reached by my protagonist, but also raise other questions. Indeed, sometimes in a novel the situation and your character allow for outright mulling of such things, as when Rodriguez ponders how far the Southern Reach has fallen: “Maybe superstition was what happened when your director went missing-in-action and your assistant director was still mourning the loss. Maybe that was when you fell back on spells and rituals, the reptile brain saying to the rest of you, ‘I’ll take it from here. You’ve had your shot.’”

In a way, this is just an extension of what’s being shown Room 237: a type of magical thinking, which sometimes manifests in Authority in the form of strange experiments. At one point, frustrated, the scientists of the Southern Reach, who probably don’t know they’re getting perilously close to inhabiting their own separate “single-use universes,” decide to herd 2,000 rabbits into the invisible border that surrounds Area X. This border sucks in whatever touches it and sends it somewhere (although not into Area X). The thought is that this act might “overload the system.”

From that basic idea, it’s not too hard to envision a scenario where implementing this strategy might lead to a series of regulations (rites) that are absurd and eccentric. (As ably illustrated by Jeremy Zerfoss’s illustration.) Believe it or not, this kind of thing happens in real life more than you might think. Real life is always happy to support absurdity about the seemingly objective—take the recent discovery that mice fear the smell of male researchers more than female researchers, with possible ramifications for decades of studies.

Authority is, above all else, a thriller that focuses close-in on its protagonist, John Rodriguez. It’s influenced by spy stories, office politics, and weird science. While writing the novel, I was always aware of that fact. But there’s nothing that says you can’t cross-breed a thriller with what you find in Room 237 and wind up with a successful hybrid.

With or without thousands of white rabbits—and hauntings.

—-

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

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The Big Idea: Nick Mamatas

How do you turn a novel into a graphic novel – that is, capture the essence of what is cool and interesting about the original work, and bring it to another medium entirely? Especially when that novel is also the basis for an upcoming motion picture that features one of the biggest film stars on the planet? This was Nick Mamatas‘ task in adapting All You Need is Kill into graphic novel form. This is his story.

NICK MAMATAS:

There’s a new movie coming out. If you’ve seen the second—of three, Jesus!—Hobbit movies, you’ve likely already seen the trailer. It’s the one where Tom Cruise wakes up, tries to tell us that we’re all in grave danger, and then there he is, in battle armor, ready to save us all! Only, he’s also in grave danger. And then he dies…and comes back to life and falls in love with Emily Blunt at first sight, and first sight, and first sight…

That film, Edge of Tomorrow, is based on Hiroshi Sakurazaka’s novel All You Need Is Kill. But there are some key differences between the movie and the original book. The novel tells the story of an eighteen-year-old Japanese man named Keiji Kiriya drafted to fight in the war against the alien Mimics; the movie is about Billy Cage, a fortymumblesomething-year-old white American who ends up on the front lines due to, you know, spoilers.

Once you make that change, well, other changes are bound to follow.

All You Need Is Kill was the first novel published by Haikasoru, the imprint dedicated to Japanese science fiction in translation that I edit for VIZ Media. We had little to do with the film; at one point I wrote a two-page synopsis so that the interns of the assistants of important Hollywood people could hear a two-sentence verbal summary of the synopsis and decide whether to give the book a chance as a zillion-dollar motion picture. Eventually, Dante Harper wrote a spec script that sold to Warner Bros. for three million dollars, and then a director and a star were attached, the script rewritten by a number of writers, and finally there was Edge of Tomorrow.

But we had always been hoping for a visual experience closer to the actual novel. All You Need Is Kill is an action-packed military SF tale of armored soldiers taking on the violent and squishy alien Mimics. And there’s humor, a dash of philosophy, and even a dollop of romance. And we certainly didn’t want the female lead, “Full Metal Bitch” Rita Vrataski, to end up how women in movies and comics so often end up. So we decided to do the graphic novel ourselves, as Haikasoru’s first comic book project. Our company VIZ Media has immense experience with translation and localization of manga, but this was a whole new type of project.

We needed an artist and editor Joel Enos held several rounds of auditions. We got white Keijis—automatic failure. A few drew his fellow soldier Yonabaru with inhumanly tiny eyes—too manga. And one artist’s version of the Full Metal Bitch made her look like a steroid-addled version of Sting’s character from the movie version of Dune (that’s a miss).  Finally, we found Lee Ferguson, who drew this:

A normal young woman, realistic yet telegenic enough for the in-story media to make a fuss over. Someone who  you could believe had been an ordinary Midwestern girl who by necessity, not choice, became a soldier. Excellent.

I wrote the graphic novel’s script. I’ve done some comics work, and I’ve always wanted to write a graphic novel. “I’ve always wanted to write a graphic novel.” It’s the sort of thing you say if you don’t want to sound strange. I never wanted to write a graphic novel, even though I devoured comic books as a kid. Really, I didn’t even want to be Spider-Man when I was a nine-year-old reading comics in the same sort of dumpy apartment that Peter Parker lived in. I just wanted to open my window and swing across the street, then jump over to the Brooklyn Bridge and crawl on the cables to Manhattan, and hang out in the city all day. Never mind my acrophobia and vertigo.

But it was important that the scripted be handled in-house. We wanted to stay true to the vision of Hiroshi Sakurazaka. There were also other obligations. Imagine a freelance writer being part of an instructional conversation along these lines:

“Remember, this is an adaptation of All You Need Is Kill, not Edge of Tomorrow. So don’t make any changes to the story that might also be in the movie.”

Oh, do I get to read the shooting script for the movie then?

“Of course not, no.”

So…you want me to imagine what changes the filmmakers might make to the movie adaptation, guess correctly, and then just not make those changes?

“Yes, that’s it!”

We did end up getting to see some snippets of the movie, and to hear a producer describe scenes to us, complete with waving hands and descriptions like “And then he’s all like, ‘What the fuck!’” so we had something to work with. Lee, our great artist, created a retrofuture visual design for the battle armor, playing against both the original mangastyle mecha-suits of the novel and the grim’n’gritty look of the film. And when he handed in a cover in which the Full Metal Bitch was attacking the enemy butt-first in the now common female character pose, Joel sent it back and Ferguson cheerfully turned her around.

So we got what we aimed for—a graphic novel that is an adaptation of one of our favorite works of Japanese science fiction, and that is, perhaps, also an adaptation of the movie that could have been. And I can say that I’m a graphic novelist, and that Haikasoru is now in the comic book business.

PS: don’t send us your pitches for comic books.

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All You Need is Kill (graphic novel): Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Powell’s

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The Big Idea: Melanie Rawn

Melanie Rawn’s “Glass Thorns” fantasy series, which began with the books Touchstone and Elsewhens, now has a third installment, Thornlost, full of magic and drama… and, one might say, the series has a special emphasis on the latter. Rawn explains why that is in today’s Big Idea.

MELANIE RAWN:

When it was first mentioned to me that I ought to write a piece for The Big Idea, it took a few minutes to get past what the phrase really means to me, and that’s this: Mom, standing over my sister and me and whatever fresh mayhem we had created (adorable little cherubs that we were), saying, “All right, you two—what’s the big idea?”

(Unfortunately, I was too young to remember what Mom said when—long before even the concept of plastic thingies that supposedly child-proof cabinets—she found me in the middle of the kitchen floor, playing very happily with about five pounds of flour. She told me many years later that she never did figure out how a two-year-old could get that Tupperware container open, let alone throw the flour so enthusiastically that it hit the ceiling.)

So what’s the Big Idea behind the Glass Thorns series?

As far as I can recall, I first saw a stage play when I was about nine years old. It was a matinée of Peter Pan—with Vincent Price as Captain Hook! I was in the front row and I can still remember looking up with saucered eyes at this tall, dark, villainously mustachioed gentleman with a gleaming silver hook at the end of one arm, standing not four feet away from me…and such was the skill of the actor that I wasn’t scared. (The Disney cartoon version terrified me. Actually, most of the classic Disney cartoons terrified me; for instance, I can trace my fear of clowns to Dumbo.) Memory, or perhaps imagination, supplies a twinkle in Mr. Price’s eyes and hints of laughter in his voice. He was including the audience in on the joke: This is isn’t real, you know—it’s all make-believe, and it’s such fun! What’s more, it’s magic!

Well, it was Peter Pan: of course it was magic. And I think I’ve viewed the art and craft of theater as magical ever since.

Now that I am quite a bit older than nine, and thinking about how one might use magic onstage, it seems to me that it isn’t just the special effects (instantaneous costume and character changes, feeling the wind that’s ruffling the leaves of the scenery, tasting the tea a character is drinking, and so on) that would make magical theater unique. When you get right down to it, it’s the emotions. Truly fine actors can do that anyway. There are performers who command our emotions even on a movie screen in two dimensions; there’s an intimacy and immediacy in live theater that can’t be matched for impact when the actors are truly accomplished. But what if, in this magical theater, it was guaranteed that you’ll cry and laugh and become furious or lovestruck or whatever else the players want you to feel?

Aristotle wrote about the cathartic emotions of pity and fear; that is, pity for those whose misfortunes are undeserved, and fear of punishment for those whose misfortunes are like our own. Greek drama was designed to evoke these emotions so that the patrons left the theater spiritually cleansed. But what if, in the playwright’s arsenal, there aren’t just words and the actors’ skills, but magic that compels the audience to feel what the character feels? The success of a play would depend not wholly on the words of the playwright and the performances of the actors, but also on the magical skills of the players.

Okay, then—what ought those skills to be? Somebody has to write the thing. Somebody has to act it—and because magic is used, that one person can play all the parts (switching costume and voice and physicality for each character, much as a single actor played all the parts in very early drama, using masks to signal the changes[1]). Somebody has to be in charge of working the magic. And somebody else has to monitor the whole, making sure that the magic flows smoothly and that nobody in the audience freaks out.

Now, what to call these people? Actor…mask…Masquer. Simple enough. And then I got stuck. So I consulted a delightful book called There’s A Word for It! by Charles Harrington Elster, and found three terms that worked very well indeed. The first, for the playwright, is Tregetour, meaning a street magician. Next comes the guy who regulates the magic, the Fettler, from a word meaning someone who puts things in order. And then there’s the player who actually wields the magic. He’s known as the Glisker, because glisk means a subtle sensation of pleasure or pain that pierces the soul and passes quickly away.

So I’ve got my configuration: a Masquer, Tregetour, Fettler, and Glisker in each group. These groups go out on tour, a bit like vaudeville, back in the days when theatrical companies owned venues in many different towns and cities, and hired performers to tour the country. The way it works in this world is that the Crown more or less owns the services of these players, and holds a yearly competition to see who gets top billing on the circuit. Guilds and other associations in each city bid for the right to present these groups. The Crown gets a large cut of the take, the hosts get another slice, and maybe some is left over for the players. Maybe. On their nights off, therefore, they do private performances—the Crown winks at this—and that’s where they make the real money.

Being a player in these circumstances is hard work, pretty much a young man’s game, and thus my characters are in their early twenties. Four young guys calling themselves Touchstone, traveling constantly, performing night after night for months at a time, living out of suitcases, meeting adoring girls at every stop who are just dying to join them in their rooms for a party…

And this is where we come to the “mainly” mentioned above. Cue up Joe Walsh[2]:

                   I live in hotels, tear out the walls

                   I have accountants pay for it all…

                   I have a limo, ride in the trunk

                   I lock the doors in case I get drunk…

                   It’s tough to handle this fortune and fame

                   Everybody’s so different—I haven’t changed…

A play in a theater isn’t rock and roll. But the very best rock and roll concerts are most definitely theater. I’ve been to a lot of both, and a lot of it has gone into Glass Thorns in one way or another.

So that’s the foundation of the whole long intricate tale. I get to tell some really bad jokes, explore a land of Wizards and Elves and Goblins and and Fae and all sorts of other magical folk, deal with the demands of the creative mind, make up (and sometimes steal) plots for plays, and build it all towards a magical showdown in the middle of a magical show.

As for Touchstone…life’s been good to them.

So far.

[1]  Interestingly enough, the members of the Chorus wore identical masks, indicating that they were all the same character.

[2]  The astute rock fan will note that some of these lyrics are from a live version of “Life’s Been Good” performed by Joe Walsh with the Eagles, not the studio version on Walsh’s solo album.

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

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The Big Idea: Mary Robinette Kowal

Short form: Mary Robinette Kowal is a fabulous writer, her Glamourist Histories series is award-winning, and the latest, Valour and Vanity, is wonderful, and has gathered acclaim and starred reviews (I am biased toward Mary, who is one of my best friends, but this does not mean all the above is not also true). Here she is to tell you about what’s at the heart of Valour and Vanity — and what it is may surprise you.

MARY ROBINETTE KOWAL:

The elevator pitch for Valour and Vanity is pretty simple, “Jane Austen writes Ocean’s Eleven. With magic.” So it’s a Regency-era heist novel of manners.

The way I got there was slightly more complicated though.

It’s like this: What I love about writing these books is actually the relationship between Jane and Vincent. I really like having a happily married couple in the leading role because, darn it, romance and adventure don’t stop just because you tie the knot. Conflict doesn’t stop either, but it changes.

When I wrote the book, my husband and I were in a period where we had just moved to NYC and he was having trouble finding work, so I was supporting us on my theater income. To say money was tight… well. Our marriage was strong, but the outside forces tricky, especially the societal ones that still tend to frown on men being supported by their wives. I wanted to explore that.

As an elevator pitch, it’s on the dull side.

So I masked it, by developing a high-concept plot for the outside forces that put stress on the marriage. In the first chapter, my main characters are attacked by pirates and lose everything. This is 1817 and they are en route to Venice. In the best of possible conditions, it would take a month for a letter asking for help to get from Venice to London and another month back.

Compare that to today, when you can call or email and get bailed out of a jam pretty darn fast. You pretty much have to handle things yourself, and that involves finding some way to make money, get shelter, and just survive for months.

Given the circumstances, the most natural thing for Vincent to do is to try to recover their money, and that kicks off the heist novel.

Usually when I write the Glamourist Histories novels, I read a lot of period literature. While I did read Lord Byron’s letters for this, I also watched a ton of heist movies. I did a plot analysis of them and made a list of the elements that compose a good heist. This provided my plot structure. It included things like:

  •  Assembling the team
  • Casing the joint
  • Practicing the plan
  • Plan goes wrong
  • Car chases

I also made a separate list of set pieces, and scenes I wanted to write. Things like:

  • Gondola Chase
  • Lord Byron swimming the canal
  • Italian nuns kicking ass
  • Using glamour to mask a room

I matched my set pieces up with my plot structure and then filled in the gaps in between them to come up with an outline. But underneath all of this, I have Jane and Vincent and their relationship as my anchor.

So in some ways, the entire novel is really a long con. It feels like you’re reading a heist, but really this is a story about marriage.

With gondola chases. And magic.

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Valour and Vanity: Amazon|Barnes and Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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The Big Idea: Daryl Gregory

Your brain: Is it your friend? Or is it something else entirely — something maybe a little less chummy with you than you thought? Ask Daryl Gregory, because he’s given it some thought (with his brain!!!!) for his newest novel, Afterparty.

DARYL GREGORY:

Your brain is lying to you. Not just about the small stuff, like when it makes you fall for an optical illusion, messes with your sense of time, or creates a gorilla-size gap in your perception when it’s busy concentrating on something else.

Your brain is also lying about the big stuff, the most fundamental aspects of being human. It starts with the illusion that there’s a “you” behind your eyes, and independent “self” that has something called free will. Folks like Daniel Dennett argue that free will is just a feeling of control. And Dan Ariely, the guy who wrote Predictably Irrational, can supply plenty of examples of how our “rational” decision-making can be shaped by things as simple as changing the design of a form at the DMV.

But evolution has also shaped our brains to affect the way we make moral decisions. Consider the well-known thought experiment, the Trolley Problem. A runaway trolley is coming down the track toward five people. You can pull a lever to divert the trolley onto another track, where a single person is standing. Do you kill one person to save five?

The answers people give can vary simply by the story you tell about the singleton who would die. Is he a fat man you’d have to push onto the track yourself,  a villain who “deserves it,” or an unsuspecting guy sleeping in his hammock? Because we evolved as social apes, some actions just feel more wrong, even if the moral calculus is the same.

Your brain, basically, is Mr. Liar McLiarpants. And that’s the big idea behind Afterparty.

The story takes place in the very near future. (If you want to write about the present in a way that won’t feel quaint in ten minutes, write near-future SF. It’s just mainstream fiction with the sell-by date scraped off.)  To show what life is like a few years into the designer-drug revolution, I made up a few technologies that are pretty much doable now, chief among them the ChemJet.

Here’s how you build one. Take something like a 3D printer. Replace the input material with packets of pre-cursor chemicals (phenethylamine’s a good building block) that you buy semi-legally online. Next download recipes for smart drugs from a vibrant community of bio-hackers. Or make your own, and beta test the results on you and your friends.

Obviously there are going to be some interesting consequences of desktop drug design, some of them horrible.

Lyda Rose, the main character in the book, is a good example of both sides of that bio-hacking coin. She’s a former neuroscientist who discovers that the drug she helped create ten years ago, and thought she buried, is back on the streets, being printed by underground churches.

The drug goes by the name Numinous, and for good reason. Take a little, and you get that mystical feeling that William James described in The Varieties of Religious Experience, and that’s been experienced by humans throughout history. (Some people with temporal lobe epilepsy have it every day.) It has many qualities, but the main one is that you feel like you’re in contact with something wholly outside your self—a divine other.

That’s what happens if you take a little Numinous. Overdose on the drug, however, and you might wake up with a deity permanently installed in your brain—your own personal Jesus.

Ten years before the story starts, Lyda and the co-creators were all given a massive dose of Numinous against their will. (Who did that to them, and why, is one of the mysteries in the book.) Each of the survivors now has their own “divine” presence living with them, and Lyda’s is Dr. Gloria, an angel in a white lab coat. Lyda, as a scientist, knows that Dr. Gloria’s a hallucination. But the other side of the coin is that the good doctor is also good for her; Lyda’s a better person when Gloria is advising her and soothing her.

That’s the main question the book asks: if someone invented a drug that made you technically insane, but helped you to be kinder and more connected to your fellow humans, would you take it? And what happens when other people decide they should convert you for your own good?

If you don’t want to wait for the future to get your dose of chemical evangelism, you can always take the long road. Every day, millions of people meditate, pray, sing whirl, and chant, chasing that feeling of the numinous. Whether it’s God (or some other higher power) communicating with them, or whether it’s just the brain fooling them with its own recipe of chemicals, that’s a question that each person—and his or her brain—has to work out for themselves.

As for me, I trust my brain about as far as I can throw it. (Which isn’t far, because skull.) But I think of it as living with a charming sociopath. Some of the stories it tells become more interesting when you know they’re lies.

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Afterparty: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBoundPowell’s

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